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Agency Entrepreneur

I first wrote this post four years ago and shared it on Linkedin.  I remember it clearly because when I posted the article on my Linekdin timeline the reaction was staggering.  It’s what triggered the journey which brought me to launching this site and resetting my business to serve you – the solo or emerging digital agency owner.    

My competitors are all assholes.

For years this was my truth.  As business owners we fight hard to establish market share.  Our competitors are a barrier, the enemy, our opposition.  They take food from our tables and steal our clients. For most of my career so far I would have considered anything – short of taking out a hit ( including taking out a hit ) on them in order seal an advantage over them.

We live in a capitalist economy and one of the most effective features of this system is competition.  In some industries competition is ferocious and dirty and in others it maintains a veneer of respectability but in either case there are winners and losers.  I don’t want to be a loser.

This article outlines some of the attitudes I’ve taken to competitors.  I’m regularly on the receiving end too.

In retrospect my attitude to competitors was valid.  I was fighting from the back against much bigger, stronger and better resourced opposition.  At the same time I competed then; and still regularly do, with freelancers and the lone wolves who can cut and run once they get paid without any overhead. Years of this fight have left me battle hardened.    

I’ve started attending events which bring me into regular contact with competitors.  I discovered something which blind-sided me.  They are not all assholes! They are in fact people I have a lot in common with.  If they are technical then I have my passion for the web and digital in common.  If they’re a business owner then I have the journey, struggle, ambition and the process in common.  If they are creative then we have a love of design in common.  There is a lot of common ground.

I think business owners and founders in particular suffer from the “competitor as asshole” psychosis more than most. Business owners and founders also tend to be self reliant, independent and network very strategically. They’re also not, and likely never will be, in the job market and don’t have to suck up. Without thinking about it we avoid direct contact with our competitors.

My “moment” at an event recently hit me hard.  Skaters seek out skaters, surfers hang out with surfers, golfers spend time with golfers.  Compatibility and common interests can lead to friendship.  I’ve spent a lot of my adult life fantasising about their car crashes but it seems that the people I’ve started meeting are likely to become my good friends very quickly.

All of the commercial reasons for getting to know your competitors are perfectly valid but a much more exciting prospect has become – all these people – I have a lot in common with and I can get to know them.  The digital sector attracts a particular kind of person and it’s the kind of person I’m most comfortable with. Fundamentally I will be happier the better I know my competitor and I’m looking forward to reaching out without the agenda you’d expect.

How does this work in your sector or area?  It’s a new idea for me and I’m keen to hear stories.  If I’m your asshole then invite me for coffee.

When you need clients fast it’s normally because something has gone wrong.  You might have just set up on your own and not planned ahead.  Maybe you got fired from your job or the agency you worked for went under.  Maybe you just lost a lot clients in a short space of time or maybe you just didn’t plan for your tax bill.  No matter the reason, when you need clients fast – you need them – fast.

I’ve been there.  Everything in this post is from personal experience and been proven by me to work in my own business.  Literally everything.

In this post I’m going to cover emergency client acquisition.  This is not going to be a long term fancy marketing strategy and onboarding post.  This is gong to be about down and dirty selling like your life depended on it.  Some of what ‘m suggesting here will seem desperate.  You shouldn’t have to do cold calling, but you got yourself into this situation and this advice will get you out of it.

Before I go too far I want you to think about a couple of things.  First – if this works you’ll have clients.  That’s good but might also be bad.  You’ll have the clients but they might turn out to be evil time sucker.  Take a moment to remind yourself of what kind of clients you want.  In your panic you probably don’t care too much but take a second to consider that even in your hour of need you can still choose who to work with.  Who is your ideal prospect.

Step One : Profile your ideal customer.  Write down some basic qualifying criteria  such as sectors you like working with, geographic constraints, size and so forth.   Once you start prospecting those businesses use the following to further qualify them.

1 – Do they understand what you do
2 – Do they need what you do
3 – Can you deliver for them
4 – Can they afford it
5 – Do you want to work with them

If the answer is no to any of these then don’t waste any more time.  Move on and move on fast.

Step Two : Take action. You need to network your ass off and you need to cold call. Both at the same time. You don’t get to pick one – you have to do both.

Networking

Who do you know ? : Most people know 800 or so people.  You’ll be no different.  How many of these 800 know what you do?  Not many I bet. You need to change that.  If you never shared your business through your own Facebook then start right now.  Start with the people who know you.

Networking Groups : Groups like BNI only exist to help you find clients.  If you need clients fast then a BNI group is a pretty sure bet.  You don’t have to join but start visiting and networking.  There will be one near you.

Nexus points : Instead of looking for the one client – look for the one introducer who can connect you with many prospects.  If you are in PPC then reach out to web designers, PR companies, copywriters and so on.

Do not : Don’t be tempted to do this online.  It won’t work in the time you need.  If people haven’t met you they won’t connect with you.

Focus on giving : In all the networking you do be clear about what you’re looking for but focus just as much on helping others.  People will be far more likely to help you if you helped them – or at least signalled the intention.

Cold calling

Cold calling feels dirty.  It takes practise to get it right but if you need clients fast then there’s no better way.  You need to brace yourself for rejection and move from one call to the next as quickly as you can.  Targets are a great help with cold calling. Before you start I want you to understand the process a little. There are three steps to a cold calling campaign.

If you really want to get this right read Fanatical Prospecting by Jeb Blount ( I did and it changed my sales forever. )

Step One – Scripting your call and objection planning.  When you get on the phone you need to know what you’re going to say.  You need to anticipate the prospects responses and be ready with an answer which moves you forward.

