Trial By Fire: How to Start a Growth Marketing Agency
This August, we’re heading into our fifth year at Tuff. While I learn something new every day, there are four major takeaways I can confidently share about how to build a growth marketing agency.
First, though, I’ll note that these days, I spend quite a bit of time communicating with these kinds of people:
- Successful freelancers, wondering if it’s time to start an agency.
- Agency owners, wondering how to grow.
- Owners or solopreneurs ready to segue into an agency model.
After quite a few of 1:1 convos, I realized that I found myself recounting the four ways Tuff has achieved steady growth. So I thought it might be helpful to share it with a broader audience!
If you’re thinking about building an agency, are in the process of building an agency, or just want to know how all of this works, here’s what I’ve learned so far.
4 Key Tips for Building an Agency
First, let me say this: every business is different. How you grow an agency will be different than how we get results and grow our agency. Even if alignment is strong, there will always be notable differences when it comes to approach, personalities, priorities, etc.
That said, these are four concrete things I’ve learned growing this business that I’m sure can be adapted to any context.
Hire an Incredible Team
Agencies are service-based businesses, and there’s no level of infrastructure or product quality that has the ability to eclipse the value of the right people. People matter, and they aren’t always easy to find, so I’ve learned that hiring and people ops is just as important as generating new business.
After a handful of wrong hires, we worked for months to put together a very streamlined and effective hiring process that includes:
- Attracting the right people with employer branding
- Developing internal impact descriptions that map to our Career Framework
- Well-written job descriptions
- A three-step interview process with a mini (and always-rotating) hiring committee
- A tool to manage applications and steps in the interview process (Workable)
It’s also important to identify which team members you currently have who are the right fit to manage or be involved in this process. Some people are inherently good talent-seekers who have a deep understanding of your clients and their goals as well as the vision of company and team culture. Figure out how to position your current team to build your future team.
Systemically, all of this represents an investment of time and money into culture and people ops. My first ever agency hire was a people ops strategist. Truth. I wish I could take more credit for this because it’s honestly the best thing that ever happened to Tuff but it was just dumb luck. My sister, Mary, has been in the people ops space for over 10 years and came on to Tuff in the beginning to help us lay our foundation.
Some of our strategic investments in people ops include:
- A career framework
- A compensation model
- We’re currently revisiting this to strip the cost of living component — our thinking has changed since we built this two years ago
- Remote culture development
- Clear communication processes
- Leadership training
- Professional development – we use Gtmhub and set OKRs for the company and each team member on a quarterly basis
Having a team that is autonomous and collaborative is the only way to sustain growth in your agency. Creating a great place to work is our second highest priority (just after staying in business).
Build a Repeatable Formula for Generating New Business
Hiring the right people and building a repeatable lead pipeline were both the two hardest things and the two most important things we did to build our business. It took us about 18 months to build a repeatable formula for new business; one that we control.
We tested out a lot of tactics. 95% of them didn’t work. Once we eliminated the ones that failed, we really refined the ones that succeeded, and now we can count on the outcomes. That process was obviously not fast and it was definitely not easy, but if you want to grow an agency, there’s no substitute for this work.
Here’s what didn’t work:
Outbound: Outbound sales didn’t work for us and here’s why. We had a lot of conversations (helpful conversations in which I learned a ton) but not a lot of action. With outbound, there’s a lot of:
- Sure, I might as well investigate just in case.
- Please don’t email me again
- What does it cost?
- Actually, something came up, need to push our meeting a week.
Here’s what did work:
Inbound: This was the harder route (less immediate and it took a tremendous amount of consistency and commitment) but one that has led to compounding growth. We worked tirelessly (and still do) to capture demand by ranking on page one for high-intent keywords like “growth marketing agency” “growth agency” “startup marketing agency” etc. We worked on our SEO and organic strategy for six months before seeing results.
With inbound, the conversions started to be more like:
- I want to learn about your services and team
- Can we schedule a time this week to connect?
- We’re ready to chat and we think you could be the best fit.
So, in the early days we filled the gaps and found short-term momentum with outbound until we were able to implement an inbound system that worked.
Even though we now see results, we’re just scratching the surface of this. Undoubtedly, the process of generating new (and the right) business always has room for improvement.
I’ll say this: we haven’t created the biggest, most profitable agency in the world, but we have learned a ton that we know is critical to an agency’s success. And that’s the key: if you can be patient, willing to try new things, willing to learn from your mistakes, and willing to ditch what doesn’t work, you’ve got a shot to build something great.
Going into it with an explorer mentality ensures that you don’t get tied too early to efforts that yield questionable results. Try more. Learn from it. Keep moving.
