Smart Agency Podcast: The #1 Digital Agency Podcast for Social Media, SEO, PPC & Creative Agencies

What do you think about hustle culture? Do you have a healthy work-life balance with your agency? Does your team? As the owner, you set the tone for the agency's culture. And what is important to you by extension becomes important to the team. Today’s guest owns a boutique agency she started after quitting her job in the tech space after feeling exhausted from 80-hour work weeks. She started fresh in Belize with a new mindset about the type of work-life balance she wanted and the culture she’d create for her agency.

Jeanna Barrett is the founder and Chief Remote Officer of First Page Strategy, an award-winning remote growth marketing agency. She has 17 years of inbound marketing experience working with venture startups, digital agencies, and fortune 500 companies.

Six years ago, Jeanna left the US and built a business in Belize. What started as freelancing grew into a full inbound marketing agency with 40+ experts across the globe. Beyond the success of her agency, she’s most proud of the culture she was created with her remote team. Jeanna encourages different passions outside of work and promotes a healthy work-life balance. She shares her journey of creating an anti-hustle culture for her agency.

In this episode, we’ll discuss:

  • Recovery from the hustle culture and burnout.
  • Prioritizing boundaries to create healthy agency culture.
  • Embracing your team’s passions and hobbies.

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Sponsors and Resources

Verblio: Today's episode of the Smart Agency Masterclass is sponsored by Verblio. Check out Verblio.com/smartagency and get 50% off your first month of content creation. Our team loves using Verblio because of the ease of their process and their large pool of crowd-sourced writers.

Podcast Takeover!!

Get to know your Smart Agency Guest Host: John Corcoran is the co-founder of Rise25, an agency that helps companies launch and run podcasts profitably. He followed Jason’s podcast and eventually joined the mastermind and has been a guest on the podcast before. Today, he’s helping Jason bring something new to the Smart Agency podcast audience by interviewing a special guest and bringing a new perspective to the show.

 

Recovering from the Hustle Culture and the Burnout it Causes

In 2016, Jeanna was living in San Francisco and felt burned out by the non-stop work hustle and grind culture. She realized the “dream offices” popular in the tech world, with free lunch, snack bars, entertainment, and laundry service exist only to justify 80-hour work weeks. Jeanna was ready to leave the perks behind.

She was eager to live a life where she didn’t have to work all the time. She wanted time and freedom to focus on the things that make her happy.

Building a business in Belize may not be what she originally intended, but it is exactly what she needed to have a work-life balance. It is an opportunity to create a work culture valuing and encouraging different passions and pursuits outside of work. Her agency focuses on employee performance based on tasks completed and not on the amount of time spent in front of a computer.

A Lesson on the Benefits of Doing Content Marketing Right

Fortunately, after 15+ years of working in marketing, Jeanna had a network she could tap into. She was looking to work as a freelancer and started by calling old clients and colleagues. Eventually, her freelance business evolved into an accidental agency.

Getting her first big client was a lesson in content marketing. At one point, Jeanna wrote an article about how she left her career and moved to the Caribbean. It offered advice for people looking to do something similar and work remotely. In the article, she mentioned the company she used to establish her business as an LLC. Ironically the company had fired their SEO partner and contacted her to take over the role. She had not yet formed an agency but decided to give it a try.

She started with a small entry-level contract, so she just hired two consultants to work on SEO content. After that, they scaled every year, based on the services and the needs they cover. By year two, she added another three people to work on that account, and year three added another three employees.

At first, they worked exclusively on content creation but as the relationship developed they slowly added other services like email marketing and lead generation.

Prioritizing Boundaries to Create a Healthy Agency Culture

Since the beginning, Jeanna had a certain culture in mind for her agency. It was always one of the most important pieces of what she was trying to build. To avoid going back to old habits that ultimately burn people out, she focused on building a culture where the work would not leave employees feeling exhausted or stressed. No one is happy working under those conditions. Instead, she created a work environment that encourages a work-life balance. You are more efficient when you're not constantly replacing people and everyone is noticeably happier.

It would’ve been easy to go back to old habits, which is why Jeanna is obsessive about boundaries. For instance, she follows certain routines like blocking her calendar to ensure she schedules time to exercise and have lunch at a certain time. It’s more about making sure she takes care of her health. This is what works for her; however, it varies person to person. This is a conversation she has with all employees. It’s important for them to know which boundaries will help keep them delivering great work while remaining healthy and happy.

Boundaries with clients. If you’re going to respect boundaries within the agency, they should be established with clients as well. As a boutique agency, they only take on the business they can handle. They talk about their boundaries as a team and are very strict about adhering to them - even with clients. Ultimately, it’s about setting and managing expectations.

Online Training for Digital Agencies

Should Your Agency Invest More in PPC or SEO?

One of the biggest objections to inbound and content creation is it takes too long to see results. Clients likely have to wait 6-8 months to see results. It is more of a long-term strategy when you’re using PPC ads to pull people in.

Clients tend to fall into the trap of overly investing in PPC and under-investing in SEO and inbound. PPC is an expensive but powerful engine. Some spend $50+ for one click, and even then, how many clicks does it take to convert a customer?

It is very competitive out there and if your competition is using PPC then so should you. However, Jeanna feels clients could be investing more evenly in what they put into PPC and the long-term strategy. Investing in a long-term strategy will get their business to the first page and ultimately reduce their PPC spending.

As an expert in SEO and inbound marketing, she says no brand has ever regretted investing in quality content marketing.

Changing Your Mindset to Retain a Happy and Fulfilled Team

You may really love your digital agency but there’s probably a lot you’re passionate about outside of work. This is true for every single team member and it's something Jeanna tries to find out during the interview process. She has discovered one employee has a cookbook, others are runners or had a band. It’s a great way to realize the different types of people within the agency and presents the opportunity to highlight or celebrate these passions. It’s important to encourage these outside hobbies because happy and fulfilled people are better workers.

A change in culture requires a change of mindset. If you’re under-investing in building your agency’s culture, the first thing to change is your mindset. Putting a number on how much you should spend makes no difference if you don’t believe in its importance.

Important Investments in Your Agency's Growth

Ultimately, the first significant change is hiring a leadership team. It’s one of the most important steps in realizing you don't need to micromanage people so they produce good work. It's also a way to get yourself out of daily operations and focused on scaling your agency.

Another important investment for growth is an amazing project management system. All your agency work goes through this system and it’s worth the investment, especially if you have a remote team. With a remote agency, the PM software is the central system that sort of becomes your "office space" and should be prioritized as such.

Want the Support of Amazing Digital Agency Owners?

If you want to be around amazing agency owners that can see what you may not be able to see and help you grow your agency, go to the Digital Agency Elite to learn all about our exclusive mastermind.

Direct download: How_to_Create_Work-Life_Balance_With_Anti-Hustle_Culture.mp3
Category:general -- posted at: 7:00am EST

Do you feel like you're in no man's land? Growing beyond the $1 Million mark and beyond 7 figures can be a very gray area where the agency is making more money but the owner is working more than ever. This is no man’s land and it's a sign you need a strong leadership team to get the agency to the next level. Today’s guest is an accidental agency owner, like most, who found the transition to Agency CEO reignited her interest in the business. She now runs an agency that serves its clients and aims to have an impact on the community.

Ruth Bernstein is CEO and co-founder of Yard NYC, a New York-based creative agency that helps turn brands into cultural beacons. They’ve worked with brands like Amazon, and Walmart with the belief that purposeful brands can both drive cultural relevancy and good business. After growing as an agency and getting past certain milestones, they have also worked to turn themselves into a brand that creates change.

In this interview, we’ll discuss:

  • How to raise prices and charge what you're worth.
  • Why culture misfits that can cost your agency big opportunities.
  • Navigating no man's land by hiring a leadership team.

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Sponsors and Resources

E2M Solutions: Today's episode of the Smart Agency Masterclass is sponsored by E2M Solutions, a web design and development agency that has provided white-label services for the past 10 years to agencies all over the world. Check out e2msolutions.com/smartagency and get 10% off for the first three months of service.

 

Starting a Female-Led Agency During the Industry’s Mad Men Era

Ruth and her partner Stephan worked on the client side in London and had never worked at an agency. At one point, while working with media companies, they started looking for agency partners in the fashion, wellness, and beauty space. They were looking for partners who could bring strategy to the table, were female-led, and really understood how to work with in-house teams. It was the '90s and still the “Mad Men” era in the agency space and none of the candidates met these requirements.

This is how they became accidental agency owners. They had never worked for an agency or run one but their search on the client side revealed there was a niche for this type of agency. Coming from the client side, they already had credibility and went for big-brand clients right away.

How Culture Misfits Can Cost Your Agency Big Opportunities

Mistakes help us grow. And one of those from Ruth's early agency days was delegating negotiations with a prospect to a consultant. It wasn’t right for the agency and nearly made them lose their first really big project. At the time, Ruth was in charge of strategy and Stephan was heading up the creative side. Neither of them had negotiated an agency deal. Since it was a big client, they figured it would be best to delegate negotiations to a consultant who could help make sure it was solid.

