how to start a digital marketing agency

It’s easier to start a digital marketing agency without funding than people might think.

In this post, I will cover starting your business on your own—with aspirations of becoming an agency. I will look at how to get your first clients and how to balance your time when finding them—when you start on your own, that is one of the toughest balancing acts.

Setting up

The beauty of setting up a digital marketing agency is that you can start from virtually nothing. I know this from personal experience because my business partner and I did just that with our company, Louder.Online. If you have the expertise, then all you need to get started is a computer and a home office (or at least a space to work). There are not many businesses where that’s all you need.

You don’t need to put it all on a credit card, you don’t need to get a bank loan, you don’t need startup capital—you can just build a website, and you can be on your way. That’s what we did, and we now have a successful digital marketing agency with clients around the world.

Taking on your first employees

Many businesses will hire recruiting and onboarding agencies to find employees for their burgeoning digital marketing agency, but if you’re going to build an agency without funding then you need to be doing this yourself.

Beyond the fact that you won’t need the extra cash from the start to make hires, it will mean that you have control over the kind of employees that you take on. When you’re ready, you can hire the right people for the culture that you create around your business.

Training your team

Training your employees can be a costly business if you are not wise. When building a digital marketing agency without outside funding, you need to make sure you have a plan in place to be able to train people as and when they join you without incurring additional cost to the business.

Something we found invaluable when building our agency was to train the first few staff ourselves and educate them on everything we could. Sure, it meant that we put in some long hours at the start, but it paid off in the long run.

Training our first employees in every area we could think of prepared them to be able to train the next wave of staff. In turn, those staff members were able to teach the team members that joined after them.

As people moved up the ladder in our business, the staff that joined early on were able to train up the juniors that came in after them. Higher paid employees were able to use their time to liaise with clients and strategize rather than spending their time on training—making the business more successful and profitable, while not losing any of the vision that we had for the company or how our digital marketing client work was undertaken.

Documenting your processes and making life easier

If you want to start an agency without having outside funding, you need to find ways to do things in a non-traditional manner.

If your business takes off straight away, then it is likely that you are going to be taking on staff fairly quickly to cope with demand. When you have new staff starting regularly, you need two things in place—process documentation and basic HR functions—preferably avoiding having to hire an HR person too early.

At Louder.Online we made sure that we concentrated on these very early on. We documented our processes from day one in some software called Process Street. The software lets you create checklists and workflows that any of your staff can run at any time.

We use Process Street to document things like:

  • How to answer the phone
  • What to do when you are sick
  • How to put in an expenses report
  • How to book a holiday
  • What is needed before a new employee starts
  • What is required when an employee leaves

Having these processes documented means that everyone knows what they need to do and can follow a standard protocol. They don’t have to ask their manager or other staff.

This saves time and means that the employees that you have at your agency can actually spend more time on billable work for the clients. That, in turn, makes you more profitable. You are saving money that might otherwise have had to have come from outside funding.

We also didn’t want to have to hire an HR person until we really needed to and we certainly didn’t want to outsource that to a third party. They both cost a lot of money, and we didn’t want to have to use outside funding to do that.

After some searching around in the early days, we found some software called AppogeeHR.

The software boasts:

  • Centralized employee information
  • Leave and sickness management
  • Performance and learning tracking
  • Reporting
  • OKR management

It is simple to use, and it means that my business partner and I were able to act as HR without having to spend a lot of time on it. As earlier employees moved up, they were able to take on some of the work as well—and of course, this was all documented in a subsection of Process Street for when they needed it.

There is a saying that “necessity is the mother of invention,” and when we knew we didn’t want to use outside funding we looked for ways that we could make sure we didn’t have to.

Bootstrapping

If you don’t have that cash injection at the start of your businesses life, then you need to be bootstrapping.

A dictionary definition will tell you that it’s to get oneself into or out of a situation using existing resources. When you read other articles, they will talk about relying on personal income or savings, and they talk about sweat equity.

We think the definition can be a little broader than that—essentially optimizing your current situation. We did this through an intelligent choice of clients and being smart with our cash. We found these to be essential to avoid that outside funding.

Getting good clients

Bad clients bring you down. Bad clients cost you money. Bad clients suck up your time.

If you don’t want to be spending money on additional staff to cover those losses, then you need to know how to spot a good client. Taking on every client that comes your way was never an option for us.

So how do you spot a good client? Here are my tips:

  • Choose clients that will let you do your best work—stay away from the clients that overly worry about cost, because they will cost you in the long run.
  • Choose clients whose business you believe in—the synergy between your agency and their business will lead to a healthy and respectful relationship.
  • Work with clients who understand what you do—if they have some knowledge of the digital marketing landscape then they will be interested in what you do and don’t expect the world.

Being smart with your cash

This one sounds kind of obvious, right? But how many stories in the last few years have you read about businesses going under because of the inordinate amount of cash they spent on offices and perks to try and attract staff?

The employees that join your company are likely to know about these perks and want to see some of them. This is where you have to try and resist. Sure they are fun, but if you don’t want that outside funding, then you need to be sensible.

Company culture is not about the arcade machines and novelty slides from one floor to another. Company culture is about the bonds you create, the work that you do and how comfortable people feel at work.

People want to enjoy their work. When people enjoy their day to day life they produce better work, and they stay with a company longer. Combine these two together, and it cuts down the money you need to spend on recruitment and training—another way to avoid using outside funding.

Financial goal and milestone setting

Being smarter with your cash and spending less is one thing; financial goal and milestone setting is another. We knew we would have to create something scalable from the start and also be able to predict with some degree of accuracy what our potential revenue might be.

As we were starting a digital agency, we knew we were going to be selling hours from the very start. We knew that tracking employee time and client budgets were the way we wanted to head in. Using a project management tool like Liquid Planner or a Harvest/Basecamp combination can really help with this.

We set prices for staff, created client folders and subprojects early on. Every member of staff had tasks assigned that they accurately track time against. This allowed us to make sure we didn’t go over or under for clients and the tools turn the hours into dollars in detailed reports.

We started in a very granular way and had activities set for the different types of work that we were doing. This allowed us to accurately predict how long specific tasks would take and we could pitch accordingly—there was no finger in the air guesswork.

After we had started to collect this data we could predict how much revenue we might bring in per client. From there we created financial milestones based on the close rate of proposals and how much similar projects had cost—and whether they had come under or gone over. We found this to be an accurate way of getting solid estimates on where the business would be in six months, a year, five years and beyond. It’s strategic planning or Lean Business Planning.

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Start small but plan for growth

That’s how we did it at Louder Online, we took a no outside funding stance from the start and made sure we looked for alternative solutions to cut costs. We started small and made sure that there was a culture in place from day one.

We made sure that we documented everything so that new employees would know what they had to do and when.

We enabled the staff to train each other as the agency grew, creating last bonds and teamwork.  

It isn’t for everyone and it was definitely hard for us at the start, but it has made us the profitable digital marketing agency that we are today and we wouldn’t change that for the world.

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Aaron Agius

Aaron Agius, CEO of worldwide digital agency Louder Online is, according to Forbes, among the world's leading digital marketers. Working with clients such as Salesforce, Coca-Cola, IBM, Intel, and scores of stellar brands, Aaron is a growth marketer—a fusion between search, content, social, and PR.