How We Started A £15K/Month SEM Agency And Became A Google Partner

Start A Marketing Agency
About The Company
Coming Up With The Idea
Launching The Business
Growing The Business
Revenue + Financials
Lessons Learned
Recommended Tools
Books & Resources
Advice For Founders
Are you looking to hire for certain positions right now?
$19,000
revenue/mo
1
Founders
4
Employees
product
Tao Digital Marke...
from Bolton, England, United Kingdom
started May 2017
$19,000
revenue/mo
1
Founders
4
Employees
1.08M
alexa rank
171
followers
512
followers
24
subs
market size
$55B
avg revenue (monthly)
$533K
starting costs
$11.8K
gross margin
23%
time to build
11 months
growth channels
Word of mouth, SEO (blog posts, organic traffic from search engines)
business model
Consulting
best tools
Twitter, YouTube, Instagram
time investment
Full time
pros & cons
9 Pros & Cons
tips
36 Tips
Discover what tools Matt reccommends to grow your business!
Discover what books Matt reccommends to grow your business!
Listen to the audio version of this story!

Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?

Hey, I’m Matt Tomkin and I started Tao Digital Marketing. We’re a search engine marketing specialist agency based in Bolton, UK.

We are now a Google partner and help a number of businesses gain higher rankings on search engines via SEO or PPC.

Our main product is the organic search service, or SEO as most people call it.

how-we-started-a-15k-month-sem-agency-and-became-a-google-partner

Most of our clients at present are in the B2B space and look to generate sales enquiries or sell spaces on training courses online etc. With my previous background I think it really helps understanding the B2B buyer journey or sales funnel when working with these types of company.

We’ve seen some major success with our clients; I started out working with one business as a freelancer as a side gig and gained them some really valuable rankings on Google.

From here it started to snowball by word of mouth really and my first client suggested we should set it up as a “real” agency.

We’re now turning over £12-15k per month and this is growing rapidly with a team of 4. We’ve been working with our largest client now for over 12 months but have lost very few clients in the 2 years since birth!

What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?

I’ve had a few businesses and have a strong passion for entrepreneurship. I started my first business at 19 years old which was online personal training; sadly this didn’t go very far as I had a full time job and not enough resources or time to dedicate to it.

My first big business was a Business Telecoms company called Comms Consult. We ended up being pretty successful with this business. At 26, I had a flash sports car on the drive and more money than I knew what to do with. We had some really big clients and call centres were relying on us, and the technology we sold, to keep their businesses moving.

Failures happen! If we didn’t fail we wouldn’t move to the next step. That member of staff, that expense that went wrong. Things just go wrong and sometimes it’s no-ones fault! Just keep going!

Sadly, this ended fairly badly as I ended up falling out with my business partner at the time. He bought me out for a lot less than market rate but all was good as we were parting ways at what became the right time.

I then had a passion for sports and had started a sportswear brand on the side of running the Telecoms business. This had started taking off and I decided to go full time on this project.

The sportswear ended in disaster; it grew way to quickly and I ran out of cash to sustain the growth. Yes, overtrading is a real thing!! Who knew?!!

how-we-started-a-15k-month-sem-agency-and-became-a-google-partner

The great thing about this failure though was the lessons and the expertise I gained through the journey.

You can’t run a business without positive cashflow being a big one. But also, I’ve learnt to understand the online customer journey. From searching on google, right through to conversion, the journeys customers take online need to be optimised and most importantly, measured!

This is where the idea for Tao Digital came from really. From the other agencies I worked with, I had grown very disheartened by the lack of communication and the lack of understanding of a business’s goals and the strategies needed to hit them. They just didn’t seem to get it!

I knew enough at the time to get good results in the search engines and also knew how to deal with the B2B business owners and marketing managers. I’ve always been good at communicating more complex technology or solutions to people so it’s easy to understand.

Tao Digital Marketing was born out of that frustration.

I’d validated the need in my own head but then managed to pick up a second freelance client who was in need of advice and help to gain more visibility online.

This gave me the knowledge I needed to go for it.

I was in a bit of a financial mess when I started Tao, the sportswear had been put into liquidation and I was and am still paying off the debts I had guaranteed for the business.

A very good friend of mine ran a company called Thornton & Lowe and one day in the pub agreed to back my agency dream. He would, if needed, cover the first 6 months of the business outgoings. So we shook on that and never looked back. I now own 100% of the business again which is great. But I couldn’t have done it without his help.

