Launching, niching and growing an agency
What your agency looks like today is likely nothing like you thought it would be. Equally you may be wondering how to start making necessary changes in your business to allow you to grow the team, or free up more of your time.
In today’s episode we learn how Tim launched his agency, how he grew the team, and where he found it best to focus on their strengths with the industry they served. Yet another episode where we can learn from the journeys of others who’ve demonstrated the power of process, niching and excellence.
Tim is the owner of Hook Agency, an 8 person marketing agency out of Minneapolis – serving small businesses and construction companies. He’s gotten his company from 1 person to 8 in 2 years, and has been in marketing and website design for much longer.
They help small businesses, manufacturers, and construction companies get more traffic and leads with professional web design and greater visibility with content marketing + SEO.
- Hire slow.
- Recurring revenue is huge, powerful and allows you to hire.
- You think you are so set working for somebody else, you think you are so safe but really you don’t see what’s going on in the background.
- You get better from every bump in the road that you hit.
- Each problem that you encounter is an opportunity, if you have the right attitude, it gives you the opportunity to increase your skills and get significantly better when you have problems in the future.
- Every constraint is an opportunity, it forces you to become creative in the manner you resolve things.
Connect with Tim:
Introduction: Welcome to The Agency Trailblazer Podcast. This is your host Lee, and on today’s show we are talking with Tim Brown from Hook Agency all about how he launched, niched and grew his business. So sit back, relax and enjoy the ride.
Lee Jackson: Welcome to a conversation with me, Mr. Lee Jackson, and today we have Tim Brown from the agency that created one of my all time favourite movies. Hook. Tim, how are you doing?
Tim Brown: Well, I’m doing great. Unfortunately we are not responsible for that masterpiece.
Lee Jackson: Ah what?!
Tim Brown: No, but I do love it and I don’t hate the associative connotation.
Lee Jackson: Fair enough, I just have to rip up all my questions. I had all these questions about the effects that you did in the movie.
Tim Brown: Yes, I will pretend to know those answers.
Lee Jackson: Gutted. Folks, if you want to find out a bit more about Tim, who obviously is not behind the hook movie, you can check out hookagency.com with a nice gold colour. Is that gold? Who would you call that gold?
Tim Brown: Yeah, it’s gold. We’ve got a logo up in our office that looks like it is actually gold and yeah it’s a gold and like a dark navy blue.
Lee Jackson: Is that, oh yeah. I feel like I might be a bit colour blind because I actually thought that was like a black until you said that. And now I’m reading this elite small businesses choose an agency that acts like a partner. I like that and I can see the blue now as I look closely with my glasses on.
Tim Brown: Yeah, absolutely man. We love that style, the deep blue and the gold cause to me it’s, it’s just a little bit more of that exclusive look and want that exclusive feel.
Lee Jackson: You’ve got the fonts that match that as well, isn’t it? Like that premium font sort of thing going on.
Tim Brown: Yeah, absolutely. I spent a while on that logo and was very surprised to see hookagency.com available and I spent some money on it.
Lee Jackson: First thing I think about with hook as well as just WordPress hooks, cause I’m a geek.
Tim Brown: Yeah. There’s all kinds of weird connotations, but I like it. You know, if you have a brand that has something in it where your competitor will be pitching their services and then they’ll say the word Hook and then they’ll feel a tinge in their heart. You know what I mean? There’ll be like, you need a hook and then they’ll be like ah, s**t, I’m promoting my competitor.
Lee Jackson: Yeah, I need a Hook Agency and your outside.
Tim Brown: Yeah, and the prospect, if they hear that will be reminded of you too, which hook is used a lot in marketing. So it’s hard not to say the word Hook, if you meet with somebody a couple of times, if you’re talking about marketing I think.
Lee Jackson: I see what you did there. I’m going to call, I’m going to call my agency and. Then everyone will be talking about me all the time. I think that was a dad joke and you laughed as well.
Tim Brown: Hey, dad jokes are jokes as well. I’m getting to that age where I laugh at dad jokes now.
