Episode 448

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Agency owners like to think they can do it all, but the real gold is in finding and defining your agency niche. To demonstrate, I spoke to Tyler Samani-Sprunk of Simple Strat to get into the head of an agency that learned this lesson the hard way but still did it very well — once they finally committed.

Tyler shares the false starts and missteps early on as Simple Strat tried half-heartedly to pick a niche without fully committing. He explained how feedback from prospects asking, “What are you really good at?” motivated them to double down on specializing in content marketing for a while before their YouTube channel HubSpot Hacks really gained traction.

This episode is your sign to finally work on nailing down your niche if you’ve been going back and forth about it for ages. It might seem like you’re limiting your scope, but in reality, you’re opening yourself up to a whole funnel of right-fit clients who need your expertise.

A big thank you to our podcast’s presenting sponsor, White Label IQ. They’re an amazing resource for agencies who want to outsource their design, dev, or PPC work at wholesale prices. Check out their special offer (10 free hours!) for podcast listeners here.

agency niche

What You Will Learn in This Episode:

  • What motivated Simple Strat to start specializing
  • The 3 phases of trying to find their agency niche
  • Why they chose video and HubSpot as their niche
  • Treating cornerstone content as a client in your day-to-day operations
  • When they knew it was working for them
  • How their sales cycle transformed when shifting to thought leadership marketing
  • How content marketing plays a role in content strategy with clients
  • People want to hear from people, not brands
  • Weaving personality into professional content
  • Simple Strat’s biggest mistakes and best decisions in the niching process

“While the content marketing specialization worked for us in outbound, we didn’t have a solid inbound pipeline of people coming to us asking us for that.” - Tyler Samani-Sprunk Click To Tweet
“I think it matters more that you enjoy what you're doing. If you're not a video person, don't do video right away. Find something you enjoy doing.” - Tyler Samani-Sprunk Click To Tweet
“There's some satisfaction you get out of good content. If it helps people, then it shows up in your business too because you see the business results.” - Tyler Samani-Sprunk Click To Tweet
“It's better to start infrequent and consistent than to do anything inconsistently.” - Tyler Samani-Sprunk Click To Tweet
“There is fear around specialization, and there's a reason for that fear. But if you don't take that risk, you can't enjoy the upside.” - Tyler Samani-Sprunk Click To Tweet

Ways to contact Tyler:

Resources:

Hey everybody. Drew here. You know, we are always looking for more ways to be helpful and meet you wherever you’re at to help you grow your agency. It’s one of the reasons why we’ve produced this podcast for so long, and I’m super grateful that you listen as often as you do. However, there are some topics that are better suited for quick hyper-focused answers in under 10 minutes. That’s where our YouTube channel really comes in. For quick doses of inspiration, best practices, tips and tricks, head over to youtube.com/the at sign agency Management institute. Again, that’s youtube.com/the at sign or symbol.

And then Agency Management Institute, all one word. Subscribe and search the existing video database for all sorts of actionable topics that you can implement in your shop today. Alright, let’s get to the show.

It doesn’t matter what kind of agency you run, traditional digital media buying, web dev, PRR brand, whatever your focus, you still need to run a profitable business. The Build, a Better Agency Podcast, presented by a White Label IQ will expose you to the best practices that drive growth, client and employee retention and profitability, bringing his 25 plus years of experience as both an agency owner and agency consultant. Please welcome your host, Drew McLellan.

Hey everyone. Welcome to another episode of Build a Better Agency. This is Drew McLellan from Agency Management Institute and I’m excited to be with you today. We’re gonna talk today about how an agency went from being a generalist to a specialist and what that entailed for them in terms of the sort of the building blocks that got them to the place where they went from having clientele that was relatively local to clients all over the US and North America, and actually beyond that. So Tyler Ani Sprunk co-owns an agency called Simple Strat and they’ve been around for about 10 years. I’m gonna let him tell you the story, but we’re literally gonna break down this story of sort of decisions made along the way, good and bad decisions and what it is that they’re doing today that has right fit clients knocking on their door.

They are not doing a lot of outbound, they are not chasing after prospects. Prospects are chasing after them. I would love for all of you to be in that position where your, your best fit prospects, your people who are gonna be with you for years and years and years. ’cause they are the right agency or you’re the right agency for them as a client. I would love for that to happen to, for you every single day. And it can, it absolutely can if this agency can do it, so can yours. So let’s welcome Tyler to the show and find out how they did it. Tyler, welcome to the podcast. Thanks for joining us. Yeah, thanks for having me. So tell everybody a little bit about who you are, what you’re up to, kind of your, your journey and then we’re gonna dissect that journey, I think on this episode.