Take us through the process of designing your services and launching the business.

The main thing was to make sure we had the design of our service offering right.

This took some time to get right as we’d meet some prospects looking for a one stop digital marketing agency (full service, if they really exist) and then other wanted search marketing specialists.

I knew we were different from a lot of the search agencies out there due to my background being in owning and running a few businesses before starting in search. This meant I’d had my own frustrations with what was being offered and knew we had to make communication at the heart of everything we did.

Plus, a client isn’t really bothered about lots of traffic to a site. They’re bothered about lots of qualified leads coming through the site. So my concentration was around delivering tangible results for our clients and effectively communicating the process.

We were pretty lucky when we launched Tao Digital, in that I had already built a good business network of contacts over the previous 12 years of being in business in my local area.

To this day, the majority of work we win is from referrals from my contact base and this will continue to be a big driver of growth for us. We are now, however, looking to market the business properly.

We launched our website and I used Linkedin to great effect. Linkedin allowed me to message all my contacts and point them to our new website for free. This meant we had an audience of business people from day one.

My first “client” was a Photocopier Leasing company called Copy Print Services. I had known the owner of this business a good number of years through the different networking I had done in other businesses and he had a marketing consultant working for him who had seen the opportunity of search to his business but wasn’t sure how to go about it.

I sat down with John and discussed how I might be able to help. The main task was to increase leads through the website and increase visibility of the brand within the search engines.

In the early days I kept it very simple, get the site in the best position from a technical perspective (make it as easy as possible for Google to understand the site). I restructured a lot of the site, submitted it to both Google and Bing and set-up local listings properly etc. All very basic things.

Then, I focused on the site content and completed a massive amount of keyword research to set out what the internal service pages needed to be and also a short plan of blog content to move forward with.

Very much Top of funnel type content such as this article on lease vs buying a copier, as you can see it’s very basic but is still one of the highest trafficked blogs on the site. And generates leads.

We are still working with them to this day, very rare in the search to have a client for over 2 years. It was a more informal arrangement before I set-up the agency.

From here I picked up a few more clients after discussing the work I was doing down the pub and at other events. Lucky to have a good few business owners frequent my local!haha

A friend of mine who runs a Bid Consultancy business called Thornton & Lowe in Bolton offered to back me. He was willing to fund 6 months of the company if needed before it got on its own feet.

This was a really nice feeling, both from a “I know you can do it” point of view but also the ability not to worry about bringing business in too fast or even worse bringing the wrong type of client on board.

Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?

I think the first thing to bear in mind is the type of business you run. Ours is a service-based business that helps other business owners generate leads and sales via online activity.

So, the first focus for me was to engage with my network and also continue to build my business network. Over the last 15 years of being in business I have been lucky enough to have met a lot of business owners; both large and small businesses.

A lot of this network has become friends as well as close business connections and as such allowed me to go direct to a number of these people to discuss how Tao could help them grow.

In my opinion there is nothing better out there for buidling prospects, mentors and connections in the local business community than a business networking event.

I even run my own now; both the Old links business network and my personal favourite Business over Beers (local brewery)!

Traditional business networking would be my first recommendation if you are looking to help other business people.

Another area of great revenue growth for us has been partnerships. We offer a 15% introduction fee for the first year of revenue, 10% of year two revenue and then 5% of year 3 revenue. This way we’re not only looking after the client in the right way but also the people who put us in touch with those prospects.

Generally speaking, most of these partners are local business owners who might have a conversation surrounding business growth, IT, telecoms etc. Perfect examples being Marketing Consultants, Business coaches etc.

These come from mainly meeting these people at a networking event (they’re normally looking for new business too) and then grabbing a coffee with them or even better getting them along to our Business Over Beers networking events! Nothing better than having a nice beer with someone to build a solid relationship.

As a search specialist that’s still a newcomer, we’ve found it difficult to compete so far for some of the better/higher searched for keywords and phrases. However, more recently we’re starting ranking for highly searched terms and have managed to see a few form fills coming through the website.

Sponsorships of other sites, that have already got visitors looking for our services, has been something that has worked for us. Doing this we’ve seen our referral traffic rise and the number of enquiries that have first become aware of us via this channel turn into Marketing qualified leads.

Our main focus on this at the minute are the Cutch.co and themanifest.com. Jury is still out to the quality of these leads but we do get a good number for the cost.

