How I Started A $30K/Month Conversion-Focused Shopify Development Agency
Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?
My name is Leighton Taylor, and I run an eCommerce marketing agency that helps businesses sell more on Shopify. We create beautiful, conversion-focused online stores and help our clients grow their sales through SEO and email marketing.
Our clients are primarily D2C eCommerce brands selling health and wellness products, tech products, high-end hobbyist products, and more.
Since starting the business in 2012, we’ve worked with about 350 eCommerce brands to improve their Shopify stores. Our ideal client has annual revenue from $1-10 million, and we prefer to work directly with the owner/founder. Our agency’s revenue is approximately $30k/month. We have two full-time employees and a team of contractors, and we all work remotely so expenses are low.
What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
As a kid, I loved to read, and I used to bring home stacks of books from the library every few weeks. One day I checked out a book about HTML and how to code your own websites, and I became fascinated with the idea of building something myself that other people could see online. I built my first (horrible) website and was hooked.
I’ve always wanted to start my own business, and the idea of working a 9-5 office job for someone else was never something that felt right to me. In college, I began picking up freelance graphic design jobs, but this never turned into a full-time business.
My wife and I got married and moved to China to teach English for 2 years, and I continued doing a few small freelance gigs on the side while teaching. When we came back to the States, I decided to try to freelance full-time. Within 3 months I had established a solid client base and was earning enough income to consider it a “real” job.
I started off doing whatever web design and development jobs I could find but quickly narrowed in on eCommerce and Shopify as a specialty. I soon began hiring team members to help me handle the workload, and business has been as busy as we could handle ever since.
We focus on clear communication and punctuality. So many freelancers and agencies don’t deliver what they say they will on time or can’t communicate clearly, that doing these two things well sets us apart.
Shopify has exploded as the eCommerce platform of choice over the past few years, and demand for Shopify-related services has skyrocketed. We’ve been lucky enough to get to be picky about who we work with, and we often turn away business if it doesn’t seem like a good fit or doesn’t seem like the type of project we’d enjoy working on.
Describe the process of launching the business.
When I decided to give full-time freelancing a try and see if I could do it, the first thing I did was to set up a website showcasing my portfolio. I built this website in WordPress, probably spending 2-3 days setting it up.
I then began browsing freelance job boards, primarily one that was called oDesk at the time (now Upwork). I started applying to any job that looked like something I could do. I wrote a custom cover letter for each job, showing the client that I had read the job posting, was able to communicate clearly and cared about their job. I immediately heard back from a few clients and began doing small jobs.
I underpriced myself at first to get a few initial jobs under my belt. Upwork has a rating system where you earn ratings and reviews from each job completed, so I had to get a few jobs to build up my reputation on the platform. I soon raised my rates, and within 3 months I was earning as much as I would have been making at an entry-level design job. Within a year or so, I was earning significantly more than I could have at a regular job.
Over the next few years, I continued developing my skills and going after bigger clients, as well as hiring people to help me execute the jobs I landed.
Roughly one year after launching the business, once I had seen that it was going well and that business was steady, my wife and I decided to pack up and travel the world. My work was remote, so there was no reason we had to stay in one location. We got rid of a bunch of our things, put the rest in a storage unit, and flew to Mexico. Over the next two years, we spent our time living in Mexico, Ecuador, Thailand, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Singapore. The cost of living in most of the places we traveled was so low that it didn’t really cost more to live abroad than it would live in the States.
We eventually moved back to the States and now live in Charleston, South Carolina.
Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?
Our marketing efforts fall into three main categories:
First, we hustled. When the business first started, I worked hard to go out and find new clients and demonstrate our worth to them.
Second, we focused on clear communication and punctuality, which brought us a lot of repeat business and referrals. So many freelancers and agencies don’t deliver what they say they will on time or can’t communicate clearly, so doing these two things well sets us apart.
Third, we had early success with content marketing. This primarily consisted of a podcast about eCommerce and Shopify tutorials published on YouTube and on our blog.
The podcast was instrumental in developing relationships with some amazing people. Most people are willing to hop on a call and talk about their success for an hour, so we were able to meet a lot of successful entrepreneurs that would later become close friends, mentors, and sources of referrals. Some of the people we had the opportunity to interview early on included Pat Flynn, Andrew Youderian, Drew Sanocki, Kurt Elster, Steve Chou, and Terry Lin.
One reason I believe we were successful in that we had a specific niche. We focused on providing services and quality content to eCommerce businesses using Shopify. We weren’t trying to provide a wide range of services to any business we could find. I see many freelancers and agencies who are far too broad in their services and target audience. Picking a niche and developing expertise in that area is the best way to position yourself as an expert and stand out from the crowd.
The people I’ve met through our podcast, masterminds, and conferences have been a vital part of making our business what it is today. Getting out there and meeting people is the best way to fast track your success.
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
Today we have 6 team members, all of whom work remotely.
While our core service offering has historically consisted mostly of website design and development on Shopify, we’ve recently expanded into offering SEO services to our clients as well.
Building a website is often a one-time project, although we do have a number of clients on monthly retainers with us for web design and development. We’re working on increasing our monthly recurring revenue, and SEO is an area where we’ve developed significant expertise that fits a recurring model.
We’re working on relaunching our podcast and redoubling our other content marketing efforts. Our goal with our content moving forward is to bring in more SEO clients, as that is the most scalable part of our business right now.
Our website project budgets typically range from $5k-$20k as a one-time project. Our SEO services start at $1k/month, so this service offering increases our first-year revenue from a new client by 50-100% or more.
Of course, our goal with these services is to help our clients increase their traffic and sales. If we can help our clients increase their revenue, then they’ll likely be a solid, long-term client for us as well.
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
The most important thing I’ve learned over the past 8 years has been the importance of building relationships. The cliche that “it’s all about who you know” is true. The people I’ve met through our podcast, masterminds, and conferences have been a vital part of making our business what it is today. Getting out there and meeting people is the best way to fast track your success.
I’ve also learned that it helps to hitch your wagon to something else that’s bigger than you are. In our case, that thing was Shopify. We got lucky back in 2012 when we landed our first Shopify client and began using the platform, which was on its way to becoming the leading eCommerce platform. While it’s impossible to know the future, looking at current trends and creating a niche around a product, software, or another trend that’s on the upswing can be a huge boost to your business.
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
We build all of our clients’ websites on Shopify, so we’re working within Shopify and related apps every day. The apps and Shopify-related services we most often recommend include Klaviyo, Stamped.io, JSON-LD for SEO, Rewind, and Ultimate Special Offers.
Internally, our team uses Slack, Teamwork, Loom, and Zoom on a daily basis.
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
I first read The 4-Hour Workweek around 2010, and it originally inspired me to start a fully-remote, online business, and travel the world.
The Tropical MBA podcast has been my weekly source of inspiration regarding starting a business that gives you the freedom to live anywhere and build the life you want.
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?
Go out and meet people (virtually, if not in person). Relationships are key.
Start a business that overlaps your current skill set -- not something completely foreign to you.
Sell a product or service as soon as possible -- don’t wait for it to be perfect. Don’t spend a year or two developing your idea without asking anyone to pay for it. Instead, put out the MVP version to test the idea, then refine it once you have to pay customers.
Pick a narrow niche and excel at it. Your niche may focus on an industry, a certain technology platform, or both (e.g., we provide X for health and wellness brands using Shopify). Don’t try to sell everything to everyone or you’ll almost certainly be mediocre.
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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