Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?
Hi, my name is Andy Strote and I have recently published How to Start a Successful Creative Agency. This 325-page book is the essential business guide for creators who want to provide creative services for corporate clients.
This includes copywriters, graphic designers, filmmakers, photographers, and programmers.
Typically, these creators are:
- Freelancers who want to take their business to the next level by creating a bigger team to offer clients deeper services
- Full-time employees at ad agencies and studios thinking of starting their own company
- People with a communications side hustle who want to turn it into their main source of income
- Students in some type of communications program who dream of having their own company
This book will not teach anyone how to write, design or photograph. Rather, it is filled with proven business tips and techniques to build a successful creative agency business.
I just launched the book in mid-April and have so far made about $500. Sales and promotions are ongoing.
What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea to write the book?
For someone who spent his whole life in advertising and marketing, I had no idea about the business when I was growing up. I didn’t go to school for it or get any formal training.
Learn to make decisions. No one likes a boss who dithers. You freeze everyone in place until you make the decision.
However, I was always a reader and writer, even as a child. I loved writing projects in school. In high school, together with a friend, I created and wrote a newspaper because we thought the school paper was lame. (Nearly got suspended for that.)
Then, this same friend got a job as a junior copywriter. He told me about the job, and after three months of knocking on doors, I got a copywriting job too.
I went on to be a copywriter and creative director for six ad agencies, from small local shops to multinationals. After that, I worked as a freelance writer for six years. When I grew my business to where I was busy all the time, and couldn’t grow any further, I decided to start an agency. I named it Fireworks Creative.
I found a graphic designer to be my partner. We both had clients that we brought to Fireworks. From the beginning, we were busy. Every year, we added more people as we landed new clients. Most of our clients were in finance, utilities, government, or B2B products and services.
In our fifth year, with a staff of 30, we were approached by two companies interested in buying us. One was a New York-based multinational ad agency; the other was a Montreal-based IT company. Fireworks chose to be acquired by the IT company for $3 million.
Six months later, I left that company and took the summer to decide on the next steps. I found a different partner and started a similar company, Context Creative. Again, we started with substantial clients and over the years, grew that company to 28 people.
After 15 years, I retired successfully from Context which continues to do business with many of the same clients we started with.
Based on that background, I had the idea to write this book. I began by making notes of my thoughts on the business.
It occurred to me that many creative services companies struggle, not because of their creative output, but because they don’t know how to run a business. Like me, they came up from the creative side, not the business side. I was fortunate to have good advisors and partners along the way so that we were successful in running the business.
That is what this book is about;
- How to find the right clients for your business and which ones to avoid
- How to create long-term client relationships where you get project after project without having to pitch or compete
- How to structure your estimates and your billing to avoid scope creep, get paid on time, and remain profitable
- How to work effectively with employees, freelancers, and contractors by defining clear expectations and outcomes
- How to be comfortable talking about money (it’s just business, not personal)
- And much more...
The book has 23 chapters which are outlined on the website.
Take us through the process of designing, planning, and writing the book!.
The book started as a series of notes, a brain dump in no particular order.
I was very comfortable writing after all these years, so for months, I just wrote random notes, whatever came into my head. Then I did research, read other books, websites, papers, etc.
I became more focused on my social media activities and listened to the various conversations, understanding what business issues creators were running into.
At the same time, I was also working on a few client projects. One of these blew up and took all of my time, so I set the book aside for about a year. Although I wasn’t actively writing, I was thinking about it and continued to make short notes on sticky pads, my phone, etc., so I wouldn’t forget them.
Once the big project was over, I went back to the book. I pulled together a table of contents to give myself a structure. This changed a few times. Then I started filling it in. I wrote and edited for about a year or so.
Throughout this process, I had already decided to self-publish. A friend who is a VP at a major publisher supported my decision. I think it’s the best way to go for first-time authors unless you’re a Kardashian and already have a massive following. Typically, large publishers take on very few new authors, especially in non-fiction. And if they do, they may promote it for a short period before moving on to other books.
As a self-published author, I can keep promoting my book as my audiences grow. I can create a second edition with updated content (already planning that). I’m happy with that decision to self-publish.
Finally, I had the book in reasonable shape and sent PDF copies to friends in the business to read and give me feedback. Then I edited some more. When I was happy with the first draft, I hired a professional editor who went through the manuscript. More editing. Finally, I hired a professional proofreader to look for the little things that may have slipped through.
Simultaneously, I was writing and building the website and creating email campaigns on SquareSpace, setting up specific channels on social media, and having the book cover designed.
I debated whether to hire someone to layout the text for me and then came across Vellum software which is designed to do exactly that. Vellum will output formats for various e-book platforms and a printed version. It’s easy to use, once you read the instructions. Support is excellent.
They have a wonderful way of letting you try the software. You can download the fully-featured package and use it as long as you want. Only when you want to output your files do you have to pay for it.
This is far better than a “14-day trial” or another scheme where you never feel like you have enough time. Once you have the software, you can output all of the formats. You can use it to format as many books as you like.
Using Vellum, I output versions for Amazon, Kobo, Apple Books, and Gumroad.
Describe the process of launching the business and marketing the book.
I set up the website and social media channels. I found my audiences (it’s an ongoing job) and started sharing information. In particular, I’ve found that Twitter is the easiest to find audiences who might be interested in this type of book, followed by LinkedIn.
