Sun, 16 May 2021
When Ben Childs founded Digital Reach in 2011, his mission was to create an agency that operated with integrity, honesty, and skill. Over the years, he has grown to become a leader in the B2B digital marketing space throughout the country, leading a team of 38 people. Today he's here to talk about the things he wishes he knew in order to scale his agency faster.
3 Golden Nuggets
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How Does Ben Solve Big Agency Problems?
Jason: [00:00:00] On this episode, I chat with one of my mastermind members that has grown a really nice size agency. And we talk about culture. We talk about some of the things that he wished he knew about in order to scale his agency, to close to 40 people, and really still enjoy it and create that freedom that he wants, rather than that prison.
So. Let's get into the episode. I think you'll enjoy.
Hey Ben, welcome to the show.
Ben: [00:00:32] Good to be here, Jason.
Jason: [00:00:33] I'm excited to have you on. We've known each other a while, you've been in the mastermind. So tell us who you are and how did you get into this crazy agency life?
Ben: [00:00:42] Yeah. So my name is Ben Childs. I'm the president of Digital Reach Agency. We're a revenue-focused B2B digital marketing agency focused on SAS, tech, startups and enterprise, search, marketing automation, design development, and Account-based Marketing.
How I got into it is not too dissimilar than I think most people. I had a job at an agency that was pretty crappy. I kind of woke up one day and realized they were pretty churn and burn. So I moved up to San Francisco with a lot of my buddies and I got a job, this is dating myself, at a Daily Deal startup back when those were a thing and they ran out of money and didn't have a lot of prospects.
So I took the, uh, computer. That was my severance package from that job, went to RadioShack next door and got a Magic Jack. And just started calling people from my grandma's dresser that I used as a standing desk saying that I could do their digital marketing.
I had sold it before, but I had never done it, so just, I knew the holes in the market and just said, "Hey, I'll be doing the work. I'm going to undercut everybody on price. And you can trust me because I need the money for rent." Sold my first few people without a website, cause they were like, yeah, I love it. Let's do it. And that was nine and a half years ago.
And now we're 38 people and. Doing bigger stuff than that.
Jason: [00:02:00] I love it. I always tell everybody when they come to me about starting an agency and they're like, what do we need? I'm like, you need to know how to do something really well.
Ben: [00:02:09] Yeah. One of the things I like about the podcast is there's no real like service kind of education, because if you're not good at what you do, there's not a lot that you can learn from an operations or client management standpoint.
And so I think that's something that, you know, when I talk to people about starting businesses, I'm like, well, are you like good at it? And they're like, yeah, I guess it's like, well, maybe you should. Look, I learned on the fly and I was up at 12:00 AM, blowing up Adwords accounts, learning on the fly.
And I, you know, I wished I had known better, but the fact is, is you're going to learn some hard lessons along the way, either way.
Jason: [00:02:44] Yeah. Well, yeah, I mean, you never do it perfect. And especially too, when we look back and we go, oh man, I wish I knew this before I hit the million mark or before I hit the 2 million mark.
So, what did you wish you knew back then that you know now.
Ben: [00:03:02] I wish I knew that I can raise my prices. Raising prices still is terrifying, but I hired a Director of Sales from a bigger agency. Gosh, like five years ago. And the first thing he did is just like doubled my prices. And I was like, that's scary. You can't do that. And he just goes, just shut up, Ben, just watch this.
And honestly, people took us more seriously. We started getting more kind of rarefied clients and got taken seriously at the table. And we've just found that raising our prices, you don't want to make it too necessary due to expense creep, but just kind of the more we charge, the more seriously people take us.
And you get to the clients who expect that and expect to get longer contracts and expect to have a more gentlemanly relationship than, um, a lot of the riffraff that you're going to get undercutting everyone's prices.
Jason: [00:03:54] Well, yeah, I mean, I was kinda like you in the very beginning. It's like I was on a race that I didn't want to win, a race to the bottom.
I'll be like, oh, I'll like he said, I'll undercut anybody just to make rent. But I feel that a lot of times you have to do that in the very beginning in order to really kind of cut your teeth to figure out. It's kind of like, I always use it as like a buffet. Like you got to try out all this stuff, but it's almost like figuring out which buffet to try.
Like, you remember when you're in college or really young, you go to like the $5, all you can eat buffet and then like you would leave feeling really, really bad.
Ben: [00:04:34] Yeah. It's, um, but you don't know how to do it. And I know you had someone on a while ago who I think they were doing PR.
I remember that person who like. Bought a warehouse to like ship a bunch of stuff and it was insane and she knew what she was doing. And she was like, I started off boutique and I started off charging huge prices because we are good. And I started off like many people kind of owning a job being like, I guess I'm doing this now. And I was 23, 24, whatever it was.