Unfortunately, the consultant’s tone and manner of handling the deal nearly made them lose the client. In hindsight, this person did not align with the agency's culture or vision. The client approached Ruth and Stephan because they knew and trusted them.

As a result, they learned communication is a key piece in showing prospects what it's like working with their agency. There’s nothing wrong with getting help in areas you don’t have experience. However, in this instance, they just needed the confidence to handle it themselves.

Online Training for Digital Agencies

How to Raise Prices and Charge What You're Worth

Pricing is not easy. You have to do your homework and understand competition and what the client is willing to pay, as well as your own value.

As a smaller agency working with both bigger and smaller clients, Yard NYC geared prices toward smaller clients. However, it got awkward when those clients started growing and it was time to raise prices. For a lot of agency owners, this is a really difficult conversation.

Usually, it’s more difficult to raise prices for legacy clients than for new clients. Even some of the mastermind’s members with very successful agencies have gone years without raising prices to legacy clients. Under Jason’s guidance, they learned to look at the opportunity cost between new and old clients. At the point where the difference is just too big, it’s time to approach those clients, have a conversation about value, and explain a price increase. Almost all clients admit they’d been expecting a price raise and had no objections. By raising prices on existing clients you can increase revenue without increasing workload.

A Non-Traditional Approach to Partnering with Clients

After years in the agency business and witnessing success stories for many of her clients, Ruth realized there were other ways to gain from a client’s growth.

The team at Yard NYC came up with a partnership program of co-investing in some client businesses and providing marketing. They work with some clients who receive venture capital funds and saw the clients' business transformation. The value-added and brand-building were great; after five years they would sell and capitalize on the investment.

It’s not the typical client-agency relationship, but for Ruth, it’s an opportunity for getting more involved on the venture side.

How to Navigate No Man's Land By Hiring a Leadership Team

A lot of agencies fall into a kind of “no-mans land” between the $1 Million and $7 Million revenue mark. It’s a point where, after bringing in more people, the agency is making more money. However, agency owners are working more and making less.

This is the point Ruth realized it was time to build an executive leadership team. At some point, you have to bring in people to be the brains of the operation. There comes a moment as you scale where growth starts to demand a stronger foundation; not only for your own freedom, but so your organization can thrive. Surround yourself with people smarter than yourself.

Hiring leaders is a necessary step but one that usually leaves agency owners feeling like the business no longer needs them. Ruth's transition to CEO came naturally since they wanted a female leader for the agency. In a sense, this shift renewed her interest in the business. It was an opportunity to get out of her comfort zone and grow. She didn’t feel like she wasn’t needed but rather she was needed in new ways.

The beauty of having the right team and amazing culture takes a huge load off the agency owner. We’re all creative people who want to make, create, and transform. As you grow, your personality will emanate from the business, which doesn’t mean you have to be involved in every aspect of it. It’s important to build a leadership team and create a culture that encourages growth and involvement. By building a strong culture, you create the basis for the agency to run without you.

How to Make an Impact While Reinvigorating Your Team’s Passion

Doing great work while also having an impact. Agencies are constantly serving their clients and making great things. That takes up a lot of their time. However, agencies also have the power to put their creative abilities to good use. There are many other things you can do to impact on your community.

Ruth wanted to galvanize her team and put their voices out there as a women-led business. They organized a campaign around women's values. It not only created incredible buzz and managed to raise awareness, but it reinvigorated the team and get them excited about making a difference.

Do You Want to Transform Your Agency from a Liability to an Asset?

If you want to be around amazing agency owners that can see what you may not be able to see and help you grow your agency, go to Agency Mastery 360.  Our agency growth program helps you take a 360-degree view of your agency and gain mastery of the 3 pillar systems (attract, convert, scale) so you can create predictability, wealth, and freedom.


If you’ve been paying attention, then you know this is the year for AI content creation like ChatGPT. (Even Ryan Reynolds and Mint Mobile know it  :) Should your agency be using it too? Are you worried about turning off clients over this technology? Or could you make more money using it?  There are drawbacks, which is why agency owners need to know the best way to leverage AI for content. Today’s guests are experts in content creation as they talk about pros, cons, and how agencies can use AI like ChatGPT to be more efficient and grow their business.

Ryan Sargent is the Director of Content Marketing at Verblio, the world’s friendliest content creation platform. Verblio builds content marketing for other marketers at scale by pairing specialized, niche writers with marketing agencies and marketing professionals. Verblio is a preferred partner of the show and Ryan is a repeat guest who brings amazing insight.

This time, he is joined by Megan Skalbeck, the content marketing manager at Verblio handling strategic initiatives.

The team at Verblio are experts at content creation and have done a ton of research on how agencies can leverage the power of Artificial Intelligence and AI tools.  You can check out their survey results at verblio.com/ai. With those results in mind, they shared some of their conclusions on the best ways to use AI for content creation while keeping high quality standards.

In this interview, we’ll discuss:

  • How agencies can make more money by integrating AI tools.
  • Weaknesses of AI and a hybrid plan for using them effectively.
  • Why aren't more agencies using AI?
  • 3 tips for making AI more effective for your agency content.

Subscribe

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Sponsors and Resources

Verblio: Today's episode of the Smart Agency Masterclass is sponsored by Verblio. Check out Verblio.com/smartagency and get 50% off your first month of content creation. Our team loves using Verblio because of the ease of their process and their large pool of crowd-sourced writers.

Links to other episodes featuring Ryan Sargent:
https://jasonswenk.com/creating-content-for-clients/
https://jasonswenk.com/content-creation-team/

How Agencies Can Make More Money by Integrating AI Tools

Where do content creation experts stand on whether or not to use AI? Basically, if your agency isn’t planning on using AI at all in 2023, you are making a mistake. On the other hand, if you think AI is going to replace freelancers, fool Google, and you’ll never need a writer again, that's also a mistake.

The reality is, agencies need to be using AI as soon as the next few months. We should all learn to use AI not as a catch-all, but as an actual tool. To this end, work with people who really understand AI.

Find the balance. As it stands right now, AI tools can produce a lot of words. However, there are a lot of weaknesses:

  • Factual accuracy. There’s actually no guarantee the content produced by an AI is correct.
  • Sentence structure. A blog post created by AI does not necessarily have a logical structure or make sense at all.
  • Weakened SEO. Google knows AI-generated created content apart from what is human-written.

It is tempting for agencies to look at AI as a way to produce content at a much lower cost. However, with these weaknesses, the best alternative is a hybrid approach. Take content created by AI and improve it with human editing.

We shouldn’t view AI as a service or a finished product. It can do great work in saving writers from a blank page. With the right prompt, AI is great at generating ideas and continuing thoughts. As long as the writer is there to review and (probably) make significant edits, it can be really effective.

First Steps to Integrate AI as Part of Your Strategy in 2023

Curious about AI? Try a free version of any of the existing tools. This way, you can get a sense of their potential and learn how it works. If you’re not interested in exploring these tools in your own time, work with someone who is doing this. The important thing is to have a vision of how to integrate these tools into agency work. Don’t try to just jump into technology because it’s new without a vision for how it serves your agency. You don’t want to be the agency getting content that ranks but doesn’t convert and never makes money for the client.

AI is an incredibly powerful tool. However, it will add costs, both financially and in terms of time and effort. Instead of hiring an entire team of in-house writers or relying on the free version of the AI tool, find a partner who can provide AI expertise.

Online Training for Digital Agencies

Why Aren't More Agencies Using AI for Content?

Can agencies use AI to make money? Yes, absolutely. But are they doing it yet? Verblio’s recent marketers survey reveals NO, agencies are actually lagging behind in the use of AI tools.

Verblio found agencies have been slow to adapt because they’re afraid of losing clients. They fear it could break trust or threaten the agency's position with the client. But, how true is this? Clients look at agencies as the experts to tell them if they should be using AI or not. The key is transparency. No one should be using AI to save money and hide it from the client.

The use of AI also depends on the type of agency. A branding agency won’t get as much use of AI as an SEO agency trying to produce content as rapidly as possible.

There is also an advantage to having the surge of AI now as opposed to 10 years ago. The Google algorithm is much better now at rewarding quality results. The algorithm doesn’t care how the content was created - it only cares about answering the searcher’s query.

All AI content is not created equal.  How you plan to use it determines how efficient it proves to be for your agency and the results it achieves for your clients. For instance, if you’re creating content around cutting-edge technology, it will not give the best results. AI is great for local SEO on more general topics because it’s been trained with existing online content.

3 Tips to Make AI Effective for Your Agency's Content Creation

  1. Be transparent about AI use. Don’t underestimate the importance of being transparent with clients regarding your use of AI. Some of them may be concerned you’re not using it enough, or on the contrary that you’re overdoing it. An honest conversation about this allowing them to voice their concerns goes a long way.
  2. Human intervention makes it work. Figuring out the best way to use AI is really important to get the best results possible. Take whatever the tool creates and give it a quick edit. To really get the most out of AI, have a human involved in the process providing structure and input throughout.
  3. Find a partner. The current economy makes the use of AI very valuable. It’s not a time when many people are able or willing to hire an entire writing team for content creation. You can instead find a partner and leverage AI to create a lot more with less.

