How I Started A $17.5K/Month No-Code Automation Agency For E-Commerce

Alistair Wilson
Founder, Compound
$17.5K
revenue/mo
1
Founders
3
Employees
Compound
from Loughborough, UK
started April 2021
$17,500
revenue/mo
1
Founders
3
Employees
5.49M
alexa rank
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How I Started A $17.5K/Month No-Code Automation Agency For E-Commerce

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

I’m the founder of Compound. We are an ecommerce automation agency headquartered in the UK with a globally distributed team. Our clients are D2C/D2B businesses in the Shopify ecosystem.

They come to us to integrate Shopify/WooCommerce with their existing operational systems and build them bespoke internal tools on no code and low code stacks, get value from their data and keep a watchful eye on everything with 24/7 automation monitoring and support.

One of the major areas of growth for us is driven by the demand for sleek, automated D2B business processes. B2B sales are behind the times in eCommerce, and business owners are aware of the massive efficiencies possible - but until recently hadn’t had many options to improve it. Now we’re delivering systems that reduce labor costs by 90% in processing a B2B ecom order. It’s a game changer that is leading to unprecedented demand for our services.

compound

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

I started with Zapier way back in 2012 when I was in business development for a challenger IT support company in Switzerland. I had one goal: Win a new B2B business for this company. I very quickly realized that inbound sales (fuelled by inbound marketing) were the scaleable way forward, but I was pretty quickly horrified at how inefficient leads were handled after they were initially generated.

This led to me stumbling upon Zapier and connecting up the various tools within the IT company. This unleashed a new era of productivity that led to that IT company growing from 2 (I was the second employee) to 10 in under 1.5 years. Businesses around me started asking me to help them handle their sales and marketing systems. This led to me moving into freelance digital marketing for B2Bs, which I had done on my own since then up until 2020.

Back in the UK and during the Coronavirus saga in 2020, there was unprecedented demand to help move traditional businesses online. Until this point, I had ticked over with a steady roster of ongoing monthly engagements providing digital services which were about 40% automated with Zapier. But then I was asked to build a system to help a leading UK medical training company a system to streamline and automate their bookings which had been done solely by manual processes until that point.

They were in a do-or-die situation. At this point, I called upon the services of my brother who had quietly been developing his coding and no-code skills on the side of his teaching job. He came onboard part-time but it became clear that his growing passion for technology development couldn’t be contained within a couple of days per week. So we plotted a course for him to come full-time if we hit our growth goals.

The wider our scope of client or project became, the weaker our message was.

From this point onwards, the projects just kept coming. A few months after this first major project, we were approached by an eCommerce company that had hit lockdown-induced hypergrowth and was struggling to keep up. As we dove into their systems and saw the writing on the wall for eCommerce as a whole - we decided that we would focus 100% on the eCommerce niche, specifically DTC where the brand is responsible for production also as they typically run many systems and have a lot more data that needed to be correctly managed.

After pivoting to a 100% focus on eCommerce and specifically the Shopify ecosystem, sales just blew up. So within a year of his joining, we also took on a project manager and grew our network of collaborators to expand capacity and capability.

By this time we were certified experts in Integromat (Make), Zapier, Pipedrive, Shopify, and a handful of other key tools in the ecom stack. The team now sits at 5 full-time with plans for continual recruitment going forward as our project pipeline has now extended at least 4 months into the future.

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

In the agency space, there is a danger of commoditization. What we found is that the wider our scope of client or project became, the weaker our message was. When we landed our first major eCommerce client (we already had several by then but had not yet decided to focus solely on this segment), it came off the back of them telling us that they knew they needed to automate processes and integrate their stack but they didn’t know where to start, so they asked us to run a workshop for their management team to generate and prioritize opportunities.

I remember frantically sifting through my entire freelance career for all the ‘best-practice’ ideas and insights I could think of for each department relevant to an average eCommerce company: Product development, Production, Inventory Management, Website Development, Sales and CRM, Marketing, Finance. After a couple of days of working through this, I developed a framework that I called ‘ecommerce digital operations’.