Lee Jackson: #thestruggleisreal. That was perfect. I love these sorts of intros where we just instant banter. It was beautiful. You’re already my favourite guest of this hour, so that’s fantastic. I would love to find out Tim, a little bit about you. So before we jump in the time machine, could you just let people know a little bit about you? So kind of where you’re from, perhaps something you feel nobody knows about you or is not very commonly known. Maybe your favourite colour or favourite drink or just a few little random facts so we can get a bit of a feel for who Tim Brown is.
Tim Brown: Sure. I started Hook Agency about seven years ago. I’m from around here, Minneapolis area, Minneapolis, Minnesota, the Midwest of the United States, and I care very much about people’s marketing, small businesses. I was doing trade type work for awhile after high school, like roofing. I did trade like construction, etc. Like I did window framing, I did landscaping, shovelling rock hard, kind of sweaty work and then I, you know, spent some time doing some other things I valeted, etc. When I finally got into marketing, I think that that’s partly why our agency is niched into trade organisations, construction-related home services stuff is just because I did that a bunch and I guess I knew the need, I knew the need to connect customers to providers and I knew that they needed that and I knew that I kind of understand those people and like them cause I worked with them. So that’s partly, you know, we’re starting, we’re kicking off the niche discussion early. Also when we started, you know, when I started this agency first as a freelancer and then started hiring people, I just saw a consistent number of these types of clients. So it was really, hey people are buying from us. You know, half of our clients are this. If we’re going to choose a niche, it might as well be this, you know?
Lee Jackson: And that was your hook.
Tim Brown: Yep. Exactly. Hook, you know let’s get get into the marketing hook thing for us, if you have a niche, people just, you know, you can keep it kind of open. We say construction companies and small businesses. The small businesses thing is pretty broad and even that didn’t like recently we had a really high pretty awesome corporate client, General Mills reach out to us and the small businesses thing didn’t stop them. So having some clear things on there doesn’t actually make people not contact you from other niches. It just really resonates with the people that are in that niche. So I think that there is an element of just where the most of your clients from right now? Choose that as your niche and then throw it on your stuff. Start putting it out there, start making content for them. And I just think it’s a lot easier to make content and it’s a lot easier to do outbound sales because now you have evidence, of the fact that you’ve worked in these industries and more and you talk about it more on your marketing materials.
Lee Jackson: Well first of all can I say Amen, but also folks, if you check out hookagency.com and go and have a look at web design, you will see Tim is practising what he preaches because they even have a website here for a composer such as a Sean Hickey, I think a composer. So literally there is a good mix of businesses that are being looked after by these guys. I think a lot of folks don’t they get really scared of niching or niching down and they think they’re going to miss out on another business. But like you said, you’ve been quite broad and you said we are looking after the construction industry and small businesses. You’re in Minnesota, so that’s kind of giving you that whole area as well as small business. Now I’m going to throw in the colour question, which you totally avoided and I’m guessing gold.
Tim Brown: Blue. My wife says gold and she runs the agency with me. So there you go.
Lee Jackson: Oh, that’s awesome. Well I want it. This is what I wanted to ask you, cause you talked about, and let’s go back in that time machine again then and I was interested in how you actually grew the agency. You mentioned you started as a freelancer, which is what most agencies start like. So could you just give us a day in the life of what it was like then and how then did you move from being a freelancer to starting to grow a team? So just those very early days, if you could kind of share that story with us, that’d be phenomenal.
Tim Brown: Awesome. Yeah, I would like to give kind of two starting stories. One was during college I was doing this and then about four years later I did a restart because I went and worked for a different agency and during college the start looked like this. I did not know how to get new customers and I felt like I was pretending for sure because I was just starting to make websites, but I didn’t want to make fake websites in class. I didn’t want to waste all this time and I knew I’d do better work if I actually found a client. So my first WordPress website basically was for a client. I was in a WordPress class and I started saying I’m a web designer on Facebook. Then I got my first client through a friend of my wife’s who was my girlfriend at the time.