Do You Want to Transform Your Agency from a Liability to an Asset?

If you want to be around amazing agency owners that can see what you may not be able to see and help you grow your agency, go to Agency Mastery 360.  Our agency growth program helps you take a 360-degree view of your agency and gain mastery of the 3 pillar systems (Attract, Convert, Scale) so you can create predictability, wealth, and freedom.

Direct download: How_to_Make_More_Money_Using_AI_to_Create_Content_for_Agency_Clients.mp3
Category:general -- posted at: 7:00am EST

If you're in the early stages of your agency, what should you prioritize in order to grow? With so many things to track and so many hats to wear, how do you know what's most important? What deserves your time and attention? As a solopreneur with a startup, building relationships and establishing values for your are crucial for growth. Yet, some owners are not equipped to maintain these parts of the business. So, how can you prioritize these factors when growing your agency?

Today's guest, Christy Pretzinger, understands that solopreneurs are not in a position to oversee relationships consistently. That's why she hires compatible talent to help her develop and sustain team-building programs and workshops. These initiatives cultivate a supportive culture and ensure her team embodies their values. Christy talks about maintaining a positive company culture and explains the importance of relationship building, how she attracts like-minded people and her strategies for maintaining client and employee relationships. 

In this episode, we'll discuss:

  • Why it's important to build relationships when seeking opportunities.
  • Strategies for maintaining client and employee relationships. 
  • Growing an agency during uncertain and challenging economic times.

Christy Pretzinger is the President and CEO of WriterGirl, an agency that helps hospitals and healthcare organizations create patient-friendly website content to grow their brand and strengthen their position in the marketplace. Since 2005, Christy has grown WriterGirl from a freelance writing business into a nationally recognized healthcare content consultancy. She is passionate about building environments where people can thrive and strives to reinvent how we view the work world. As an experienced entrepreneur, Christy shares her experiences with younger agency owners to help them grow.

 

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Sponsors and Resources

E2M Solutions: Today's episode of the Smart Agency Masterclass is sponsored by E2M Solutions, a web design, and development agency that has provided white-label services for the past 10 years to agencies all over the world. Check out e2msolutions.com/smartagency and get 10% off for the first three months of service.

Podcast Takeover!!

Get to know your Smart Agency Guest Host:  John Corcoran is the co-founder of Rise25, an agency that helps companies launch and run podcasts profitably. He followed Jason’s podcast and eventually joined the mastermind and has been a guest on the podcast before. Today, he’s helping Jason bring something new to the Smart Agency podcast audience by interviewing a special guest and bringing a new perspective to the show.

Episode transcript:

John Corcoran  0:00  

Hey, I'm John Corcoran taking over for Jason Swenk in this episode of The Smart Agency Masterclass, and I run Rise25 and Rise25. We are an easy button to help businesses get more clients and referrals with done-for-you podcast and content marketing. And for over a decade, we've been helping companies to give to their best relationships and partnerships through a podcast. I also am a longtime podcaster and have done Smart Business Revolution Podcast since about 2010. And I got to know Jason by listening to his podcast, and then we joined his Digital Agency Elite Mastermind, we've attended his events. And we wanted to learn from someone who grew in multimillion dollar operation with over 100 staff and then sold it. So if you are an agency that wants to grow, contact Jason and his team because they can help go to digitalagencyelite.com. But you can also email support@Jasonswenk.com.

And so I was also honored when he asked me to take over the show as a guest host. So check out today's episode with an amazing agency owner. Today we've got Christy Pretzinger, and Christy is the owner and CEO of WriterGirl. It's a fast-growing organization that creates content and provides strategy for hospitals, and healthcare organizations across the United States. Christy went from being a freelancer to an agency owner. So we're going to talk about that journey. And she uncovered her passion for creating an environment where people can thrive writing a book on sharing your experience around doing that, just that. And one of the things that she talks about, and we'll talk about this interview is about viewing culture through the lens of a balance sheet, and helping fellow business owners and others who have a direct impact on the culture.

So Christy, I'm excited to hop into those topics. And first, let's start at your origin story, how you got into the agency world into becoming an agency owner, you'd been a freelancer, and you actually ended up, you knew a woman who a former client of yours, who'd started your company, WriterGirl, and you ended up partnering up with her. So talk a little bit about how that came about.

 

Christy Pretzinger  1:55  

Okay, thanks for having me, I'm happy to talk to you. That's, I guess, an interesting story. She was a client, and she brought me on as a partner, and really kind of to sell, you know, stuff that it was a company at the time that did advertising copy. So it did like headlines and naming and things like that. And a year later, her largest client, she really kind of had one client. And he was indicted and imprisoned actually for tax fraud. So she was expecting a baby and was obviously made her very nervous. And she wanted out. And so I bought her out for a pittance. And basically got the name of the company which is WriterGirl. But I had to pivot pretty quickly because there was no client anymore. And started seeking out more long-form content, because that was the kind of writer that I was. And you know, as the Queen, Oprah says, luck is preparation meeting opportunity. And so what happened is that through a series of events, a hospital group was redoing, they were merging and renaming actually. And they needed three websites done for each one of their three hospitals. And they had to be done pretty much simultaneously, the marketing director of that hospital group had been a former client of mine when I was a freelancer. So she reached out to me and thought that most of the content was done. And I came to find out like a week in that literally nothing was done. And I had like 35 writers on it, you know, within like 20 minutes. And then once we finished that it was a huge learning curve. But fortunately, it was going so quickly, that we could make mistakes, and then fix them without really causing any issue. And so by the end of that, I thought, well, I'll bring teams of writers to hospitals. 

John Corcoran  3:42  

And so it just seemed right? Yeah. Before we get to that, I want to ask you about how you brought in that first big project. You know, was it it was a kind of a case of fake it till you make it, you know, you saw the opportunity? There must have been part of you that was saying, oh my gosh, wow, this is like a massive project for me something bigger than I've ever handled. So, you know, I'm wondering how you set yourself up, for lack of a better term to take on that big project?

Christy Pretzinger  4:14  

Well, I'll talk about I won't talk about the one that made me decide to go into hospitals really was kind of an accident. So I'll talk about how I actually deliberately went out and got one because that's more interesting. And what happened? There were two things. One of them was I went to, I'm in Cincinnati, I went to The Ohio State University and ended up landing their business for a small project, just like a just a brochure at the time. But she was saying they had a whole bunch of work to do. And if we could do this well, but she was warning me that the medical director had an undergrad in English and then, you know, had gone on to get his MD and she said he hates everybody's writing. And when we did this, he made two changes and it was like commas, and she couldn't believe that. And so then she gave us a very large project to do the website content for their heart hospital, and that was probably the time the biggest single project we'd ever had. And I honestly wasn't sure if we could do it that I've thought, well, I done that other hospital project, I did have some writers, I had done some learning. And I knew how to project manage that kind of thing. And I had a really good relationship with the client at Ohio State. And for me, I've always found, especially when I was building the business, that having that really, really working to build that relationship with the client was key to being able to not only produce excellent work, but get the grace if you made a mistake. Because I would always say nobody will work harder than me to find something about you to like, because, you know, clients can be challenging, right and personally, and what I think and there's gotta be, there's gotta be a point, like, I had to work with one of her employees, and this woman was very challenging. But over time, we finally did build a relationship, and then it just made it so much better. So that then you feel like you can, if you make a mistake, you can acknowledge that and they'll give you the grace to fix it. So me relationship building has always been key. But then this was an interesting one to the next really big one. This was when I landed $150,000 from one client, and we'd never ever, ever had that kind of money. It was Indiana University. And I went through I'm a WeBank, a woman-owned business, which has never gotten me anything except this one time. I called the diversity person, who in this instance, was a man, which usually isn't that it was. And for whatever reason, he's like, Okay, I'll connect you with our marketing director, which was like, Oh, wait, why? And he got me on the phone with them. And that hospital system at the time, had to use it or lose it budgetary thing. And they had like foreign $20,000 That was going to go away had been earmarked for something. And it didn't fit in, or I think it had been earmarked. And the work didn't get done in that calendar year, or whatever their year was academic year. And so they said, Can we give you a check for $450,000? And then work it off? And I was like, Well, yes, you can.

John Corcoran  7:06  

That was not a hard Yes.

Christy Pretzinger  7:10  

I can complete again, luck is preparation, meeting opportunity that was just me calling and thinking, Well, why don't we try getting in this way? And

John Corcoran  7:20  

that's great. That's great. How did you make that transition from being a freelancer to managing teams of writers? And all the different challenges that come from moving from one to the other? Can you talk about that?