We took that client through the workshop and ‘the rest is history’. The eCommerce digital ops framework is now the backbone of our eCommerce playbook. We can talk to any eCommerce company and spot their core pain points a mile away. This is the power of niching down - transferable knowledge beyond just knowing how to use a tool (Make.com, Airtable, or whatever) and into knowing how to solve business problems and provide genuine value.

Describe the process of launching the business.

Though I had started in digital marketing, because of the natural drift into internal systems to fix problems that business owners knew I could help with, I had found myself in the hard-to-sell position of being quite a generalist. I could do a bit of everything needed in virtually any business. On top of this pure digital marketing had become quite mundane to me.

When we focused on automation and integration for eCommerce companies, a penny dropped for me. All of a sudden I was able to collate some specific relevant and highly valuable insights from throughout my career to date and apply them all to a certain type of company with recurring problems. Now it was game on! This gave me a new frame of mind and all of a sudden I, alongside my brother, started to see that we were becoming market-leading experts in our niche.

I had been a generalist, but now we were specialists. This had the effect of shortening our sales cycle and boosting our confidence in all commercial conversations with prospective clients. I think my biggest lesson learned has been about taking the leap of faith to focus on a niche. Even now there’s probably more we could do to focus on further.

There is such a massive opportunity in up-and-down markets for no-code and low-code automation. I encourage other automators to pluck up the courage to start reaching out to businesses as it’s on virtually any business owner’s mind but they don’t necessarily know where to go looking for help.

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

To win clients early into our refocus on the niche, I joined several automator communities and regularly check project listing boards. We get referrals from those groups where others don’t want to take on larger projects, which has been great.

We have a high success rate with new clients when we get to speak with them and given the size of an average project for us, we offer all clients a free discovery call. We take all of our bookings through SavvyCal and the moment a discovery call booking lands, our amazing VA Irena initiates a BuiltWith.com search so we can get a handle on any public showing aspects of the client’s tech stack; she also pulls in any social data she can. This helps us immediately break the ice with the client and show a level of prep that generally impresses them. We always make sure to introduce to the client the notion of the agile development philosophy - since normally lots of the clients know that they want to automate, but do not know exactly how to get there and we often see their processes change/emerge as we build - which can lead to scope change. So we very rarely offer fixed-scope, fixed-fee projects now. Clients like it when you tell them this enables them to retain control and flexibility.

We also spend a lot of time reflecting on our post-call process. Where a project is substantial, we work on a Miro Board schematic of the overall system. Just framing everything a client has said in a picture has an amazing effect.

To manage our engagements we took on a full-time project manager who has spent immense amounts of time developing our company infrastructure in ClickUp, Coda, and Slack. She is always on the front foot with progress reports and communications touch points. This generally makes clients feel at ease and in the loop which certainly helps maintain a good level of trust.

To enhance retention and ultimately customer lifetime value, we’re exploring offering fully outsourced automation services for a flat monthly fee. Given the ‘bespoke’ nature of some of what we do, we’re thinking this through very carefully. But one other service we are now offering is a Zapier and Make.com monitoring and reactive support service, where we watch all client workflows and dive at the moment they go offline without needing to wait for the client to ask us.

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

The business has been growing at a rapid pace, which has been quite stressful at times when we have been unable to immediately service a new client request because of a lack of development capacity. That said, any agency owner is always wanting to make sure the demand is there before taking the plunge on bringing in additional resources. Right now we’re finalizing the recruitment of a junior developer and we’re templating the whole process in terms of job design, recruitment, training and development plan, and remuneration so that we can perhaps take on another two or three by late 2022 or early 2023.

To build the sales pipeline, we’re building a massive content pipeline to make sure that we are dominating natural search in the major search engines for anything relating to eCommerce automation, especially Shopify. So we’ll probably also find a full-time content marketing colleague.

We’re also putting the finishing touches on an identity refresh and are about to undertake a total overhaul of our website to make sure that absolutely everything we put out there publicly is on message. In terms of social, I have finally taken Twitter seriously after being on there for more than a decade and doing nothing. I think that’s related to now feeling like I have a valid, and perhaps increasingly valuable, perspective on certain aspects of business and technology. We have found Twitter to be great for recruitment also.

