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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:

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.

women working on a computer

You’re a Startup. Should You Hire a Growth Marketing Agency?

women working on a computer

Hello, founder! If you identify as such, you’re already among our favorite types of people (along with the UPS guy and the barista with the good latte art). 

Being a founder is a challenging, exhilarating, scrappy, rewarding, and sometimes painful endeavor. And one of the greatest strategic decisions you’re confronted with is which people are the most critical for you to have in your corner to help you navigate murky waters. Decision fatigue is a real, real thing and surrounding yourself with the right brains that have the insight, experience, compass, and know-how to help you steer your ship in the right direction can oftentimes mark the difference between success and failure. 

So, it’s with this understanding that many fresh founders jump into our Let’s Talk form absolutely and irrevocably convinced that they need a growth marketing agency to help them level up. Sometimes, we’ll hop on a Discovery Call, have a 30-minute conversation, and get incredibly fired up to send over a Growth Marketing Proposal with ideas for strategies and tactics that can put the wheels on your growth goals. 

But truth be told, oftentimes we’ll talk to founders, hear their growth goals, and respond with a simple and unflinching “we’re not right for you.”

The more we have these conversations, the more the internal team at Tuff comes back together to really try to get to the root of the question: “if you’re an early-stage startup, should you hire a growth marketing agency?”

Three Reasons You Should Hire an Agency

We’ve tirelessly and ceaselessly worked to build a website that is one major—and continually optimized—pitch for hiring us. Just check out the headline on our homepage: “Quick wins and long-term growth. No mysterious secret sauce.”

A Full, Diverse Team Has a Big-Picture Perspective

When you hire a growth marketing agency, whether it’s Tuff or another like-minded growth marketing agency, the major, overarching benefit is that it (generally speaking) comes stacked with a full team that can get a holistic view of your business, collaborate to identify the best course of action, and delegate execution tasks to true channel experts. 

We’ve structured the Tuff team around the most efficient way to identify strategic initiatives, outline tactics, execute them to a T, constantly monitor and optimize, deliver clear reports, and help you understand our (and your) actionable next steps while gleaning insights that can fuel your business growth in other ways. 

So, again, “Quick wins and long-term growth. No mysterious secret sauce.”

Allocate and Reallocate Resources As You Learn

While there are some agencies out there that charge a percentage of ad spend on a particular channel—known as performance marketing agencies—an agency that charges a retainer fee is built with the freedom to be adept. And as a founder, you know “adept” is the name of the game. 

An agency team is stacked with both big-picture strategists and deeply experienced channel experts. So, here’s a scenario: you collaborate with your growth team and create your original growth marketing strategy around testing Google Ads, Facebook, and LinkedIn. You soon discover after a few weeks of testing and optimizing that LinkedIn is yielding a CAC that simply isn’t sustainable. A performance marketing agency might shrug and recommend reallocating the LinkedIn spend to Facebook. But a growth marketing agency like Tuff can sub in another channel expert (like on-site CRO, email, YouTube, etc.) and test a new channel without skipping a beat. 

Team That’s “Been Around the Block” is Quick at Problem Solving

With a diverse and deep agency team comes a wealth of resources, a large network, and a long history of experience. 

Any growth marketer will tell you: growth isn’t linear. Nor is there any blueprint to follow. So when Facebook seems like a sure thing, then an unpredictable wrench like iOS 14 is thrown, a stacked team of social ads experts can beeline to their go-to resources, talk to other experts in their network, dig into their bag of “tricks,” and problem solve quicker and more efficiently than a generalist. 

Additionally, especially for startups, the peaks and valleys—when it comes to revenue, leads, funding, and even general morale—can be very high and very low. A full agency team has the know-how and the insight to be able to say, “take a deep breath, we’ve seen this before, here are our actionable next steps.”

Three Reasons You Should Definitely Not Hire a Growth Marketing Agency

For some founders, hiring an agency feels like a life raft: they come with the allure of having someone else, or a whole team of someone elses, to be beholden to investor pressure and growth goals. But, when your startup is moving a million miles an hour and any small decision can set off powerful reverberations across your company, stretching a thin budget to hire a full team simply doesn’t add up. The good news: there are lots of other awesome options.

