How I Grew My Digital Marketing Agency To $3.5M/Year
Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?
Hey all, my name is Tyler Pigott and I founded Lone Fir Creative back in 2015, starting with $300. Our company operates in two different areas. The first is helping brands get their strategy in place, how they want to be perceived by their customers, who they are going after, what their story is, and then rolling that out to all that branding and marketing materials. Then the second area we focus on is amplifying that message and brand to get in front of more of their customers.
Our goal is to help brands with ambitious goals grow. Our team is built with creative problem solvers, so our approach doesn’t bulk us into a traditional branding and marketing shop. We still do lots of those activities and tactics for clients but are built around the strategy of how to go get what the brand's goals are over the next 12+ months. Most of our clients fit into three buckets, technology, academics, and healthcare, often crossing over between those, think ed-tech or health-tech.
We run what we call the Revenue Operating System (ROS), see the graphic below. It starts with research, discovery, and building a strategy for a brand, then moves into brand messaging, and building a digital presence and it’s usually all centered around a technology, like HubSpot as their backbone across marketing, sales, and service.
We are a good fit for brands that want a strategic approach to growth and a long-term partner to help them get there.
As far as, how far have we come? We should do about $3.5M-$4M this year, growing one client at a time steadily over the past 7 years.
What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
I suppose my journey started back in middle school when I wanted to make some extra money so I started DJing weddings, events, school assemblies, etc. That grew over the years to where I was able to pay my way through college. This was back in a pre-iTunes, Spotify playlist era when you’d have to go to a music store and dig through racks of music to find that one song someone requested. It taught me the value of my time and how to go out and get stuff you wanted.
Fast forward several years, I initially started Lone Fir Creative because it was a great transition after spending 15+ years in the corporate and startup spaces. I got the opportunity to work for others helping them start companies, launch products, and grow them to a national scale. After leaving the last startup I was in 2015, I took time to figure out what I wanted to do next and landed on the idea of taking what I was good at…thinking big, putting legs to people's visions mixed with marketing, branding, and sales experience and started a consulting firm.
Since I’d spent lots of years working on the other side of consulting firms, i.e. hiring them. I knew all the stuff that I didn’t like about working with agencies and creative shops, so my goal when I set out was not to do those things. At least that was a starting point.
I spent years just focusing on the long term vision to grow a strategic agency, always putting in the work to build what was needed at the time to get to the next level, focusing on communication with clients, clear understanding of their goals and what we’d do to meet those goals and the deliverables. I found that helped get lots of earlier wins because we did what we said we’d do, at least for the clients that would let us.
Also, I found that not having anything to get started and the need to hustle for a paycheck each month helped a ton in the early days because it put a fire under your buns to get stuff done. Probably starting a business with a wife, two girls ages four and six and a house mortgage wasn’t the most stress-free approach to starting a business (heavy sarcasm here).
Take us through the process of designing your services
After spending the better part of a decade at startups, my mind was groomed earlier to launch minimum viable products (MVPs) and constantly improve based on user feedback. So that’s how we’ve built Lone Fir Creative to this point, everything has been with that mindset, from the service we launch to internal processes and an agency operating system to help us grow. It’s constant iterations and slight tweaks to push us forward towards doing what’s in the best interest of our clients and people on our team.
We’ve always based our services around what problems clients have with their sales and marketing efforts and how we can create a service that helps solve those problems for clients. We still do this today.
Much of my time at startups was also around consumer products, a couple of those in the biotech and beverage space. Those didn’t exist without tons of standard operating procedures (SOPs), so I’ve carried that over into the agency as well. We have more systems and processes built than other agencies I’ve talked to. It’s helped us grow, hire people in specific roles and get them onboarded quickly, set guardrails for team members so they can sprint fast, and get repeatable results for clients too.
So much of the challenge over the years has been the investment of time and resources by myself and other members of the team into building those processes and procedures for our agency to grow to the next level. But it’s been 100% worth it!
We’ve gone from essentially doing anything people would pay us for in the first couple of years to now really only focusing on those products and services that we know we are good at and can help clients meet their goals with. We are constantly exploring what else is out there in the industry to help get us better and how we can add more value, so we are always improving our services.
A turning point for our business happening in March of 2020. We decided to launch “foot in the door” style services. Our goal was to have something that clients got tangible results within the first 30 days and cost less than $5k to get started. It took off, our sales process was shortened, people said yes more easily and 80% of the time it leads to additional work. The reason I bring that up is that none of it would have happened without having solid processes for how we get those initial projects done for clients.
Describe the process of launching the business.
Back in 2015, when we started the business it was a steep learning curve as there are so many things to understand and know to build a smart business. But you only know what you do when you do it with the information you have, so that’s what we did! I just focused on selling what we were good at and constantly improving from the times we fell on our faces.
I’ve always been a bit of a DIY kind of person, so I spent hours and hours and hours learning, reading, and talking to people to get an understanding of certain elements of the business from sales and service delivery to taxes and business operations. I think if I were to do it again, I’d probably hire outside consultants or help to leapfrog some of those earlier mistakes. There wasn’t anything major, but the idea of coming alongside someone that’s done it before would be worth it! But those falling on your face moments are what make you who you are today!