Tim Brown: I essentially said I could do this. I kind of indicated that I was early, but I went out and met with her, kind of looked at her gym, she had a Kettle bell gym, and I did a workout and was like, yeah, I think we can do a really good website for this. I’m excited. I have a couple of new ideas. I’ve got energy, I might not have expertise and I didn’t say that, but I might have had expertise but I had an energy and I was willing to kind of go the extra mile. Whereas obviously somebody that’s been around 10 years, sometimes they don’t do that. So I got that client. I actually did some work for trade or actually I traded my services for advertising in a local magazine paper thing at the time, which was called Vitamin. I essentially got two clients from that paper advertising, which is funny cause I’m a digital marketer, right? Got two new clients from that, one was a local music venue and one was a clock technician. Strange niche. But I feel that I did those calls super excitedly and did my absolute best and I didn’t have a car at the time. So I took my bike and got on the bus and went over to this client and was so excited because they’re actually, people know about this music venue in town and those are the first three clients. So I just essentially built those sites, knew they had to be really good because they’re going to sell my next five sites and that was how that started. Now I was not making enough. I probably could have survived at that point, but I graduated college with maybe seven clients that I had done websites for and I wanted to go learn from another company.
Tim Brown: So I did the overlap technique for two and a half years, but at the same time I was actually building my website and its presence on Google. I had just started to learn about SEO when I was freelancing before I went and worked for this company. But this company was very good at SEO and they dominate for all the local terms in our area and so I learned from those people. I took $20,000 less than what I could’ve made at a corporation, but I wanted to learn from these people, learn search engine optimization, became their marketing director about a year and a half in and was overlapping the whole time. On the side, I’m working 15 hours, 20 hours. I think overlap is huge. I personally think that that’s the best way to start a business is overlapping. I think that that process I t taught myself a lot. I was doing extra work on the side. I was willing to put in that, that extra effort and you know, had 10 clients during that time, at least for myself, maybe 20 and was building the business on the side. Then when I went full time freelance I had to make sure that my wife was cool with it. You know, hey this is going to be hard for awhile. Are you okay with this? She knew it was time I was making more on the side than I was at my main job and that was a pretty good spot to go into cause I had three to six months of runway to really just go crazy. And I had some recurring clients cause they had started to sell SEO as a service and when pretty hard in that search engine optimization. Once I got started I created a landing page at that time and tweeted it and got a multinational company that converted on it from my tweet. It’s weird. I don’t know if anyone else has done this, an agency probably, but you know I’ve converted from Twitter, Instagram, Facebook and LinkedIn. I’ve gotten new clients from all four of those social media spots, so I believe in social, but we’ve gotten a way more clients from search engine optimization and Google and then just I think doing good work.
Tim Brown: The restart. Let’s talk a little bit about that restart, right. I went out on my own two and a half years ago, full time freelance and a little office right next to the one I’m in right now, 500 square feet/550 square feet and I shared it with another guy. He had his own business and just kind of two freelancers having a good time. I essentially just started to get recurring services, little bit more was pushing on the SEO side just because I knew that if you’re going to build a business recurring as huge or occurring as powerful and recurring allows you to hire versus we have web design, we do web design, we do really good web design work, but it’s hard to hire too aggressively in that area because the projects come and go. And so as a small business it’s a little harder to hire quickly in that area. Search engine optimization on the other hand, we’ve got a decent amount of recurring now, so it’s a lot easier to do that. So at that time we were building that up and pushing on that and I was pushing on referral systems. I got different coaches at the time. I asked for help from people I knew that were entrepreneurs and learned from them. When I first went out on my own, I took people out for 15 lunches that first month that was out just paid for people’s lunches and just said, hey, I’m here. Not even trying to get business from you right now, but hey, if you think of us, refer us some business or for me some business, right? It was just me. But then four or five months in, I asked my wife to come join me and she was working at a corporate job and she always tells this story, but you think you’re so set at a corporate job, you think you’re so set working for somebody else. But she joined me and it was kind of a big risk. It was a weird risk at the time.
Tim Brown: We don’t, we don’t live that simply. We live decently well where you’re like, you know, we have a lifestyle to maintain. Right? So she joined me and it was scary and it was terrifying. She made the business better almost immediately just taking stuff off my hands that is hard to keep up with. So she was helping me with communication. She’s helping me with tasks and things like that and it was massive. It was really big. It allowed me to scale it out. By the way, the reason I was prepping with that corporate thing is because two months later they fired her whole department. So it was a corporate job and they fired her whole department. You think you’re so safe, but really you don’t see what’s going on in the background and then suddenly you know to us having our own business is one of the most safe things that you can do because you actually know, you feel the bumps and you get better from every bump in the road.
