Episode 121

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Joe Kashurba started a freelance web design business when he was in high school and grew it into a digital agency with a world-class team and clients around the world. He went from building $300 websites to building $30,000 websites and managing 6-figure digital advertising budgets for some of the largest manufacturing and construction companies.

 

 

What you’ll learn about in this episode:

  • Joe’s agency that started when he was in high school
  • Why you’ll never get consistent clients without consistent marketing
  • Selling results instead of technology and why prospects respond better to that approach
  • How to know whether it’s better to have in-house employees or an outsourced team in any given area in digital
  • Evaluating digital partners that offer services that you understand but don’t know how to do
  • Using analog marketing tactics when you have time but not money to devote to your marketing
  • Why it’s hard to scale when you try to be everything to everyone
  • The cost of offering complex services
  • How Joe manages his completely virtual team
  • The differences between selling products and services
  • Clearly defining what you offer in a package to prevent scope creep
  • What to do to get caught up on digital trends if you feel you’re really far behind (and how to stay ahead if you’re on top of it)

The Golden Nugget:

“It’s really hard to scale when you try to be everything to everyone.” – Joe Kashurba Click To Tweet

 

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We’re proud to announce that Hubspot is now the presenting sponsor of the Build A Better Agency podcast! Many thanks to them for their support!

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 HubSpot. We’ll show you how to build an agency that can scale and grow, with better clients, invested employees and best of all, more money to the bottom line. Bringing his 25 plus years of experience as both an agency owner and agency consultant, please welcome your host, Drew McLellan.

Drew McLellan:

Hey there, everybody, Drew McLellan here with another episode of Build A Better Agency. Today’s topic, we are going to focus on building out your digital prowess. So, regardless of what kind of agency you are, you are certainly more digital than you used to be and you are wrestling with all kinds of challenges in that space. Whether you grew up a digital native and you have a digital agency and that’s all you do, or you are 62 and you’ve had your traditional agency for 35 years and now you’re trying to add those skill sets and those offerings into the mix, it’s something that every agency has to deal with. And my guest today is going to talk to us a little bit about how he did that and now, how he helps others. So, let me tell you a little bit about him and then we’ll jump right in.

Joe Kashurba started a freelance web design business when he was in high school, let that just sink in for a minute, and grew it into a digital agency with a world-class team and clients all around the world. He started out building $300 websites and evolved into building $30,000 websites, and managing six figure digital advertising budgets for large manufacturing and construction companies. Today, Joe and his team help others learn how to develop and scale their digital business, and that is where we’re going to put our attention today. So, Joe, welcome to the podcast.

Joe Kashurba:

Yeah. Thanks so much for having me.

Drew McLellan:

So, please tell me that you’ve been out of high school for more than a couple years.

Joe Kashurba:

Yes, actually, for 10 years.

Drew McLellan:

Okay.

Joe Kashurba:

Couple weeks is the 10-year high school reunion.

Drew McLellan:

Okay. Well, so you literally have had your business as digital, went from no one knew what it was, to it being ubiquitous in our world.

Joe Kashurba:

Yeah, absolutely. The business actually started as a video production business in high school. Although I never actually had any video production clients, I just learned how to build websites so I could do the website for the video production business I was trying to start. Then, people were interested in websites because they didn’t know anybody that did websites at that point, and it sort of grew from there.

Drew McLellan:

So, as you look back on your own business and the businesses that you now help, what are some of the pitfalls? What are some of the mistakes that agencies and web dev shops are making that cost them clients and money?

Joe Kashurba:

Yeah, I think the one piece that almost seems obvious once you hear it, is that if you want to get clients consistently and projects consistently, you actually have to do some sort of marketing consistently.

Drew McLellan:

Huh? It’s a novel concept, isn’t it?

Joe Kashurba:

Yeah. I mean, it took me years in business to figure that out. And I talk all the time to freelancers and agency owners, they’re talking about how they need more clients and they’re relying on referrals and this and that. And then I say, “Okay, so what are you doing to go out and get more clients?” And the answer is nothing.

Drew McLellan:

Yeah, right. I’m waiting for referrals just to walk in the door.

