Episode 269

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If you’re not new to the podcast or AMI, you know that I am a proponent of agencies differentiating themselves by finding a niche where they can develop a depth of expertise or a position of authority. It’s one of the core messages in the book I co-wrote with Stephen Woessner, Sell with Authority. Which makes Brent Weaver a kindred spirit! Brent Weaver shares our philosophy of niching down, and he joins me to talk about what he believes it takes to become an authority.

Brent is a former agency owner and now focuses on helping business leaders finding their niche. He currently serves as the founder and CEO of UGURUS, a business training and education company dedicated to helping business owners achieve freedom by owning their markets. His work focuses on helping clients overcome their dependence on referrals and word-of-mouth through developing thought leadership. If you didn’t get a chance to meet him during our previous conversation, check out Episode #66 where he explains how to turn a profit doing web dev.

In this episode of Build a Better Agency, Brent provides valuable insights about finding your niche. He shares his own experience on niching down so you understand what it takes to become the dominant player in a specific market segment, even in times of crisis. Learn how to find your market, own your market, and, as a result, scale your business.

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.

Finding your niche in the agency landscape

What You Will Learn in This Episode:

  • The framework of Brent’s book, “Get Rich in the Deep End”
  • How finding your niche and serving that audience will make everything in your business easier
  • The difference between having a lot of clients in a niche vs. being an authority
  • Why niching down will enable your agency to thrive in good times and bad
  • How to find time to market your business amidst your chaotic schedule
  • What type of content is central to developing a position of authority
  • The correlation between niching and scaling a business
  • How niching goes beyond marketing
“Finding your niche and serving that audience will make everything else in your agency 10x easier.” @u_gurus Click To Tweet “Having a select market and consistent deliverables makes it easier to sell. It also makes it easier to deliver results for your clients.” @u_gurus Click To Tweet “It’s one thing to have a lot of clients in a niche. When you are the thought leader and the marketing authority in your niche, clients will start coming to you.” @u_gurus Click To Tweet “When you’re a niche agency and times are good, you make more money than anyone else. And when times are bad, you get back on your feet quicker than anyone else because clients are not looking for a generalist.” @u_gurus Click To Tweet “The more complex your business is, the harder it is to scale. Finding your niche simplifies the equation.” @u_gurus Click To Tweet

Ways to contact Brent Weaver:

Additional Resources:

Speaker 1:

If you’re going to take the risk of running an agency, shouldn’t you get the benefits too. Welcome to Agency Management Institute’s Build a Better Agency Podcast presented by White Label IQ. Tune in every week for insights on how small to midsize agencies are surviving and thriving in today’s market, we’ll show you how to make more money and keep more of what you make. We want to help you build an agency that is sustainable, scalable, and if you want, down the road, sellable. With 25 plus years of experience as both an agency owner and agency consultant, please welcome your host, Drew McLellan.

Drew McLellan:

Hey, everybody, Drew McLellan here, welcome to another episode of Build a Better Agency. I’ve got a guest today and a topic that is very near and dear to my heart. But before we get to that, just a couple quick reminders. Thank you to all of you who have joined us in the Facebook group, that is built just for the podcast listeners. So if you have not found that yet and you’re interested, just go to Facebook and search for Build a Better Agency Podcast, and you will find the group. You have to answer a couple questions and then I’m happy to open the door and welcome you in. I also want to remind you, we have a great assessment on our website. It measures your agency’s health in five key areas. It measures it in terms of finance, new business, staff management, how your account executives are doing, and agency owner happiness.

So, to take that assessment, and to get some resources, all of which are free around the area where you want to have the most growth or improvement, head over to agencymanagementinstitute.com/assessment. It’ll take you less than five minutes, maybe 10 at the most, to take the assessment, and then you will immediately get the results on the screen, and we will also email you the results with links to free resources based on your assessment. So I hope that you take advantage of that.

All right, let me tell you a little bit about our guest and the topic today. So Brent Weaver is a former agency owner, and he has written a great book about niching, specifically about niching your business or your agency. And as you might imagine, this is a topic that I feel very strongly about, and I’m super excited to talk to him about because I think that his ideas, and the ideas that Stephen and I outlined in our book, Sell With Authority, are going to come into alignment. But I’m also curious to see if there are some places where perhaps Brent approaches it differently that can add even more context and nuance for you as you decide whether or not it’s appropriate for your agency to niche down in some way.

So, without further ado, let me introduce you to Brent, and let’s dig into the conversation. Brent, welcome back to the podcast. Glad to have you.