Tim Brown: Every speed bump makes you, if you have the right attitude it makes you better. So there’s an opportunity to increase your skills and to get significantly better whenever you have problems. Each problem is an opportunity and when you’re in a corporate job, sometimes you don’t feel those bumps. You don’t know. Like her company was getting less and less profitable and you know for no reason related to her but for big corporations. So they had to do that and she didn’t know all the inner workings cause she’s so far removed from the actual decisions that are being made. So there’s to me small business in to running your own agency in particular, if you have the right mindset, if you have intestinal fortitude, if you’re willing to take the attitude of every time there’s a bump, every time there’s something really hard we’re going to use it as an opportunity to get significantly better. So bring them on, bring on the problems then it can be a very powerful place to be. I mean I feel like I think of it as just giving us a lot of opportunities to grow in our personal lives too.
Lee Jackson: I think I’ll reiterate what you said with regards to when you run your own business and you are not reliant on a salary that’s coming in. I agree you are safer because you actually have an understanding of what is coming in and you can see the danger signs way, way in advance because it is your business and you are working on this. If you know that your pipeline is not healthy or if you know that there is going to be some tough months coming up ahead, you can prepare. What you can’t prepare for is when your big corporate company gives you your two weeks notice and no pay out or whatever it is. Cause I don’t know what the laws are like in the states, but I know they’re not great and it’s not really great here as well. You don’t get like loads and loads of money necessarily when you’re made redundant. I think you have like a couple of weeks or something and that’s it.
Tim Brown: Yeah, exactly. Honestly there’s a agency in town that just let go of five people, no severance, nothing. Honestly it’s like, I dunno, we think of like some things like that matter and I don’t want to be like too proud, but I want to be the different kind of agency and so now we’re up to nine people. It’s two and a half years later. I want to be a different kind of agency that treats people really well. Like, I believe that it’s super important in this time in particular to treat your employees really well, to help them grow and to care about their long term vision for their lives. That’s the real challenge for us right now. So at the beginning getting the first couple of clients, I remember my, my dad runs a 30 person company as well, and no money from him by the way, just so people don’t think like I’m a trust fund baby or something like, but he runs a small business as well. He told me when I went out on my own, he said, you’re going to have more clients than you know what to do with and no time. I mean that vote of confidence. Like he’s, he’s a bold guy. He went on his own and it was a big deal. He knew that the, the bigger problem was going to be how to create systems to make sure the work is done well and consistently. So more than anything, that is what I took away. I started having confidence, right? Because we got a lot of clients and they built them over time, but it was like harder. We keep this work good over time. I had to add people slowly and it’s hard because you’re adding people and you know you need three different people right now, but you can only hire one because of cashflow.
Tim Brown: So you have to figure out which, which one to hire. Is it the writer first is the SEO specialist, the web designers at the sales guy? So you have to hire the most important one. But that is an opportunity like every constraint is an opportunity. Every constraint that you have in your business is a giant opportunity because you have to find a creative way around that and because we have only been able to hire one person when I want to hire three it’s very, very tight, it’s not terrible the money situation, but keeps it very, very tight. There’s no outside investment for us. So it keeps us smart. You know what I mean? That that constraint keeps us very smart about who we hire next and very choosy because there’s, you know, it’s hard to have too many wrong decisions. I’m not going to say I wouldn’t fire somebody if I had to do, if they weren’t living up to our core values, but I don’t want to do it and I’m going to wait it almost at all costs. So it makes me try to be very, very smart about who I hire but it’s very, very slow.
Lee Jackson: Hire slow fire fast with some things long time ago and I didn’t listen for a long time.
Tim Brown: I appreciate that. I do think like big time, you know a lot of people that are listening to this probably watch Gary v, Gary Vaynerchuk, he’s a big time social media marketing guy. He has a thousand person agency.