Joe Kashurba:

Exactly.

Drew McLellan:

Yeah.

Joe Kashurba:

Exactly. And-

Drew McLellan:

When it comes to servicing though the clients, so again, whether it’s digital advertising or web dev or app development or whatever it may be, in terms of the actual doing the work, what are the mistakes that you see over and over again that, again, cost agencies time and money and clients?

Joe Kashurba:

Yeah, that’s a really good question. I think one piece of it is getting too wrapped up in the technology and the buzzwords and all of this kind of stuff and forgetting that at the end of the day, the client still just wants sort of their needs to be met. They want to grow their business, or they want more sales, or they want these kinds of things. And so, so many people go in to sell these services and they talk about all the technical stuff and all the jargon and everything, rather than talking to the client about what they want. To a large extent, you want to forget about all that technology, talk to the client about what they want, and then you handle the technology side of things.

Drew McLellan:

So, part of it is, what I’m hearing you say is, don’t get enamored with whatever the shiny I object of the day is.

Joe Kashurba:

Well, certainly don’t get enamored with it. Don’t go just trying to sell clients the new platform or the new shiny thing, or now you can go on Facebook and do messenger bots, and all kinds of fancy stuff. If that’s not what the client needs, obviously don’t sell it to them. But also, don’t sell the technology, sell the results that you’re going to deliver and the meeting of the client’s needs. Does that make sense?

Drew McLellan:

Yeah. So what you’re saying is, don’t tell them how you’re going to make the baby, just show them how you’re going to give them the baby they want.

Joe Kashurba:

Exactly.

Drew McLellan:

Yeah.

Joe Kashurba:

Exactly.

Drew McLellan:

Yeah. So, a lot of agencies didn’t grow up digital natives. For many years, we weren’t really offering a lot of digital services. They’re more traditional or maybe they’re a PR shop and so, all of a sudden the line between PR and content and all of those things get awfully blurry. For agencies that are beginning to… Maybe they’re offering some very basic digital things but they really have not built out a team, or maybe they’re trying to decide if they want to work with a freelance team versus an in-house team, what is the thought process do you think an agency needs to go through to decide whether or not they want to have programmers or developers in house versus outsourcing that? What are the criteria that an agency owner should think about before they make that decision?

Joe Kashurba:

I think this might be a one step back from what you were mentioning, but I think the first step is thinking about, “Okay, who are our clients? Who are the kind of clients we work with and what do they actually need?” And making a decision about, first off, what services are you going to offer, that are the services that those clients need. So, not trying to build out every conceivable digital service you can think of, and we’re going to do websites and web development and SEO and all this stuff, but these are the kind of clients we work with, these are the services we need.

So, step one is figure that out, and then go piece by piece and add one service at a time, and figure out what’s the best way to deliver that one service. And depending on what that service is, if it’s SEO for instance, there are lots of white label partners out there that can handle all of the SEO work for you. And they might not need to hire anybody or even bring in a contractor or anything, just hand that all off to a white label partner. And so, that might be how they get into the digital space is, just choosing to offer that SEO service.

Drew McLellan:

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Joe Kashurba:

The same thing could be done with a digital marketing service like AdWords, or Facebook advertising, or something like that. Go one service at a time and figure out the simplest way to offer that service.

Drew McLellan:

So, for an agency owner or an agency leadership team who, let’s say, they understand intellectually what SEO is, they understand how it works and why it’s important to their clients, but if they lift up the hood of SEO… I know how to drive a car. I know how important my car is to me. But if I lift up the hood of my car, I recognize that this is self-disclosure. But other than where to put the windshield wiper fluid, I don’t really know what anything in there does. Right? So, I have to rely on a mechanic and I have to count on their honesty to tell me that X, Y, Z is broken or wrong, or needs to be tweaked or fixed, or whatever it may be. Let’s take SEO or some of those other things. So if an agency owner or an agency employee, if they lift up the hood of SEO, they don’t have any idea what you’re talking about. They understand it intellectually. They understand the outcomes. How do you evaluate a digital partner who does something you don’t really understand how they do it?

