I Started A $2.4M/Year Marketing Agency [From Home]
Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?
Hi there! I’m Yvette Adams, Founder, and Co-owner of The Creative Collective - a full-service marketing agency that specializes in digital marketing.
I launched The Creative Collective in 2007, and today we operate from Maroochydore, Queensland, and Newcastle NSW, where my business partner and Co-Owner of The Creative Collective Katrina Lees leads some of the team.
From web development and branding to social media services, SEO and PR, our specialized team caters to a variety of clients and their individual needs.
We currently have around 100 active clients with whom we are either doing project work or retainer work and respond on average to 160 inquiries each month. In the last year, our team has doubled, and month-on-month compared to last year, as has our revenue.
What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
I started The Creative Collective from home just seven weeks after the birth of my second child Matisse, with my three-year-old son Rio running around.
I did so out of both desire and necessity. Desire because I am innately ambitious and necessary because I needed to earn an income from home to support my family. One income wasn’t enough for us to survive. Our financial situation at the time was pretty dire. We were going backwards pretty fast and something had to be done and quickly. So I figured my best option was to use my diverse background (I had worked in marketing/communications and in media as a journalist and editor for many years, I had run some significant events, had some HTML skills, some design skills and so on). I also knew I needed something with ultimate flexibility that would allow me to work from home around the changing needs of the kids, and that had an unlimited earnings potential. In the early days I would literally jump on the computer in the middle of the night after I had done some breastfeeding and was wide awake! I could also see the massive potential of the market and had to be part of it.
Business is fraught with risk. But to me, business is about accepting that there are risks involved and combining some education, number crunching, and decisiveness, with some good old-fashioned reason and sensibility and of course intuition. If it feels right it probably is.
So I just started offering my services to people I knew (which was limited as I had only arrived in Australia in 2004 knowing nobody!) and without realising it at the time, we were one of the first full-service creative agencies on the Sunshine Coast. Prior to that people had to go to a designer, then to a photographer, on to an events organiser, someone else to build their website and so on. People loved the fact we were a ‘one-stop shop’ and once we won them for one service, we generally expanded them as a client and got referrals.
We did run a survey in the early days asking people about where they were at with their marketing and having spent the prior seven years traveling the world and in the UK, I found Australia was very behind back then and needed help with everything - website, getting Google rankings and so on. Their overall awareness of the digital world was very low and I definitely felt like I could help them.
Towards the end of 2007 I was bold enough to enter the Australian Small Business Champions Awards and I couldn’t believe it when I won Young Entrepreneur of the Year for Queensland at these. Thereafter I was offered a spot on a national TV show to talk about my business, and once it aired, the phone started ringing with people wanting to use our services.
I think we’ve also been early adopters of cloud technologies and social media and that has played a part in our success too.
I established a profile on Linkedin in 2007, and then whilst visiting New York as a finalist in the International Women in Business Awards in 2008, I saw the power of social media and decided to also start up on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. In 2009 after meeting a woman called Zoe de Luca (now Zoe Wyatt), together we started offering social media services and training and we were early to market with this.
In 2010 we won our first tender with the Queensland Government to develop and deliver webinars to small business owners. This saw us develop and deliver digital marketing training to thousands of businesses which also saw our reputation grow and the timing was good. Many businesses were still very much starting online and needed all the help they could get. Later that year I won the Commonwealth Bank Business Owner of the Year category at the Telstra Business Women’s Awards and we’ve continued entering business awards ever since. Today I now help people identify and enter business awards via another company I established in 2011 called awardshub.com.
In 2008 I had also franchised The Creative Collective, and a woman called Katrina Lees was my first franchisee in Newcastle, and we also had a franchise going on the Gold Coast. Towards the end of 2013 we decided to throw the franchise model out and in early 2014 we became 50/50 business partners. Since then, together we have driven huge growth in the business. 2020 when COVID hit was scary. But in 2021 we doubled our revenue and doubled our team and now have 20 people across our Sunshine Coast and Newcastle locations.
Take us through the process of designing and building The Creative Collective.
Right from the start of our business we have had a lot of “product lines” or service divisions and our approach to each of these (which we now refer to as pods) is different.
For instance, when considering how we package up and sell one-off project-based products such as a brand or a website is quite different to how we package up and sell a recurring product such as a social media, SEO or pay per click service. And then we are often approached by clients requiring a ‘campaign’ which may require us to combine both projects and recurring work.