Trim the Fat
In the last five years, one of my biggest challenges as an agency owner has been to make some hard calls, ie, to trim the fat.
Here are the brass tacks:
- When you get to a place where you can say no to new partnerships: say no.
- If you are in partnerships that are no longer a good fit: get out.
When your business is growing, you’re going to outgrow clients. You need to be able to have those hard conversations, and you must be selective.
It can be hard as an owner when you have a client who wants to work with you and pay top dollar (especially when it took 18 months to generate your first handful of inbound leads), but you need to make these decisions in the real world, and with the long-term goal in mind.
This may seem wild if you are still in the early days, but there will come a time when you will say no to multiple revenue opportunities and good ideas because it’s not the right fit for your team. This is a net positive move that preserves the health of your company, your people, and keeps you true to your mission and goals.
Adapt Quickly and Pivot Your Services When You Need To
We’ve all heard, “the riches are in the niches,” but even more than nicheing, successful agency owners listen to the market and let it inform their strategic planning. This is really applicable to where I was when Tuff first started.
I didn’t have the truest understanding of what people needed from a growth marketing agency, I just knew that agencies get a really bad rap. It’s often because the experience feels opaque, needlessly expensive, and peppered with sneaky opportunities to upsell. I knew there had to be a better way to treat clients. But it took me a long time to understand from a servicing perspective where Tuff could be most valuable.
In the first few years with Tuff, I did more cold pitching, outbound prospecting, and sales calls than I have in my entire career. In fact, I had never done sales before. It was a huge learning opportunity. It’s also why I still do sales today even though our team is significantly bigger. Ultimately, there is NO replacement for testing your own messaging in the market. There’s probably a faster way to get there but the result was invaluable.
We now know with absolute clarity who we are and what we can provide, which not only accelerates the sales process but makes us an effective partner for our clients.
Practical Steps to Creating a Marketing Agency
Those four high-level insights, I would say, are mission critical for growing an agency. As someone who has been in the thick of it, I know that other people’s stories are helpful. I’m willing to be super honest about what it took for me to get to this five-year mark. Here’s a little of what it cost me and some of what didn’t work (and what did), to get Tuff where it is today.
- I freelanced for almost 8 months so I could afford to get a website up and running, as well as pay salaries for at least three employees for six months. I didn’t want it to be a “chicken and egg” situation, so I banked some capital to float the business launch.
- My first hire was a people ops consultant who helped build our career framework and compensation strategy, which is a unique move for an agency owner. This was sheer dumb luck. Most people look at this and think that a people ops consultant isn’t a revenue-generating employee, which is technically true in that they don’t have billable hours. However, the return on investment you get from hiring the right people is the most revenue generating investment you can make. It is a hard decision to make at the beginning, but one I would do over and over again.
- Over the course of 18 months, we tried about 20 different things to generate a lead pipeline: only one of them worked at scale. For us, there’s a whole laundry list of what didn’t work, including: Outbound Sales, Cold Email, Events / Networking , Workshops, Speaking Opportunities, Partnership, and Sponsorships. To be clear: one of our failed attempts may very well be your money-maker. The point is that we tried a lot until we found a reliable source of lead gen.
- I want a whole separate point for the timeline, because it is a major reality check for many agency owners looking to scale. If you consider that I first had to save money, then spent 18 months experimenting, Tuff took at least two years finding traction and scale. Now, we have a much steadier growth curve. There are myriad factors that can make this timeline shorter, including owner experience, credibility/name recognition, existing clout or networks, etc. For the rest of us, it just takes time.
- In the beginning, I said yes to everything, because I learn by doing. We were staying alive and using this ever present “yes” to keep the lights on. That worked for us because it gave us hands-on experience. That said, once we started to grow, we had to unwind those habits. Now, we say “no” quite a bit and are selective about what we work on, but we grew into that. In other words, do what you have to do until you don’t have to do it anymore.
Building a Growth Marketing Agency
Growth marketing helps companies get to their goals faster. An agency that can facilitate it doesn’t succeed with half-formed ideas or untested strategies. If you have the ambition, commit to the process. Your journey won’t be the same as ours, but those four learnings from above probably feel very relatable. For more content like this, check out the rest of the Tuff blog. Whether you’ve been in business for five months — or five years like us (wahoo!) — I wish you all the success in the world.
Ellen is the founder at Tuff and one of the team’s core growth marketers. She is a versatile marketer with expertise in multiple channels – from ppc to seo to email to others – responsible for the experiments and testing. She is happiest when she’s on the ski hill or outside pointing her mountain bike downhill.