Your goal is to get a meeting.  Thats all.  Don’t try to sell on the phone.

Step Two – Make a prospect list

You need to start making a list of the businesses you want to call.  The you sit down to make calls you want to move quickly form one call to the next.  Before you start calling make sure you have a list of twenty or so calls to make and have all the information like the contact name you want to speak to and background on the business and how you might add value.

Step Three – Make the calls.

Call anxiety is a big issue for sales people.  You’ll experience it too but you need to get past it.  This is going to be hard but it will work.  Start making the calls and you’ll be surprised by the results.  If you’ve done your objection handling right you should get past initial rejection.

Cold calling is incredibly effective.  I know you are in digital marketing and are for that reason probably near religiously opposed but if you need clients fast you need to cold call. Get over yourself.  Build prospecting and cold calling into your daily routine.  Spend around twenty minutes prospecting and forty minutes calling every day and your clients issues will be solved in two weeks.

CRM System

All this networking and cold calling will quickly become chaotic if you don’t start tracking things in a CRM system.  If you have budget then look at Contactually.  If you don’t then Hubspot sales CRM is free.  You will get some sales fast but you will also discover opportunities and relationships that need long term nurturing.  A CRM will help you stay organised in the long term.

Conclusion

While I hope you won’t have to focus on these actions forever they’ll get you the best short term results.  I’ve spoken to many of agency owners and they all report that although their business is digital marketing of one flavour or another, most of their work comes through referral.  This is true of both the small local agencies and the really big name conference speakers.

I was going include a section in this post about social media and how it can contribute to getting clients fast.  But honestly, if you need clients fast then get off social media and start meeting people.

I wish you luck but with this post – you shouldn’t need it.

Does this sound familiar.  You’re sales pipeline is full, you’re busy doing the work but you never have any money left after all the costs are paid.  It’s a really frustrating position to be in and after speaking to lots of small agency owners and solo practitioners, I’ve discovered it’s really not uncommon.

The funny ( not funny ) thing is that this can go on for years.   It’s a little like having a business permanently on life support.  I blamed customers, the tax man, the economy, my team, you name it.  I tried to market my way out of it, to sell better and watch my cash flow better.

Tony Robbins puts it like this.  “If you keep doing what you’ve been doing – you’ll keep getting what you’ve been getting.”

Tinkering doesn’t fix a business.  It’s not your marketing, sales, the taxman or your cashflow.  It’s your business that’s the problem.

Most us radically underestimate the cost of being in business.  As a new business we assume that if we invoice 100,000 then we get to keep a little under that.  Well – try something like 50% as the reality and thats without subcontractor costs.  Work with that and you’ll be safe.

Strip Costs?

You can’t fix a business by stripping costs.  In most small agencies or practices there just aren’t enough costs to make a difference.  You should by all means regularly go through the finances and remove recurring payments for things you don’t need because they do pile up but this won’t make a huge difference.  Not the difference you need to start achieving your gaols instead of falling short.

I do think you should learn to budget in a business the same as you should at home.  Thats just basic finance – and this isn’t a finance post.  If you knew me you’d know that.  This is a post about moving the needle towards the business of your dreams.  Fiddling with costs won’t do that.

Revenue types

Digital marketing practices fall into two main categories.  Those that produce a lot of collateral like websites, and those that mainly work on services such as social or PPC. They both use slightly different revenue models.

Revenue types in agencies fall into these broad categories.

1 – Small ad hoc charges

Small ad hoc charges are typically for quick tasks which need to be done.  These might include graphic design, a website update or some simple consulting.

2 – Project revenue

Project revenue can cover a new website, video or a larger consulting project.

3 – Small retainers

These can include website maintenance contracts, small SEO contracts or help desk type work.

4 – Large retainers

This normally covers a large managed services arrangements such as broad digital marketing delivery.

5 – Product sales

Product sales could be software, internal SASS products, knowledge products, membership sites, coaching products and so forth.  The key characteristic here is that you build it once and sell multiple times.

Charge more

You’ll have heard this a million times – you need to charge more.  It’s said so often in the creative sector that you probably stopped hearing it.  Urgency and getting paid often overshadow our need to charge more.  We charge what we feel will get us the  work rather than what the work is worth.

Overwhelmed by the urgency of poor cash flow a lot of agencies will compromise on building a diverse revenue model using all the components above and just fall into small project and small ad hoc work.  If they are lucky they might build in a few retainers.  It just happens over time and we get locked into a cycle.

Putting it together

If you want to move the dial in your business then you need to aggressively work on building in all five of the revenue types above. To achieve this you need to make it a priority.  You might need to find some new services and start saying no your addiction to small projects and ad-hoc work.

Use the time you free up to find those retainer based clients.  If you want bigger retainer clients then you need to design a service they want.  If you don’t have the team to deliver at that level – then you might need to change that.

Good fit

In order to prevent just taking on anything – but for more money – you’ll need to decide on what a ‘good fit’ looks like.  Things to consider are the client’s attitude ( do you even like them. ), Do they really need it? ( If you don’t think so then it will be hard to deliver ) and can they sustain the budget over time.

In order to deliver for these retainer clients and not lose them as soon as you have them you need to package the services your offering in such a way that they have firm boundaries and service levels attached and that you can meet these service levels.

Most small agencies fail to make money. In fact most big agencies have the same problem.  They cover costs but rarely do more than this.  If you spend some time and effort into diversifying your revenue model you can profoundly change your business.

Once you’ve redesigned your business around a diverse and sustainable revenue model you’re business will start making more money as you grow – instead of just giving you bigger problems.

I’ll remind you again – you CAN’T sell your way out of this problem until you have the products and the revenue models right.

Good hunting.

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