I suppose the earlier days were a lot of selling stuff and then figuring out how to do it the best way possible. Most projects weren’t done the same since I was constantly trying new things and wanting to improve from the previous project and client. Nowadays, we can’t do that, clients want to know what we’ve done and how they can trust us. After all, we are in the business of selling trust.
I knew that I wanted to build something bigger than myself, after spending so much time on teams larger than me, I knew that I could have the vision for a project or way for a client to win, but I likely didn’t have the chops to accomplish it myself. That’s where hiring talent came in. At first, I did what probably most people do hire contractors or consultants on a project-by-project basis so I wasn’t on the hook for them even if we didn’t have work coming in.
I did that for 2 years, building a pool of contractors so that I can land a project and then have people to choose from if someone couldn’t do it because they had other work. In 2017 we hired our first full-time contractor and guaranteed them the hours so I could have access to their talent when we needed it. Later that year we shifted to full-time employee status and that’s the preferred method today.
I’d say one of the things that I’ve learned over the years is to figure out what your superpower or sweet spot is and do the most work in that area versus being a generalist and spreading yourself thin across everything. For me, that has been building and coaching teams, which means I needed to build a team to be able to do that. That’s a whole topic in itself to talk about how to get out of your way so you can build something bigger than yourself.
Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?
Since we started the business we’ve focused on building relationships with key people or groups of people to help us grow. Those have changed over the years, but the concept has stayed the same.
We’ve also focused on building a brand that wasn’t centered around one person. Oftentimes brands are built around the founder and that person is the glue that keeps everything together as well as the key person to push everything forward. I decided earlier that I didn’t want people to know who I was. A win for me was to land a client, get a contract signed, and the project kicked off, paid, and successful without me touching it. Now, that has taken years to get to, but it’s been totally worth it and super rewarding because we can constantly improve that.
The ability to have a team that handles the work, it’s allowed me to build relationships with key communities and groups of people. Much of our success is attributed to two communities, StoryBrand and HubSpot. In 2017/18/19, much of our growth was because of leads we got from those communities and partnerships. I’d show up at everything when it was in-person and participate in everything when it was online too, my goal was to learn as much as I could and to add value wherever I could too. It’s been a great mindset over the years to figure out where you can add value as your first motivator and if anything comes out of it, great. If not, that’s ok too. Versus the alternative, wanting something in return for everything you do, people can sniff that out a mile away and it usually doesn’t go well.
Figure out your vision. What do you want to do? The more detail the better. Then find a framework to help make it happen!
In January of 2019, we noticed that StoryBrand wasn’t taking advantage of any SEO, so we wrote this blog post StoryBrand Website Examples because at that point people were trying to implement the StoryBrand framework on their own and needed help to see how others had done it. We reached out to other StoryBrand Guides and asked if they’d want their work featured in a piece of content we were putting together. We watched that article gain thousands of views each month and slowly grew, it still does today, although we’ve revamped it with new stuff each year. That opened the door to lots more business from that channel for us.
We found that when leads came to us through our marketing channels, we’d close them much easier because they knew that we could get results since that’s how they found us. From then on we decided we wanted to be our own best client and become a testing ground for new ideas and tactics to try. That’s when we hired a full-time Lone Fir Creative marketer, now that people work on a team and are responsible for generating a certain amount of leads each month for our sales team to run with.
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
If you’ve read from the top, I’ve sprinkled in several hints at how we are doing today. It’s been a fun ride with lots of challenges along the way!
We’ve grown every year since we started, top-line revenues have grown each year between 40-75%, team size has grown every year, our number of clients has grown every year, our confidence in delivery and key processes developed have grown every year. As far as profitability goes, we’ve continued to invest our profits back into the business each year growing the business, hiring staff, investing in technology, etc. So that 10-20% bottom-line margin has usually been reinvested.
When you have a big vision of where you want to go, you can either try to raise the money upfront and go achieve that vision or you can constantly invest from each micro win that you have along the way, which is what we’ve chosen to do. Either way, there’s risk, stress, and hassle involved.
As far as the future goes, we made a big play this year. Actually, in January of 2022, we merged with another agency to continue to grow, increase reach, and additional team expertise.
We want to continue to reach for additional opportunities and build deeper partnerships with clients going forward. We’ll likely grow with some acquisitions for talent and team as well as continue to build out outbound sales efforts as we work towards more predictable revenue targets.
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
I’m not sure where to even start here.
When you jump off the cliff to start your own business, it’s more of a self-awareness journey than it is a business venture. So the lessons learned have been so much more about what I’ve learned about me and how to relate to others than it has been about reading a P/L or how to calculate the cost of customer acquisition, etc.
As far as practice skills go, I did share one above but work towards operating your sweet spot, what you are truly the best at and no one can do better. It might take a while to figure that out, but it’s worth the effort. I’ve been a constant improver over the years, so I’m always making T-charts, pros/cons, and the classic grid of what you like to do and are good at, versus what you don’t like to do and aren’t good at.