Going forward we also have our eye on the nocode/lowcode product space. We are aware of several market opportunities that we’re going to try and develop solutions for. Whilst we expect our agency service revenue to at least treble this financial year, we are aspiring to earn 30% of our revenue next year from SaaS from these products.

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

Yes. Most businesses know they want to automate, but few know what they need to do practically speaking. There is such a massive opportunity in up-and-down markets for no-code and low-code automation. It reminds me of the craze for SEO services in the early thousands. I encourage other automators to pluck up the courage to start reaching out to businesses as it’s on virtually any business owner’s mind but they don’t necessarily know where to go looking for help.

What platform/tools do you use for your business?

  • Mac - the whole team is on Mac as standard. Productivity starts right at the keyboard as I obsess about making sure people know they don’t need to even touch their mouse and they’ll probably save 30 mins per day minimum that way.
  • ClickUp - This is the backbone of our ops for internal and client projects. We run one folder per client and each large project gets its list, and the client has one list for smaller requests. They log requests directly into ClickUp.
  • Coda - We’re building this out as ‘everything else’. We’re new to the Coda game, but we’ve gone in hard! I love the flexibility of the formulas matched with the relational power of Airtable. Specifically, we aggregate all data from ClickUp in Coda to run all of our billing and tactical client reports.
  • Quickbooks - a necessary evil in my view, but we had to pick one and we went with Quickbooks as it was easier for my wife to use than Xero!
  • Stripe - Any upfront payments we need to take generally go through Stripe.
  • SavvyCal - we use this to offer clients and prospective clients self-service appointments.
  • Google Workspace - email and calendar infrastructure.
  • Slack - client and internal communications.
  • Whereby - this is our preferred video call platform. We were on Zoom and have tried Google Meet a lot. This is the best of both worlds at a great price point.
  • Monzo - this is our business bank (the UK only), love it because I get to play with our data via API.
  • Webflow - our site is built on Webflow and we’ll be rolling out authenticated client accounts in due course.
  • Airtable - this is generally used in the backends of internal tools and systems we develop for clients.
  • Make.com and Zapier - these are our go-to iPaaS tools. We tend to work more with Make as it’s more flexible and easier to maintain.
  • Jotform - hands down the most powerful form software.

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

  • Built to Sell by John Warrillow. Helpful agency-based fable which details an agency owners journey from being a generalist to specialist and how this enables the entire business to be more streamlined and ultimately saleable. Although when a business is very saleable, it is also great to run!
  • Atomic Habits by James Clear. Along with 7 Habits this is probably my favorite ‘personal development’ book because it is so practical and concise. It’s had a big impact on my life and helped me bring order back into what has at times been quite chaotic.
  • Never Split the Difference by Chris Voss. This book had a magical effect on my ability to sell our services, to the point where I couldn’t necessarily say exactly how, but I can say that we tripled our fee and sales still increased!

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

Pick a niche that you can dominate.

Build a website with detailed case studies on the above.

Get active in communities for automation and make your niche known - you’ll be amazed at how many referrals you might get from people who get opportunities that are aligned with your skillset.

Are you looking to hire for certain positions right now?

Part-time and Full-time Junior Zapier and Make integrators - If you’re at the early stage of your Zapier/Make journey but know you want to build a career in it, we’d love to speak.

Freelance No-code and Low-code Developers - We always want to speak with talented no-code and low-code developers. If someone has taught themselves to a high degree of proficiency in a no-code or low-code tool, then we’d love them to join our roster of potential partners.

Content marketing specialists - we’re also on the hunt for incredible content marketers that are interested in the tech scene, highly capable writers, and positive team members. We’re considering freelance as well as employment options.

WeWeb and Xano specialists - we’re about to get busy on some SaaS projects of our own and we’d love someone to come and take the lead on these. The opportunities are massive and we have several MVPs we want to get out there to see if we can unlock them!

For any of the above roles - or anything else - we’ve set up a form here to make yourselves known to us!

Where can we go to learn more?

Check us out on the links below:

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Alistair Wilson, Founder of Compound
Pat Walls,  Founder of Starter Story
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