So it's been a ride. It's amazing. Looking back.
Jason: [00:05:06] Yeah. And now with a team of almost 40 people, you know, a lot of times probably looking back too, and some people listening are like, man, that just seems like. A lot of headaches. And I remember kind of thinking back because I looked at it in phases. Right. And you probably look at it in phases as well.
Like, you have five people and they're all reporting to you, you know, it's overwhelming. And then you start getting up to 10 and they're still all reporting to you. And you're like, how do people do it with more people than this? So, did you go through that situation?
Ben: [00:05:38] You know, what happened was, is about a year and a half on, I brought on a couple buddies who were just kind of looking for either. One of them had gotten cut from minor league baseball. One of them, uh, was a professional poker player looking for an additional revenue stream. They're both geniuses and we've been friends since we were kids. They're geniuses. And I brought them on and, um, we ended up kind of doing it together. And so I had a pretty good team from day one in terms of people that could handle stuff.
So I would say that the issue for me is they do still handle stuff, and this gets into culture, but talking to the 37th or 38th person here, I just can't handle their problems. And I'm such a people person, and I just radically validate people, which I think comes across to clients and it comes across to employees too.
But you get to 38 people and you kind of have to focus what your time is on and be okay delegating to other people. And I know there was a person who was afraid of us hiring someone over him. And normally I would have been on like a two-hour call with them, you know, saying it's all going to be okay. But you know, you're at 38 people and I told you earlier, our biggest client raised their spend to a lot of money with us. And I can't spend two hours on the phone with this person talking about their job. They're either going to leave or they're not.
And that seems cold, but it's not because I have people that deal with that and I need to delegate to them. And they're very good at their job and they're better at that than I am. But choosing where to spend your time just becomes more and more imperative because I just love talking to everybody. It just makes me feel good and doesn't make me any money.
Jason: [00:07:15] Yeah. There's like a mind shift that I feel you go through when you really truly start scaling where you go. Well, I could do it this way. And I could do it myself and save money, but then you're like, well, all my time is in this. Versus just outsourcing it or bringing on someone to go do that where you might make a little less profit, but you know, at the end of the day, you're trapped.
Ben: [00:07:40] Yeah. I think of the book "Built to Sell." Where he talks about owning a job. And he talks about almost like a cause that's about the difference between an entrepreneur and someone who has an entrepreneurial seizure. A lot of people that start agencies have an entrepreneurial seizure where they're just like, I'm going to do my own thing. And then you end up owning a job.
And the fact is, is he says, it's better if you don't know how to do the thing you're doing. I have that benefit. This world passed me by, I'm a caged lion who forgot how to hunt. My partner, who's a genius, is deep in a lot of this stuff with clients. And that's something that I've worked on because he needs to work on other stuff, but he keeps getting pulled back in because as our clients go up and he just gets better and better at this, you know, we need to take a step back and work on processing and scaling.
And it can be difficult because it's always easier to just say, I'll do more myself. Great. I'll do it. And it's a tough mindset. And also you just have to make that decision over and over again. It doesn't just happen once.
Jason: [00:08:44] So when did you start realizing the role that you needed to kind of transform into in order to really scale the agency?
Ben: [00:08:53] Probably, uh, just recently it took me a very long time to get out of, um. Well, I'm still very involved in sales, but it took me a very long time to get out of every fine detail of sales. And that was a process. I think you remember you posted to the group, Marty chiding me in his legendary.
Jason: [00:09:14] Oh, I remember that day. I was like, oh wow.
Ben: [00:08:53] I, um, Again, I just love to love if you're listening to this. So, I interviewed a salesperson who I just loved and we had a great time at like an arcade in Seattle and it was great. And I was telling the group, I was so excited and, I just did not do my due diligence. And Marty from Bad Rhino just, just gave a 15 minute. Just tongue lashing. And I just sat there and took it because he was right.
Jason: [00:09:44] It was out of love too.
Ben: [00:09:46] It was, it was honestly, he was like apologizing. I was like, no, this is great. This is why I'm talking to others.
Jason: [00:09:48] He called me, like, after he was like, man, I kind of feel bad. I was like, no, no, no. I was like, that's why we're all in the mastermind to hear the honest truth. It's not all sunshine and rainbows.
Ben: [00:09:58] Well, and Jason, I think, you know, I'm super transparent and super honest. So I'm not there defending myself saying that what I did is amazing. Cause I have an ego. It was very educational. But to that point, I ended up, uh, having another Sales Director come in, that was at a different agency.
I actually think it's valuable that they weren't sales-focused before. I like to see my sales team as almost more like project managers, kind of, that are just like very consultative and then getting our subject matter experts involved. That can end up being a little bit more expensive, but you just show people that you're the real deal.
