Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?
In alphabetical order, we’re Alex, Courtney, and Jared - the three founders of the digital marketing agency Intellitonic. We help organizations improve their sales by implementing and iterating on campaigns for search engine optimization (SEO), search engine marketing (via Google Ads and Microsoft), and paid social media (Facebook and Instagram) for medium to large for-profit businesses and non-profit organizations.
We also partner with organizations that don’t have digital marketing in-house by white-labeling our services. In less than five years, we’ve grown to a team of eleven (and counting), offer full-benefits and 401K matching options - all without taking investment or feeling as if we’ve had to compromise our values.
What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
We each had experience in the corporate world, respectively realizing that hey, “I could do this more effectively, more transparently, and with organizations, I actually care about.”
Alex and Jared had long intended to work together as partners, and when Alex floated the idea of creating an agency - Jared and Courtney countered with creating one together. Alex had specific agency experience, Courtney-specific marketing experience, and Jared-specific software and new business creation experience. The pieces felt like they really fit together nicely.
Take us through the process of designing, prototyping, and manufacturing your first product.
Creating the first products made use of the collective skill sets of all three founders, but also has been VERY iterative, with many updates every month to stay ahead of the curve.
Find partners who shore up your weaknesses and polish your strengths. Time and time again our business story is one of personal growth enabled by the support our founders and the team provide each other.
Alex had worked in SEO and PPC for 8 years before founding Intellitonic, both as an in-house specialist and later as the manager of hundreds of accounts and a dozen other specialists.
During his time in the agency world, and time working for individual businesses Alex was able to create marketing discipline playbooks, making use of several software, services, and different approaches to digital marketing. When the group coalesced and we had our first meetings, Courtney and Jared structured the products and organized the business plan to work harmoniously within the confines of a start-up, for prices that our initial targets could afford.
Describe the process of launching the business.
Courtney was finishing up her MBA program and luckily the final project was focused on improving an existing business or creating a new one. We used this brief to outline expectations, target markets, goals, and overall strategy. On the flip side, Alex had a lot of connections from his time in the newspaper industry which got us some of our first clients.
Alex had also created several products for SEO, PPC, and Social Media along with software and vendor relationships that could easily be applied to the new business model. The first year, we got a few clients based on his Blackbook and the clients started to grow as they started to talk to their colleagues and as we used the exact services we were selling to attract other businesses.
Courtney was the first to jump ship from her full-time job so she whipped up the website relying on Jared’s development know-how. Jared handled all the licensing, administration, paperwork, and created the initial logo thanks to some online branding software (we stepped up our game later by actually paying a professional designer - highly recommend!).
The business was 100% bootstrapped. Luckily, digital marketing has low overhead.
Anyone or two of us could have started or run a successful agency, but not to the level we’re at now (or foresee). Alex is the big idea person, Courtney runs fulfillment and strategy, and Jared is the executor and blocker remover (we all have many other qualities, of course!). We’ve said time and time again how having three people has been a great balance - doing everything on your own seems too daunting, having just two people means there isn’t a tiebreaker, and three feels just right for us as we each have our specialties and interests.
Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?
We’ve found that transparency, honesty, responsiveness, and coming at problems with fresh ideas have helped us retain customers and attract their own networks. Good work turns into more good work and it feels so good.
If people aren’t saying you’re too expensive at least some of the time, you’re too cheap.
We hired a business coach to help us with strategic planning after a few years. Not only did he help us take the time out of our busy schedules to plan for the future, but he also helped us tease out some bottlenecks and break down communication blockers.
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
Proud to say we were profitable our first year! That said, no one was rolling in the dough, we were pleasantly bootstrapped.
- 2016 - 40 clients
- 2017 - 38 clients, increased ticket price by 278%
- 2018 - 69 clients, increased ticket price by another 97%
- 2019 - 88, ticket price steady
- 2020 - 97, ticket price steady
The majority of our sales have come through referrals and relationships but a few from networking events (some have definitely paid off a few years down the road) and online ads.
We’re exploring options to open branch offices internationally, both to expand our reach and to create more opportunities for our staff and clients.
Short term goals: growing the team by 1-3 people, keeping our current clients happy while adding to our portfolio
Long term goals: potentially buying our own space, growing to 17 employees to stay efficient and effective, majority of accounts are regionally or nationally recognized accounts with at least 3 major brands, add programmatic targeting to the product offering, open another office
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
Find partners who shore up your weaknesses and polish your strengths. Time and time again our business story is one of personal growth enabled by the support our founders and the team provide each other. You need not do this alone, and many hands make light work.
If you have an educational institution nearby, partner with them! We’ve had some great interns that helped us formalize our processes and practice our pitches - plus, they made for some great content creators.
If people aren’t saying you’re too expensive at least some of the time, you’re too cheap. This was a big one for us. For the first few years, we were definitely over-delivering and undercharging while bulking up our book of business.
Hire other vendors and invest in local resources. You might be able to spend some extra hours burning the midnight oil to knock out products a bit out of your wheelhouse, but the relationships you can create by working with others provide you with far more than just the timely completion of work. You can learn how to do better business by working with other talented folks. Steel sharpens steel as some football coach said somewhere.
- Work on improving what you know before adding too much else to the mix - the main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing. Once you’ve got that handled, then consider adding additional products or services. This is a good time to test out new things with existing customers who know and trust you - be candid with them about wanting to try something new and offering the first month at a deep discount or freebie - but be sure to charge what you’re worth shortly thereafter.
Get your Human Resources stuff codified and in place before you think you need it! Although our team is small, it’s been helpful for us in attracting new talent and keeping things fair and consistent.
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
Several software is pertinent to our various services. Here are a few we’ve kept around:
- Google Analytics (Website traffic analysis and reporting)
- Google Adwords (Purchasing advertising on Google Network)
- Facebook (Advertising)
- Instagram (Ads)
- Microsoft (Ads)
- SEMrush and Spyfu (Competitive analysis tools for SEO and PPC)
- Raven Tools (Reporting Software
- Airtable (Project Management)
- Xero (Accounting)
- Gusto (Payroll and HR)
- Hubspot (CRM)
Project management tools have been difficult for us to nail down due to the nature of the business not being entirely technical, nor entirely subjective. We’ve found that outside of the dev team, fulfillment time tracking, project management, and oversight can be difficult because most organizational systems are better geared for software development.
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
Podcast: How I Built This
- Masters of Doom: How Two Guys Created an Empire and Transformed Pop Culture by David Kushner. Alex read this book about the creation of ID software and Doom and the camaraderie and excitement of building a business from nothing was a major inspiration.
- Measure What Matters
- 7 Habits of Highly Effective People
- From Good to Great
Other business owners.
Joining Board of Directors (each of us is on at least one right now!)
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting?
Don’t do it in a vacuum! No one can do it alone. Ask your peers for support, feedback, thoughts, etc. Consider a business partner (or two!). But if you’re going to work with others, get your ownership agreement in place ASAP - this is a good test to see if you’ll work well together long-term.
There’s a right balance between when to push through the hard stuff, and when to know when to let it go. Don’t be afraid to check in with yourself periodically to make sure you’re on your right path - you may not be doing what you want to be doing, but will it help you get to where you want to be?
Are you looking to hire for certain positions right now?
We are always open to new people on the service fulfillment and account management side!
Where can we go to learn more?
Hey! 👋 I'm Pat Walls, the founder of Starter Story.
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