How Free Work Helped Us Grow Our Marketing Agency To $11K/Month

Robyn Mays
Founder, Digital Butter
$11K
revenue/mo
2
Founders
5
Employees
Digital Butter
from Cape Town, South Africa
started November 2017
$11,000
revenue/mo
2
Founders
5
Employees
2.64M
alexa rank
2.07K
followers
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How Free Work Helped Us Grow Our Marketing Agency To $11K/Month

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

Hi, we’re a couple, Robyn Mays and Richard Eltringham, the co-founders of Digital Butter. 5 years ago we started our profitable digital marketing agency by doing things for free.

In a few words, we grow businesses with digital marketing that works. Our clients come to us overwhelmed and we help them cut out the BS that exists in the marketing world so they can figure out exactly what they need to do to grow within the resources they have.

We have a full-time team of 4 and 2 part-time team members. We’re based in South Africa and have worked with clients in more than 10 different countries. We’ve grown almost completely through the act of generosity and based on word of mouth.

digital-butter

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

Near the end of high school, Richard taught himself Photoshop and Illustrator to make graphics for small projects. While not a designer, it satisfied his creative side as his interest in brands and marketing grew.

He went on to study marketing at university, however, it wasn’t until his final year that digital marketing appeared on his radar and piqued his interest so much so that it immediately became a field he wanted to pursue. He landed a year-long internship at an enterprise IT software company in their marketing team where he was introduced to front-end web development which coincided perfectly with his interest in design.

About 6 months into the internship Robyn, who was studying a very similar degree and Richard had met at university, talked him into helping her with some NPO work in his spare time...

During her final year at university, Robyn started volunteering for a Non-Profit Organisation in South Africa. The NPO was severely under-resourced and she found herself being asked to run various marketing and fundraising campaigns with little to no experience. After a few months, Robyn roped Richard into the project, and they were both hooked.

The fundraising campaigns were very simple because of the time and budget limitations and because neither Robyn nor Richard had much experience. They started by building the organization's email list and digitizing as much information about previous donors and volunteers as possible. They worked to improve the organization's website so it more clearly and simply explained what it does, its impact, and how a website visitor could make a difference. A lot of inspiration was drawn from the principles of StoryBrand by Donald Miller which they still use to this day.

They learned how to market on a shoestring budget and to get creative which has shaped how they view marketing to this day. Ultimately, what worked was getting on the phone with people, sending out emails, and connecting with donors and volunteers. The strategies were simple and easy to implement and that’s why they worked. They were able to fundraise for and completely turn around the fundraising and marketing for this organization in a relatively short amount of time

They threw themselves into any marketing resources they could find. Being able to think of an idea, research it, launch it and then see the direct results first-hand was addictive to them. Robyn had always wanted to work for herself and Richard was loving the work they were doing so they decided to give it a go full-time.

Initially, they only worked for NPOs but soon started working with businesses too. Today they're mainly working with small businesses and have a few long-time NPO clients that they don't want to stop working with.

When we started our business, we needed experience and portfolio pieces, so we made the strategic decision to do a lot of work for free. Almost all of our clients can somehow be connected to something we did for free.

Describe the process of launching the business.

We just started. We did so much work for free and almost all of it was for non-profit organizations that desperately needed it. We did this to build our portfolio because we knew no one would hire us without a bit of a track record — this has been instrumental in our success. We also knew that we needed to learn a lot more and doing free work meant getting experience that we wouldn’t have been able to get otherwise.

When it came to paid work, we took on anything and everything we could. Our first ever paid job was adding clickable URLs to a pdf. Just because something seems simple to you, doesn’t mean it’s simple for someone else. We also designed some CVs for friends and old colleagues' kids.

A few tiny jobs later, we built our first website and created our first brand identity. Both of which were because of the related portfolio pieces we had from doing free work for NPOs.

It wasn’t until about 6 months into our business that we built our website (I had to dig through our old website backups and restore this one on a test server to get this screenshot, the memories!).

digital-butter

Our work always seems to be the first thing put on the back burner while we focus on our clients — so apart from our old laptops and an internet connection, we didn’t need much else to start.