Christy Pretzinger  7:37  

Yeah, it's interesting. In retrospect, now, I have a few different experience shares, I guess, around that. One of them is that when I became a freelance writer, a long, long, long time ago, I did it because I was a competent writer. I never wanted, I didn't have a passion to be a writer, you know, I was a good writer, I made a good living as a writer. But it wasn't, it wasn't my passion. So when I started building WriterGirl, I wasn't feeling like I had to hold on to being a writer and wasn't like, oh my gosh, this is who I am. This is my talent. So as it started growing, I used to write project manager. And so the first thing I let go of was the writing. Because it wasn't my passion anyway. And I was okay at project managing, I'm really, especially now, I'm not a detail-oriented person, I would really have to really put on that hat and do that. And then sales came more naturally to me, but at that time, as it is for most people building a business as a solopreneur, you know, at that time, you're like, Okay, sell, sell, sell, sell, project, manage product, manage, and, you know, farm out the work to writers, and then oh, crap, there's nothing in the pipeline, sell, sell, sell. You know, I mean, most people know that drill. So that was how I mean, like, a lot of people I was doing that the difference for me was unlike people who maybe are engineers and, and do something in an engineering field, or a doctor or like a dentist or something like that. I'm not the only one with the skill set. So I was able to move out of those roles. And because I had done all the roles, I knew what was required. And I could hire people that were better at it than I had been. And that was really key. I don't think I knew that at the time. But I also never had a lot of ego around that. And I know sometimes that that's again, an experience share that I see, especially with younger businesses where they think well, I'm the one who's the best at that. I'm like, well, that's great if you want to have a job for the rest of your life. And there's nothing wrong with that. I didn't want a job for the rest of my life. So I was always really happy to hire people that were you know, better, faster, stronger than me in whatever capacity that was.

Strategies for Maintaining Client and Employee Relationships

John Corcoran  9:41  

Yeah. Now I know one of your passions now is building maintaining a culture within your company. And you were telling me beforehand that one of the things that you've always believed is if I couldn't build a business based on kindness, I would go back to being a free Freelancer so that was important to you. Was there a point Lean was our breaking point, like sometimes I talk to business owners and they realized that their culture is off. They don't like their own culture. Sometimes they have to fire a bunch of people to change the culture. Was there anything like that? Or what was the realization that culture was really important to you as you built your business?

Christy Pretzinger  10:17  

Well, I think because when I started freelancing, I had left a job because I felt completely unappreciated and taken advantage of, it had been a really good situation for a period of time. And then it just stopped being a good situation. And largely because the woman who had been my boss left, and I think she had shielded me from a lot of things and had promoted me and champion me. And that was wonderful. Then she was gone. And I was like, wow, this is a mess. And I didn't like that at all. And I had had a lot of jobs, I'd moved around a lot before I only worked in the workforce for I don't know, what, seven years before I started freelancing. And so and I think I'd had like four or five different jobs, I stayed about a year and a half the last one I was there for, I think, for years. So I'd seen a lot of different things that workplaces that weren't necessarily that appreciative or kind to their people. So for me, it was always from the outset that I wanted to do that that was a core belief of mine. And I think, again, looking back on it, at the time, I have grown and changed but at the time, because of my own insecurities. I wanted to be everyone's favorite client, meaning all the 1090 nines, the contractors that I would hire, I wanted to be their favorite client. And I wanted to be every client's favorite vendor, I wanted everyone to like me. And so I thought that maybe I guess maybe kindness was a core thing. It's always been a core thing for me. And then once I never had to fire anybody, because of culture until many years later. And that was just a situation we knew was going awry anyway. But really, the people that are drawn to this organization seem to be of like mind. And that has been I don't know what that's about. I don't know what that magic is. Because that's actually been true in most aspects of my life, too. I haven't had a lot of negative people around me, generally speaking.

John Corcoran  12:10  

There isn't, is there anything that you do deliberately in the hiring process, or in your own content marketing, that you put out on your own website that would attract people like that? Yes,

Christy Pretzinger  12:22  

very much. So I mean, I think that there's a lot of people when people look at our website, especially if they're women, because it is a woman in business, and it's called WriterGirl. And they're like, oh, I want to work there, I think it would be fun. And we are very, pretty loud and proud about our values, which are we are empowered, curious, kind and fun. And so we do that in our own content marketing, we talk about that we talked about, we have a program called kindness counts, and we use that the organization to go out and do things in the community, you know, whether it's, you know, volunteer someplace, or go clean up, you know, something that's a mess, things like that. We also do something called moment makers that we do for our clients. So we try and mark a moment for them if they get married, if they have a baby if something happens, and so we do something. And we actually have a file within our SharePoint called moment makers, where we can put all that stuff so everybody can see it, and drawn it and build on it. So all of those things we do talk about quite a bit. And then the people that work for WriterGirl talk about it a lot. And they tend to have their friends want to come work and their friends tend to be project managers and writers or content strategists and things like that. So we get a lot, a lot, a lot of people that way.

Growing an Agency During Uncertain Economic Times

John Corcoran  13:29  

And did you know many companies when COVID hit in 2020 film that they had to make deliberate changes to their culture, because all of a sudden, everyone's dispersed? They're not under the same roof? I don't know if they were before. But did you have to make any deliberate changes in order to maintain that culture that you wanted when COVID hit?

Christy Pretzinger  13:48  

Well, what's interesting is when I was building the business, as I started hiring people, I never wanted an office because I would have to go there. And I didn't want to have to do that. I didn't like that whole environment. And, again, I think I've shared with you, John, that my goal was always to work as little as possible make as much money as possible. So I didn't want anybody to see that I wasn't going to the office. And so I mean, I was hoping that would happen at the time, it didn't you know how it is, when you're building a business, it's like working 24/7. But I was hoping to get to the point where I am now where I don't, don't work as much. So we've been virtual from day one. So we did not miss a beat when COVID hit. And in fact, what we were able to do was help a lot of our clients who you know, largely work in hospitals and healthcare and some agencies that serve you know, like big agencies that are full service agencies that also are clients of ours that serve hospitals and health care and help them figure out how to do that virtually. You know, are there different tools that you use? How do you collaborate? How do you make sure that you still feel like you have a culture going on? And so much of it has been ingrained in us that we never had really pulled it apart before. And looked at it doesn't like well, why does this work? You know what, what is the magic that makes it a an environment where people do truly feel like they can thrive.

John Corcoran  15:03  

Yeah, some companies like Zappos, for example, developed a whole b2b culture consulting division, I interviewed the head of it a bunch of years ago. Were you were you it? Was this something that you just kind of did as, as an add-on without charging for it? Or did you ever think like, you know, we have built a really good culture, we should turn this into its own business initiative?

Why It's Important to Build Relationships When Seeking Opportunities

Christy Pretzinger  15:26  

You know, we never really did. It was just, it was really more ad hoc. And again, it was building those relationships with our clients. I mean, our mission is we build relationships, one word at a time. And then our values are, we're empowered, curious, kind and fun. So that kind of underpins everything that we do. So if we had a client who's like, Oh, my God, I'm working from home, my kids are homeschooling? I'm not really sure. And we were always like, Okay, first of all, just don't worry about it. It's fine. I got kids here, too. It's okay. Let's just make this work. And then they'd be like, Well, how do you? I don't even know how to use Zoom. What is this? Like? You know, so just helping people with things like that? Yeah. Now, with the, with the book that I'm writing and things like that, that's that really, it's not so much about being a revenue generator, fine. If it is, it's really more about having an impact on other business owners, you know, like us, that have a direct impact on culture, probably more smaller business owners, although within an organization, I've never worked in huge fortune 500 companies, but you know, the smaller groups within organizations have their own cultures, right, within a huge organization. So, my mission, personally, is to sort of reinvent the way people look at the world of work by making it someplace where it is literally life, work, balance, not work life balance. Hmm.

John Corcoran  16:38  

I want to ask you also about you niche down and decided that you wanted to work with hospitals. Talk a little bit about that. thought process behind that, and how you did that. And were there bumps along the road. I mean, there's been major health care legislation that has come down in the last 15 years, I don't know if that ever, you know, changed the way that you had to operate.

Christy Pretzinger  17:03  

Well, you know, what's interesting is chaos creates opportunity, right. And if, if nothing else, you can say that healthcare in the US is chaotic. When we started working in healthcare, only trying to think like, even I know, 11 years ago, I think that the Affordable Care Act had just passed a little bit before that. So there were all sorts of things and hospitals, it was really just chaotic. They didn't even know how to price anything. And that was one of the requirements at the time. Because they would just build it all into the, you know, the CAT scan that you had, or whatever, they have no idea how much surgery costs, how much anything costs, I still don't think they do. But that was a general idea of trying to control costs by at first understanding them. So we had a lot of communication, there was a lot of opportunity for communication there. In terms of getting into it. As I said, After that one client hired me, it just I looked around, I was like, there are hospitals everywhere. And they must be doing things like this one is doing like, you know, doing entirely new websites where they have so much content that has to be written, who's going to do that? It just seems like a really, it seems simple, you know, you tell yourself the necessary lie, right? It'll be easy. That'll be easy. And that looking at hospitals, and at the time, strictly content, not even content strategy was like we write words on the page. And the reason I did that was because that's what I understood. I didn't want to try and sell at the time search wasn't even a big deal. But I didn't want to do web development or design or any kind of that because I didn't understand it. And I didn't want to look stupid trying to sell something that I really didn't understand. So we ended up probably inadvertently, narrow, narrowly niching in a way that worked really well it ended up being a very narrow and very deep niche. We've never had any problem having growth numbers within just that narrow niche.