A Scrappy Generalist Can Make a Bigger Mark

Pulling a full-time smart marketing hustler that can squeeze the most out of a small budget and stay in lock step with everything else you have going on can be a huge asset. Plus, when you have someone in the trenches with you day in and day out, they’ll simply understand your business better than any agency could. 

The caveat: it’s much, much easier to hire and subsequently part ways with an agency team. It happens more often than you think. (Side note, pro tip: look for agencies that don’t lock you into contracts). So when you hire someone to become part of your team, doing your due diligence and making sure they come with enough varied experience to make an impact over time is truly critical.

Most Agencies Aren’t Designed To Go From 0-60 (or 6,000)

Simply, founders and startups who are in pre-launch stages have a LOT to learn. No matter how many user surveys you do, beta testers you work with, incubators you participate in, or mentors you have, growth isn’t linear. Nor is there any blueprint to follow. (Yes, I’m repeating myself). 

Before you consider growth marketing, consider your stage. Are you still searching for traction? Paid acquisition channels might not be the right move. Instead, getting scrappier with influencers, networking, PR, and organic marketing can help you learn a lot (and quickly) without dropping bigger budgets on ad spend.

Plus, once you’re on the other side of your launch or you’ve found some sustainable traction, you’ll be able to get much more efficient with spend and make a much more significant impact. 

There are Options Like Growth Guide

When it all comes down to it, you’re in charge of your own destiny. That’s why we created Growth Guide. Instead of clicking into your business as a full growth marketing team (like we typically do), we designed a two-month training program that provides founders with structured, in-depth courses on topics ranging from strategically choosing acquisition channels, to setting smart growth goals, to getting deep in the weeds with channel optimizations, and more. Each are taught by a seasoned Tuff expert. We also include weekly workshops on a variety of growth topics and tactical hours to give you hands-on help. 

While Growth Guide certainly isn’t the only way to learn how to take growth marketing into your own hands as a founder, it is the only one (we’ve found!) that includes real hands-on help and heavy oversight to make sure you’re set off on the right path to traction, scalability, and beyond. 

So, What’s The Verdict?

The ultimately frustrating (but only true) response: it depends. But, we’ve worked hard to help fledgling founders, startups, and scale ups, find pathways to real, sustainable growth.

Think you’re ready to enlist Tuff’s help? Let’s talk

A paper with growth marketing strategy.

11 Best Growth Marketing Agencies in Denver in 2020

Sign in downtown Denver.

There are a ton of great growth marketing agencies in Denver … almost too many. Since we have team members throughout the US, I spend time researching agencies in the cities we operate in, including Denver. 

Having seen a ton of great growth marketing agencies in Denver, I’d love to share a short list of these teams –  many of which specialize in different aspects of performance marketing. 

Check out the list below. And hope you find some great new teams! 

1. Metric Theory 

Screenshot of Metric Theory website.

Metric Theory focuses on User Acquisition and works with clients in nearly every industry, including Retail, B2B, eCommerce, and B2B. They are one of the larger agencies in Denver with 150+ employees and over 500 clients. They have extensive international experience and manage over $200M in ad spend. 

Metric Theory was founded by Ken Baker and Jeff Buenrostro and in addition to Denver, has offices in San Francisco, NYC, Orange County, and Salt Lake City.  

Case Study: FabFitFun 

Sample of Clients: Lyft, Winc, and Optimezly 

2. Tuff Growth Marketing 

Screenshot of marketing website.

Tuff works with startups and scale ups by plugging in as their extended growth marketing team. They work with teams in nearly every industry, from solo-founders to larger enterprise brands. Tuff was founded in Denver, with team members in Portland, San Francisco, Boston, and Nashville. 

They are a small, fully remote team that specializes in tactics like: Conversion Rate Optimization, Technical SEO Implementation, Facebook and Instagram Ads, Google Shopping, Google Search, Display Ads, YouTube Ads, Retargeting, Content Strategy, Link Building, Influencer Marketing and Email

Case Study: Renogy 

Sample of Clients: WatchBox, QuietKat, Xendoo and EnVision 

3. Booyah Advertising

Screenshot of marketing website.

Booyah is an end-to-end advertising agency, helping clients with paid search, creative services, display media, SMS, social media + more. They are a go-to in Denver for paid ads. 

Booyah’s CEO is Troy Lerner and has over 15+ years of experience helping companies scale up with advertising. The team now has 60 full-time employees and manages digital ad spend for major brands like Unilever, Discover Card, and Backcountry.com.

