I Built A $600K/Year Design Agency From Nothing
Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?
Hey, I’m Tony Hardy, founder, and director of Canny Creative. We’re a creative agency based in the North East of England creating brands, websites, and content that helps brands grow globally.
Our customers are businesses looking to grow locally and globally. We help them get their brand strategy, brand identity, website, and content marketing offering aligned in a way that connects them to their customers.
We partner with startups and SMEs, supporting standalone marketers, small marketing teams, and product managers to hit their goals and objectives.
Currently, we’re making around $50,000 per month (or £35,000 in Monopoly money!) and work with clients on every continent, except Antarctica. Penguins have little use for our services.
Tony Hardy, founder and director of Canny Creative;
What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
I started Canny Creative out of necessity. My girlfriend (now wife) was pregnant with our first child, and we had nothing. But I was a good designer and had recently finished my degree. So I started selling my services.
If you love what you do, and can’t stop thinking about it, then you’re going to be able to build something awesome. So do it.
First I connected with friends and family and sold business card designs for $50. One person referred me to another, and before I knew it, I had amassed a small portfolio of design work.
My girlfriend (who hadn’t seen much of my work to that point) said “you’re actually canny creative aren’t you?” - Canny is slang in the North East of England for, quite as well as a whole range of other things.
It can mean good, bad, quite, it’s a colloquial term for a lot of stuff haha!
And that’s where the name came from. Canny Creative.
The aha moment was when I built our first terrible website, and started posting it around the internet, people wanted to talk to me about what I could do for them. Over the course of a few months, I’d picked up a few referrals to small businesses. And it just kept snowballing!
Our first terrible website:
Take us back. Who was your first client and what was the project?.
Our first real product was a bad business card design for a friend, which isn’t that interesting!
Douglas Simpson business card from:
I guess the first proper thing we made was our own website. We threw together a rudimentary website in the early days of WordPress.
It was truly terrible. I’d downloaded a free font, designed a crappy logo, and smashed it all into a terrible website.
6 months of deep research into SEO and blogging sent me into a spiral of using organic content for growth, that’s never stopped since!
We added a blog to our website (basically, to give me something to do when I wasn’t designing.) Luckily for me, I was right at the start of the blogging for a traffic boom (which I wasn’t aware of) and we started building a good amount of traffic to our site.
In Year 1, we went from 10 or 20 visits a day up to 100 or so.
Now in Year 6, we’re closer to 2000 visits every single day, and we’ve built it all through blogging and content strategy. My advice to people wanting to utilize blogging to grow their business is to think hard about what their customers are looking for.
We found templates are useful for our readers. People looking for help writing a design brief, or creating a brand strategy, often find a template or workbook helpful.
Is there something you can offer up to your audience that goes beyond just a blog?
We once blew £50 on a Facebook advert, but everything else has been organic traffic and referrals!
Describe the process of launching the business.
As we discussed just before, we didn’t really “launch” in the same way as a traditional business. I had a beat-up laptop that I was working off.
On my son’s first birthday, I went with my family to the Apple shop and bought the cheapest iMac I could. I’ve still got it sat next to me in the Canny office to this day!
Our launch wasn’t crowdfunded or kickstarted. We had about £50 a week to live on plus whatever came in from my design work.
So yeah, nothing at all glamorous to share on that front!
Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?
Again, we once blew £50 on a Facebook advert, but everything else has been completely organic through writing our blog.
For a creative agency, we’re actually really poor at social media and have only recently started taking it seriously. I use time as my excuse here!
To break down our thinking around blogging for clients, this is how we think:
- We have a range of target people; marketing teams, standalone marketers, startup founders, product managers. What do they care about?
- Across those people, we have target sectors we work with, from healthcare to FMCG and B2B services. What do they care about?
- We have locations we do a lot of work in. What do people in those locations care about, and can we piggyback onto that? (This is the hardest content to plan around.)
We’ve written several key pieces that drive most of our traffic. Posts about design briefs, how much does XYZ cost always seem to do well.
The post How to Write a Design Brief is one of our most popular.
I think posts like this ended up ranking well because of a few factors:
- We went into so much detail on how to write it, what should be included etc, that it is arguably the best post on the internet about design brief writing.
- It squarely targeted the keywords "how to write a design brief, design brief, and, design brief template" and we rank for those with it.
One of the best things is we can (and have) rinsed and repeated this for our other key services and deliverables.
The biggest lessons I've learned from blogging are:
- Know your audience, and serve them.
- Just keep writing. Even when it's difficult, write. When you can't be arsed, write. When you think you're out of ideas, write. You don't have to publish, but always be writing.
- Distribute. It's called Content Marketing, not content writing. Write it, then distribute it, market it, and flog it for all it's worth!
Our traffic grows, dips come back stronger. And month to month we’re seeing more and more high-quality leads through the content we’re creating.
To keep clients engaged, we now deliver this marketing methodology for them too, alongside working on their brands and websites.
