You’ve probably had thoughts of entrepreneurship at some point — just like almost everyone else out there working in a digital or search engine marketing (SEM) agency.
“I could do this at my own agency.”
Those were the exact thoughts I had coming out of college.
I had been interviewing at a couple of different big-time agencies, and I thought to myself, “I can do what they do — just better.”
So I set out to do just that.
In November 2012, I set off on my own into the world of marketing agency land and started my own company.
Little did I know I would solely focus on SEM a couple years down the road.
It wasn’t until early 2014 that I discovered the power of search engine optimization (SEO) and started focusing on my target market: e-commerce.
I then transitioned to become an SEO agency. Since that time, I’ve had a ton of success.
My agency landed on the Inc. 5000 list this year; I’ve spoken at some major conferences, such as Magento Imagine, IRCE, Shop.org; we’ve gone through a couple of mergers/acquisitions; and we’ve grown into an agency of around 50 or so team members with locations in Atlanta, Georgia, and Charleston, South Carolina.
It’s been a fun, but hectic ride so far!
As a result of reflecting on my journey, I’ve put together this guide to help show you why you should think about starting your own agency.
Pros of Starting Your Own Digital Marketing Agency
As with anything, there are positives and negatives to starting your own SEM agency.
Let’s start off with the positives.
1. To Make More Money
One of my business mentors really said it best: “The only way to make real money in this world is through entrepreneurship.”
Unfortunately, unless you are the CEO of a major corporation or get really lucky, it’s hard to make the kind of money that some entrepreneurs make.
But, on the flip side, there is also a long line of entrepreneurs who don’t make a penny from their ventures, so there is some risk involved here.
2. You Know SEM Better Than Your Boss
In reality, you are the product of the agency or company you work for.
You can do what you do for the masses very easily and provide a ton of value doing so.
This is pretty much how every agency begins.
People who are the product go out on their own and start offering their services to other businesses.
Then they hire employees, and those employees will go through the same process, and their employees will too, eventually.
This is just the natural progression of agencies.
3. You’re Ready for a New Challenge
When I was in college, I was working for a company full time. I started to notice that the VP of product development wasn’t around much. I then learned that was because he was watching Netflix in his office half of the day.
Now, as much as I love Netflix, I also love a challenge. I couldn’t imagine myself sitting around and watching television all day.
I want to be challenged and doing something productive.
Owning your own agency is a great challenge and is rewarding for the aggressive personalities out there.
If you are more or less just bored with your current position, it is also a great opportunity to do what you do for new companies, different situations, and other promising ventures.
4. You’re Tired of Your Current Work Culture
Once I quit that job, I next moved to a marketing agency where the owner would make the interns go get ice for him — and then would yell at them if the cup didn’t have enough ice in it.
“Not the best work culture” would be an understatement.
Sometimes we hate our work cultures and think that we can build better ones.
A change of scenery is always a good thing and, with the increases of coworking communities, being a solo practice is a lot more rewarding now than ever before.
I worked out of coffee shops before WeWork or Industrious ever became big in Atlanta.
5. Be Your Own Boss
This one is kind of misleading.
Although you trade working for one “boss” (the person who signs your paycheck) you’ll actually end up having a lot more “bosses” – namely, your clients.
You are theoretically your own boss and can do whatever you want to do, as long as you can pay the bills.
6. The Juice Is Worth the Squeeze
Once you get your agency off the ground, it is fun to build a work culture and a team and to enjoy the benefits of the hard work you put into it.
As with any business, the startup is the rough period, and it usually becomes easier after it is off the “runway.”
Cons of Starting Your Own Digital Marketing Agency
In addition to the pros, there are also many cons to starting a digital marketing agency. Here are the main ones, in my opinion.
1. You Get No Vacations or Sick Days Starting Out
At one point, when I was starting out, I got majorly sick and couldn’t kick it for about a month.
It was awful trying to go out to sales or client meetings — but that’s part of the game.
When you are starting out, there aren’t any sick days, or vacations, or even time to sleep.
I knew of entrepreneurs who had full-time jobs and would work from 3 a.m. to 8 a.m. before they went to work for the day.
If you want to get to the top, you have to put in the work, even when you don’t want to.
2. You’ll Face Fierce Competition
You’ve probably gotten an email from an overseas company that promised you they could get you on the first page of Google.
Whether that’s true or not is somewhat irrelevant.