We have been offering branding, design, websites, search engine optimisation, pay per click, email marketing, PR and strategy since our inception. Over the years we have added to our services for instance with the advent of new social networks or new features in existing social networks. One example of this is chatbots. We now regularly create and run chatbot competitions and program chatbots on our clients' social channels to provide a better customer experience to people messaging them, which is something that wasn’t available at all when we started our business.
I guess the things which are the same across the board, are that we are often pioneering. There is generally no ‘playbook’ for what we do and how we do it. Our industry is fast-changing and very fast-moving and you often can’t go to University and just learn what we do, so it is about discussing as a team what we think there is an emerging demand for based on the conversations we are having with prospects or clients, doing a lot of reading of industry news and product updates, and sometimes taking a look at what others are doing i.e. what they are selling, how they are communicating it and what price point they are putting on it, then reviewing our current approach and potentially making adjustments as required. However, often we find we are the ones creating new products, packages and price points and others are following our lead. We have always been quite transparent about our pricing featuring indicative pricing tables on our website quite publicly, which not all agencies do. But we find it gets the conversation going with a client in terms of what type of service they might like, what level of inclusions they are seeking and therefore what budget they are prepared to commit.
We also reflect inwardly and look at our time tracking and how long it took to execute on tasks or projects, and whether we came in over or under budget then adjust our future quoting accordingly.
Right from the get-go we invested in a trademark, solid legal, which to this day we get updated regularly, and good business advisors too. We currently have a formal board of advisors who meet once a quarter to guide us on our journey.
Did you have a formal launch of the business?.
We didn’t even have a formal launch. It was just a case of getting a graphic designer friend (who is still on our books!) to do a design of our logo, printing it out on an A3 sign, laminating it and putting that sign up in our office. When we created business cards we really felt like we were in business and when we had a website up, well we were live for the world to see!
Despite the soft start without any official launch, because we launched in 2007, and had such a strong understanding of search engine marketing, right from the get-go our website has been very strongly optimised and ranked very well on Google nationally. To this day we rank for over 300 highly competitive and high search volume search terms, and this is a key reason for the very high level of inquiry we enjoy each and every day. We have also put a lot of focus on building out our website. It is around 800 pages in total between the 200 odd key pages, 300 portfolio pages and 300 blogs which help Google to understand who we are and what kind of traffic we want.
In terms of finance, in the beginning, I was very resourceful. As I mentioned earlier I had a three-year-old and a newborn and we were going backwards financially fast. So there was no startup capital to speak of. I simply did a lot of hard work, and any time I made a profit, we reinvested it all back into the business. In the early days, I took no wage, later I took a small wage, and it was probably around nine years into the business and two years after Kat and I became 50/50 shares in the business that we both finally started to pay ourselves the sort of wage we could command if we went out into the workforce. Since then we have kept leveraging up and now operate with really healthy margins and now earn an income to afford the lifestyle we desire with the ability to take bonuses, or borrow from the business like a bank.
There was a time in 2011 where I had some poor accounting advice and had to take out an overdraft for 18 months to pay a $40k tax debt which I was unaware of, and we also worked with a private investor to loan $100k when we purchased another agency in 2017 and we are proud to have also paid that off inside 12 months.
Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?
Being a full-service agency has been a major factor in attracting and retaining customers. It’s often more than one area of marketing expertise that clients are seeking help with. From web development and graphic design to social media and marketing strategies, being a one-stop-shop is an attractive quality - so our clients tell us, regularly.
In fact, a recent client of ours commissioned The Creative Collective for our PR services, however when they urgently needed a marketing manager we were able to offer this secondary service with minimal fuss. And now both PR and marketing roles work harmoniously together.
We’re very active on our social media platforms, and really do practice what we preach posting 3-4 times a week including a mix of posts and stories! Social media serves as an excellent platform to communicate with your community and potential customers, in an informal and interactive way. It’s a great way to show a personal side to your business and acts as a measurable marketing tool that can achieve fantastic results without breaking the bank.
Having been recognised at the SEMRush Awards for Best SEO Campaign in 2020, we understand the importance of SEM and our digital presence. Currently in the midst of launching a new website (watch this space!), we know the benefits and implications of good SEO practice first hand. Having a user-friendly website with an appealing look and feel is definitely important, however the real challenge is driving qualified visitors to your website and we spend a lot of time investing in the SEO aspects of our website. We blog regularly and some of the blog posts we wrote years ago still deliver a lot of traffic today. Most people start their search for a new product or service on a search engine, with a high percentage of people using Google. If you are not positioned on Google with SEO or PPC, you are missing out on a lot of business! We currently offer this service to 22 clients.