We cringe a little at some of those first projects now, but they did their job and we improved with each one. We continued learning outside of projects too. Reading, watching, and listening to anything relevant we could fit into our brains and treating each project as a learning experience for the next.

We knew we wouldn’t be profitable at the start and so profits weren’t the focus. It was all about growing our skills, and experience and building relationships. We moved in with our parents who were kind enough to have us back after university. We have always made learning a priority and even when we started to see some money coming into the business we invested it back into the business to pay for courses and software. We only took our first salary in October 2018.

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

Rich and I are big believers in being generous. We love people and we love helping people and that’s ultimately why we started our business. That’s why when we started our business we did a lot of work for free. At the time it was a strategic decision (we needed experience and portfolio pieces) but we’ve tried our best to keep generosity at the core of Digital Butter because it’s an important part of who we are.

What has been incredible for us to witness is how much we’ve gained from this generosity over time. Without even realizing it until we work backward and map out where our clients came from over the years, we have benefited monetarily and in so many other ways from this.

Almost all of our clients can somehow be connected to something we did for free. This has allowed us to build genuine relationships with people who have become advocates for us. We’ve been able to work on projects we never would have been able to have pitched work the traditional way or waited for people to come to us. This has enabled us to grow our skills and business exponentially. While we may not have been paid for a project, the experience and connections made it worth it.

Our industry is filled with advice about how you should never give free advice and certainly not do anything for free. While there is a place for this advice (particularly with the negatively warped perception of value a client will have when they get something for free) we have seen huge long-term benefits.

Through all our pro-bono work, we’ve found the key has been not wanting anything in return. If we were to expect something in return for the free work, it would put too much pressure on the relationship and defeat the point of doing something because we believe it’s the right thing to do.

Being generous with your time and skills can look like a lot of different things. It doesn’t have to be doing a project completely for free. It could be taking the time to introduce two colleagues you know will have a lot in common, or giving someone an hour of your time without expecting anything in return.

We have been fortunate enough with the connections we built through being generous to have built a sustainable, profitable business. Every single one of our clients has been a result of word of mouth, previous client recommendations, or us reaching out to someone and offering something for free because we just wanted to help. We haven’t used paid ads and, because SEO is so competitive in our field, we’ve never put much time into that either.

We’ve had a couple of local articles written that feature us and the work we did with NPOs. A few people in our communities saw these and ended up becoming clients!

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

We are growing faster than we have the capacity for. Our revenue this quarter has increased 71% compared to last. Our original team of 2 has now grown to a full-time team of 4, and we have 2 part-time employees.

We have reached out to strangers across the world. We’ve asked for advice from people we never thought would give us a second glance. What’s been incredible to experience is that most of the time those on the other end are more than happy to help.

As we’ve said, our growth has been the result of word of mouth which is largely due to the relationships we’ve built by being generous in some way or doing something for free. We want to continue to grow but still allow for time to invest in our own business which is something we have struggled with thus far. As an agency, our marketing and processes get neglected because of client work and so we’re planning on putting a lot more time into our processes, systems, and learning.

We don’t have a long list of email subscribers — 186 to be exact. The last and only email we sent out was in September 2019.

digital-butter

We only have just over 3,000 likes/follows across our social channels and maybe 400+ visitors to our website per month.

This year so far we’ve received an average of 6 new leads per month through our website contact form plus a few more here and there through social DM’s or texts. But like we mentioned earlier, almost all of them hear of us through word of mouth.

We are planning on growing our small team a little bit more. Not right now but in the future, we’ll probably be looking at bringing on some team members to help with client/account management.

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

Do things that don’t scale. Start small and build things only when you need them. If you’re launching a business and investing in scalable tech before actually talking to your customers then you’re doing it wrong. The digital marketing space is overwhelming — even for marketers. We’re overwhelmed by choice and the potential that exists. We see so many businesses spend far too much money and time on big shiny marketing objects only to realize that picking up the phone and phoning a customer could have achieved the same thing.