As long as Google is a major customer acquisition channel for businesses, there will be other agencies around, and the competition will be fierce.
You will have to go into sales calls ready to sell them on why you are better than other industry professionals, companies, freelancers, etc. … and, a lot of times, it could mean more than five pitches for the same client.
3. The Workload Will be Intense
When you are working for an agency, you probably have one job — maybe you’re a project manager.
You would then have co-workers who are doing other jobs — business developers, marketing, production, etc.
When you’re on your own, you take on all of those roles.
This can create a hectic work schedule and an intense workload for the owners of agencies just starting out.
4. You Will Be Selling
I hated sales and never envisioned myself in sales during college or any point in my career.
Now I have accepted that I am a full-blown sales professional.
Even Kevin O’Leary from “Shark Tank” considers himself a salesman.
If you want to start an agency, get used to the fact you will be selling constantly.
The good news?
It doesn’t have to be sleazy sales.
I enjoy selling for my own company because we get amazing results for clients, and I believe in the service we are offering.
5. You Don’t Get a Manual
Before I started out, I asked one of my good friends who had a successful IT company how to start a marketing agency, and he said, “I don’t know. Google it.”
Those words were a catalyst for me to actually Google it and figure it out.
There isn’t a lot of information out there on how to do what I did besides reading some good books and piecemealing information together to make a solid plan.
Plus, by the time anything is published, it is usually outdated.
Making an agency is about innovation, so there isn’t really a manual, book, or anything out there to help you succeed, except for trial and error.
6. Say Yes to the Stress
Starting out can create a lot of stress for you, your family, and friendships around you.
I highly recommend fitness and other stress-reliever activities.
Stress can have a lot of negative consequences and, if you thought your job was stressful before, add “no predictable income” to the equation, as well as a larger workload, and the pressure can be incredible.
Just remember, diamonds are formed through pressure.
7. Your Income = Unpredictable
Speaking of no predictable income — when you start out, it’s tough to get a predictable income through contracts due to a lack of company experience.
If you can get contracts, great; but the majority will not, so your income will not be predictable, which can create a lot of stress and uncertainty concerning revenue for the company.
8. It Will Be Risky
You take a big risk striking out on your own when you could be climbing the corporate ladder.
This is something you should weigh — whether the risk is worth it to you.
The good news: digital marketing agencies can produce revenue right out the gate and be profitable on a small scale.
So it’s less risky than trying to build the next great tech startup.
How to Start an SEO Agency
The first step is researching it.
When I was told to Google it, I did just that, and it’s the first logical step.
There are a lot of guides, books, and resources about how to start a business. However, there is no step-by-step manual, and you kind of have to just figure it out.
My top tip:
Start by giving away free services. Get those clients some results, make the client a testimonial/case study, and use that as leverage to jumpstart your business.
Otherwise, trying to find paying clients with no testimonials, references, case studies, etc. will be very difficult.
When to Make the Switch
Once you weigh the positives and negatives, and you think the positives outweigh the negatives, you can start small or take the leap.
Having at least three months of cash flow saved up should be required before you go full time with it, in my opinion. I would recommend more if you can.
From there, whenever you’re comfortable, you can take the leap and go full time.
Words of Wisdom
1. Don’t Chase the Shiny Ball
One mistake I made was always chasing the “next big thing.”
Had I just focused on SEO throughout my whole career, I would have been more successful.
Be laser-focused on your one business and ignore the distractions.
2. Focus on Other Things Than Just Your Agency
Do not get addicted to your business and work 100 hours a week on it.
When you start out, you are super-excited and will most likely do this.
At some point, however, you need to take time off, exercise, build friendships/relationships, and just enjoy life outside of building your agency.
3. Enjoy the Ride
The most fun I ever had was starting up the business.
Enjoy the ride and don’t be so concerned with getting to the finish line first.
It’s a marathon, not a sprint.
4. Don’t Wait to Do It
Waiting to have a family or waiting for the kids to go to college is not always the smartest idea.
Being energetic and naive can be a great asset, in my opinion.
The best time to start a digital marketing agency is right now.
5. Focus on Quality
Be insanely passionate about your product offering, the results you bring to people, and the value you bring to businesses.
Always continue improving your product/service offering.
I hope this helps you on your journey. There are no right or wrong answer when deciding to start an agency, and there is nothing wrong with not doing it. You just need to weigh the positives and negatives and make the decision that’s best for you.
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