Offering PR as one of our services, we recognize the excellent value of self-promotion. We regularly communicate with our local media and trade media when we have interesting news or some insightful commentary to contribute. Our founder Yvette is a sought after public speaker and we’re always entering business awards to be recognised as a company and for our work.
In short, we’re always proactively looking for ways to get our name out there.
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
Like many businesses in Australia, we were hit hard in 2020, watching our revenue drop 40% in the month of April 2020 after losing many clients in the travel, tourism and hospitality sectors. We leaned on our Xero reports, management skills, and budgeting powers HARD, and are proud to have come up with a recovery plan which saw us climb our way back, achieving a 30% revenue loss in May, a 20% revenue loss in June, and to be back to usual trading around October 2020 onwards.
Fast forward to today and we have DOUBLED OUR REVENUE and have also grown our net profit hugely, which for a 14-year-old business, and in such challenging circumstances, we are extremely proud of.
This extreme growth has resulted in us hiring eight new team members in the 2021 calendar year, with two more due to start, and two more being advertised. We have also received enquiries from investors wanting to buy us, which is very flattering and is food for thought.
Our short term goals have been to launch our new website (due to go live end of September), strategically seek to be more active in the Not-for-Profit sector (it’s a great sector and aligns with our company values well), and to find more qualified staff and embed them in our culture. We have hired eight people this year alone and have two more roles out right now. With Australia’s border closures preventing the arrival of technical and skilled workers from overseas into the country, many businesses in Australia are now having to fight for available resources. We’re also really focussed on improving our onboarding process, as well as improving our systems, processes and procedures which is an ongoing task.
Our long term goal is to continue to build value in our business & as directors to be less active in the business as we get capable team members on board and performing.
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
That as well planned and organised as you may be at times, sometimes the unexpected will still happen and you will just have to ‘roll with the punches’. We often refer to business as a game of ‘whack a mole’ - where the successful completion of one task yields another popping up elsewhere. Being in business is certainly not for the faint-hearted!
We communicate to our team that we seek to create a high-performance culture and have regular discussions on what that means and how it translates into their daily behaviors. We encourage them to treat themselves like they are elite athletes. To eat well, sleep well, drink lots of water, do things they love outside of work to stay happy, and messages like this have been all the more important for keeping morale high through lockdowns, etc (our Newcastle team have been in lockdown since June 2021).
Everyone I meet has ideas on things they are going to do, or businesses they are going to start one day. I guess the difference between me and them is I do them. I just learned as I went.
Acquiring another agency in 2017 and merging it into our own was a good decision, and pulling out of a business deal that we go into the final stages of to acquire another business was also a good decision. They weren't forthcoming with key information and changed the ownership structure of the business in the eleventh hour, which massively gave us cold feet. It turned out to be a good decision as the business went under not long after so was obviously in a lot of trouble and were trying to cover it up in the business deal to us.
The decision to put ourselves forwards for a wide range of opportunities has generally always been a good one. For instance, in 2013 Yvette put herself forward for the chance to go to Silicon Valley on a study tour with 10 other top women in IT of Australia. She got to visit Facebook, Linkedin, Eventbrite and a bunch of other companies and a lot of her observations, insights and contacts have remained valuable to draw on to this day.
We are proud to have been one of the first full-service marketing agencies on the Sunshine Coast way back in 2007, to have been a fully cloud-based business since 2008, and to continue to be a forerunning company on a national basis today boasting some of the best talent in the industry.
We have forged and maintained a unique position in the market given our close association with our sister company The Training Collective offering digital skills training, giving our clients the option to train with us, have a service or both, as they need. In 2019 two of our trainers Yvette Adams and Heather Porters were announced as 2 of only 10 Facebook Community Trainers across Australia and NZ. They engaged in intensive training and delivered training to thousands of small businesses in Australia, initially in person, and when COVID hit, via purely online platforms. Audiences included Bushfire affected communities; women in business and regional business groups. In 2019 the program reached over 10,000 businesses in 57 towns, and in 2020 over 20,000 businesses. Heather and Yvette are heavily credentialed having gained several of Facebook's globally recognized certifications.
We have developed many programs to digitally upskill regions, most recently we worked with over 60 businesses for the Knox City Council in Victoria affected by COVID lockdowns.