Lee Jackson: For the record massively not a fan of him.
Tim Brown: Okay, awesome. Well I was actually going to contradict him this time. He talks a lot about firing and he talks about how your ego gets wrapped up into it and so you don’t want to fire because that would mean you made a wrong decision. I will say, he’s talking about a thousand person agency when I’m going to 10 person agency, then I don’t think it’s quite the same. Like I’m not sitting around, I’m not really firing that many people. I’m planning to not for a while. You know what I mean? So I think that sometimes that fire quicker, you know, it can be a cover up for the fact that you’re not being exclusive enough, you’re not being selective enough on the hiring process. So I just think it’s a little bit different for the thousand versus the 10 person company. Don’t act like you’re a thousand person company when you’re a 10 person company and there’s just different answers for different scales. So sometimes you’re listening to very, very, very smart people that have a thousand person company and you’re a 10 person company. You probably need to trust your own gut more than listening to these experts.
Lee Jackson: I’m really glad you said that. Might. I ranted the other day about these gurus online that are selling you success and but they’re in a completely different world and that’s just the only people getting rich off all of their successes then because they’re selling you a system that your not ready for.
Tim Brown: Exactly and think small, like you have a giant opportunity and an arbitrage if you think very small and you think about how you can do this at a level that’s unscalable. For most of us probably listening to this podcast, thinking about these things. I mean we’re smaller companies and there’s an opportunity to really use that instead of trying to pretend like we’re a thousand person company all the time. For instance, real estate agents, I don’t actually do marketing for real estate agents because there’s just so many of them. Our main thing is search engine optimization and there’s just 10 corporate giant websites taking up the first page of most real estate Google searches. I think about real estate sometimes because it kind of relates. So real estate agents need to think small when they’re marketing because they can own a neighbourhood, they can own a part of town if they really worked on their search engine optimization for that part of town.
Tim Brown: I think the same goes for marketing agencies that can own a niche, can own a sub set of topics and really focus on them. So for instance, if you’re a landscape marketer, if you own landscape SEO, there’s absolutely opportunity. If you can think small and try to solve small problems for a very tight group of people, they will trust you and they will ask you for your help. So there’s a lot of opportunity for smaller agencies to think small and to stop trusting these gurus like you’re saying, and just start thinking for themselves and trusting themselves. You know way more about your situation than anyone else does. And you probably are a pretty smart person, especially if you’ve grown a company from one to five to 10 to 50 people, right? So trust yourself and use what you know about your situation to double down on what’s working.
Lee Jackson: What I like as well about what you said there was with regards to do something that initially won’t scale anyway because you can’t scale giving someone like a a hundred percent of your time and giving them massive customer service etc, and giving them an amazing experience. But what will eventually come from that is you will find kind of yours and you’ll find your sweet spot. You will, you will work out how you can look after your clients and give them the most and then you will grow off the back of that because more and more people, you mentioned it right early on that you’ve grown a lot by actual through recommendation, etc. So people have had a great experience with you and then recommended you and then you’ve grown within your niche. Well kind of like two niches, small business obviously, but also in the trade sector as well. And that’s allowed you to continue to and now you can then start to scale it because when you then bring another employee and you now have to think, all right, we need to think smart. So I presume, and correct me if I’m wrong, that your thinking smart not only was who do we hire, what role do they fill? But I presume it forced you to look at what you were doing to find better ways of being more efficient, processes, documentation to want to kind of let us in on a few of those things what you did.
Tim Brown: Yeah, absolutely. So we had to figure out what the biggest activities are that can be done consistently, that will lead to a good result for our clients. So if every single activity that we do is custom every single time we’re constantly thinking about new things. Everything has to be new all the time. We have to be doing different activities. Then it’s hard to add an employee, right? It’s hard to add an employee and tell them to do stuff for 40 hours without wasting your time. So I make lists.
Lee Jackson: Or their time as well cause you’re not actually sure what to give them first.