John Corcoran  18:53  

I want to ask you also about you mentioned earlier about the importance of relationships. And you said it's always been about the relationship with the client. But you're at a size now where I'm sure all the relationships don't go through you. So as you as you grew to a larger point, and you had to step away, step back and let others manage those relationships. How did you you know, oversee that process to ensure that other members of the team were building that relationship in the way that you really wanted it to be built.

Christy Pretzinger  19:26  

You know, it's so interesting, because so much of things around culture and relationships is fair. It's very esoteric, isn't it? And it's kind of hard to quantify it, which is exactly what I'm trying to do by looking at culture through the lens of a balance sheet. So one of the things that because first of all, I was bootstrapping it, it grew slowly. So I would still be involved at some level and I could see how someone was working. I did once have a project manager who was working with me and she started behaving very passive-aggressive manner to me. What the time I didn't realize she was treating the client that way. I thought she was just doing that to me. Well, then we went to a client meeting. And I saw how angry the client was with her. And I was like, Oh my gosh. So that was a big learning. For me. It's like, oh, however they treat me is how they're treating the client. So I started sorting for that, and watching the kind of people who would be more interested in a, what's the word, not a transactional relationship, but solicitous relationship and appreciative relationship. And then what because I was still, like I said, I was still involved, at some level for quite a long time, I could observe that and see, you know, what's happening here. And also, another thing that I did very early on is we use the Enneagram as a tool. And even when we were much smaller, we have an Enneagram, coach, who types everyone. And then, when we were much smaller, we had full company groups, when they were like, I don't know, seven or eight of us. And we would have workshops, full day workshops. So we really understood and dove into that. And I don't know if anybody, any of you or the audience are familiar with Enneagram work. But if you have an excellent coach in the Enneagram, it's more about your motivation, and really understanding why someone does what they do. And so when you know that about your coworkers, it, it builds empathy for them. So like when I was still managing more people, like, say, for example, I had an employee who was a three and I had to kind of, I can't remember what I had, it was gonna be a challenging conversation. And so I was able to call the Enneagram coach and go, What should I, okay, this is what I have to do, which I do. And she was able to coach me through and say, Well, remember, as a three, she needs to feel like, she looks good, and that she's winning. And so I could communicate to her in that way. And so we did that a lot. And so there's this core group that has a real solid understanding of that. And we are continuing to build that out, we've grown, you know, we added, I don't know, 15 people all at once we doubled in size, like within a six month period. And those people don't have as much core knowledge about that as the rest of us. But we are actually bringing everyone in town for a retreat, and a big part of that is some Enneagram work to let people know how to use that. Did that answer your question?

John Corcoran  22:10  

Yeah, nothing I want to ask about, which I think is fascinating. I can't tell you how many businesses, I've talked to business owners I've talked to where, you know, they've experienced these big downturns and they're predictable after nine eleven.com, meltdown, 2008, COVID, that sort of thing. And you say that you've actually you actually grew through these time periods. So I'm wondering if you could unpack that a little bit kind of reflect back on you know, the years with WriterGirl and why you think that was the case?

Christy Pretzinger  22:43  

Again, some of it, I'm so not a, well, here's your technique, kind of business owner, I'm much more esoteric than that. So for me, when we grew in, oh, eight and nine, I had a coach say to me, that WriterGirl is you and it won't grow until you do. And so I've very deliberately spent time every day on personal development. For me, some of that was kind of some sort of some spiritual kind of reading. I didn't read a lot of business books, I've never been a big business book reader, I don't, they just don't interest me that much, generally speaking, unless they talk a lot about culture and things like that. So I did a lot of a lot of that kind of work. And that was when we actually hit a million for the first time when I did all this work on myself. So I don't think that's a coincidence. I think that that correlates, especially when you are a sole owner of a business. And I think even if you're a partnership, you know, being able to grow yourself, and recognizing your blind spots, your weaknesses and embracing those, you know, and like I hire for my time I would hire for my weaknesses, I knew that this was not a strength of mine, I'm going to find someone who's got that as a strength. So through it just coincided that spiritual work that happened to coincide with the big Oh, eight, nine, downturn, and our business just grew phenomenally now. I'm trying to think I didn't hire my first salesperson until this is 22. And she's been here 11 years today. So until 11. And that was a big deal. Hiring a salesperson was huge, because that took me out of the day-to-day sales. And I actually hired her and said, go build it

John Corcoran  24:18  

Relate to the relationship piece as well, because the salesperson is building the relationship. And so she was when you hired her 11 years ago, and you have the same salesperson level, you have more but still have her she was 27.

Christy Pretzinger  24:29  

She's 38 She had just gotten married, and now she has five kids still works full time. So I've literally watched her, you know, grow up. And it's, you know, really,

John Corcoran  24:41  

what do you think that relationship work? Well, because again, another one that I've heard a lot from business owners is they go through different sales reps.

Christy Pretzinger  24:48  

Yeah, I've had the same sales rep and the next sales rep has been there, eight or nine years. So, you know, I think part of it is that and I would really love to ask Reba that's Her name this question. But I think what she would say is that I always knew that you had my back. You know, when I hired her, I had just gotten that big $450,000 piece of work from IU, I handed that over to her and paid her commission on it. And she worked it very hard and earned it because I knew from watching some of the businesses, I didn't want to compete with her, I didn't want to be out selling against my salesperson. So everything I did was to set her up for success. And so when I first was hiring people in those roles like that, I tried to do everything I could to, to make sure they were going to win. And she always knew that and saw that. And, and in fact, has said many times, you know, we have we very much appreciate each other that, that she's always felt taken care of, for lack of a better word by me. And she said a lot. You know, we've been through a lot in 11 years, a lot of family things have happened on both sides. And, you know, she's always had a very supportive environment for when these things happen.

Online Training for Digital Agencies

John Corcoran  25:57  

I mentioned, I touched on COVID briefly, but can you talk a little bit about how that downturn starting in March 2020 affected your business?

Christy Pretzinger  26:07  

Yeah, when it happened. I told everybody because we were already all virtual. I said that anybody who wants a job with WriterGirl through all of this will have a job. We are not letting anybody go during COVID. There's not gonna be any reductions in staff or anything like that. You said that early on. I said it right away. I said, Yeah, guess what, because because of our model, you know, we work with so many contractors, we could just shrink the contractor pool and bring the work into the people and keep them busy. If we needed to. That did not happen at all. Partially, largely because we worked in health care, and talk about chaos, right? I mean, that was completely chaotic. And they still needed to communicate to people and communicate differently. They might not even more. Yeah, yeah, differently, and more. And so we were able to help meet that need for them.

John Corcoran  26:54  

Yeah. So but you did have to pivot though, to different types of communications. Right. Okay. Yeah. So like, communication. Okay. Okay. And did that feel like, well, we got to do what I gotta do? Or did it feel like, okay, here's what we're gonna, you know, an opportunity for us. I mean, sometimes companies resist thinking, okay, maybe this moment shall pass. But then as it goes on, they realize, oh, you know, we really do need to meet this demand in the marketplace, we can't build that big website project, because they put it on hold, we've got to help with the crisis communications, when we could do that.

Christy Pretzinger  27:26  

Because again, we have, you know, we have 29 or 30 employees. And then we have upwards of 80 to 99 writers that have been trained through the WriterGirl Academy. So they've been, you know, they've been vetted and trained. And we have, like a database of areas of expertise. So some of them might be marketing writer, some of them might be highly skilled medical writers, some of them might have crisis communication and PR experience. So we could pull from that, as well as recruit for that, if we needed it. I think we did a few if I'm recalling correctly, a few kind of crisis management. Like, you know, binder kind of things for people that could then be adapted for whatever crisis they're facing. COVID was the one that let's make it as kind of like, put crisis here. And then these are the things that you have to do. And we were able to do that. And I think we might have leveraged that, and done that for a few different clients at the time and said, Hey, we know how to do this, we can help you do this, because it could talk about their communication plan and the different kinds of things that they needed to do. You know, we've always had a big group of people that we were always willing to pivot and do something new. And again, I never once saw there's someone who's like, well, I don't know if we know how to do that. But the person who does our recruiting is like, Well, we'll find somebody that does, it all figured out and done that, you know, and I'm sure it was during COVID, that we started working with some consultants on various things. And one of the things that they helped us do was guide us through developing an ideal client, and then red, yellow green projects with those clients. And so then that helped us to kind of narrow down so we weren't, again, niching even further, to make sure that we know these are things that we do, we do not do a lot of medical content writing, it's very expensive to find those people. It lowers our margins. It's challenging, because we don't do a lot of it, it's hard to source it. So that becomes a red product project that we probably wouldn't take on unless it was with an ideal client, and they really, really needed it. And then we would do that.

John Corcoran  29:27  

You mentioned WriterGirl Academy, that sounds like not a small endeavor to build that out. Talk a little about what that looked like and why you decided to create that sounds like a training program for your writers.