And so that's only recently happened. And so if you're talking about what role I fill, I'm kind of learning that every day. Being an entrepreneur, you can wake up in the morning and just stare into the abyss and you could do anything, which is kind of awesome, but kind of terrifying.
So I'm learning more about culture. I'm learning more about process. I'm learning more about integrating the 39th and 40th person. I'm learning more about finances. You could be at a premium and lose money. You can be dirt cheap and make money. What happens on the backend matters. So I'm learning more about that. I'm trying to shed my kind of fun character that I play when I'm just ignorant of the day-to-day business and just here for fun.
Because, you know, if you're down 10% at a million. Yeah, it's a little bit. If you're down 10% at 4 million, that's a lot. And if you're up 10% at a million, it's a little bit. And if you're up 30% at 4 million a heck of a lot.
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Love it. Well, let's talk about the benefits of niching down and not niching down. Because we see this a lot and I always chat about it. What are your thoughts on this?
Ben: [00:12:38] It's easier at the beginning to not niche and it's, you just need the money. You take everything, all money is good money, and you just kind of need to learn your lessons along the way.
If you start niched, that's great, but it can be difficult to find the right opportunities. For us, we went hard B2B like five years ago, but like, if an e-commerce company wanted to pay us money, like, okay, super top secretly, I'll take it and not tell anybody. So we niche down to a persona. Really. There's usually niching verticals and there's niching services. We've just decided to niche down to a persona.
So, in our industry, B2B SAS in tech, the director of demand gen and the CMO, we just want to like wake up in the morning and know what they're thinking. And any service we provide, we need it to be, you know, we, we do a great job at marketing automation and it's in direct response to enough of our clients saying, we will pay you for marketing automation, because no one does it good.
Just being like, okay, let's do it good. And then we can here with them. They tell us what's wrong, what needs to happen. And we build and build, and now like you present it to someone and they're like, holy crap. Like, I didn't know, an agency could do that for me.
That has its own downsides. You know, the Chris from Rankings.io, we always joke that he does SEO for personal injury lawyers that are 40, that have two kids that live in this specific zip code, and he charges a heck of a lot of money. And he probably doesn't have to worry about the utilization rate of different people and stuff like that. But there's benefits to some niching. As we've seen, it's a differentiator.
So we're not entirely a me-too agency. And there's benefits to doing a lot because you can fulfill needs. And, you know, I mentioned the client that's spending a lot of money. I can pivot a lot of different ways to make sure that they're getting value. So last year our churn rate was positive just because of upsells and various people getting involved.
But. You have to, this is one of the reasons why I'm trying to get a better handle on the backend and the finances. It's you run a little thinner, you know, we're awesome at chat, but it's like, okay, do I capitalize that department to basically get ready to go out of the gate? Do I make it run on its own revenue?
All of a sudden you have several little digital agencies that you need to be an entrepreneur on.
Jason: [00:14:58] Yeah. It's, I always tell everybody in the very beginning, you got to kind of try out everything. Unless you really know what you're meant to do. And then even as you do it for years and years, and you see a lot of the bigger agencies doing this, they become the masters for that vertical or that horizontal niche. And then they start creating other practice areas.
Ben: [00:15:20] Yeah. Yeah.
Jason: [00:15:21] And they can actually grow. And I always tell everybody too is like, look, when you pick a niche, you still can take on work outside of it as long as it fits it. It's just, you're just marketing to that. And it's weird. When you market to a particular niche like a lot of us have seen, we'll have people from outside that they were like, we've heard your stuff. We want you to help with this.
And we're like, you came off the website? Like most of this. So I just want to kind of get rid of a lot of people's worry because so many people fight it for so long. Or don't fight it. Like just keep going after all of them, but it just, when you can get a little focused, it makes things a little bit easier in order to, uh, to grow.
Ben: [00:16:03] Yeah. And it makes sales easier. I mean, if you're doing one service on one vertical teaching someone to sell it and be able to speak words that the other person just jumps at is real easy. You know, for what we do, I need someone to come in with a little bit more experience who's done it. And that costs money.
But, you know, the idea is that makes money, but things get a little simpler when you niche down and we're continually niching down on who we work with and what we do.
Jason: [00:16:32] That's awesome. And tell us some of the benefits, because I always joke that when I ran the first agency, I was in search to kill mode. Like I would have never talked to any other agency owners.
I would have just like searched and destroyed. And I always joke, like I would have never let myself into my own mastermind, which is the wrong mentality. And I've learned that over the years. And I want everybody regardless if it's our best run or whoever's mastermind, or you guys create your own, what's the benefit that you get from chatting with other owners?
Ben: [00:17:04] Yeah. I've never considered myself to have competitors. Even people that we go up with. If I do, like, I should just be more different. I should just look at what I'm doing and make it different than they are, because if they're doing what I'm doing. Like from the prospect, why are we different? I think there's a major benefit because it just frees you up.