Joe Kashurba:

That’s a really good question. I think, number one, that is a reason why I would not recommend, unless you really need to, making the jump straight to a contractor or an employee or something. If you can find a white label company or an actual company, that’s sort of established company that can handle it, you have to do less of that evaluation. So, I think that’s really a good way to get started with it when you don’t know as much about what’s going on.

Drew McLellan:

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Joe Kashurba:

And I would look for some sort of an arrangement like that, a company, a white label partner that can actually teach you what you need to know. And then, at some point in the future, you may move to having your own contractors, your own employees. But I think that’s a good way to start and that’s a good way to start that education.

Drew McLellan:

But even still, there are a lot of companies out there, for example, that say they do those sorts of things. How do I know if they’re good or not?

Joe Kashurba:

I think it’s a tough one to answer. I think it’s a matter of looking at the results and trying it out. And maybe it’s a matter of some trial and error, and sort of having the risk of this particular project might not work with a client. I don’t know that there’s an easy solution or an easy answer.

Drew McLellan:

Yeah. What a lot of agencies do is they are their own first patient, if you will. So if they’re going to try out a new partner, they’ll have them try it out on themselves first. Again, sticking with our SEO example, they’ll spend some money, test driving it on their own agency first to see what the results look like. And are they open to teaching me? And what can I learn before they unleash someone like that on a client?

Joe Kashurba:

I think that’s a great way to do it. And I think the bottom line is that you sort of have to expect that there’s going to be some cost, whether that’s cost of paying them to do work for you or some sort of risk of them doing work for a client, but there’s some cost involved in making that transition.

Drew McLellan:

Yeah. Yeah. So, how does one grow their business? So you obviously have grown and scaled your business from doing very rudimentary websites to working with some big clients and doing some big projects. So, what were the growing pains that you experienced, and how did you overcome them?

Joe Kashurba:

So, I think the first thing I had to realize was that piece of, I need to start actually doing marketing and being in control of going out and getting the clients.

Drew McLellan:

Right.

Joe Kashurba:

So, I always recommend that there needs to be something happening in your business every single day to get you in front of more potential clients. And then-

Drew McLellan:

And do you believe that that’s all in the digital space? Do you believe there’s room for analog marketing tactics? What were some of the things you did to get on your prospect’s radar screen so you could grow your business?

Joe Kashurba:

Yeah. I mean, roughly speaking, there are unpaid strategies that involve some time. Those are things like cold calling, cold email, sending direct mail out, things like that. And then, there are paid advertising strategies that involve less time but involve some investment of money. And so, the process is to start with those unpaid time-based strategies and transition to the paid money-based strategies as you scale. I started with a lot of simply cold direct email, basically getting in touch with people who were perfect fit and offering services to them, as well as even direct mail, postal mail. And I think-

Drew McLellan:

You went old school.

Joe Kashurba:

Yeah. Even when I was still in high school, I was sending out postcards to local businesses offering websites.

Drew McLellan:

And was there a tactic that you found was more effective for you?

Joe Kashurba:

So I tried postcards at the beginning, and postcards wasn’t terribly effective. And what I realize the tactical piece was that, if you were doing direct mail to a consumer, a postcard or something that they don’t have to open is very effective, but if you’re doing direct mail to a business-

Drew McLellan:

Yeah.

Joe Kashurba:

… you have to get past the gatekeeper, the secretary that’s shuffling through that mail and throwing most of it out. So, you want to make it not look like a marketing package.

Drew McLellan:

Right. Right.

Joe Kashurba:

So put it in an envelope that’s handwritten and doesn’t have your logo on it and everything like that. And that was probably the key tactical piece that I realized.

Drew McLellan:

Yeah. Yeah. Okay. So first thing is you have to do some marketing. And then, as that started to work, what were the growing pains you experienced, and how did you overcome them?