Brent Weaver:

Good to be here. Thanks, Drew.

Drew McLellan:

So, your business has pivoted a little bit, and a lot of the pivot is tied to the book that you just published, which as I was saying in the intro, aligns very nicely with the book that Stephen and I wrote, Sell With Authority. So tell people a little bit about the book and what led you to writing the book in the first place.

Brent Weaver:

Yeah, so the book is called Get Rich in the Deep End. It’s really a book focused on helping agency owners overcome their dependency on referrals and word of mouth. And we want to see them really find their markets, own that market, and audaciously scale their business. It’s interesting that you say, we pivot a little bit. I think what I what I looked at was, when we were helping agency owners to grow their business and to scale, the ones that I worked with that had found a market and were clear on who they served, whether that was a vertical or some kind of horizontal with some specific constraints, the ones that had done that, everything else in the business was 10 times easier. And the ones that had not done that, when it came to sales processes, fulfillment and delivery processes, creating SOPs, being able to even just rapidly scale and build marketing engines, and all that kind of stuff, everything else was way harder.

And so, I looked at it and said, okay, well this is a problem that we need to solve with our clients before we do anything else, because it’s really hard to scale complexity. But when you have 25 different markets that you serve who all have different problems and different issues and different nuances, like 5% of your business, it’s a little bit different, or the 5% of every market is a little bit different. It just made everything so much harder. It’s not that it’s not possible, I’ve seen some agencies scale, it’s a big number, seven, eight figures, without a niche. They just survive on referrals or word of mouth. But it always feels like even those businesses were always kind of like, they were always depending on that next referral, surprisingly. And so, I just wanted to attack that problem, see what we can do.

Drew McLellan:

So, how are you responding to agencies that in the midst of the pandemic are saying, I am so glad I didn’t niche down because so many niches got decimated in the pandemic? And if I had been an agency in the restaurant business or I’d been an agency in the travel and tourism business, or home building, I would have been screwed. I am going to stand generalist. How do you respond to that argument?

Brent Weaver:

It’s one thing to have a bunch of clients in a niche, and I think it’s a whole other thing to have authority in that niche, to be in a leadership position in that market, to have a large email list, a large audience of people in that market that follows you. If you take the restaurant market, for example, yeah, they were hit really hard, and a lot of them that were working with, whether it’s marketing companies or web companies or eCommerce companies, or this or that, a lot of their social media companies, a lot of them pulled back.

But the thing that they all did was, they looked to the market leaders for what are you doing, how are you going to make it through this? Now there are some businesses out there in those niches that were, they were they were already in hair thin margins and they just disappeared. But obviously, those customers, the people that go to those restaurants, they didn’t all disappear, they went somewhere else. So there’s some other restaurants that stayed open that could weather that storm that had some cash reserves, had a loyal following, the ones that pivoted to delivery and curbside and pushed gift cards and tried to generate that short term cash flow. And those restaurants stayed and a lot of them experienced massive growth after the lockdowns and stuff opened back up, or even during the lock downs from delivering stuff.

And agencies in those markets that were the authorities, they saw business, and maybe they saw an immediate downturn in business, nut now they’ve seen a lot of their businesses grow beyond their expectations, or what they would have thought of. I’ve got a client that’s in the tourism space, works with hotels in the Caribbean. Talk about my business that’s like, I mean, it was hard. And during the first couple of months of the pandemic, he lost probably close to half of his revenue just like that, just gone between cancellations, pausing, and reductions. He came to me, he was like, “What do I do, what do I do?” I was like, “Dude, you go into serve overdrive. You go out there in the marketplace, teach these people how to make money like right now, teach them how to save their businesses, and forever, you’ll be remembered as somebody that helped them.”

In the last six or eight months, he’s generated over 2000 leads. Now, a lot of these, who knows where they’ll be and whether they’ll buy services from him or not. But he’s generated over 2000 leads. He’s back to 80% of his business pre-pandemic. But in this whole process, he got super hardcore about his team and his processes. And they used it as a reason to go in and kind of cut and lean up their service offering. And so, they’ve actually cut 50% of their expenses, and now they’re back to 80% of their top line revenue. So he’s actually, he wrote me a message the other day and he said, Brent, COVID’s the best thing that ever happened to me, which is very strange coming from somebody who’s hyper-niched.

Now, the last thing I’ll say on this Drew is that, while you brought up a couple of markets that were hit very, very hard, the good news is is there’s literally 1000s of niches out there. And while three or four of them or whatever, 10 of them, or a dozen of them might have gotten hit hard, I think you have to look at, is this strategy as a fundamental idea, did this whole situation disprove niching? I think if anything, it said, hey, niching is more important now than ever.

