Ready to go out on your own? Building a digital marketing business from scratch
“Have you ever thought of starting your own business?” Jack asked me during a phone call in early 2018.
“No,” I replied.
Of course, the answer was “no.” Why would I have ever thought of starting my own business? No one in my immediate family had a business, and my parents didn’t push it. I was told to get an education to secure a good job, not create something I would own myself. Also, my career to that point showed me I could only be someone’s second in command.
“Well,” Jack continued after I told him no, “How about I help you start something?”
And just like that, we created Jamrock Marketing. I was the CEO, Jack helped with SEO, and we found our first and only client. The venture lasted a couple of months until we lost the client, Jack got a full-time position at an agency, and I joined him soon after.
It was an unmitigated disaster. Lawd, I wasn’t ready to run a company because I didn’t do the homework needed to build, maintain and grow a business properly. However, I learned from the experience, and best believe that Jack and I did it differently when we were ramping up to start Crunchy Links, our current business. Our losses are your lessons, though. To paraphrase Jay-Z, “Jamar did that, so hopefully, y’all won’t have to go through that.”
Here are eight lessons I learned about building a digital marketing business from the ground up:
Lesson 1: Understand your “why”
Nothing is more critical to building a business than understanding your “why.” We didn’t do this before we started Jamrock Marketing, and I know it contributed to its failure. I didn’t have a “why” for founding the company. I just had the means, opportunity and time.
Those aren’t enough. There has to be a reason. Make sure you think about the reason behind why you’re starting a business. Write down what your goals are, and let that become your mission. The “why” will be the driving factor when things aren’t always looking awesome. And, it’ll be the reason you glow when things are off the charts.
Lesson 2: Understand what you want to offer
You know why you want to start your own business. Before you take another step, you need to know what you’re going to offer your potential clients. What have you focused on in digital marketing?
- Are you adept at SEO?
- Do you live on social media?
- Have you run successful email marketing campaigns?
- Are you comfortable handling the spend on PPC campaigns and getting a high ROI?
- Can you do a mix of all the above?
Knowing what you offer will help you create profiles for your ideal client, and you can scope out your workflow and how much you can take on. It can also ensure that you’re not taking on projects that aren’t in your wheelhouse. Oftentimes when you just start out, you’ll take any old project. But keeping in mind your offerings means you can make room in your business for what you want to do and what you’re good at.
Lesson 3: Decide if you want to go it alone or have partners
You’ve thought through your why. You’ve figured out what you want to offer. Now, it’s time to ask yourself, “With whom?” The more services you offer, the more you’ll need to do. There is also prospecting, sales, billing, client relations, PR and many more responsibilities to juggle. Can you handle all of that on your own?
At Crunchy Links, we have a triumvirate of co-founders. There’s me, our CEO Jack, and our CMO Rob. Jack oversees our SEO service, handles sales and billing and develops our SaaS products. Rob manages our SEM service, works with us on improving our client relations and will oversee the strategy to promote our SaaS products when we release them. I handle our content service, PR, blog, internal processes and any other task that doesn’t fall into one of our recognized responsibility buckets.
If I had to handle all that by myself, I’d drown. But that’s just me. We’ve chosen to be a multichannel digital marketing firm, but f you’re planning to go it alone, you can limit the number of services you offer to keep yourself on track. Every business owner will have to deal with the business side of things, so focus on providing the services that matches your skills. That way, you don’t burn out doing too much too soon.
Lesson 4: Figure out what you will charge for your services
Pricing is everything. Not because charging too much will drive people away, but because charging too little will also create issues over the long term. Don’t undersell yourself and your skills. If what you charge isn’t in a client’s budget, that’s no one’s fault. Don’t lower your price to bring them on because you will regret it.
Client’s aren’t just paying for your services. They are paying for your expertise, experience, and ability to move along with their shifting goals. You can always pass them along to someone else you know in digital marketing who can work within their budget. Various agencies charge different prices. That’s the market. It’s OK to charge your rate. Never settle for less than what your skills are worth.