Christy Pretzinger  29:39  

Yes. And that was many years ago, I kept wanting to do it. And we probably gosh, we probably had six or seven employees. And I kept saying I really want to WriterGirl Academy. And then I realized absolutely no one is scared of me because nobody was doing it. But I also wasn't forcing it to you know, be done. So then the person who is now one of my EVPs of operations, I really want it for Gonna be an employee. And I think she's been here eight or nine years now. And she had contracted with us before, and I reeled her in and didn't have actual work for her. So I said, Here, just go build out this, you know, right URL Academy. And so with absolutely no training or instructional design background, she did. So she didn't even know what a learning management system was. And I forgot to tell her because that is not my strong suit details. And so, but she did, she built it out, and over time, has adapted it and changed it and added to it. And at one point, my intention was to build that up as a separate business. And I did kind of try that. And I wanted to fail fast if it wasn't going to work. And I think it was, I had the idea so many years ago, that if I would have done it, then but I didn't have the time, the money or the resources. By the time I had the time, money and resources, the moment had passed. And it was going to take way more money and a lot more of my time that I was willing to invest. So I did it and was like, nope, not doing that. It was gonna be called wonder writer. And then we just I scrapped that, but we have all the content we developed for that, and brought that into the writer girl Academy. But it's still it's, you know, it's still a challenge to keep it updated. Because unless you have a full time, you know, learning management, I mean, you know, person who's an HR instructional designer, it's challenging to keep that up to date, but we do a fairly good job of it, and everybody does is run through that.

John Corcoran  31:23  

Right, right. And you see that that helps get people prepared to hit the ground running and to do the job. 

Christy Pretzinger  31:29  

Yeah, yeah, a lot of it is training them on the right or go away. And now we'll be training them because we're making a big investment in Salesforce. We've been using Salesforce, but we're vastly upgrading it so that it will be good for the next five years at least. And there's a portal that our 1090 nines can now access, they have not been able to access Salesforce prior to now. So now they will and we're getting rid of all these other things like base camp and you know, harvest time tracking all these different kinds of things. So we'll do a formalized training for them on this. So and that will be part of the academy as well.

John Corcoran  31:59  

Got it. Got it. Well, this has been great. Christy, thanks so much for your time, where can people go to learn more about you connect with you learn more about WriterGirl?

Christy Pretzinger  32:07  

Well, they can find me on LinkedIn. Unfortunately, somehow, again, I've hit my limit in technology, somehow I have two profiles on LinkedIn. And I've never bothered to get rid of the one that's wrong. But the one that has more than 500. You know, connect is me. Feel free to connect with me on LinkedIn. You can also find us at writergirl.com. And you can email me directly. I'm Christy@writergirl. I'm happy to talk with younger businesses that would like experience share. I also do offer coaching. And I'm happy to talk with people about that. And I really, as I said earlier, I think that it is so invaluable when you are a young growing business to find places like you know, Jason Swenk mastermind, like Entrepreneurs’ Organization because they're like-minded people who can help you scale so much more quickly than I did. So I would highly recommend that.

John Corcoran  32:58  

Yeah, absolutely. I second that. Christy, thank you so much for your time.

Christy Pretzinger  33:02  

Thank you, John. Appreciate it.

Do You Want to Transform Your Agency from a Liability to an Asset?

If you want to be around amazing agency owners that can see what you may not be able to see and help you grow your agency, go to Agency Mastery 360.  Our agency growth program helps you take a 360-degree view of your agency and gain mastery of the 3 pillar systems (attract, convert, scale) so you can create predictability, wealth, and freedom.

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Looking to improve agency margins and profitability? Which key metrics are important to track? Are you paying yourself a salary? How much cash should you have in reserve? If you’re hoping to sell soon, you shouldn’t underestimate the importance of starting to pay yourself a salary. Potential buyers will pay attention to this and many other details you could start to work on right now. Today’s guest owns a CPA firm focused on helping agency owners scale by getting their finances in order and avoiding the biggest mistakes in agency finances.

Chris Hervochon runs Better Way CPA, a CPA firm that specializes in virtual CFO services for agencies. Over the past eight years, his company has provided services to marketing agencies and nonprofits all over the US. He provides some insight into the key metrics you should be measuring, why you should pay attention to your gross margin, and more.

In this interview, we’ll discuss:

  • Avoid the biggest mistake in agency finances.
  • How to increase your margins.
  • Why you should pay yourself a salary.
  • Key metrics to manage agency cash flow.

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Verblio: Today's episode of the Smart Agency Masterclass is sponsored by Verblio. Check out Verblio.com/smartagency and get 50% off your first month of content creation. Our team loves using Verblio because of the ease of their process and their large pool of crowd-sourced writers.

The Biggest Mistake in Agency Finances

The biggest and most common mistake Chris sees agency owners make with their finances has to do with cash management. Usually, they fail to understand how cash moves in and out of the agency. Also, how it’ll move into and out of the agency in the future. This is critical because it’s how you can really understand how to grow in the future.

As an owner, you must understand the way cash moves within the agency impacts clients, the work you do for them, and how you collect payments. This impact the people you pay to work for the agency. All of this helps you get a clearer vision of how you’re going to scale and bring in the next client.

Pay Attention to These Key Metrics

  • Profitability. When it comes to profitability, you need to be over 15% or 20% to be good. 15% or less is when the alarm starts ringing and you need to pull some levers to figure out what’s going on.
  • Net income. If you’re using some sort of accounting software and looking at P&L, net income is your bottom line.
  • Gross margin. This varies wildly across agencies because every agency operates so differently. In this particular case, measure yourself against yourself and track that over time. Make sure you’re maintaining or increasing margins over time.
  • Cash reserves. Every business should set aside cash reserves to fund growth. They help pay for unexpected costs that occur throughout the year, and they're often kept in your business account.
  • Pipeline. Make sure to have a process to measure your pipeline. This bleeds into your forecast and indicates what roles you need to hire, when, as well as who you need to fire and when.

Why You Need to Pay Attention to Gross Margin

Gross margin is your revenue minus variable expenses (cost of sales). This is the percentage of revenue you can keep in order to pay fixed expenses and then pay yourself. In short, the costs you’re going to incur every time you generate a dollar.

If your margins are very low, it's hard to pay for fixed expenses needed to operate the agency and deliver your services. If you don’t have enough money to pay your team, for example, you might start making bad decisions, like cutting staff, expenses, and software. At that point, you don’t even have enough to pay yourself as agency owner, which is definitely a problem.

This is why you need to pay attention to margins and make sure you have enough money every time you generate a dollar of revenue to pay those expenses. In the end, having revenue is good, of course; however, there’s really no point to it if it won’t allow you to pay for your fixed expenses.

Online Training for Digital Agencies

What Works for Agencies When it Comes to Increasing Margins?

According to Chris, pricing and how you price will always be the biggest lever you can pull to increase profits. This may be difficult in our current economic times. However, that’s your biggest opportunity to move the needle. How can you increase prices?

  1. Build up value so you don’t face pushback from clients when it’s time to raise prices.
  2. Have value conversations with your clients.
  3. Ensure your sales and pricing functions are split.
  4. Be open to flipping some internal capacity to external capacity and bringing in contractors. This can be beneficial and prove to be more cost-efficient than having a full-time employee.
  5. Cut unnecessary software costs. Take a look at who’s using what software and get rid of what's not needed.

It's Important to Pay Yourself a Salary as an Agency Owner

Many agency owners don’t realize the importance of paying themselves a salary. They skip the salary to increase profitability. Paying yourself little to no salary just to be at 30% profitability is not an option if you want to sell one day. A prospective buyer will look at agency finances and see margins are good because you’re not paying yourself.

How much should you pay yourself? To determine the average salary of an agency owner in a given area, Chris’ team does a regional compensation study.

They take the owner’s functions in the agency and determine how proficient they are at these tasks. Next, they assign an hourly rate based on the bureau of labor’s existing data. Then add that up and have what the agency owner should pay themselves from payroll. The resulting salary is just low enough to save in taxes while also satisfying the IRS. The rest of the agency owner’s compensation is taken out as a draw or distribution. The amount of that draw depends on how much cash you can take out of the agency

Make sure you have an adequate cash reserve to get you through difficult times and invest in the agency. It’s a balancing act between what the agency owner should be making and planning for taxes.

Average salary for agency owners: For agencies around $1 million, most agency owners Chris has worked with have salaries ranging from $175,000 to $225,000 for an agency operating profitably. For agencies closer to $3 million, the agency owner’s salary doesn't necessarily increase much. It is roughly the same for tax purposes. The draw is where there's an increase and takes total compensation to around $500,000.

How to Project Your Agency’s Future Investments

Usually, investments in your agency’s future are in capacity. This means “people costs” such as equipment, bigger space, etc. The best way to calculate this is by putting together a capacity model and figuring out which roles you need to fill, the amount of work they’ll take on, and how much they’ll cost. Forecast that into the future and see what it does to your cash flow.

From a cash flow standpoint, look ahead to six months. Maybe the results of that tell you that in seven months-time you won’t be able to make payroll. However, knowing now gives you enough time to do course corrections.

How much should you have in cash reserve?

Typically, Chris wants his clients to have between 2-6 months of fixed expenses in cash reserve. Chris conducts a brief study of the clients' plans to spend and invest in order to assess and make a recommendation. Most agency owners land between 3 ½ to 4 ½ months cash reserves needed.