Drew McLellan:

Yeah, that’s what we’ve been telling clients too is, first of all, when you are a niche agency, when you’re an agency that serves a niche, again, whether it’s a vertical or it’s an audience or it’s a methodology, or as you suggested, a horizontal, when times are good, you’re making more money than everybody else. And when times are bad, you get back up on your feet faster than anybody else because when an industry is knocked to their knees, they’re not looking for a generalist, they’re looking for a specialist. Who’s best suited to help me as quickly as possible? And again, if you’ve taken on this position of authority, then you are able to be served up as that subject matter expert faster.

When I look at the agencies that we serve that are niched, even in some of the hardest hit verticals thanks to the pandemic, those agencies are back on their feet again because they were the first ones that businesses in that niche reached out to when they were ready to sort of gear back up.

Brent Weaver:

And I think that the ones that don’t have that authority, like you’re saying, maybe all their clients are restaurants, but then they don’t have any reputation in the market, they don’t have a list, they’re not out there blogging, or speaking, they don’t have a platform that they’re speaking from, then I think when the pandemic hit, they were left without an audience to lead and talk about some of these issues with, and help them through it. And so when their clients left, it was like, I’m left with half my business, and I’m still depending on referrals and word of mouth.

And I think that’s the key thing is like, niching helps you get over that dependency of referrals or word of mouth, so when things like this do happen, one of the things I did … We didn’t get a lead for three solid weeks, which for my business is kind of weird. We book anywhere from 30 to sometimes 60 or more strategy calls with brand new prospects every month. And so, to go three weeks without a lead, I mean, I was kind of hitting the panic button, like, what do I do, what do I do. And it was super counterintuitive. What I did was, instead of cutting my ads, I spent more money on ads. And I said, let’s figure out what the new messaging is. But instead of spending six months to figure that out by cutting our ads and slowing way down, let’s put more fuel in so we can learn faster, and then figure out where the market’s going. And then once we do that, then I think we’re going to see things pick up.

And then what happened was is, pre-pandemic, we were signing five to 10 clients a month, and post-pandemic, we’ve been signing 15 to 20 clients a month.

Drew McLellan:

I think when you’re a specialist, you are most important to the audience in times of crisis. And then to your point, when you help them during times of crisis, you are who they remember when times get better and they’re ready to jump on board with a partner for sure.

One of the other things I hear about, when we’re out talking about the strategy that we teach this idea of building out a piece of cornerstone content, that is a big meaty piece of content, and then you can slice and dice it in a million ways to sort of what we call make cobblestones to lead people to your cornerstone content, one of the things I always hear from agency owners is I don’t have time to do that. So, how do you help your clients find time to market their own agency or their own business when they’re super busy, not like everybody’s not super busy?

Brent Weaver:

There’s a few things there. If you’re going to go the content play, which for some people, I think that content is at the heart of a lot of areas of your business, from what somebody says when they pick up the phone, what’s in your email signature, what does your website say? I mean, obviously, content is kind of everywhere. But I think in terms of how you’re building awareness for your business, I think content is one type of thing.

There are other levers that you can pull around partnerships. Basically, other people that sell to your ideal customer or have your ideal customer as their clients. And then also ads. So kind of ads are another way. Now ads obviously require content. Talking about cornerstone content, if you’re going to go out there and advertise, you should be really dialed in terms of the content that you’re creating, making sure it resonates with your audience. People like Mark Zuckerberg will gladly take your money for you to learn that, or you can go out there and talk to your best customers, talk to your ideal customers to figure that out.

I think there are some tactical stuff to save you time. Big picture, how do you save more time? I think it’s finding more one too many audiences that can consume the material you make. So let’s say for instance, you’ve got this piece of cornerstone content, or the other one was cobblestone, leads in. If you go write a piece of cornerstone content for your website, maybe it’s this mega article about some part of the discipline that you offer, and you publish it to your website, okay, write all the clients come to me. You put all this work into your content, writing the content, which is super time-consuming, but you have to wonder, okay, well, where’s the leverage? Are you publishing to an audience of one? Are your Facebook fans, your friends and like your mom, they’re all like, yay, you wrote another blog post. Or are you taking that piece of content and instead of producing more content, finding some bigger audiences for that content to breathe and take life?