Tim Brown: Exactly. So we tried to really focus on, what activities are going to consistently grow our client’s business if we did them over and over and over again. And yes there is some complexity to that. But the important point was I wanted to be a agency that has a system that works for our clients, not a consultancy that requires my constant attention cause it’s very easy to be a consultancy at two people, right? Or four people. But if you’re 10 people and you’re 20 people, fear consultancy, the only people that you can hire are people with 10 years in the business. So I had to figure out, what can even somewhat newer people do that’s gonna add value to our client’s business that’s going to actually get them new clients. Those things, were heavy duty for us was heavy duty around search engine optimization, meta titles and descriptions on page SEO, technical stuff that we can create these standard operating procedures for that they can carry out on a regular basis.
Tim Brown: Writing having writers in House that are consistently researching these topics and writing for our clients blogs. Those were big repetitive tasks that people could do with some clarity, some standard operating procedures that are documented and that they’re able to do over and over and over again with a positive result for our clients. So whatever those happen to be for your company, creating those standard operating procedures and just write writing down what you did and trying to make think about how that’s going to actually scale up to new people. It’s a lot easier to write them when you know you actually have a new person that to give them to. So it is a lot of extra work, but it’s always extra work that’s going to actually matter for your long term business success. I think that on the small scale it’s like, Hey, I emphasise on my to do list for today, right? I have some that I need to get done. Let’s say three or four of those are delegating tasks. I’m going to do those absolutely first because that time they could be working on those delegated tests. So prioritising, delegation, prioritising systematisation. That’s made a big difference for me and it’s something that you hear a lot. So I’m not saying something novel necessarily, but I am saying it did work for, for us.
Lee Jackson: I think you and I actually had a conversation before we started recording the show though and I mentioned that your journey is similar to a lot of our journeys with regards to getting started. I think we can’t hear this sort of journey enough because there are so many agency owners right now who have perhaps feel trapped, they feel they can’t go onto the next level. They feel like they’re stuck in their business. And I think they need to hear this sort of story and over and over and over again to actually help encourage them to actually say, okay, I am going to put in some more time and start to work out my processes, etc. So the one thing we learned was when I said, right, I need to employ a member of staff or I need to add another employee.
Lee Jackson: We actually found recently that we went as far as actually adding the employee and then working on all of the processes, etc. Realising that we didn’t really need the employee for what we thought we needed. We were able to streamline all of our processes to the extent where there was nothing for them to do. It was actually me jumping the gun and employing first before spending time actually looking at where we needed to improve, so years later I’m still making the odd hiring mistake where I get excited by the idea of adding to the team and then realising actually once you look at these processes and procedures, you can actually do more with less, or find that person to do, I love what you said, to do those activities that are going to really help our end client do whatever it is they need to do, like the writing or the on page SEO and all of those sorts of things.
Tim Brown: Absolutely.
Tim Brown: So Tim, this is been awesome. We’re running low on time, but I would love to have you back on in the future. Maybe we can chat as well in the Facebook group. Folks, if you don’t know what that is, it’s agencytrailblazer.com/group. You are a complete legend and we really appreciate learning from you. What are the best ways for people to connect with you buddy and then we will say goodbye.
Tim Brown: Yeah, it’s Tim Brown at Hook Agency on LinkedIn and then hookagency.com and Hook Agency all over social, Instagram, Facebook, etc. Thank you so much for having me Lee, it’s been really fun talking through this stuff and just kind of going through reminiscing about the story.
Lee Jackson: Awesome. Well thanks for letting us learn from your journey and have an amazing day.
Tim Brown: Thank you sir.
Lee Jackson: Cheerio.
Tim Brown: Bye.
Lee Jackson: And that wraps up today’s show. Now, one of the main reasons this podcast exists is so that we can connect with agency owners and people who have been there and done that so that we can learn from them so that we can be inspired and so that we can be encouraged. So if you have been inspired or encouraged or any of the above today, then please do let me know either by giving us a review on the podcast player of your choice and or by joining our free Facebook group. You can find that over on agencytrailblazer.com/group. Hope you’ve had a wonderful time listening to this episode. We’ve had a wonderful time producing it for you. It will be great to hang out there on Facebook. Have an amazing day, and if we don’t see you in the community, we shall certainly see you in the next episode. Bye Bye.
Do you want to make real change in your business?
Join us at our in-person event Agency Transformation Live