Being a lifelong learner is so important to me and many marketing professionals or people responsible for marketing in general. A conclusion I'm ready to make with confidence is that a website is never done, a marketing plan is never good enough and these are the two most important (and common) things we deliver. Is a website or a marketing plan the only thing impacting growth of any agency or small business? Absolutely not.
So continue reading and I'll cover my real-world small business growing pains. From completing the missing items on my website, to avidly listening and struggling to find consistency in what customers want and moving forward no matter how anxious I am, there's nothing like the 4,000 word vent and a-ha! moments that lie ahead. I’m hoping you can relate to something mentioned here or find this while having a difficult time getting your small agency, business or even career shit together!
A website is never done. A marketing plan is never good enough.
It’s been 3 years now since I wrote a lofty business plan, secured my first couple of clients, left the corporate world and opened a local business. That's 156 weeks. 780 working days. 3,900 hours of logged work for customers. Nearly 200K in revenue generated.
On today of all days, a rather joyful day where I took notice that I am killing it, I don't need another tip about what's new in Google Search , how to increase engagement on social media or what the next iPhone will do that mine doesn't. While I enjoy the idea of beginning my blog and regularly jot down great ideas for "Break Free," there are many growing pains, distractions and questions with unknown answers at the top of my mind. Am I really ready to share my stories and experience with freelancing, tech companies, agencies and life?
Today I will start with some of my experiences and the biggest growing pains at my small marketing agency as it's went from zero to pretty ass kicking. Many of the growing pains I have cross a blurred line of personal and professional growth experiences. Didn't you know that crying at work is totally okay now?
*Sheds tears of joy*
Completing the Missing Items on My Website
How long has it been since you’ve visited a local or small business website that possesses one of these characteristics? Or what about your own website, does it possess one of these five characteristics?
There's always a way you can make your website better or be more efficient. There's constant new demands from Google that you race off to implement. There's always something awesome you saw and want to have on your website and have no idea how to build. The websites or marketing plans that are treated as a one and done project come back with major problems in one to two years at most. What a pain.
My company, Anxious Creations, designs fresh, customer-centric websites and marketing plans (that work) for small to mid-size businesses. It’s obvious that the Anxious Creations website is still missing almost everything someone may look for. It’s missing over half of my services pages and pricing. It’s still missing the great education center with creative topics and field guides I know I am capable of building for other entrepreneurs managing their own websites and marketing. I don't pick up my business phone number after most of the calls were robots or sales pitches. I will however respond to social media messages, project inquiries, emails and show up to booked appointments.
The irony is the fact that I make websites and serve as the webmaster for over 15 local brands in Cincinnati that have all the pieces to to marketing, selling and serving their customers complete. I manage ongoing branding, digital, content and social media marketing initiatives that are producing revenue for another four companies, with a fifth coming on board. They are all put together, maintained and performing so well. So what the heck keeps happening here and is stopping me?
Dedicating More Time or Motivation to Marketing Myself
I've won a lot more business without marketing myself. I've won a lot more business that excites me without marketing myself. So why do I still feel so incomplete when I'm not marketing myself? What a pain! A marketing strategy and content calendar filled with subjects about marketing feels so forced, so handled and therefore does not excite me.
When I work with customers on their marketing strategies, I get the chance to listen to the most frequently asked questions or concerns from their clients, leaders and employees. These marketing workshops are very effective and after the plan is in place, the new resources and content saves everyone time, generates traffic, leads, appointments, sales and even more positive customer reviews.
What is it about it being so hard to market a marketing agency? Marketing is such an effortless thing I can do or coach leaders and marketers in other industries to do. As a digital marketing pioneer with 15 years at the forefront of things marketers are doing today, I don't know what my own agency's marketing strategy should be. For clients or employers in other industries, an inbound marketing method always works like magic.
What is it about it being so hard to market a marketing agency?
In addition to failing to gain traction while marketing three other marketing agencies, I gave marketing Anxious Creations a go. A targeted marketing strategy and strong digital content effort for Anxious Creations launched when we started in 2017 with over 150 #dailywebsitetips. It was not what grew my business or won business at all.