If you give a webinar and 10 people are there, and a lot of people will do this, they go give their 10 person webinar, and then they go create another webinar, and they give it to the same 10 people. And then they go create another webinar, and they give it to the same 10 people. So, you can create leverage by just taking that same dang piece of cornerstone content and repurposing it for bigger and bigger audiences. And a lot of that requires you to either pay to get access to those audiences, or it requires you to increase the difficulty, take on more rejection, get out there and pitch yourself to people that, most of them are gonna say no. Your stuff isn’t good, or I don’t have room for you. You’re not ready yet for our audience, or they won’t respond to you at all. I think that’s a place of leverage is how do you take that same piece of content and get more people to see it.

I’ve got about three webinars that I run to promote my business. And the other place you can get amazing leverage is advertising. I mean, I’ve run, Drew, it’s almost embarrassing, I’ve run the same three webinars more or less, they’re like 80% the same now for going on six years. Same three webinars. I rotate them, but I put a lot of ads behind that. We’ve spent over $700,000 on Facebook ads to promote our business over the last five years. It’s like we are making sure that our market knows our message. There’s a lot of people out there in the market you serve, and probably one of the biggest mistakes people make is they keep coming up with new content, because it feels productive, it feels productive to do that, versus just saying, hey, let’s put more of our energy into growing the audience around those couple pieces of content that we do have. So those are a couple like big picture ideas.

So when you’re helping your clients create whatever their marketing pieces are, how do you coach them through getting those done? I’m sure you hear a lot of the cobbler’s children have no shoes excuses as I do. So how do you combat that? First of all, if you’re a company out there that can do something, you should always ask yourself, should we be doing this. I can build myself a website, I can do content for myself, I can run my own ads. I don’t do any of those three things. We’ve got agencies, we’ve got people on my team that are dedicated to doing those things. So making sure that you’ve got the right resources in place, and you as an owner aren’t taking on all that responsibility.

And then looking at your workflows. There’s some kind of unique genius that probably comes from each agency owner, they’ve got this wizardry. You are the one that kind of brings all the pieces together and you understand how your agency solves problems in the marketplace. Finding, and I mentioned this earlier, this points of leverage, let me give you an example. Cornerstone content. So I always teach people, look at the three top problems in your market, look at your three top services of your offerings. And that kind of creates a little bit of a grid. And that’s kind of the same concept of a cornerstone piece of content.

So, for example, if you’re a web design agency, and one of your problems you solve is helping clients get more leads, cool. Websites get more leads. That’s an idea that you can go talk on. I bet most of your listeners could then take that and maybe spin off 30, 40, 50, 100, kind of subtopics around that core thing. They could also then spin up a Zoom room, spin up Loom, and they could jam on that idea for 10 minutes on video.

Now I produce these videos for myself and train my clients on how to do these videos where they’re looking at the camera, they have a decent background, they could actually publish the video. But if you don’t want to be on video, that’s cool too. So then we take that piece of 10 minute content. And the cool thing about video is you can speak way faster than most people can write. Most of us know how to hold a coherent conversation, whereas sitting down and writing a blog post can sometimes take hours. I know for me, it takes like two to four hours average, sometimes more, sometimes less. But a 10 minute video is something that you can go, you can jam on your topic, and then you can hand it off to somebody in your team.

The fun part about video is if you have a decent writer, they can turn that into a blog post, they can turn that into potentially one to three emails. They can turn that into some social media takeaways and stuff like that. They can turn that into an ad, they can turn it into a landing page. If you have some cool free resources and stuff lying around the office, you can even attach those and create some lead magnets. If you can get 10 minutes and record a little bit of your genius and then build kind of this process behind you to take that 10 minutes and turn it into a whole bunch of different content, now your team has the raw materials to go out there and publish on your website, maybe get you some guest publishing, get it out there on social media. And then most importantly, find some leveraged audiences like ads.

Drew McLellan:

Yeah, spot on. So, I want to talk in a minute about how niching and scaling are aligned. But let’s first take a quick break, and then we’ll come back and dig into that.

Hey there, you know I am incredibly grateful that you listen every week. And I want to make sure you get all of the support and tips and tricks and hacks that we have to offer. In every issue of our newsletter, I tell you what’s on my mind based on the conversations I’ve had with agency owners that week. We also point you to additional resources and remind you of anything we’ve got coming up that you might benefit from. If you are not subscribed to our newsletter now, we can fix that in a flash. Head over to agencymanagementinstitute.com/newsletter and complete the simple form. And we’ll take it from there. All right, let’s get back to the show.

All right, we are back with Brent Weaver, and we’re talking about agencies niching down and using that niche, and selling from a position of authority to grow their business. So, you mentioned early on in our conversation sort of that there is a correlation between niching and scaling. So can you talk a little more about that?

