I Used My Programming Skills & Built A $120K/Year Freelance Business
Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?
Hello, my name is AJ Tatum, and I'm the founder of Tatum Digital Agency (TDA), a digital presence management agency.
I help startups and small to medium-sized businesses grow their digital presence by providing no-nonsense digital marketing, marketing automation, email marketing, social media marketing (SMM), search engine optimization (SEO), and search engine marketing (SEM) strategies.
Additionally, since I come from a web development background, I can help businesses establish their digital presence from the ground up by helping them design and develop their website with WordPress, WooCommerce, Shopify, Square, or a completely custom web app written in .NET Core / C#.
Since launching TDA in May 2021, I've maintained an average income of ~$10k a month.
What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
I've been developing websites since I was 13, and my first website eventually, over about ten years, became a solid business which I sold in 2006. Since then, I've always had an entrepreneurial spirit and, whenever I wasn't working under my own company, I would work with startups as their Director of Technology.
Think about what you enjoy doing the most, learn more about it, become engulfed by it, and you'll grow personally and professionally.
Despite being a "technologist," I've always had my hands in many different areas whenever I worked with startups. For example, I would team up with the marketing and sales teams to figure out ways to increase conversions, have a better ROI, etc.
Most of my startup experience was while living in Gainesville, FL, a relatively small yet energetic city.
When I decided to move up to Fairfax, VA in 2017, I found the atmosphere totally different from what I was used to. My experience didn't "translate" well and mainly was labeled as a "senior web developer" whenever I would apply for new jobs.
Now, there's nothing wrong with being a senior web developer, but after having my previous experiences, I consistently found myself struggling to find work that I truly enjoyed doing. Instead of being involved with a business from all aspects, I was instead working in silos.
So, in May 2021, I decided that it was time to take life by the horns, and I began brainstorming all the things I truly enjoyed doing. What aspects of web development did I like the most?
What I discovered was that I enjoyed the digital marketing and automation aspect. I love connecting systems together to work harmoniously. So, to make sure I wasn't completely insane, I signed up for several classes on Udemy (like Digital Marketing Agency | Social Media Business) and found the idea of a digital marketing agency extremely appealing.
I also learned more about marketing automation tools such as ActiveCampaign, HubSpot, and more.
Take us through the process of launching the business and finding your first clients.
Before launching the business, I was setting aside money and building relationships working as a full-time contractor doing web development. Fortunately, I'm lucky enough to have a great living arrangement where I don't have to worry about rent. Once I had about $5k set aside, I stopped applying for new contracts and decided to start focusing on launching my own business.
Launching a business in Virginia is so much different than in Florida. If Virginia can find something to tax you on, they will. I knew I wanted to form my business as a single-member LLC, so I filed with the state and got my EIN. However, Virginia also requires business licenses and a special permit if you're a home-based business. So, that was a bit unexpected and a little more complicated than I was used to.
After launching the business, the subsequent decisions I had to make were which tools I wanted to use and which ones I wanted to align my business with. It was a close call, but I fell in love with ActiveCampaign over HubSpot. I found their pricing to be much better for my budget, and they had an Agency program.
For SEO, SEM, and even some SMM, I use Semrush.
I would say that I underestimated the amount of money it took to really get things working the way I wanted, so there were some tough decisions to make. I thought about seeking investors, but I honestly didn't want to do that so early and essentially have someone I'd have to report to and someone that I'd have to pay before paying myself, so I stuck it out and cut personal expenses.
Fortunately, finding my first few clients was a matter of just reaching out within my personal network. My very first client was a friend from Gainesville, FL who wanted to launch her business from scratch. Working with her really made me realize that I made the right decision to start my business and to focus on working with entrepreneurs, startups, and small businesses as I was involved in not just technical decisions, but also business decisions. At the end of the day, technology & marketing go hand and hand nowadays and play a vital role in a business's success.
These tools have allowed me to help clients enhance their digital presence, especially by using Semrush to see backlink opportunities, on-page SEO audits, etc. It's a costly tool for just one site, but it quickly paid for itself once I had a couple of clients.