Marketing and communications people from around the world are quite active on these platforms and both Twitter and LinkedIn make it easy to engage. I’ve found the best way to engage is to be helpful. Contribute when I have something worthwhile to add, answer questions, and encourage people who need help.
Finally, I let them know the book was available.
Here are pages from the mobile version of the site. The first two images are of the home page, the third image is of the blog home.
In regards to financing, this project was self-financed. It’s relatively low-cost compared to starting a company with offices and equipment or delivering a product. I was able to do much of this myself: all of the writing and website design. A friend did the cover image. I paid for editing, proofreading, and web hosting.
If I were to do this again, and I might, I would spend more time upfront developing an audience and writing in public, in other words, get potential buyers involved with the creation of the book.
For this book, there are two paths I’m going to follow. First, there are processes outlined in the book for which I could easily create templates. I will do this and offer them as a bundle with the book.
Secondly, as I get feedback, I’ll likely do an updated version, perhaps in two years. After that, another book.
Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?
To attract customers and retain followers, I continue to grow my social media presence, build my email list and write blog posts.
Typically, I will create a blog post between 1,000 and 3,000 words. You can see the overview of the blog posts here. Then I’ll send the complete text of each blog post to my email subscribers. From that post, I’ll create several tweets and LinkedIn posts with links back to the blog. I’ll repost these a few times each over the next week.
Currently, I’m writing one blog post a week and using that material during the week. At the same time, I’m writing next week’s post.
Tip for people promoting on social media: posts go by so quickly that the vast majority of your audience won’t see any given post. It’s worth reposting to get more attention. Also, keep time zones in mind – many of my followers are in Europe, so if I post late at night, they’ll see it in the morning. Or, if I post around noon, it’s quitting time in Europe, so many people will go to their social media.
So far, I haven’t paid for any social media advertising, but I plan to experiment with this in September when “summer brain” wears off.
I have found my first affiliate seller on the Gumroad platform and have made the first sale there. I will continue to look for good affiliates since I can offer a 50% commission rate. Gumroad makes it easy to set up affiliates, and since the product, there is a PDF file, there aren’t any production or delivery costs. I need to work on this more to get more affiliates selling for me and help them promote my book.
I look for ways to improve SEO for my site, but given it’s only a few months old, I understand that Google is going to wait a bit to give me high rankings.
Here you can see the devices accessing my site (interesting that desktop and mobile are virtually 50/50), and the sources for visits. I need to dig down a bit further into these analytics to get a better understanding of “direct” (could click from email or people typing in the URL), and Squarespace (not sure how the platform becomes a source of traffic).
To date, I haven’t invested in an analytics program to give me more granular information. I think my time is better spent creating blog posts, social media, being interviewed, and lining up guest posts.
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
Marketing and selling a book is a bit different from other types of sales. Until I have another book, I don’t have anything else to sell you.
My only task right now is marketing this book. More content, more connections. Then develop the templates, then a version 2 of the book.
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
Writing the book is only half the battle (maybe less). The other half is marketing and selling.
What I’ve learned is that I could have started earlier building an audience, priming the pump. But that’s difficult when it’s a team of one doing the work.
Because I’m thinking about future books, I’m continuing to build the audience, listening to their needs and pain points, etc.
Having an audience waiting for your book/product before you launch is preferable to launching and then finding customers.
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
I’m old school. I write in MS Word. I formatted the book using Vellum. Originally, I was going to hire someone to do this, but I found I could easily do it myself in Vellum.
Another tip for software developers: Vellum gives you 100% access to the software before you pay. In other words, you can format your book, try different design and layout options, get tech support, etc. with no time limit. The only thing you can’t do is output the book file that you need to upload to book-selling platforms. To output files, you have to buy the software. By then, you are sure you like how the software works, are happy with your book, and have gotten to know the company. It’s a great way to market and sell software.
My book is available on Amazon, Kobo, Apple Books, and Gumroad. All the files for the print and various ebook platforms have been uploaded so all of the eCommerce happens on their site.
My own site is built on Squarespace so I’m easily able to manage that along with the associated email campaigns.
Social media is Twitter, LinkedIn, and Facebook.
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
Current books are Atomic Habits by James Clear and The Embedded Entrepreneur by Arvid Kahl. Both are great books.
I read too many blogs to mention and get actively involved on Twitter which has a big community of marketing and communications professionals.
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting?
Lessons from my ad agencies, outlined in my book:
- Before you start, determine what kind of company you want. You could be a generalist, specialist in a market sector, specialist by technology (e.g. email marketing). Figure that out first.
- Find clients who need a lot of what you’re doing, rather than one-off clients.
- When you start, you’re likely doing all kinds of projects, but in a few years you should narrow down your offerings and the types of clients you work for so you truly become an expert in a few niches.
- Establish deep relationships with your clients (tougher to do during a pandemic) so that they become your “business friends”.
- Get comfortable talking about money. It’s just business.
- You’re not good at everything. When you start, you’ll be wearing all of the hats. But as you grow, find people that do the things you’re not good at or don’t want to do. Typically this is admin work which someone else can likely do much better than you.
- Learn to make decisions. No one likes a boss who dithers. You freeze everyone in place until you make the decision.
Where can we go to learn more?
If you have any questions or comments, drop a comment below!
Hey! 👋 I'm Pat Walls, the founder of Starter Story.
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