What would it look like to build an agency that’s prepared to scale from Day 1?
Andy Cabasso knows. It took him just three years to build his agency, scale it, and sell it for a profit. He was looking ahead towards that acquisition from the very beginning and achieved it. Talk about an exit strategy!
Andy is a digital marketing professional, speaker, lawyer, and occasional wedding officiant. He is the co-founder of Postaga, an all-in-one platform for link building and email outreach. Prior to Postaga, he started, grew, and then successfully sold a digital marketing agency, JurisPage.
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“I had no idea we’d be acquired in three years. That was a win for us.”
It may have been a win. It may have been a surprise. Yet it didn’t happen by chance.
“There were steps we took right from the outset to make sure that we had the right pieces in place so we could scale. So that if we ever wanted to scale, we could.”
Many agency owners and consultants don’t start with the endgame in mind like this. As a result, they end up tied to their business. They end up becoming the business.
“It’s all focused around your time. You’re selling your time, and that can’t eventually be acquired because you just need to replace that body, basically. If you are the business, you can’t escape it.”
Andy says that they were thinking big from Day 1.
“We wanted to be as big as we could make it. We were thinking we wanted to focus on this particular niche, and that we wanted to be the biggest agency in that niche appealing to the widest amount of customers in that space.”
“He saw from experience what he wanted to do differently next time as an agency.”
One of the things Andy’s partner wanted to do differently was to build processes, SOPs, and workflows.
“In a perfect situation, you could drop a new person into the team who was relatively new, possibly even new to web design and agency life and marketing, and could, from our documentation, get going pretty quickly.”
Their documentation is full of checklists and steps that a person could use to get started.
“Basically having the right workflows and the right processes so that as soon as you get a new client, from the very beginning, you know exactly what needs to be done next and who needs to do it, what the next steps are.
There’s accountability the entire way. This way, as each client project moves along you have, to some degree, an assembly line where you can add more and add more parts as you need.”
This also helps with the hiring process.
“As you realize: we’re hitting capacity on web design, we can add more designers to the team, or more resources to content, or whatever else it needs to be.”
Andy says he and his partner developed these documents through their experiences as they built their agency.
“We didn’t have it 100% right on day 1. Further, along into the process, we realized things needed to change. Over the years, we changed software so many times. Early on we started using Trello for our web design process. Then we realized Trello was very great for linear, one-time projects but for things with recurring components to them like SEO or paid search campaigns, where every month, or every quarter, in different intervals, there are things that need to be done with different people, we needed a different project software to do that.”
They ended up building their own workflow in an app called Podio.
“We weren’t averse to changing something if we realized the tools we were using weren’t right for that stage.”
Andy says they really tried to adapt.
“Sometimes you can tell something’s not going right. You’re getting some complaints. Some things are taking too long. Some things are falling through the cracks. You recognize that. You work to pivot and change from that.”
To scale, you need milestones that you can use to track your progress. Andy and his partner tracked things like the number of projects they had, the number of clients they had but who did not have their website yet, and how many people were in the waiting stage.
“This was important for us to know when we needed to hire more people and how fast we’re growing.”
Andy and his partner also tracked recurring revenue.
“All of this was relevant for us to try to figure out. When to add more people, when to try to see if there are other things that we can add into our workflow to move things along?”
Andy mentioned how one of the keys to scaling is to remove sources of friction as much as possible, and that a lot of the friction can come from clients themselves. “Often you’re waiting on clients to get you assets that you need, whether that’s a bio or a headshot or something else. We worked very hard to get that down.”Andy says he ideally wanted the client to launch in two to three months.
“We made sure we would never be the bottleneck. That a client would never be waiting longer than 30 days for a design from us. So we tracked that very closely as well, to know from the time the client signed on when they got their first mock-up, the website, and how long they were in another stage where we’re waiting on them.”
They had to add in follow up stages in which they sent reminders or pitched things like content writing services, or connected them with photographers who could get the headshots done for them. Andy says you might even want to bake content writing and other services into your plans to further remove that friction.
“Waiting on the client wasn’t good for anybody, for the client especially.”
“I think a lot about the sales process in particular when also thinking about our regular workflow of projects, because with a good sales system you know: all right.
If someone has reached out, I’ve got an inbound lead. I’m going to follow up with them immediately. And then if they don’t reply I’m going to follow up in X days, with a phone call or an email, and then alternate.”
Once he has the client on call, he knows how he’s going to pitch. He knows how they’re going to follow up and how frequently they’re going to follow up.