Marketing my agency gained a lot of Instagram followers, likes, automated brand comments, LinkedIn impressions and made my friends think I was successful. In 2018 I deleted the Instagram account after about my 100th free consultation and dead end with a startup or person *thinking* about starting a business that had no customers. The archive of knowledge is still in Facebook and Google under the hashtag.
It comes down to this. Anything my customers or peers ask me about marketing has millions or more articles that already exist answering the question accurately, sharing tips or demonstrating how. There is no subject, tip, trend or how-to that does not have a behemoth sized marketing technology company all over staying on top of it for me to learn from, curate and reference. An article like this one you're reading now is inspired to share my experience as a marketer instead.
It's a blissful stage to be in where all the relationships you have in your personal and professional life are meaningful. I don't have a lot of followers, subscribers or owe them anything. Keeping it this way and having a creative, flexible and "un-marketing" plan is appealing to me where I can focus on creativity, growth, experimenting and quality over quantity when the idea strikes.
Growing a Business is Not Everything to Everyone
It’s not bad for a business owner to care about their family, clients, team and do what excites them the most. It's not bad for a business owner to be passionate about the service they provide and focus on that over how to grow said service and company. I am so entitled to even be able to have a business of my own to begin with.
What we are led to believe holds many back in business, or why so many fail is this: I'm too involved and the company is too dependent on me. Or, some people want to work with me and I want to work with some of them. What's wrong with that? The passion to serve all customers above and beyond and within my comfort zone is definitely limiting my growth potential.
All revenue is not good revenue, although sure I would love more to take things to the next level. As a former career burnout turned confident again, growing a business is not everything to me or the key to feeling successful. There's been no unhappy customer, power struggle, fallout or time wasted here. New agreements and customers are very carefully considered and that often goes both ways.
Maintaining the quality that makes every customer feel satisfied and like my only one is a top priority. I want to feel good about who I'm working with and what I'm working on. Maintaining my sense of creativity, work-life balance and happiness is a priority too. And by the way, I have a daughter (my first child) on the way!
Creative types are not always the ones to let go of things, monetize and scale a business, nor is that what energizes me in particular. It's time for me to stop feeling like there is something wrong or I will not grow because of that. I can easily name every customer and potential customer I’ve encountered, what we talked about, work on and locate the revenue, milestones, overall satisfaction or understand why it didn't work out.
Joyful Moments and Traumatic Moments
When your mind is not in the right place, how can your career, brand, website, marketing or customer experience be if you’re the one leading it? Have you recently went through something big professionally or personally that is really distracting you?
For awhile, my brain was programming itself to fixate on worrying what big and bad thing was going to happen next instead of all the things I have to be joyful for. In the past five years, I both went through a lot of joy and trauma. The only thing that felt clear was that I needed to collect myself in order to be my best self. In some time off and with a lesser workload, I began to fixate more on the things to be joyful and grateful for and am doing my best work yet.
Although your ambition and dreams may not change, you, your career, habits, work ethic, relationships and your own expectations of yourself can drastically change as you go through any major life event. We're all going through things in our lives and I'm more open to hearing about your dreams, what motivates you, your emotional distress, trauma, joy or talking about life in general more than some other people may be. In fact, I encourage it. Which can be off-putting or shock many business environments.
Expectations and Technology Dependency = Anxiety
Disclaimer - I'm not a doctor. I do have a generalized anxiety disorder with bouts of high energy, internal conflicts and experiences to share.
Most of us know someone that has a mental health issue if we don't have one of our own. As "not doctors," we should only share our own experiences with mental health over talking about someone else's or suggesting what anyone should do about it.
What makes me anxious about my job? The expectations. As a leader or a professional peer in marketing, I am not always available and predictable. Are any of us? It feels like we are supposed to be. There are more victories in my marketing and web development track record than there are failures, but despite all the great results, I never really feel awesome or like a good leader.