One of our brand values is “partnership over profit” - and we work with clients like they’re our own business. We always go the extra mile to deliver, and we’re great custodians of our client’s brands.
This means we rarely lose a client!
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
The business has always been profitable. Because we didn’t have funding, we didn’t have a choice. We couldn’t grow without money behind us, so we had to make money from day one!
Our ad spend is basically all time. We have two FTEs in our Content team. Their salaries combine to around the $70k (£50k) mark. They deliver work for clients, but also manage all of Canny’s output which currently stands at two posts per week.
So we spend their monthly salary on “marketing.”
Across the business, salaries, rent, and software, etc cost us around $30,000 (£20,000) every month.
I’m a terrible maths and numbers guy, so guess our profit margin is about 40%?
We’re in the middle of adding video as a service we can deliver, and as a spin-off of that, will come podcasts. So branded video shows and podcasts for clients are the next steps in our content offering.
In terms of growth plans. Over the next 3-5 years we’re aiming for that elusive million marks which mean around 5 or 6 new hires.
With any luck, we’ll be opening up a second office too. After that, I’d love to get premises in the main areas we service.
It’s funny because we rank quite well for “Newcastle design agency” and terms like that, it almost makes sense for us to go over to Newcastle in Australia and open up there too! We’ve had a lot of inquiries from over that way, so maybe that’s an idea!
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
One of the biggest lessons I’ve learned is to “just go.”
Early days, we won a project in Japan. No idea how, but we got found by a Japanese company looking for something made in the UK!
They invited us out to Yokohama, and we went. We managed to build a relationship that then rolled into several other projects.
Similar to other travel we’ve done for the business. There’s not always a guarantee of work, but it’s worth a risk if you can afford it.
We got invited over to Belfast to meet a Marketing Manager and Director for a coffee. We went, and they became our largest ever client.
Sometimes, you just have to dive in feet first.
I guess it’s “going with your gut” - but sometimes I don’t even listen to that. Sometimes there’s no logic, and I just embrace it and go anyway.
Nothing ventured, nothing gained.
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
Our website is running on Wordpress and we’ve literally no reason to change up from that. We also build almost exclusively on Wordpress for clients too.
My favorite tool is AHREFs. I absolutely love it!
Being able to have a nosey at “successful websites and brands” to discover actually, they’re not doing that well with organic traffic is always interesting.
I use AHREFs every day to benchmark our blogs, see what we’re ranking for, and identify new content opportunities.
CRM and task management wise, we use Monday.com - basically because their YouTube adverts battered us into submission. Love it, completely flexible and customizable.
And then, of course, Slack and Zoom for communication!
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
I don’t read a whole lot, but I have recently finished Bob Iger’s book The Ride of a Lifetime which is about his journey to becoming a Disney CEO and what he achieved there.
I loved this excerpt:
"When Disney bought Pixar, CEO Bob Iger was given a “Luxo” (the Pixar lamp) as a gift. He told the room “I’m going to use it to light our castle.”
That book is just completely inspirational, and as a Disney fan, it’s great to get to hear some of the behind-the-scenes stories.
My favorite book on business ever though is Content Machine by Dan Norris. It’s an older book now, but holy shit. Every single thing he said in that book made so much sense to me.
I read it about 3 years into my journey with Canny, and we’d be living his ethos for 3 years already. Absolutely tremendous!
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting?
Oh god, I’m a terrible teacher. Don’t listen to me. So far, I’ve shown I’m terrible with numbers and will just dive into stuff without thinking.
I think my advice is this: Fucking go for it.
If you love what you do, and can’t stop thinking about it, then you’re going to be able to build something awesome. So do it.
I was told, “You can’t build an agency without working in an agency first.” Turns out you absolutely can if you have passion and a vision.
Also, I think “common advice” is bad. Stuff like;
“Don’t overwork, you’ll burn out. Take more time off. Switch off. Get out of work mode.”
It boils my piss.
If you love what you do, you’re always going to be thinking about it. You’ll always have ideas, probably when you’re trying to relax, because that’s when you have headroom.
I’m an absolute workaholic, I love it. I don’t feel like I’m going to burn out. Be aware of what your body is telling you, and if you’re healthy and good to go, then go for it.
Are you looking to hire for certain positions right now?
We’ve just taken on 3 new starters, 2 designers, and a video guy. That’ll be our last for a while.
Maybe in early 2022, we’ll be ready!
Where can we go to learn more?
We’re in all the standard places. Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn etc. I’m personally most active on Twitter.
Our website - and we’ve got a podcast coming out soon too, so stay tuned for that!
People can reach me directly at [email protected] if they have any questions or just want to shoot the breeze together!
Canny Creative has provided an update on their business!
7 months ago, we followed up with Canny Creative to see how they've been doing since we published this article.
Hey! 👋 I'm Pat Walls, the founder of Starter Story.
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