Lesson 5: Decide on the length of your client contracts
Coming from a big agency, I got used to seeing clients locked into 12- to 24-month contracts and trying to get out of those contracts after a few months of service. Sometimes they were upset that what they purchased wasn’t what they were getting. Other times, they realized they bought SEO when they needed PPC. Once they were locked in, however, the agency did very little to accommodate the client. Negotiations would only happen once the contract was close to ending.
That’s why we decided to offer month-to-month contracts. We want to be agile for our clients. If we need to shift from creating content to handling their PPC, we don’t want to wait until a contract is up or have them sign up for an additional service. We want to give them what they need when they need it.
We also don’t want to lock people in long-term, which played a massive role in 2020 when COVID-19 hit. Our two biggest clients needed to cut budget because they didn’t know what was going on and how long it would last. Thanks to month-to-month contracts, it was easy to finish up the work and let them save some money. Both clients ended up working with us again because we treated them as partners, not just dollar signs.
It’s critical to understand how long you need to help a client see results (maybe you need three months of solid SEO work to help a client really see results), but also to be flexible with potential contracts to help ensure that those client-partners keep coming back to your business after the contract has ended.
Lesson 6: Have a plan for when and how to hire help
As you take on more clients, you’ll have a big question to ask: should you hire internal resources or use freelancers to help you keep up with the work? Both options have pros and cons, but let me speak from our experience.
Once we started growing enough to need some help, we hired freelancers. However, the freelancers we targeted were digital marketers who had other jobs but wanted to supplement their income or work different types of projects than their full-time job gave them.
We’ve had some success with that. We’ve also had some failures. The first freelancer we hired, we had to let go because of lack of production. Another one ended up working out so well we promoted them to PPC director. While the flexibility of freelancers is a benefit, the detriment is you can’t ask them to care about your business the way you do.
We’re now moving to hire more in-house employees—people who want to join full-time. Be a part of our company culture. Grow with our company. It makes more sense now.
You may need to hire contractors initially when your business starts to grow, but eventually, there will come a point where you may be able to hire in-house. When you get there, it’s critical to get the right person for what you need and to make sure you’re initially hiring for the right position, too. Critically assess what you’re missing and what title is needed to fill in those gaps.
Lesson 7: Learn how to deal with loss
I have one guarantee: you’re going to lose a client. I’ll say that one more time: I GUARANTEE YOU’RE GOING TO LOSE A CLIENT.
The sooner you are okay with that, the better off you’re going to be.
No digital marketer wants to lose a client. Besides losing out on the revenue, it’s a hit to our ego. There are several reasons someone cancels with their agency:
- They no longer think the agency is doing a good job.
- They’ve found a different (cheaper) agency.
- They’ve decided to move their marketing in-house.
- Their company eliminates their marketing department.
These are all reasons we’ve heard from clients when they’ve canceled services with our agency. The first time a client canceled with us, I was distraught. Not only had we lost a chunk of money when we were a young and struggling company, but they canceled because they were unhappy. Because we didn’t deliver what we promised.
I lashed out. I spent time laying blame. I felt useless. I thought we’d never be successful as a company.
Once I ran out of energy doing all of that, I looked at what we were doing as a company and how we were doing it—we built processes. We created internal norms.
And, I learned that a client leaving wasn’t going to kill me. It might hurt my pocketbook and our company’s ledger, but it’s only a bit of wounded pride. Clients will be lost. Clients will be earned. The work is what matters, not my pride.
Lesson 8: Take everything experts say with a grain of salt
This is the most significant piece of advice I can give you. The previous points were all a result of the experiences I’ve had in building Crunchy Links with Jack and Rob. You’ll notice a lack of percentages or stats from studies about what successful businesses do.
Building a digital marketing business isn’t a one-size-fits-all enterprise. Just because 51% of companies did something doesn’t mean you should do it the same way. Just because all of the above lessons help us create, maintain and grow our agency doesn’t mean you should follow them all.
Take what you want from this and toss aside what you don’t. It’s your business. You’re the one who knows what you want it to look like. Also, things will change as you grow, as you take on new clients, as you bring on new people. The same lessons may not work for your path. Be flexible. It’s OK to do things your own way.
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