Know your weaknesses, and be aware of what you need to work on, the more self-aware you can be and aware of your impact on others both positive and negative the better. I’ve always worked hard to hire for my weaknesses, even though in the earlier days, that was a couple of hours here and there and now it’s moved to teams of people that have deep knowledge in certain areas.
One of the best pieces of advice I was given early on in my career was … ‘think bigger than you are now.’ It’s pushed me to constantly reach for bigger goals and not settle when I know something can be done with more excellence and potentially larger scale.
Know your priorities. Constantly be aware of what sucks your time. If it’s email, socials, slack, client meetings, sales, etc. Know what it is and make sure that is what the best use of your time is. My habit is to make sure I know my top three priorities for the next day before I go to bed that night. When you start to work the next day, focus on those priorities first before you dig into anything else. It’s helped me accomplish A LOT over the years.
Something that we as a business decided to do early on was that our first employee was remote, we’ve never had an office. Remote, meaning not in the state where I live and I continue to be the only person in the state of Washington. We now have employees across 16 states in the US. I say that because it was well before the pandemic of 2020 started and it was luck that helped us not skip a beat and have our biggest year in 2020 than any previous. So you never know what you’re going to have to navigate or what’s going to be helpful from big decisions to small ones too.
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
We’ve used so many tools for our business over the years. Our main core platforms that run our business are:
If you haven’t heard of any of the above, click on their links and dig in deeper.
I’m going to focus on a few of the above.
HubSpot has been a game-changer for us. As I mentioned above, we use it for marketing, sales, and service. It’s become the backbone of our business. It’s easy to use, constantly expanding, and has allowed us to scale and continue to grow over the years.
It’s also been a major source of business for us as we work with clients directly on it from implementing for sales teams to building websites and automation for marketing teams.
A platform that is relatively new for us over the past 6 months has been Parallax. We’ve been looking for a tool to help us forecast, capacity plan, and measure estimates versus actuals from hours and dollars perspective. Parallax has been the tool! It sits on top of HubSpot CRM and sales pipeline as well as Harvest. So when a salesperson is working a deal with a prospect they can check the specific service they are selling and then we can model that project in Parallax to measure it across the team, who is available, and when could we start it, etc. This platform has helped us know what services we need to sell to make sure the entire organization is busy and when to bring additional team members on board.
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
Thinking through some of the most influential resources over the years, it’s hard to narrow down to just a few, but I’ll try to list out some of the ones that I’ve found the most helpful.
The book Who Not How was super helpful to read. It gives lots of practical advice for growth and building a team, and delegating. Read it!
When I was in the midst of the business's early growth, I listened to the StoryBrand podcast all the time, and then the book came out I think in 2017, and that was a game-changer too! I've used what I learned in this book repeatedly many practical tips on how to position your brand and a framework for presentations, emails, etc.
Nowadays I listen to the 2 Bobs podcast by Blair Enns and David C Baker a lot for practical tips and practices for running a service business in the sales and marketing space. Building A Better Team by Tim Schurer as well as Prof G aka Scott Galloway on general brand strategy, the tech industry, and the ever-changing business landscape.
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?
This is a bit of a carryover from the previous section, but one of the best resources I’ve found over the years is surrounding yourself with people you want to be like. I feel like some of the best learnings I’ve had, have been in those group settings where other business owners and entrepreneurs are pushing toward a similar direction.
I’d highly recommend getting out of your comfort zone with this one, reaching out to people you hear on podcasts or speaking, or reading their books or articles online that you found helpful or got something from. See if they’d be open to connecting on Linkedin, exchanging messaging, or even grabbing time on a call. I’ve found that most people are willing to connect and love to share how they got to where they are. There have been so many valuable insights I’ve gleaned from being ready to stick my neck out there and reach out to someone even though I don’t know them.
One of the best pieces of advice I was given early on in my career was ‘think bigger than you are now.’ It’s pushed me to constantly reach for bigger goals and not settle when I know something can be done with more excellence and potentially larger scale.
Figure out your vision. What do you want to do? The more detail the better. Then find a framework to help make it happen, we follow EOS here at Lone Fir Creative. It’s helped us put our vision into play using their framework and making tangible steps every day. Once you have your vision figured out, use it as a decision-making filter for how you decide things in your business.
Ok, this one is kinda weird, but it’s been extremely productive in my own life. Spend time figuring out what makes you uncomfortable and what you’re afraid of. Then figure out how you can lean into those and try to get yourself into those situations until they aren’t uncomfortable anymore. If you’ve already started a business then you jumped off the cliff, it seems weird to now let other fears dictate how far you’ll go.
Why not dream big and chase after it. You’re the only one that can.
Are you looking to hire for certain positions right now?
We are always looking for great people to help strengthen our culture and bring expertise to our team!
Most people we are looking for are Marketing Consultants and Specialists in the area of HubSpot.
Although check out our careers page to check out the types of roles we are looking for and to apply for.
Where can we go to learn more?
Hey! 👋 I'm Pat Walls, the founder of Starter Story.
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