Since this was my first B2B endeavor, there were some learning curves. For example, the content you post on social media is entirely different from a B2C company. So, one of my most significant areas has been trying to find which social media platform works the best.
While it hasn't gained much traction yet, I launched a YouTube channel as I believe that's a massive opportunity for me.
The biggest challenge, or lesson that I've learned, is that "digital agency" can mean many things to a lot of people. Before naming my company, I thought about Tatum Digital Marketing but loved "agency" more. So, I've been working hard to establish my agency as a digital presence management agency.
Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?
As mentioned above, social media for a B2B company can be challenging, especially if you're new. For example, I want to have my Facebook page as a source of "news," but your page has to be at least 90 days old to be classified as such. Additionally, Facebook and Instagram focus on selling products more than services, so I've been tinkering with several ways to gain more traction.
One thing that has helped was finding a scheduling system that was compatible with Facebook and Instagram. While I loved Calendly for its simplicity, it, unfortunately, doesn't work with either platform. I eventually found Squarespace Scheduling and created a simple scheduling page.
Right now, I offer a free one-hour consultation and free 30 minute discussions. Offering free "blocks" of time to potential clients has been tremendously helpful as you get a nice button on your Facebook and Instagram profile to "Book Now."
Using Zapier, I have Squarespace Scheduling connected to ActiveCampaign so that when someone schedules a consultation, it automatically adds them to ActiveCampaign and creates a deal along with a task. If the user checks the box to be added to our newsletter, it then adds them to another list as well.
Besides that, I've found that just creating new, quality content as often as possible helps keep visitors coming back. Perhaps they're not looking for my services at the moment, but I believe it helps establish some level of trust and demonstrates "authority" for a particular subject. For example, the articles that have performed the best for me thus far have been "4 Benefits of Google My Business", "Organic SEO: How To Build Authority in 2021", and "Why You Should Use WordPress for Your Startup" has received the most visits and likes on social media.
To promote content, I've found that LinkedIn offers better results than Facebook.
Additionally, since I use WordPress for my website, there are a handful of plugins that I rely on and have signed up to be an affiliate for those plugins. Whenever I write an article or post a video about that plugin, I always mention that Plugin developer in the comments, which usually increases my chances of getting retweeted, etc.
The most significant impact has been the most recent decision to join my local Chamber of Commerce. There are a ton in Northern Virginia, but I chose the Central Fairfax Chamber of Commerce and joined the Equality Chamber of Commerce DC Metro. What you get out of your membership is however much you put in, so the more active you are, the more likely you're to reach new customers.
In regards to joining a chamber of commerce, I decided to also apply to the National LGBT Chamber of Commerce. Their process was very thorough, but after about two months I finally got approved. Though they don't have a member directory or the benefits of a local chamber of commerce, I wanted my business to represent who I am.
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
Today I'm doing well enough, but the business isn't nearly as profitable as I'd like. Additionally, I would love to include tools like Social Listening from Sprout Social, but that's about $9k a year. So, I'm trying to keep the tools I rely on to a minimum right now.
As for the company as a whole, I'm considering hiring interns to help with content creation, etc. I've already decided to sign up on Handshake, which is a service that helps businesses connect with students.
The only other thing that runs through my head is the need for more office space sometimes, as I'm currently working out of my bedroom; however, I don't see the need to do anything permanent as the company grows. I believe TDA can be run entirely virtual.
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
I've learned that I am horrible at keeping notes and remembering things, so I'm fortunate to have found a tool called Notion. It literally can do everything I've thrown at it: journal entries, to-do lists (utilizing a KanBan board), writing, brainstorming ideas, etc. It's become my central database, not just for my business but for my life.
One thing I've also learned is that utilizing your connections on LinkedIn can be hugely beneficial. For example, I had a client that I almost lost because she wanted a mobile app. I've never developed anything on mobile; however, I reached out on LinkedIn and partnered with someone, and we were able to capture a significant lead.
Know what you don't know" and be ok with that. You don't need to know everything in your field
The single most important thing that I keep reminding myself of is something my mentor told me when I just started developing. To give a quick background: I developed an application and it was about to be released and I was unsure about several lines of code and how efficient they were. I showed the code to him and he chuckled and simply said, "Someday, you'll learn how to turn these 20 lines of code into four." He gave me just enough to make me curious and learn an incredibly important skill: the ability to search, research, and learn quickly from other examples. Today, I call it "the art of figuring things out."