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
As a company, we moved to Google Suite in 2010 and have not looked back. Working across two offices with clients in every state and several international, we’ve found it’s the most efficient way to work and we use a wide range of Google tools to do this including Gmail for email, Google Calendar to manage our schedules, Google Tasks to keep track of our to-dos, Google Chat to communicate internally, Google Meet for video conferencing, Google Drive for file storage, Google Docs, Sheets & Presentations, Google Forms Google Drawing for creating and editing docs, and a wide range of other Google products for client work such as Google Analytics, Google Search Console, Google Tag Manager, Google Data Studio, Google Ads and more.
Because of our heavy use of these tools, the lockdowns in the past 18 months have not impacted our ability to run a company from home and across two states, nor in our ability to service clients in multiple states.
We also use ActiveCampaign extensively as a CRM & EDM system, Teamwork for project management, Monday.com for resource planning, Xero for accounting, Traject social for social reports, Pandadocs for proposals, Integrapay, Quickapay, and Stripe for netting money, and we LOVE Zapier to tie it all together.
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
I just generally read quite a few books and listen to podcasts from a wide range of sources and there is no one book that has ‘truly inspired me or the business’.
Recently I have been reading A Repurposed Life by Ronni Kahn who is the founder of OzHarvest. I met Ronni at a conference in Byron Bay in 2010 as a guest of Commonwealth Bank and have really been enjoying her story, which like my own life spans living in three countries for lengthy periods of her life.
I have also written two books of my own - More Than Meets The Eye which I published in 2006 about my grandfather’s life and No Kidding which I published in 2014 which is about kids and technology. I guess in some ways I’ve been more of a writer than a reader of others’ content.
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?
Everyone I meet has ideas on things they are going to do, or businesses they are going to start one day. I guess the difference between me and them is I do them. I just learned as I went. I never had any formal training, in fact, I struggled in the last year of school and I really didn’t know what I wanted to do, but I’m glad I didn’t go straight to uni. I tried different things and discovered what I liked and what I didn’t like.
1 - Systems & procedures
A big part of our success to date is our extensive and innovative use of cloud computing or online systems to ensure there is consistency and quality in the service and products we provide. All of the online systems we use have been carefully selected after extensive research, and are regularly customized to service our unique requirements as a company, and that of our clients. The strong use of these systems ensures our company’s profitability and value. Our company wiki for instance is now an extremely valuable resource in which prospective franchisees understand the value of investing. It also ensures new staff or work experience students are brought up to speed as soon as possible, with minimal training required. Being a collaborative system, it is constantly being developed and updated, removing the risk of dating and stagnating. Further to this, it has an RSS feed that updates all subscribers the moment a new procedure is added or an existing procedure is amended.
2 - Embracing technology
We use a lot of technology but are constantly keeping an eye out if something is better, faster, easier to use, and produces a better result. And we’re also all about integrating and automating whatever technologies we do have for efficiency's sake. There is no point in doing stuff in your business that technology can do.
3 - Create your opportunities
I have always been a ‘go-getter’. I believe that things don’t just ‘happen’. If you want something you will have to go out there and ‘sow some seeds’. And I believe you often have to sow a LOT of seeds, and also come back and check on those seeds, water them and give them a little prod now and then to check they are still there for business opportunities to sprout up and come your way. I did not for instance hear of an opportunity to go around the world for a year on a paid ticket writing travel articles and taking stories. I came up with the idea, pitched them, worked on them, and then landed a dream job for a year!
4 - Authenticity
I believe people are more discerning now than ever. I don’t think you can get away with saying that you believe in something yet not showing that through your personality and actions. I think it is essential for business owners to believe 100% in what they are doing and to act at all times with authenticity. If they are authentic in their person, in their message, in their actions I believe their message will come across in a truly authentic, passionate, and therefore powerful way.
5 - Risk-taking
"It's pointless", said reason. "It's impossible", said pride. "It's risky", said experience. "Give it a try", whispered the heart. I believe that most successful business owners have had to take risks. A risk to get started, a risk to take staff on and grow their business when they weren’t sure whether they could afford them. A risk to take on a certain client. A risk to offer a certain service. Business is fraught with risk. But to me, business is about accepting that there are risks involved and combining some education, number crunching, and decisiveness, with some good old-fashioned reason and sensibility and of course intuition. If it feels right it probably is.
Are you looking to hire for certain positions right now?
Yes! We have a couple of full-time positions and are also always looking to hear from talented people who may wish to work on a freelance basis. See this link.
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.
Get our 5-minute email newsletter packed with business ideas and money-making opportunities, backed by real-life case studies.
- 4,818 founder case studies
- Access to our founder directory
- Live events, courses and recordings
- 8,628 business ideas
- $1M in software savings