Big Mistakes Made Over 20 Years of Running a Digital Agency
Photo by Lukas
Mistakes Happen. It doesn’t matter if you’re a start-up or well-established business. As a common saying goes, ‘In order to succeed, you must learn to fail’.
After 20 years running my Perth-based digital marketing agency White Chalk Road, I have made some big mistakes. Fortunately, I have also been flexible enough to learn from those mistakes. In fact, I’m still learning.
Reflecting on White Chalk Road’s 20-year milestone, I offer my mistakes as a valuable insight to help those navigating their own business challenges.
Here’s my mea culpa to some of the biggest mistakes I’ve made in business.
Not Writing Down Our Own Marketing Strategy
Modern digital and marketing agencies, such as White Chalk Road, now advise their clients that businesses need to develop and implement a comprehensive digital marketing strategy and ensure that it is a fully integrated subset of the broader marketing strategy.
Yet, in the early days of White Chalk Road, when I was trying to establish the firm as an SEO agency – en route to a search marketing agency offering marketing advice, I failed to practice what I preached. While I had written a business plan – and an online marketing plan of sorts for the firm – I didn’t develop a written marketing strategy until around 2010 (12 years into my business journey).
Like many sole-director entrepreneurs with a dream, I had much in the head and little written down. So, when you do employ people – including a marketing manager – the staff are starting from scratch – a big mistake!
It took six months to get our strategy sorted and working – all the while our costs exceeded our revenue! Once working, we grew 50% year-on-year for four consecutive years and made the sort of profits that we never did in the pre-strategy days.
Avoid my mistake:
- Identify your target market, including your ideal customer.
- Define your competitive advantage and write down your Unique Selling Position (USP).
- Determine your messaging and then build your brand.
- Create your marketing collateral and sales tools.
- Finalise your written marketing strategy and plan (with goals and budget).
It’s amazing what happens when you write things down and check it!
Wasting time on Chasing ‘Secrets’ to Success
We’ve all done it. We’ve all spent time reading or listening to someone who promises quicker success or money-making schemes that seem plausible.
We may be sceptical – as I have always have been with this sort of thing – but I am also guilty of the modern Fear of Missing Out (FOMO) and spending too much time exploring that expert eBook or guru subscriber-based video series in the first three years of my startup SEO Agency from 1999.
To me, there was always something suspicious about someone making most of their money from telling others what and how to do internet marketing rather than just doing it themselves or providing outsourced services to established businesses.
So, after wasting time selling multi-level marketing natural health products through e-commerce sites I had built myself and running affiliate campaigns on the back of subscription-based guru advice – I finally saw the light. I became focused on offering real value services to authentic small and medium enterprises and local businesses in the early ‘noughties’.
Of course, such FOMO lessons did help when it came to giving advice to my clients not to fall for the same distractions!
Charging Too Little and Hiring Too Cheap
If results are directly related to how much labour or effort is put into a task, then pricing services too low is a recipe for business failure.
Yet, in my early day of running an SEO agency, my single biggest mistake was pricing my services too low.
In the 2000s, little was known of SEO or it’s value and there were no local ‘case studies’ to show prospects. As a rookie entrepreneur, my price reflected my fear of rejection. It sent a message to undervalue my work.
In hindsight, I should have worked much harder to make sure my prospect saw the value in my service or walked away from the job if the prospect was unreasonable.
To price a proposal, you must first know the true cost to deliver the proposed services. Then you need to protect your margin(s) – based on your marketing strategy (pricing) and financial plan.
If you are an agency that hires quality staff to get the job done (i.e. results for your customer), do not get caught in the race to the bottom.
Fortunately, on the edge of early failure, I realised that price should be more related to value given rather than solely on costs incurred – I adjusted and survived.
Controlling Too Much
Perfection is not attainable, excellence is. Suffering from too much perfectionism, I found it hard to assign tasks to others.
In the early days of establishing a business, this ‘big mistake’ may be forgiven as one looks to build a reputation.
However, this practice can be habit-forming for some entrepreneurs and contrary to the long-term interest of ‘carrying on a successful business’.
In later years, I learned that it is better to spend time checking others’ work than spending time doing it yourself simply because you fear the consequence of mistakes.
Staff learn and grow when they are given trust and responsibility.
This mistake cost my agency many years of growth with myself, the sole director, getting stuck working in the business, rather than working on it – as the saying goes.
Hiring the Wrong Staff Member
In my early days, I employed staff who were under-qualified thinking I could train them quickly and keep them affordable.
This mistake was easily made in the early days of SEO and where businesses like mine had little working capital.
As it turned out, this tactic was a false economy and therefore a big mistake!
In hindsight, it would have been better to double my prices and employ more suitable staff to match the potential ‘value’ of my services to the client as better results were obtained.
So What Advice Would I Give My Younger Self?
In hindsight, I was far too idealistic: trusting what people said and assuming they thought just like me – unless I heard something to the contrary.
This can relate to partners, clients and staff.
Silence or lack of complaint doesn’t mean all is well! The big tip here is to ask and double-check – do not assume anything.
My advice to my younger self and anyone in business is to consistently challenge your assumptions about clients, staff, suppliers or partners while keeping a positive approach.
As a business owner, if you are brave enough to sack your worst client, it will give you and your staff time for clients that deserve it most. Something I am still learning!