When I worked for other startups and small businesses as an employee, no matter how quickly I got back to someone, how well I could demonstrate marketing's strategy, timeline, impact on revenue, exceed performance expectations and work with other departments, it didn't seem to matter. What did I always get in return? Hey I need you to drop everything and have this giant thing done by tomorrow, or, double that revenue next year with the same budget, resources and salary. Ummmm, okay. You're welcome by the way. Bye for now!
Selling, convincing, constantly re-explaining, aligning and even justifying things (if aligning fails) for people with high demands and varying levels of expectations is very taxing for me. Communicating to any team member how they did a task and did not meet the basic client, industry or technology's standard requirements is also very taxing for me. I've done it before and right now, I don't want to or have to.
How anxious I am depends on how much time I spend in the real-world experiencing things vs. my use technology to do everything bubble.
So what makes me anxious in my life? Technology dependency and worrying about everything but the present moment. How anxious I am depends on how much time I spend in the real-world experiencing things vs. my use technology to do everything bubble. I uncovered this with a few years of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and journaling.
Here I am again, not even able to exercise, pick up your call, answer a text, take a shower, find any free time or even make dinner today. But I spent 3 hours on my phone and that's a lot more than it takes to do any of those things? Learning these things about myself, keeping a pulse on my technology usage and how to be more mindful helps me achieve work-life balance (plus focus and pass milestones).
When you add that much time on a phone to a job that is 90% digital, you might get worked up, burn yourself out, or you might not get worked up at all. You might even follow up your 50 to 60 combined hours on a screen each week with 20 more of Netflix, HBO, Hulu and video games.
When I reach this ceiling of device usage and take notice of my anxiety levels, I do everything I can to cut it in half. I'll spend quality time with my husband or a reliable friend that makes me feel good. When that's not an option, I'll with dive into a book, nature, tidying up, playing the piano, a physical board or card game or really any offline activity.
Growing in My Own Unique Way
Often I meet with other individuals or small teams struggling to win new clients. I like to share my story when people have this challenge because I’ve been there working for tech companies, larger agencies and even my own company. No matter what your service is, you're only doomed if you stay exactly the same and rely on everyone else to fix the "growth" problem.
In 2019 (vs. 2018) I saw a 260% increase in revenue with the same service, same amount of hours worked, same overhead and remain a solo operation. What's working from an operations standpoint is continuing to narrow my target audience, enforcing time tracking, relying more on a partnership and keeping better documentation of what work has been done (plus how). The majority of my work today comes in through 1099 contracts with other marketing agencies and a partner agency I'm growing alongside with.
Is marketing or sales really the issue or why your business is not growing? What about research, your operations or customer experience? I admit that I have and am working on both operations and customer experience problems that limit my capacity and availability for new business. This approach I take to continuously improve operations and the customer experience over prioritizing marketing more and selling more is working.
No matter what your service is, you're only doomed if you stay exactly the same and rely on everyone else to fix the "growth" problem.
Rarely do I plan or do anything the same way you would or expect me to, which is contradictory with how to grow a business or how other people tell me I should be growing my business. Let me be the proven and efficient professional that I am here already. I know when there's going to be too much on my plate in which I have reliable help for some of the repeatable, templated tasks from experienced freelancers on Upwork and Fiverr.
With this approach, I am able to show someone (that I've worked with already) what needs done, check the work, request changes or bring the work over the finish line myself because it's all done via processes I made. So far these fantastic freelancers have made themselves available, keep in touch and regularly ask if I have anything else for them to help with.
The partner agency I work with does a great job at business development, setting up marketing strategies, ongoing project management and being a buffer so I can be the lone wolf, operationally sound, technical and creative details person I am.
A Customer-Centric Approach to Marketing Services
Being personalized enough to fulfill a very specific, niche need for someone else is the most fun part of being an “unboxed” small business and marketing agency. It’s where I can provide the most value, use my skills, experience and solve problems created by all the boxed up strategies, services or solutions. Finding a way to do my job the same way for every customer that I work with seems impossible. Putting a price tag on services that are different each time plus make my business the best value or profitable is tricky.