Do You Want to Transform Your Agency from a Liability to an Asset?

If you want to be around amazing agency owners that can see what you may not be able to see and help you grow your agency, go to Agency Mastery 360.  Our agency growth program helps you take a 360-degree view of your agency and gain mastery of the 3 pillar systems (attract, convert, scale) so you can create predictability, wealth, and freedom.

Direct download: Proven_Strategies_for_Maximizing_Margins_and_Improving_Cash_Flow.mp3
Category:general -- posted at: 7:00am EST

What do you need to know about selling your agency? Is the market right for a sale or acquisition? What does a successful M&A deal look like? It's actually a good time to sell and there’s no shortage of buyers. If you are prepared and have guidance, an acquisition can be smoother and faster than you think. Today’s guest specializes in mergers and acquisitions in the agency space. In this conversation, she shares how to realistically determine your agency's valuation, two common questions about acquisition deals, and what you can expect when you sell your agency.

Amanda Dixon is the founder and CEO of Barney, an M&A advisory firm for agencies. In her career, Amanda went through a couple of exits as an entrepreneur and describes the experience as atrocious. She saw a need for a company that understands the valuation of digital assets. As a result, she created a firm that has helped over 150 media, marketing, and tech companies through acquisitions.

In this interview, we’ll discuss:

  • How long does it take to sell your agency?
  • How to realistically determine your agency valuation.
  • Answers to 2 common questions about M&A for digital agencies.

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Sponsors and Resources

E2M Solutions: Today's episode of the Smart Agency Masterclass is sponsored by E2M Solutions, a web design and development agency that has provided white-label services for the past 10 years to agencies all over the world. Check out e2msolutions.com/smartagency and get 10% off for the first three months of service.

Selling a Digital Agency In an Unrepresented Market

After growing her own business in the digital space, Amanda decided to sell and started looking for a professional valuation. Unfortunately, she found herself surrounded by people who just didn’t understand new technologies and how to value digital assets. She was selling her own, life-changing agency but felt ignored by the market. Since larger firms were not returning her calls, she went with a broker who didn’t have the experience or sophistication to sell a business the size of hers and the results were not quite what she expected.

Through that experience, Amanda discovered a huge opportunity for a niche firm for this kind of acquisition. Businesses valued <$250 million needing national buyers were severely underrepresented. So seven years ago she started her firm to help guide agency owners going through that same process.

How Long Does It Take to Sell Your Agency?

Selling your agency can be a painful and complicated process. Many times, agency owners get into it not really knowing what to expect. It can drag on for a long time if, for example, the buyer keeps coming back with last-minute changes. In these situations, agency owners may be afraid to pull out of the sale for fear or financial repercussions.

In the height of the pandemic, without in-person meetings, the process took around 90 days. With in-person meetings back, this adds a couple of weeks and sometimes months to the process. Overall, in the worst-case scenario, it is currently taking her team around 5 months to complete a sale.

For Amanda, the most eye-opening discovery working in M&A is that it doesn’t have to drag on forever. For starters, one of the things that delays the process the most is finding the buyers. Since her firm is focused on digital-based business, that part of the process is faster. Approved sellers that work with them are referred to several interested potential buyers. This is good because deal fatigue is a very real thing.

Having a buyer pool interested in your particular industry helps to create a sense of competition. With several potential buyers, you can have more control and ultimately choose the one that makes sense financially and fits your team and your culture.

How to Realistically Determine Your Agency Valuation 

Agency owners are typically very eager to know their agency’s worth. The multiple of EBITDA formula is a good place to start and is what Amanda’s team analyses first.

EBITDA = Earnings Before Interest Tax Depreciation Amoritization

Of course, this doesn't offer a clear picture of the agency’s financial state. For instance, they see many agencies that have grown too fast and have too many team members. In these cases, since their margins may be low, it’s hard to judge financial health with just the multiple of EBITDA. On the other hand, if an agency isn’t staffed enough and are at a breaking point, they may have 50-60% margins which is not scalable.

The next step is determining where the agency falls within Barney's valuation range. They consider factors like client concentration and new client acquisition. Of course, agency owners don’t always agree with the results and believe they’re worth more. However, it is a very efficient formula for determining agency’s value.

Online Training for Digital Agencies

Why Agency Owners Need Executing a Profitable Acquisition Process

Many agency owners are caught offguard when someone shows interest in buying their agency. This results in wasting a lot of time and the sale never happening. Amanda strongly believes most agency owners need representation through the acquisition process.

They need the support to ensure the terms of the purchase are clear and negotiated in a way that protects them. For instance, a buyer may say they’ll pay you $10 million for your agency. In reality, they may intend to pay $5 million and the other half is contingent on what happens post-transaction.

Looking for M&A advisory services can also help you find more buyer options. Amanda’s team is often approached after an agency owner has an acquisition offer. They will guide them through that offer, of course. However, it is more advisable to meeting with other potential buyers, just to see what else is out there.

When to Bring an Accountant or Lawyer into the Acquisition Process

To be clear, an accountant should be part of an agency well before you even start thinking about selling. Having clean financials is crucial to getting through the finish line. If your books are a mess, sort that out before starting the acquisition process.

When it comes to an attorney, the point of bringing them in may depend on the size of the agency. Some prefer to bring them in at the LOI phase. However, most don’t choose to do so until they have prepared the purchase documents.

An important rule of thumb is choosing one with experience representing digital agencies. In general, the terms and specifics are different in the digital space. Like, non-competes average 5 years in the agency business. Retaining an attorney with this type of experience will make sure this doesn’t restrict your ability to form another agency in the near future.

2 Common Questions About Digital Agency Mergers & Acquisitions

  1. How Do Earnouts Work?  Acquisition advisors love a deal where the owner gets to capitalize on how the agency continues to grow after the transaction. However, earnouts are tricky. The key is that the earnout shouldn’t be tied to rapid growth. In essence, it is intended to be protection for the buyer in the event of catastrophic implosion. But when you're on the seller side, it's not something you can control so make sure you’re happy with however much you get at the closing table.
  2. Are Agency Rollups a Good Idea? In theory, doing a roll-up is a great idea. Unfortunately, most of the time integration is much harder than people think. Buyers want integrated agencies to become a well-oiled machine with systematized processes. It is possible, however, merging multiple agencies doesn’t increase their value unless you prove cross-selling services to a unified client base. Until you’ve done that and have historical churn numbers on your clients, a rollup doesn’t provide a lot of value.

Why You Shouldn’t Feel Pressured to Sell

Many agency owners may have concerns about what’s happening with the current economy. However, Amanda says the agency space is seeing strong interest from buyers. There are still many more buyers than sellers in agency M&A.

The market isn’t going anywhere so you shouldn’t be pressured to sell. And if you do want to sell, it is not a situation where you won’t find buyers because of the economy. This industry is only growing, so no matter where you are in the process, you’re in a great place.

Do You Want to Transform Your Agency from a Liability to an Asset?

If you want to be around amazing agency owners that can see what you may not be able to see and help you grow your agency, go to Agency Mastery 360.  Our agency growth program helps you take a 360-degree view of your agency and gain mastery of the 3 pillar systems (attract, convert, scale) so you can create predictability, wealth, and freedom.

Direct download: When_and_How_to_Sell_Your_Agency_with_a_Profitable_Acquisition.mp3
Category:general -- posted at: 7:00am EST

Would you like to increase agency lead generation and have so many prospects you get to pick and choose who you want to work with? Finding the right lead gen strategy is an important part of your agency’s growth. Today’s guest has found a simple framework that worked for him as well as many of his clients. By just fine-tuning 3 aspects of most lead generation strategies, you could be quadrupling leads in just one month.

Dave Valentine is the owner and founder of Avadel Agency, an outsourced sales & development rep agency that helps clients fill their sales pipelines and book meetings. He owns eight businesses and tested the success of his lead generation framework in several different industries. Today he shares how going back to the basics can help you quadruple your leads and unlock a new level of growth.

In this episode, we’ll discuss:

  • Why a quality case study should be kept short and to the point.
  • How an outrageous offer can help you get your agency to seven figures.
  • Inventive ways to use old tools that are regarded as outdated.

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Sponsors and Resources

Verblio: Today's episode of the Smart Agency Masterclass is sponsored by Verblio. Check out Verblio.com/smartagency and get 50% off your first month of content creation. Our team loves using Verblio because of the ease of their process and their large pool of crowd-sourced writers.

 

 

Dave is an entrepreneur who started his first agency at the age of 25. Looking back, he has made some common mistakes, like making his agency a catch-all and trying to be everything for everyone. In spite of this, he built the agency over 7-figures. However, relied too heavily on him and clients expected Dave to be involved in everything.

In the end, this led him to sell his former agency and start Avadel. Now, growth comes not from relying on one person but from how they generate leads.