So, so give them the ending of the story.

Yeah, so today I’m co-founder of Simple Strats and we are a, an agency, I always use that word lightly ’cause we don’t do a whole lot of creative marketing services. At least that’s not kinda the primary, like what we used to do. But we’re a HubSpot consulting agency, so we help people really get more out of the HubSpot platform. And so we’ve seen a lot of growth over the last couple years. We actually just added two people to our team that’s started of Wednesday. So I’m super excited about that and yeah, excited to to kind of go through that story today.

So how are you different? What do you, how do you look different today than you did when you started as an agency?

Yeah, I mean we are, we are a completely different company than, than when we started. So I’ve been with Simple Strat for about seven years. I think I was employee number three. So even though I’ve got the co-founder title, there was a company that was existing when I joined. They’d been around for about a year. My business partner, ally Shwanky had been doing some consulting for some local businesses and had started to kind of hire to help them really like deliver on the services that she was consulting on. And so when I joined, that’s what we were focused on. We were working on, we working with local businesses, we worked with like some franchises and a lot of B2C companies. And today we work with companies all over the country. Our team is all over the country and really focused on really our, usually start with clients with that software consulting, so helping them get more out of HubSpot.

And then some of our clients, we do still do some more of the marketing strategy and execution on top of that.

Okay, so you went from kind of a generalist and right? Oh yeah, yeah. And so where were your clients located when you were a generalist?

Yeah, so I’m based in Lincoln, Nebraska, as is Ally. And so we’re our clients. So pretty much all of our clients were, were in Lincoln or Omaha, which is neighboring town in Nebraska. I know not people, not too many people are familiar with Nebraska geography, but yeah, they were all within probably, you know, a hundred mile radius or so of us.

So what was going on in the agency that made you think that focusing a little bit or specializing made some sense?

Yeah, so I have to give credit to you. First off, so before Simples stra I had, I had started an agency with a few friends while I was in college. They had, we’d all been in a student advertising agency. They had approached me, I was, I had an ad degree but also a business degree. They were both on the creative side. One was a writer run as a designer. And since I had a business degree and had had a sales job at the time, we all kind of naively believed that I knew business. And so I was gonna be, you know, the, the secret to bringing in sales and that. So we started an agency very, very quickly found out that we had no idea what we were doing. I mean, none of us had ever actually worked in an agency, just that student agency that we, that we did in college. And so I, you know, your podcast was actually one of the places that I, that I started, you know, know I was consuming as much content as possible.

So this is a great like full circle moment, almost 10 years later of listening to this podcast and then now being on it. But you, I know have harped for as long as you’ve been a part of a MII think about the need to specialize. And so, right, actually when I joined Simple Strive, that was one of the goals. So, you know, when I closed down, the other agency closed down for a lot of reasons. We made all the mistakes in the book. And one of the things that Ally wanted was she wanted to pursue the, the HubSpot partnership and she also wanted to start growing the company so that the name Simple Strap meant something. It wasn’t just her name that meant something, right? All of the, if you asked any of our clients at the time who they worked with, they would’ve said Ali, none of them would’ve said Simple Strap. And so in that, you know, in that exploration, as soon as I started on, we, we started to try to specialize in things.

It took us a long time to find our groove though.

So talk a little bit about the process of finding the groove. Like how did you figure out how you should specialize?

Yeah, I don’t know if I’m the best person to talk about it because it did take us a long time. So when we started

We had a of clients, but, but Tyler, here’s the thing, and this is why I’m asking, is because I think everyone thinks this should be simple and fast, and for most agencies this can take years. And part of it is ’cause you have a day job and so you’re kind of doing it on the side and talking about it in some executive meetings and all of that. Part of it is ’cause it’s scary. It’s hard to say we’re not gonna, like, we have this whole roster of clients, we’re not gonna serve people like them anymore. Yeah. And, and there’s a sense of scarcity. We have to be a, a mile wide and an inch deep as opposed to recognizing that you have the same opportunity when you’re an inch wide and a mile deep.

But that’s hard for people to wrap their head around. So I think it’s actually the, you’re the perfect sort of poster child for this conversation because your journey’s not that different from a lot of other agencies. They do struggle with this idea of how do we niche down? Yeah. How do we decide how to specialize? How do we start saying no when people have a bag of money and they don’t fit the mold. So walk us through kind of what that felt like and looked like for you.