Many creative entrepreneurs, freelancers, coaches, consultants and agencies like mine have a service that is custom and personalized to each individual and situation. There’s a unique problem that’s custom to every business with a hands-on way of both uncovering and making improvements. It’s a complex and dynamic market with no one defined and proven out way to do something. The ultimate solution is a sum of many parts and new habits that take time over the instant miracle other brands promise you.
There are over 15,000 marketing technology solutions out there today, with more being introduced each day. Even if you narrow this down to my favorite 10-15 marketing tools, there are over 150 combinations in which they may be used in. Then there are often unfamiliar tools clients have that I take time to learn and utilize. That is the case until we can prove something we're doing will be more results producing or cost effective with another tool and lead the change.
Say you have your website on WordPress and you need a strategy to begin generating leads, selling something or storing your customer interactions. Finding the tool that will work with your website and do that is simple (and HubSpot is pretty awesome for this). Implementing a strategy, using the tool to its potential, forming new habits with employees and getting results worthy of a case study takes persistence.
The only thing many of my customers ever seem to have in common is that they do not want to start completely over with their branding, website or marketing efforts again. Most customers have been burned by a marketing agency forcing them into a specific tool or template. The cost, results and return on the investment were a let down. So naturally, a lot of people don’t trust me anymore than they did the last firm that blew it.
Limiting What I'll Give Away for Free
As a small agency in the early stages of growing my business, not all opportunities are always in my best interest. If you factor in the time and effort made to win any new project plus the hours, cost of technology and how many hours of experience are involved to be able to do the project efficiently to begin with, you'll know what's not a good fit for you or your agency.
After my first year, I learned how to start saying no to many things, because I spent over half of my working hours giving advice and building out plans I was not getting paid for, certain I'd win or confident I would get results for when I did win them. I narrowed in on who I could work with and what specific things their brand needs (including some happy customers, a hard work ethic and willingness to adapt) for us to work together best.
Doing more with less always sells. Promising more can sell, too, however you have to deliver more and that's such a complicated thing to predict or monetize for small to mid-size companies. With customer-centricity in mind, there is no set package, and every proposal we put out there looks a little similar and a whole lot different at the same time. Not every consultation or person I meet with will get a proposal or even a recommendation.
All I can do as an experienced professional is hear out your biggest marketing challenges, make a detailed plan to rock that challenge and then allocate a certain amount of time to work on your business for you. Whether it's strategy work or producing creative materials for you, I will track performance and I will make suggestions for improvement. I will also always be open to hearing how I can improve from you.
Giving Myself a Break
If you're anything like me and you started a small business in the past few years, you may be growing a lot more than you take time to notice. I might still be terrified to hire and manage someone after my prior career experiences at rapidly scaling technology companies and a boxed up one-tool and one-way agency. I might not have everything I want to under wraps, and focusing on only what's wrong will ultimately smother me. I might not want to be thinking about, talking about and doing marketing related tasks 24/7, either.
As a marketer, I have to find my own happy and fun because I am not solely responsible or able to grow any company on my own. Ideas are easy. Believing is easy. Consuming is easy. Writing this long blog post in a few hours was easy (for me). Finding a solid recommendation about anything you're thinking about on Google to side with you is easy. Marketing is hard and finding time or someone to do it for you is not always enough. Seeing both the good and bad sides of how you lead, operate, your customer experience or how you market and sell is a crucial step to getting better.
PS — Google favors well thought out 3,000 word-articles and blog posts that show depth and use natural language. For reference, this article is about 4,500 words. I like to read any long-form pieces of content I write out loud before I publish along with giving them a spell check and run through Grammarly. How will you get more in-depth or go deeper with some of your marketing content this year?
And until next time, let's all chill out. The polar bears are still doing okay for now. Did anything from my small business story and growing pains help you? What did you relate to the most? Am I a decent writer or rambling on?
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