Sample of Clients: Discover, Pearl Izumi, and Bobo’s 

4. Bounteous

Screenshot of marketing website.

Bounteous is a full-service digital marketing agency with expertise in design, as well as campaign management. The agency has been working together for the last 20 years alongside global brands and innovative startups. 

Everything we do is designed to optimize that flow so that we create big-picture digital solutions that drive growth for our clients and our business.” 

Bounteous was founded by Keith Schwartz and has over 500 employees, primarily located in Chicago. 

Case Study: Teach For America 

Sample of Clients: Dominos, Harvard, and Wilson 

5. Location3

Screenshot of marketing website.

Location3 is a growth marketing agency in Denver that helps global brands activate local markets. They specialize in high-level enterprise campaign strategy and execution. 

This agency was founded in 1999 with a portfolio of primarily franchise brands. The team has 75 employees and is led by Alex Porter. 

Their services include SEO, Paid Search, Content Development, Franchise Marketing, and Media Management. 

Sample of Clients: Honey Baked Ham and Mountain Mike’s Pizza 

6. Campfire Digital

Screenshot of marketing website.

Campfire Digital is a Denver digital agency specializing in inbound marketing, websites, SEO, and more.

The team is small (4-total) and was founded in 2012. Since then, they’ve grown an impressive client roster, focused almost exclusively on outdoor brands. 

In addition to social, email, PPC, SEO, and blog management, they also build, design, and manage websites. 

Case Study: KAABOO 

Sample of Clients: Catalyst Coaching, World Cinema, and Cottonwood Residential 

7. 9thWonder

Screenshot of marketing website.

9thWonder is a full service, creative marketing agency. Their specialties range from research and brand strategy to digital marketing, media, and creative. They are extremely strong with brand identity, creative, and website design. 

While they are based in Texas, they have a small team and office in Denver. The agency’s CEO is Jose Lozano and he’s been managing the 150 person team for 9 years. 

Case Study: Adam’s Camp 

Sample of Clients: LAX, Pilatus Bank, and Coleman Natural Foods

8. 90octane

Screenshot of a marketing website.

90octane is a growth marketing agency based in Denver. Their approach is simple: They get to know your business like our own and provide a dedicated team of specialized experts to tackle your challenges with a fresh point of view.

The agency has 50+ employees, all located in Denver. Sam Eidson and Jim Grinney started 90octane in November of 2000. 

Grinney’s favorite client quote: “Nowhere else in our marketing mix have we seen a greater return. What makes it work is a combination of their knowledge, process, and a healthy dose of rolling up their sleeves and understanding our business and marketing goals. We consider the 90octane team an extension of our department.” – Steve Born, VP Marketing, Globus family of brands

Case Study: RES Software 

Sample of Clients: Paladina Health, Timbers Resorts, and PENTAIR

9. Elevated Third

Screenshot of a marketing website.

Elevated Third is a growth marketing agency in Denver that blends strategic thinking with technical execution to solve enterprise B2B challenges. 

Unlike some of the other agencies on this list that work with multiple industries, Elevated Third focuses on enterprise B2B. 

The agency was founded in 2004 by Jeff Calderone and since then has worked with brands like Comcast, CVENT, and Kaiser. 

Case Study: Numerator 

Sample of Clients: Central Square, Water Research Foundation, and Xactly 

10. Zenman

Screenshot of a marketing website.

Zenman is a web design agency in Denver, Colorado offering website development, branding, content strategy, and more. 

The agency has over 30 reviews on Google and a team of 10. Zenamn was founded in 1998 by Keith Roberts. One thing that makes Zenman unique is their 5-step “zen process” shaped to help you focus on efficiency.

Case Study: Richey May 

Sample of Clients: PlumVoice, Relocate, and Bonanno

11. Cast Influence

Screenshot of a marketing website.

Cast Influence is a marketing agency in Denver that specializes in PR and their expertise are with small businesses and startups. 

The agency was founded by Justin Kraft in 2017 after serving in senior marketing roles in-house for 16 years. They have a smaller shop, with 4 full-time employees in Denver. 

In addition to their pillar service, PR, they also partner with clients to help with SEO and website design. 

Case Study: 1UP Aerial Drone Services

Sample of Clients: OnDeck, Revivify Surface, and escapex