Joe Kashurba:

Yeah, one of the first things that happened was I got to the point… This was when I was still just me, where I was spending more hours than I could possibly spend and I didn’t have the time to service all the clients. And I had to make a decision. Am I going to get an office and start hiring people? Or how am I going to actually do this? And what I realized was that everything was in my head in the business, and in order to scale it and in order to actually be able to bring other people in, I had to make some decisions about what services I was going to offer versus not offer, what were the actual processes that we were going to go through, and sort of simplify things. And I think that’s sort of a growing pain or pain when it comes to trying to scale, is that so many agencies are very sort of, “We do everything for everybody and whatever you need and whatever process.”

Drew McLellan:

Right.

Joe Kashurba:

It’s really hard to scale when that’s the case.

Drew McLellan:

Absolutely. And so, one of the ways you narrowed your focus, it looks like, was that you focused on a couple niches, manufacturing and construction.

Joe Kashurba:

It was a combination of focusing on the industry niches and cutting down on what kind of services we would offer. And that was a continuous process. Eventually, we got to the point where we only do WordPress websites. We used to do Joomla, Magento, or whatever.

Drew McLellan:

Right.

Joe Kashurba:

And then, more and more cutting down. We used to offer some print design, we cut that out. And so, I think as you grow the business, in a lot of cases, it’s cutting down more and more on what you offer because for everything that you offer, there’s sort of a cost of complexity.

Drew McLellan:

Yeah.

Joe Kashurba:

There’s more processes and more teams and more people, and also less profit. I think one of the things I noticed when I was starting to grow my business and talked to people who had what I saw as successful agencies at that time was they were making a lot of revenue but not a lot of profit.

Drew McLellan:

Right. Right. You make a lot, but you don’t keep a lot.

Joe Kashurba:

Yes. And one of the things I realized was that I had no interest in doing that. I had no interest in having a big team and having a big business if there wasn’t going to be any more profit than I was making at that point.

Drew McLellan:

Absolutely. Right. Why take the risk?

Joe Kashurba:

Yeah. And so, that’s where I figured out the only way to do that was to have a really narrow focus in terms of the services we offer, the people we provide services to, and everything like that so that things could be super, super lean and super, super sort of streamlined and scalable.

Drew McLellan:

Well, I think also, especially in the digital world, when you are trying to do everything, that means you have to have an expert in house for everything. So, now you have to have a Drupal expert and a WordPress expert and a Joomla expert and all of that, as opposed to saying, “Look, we have expertise in these two or three pieces of software, and this is what we do.”

Joe Kashurba:

Exactly. I think the tendency of agencies is, because they’re not doing the marketing, because they don’t have of a way to get clients consistently, they add on more services as a way to increase their revenue.

Drew McLellan:

Right.

Joe Kashurba:

And I think that’s looking down the wrong end of the telescope. You want to say, “Here are the clients that we serve and here are the services that we need to offer in order to serve those clients.” And you only add another service if you need to add another service to service those clients.

Drew McLellan:

Well, I think one of the challenges, a lot of times the agencies will meet a prospect who says, “I need a butterfly hut.” And the agency owner, typically, is the one who goes, “Oh, yeah. We build agents. We build butterfly huts,” and then they go back and go, “Crap. Now I got to figure out how to build a butterfly hut.”

Joe Kashurba:

I think that’s exactly what happens.

Drew McLellan:

Yeah.

Joe Kashurba:

And that comes back to the same marketing thing, because there’s not enough potential clients coming in that they feel like they have to get that client.

Drew McLellan:

Right. Right. Well, I think it also comes from not really defining… One of the tools that we work with agencies to use is we’ve created this thing called a sweet spot client filter. And it really forces them to define who their best customers are and to really not chase anybody who doesn’t fit that profile. So, the odds are that the right fit client is going to have the right fit needs, that you’re going to be able to knock it out of the park for them on an ongoing basis.

Joe Kashurba:

Absolutely.

Drew McLellan:

So what about your staff? As you were adding people, did you have the right people on the bus from the very get-go? Or did you sort of have evolutions of staff as your business grew and changed?