“There are just time components to everything. You don’t want to let anything slip through the cracks. If you leave it to them there may be so much inertia that they don’t want to move forward. With the actual process of once they’re signed on, I want to continue that momentum and keep this going.”
Andy says it’s important not to worry too much about bothering clients or potential clients too much.
“In general what I’ve found from sales to operations to workflows is…if you are bothering them too much, they will let you know. More often than not, they are very apologetic.
If you follow up once a week, when you call them and leave a message and they get back and leave an email, usually you can get a hint. They might give you a time: I’ll get this together in the next week or so.”
Andy reiterates that it ends up being very much on the agency to move things along.
“So don’t be afraid to follow up and follow up frequently. In the end, they’re going to appreciate that because it’s good customer service. You’re not letting the ball drop and just letting them flounder.
If they’ve signed on and it’s been several months, they signed on cause they want to get a website or a marketing plan from you. Help them make that happen. Show them you’re still interested in them.”
Postaga is available to all kinds of clients, but Juris Page was for lawyers alone. So, Garrett asked about the benefits of niching down vs. acting like a generalist.
“In my experience, having an agency that was focused on a specific niche was best for us because it helped in so many different ways. First, it helps us in marketing, because we can create content specific for this niche.
So when we’re focusing on lawyers we can write articles on things like: what a lawyer’s website needs to have in 2020, or things about legal technology or legal marketing.
These are articles that are very specific to this space and can rank in Google, and get found by this audience. This audience can then find us.”
He says that this also creates opportunities for partnerships, which helped Juris Page get acquired as quickly as it did.
“Ultimately we were acquired by a strategic partner of ours because it made sense for them and it made sense for us for that to happen. That happened because we were specifically focusing on the same market as them, and it absolutely made sense for that.”
He says that niching down also really helps with sales.
“By focusing on a niche, you show your expertise in a certain area. You’re going to be able to close those sales better than if you’re a generalist. Because if you’re a generalist, you’re competing against every single other web designer out there, plus the ones that are focusing on the niche.
If you have this niche expertise you can really highlight that from your website and your materials and your sales process.”
On the other hand, when you niche down, people come to you. You get more inbound leads.
As an example:
“Here are so many clients similar to you, that are happy with us, so you might as well sign on.”
He says niching down even helped he and his partner develop processes and workflows.
“You can reuse assets from project to project occasionally. If you have a website template in your niche, you can reuse that. You can reuse elements of it. You can make your design process go a lot faster, too.
You don’t have to reinvent the wheel from scratch with every project.”
What if you’re afraid that you’ll miss opportunities, or that there won’t be enough people in a niche to support your income goals?
First, Andy says that you’re not necessarily going to lose as many opportunities as you think.
“Over the years there were plenty of companies that reached out to us saying: I have an accounting firm, we’re not a law firm, could you build us a website too? And on occasion, we would.
We would do these one-offs, but it really wasn’t going to become part of our portfolio of work.”
He says that industry research can really help you determine whether you’re choosing the right niche.
“Part of it is knowing what your customer in that industry can pay. I know for example if you’re targeting Mom and Pop restaurants who are used to not really having a budget for websites or anything like that and you’re competing against the DIY option.”
Your research would also tell you how many customers may be available to target, and can help you determine whether there will be enough customers to keep you busy. If you don’t feel like there will be, it might be best to focus on a different niche.
You go beyond, says Andy, when you’ve gone big.“I definitely saw in the legal space there were one or two big companies with tens of millions of dollars a year in revenue that said: okay. We have reached everyone we can possibly reach in the legal space. Now we’re going to expand into other areas.”He stresses those companies were huge.
“I think maybe that’s the point where you can say: let’s diversify to other spaces.”
Yet in most spaces, he points out you shouldn’t have a problem with getting enough clients. “I can’t speak to every single market, but at least for the legal market which now has a ton of focused agencies, I don’t think you’d run out of customers there.”
Andy says there were two signals which suggested JurisPage was successful enough to be acquired.
“#1, our number of inbound leads kept growing month after month. It was nice to see that, especially after the first six months, which were very time intensive with the amount of content I was writing. With SEO, it takes a while to work. But, seeing from that six-month mark we saw leads just grow dramatically and keep growing.”
The second sign?
“People knew who we were when we were having conversations. They were comparing us to other people. The number of clients we ended up booking kept growing significantly. We went to some trade shows and had a little bit of name recognition, which was good to see. We were on their radar.”
Andy only has one thing he’s worried about right now.
“The elections are coming up. Vote.”
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