And this is just from an entrepreneurial perspective, it helps justify some of your decisions and make you more confident. I was giving the example, like we were having trouble getting paid from a client and I brought it up to the mastermind and you gave a great, great answer, which was like, yeah, you can do whatever you want. Why don't you like send them flowers?
And I was like, I didn't know. I could do whatever I want. And that seems like a silly thing to say, but you get into your routine of day-to-day. And honestly, like, that's a lot of my job now, now that you mentioned it, as president, is I talk to people on the team and they have this problem. And I say, well, why don't you just stop doing that?
And they're like, I can? And it's like, yeah. And I don't expect them to wake up in the morning and stop working on a client just because they want to, but I have the opportunity to say, why don't you just not work on them and let's fire them. And that's the benefit of talking to a mastermind group is they're able to just be like, Hey, why don't you just not do that? I'm like I thought I had to.
Jason: [00:18:28] Yeah, I know. It's just getting that outside perspective. You're so close to it. And I think a lot of times we're so emotional. Mostly connected to it where we just can't see the solution that's really apparent. Like you talk about something and like literally the other 10 people are looking at you going, you know exactly what to do, and then you hear it and you're like, Oh duh, that's so easy.
Ben: [00:18:52] And, and that gets to the other benefit for me is I just realized I had something to offer. There's just been several questions where I go, oh, I absolutely know this answer. I did it. The prospect said this, it went great. Or just people have different personalities. So I can open up someone to be a little bit more direct, a little bit more transparent or something like that.
But to your point, yeah, I mean, we're talking and someone in the group was like that wasn't the first time I blew 30 grand. And I was like, oh, that guy has his stuff together. And he makes mistakes too.
Jason: [00:19:24] A lot of times what I've found too. Uh, even when I'm leading it or been in other masterminds myself, I'll give someone advice and then I'll have to ask the question. Do I do that?
Ben: [00:19:38] Yeah. You almost like put on a brave face and you're like, why don't you tell the client this? And then it's like, you get on a call and it's like, whatever you want, Mrs. Client. How high?
Jason: [00:19:48] Exactly. Yeah, exactly. Well, awesome. Well, Ben, this has been amazing. Thanks so much for coming on. Is there anything I did not ask you that you think would benefit the audience?
Ben: [00:19:57] Yeah. I just want to say, as you scale culture becomes more and more important, and that is like such an amorphous word. I'm a big football fan and culture is just being used over and over again to where it's overused, but really it's, if you're listening to this podcast, you probably started an agency and the agency is really you.
And the goal of culture is to just scale that out to where people make decisions you would make. They act in ways that are congruent with how you would act, even if it's not exactly how it's to where, you know, the 39th and 40th person can come into a, oh, this is how this works. And it's different than my previous agency.
And it gets to everything in your agency from employee experience perspective that clients can tell that you have a great culture and your client wants to be there. So, that's something that I'm really working on and I've just found it more and more important because when you do that, all of a sudden employees give you the benefit of the doubt. All of a sudden employees buy in and want to help you throw out a goal and people use their creativity to help you.
And it's not an adversarial relationship. They're part of something. So that's, um, it's something that I'm working on and I've seen the value of. And, maybe next time we talk, I'll give you an answer as to how I found it.
Jason: [00:21:14] That's awesome. Well, I mean, it's always accidental and I always tell everybody, as, as you're building your culture, it's what you believe in. And you have to figure out and let everyone on the team know, you know, where you're going and why. And that gives them the power in order to make those decisions. And it's, it's great to see you figuring that out.
And that's why you've come so far along. It's like, you know what to focus on now and you've been focusing on it and that's great.
Ben: [00:21:40] You also have to pay attention to your habits, you know, how you live your days it's how you live your life. And so for me, I've had to really guard because scaling, you can just like, oh, just work more. Or, oh, sorry, you're going to have to work the weekend. And then you start building those habits and that just quickly becomes how things are done. And expectations. And so you really have to be on guard for getting in front of the right habits and taking a stand and be willing to lose a client or be willing to give someone a break for screwing up. And you learn it when you learn it.
Jason: [00:22:15] Exactly. Well, awesome, well, thanks so much Ben for coming on. And if you guys enjoyed this episode and you want to be surrounded by amazing agency owners on a consistent basis where we can see the sh*t that you can't see. And we can, uh, help you along. And so you can scale a little bit faster and have a lot of fun doing it.
I want to invite all of you to go check out digitalagencyelite.com. This is our exclusive mastermind where it's only for experienced agency owners. So go to digitalagencyelite.com. And until next time have a Swenk day.
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Category:general -- posted at: 2:00pm EDT