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
Email Marketing / Marketing Automation / CRM: ActiveCampaign; however, I'm on the lookout for adding in something to handle the CRM piece. ActiveCampaign has mentioned that they're building out their CRM functionality, so I'm on the fence. I've tried platforms like HubSpot & Zoho that try to do it all for $50/month, but what I found is that they don't do any one thing very well unless you pay significantly more money. As of now, I'm looking at something like Cooper CRM or Zendesk Sales & Support.
Social Media Scheduling: This was, without a doubt, the most stressful process for finding a service that did what I wanted it to do, but not be crazy expensive. I wanted two features: 1) add UTM parameters to URLs that are shared and 2) use my Bitly account to shorten the URL per social network. A lot of tools, even the really expensive ones like Sprout Social would make one Bitly URL with the utm_source having all the social media platforms, so I couldn't tell where the traffic was coming from. I tried HootSuite, but they were over $150 a month for those features. Buffer had everything, but their Bitly integration has been down and under development. After a rather agonizing search, I stumbled upon a little-known company called Publer. They're $30 a month and they even post to Google My Business. Best of all, while right now it integrates with Bitly, it can integrate with so many other URL Shorteners. One of which is Switchy.io, which is where I plan to migrate to as I bought their Lifetime Deal from AppSumo for $39.
Website: WordPress with, in my opinion at least, the most powerful forms plugin called Gravity Forms. With this, I can do anything from simple contact forms to asking someone to fill out a form & sign up for my newsletter to access a download or certain content.
There is a significant amount of automation and custom-built Azure Functions that get called from WordPress. For example, I love SendGrid's Dynamic Email Templating but there isn't an official plugin, so I developed an Azure Function in C# that receives data from forms, assigns it to the proper template, and then sends it out.
Additionally, one plugin that's absolutely killer is wpfusion. It syncs data from almost any plugin to ActiveCampaign and other plugins. It's expensive but totally worth it.
Scheduling: Squarespace Scheduling and Simply Schedule Appointments for WordPress. If Facebook played nice with Calendly, I'd switch from Squarespace Scheduling in a heartbeat.
Productivity Tool: Notion
Wishlist Item: While Publer is great at posting and reposting content, I'd love to subscribe to more social listening tools. However, I only want to subscribe to so many services as most are pretty expensive monthly like BuzzSumo is $99 a month. It's not that I can't necessarily afford it, but I just don't want more expenses.
Wish I had the time for: I want to build my own chatbot leveraging either Google Dialogflow or Microsoft Azure Chatbot. I've built them before, but doing custom development takes considerable time and that's just something I don't have a whole lot of and it's not necessarily something I need. I mainly want it to hopefully attract clients looking for chatbot developers.
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
I'll be honest; I'm not a huge book fan; however, Choose Yourself! By James Altucher and The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck by Mark Manson are two of my favorites.
To stay up to the times with digital marketing, I mostly listen to podcasts. I like Marketing School with Eric Siu & Neil Patel, Digital Marketing Daily by Google, and Social Media Marketing Podcast by Social Media Examiner.
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?
This may sound cliche, but just start pursuing your passion. Think about what you enjoy doing the most, learn more about it, become engulfed by it, and you'll grow personally and professionally.
The other piece of advice I have is something my mentor taught me: "know what you don't know" and be ok with that. You don't need to know everything in your field; however, it's important to have connections to people who know what you don't know. So, building a network of people you can trust and rely upon for advice is critically important.
Are you looking to hire for certain positions right now?
I am looking for content writers who are interested in digital marketing and everything it entails. I've tried many different platforms, such as Fiverr, to find writers, but I've been unsuccessful, so I've decided I'd instead develop relationships with those who are genuinely passionate about this field.
Additionally, I'm contemplating starting a podcast and know absolutely nothing about that, so that would be another area.
Where can we go to learn more?
- Tatum Digital Agency website
- The Digital Strategist Group on Facebook
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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