Yeah, I think, I think there was kind of three phases of it for us. So I mentioned that was one of the things we were trying to do right away, right? And so at that time, what we looked at is we looked at our current client roster Yeah. And we said, okay, what’s, you know, what are some commonalities between the clients that, that we had? And at that time, one of our largest clients was a, like a nutritional supplement franchise. And we had a couple clients that were in that space and, and Dally had some background in that. And so one of our first kind of niches that we thought we were gonna have was kind of health and wellness, fitness, mostly B2C stuff, which laughing because it’s just widely different than what we do today. So we, we started there and we, we tried to just kind of expand that we were doing a lot of, I think it wasn’t really the strategy around specializing that that hurt us.

It was about how we tried to go to market in that, in that niche. But we reached out to, you know, as many people as we could. We used those examples and, and that just, you know, we, we, we started writing content. So we’ve always been a big believer in, in thought leadership and content marketing. I’m sure we’ll talk about more today, but we started writing some blog posts about that. And what we found really quickly is, is a few things. One, we, we didn’t have a lot of success in that niche, in that niche, but especially around, around the content we were creating, we were generating a ton of traffic in health and wellness. None of it was really qualified to do business with us. And so that was kinda the first phase, just kinda experimenting with this and didn’t really, you know, we did it for a while and didn’t really get a whole lot of traction there. The second phase was when we got really, really serious.

So the first phase we didn’t really say no to anybody, and we didn’t really change our messaging. We, you know, we started

So it’s, it’s sort of I’d like to be sort of pregnant.

Yeah, yeah, yeah. We, we changed our biz dev outbound efforts and a little bit of our content, but our messaging didn’t change. We didn’t say no to anybody. We were just like, we, we kind of dipped our toe in the water, right? We didn’t dive in. The second one was just before Covid we started to, we had started to have some more traction despite our lack of, of specialization. We started to have, you know, some more clients come to us that were, we were kind of starting to expand beyond local, mostly through Ally’s networking and some things like that, that she was doing. But we noticed that we would have companies ask us in the sales process a lot, okay, you do all these things, but What are you really good at? Right. And we had a hard time answering that question because we wanted to say, well, we’re good at all of these things.

Right? Of course. Yeah. And, and I think that’s, I think that’s a common trap. And so we ended up, we ended up saying, you know, what, what are we good at? We ended up actually asking ourselves that question. Well, you know, we really like writing content, creating content, not just writing right audio and video as well, but really like creating content, thought leadership content that, that tends to work really well when the, the sales cycle is, is a little bit longer, a little bit more involved. So let’s, let’s focus on, on B2B content marketing. Still not a super big niche, but it was, it was a big step for us and happened to be a really good timing step for us because it was right before covid. And as Covid ramped up, that’s what everybody wanted to do was, was figure how to do concept marketing events right up and all of that.

That was our second one. And that went pretty well. And the only reason we changed from that was really just because the opportunity was bigger elsewhere. So we started this YouTube channel called HubSpot Hacks about that same time as a 2019. And when we started it, it was really an example for our content marketing clients, the power of video content, the power of branded content. So this idea of having a, a content channel that’s branded separate from your business. And we did also have some, some HubSpot clients back then as well. And over time that YouTube channel grew drastically. And we started to have people come to us asking for, you know, Hey, can you help us get part of our HubSpot? Can you help us clean this up? Can you help us implement?

Can you help us do this? And we, while, while the content marketing specialization worked for us in outbound, we never really had a really solid inbound pipeline of people coming to us asking us for that. But with the HubSpot stuff we did almost right away once that YouTube channel took out. And so we started to kind of dabble in that. And that’s really our specialization specialization today. It’s still pretty broad, you know, it’s just companies that use HubSpot, but it really works well for us because of how much content we have in the marketplace. So that was kind of the third round of specialization for us.

So I wanna, I wanna go back and talk about the content in more detail, but where are your clients located today?

Yeah, so our clients are all over the US today. We have a couple international clients. We’re not really set up very well to, to deal with international clients, but if they’re willing to work with us in US time zones and, and somebody on their team speaks English, we’ll work with them. It’s the nature of, of content marketing today is it’s, it’s gonna reach everybody. But most of our clients are in the us our team is everywhere and we’ve been remote since Covid, so our team is everywhere and our, our clients are everywhere as well.