How are you doing today and what does the future look like?

We’ve been profitable as a business since day one. Previous lessons in other businesses have led to this point where I won’t spend money I don’t have and also we keep a certain level of money in the bank should anything really bad happen.

We’ve grown 100% every year so far and I see this continuing for the next 2 years. We’re gearing the small but perfectly formed team up within specialist skills in certain areas of digital marketing.

The end goal is to really develop our web design and development department into a full time operation.

We have 4 in the office full time and a number of sub contracted team members who help us to keep the business moving forward and providing a great end result for our clients.

The 5 year plan is to have a team of highly specialist/skilled team members who have their own area of expertise. This team will be roughly 10 people and the agency will be turning over just over £1m in revenue per year.

I’d like us to work with highly ambitious companies and be their “digital growth” partner. We’ll take the client from having a presence online, but not doing much, to growing the business dramatically utilising online platforms to do it.

Alongside this, I love a good side gig, we’ll be working in areas that we can see quick, rapid growth in and developing online businesses that we can grow and sell. This really excites me as an entrepreneur. The capabilities of online marketing is not going to stop growing over the coming years and I feel we can be part of that growth.

Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?

I think this business has once again reinforced my long-held belief in the best type of business being a recurring model.

Charge what you are worth and charge for the value you bring rather than the time spent.

The ability to predict the cash flow through the business for the next few months is something I think needs to be looked at very closely when starting a business.

There’s no surprise to me that subscription based business models have taken off over the past few years.

They save people some money but more importantly they can lead to massive growth if done right as you can predict how much you have coming into the business as a minimum next month or a few months into the near future.

One of the hardest things I have had to do in this business has been letting people go who are great people but don’t fit the business as needed.

The lesson in this is to make the decisions you have to for the business as quickly as you can. Normally your instinct is right in this.

A big challenge for us in the Search Marketing industry is the level of competition. Seemingly in the UK at present everyone who owns a laptop and has ever read the Moz blog thinks they understand SEO.

This posed us a significant hurdle in the early days. We’ve now happily got past this point and have case studies and clients happy to shout about how good we are. I still feel that without a professional certification or accreditation the SEO industry will continue to have a bad reputation due to bad practitioners promising the world for very little money and then not delivering.

And following that, charge what you are worth and charge for the value you bring rather than the time spent.

For our recruitment, we’ve started using Psychometric testing to make sure the people we hire are right for the role they will be completing. This has been really instrumental in the development of the team.

What platform/tools do you use for your business?

Our “tech stack” is:

Active Campaign - for email marketing, lead capture and marketing automation. It’s great on price but also knows it’s place within the technology landscape.

Wordpress - It’s the most utilised platform on the web. Why would we not use it?

Thrive Themes - This is one of the best investments we ever made. It’s drag and drop builder is fantastic and the other plugins/tools they have are immense for driving engagement and leads.

Xero - Just the best accounting software I have ever used.

Google Gsuite - It’s available everywhere and costs ⅔ of what the Microsoft offer does. Plus it just works!

What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?

Websites to read about search:

  • https://moz.com/blog - Great information all of the time from Moz. One of the first true SEO companies.
  • https://www.distilled.net/u/ - This is such a great resource for learning about Search Engine Optimisation.
  • https://startups.co.uk/ - Somewhere I used to look for a list of inspiration. Whether it was how to do something in business or to get some insights into how others are being successful

Books:

TED talks; anything business related. I remember one that talked about the facebook like button and how it took millions of hours to design just the one button. Very interesting.

Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?

The first thing is; Just Start!!! I have ran businesses in 3 completely different industries! Guess what, I knew nothing about them before I went into them! We live in a world where pretty much anything can be learned and made a success by learning and hard work. So, just go and do it.

Failures happen! If we didn’t fail we wouldn’t move to the next step. That member of staff, that expense that went wrong. Things just go wrong and sometimes it’s no-ones fault! Just keep going!

I work in digital marketing, but the most powerful way to build a business is personal relationships. If you have good relationships, they will always be there for you and introduce you to others.

Are you looking to hire for certain positions right now?

We’re always looking for great Wordpress Development talent. We’re also happy to be flexible in the way we work. So we have no restrictions on where they are in the country or even the world should the right person come along.

Where can we go to learn more?

If you have any questions or comments, drop a comment below!

-  
Matt Tomkin,   Founder of Tao Digital Marketing

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