Joe Kashurba:

It was definitely an evolving process. I’ve kept the business entirely virtual. We’ve never had an office or physical team or anything like that. Everybody’s worked from home and everything. With that in mind, my philosophy has always been to get somebody in, give them a project, see how things go and sort of the… Almost taking the startup mentality of fail fast and move on to the next one. Let’s just get this person in, give them a few hours of work, and see if they work out and give them more if it works out. Get somebody else if it doesn’t. And so, it’s been a process of going through quite a few contractors, and then that person that we gave one project to, man up taking more projects, and that kind of thing. It’s a very different approach than the hire somebody full-time approach.

Drew McLellan:

Right. So, what do you think you give up by having that kind of a structure? Because I’m guessing most of the people listening to us are agencies with employees in a building. Even if they’re half and half and they have some contractors or they have some remote workers, they have bodies in house. So, I understand and I’m hearing you say what you’ve gained, but what do you think you sacrificed by doing it that way?

Joe Kashurba:

That’s a good question. I think one piece that I’ve never made the transition to that I think has definitely cost me is I’ve never made the transition to having team members that are working on the business, team members that are developing some new initiative, or developing some new service or some new marketing thing that we’re going to do to go out and get clients. It’s always been, the team delivers the services or does the selling or something like that, but never as an internal team working on internal stuff. And that’s something I’ve never made the transition to.

Drew McLellan:

And do you ever toy with the idea of making that transition or no?

Joe Kashurba:

It’s something I do think about. I think over time I’ve realized that that is probably a skill set, that’s where it’s best for me to put my time. And so, it’s better to focus on eliminating other things that I’m doing so I can put my time there.

Drew McLellan:

Makes sense. It’s interesting. Again, one of the themes of our conversation so far has been making compromises and choices that narrow the focus.

Joe Kashurba:

Yeah, absolutely.

Drew McLellan:

So, really, even in that, even in your business delivery model, you’re making the choice to sort of narrow and sacrifice some opportunity for what feels to you like a deeper opportunity. Is that accurate?

Joe Kashurba:

Yes. Yeah, I think it’s accurate. I think another thing that I’ve given up, which I think at the end of the day is a good thing and is what I advocate, is the ability to take on some of those non-core projects and clients. If somebody comes to me and they have some massive thing where they need the website and then they need all these banner ads and they need 10 zillion other services, because my business is set up with very specific processes for very specific services, I couldn’t take on that massive account.

Drew McLellan:

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Joe Kashurba:

Whereas somebody with a big physical staff and a bigger team in person could put together the resources to go out and do that thing, my setup is less flexible at doing something outside of what it’s designed to do. I don’t know if it makes sense.

Drew McLellan:

Yeah. Yeah. So, one of the things that I talk to agency owners about is, there’s a spectrum of, “I’m going to be an artesian bakery. We’re going to bake everything by hand. We’re going to vary the recipe and every loaf of bread is going to be a little unique, and it’s going to be expensive,” versus, “I am a factory and I make wonder bread. I crank out the bread, and it looks and tastes and is the same.” And for every agency, you sort of have to decide where in that spectrum you want to exist.

Joe Kashurba:

I think that’s a good analogy. It doesn’t necessarily mean that that wonder bread factory is putting up a low cost product or service, but we’ve-

Drew McLellan:

But it’s more systemized and there’s more sameness than uniqueness at some level. So again, for you, it would be they’re all WordPress sites. Doesn’t mean they look the same, doesn’t mean they function the same, but the core recipe is the same.

Joe Kashurba:

Absolutely.

Drew McLellan:

Yeah.

Joe Kashurba:

My business model has developed into a very productized business model.

Drew McLellan:

Well, right. I think that’s the difference, right? It’s product, and there is some consistency in the product.

Joe Kashurba:

Exactly.

Drew McLellan:

And what I find interesting is, for a lot of agency owners, especially those that have been in the business for a really long time, they’re almost offended at that analogy and that they might be factory workers. Because I see the financials of all of my agencies and it’s well over a hundred, I will tell you the ones that air to the side of the factory over the artesian bakery are the ones who are… They may not be making more, but they’re keeping more. They are lining their pockets better than the artesian baker is.

Joe Kashurba:

That’s exactly right. That’s what I realized and why I sort of consciously made the decision to go that productize route.

Drew McLellan:

Well, I