3 Things To Increase Agency Lead Generation in 30 Days

According to Dave, increasing your agency’s lead generation in record time will require just three key elements:

  1. Quality case studies. Most people think a quality case study needs to fill two pages or more to get client’s attention.  Dave believes all you need is a sentence that follows this formula: We work with X company and got Y results in Z time. Additionally, if "Z time" is 90 days or less, it is incredibly compelling. When you put that in an email or an advertisement piece, it will get people’s attention.
  2. Outrageous offers. Dave credits this element with helping him get six of his businesses to seven figures. An outrageous offer is something that sounds too good to be true. Actually, it is a way to increase your profits and book more meetings. More meetings give you an opportunity to assess clients so you can pick and choose the ones you want to work with. It’s really about understanding what your deliverables are and how good your team is.
  3. Cold emails with creative follow-up. 86% of the meeting booking they do at Dave’s agency come through cold emails. This statistic surprises most people because we all tend to shut down this kind of outreach. We get hundreds of emails every day from people trying to sell us something, so how do you cut through the noise? Dave recommends those emails be short and to the point. “Two to three sentences is the sweet spot,” he says. Also, look to create human connections. Let it come across that they’re dealing with a person, not a bot. Lastly, he uses creative direct mail follow-up, like a piñata with a QR code that sends them to a calendar to book a call.

Dave has found a lot of success in taking these strategies seen as old and outdated and leveraging them to generate new business.

Online Training for Digital Agencies

Why You Need an Outrageous Offer to Attract Leads

The "outrageous offer" is a bold move that can bring great results for your agency. It’s always a great way to stand out and put pressure on the competition. Of course, you have to be careful in how you word it. Don’t promise something you can’t deliver. A good way to ensure you’re not over-promising is putting conditions around the offer.

For example, if you're a web design agency, you can guarantee you’ll have a client’s website ready to launch in 12 weeks. The condition is they get you all the information required within the indicated timeline. It’s a way to hold clients accountable for their outcomes.

This doesn't work for every type of agency and sometimes you have to take some risks.

When creating an outrageous offer for a flight school, Dave and his team offered a test flight at $49.99. Most flight schools make a similar offer at a much higher price point of $300, because it covers gas and the pilot’s time. Their outrageous offer meant losing some money. They trusted the process and as a result, saw a 4x increase in lead generation with the same ad spend. And, their close rate stayed about the same! In the end, they soaked up all the leads their competitors were getting.

Over the years, Avadel has successfully repeated this strategy for different industries.

Gaining the Client’s Trust so They’ll go All in on the Bold Strategy

Increasing lead generation isn't just about the agency. It’s also about creating opportunities for clients to engage with you. Right off the bat, Avadel does this by acknowledging when a client books a meeting. When a meeting is booked, the prospect receives a video from Dave talking about the challenges that probably led them to his agency and thanking them for taking that step. It’s a simple thing that clients find really helpful.

In every sales conversation, they try to anticipate the client’s objections and proactively address them. They acknowledge some of the most common concerns and offer a money-back guarantee. This way, the client can move forward and go all in on Dave’s strategy with ease.

Want the Support of Amazing Digital Agency Owners?

If you want to be around amazing agency owners that can see what you may not be able to see and help you grow your agency, go to the Digital Agency Elite to learn all about our exclusive mastermind.

Direct download: 3_Things_To_Increase_Agency_Lead_Generation_in_30_Days.mp3
Category:general -- posted at: 7:00am EST

Is your digital agency too reliant on you? Are you always putting out fires and answering questions? Is your team empowered to succeed without you? It's all about being intentional with how you spend your time and creating the processes to support your role as agency CEO. In this episode, a time and profit expert shares ways you can stop being the superhero at your agency and instead be the super visionary.

Mike Michalowitz is an author and entrepreneur who focuses mostly on researching ways to make businesses run more efficiently. In this research, he noticed most businesses starve for profitability and very few achieve it. He's been on the podcast twice before chatting about his books: Profit First and Clockwork. His book and framework, Profit First, has changed the way many small businesses approaches profitability. One of his other best sellers is Clockwork, where he disrupts the "hustle harder" mindset. He's sharing how agency owners can reinvent their role in the agency to work less and still do the things they love.

In this episode, we’ll cover:

  • Why you should strive to be the super visionary instead of the superhero.
  • How a four-week vacation can help you ultimately exit operations.
  • How to start empowering your team.
  • Do you know the most important function at your agency?

Subscribe

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Sponsors and Resources

Verblio: Today's episode of the Smart Agency Masterclass is sponsored by Verblio. Check out Verblio.com/smartagency and get 50% off your first month of content creation. Our team loves using Verblio because of the ease in their process and their large pool of crowd-sourced writers.

Why Your Superhero Syndrome Is Your Agency's Bottleneck

Agency owners are commonly the bottleneck at their agency. The processes make it so everything has to go through them. It’s not efficient at all, causes a clog in project completion, and exhaustion for the agency owner. Michael calls this the Superhero Syndrome.

Many agency owners believe they are the best at everything and can fix everything. They are the agency’s superheroes. However, having a superhero fix everything ultimately weakens the police department. This is what happens to agency teams. They can become too dependent on the owner always solving issues. According to Michael, instead of being the superhero, agency owners should strive to be super visionary.

What the agency really needs is for the owner to have a clear vision of where the agency is going and then drive the team to get there.

How to Set Yourself Up as the Super Visionary

Part of having the clarity to become a super visionary is empowering your team to follow your vision, as opposed to you making the decisions. Michael believes the easiest way to position yourself as the visionary starts with one word: shareholder.

The term entrepreneur has become overused. It used to me "someone who had an idea then took the risk of organizing a team and resources to pursue it." Now, it’s become “someone who works like an animal.”

On the other hand, a shareholder is someone who receives earnings and never says “I need to go to the company to solve something.”

As an agency owner, you’ve taken on an extraordinary risk the only shareholder. Only about 15% of the population ever takes this risk and 3% manage to do it successfully. Sure, in the beginning, you’re the only resource and work a ton. However, you should exit operations as soon as possible.

As a shareholder, you should create jobs. By doing the work yourself you’re stealing the job from people who want and need it. Michael believes viewing yourself as a shareholder, you'll have a better understanding of your role as someone who takes care of strategic planning, vision, and creating jobs.

It’s important to remember you have the right to reinsert yourself into work in a way that gives you joy. If you love sales, then find a way to assist in sales without it being fully dependent upon you. That’s perfectly valid; just make sure the agency can run without you.

Creating an Agency that Runs Without You 

How can you prepare your team for your ultimate exit from operations? Michael recommends the “four-week vacation” in which you spend four consecutive weeks away from the agency with no physical or online connection.

Why four weeks? He looked at how much time goes by before a business starts repeating cycles. Across all industries, it is monthly. Therefore if an owner is able to be away for 4 weeks, then they can be absent forever.

The challenge for any agency owner who wants to exit operations is to book a four-week vacation at least two years from now. If that gives you too much anxiety, it’s probably an indicator that you have a problem. In the end, this test is more about the agency having a vacation from you than you getting a vacation from it.

People tend to think working on the business instead of in it is something that happens after you work hard enough. It’s actually the result of a lot of intentional planning and preparation. That day may never come if you don't plan for it.

Online Training for Digital Agencies

Extending the Four-Week Vacation on All Levels

After his four-week vacation and making sure everything ran well without him. Michael’s team approached him to talk about a new problem. The agency worked well in his absence, which was great. However, his tasks had fallen on other people and now the rest of the team was too dependent on those in charge.

The answer Michael came up with was repeating the formula. Everyone would take a four-week vacation. Not at the same time, of course, and planned a year in advance as he had done. This way, everyone has to prepare processes and backups to cover while they are on vacation. As a result there’s always a backup -- not only for vacations but also when someone leaves.

Life happens and this method means the agency doesn’t suffer as a result. He looks at it as an intentional fire drill to ensure a smooth transition in case something does happen.

2 Steps to Empower Your Team 

  1. Move to a delegating leadership style. The deciding style is when you’re in control of all the decision-making. For instance, you explain a task to an employee and answer their questions when they come back with doubts. On the contrary, a delegating style is all about the outcome and empowering employees to determine how to get the end result.
  2. Capturing processes. SOPs are relevant but are usually stale and hard to execute because it’s a lot of information. As soon as an employee is assigned a new task, they should record training of the work. If they can teach it, they've mastered it. Furthermore, each new person can record new things added to the process. Should anyone leave, the new person assigned to that task can go back to previous recordings and learn.

What's the Most Important Function at Your Agency?

The QBR or Queen Bee Role concept is about looking at what nature does and translating that to business. In a beehive, the most important function is the production of eggs. Everything else is secondary because the survival of the hive depends on it.

In any business, there is one single most important activity. However, some agency owners may not know what it is. Michael teaches clients how to identify principal activity so it is prioritized and protected at all times. Most small businesses tend to think everything is important and never see exceptional progress. It's especially important your agency team understand that important activity and their role in elevating it.

Want the Support of Amazing Digital Agency Owners?

If you want to be around amazing agency owners that can see what you may not be able to see and help you grow your agency, go to the Digital Agency Elite to learn all about our exclusive mastermind.

Direct download: How_to_Be_the_Super_Visionary_in_an_Agency_That_Runs_Without_You.mp3
Category:general -- posted at: 11:00am EST

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