What platform/tools do you use for your business?

We build websites on WordPress using Oxygen as our builder of choice combined with Automatic CSS as our preferred framework. The combination of those two tools on top of WordPress allows for very fast website builds with incredible customization and functionality that scales easily. We use Fathom Analytics for privacy-first website analytics as an alternative to Google Analytics.

Internally we use Basecamp for project management. We love their work philosophies and their approach to building platforms. It’s simple, clean, user-friendly, and has exactly the functionality we need in our small team.

We recently moved away from ClickUp after using that for a few years because it was just unreliable. They’re scaling their tool and adding so many new features all the time — which is great — but it was becoming bloated and the platform itself would go down often and bugs wouldn’t be fixed for months. Anyway, we are loving Basecamp!

The only thing it's missing is a time tracking, so we use Clockify. The browser extension integrates nicely with Basecamp so the rest of the team doesn’t need to open up another tool to start tracking their time.

We also use Google Workspace for our emails, storage, calendars, meetings, and document collaboration. For web design, we use Figma because of its awesome collaboration features, and we use the Adobe suite for other graphic design and video editing tasks. We also use Xero for bookkeeping and 1Password for password management and sharing.

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

We’re big podcast nerds so these recommendations come from thousands of hours of listening to podcasts. The best podcast episode we’ve listened to is one by the HBR IdeaCast titled The Right Way to Get Your First 1,000 Customers. Prof Thales Teixeira has done incredible research on start-ups which has shaped the way we see businesses and small business marketing. Listening to this podcast will save any new business owners thousands of dollars on investing in marketing they don’t need.

If you’re looking for a great marketing podcast with no fluff that cuts straight to the good stuff then Louis Grenier’s Everybody Hates Marketers is an absolute must.

The best online resource for copywriting and general inspiration is marketing examples. Lastly, we highly recommend Amanda Palmer’s Ted Talk. Whether you work for someone, run or own a business, or anything in between, this is incredible.

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

Just start. It doesn’t matter how long you spend planning something the result is always going to look different so just start. You don’t have to have a perfect product or business to be of value.

Richard: “If it were up to me, we’d probably still be in the planning phases of our business 4 years later. Robyn had that drive and passion to just start, which she still has and that I still admire to this day!”

Learn to ask for help and ask for help often. Growing up, my dad always encouraged me to do things related to business that as a child I thought were super embarrassing.

He encouraged me to pursue many business ideas, take jobs and do entrepreneurial things that required me to step out of my comfort zone. While I hated it then, it’s certainly proved to be invaluable in our business. Throughout our business, we regularly ask for help. From friends to strangers. If we needed help we’ve asked.

We’ve certainly felt the embarrassment that comes when the answer is no but in those cases, that’s it and we move on. A simple no is the worst that can happen.

Stepping out of your comfort zone and putting yourself in a vulnerable position isn’t always easy but it’s certainly worth it. We would not be where we are today if it wasn’t for the advice we’ve been given along the way.

Arnold Schwarzenegger said it so well “Like everyone, to get to where I am, I stood on the shoulders of giants. My life was built on a foundation of parents, coaches, and teachers. Accepting that mantle of being self-made discounts every person and every piece of advice that got me here. And it gives the wrong impression — that you can do it alone. I couldn’t. And odds are, you can’t either. “

We have reached out to strangers across the world. We’ve asked for advice from people we never thought would give us a second glance. What’s been incredible to experience is that most of the time those on the other end are more than happy to help. A lot of them are flattered we even thought to reach out! There are so many people out there rooting for your success who have the advice and skills to help you. All you need to do is ask.

Are you looking to hire for certain positions right now?

We’re not looking to hire anyone at the moment but are always open to getting CVs and networking with freelancers in the digital marketing space. You’re probably a good fit if you listen to this podcast and get excited by the culture and values Patrick Lencioni shares.

Where can we go to learn more?

If you have any questions or comments, drop them below!

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Robyn Mays, Founder of Digital Butter
Pat Walls,  Founder of Starter Story
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