On Starting A Digital Marketing Agency With 17 Employees

Published: May 10th, 2021
Joy Hawkins
Sterling Sky Inc.
from Uxbridge, ON, Canada
started April 2017
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I’m Joy Hawkins, the owner and founder of Sterling Sky. We’re a digital marketing agency in Canada & the USA that focuses on local search engine optimization which basically is a fancy way for saying that we help small businesses get more traffic to their websites from Google. We own the Local Search Forum which is a free online forum dedicated to discussing all things related to local search. We also own LocalU which is a news site about local search that does conferences several times a year.

I started Sterling Sky because I wanted an agency that was dedicated to getting success for our clients based on our own research and testing. I worked for 11 years at other agencies before starting my own and had a lot of things I wanted to change about the way to approach SEO.

In the last 4 years, we’ve grown from a team of 1 to a team of 17. The 6 newest members of our team aren’t pictured here because we’ve been unable to get an updated photo due to the pandemic.

Our team back in 2019


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

I used to work at an agency that really wanted me to focus on sales. I was good at selling but I honestly hated it and preferred to be the person solving the problems and figuring out how to get sites ranked higher on Google.

Investing in and caring about the well-being of your staff is by far the best business decision.

There was such a large disconnect between what my boss wanted me to do and what I thought I was best at that it led me to the point of deciding to try it on my own. I had no idea what to expect from starting an agency and definitely never imagined it growing to the size it is today. I always thought it would be me and a few other people (5 max).

Take us through the process of designing, prototyping, and manufacturing your first product.

I knew what customers wanted out of an SEO agency after working with hundreds of different businesses over a decade. I wanted to put together a monthly package that wasn’t cheap but also wasn’t the most expensive that really focused on value. I got rid of all the cookie-cutter things that people often include in marketing packages and made everything completely custom. This has worked very well and has allowed us to stay focused on the things that actually drive results.

Describe the process of launching the business.

I started out doing consulting so there wasn’t a ton of startup costs. Basically, the “sell” for a digital marketing agency is usually the time, knowledge, and experience of the staff there.

When I started my agency, I had 11 years of experience and was fairly well-known in the industry so I already had several businesses that were ready to hire me. I got to work sending out emails and posts on social media accounts (that already had thousands of followers) and got my first client within the first few days of being open. I funded all the starting costs for the business myself.

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

One of the key things that I wanted to do differently than other agencies I had experienced was to focus on hiring staff that came with a ton of experience. This minimized the need to train and ensured that the clients were getting top-notch work. One of the things that I found didn’t work well at the last agency I worked at was the fact that people selling were very experienced but the people actually doing the deliverables had less than a year of experience. There was a huge gap between what was being sold and what was being delivered. For this reason, I vowed to never have salespeople and just have my SEO rockstars do the selling.

All our leads are inbound and come from articles, webinars, podcasts, social media, and in-person presentations at conferences. I’ve been writing and speaking for over a decade so this strategy takes a ton of time but is a very good long-term strategy. Some of the places I’ve written for include Search Engine Land and Moz. Some of the conferences I speak at regularly include LocalU and Pubcon. We list other mentions on our website here.

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

Currently, we have a team of 17 (soon to be 18) staff in the USA and Canada. Our entire team is remote and will continue to operate that way. Our growth has always been organic and natural so I plan to keep it this way and would prefer to grow the company slowly over time instead of setting really outrageous sales goals.

In 2019, we purchased LocalU and we host 3 events a year. When the pandemic is over, we’ll be making those in-person conferences but for the last year, the events have all been virtual.

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

One of the best decisions I made was to set up a US corporation. It was a lot of work but I did it because there were a couple of individuals that I really wanted to hire that were American.

I have learned that investing in and caring about the well-being of your staff is by far the best business decision. Employee retention has been one of the most important things to me from the very beginning and I would say the best decisions I’ve made are in regards to who I hired.

What platform/tools do you use for your business?

Our clients websites are mostly built with Wordpress. Internally, we use a lot of popular tools in the Search Engine Optimization space including Ahrefs, Places Scout, Whitespark, Bright Local, DBA Platform, and Site Bulb.

For task management, we use Asana. For internal communication, we use Slack. For invoicing we use Practice Ignition.

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

My favorite podcasts in the industry are probably the SAAS Venture and Search Talk Live. I’m also a bit biased here, but I like our podcast as well - Last Week in Local. For books that inspire me, I’d have to go with the Bible.

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

I think starting a business after you have already worked in the industry for a long time was a lot easier than if I had started Sterling Sky when I was in my 20s. It allowed me to learn from the successes and failures of other businesses to try and form what strategies I wanted to utilize myself.

I also think having a really solid network of people you know in the industry that can give you advice is essential.

Are you looking to hire for certain positions right now?

We are always on the lookout for our next hire. We specifically look for people with a lot of experience with Local SEO or link building. Resumes can be sent to [email protected].

Where can we go to learn more?

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