Brent Weaver:

I think scaling any business, complexity repels scale. The more complex your business is, the harder it is to scale. Whereas the more simple your business is, I think the easier it is to scale. And when you think about simplicity, really what you want to be thinking about in your businesses, what are my constraints? What are the things that we’re going to say no to and what are the things that we’re going to say yes to.

If you look at like, every time there’s a little bit of a nuance in terms of who you serve, what you’re offering them, it’s like you have these, almost this domino effect. Every time you offer a new service, that means that if you want to attract more people like that, you’ve got to come up with marketing messaging, you’ve got to come up with a value proposition, a promise, you’ve got to be clear on what problem that solves, you have to have a process for doing it, you have to have team members that can actually fulfill on that work. You have to have a project management system that can manage that. You have to have billing, even things like little, something to check inside of your invoicing system. There’s a drop down that says like, what are you billing this client for, there’s got to be a thing there. There’s all of these run on effects of every time you have a little bit of difference in your business.

I was looking at this one agency the other day, and they had a decent sized team. And they were like, it’s like 10 people that all had wildly different skill sets and stacks. And they would lose one team member and they would have no idea how to backfill that person. They wouldn’t have any idea all the processes that person was doing, it was just like all this complexity, right? So every time you go after a different market, every time you go after, make up a different offer, you’re in a way kind of reinventing the wheel, you’re doing a work on the business one more time.

So I think if you look at markets, markets are one way. A niche is one way to make that, to create that constraint. I think it’s probably one of the best ways because different groups of people have very different needs. There’s also the discipline component to it. So if you picked lawyers, for example, you can’t just, you have to also think about, okay, what problem for lawyers am I going to solve?

Drew McLellan:

It’s interesting. Probably a year and a half ago I did a blog post, not a blog post, I did a podcast that was called the Wonder Bread Factory Versus the Artisanal Bakery. And I think every agency only has to decide, like a wonder bread factory is what you’re talking about, which is, look, we make bread and you can get the loaf of white or you can get the loaf of wheat, but that’s it. You want gluten free, we don’t do that. You want a cake, we don’t do that. Whereas the artisanal bakery, that’s another kind of agency that loves creating the new thing. Every time a client walks in and says I want to do something special, can you make a version of my grandma’s lemon pound cake, and they go, we’ve never done it before, but we’d love to try it.

I think that’s a decision that every agency owner needs to make. And for some agency owners, they don’t want to be a wonder bread factory. For them, that’s boring, it’s not interesting, it’s not creatively challenging. And so, they probably are going to not scale to the level that you and I are talking about. They are going to stay smaller, they’re going to be more of a specialty shop. Now granted, they can probably charge five bucks for a loaf of bread because it’s an interesting shape tied to the holiday, and it’s got, whatever, caramel baked into it. Where the wonder bread factory it’s like, look, you can get a loaf of bread for 99 cents, but it’s going to be the same loaf of bread that you’re going to get all the time.

So, I think part of what a lot of agency owners haven’t really thought about is, do I want to run a wonder bread factory, which is what you’re talking about, or am I okay trying all these different new things and being something different for everybody and working for all of these different kind of clients knowing that that’s going to be more difficult to scale? But the creative process and the creation, that’s super fulfilling. So, in a lot of ways, what I find is it depends on the agency owner’s background, right?

Brent Weaver:

Yeah.

Drew McLellan:

I have agency owners in my world that never worked at an agency before. It was just a business model they liked, and they love the wonder bread factory. They think about it from a business perspective. And all they’re thinking about is margin and scale and growth. And I have other people who, let’s say they were a creative director in somebody else’s shop, and then partnered with somebody [inaudible 00:25:53] and created their own agency. And for them the idea of doing the same thing every day, that’s mind numbing to them.

And so I think you’re right, I think niching is a great way to scale. But I think agency owners have to decide what kind of business do they want to run.

Brent Weaver:

Yeah. I think you’re spot on there, it does need to be a decision. If you’re somebody who wants to be in the work and doing the work, and you want that variety of work, now, I would say, let’s say, for instance, you’re working on Shopify stores, and that’s your horizontal, which you have Shopify stores that are little jewelry boutiques, you have people that are selling food and T-shirts and whatever, everything in between, bikes. There’s obviously going to be a lot of variety in terms of the types of clients they’re bringing in. There’s just at least one constraint that says, hey, we’re not going to support 10 different tech stacks, we’re going to support one, we’re going to support the Shopify ecosystem.

I think there is still that variety in there. But what I