And what new business efforts do you do besides your own content? So how, how do you go hunting for clients? Or do you

We don’t really, we, we do think that that is, so we’re, we’re in the process right now of, so I handle all of our sales. All of our sales pretty much are, are inbound, at least in the traditional sense. I’ll, I’ll talk about that in a little bit here. But pretty much all of our clients are inbounds. I take all of those sales meetings we’re at to the point right now where I don’t have the time to take all of those meetings. And so we’re looking at, at, at building out a sales team. It’s a very small sales team to begin with and I think outbound may become a part of that as we build that out. But right now it’s all inbound. We do some networking, some intentional networking and going to events and, and things like that. But I kind of group that all into thought leadership. I don’t really consider that to be you outbound sales, but yeah.

Alright, so let’s go back. Actually, you know what, let’s take a break and then when we come back, let’s talk about your content strategy and how you, how you, how you thought about it, how you actually got it done, how you get it done today. Because I think for a lot of agencies they’re like, yes, we should do content. And then the same ebook is on their homepage for about three years. So, so let’s take a break and then we’ll come back and we’ll talk about sort of how you wrapped your head around the idea of letting content sort of drive the audience to you, the clients to you, and then how you actually get it done. So we’ll be right back and we’ll talk about that when we come back. Hey everybody, thanks for listening today.

Before I get back to the interview, I just wanna remind you that we are always offering some really amazing workshops and you can see the whole [email protected] on the navigation head to how we help scroll down and you’ll see workshops and you can see the whole list there with descriptions of each workshop. They are all in Denver and we’ve got them throughout the year for agency owners, account execs, agency leaders, CFOs. We have a little something for everybody no matter what it is that you’re struggling with, people, new business, money, all of those things we’ve got covered. So check him out and come join us. All right, let’s get back to the show.

Alright, we are back and we’re talking Tyler, about how he and his partner took their generalist agency, which had clients within, you know, a couple hour radius of their physical location and, and sort of served everybody, the butcher, the baker, the candlestick maker, and how they decided to narrow down their focus to, in their case, just clients who use or wanted to use HubSpot as a core part of their marketing and how, and how that decision has kind of driven their business’ growth and content and all of that. So let’s go back to when you got to the point where you’re like, you know, one of the things we’re really good at is HubSpot and we should start thinking about content around that.

And I think it’s interesting tangentially, if we are recommending to clients that they use content to establish a subject matter expertise to attract right fit clients to them, maybe we should be doing it ourselves, number one and maybe two, we can be a case study to show them how it works. So take us back to kind of that moment and for example, why did you decide video? How did, how did you decide how often? Like what were, what were some of the thought processes you went through to get to that?

For sure, for sure. So I’ll back up even a little bit farther. So when I joined Simple Straw, you know, we were, like I said, I was employee number four, titles, you know, and then the four person company don’t, doesn’t mean much. So, so when I joined Ally basically was like, well, what, what, you know, what do you, what do you think for title? And I picked CMO, so my title is CMO and co-founder, not because, you know, honestly, my, my responsibilities aren’t really that related to, to A CMO, but I picked it for a very specific reason. And I had mentioned I closed an agency, you know, the, the year before. Part of that was because I didn’t think we were very good at, at drinking our own Kool-Aid about doing, you know, doing the work, being the example. And what I wanted was, I wanted a constant reminder for myself and the agency every day to do our own marketing.

So I wanted to have one of our earliest titles have, you know, internal marketing be a part of that title. So from the early on, you know, we, we really did lean into content marketing. We did, we did a lot of things wrong, right? But back then, you know, we were following all the HubSpot blogs about just write a blog about something and traffic will come. And, and so we started the blog pretty early on. We did generate traffic, a lot of that traffic was not qualified, so we tweaked it over time. But Allie has always been very, a very big believer in, in video. I’m not, I’m not sure where she got it, but for, for all the reasons that you should be a believer, a big believer in video, right? It’s very, yeah, it’s a very authentic medium. It’s a great way to connect with people. It stands out, it’s not very easy to do.

So it does stand out from people that are, that are just trying to, you know, do a bunch of other things. And so we had a YouTube channel pretty early on as well, and the YouTube channel had all kinds of different contents. So just like the agency, the YouTube, the YouTube channel was not specialized in any way, shape or form, but we had a couple videos that we had titled HubSpot Hacks that were just HubSpot tutorials. So we walked people through, you know, how to do a couple specific things in, in HubSpot. And one day we, we kind of looked and reviewed at the performance of that YouTube channel and saw that there was, you know, our, our subscribers weren’t really growing, but there were a couple videos that really stood out for, you know, retention, number of views.

And all of them were, were related to HubSpot. And so we kind of had this hypothesis of, you know, what’s, what would happen if we had a channel that was just about those videos, people knew that thatR