How This Couple Started A $400K/Year Advertising Agency
Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?
Hi! We’re Chris and Camila, founders of Social Ktchn, a digital marketing company. Our main service is providing Facebook and Instagram paid ads for our clients, who range from small to midsize businesses, in lead gen but mostly in the eCommerce space.
Our annual revenue is typically around $300-$400K, which is quite a jump from the $40K we made in our first year!
What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
I’d always been trying to find ways to combine my creative abilities with making money, and landed on advertising. After heading to a year-long ad school in Chicago, I had a great book and an awesome internship right out of school - well on my way to being John Hamm in Mad Men. Until I realized that without being able to choose my clients, I was in for a long career of 14-hour days making Mcdonald's billboards and Sears commercials.
I moved to New York and convinced the owner of Les Halles - the restaurant Anthony Bourdain got his start - to hire me to work on some businesses of his and improve traffic at the restaurants. I loved the hospitality industry and felt like I always could ‘be on vacation’ in that space. It eventually lead me to San Diego where I worked at a smoothie shop and Crate and Barrel while I interviewed and finally landed what I called my “Dream Job” as a Marketing Director at Blue Bridge Hospitality Group, overseeing a dozen locations and millions in revenue.
I was flying for the first week there, until the person I was being trained by quite explosively, screaming and yelling her way out the door. Despite a bit of a toxic environment, I thought I’d turn this department around, got a graphic designer hired, landed an assistant, and then realized why the turnover was so fast at this place.
Those who’ve worked in any side of the restaurant and hospitality industry probably know what I mean: disorganization, penny-pinching, wearing of (too) many hats, and low career development options. That coupled with the fact that I had to admit I am just an awful full-time employee, I decided to quit without a job on the horizon. One of the scariest things I’d ever done at the time. I remember calling my parents to tell them, feeling like I’d just failed in life. They were supportive, which helped a lot.
At Les Halles, I had connected with a lot of restaurant owners who, at the time, were completely clueless about the value of social media and not doing much of anything on their pages. Selling them on the idea of hiring me at a low rate to do their strategy and posting was pretty easy. I remembered that called them all back, and immediately had some clients to focus on. Built a site, found a coffee shop to work at, and brainstormed on names. One day Camila said, “what about Social Kitchen?”. It was like a DING! went off in my brain - a perfect blend of what we do and who we do it for. And off we went.
I was born and raised in the Amazonian region of Brazil and originally went to fashion school, dreaming of becoming a fashion designer. By the time I got my Bachelor’s degree, I knew that I was far more interested in writing and fashion photography than the design itself, but I didn’t know exactly what I wanted to do as far as a career. So I did what any rational 20-year-old does, I booked myself a ticket to a country where I didn't speak the language or have any connections.
I moved to New York, and during my first year there, I attended a language school in the morning and New York Film Academy in the evenings. I landed an internship with a boutique trend consulting firm, which allowed me to live my best of writing about fashion and photographing people and fashion shows (while not paying much). Still, my role quickly transitioned into a more senior marketing role when my boss decided to start her brand of wearable tech.
So from day to night, I had to learn how to run social media platforms, ads, influencer marketing (which was in its very early days), and plan for a crowdfunding campaign. Meanwhile, I was waiting tables at a restaurant where I convinced the manager to let me run their social media pages. So once Chris and I moved to San Diego, I tried to convince every restaurant manager I worked for to let me run their social pages.
So when Chris decided to quit his job, I brought up the fact that we both had a background in social media marketing and that maybe we should join forces. He was a little hesitant at first because rumor has it you don’t mix work and relationships, but I think 7 years later it’s safe to say that the rumor is wrong.
The two of us traveled around with products clients would send us, taking photos, building calendars, writing, and finding ways to get more clients. We cleared just over $40K the first year between the two of us, living well below our means, but having fun doing it. And knew this was the right space to be in.
Over the years, we transitioned from social media management to focus on digital ads. We polished up our site, grew our presence online, and studied the space night and day, class after class until we got pretty good at what we were doing. Just as Facebook and Instagram ads were taking off, we were in prime position. The client list grew, as did our team and our expertise, and the rest is history. We spent days working with clients we choose and love, which gives us more time together and with our 1.5-year-old son, Noah.
Take us through the process of designing, prototyping, and manufacturing your advertising business.
We brainstormed on our best “strengths” at the time, since I had a lot of experience with photography and fashion and Chris had a lot of experience in branding and design, besides the common factor of us both having a great deal of experience in running social media platforms.
Our services at the time included everything from photography to social media management, to email marketing (that was a mistake), and ads were not even a part of it. We did a silly little photoshoot of an iPad surrounded by a bunch of cut-up veggies and that was on the landing page of our site.
The lucky thing about what we do is that we’re using a billion-dollar platform, without having to pay for it. The overhead has always been low which helped us stay afloat in the beginning. And Facebook and Instagram were on an incredible trajectory and the signs were on the wall that this was going to take off as the platforms became ‘pay to play’ and the need for ads was increasing.
Honestly if you want it bad enough, just do it, fail, and learn. With fortitude and that learning experience, not much can stop you.
We were very much winging it. I met a guy in a coffee shop who charged me $200 to tell me how ads worked and I walked away from that meeting feeling like I may as well have flushed that money down the toilet. But, we found some great online teachers and just absorbed everything we could, until we were finally talking about things that no one else knew.
Describe the process of launching the business.
Launching for us involved mainly getting a site up and running, then trying to get clients on freelancer platforms and such. For the website, we started with a Squarespace site, since we both had a little bit of experience working with it and it was pretty user-friendly - though very limited.
We eventually found Webflow through a developer that was working with us. We’d been seeing some limitations with our existing site, as responsive was taking off, and he said at the time it was the most simple and best looking of all the options out there. Years later I’m glad we chose it. Bit of a learning curve but mostly very simple to set up and look aesthetically pleasing. We get compliments on the site all the time. At the time we also tried to drop our cards at restaurants, and go to networking events just to get our business cards in people's hands.
Did I already mention we had no idea what we were doing? I hustled the hell out of client meetings and then was petrified the second I was on the phone with them explaining our service and why they should give me any money at all. But like anything, I got good at that. Finding clients was tough, but Upwork helped a lot, as well as having some previous clients.
Never stop learning! Things constantly change in our environment, so staying up to date on best practices and new developments is a must.
We learned that it’s much better to just start something, be terrible at it, and learn than to wait around trying to figure out where I can improve. Those improvements all happen in time, and you’re going to fail at something no matter what. Learn fast and you can improve even faster. Being a small business you’re nimble and things are easy to change, depending on what you hear/see in return.
Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?
This has probably been the most difficult part of the job, finding clients. It’s very expensive and/or time-consuming. We found that salespeople and cold calling were just not working, and we hated being those people anyway. I learned the hard way that salespeople don’t come on board and know what to do. And most good ones don’t want to be paid on commission alone.
You have to figure out your process and then hand it off to them. Knowing your ideal client is critical. Nowadays, if you’re not a gigantic agency, you can’t possibly cut through the saturated markets by avoiding this step.
Know who they are, where they are, and if you’re confident in those being your real clients, don’t give up on them. Like us, you probably don’t need 100 clients or a million customers to be successful. They are out there. You’ll improve your process, become more efficient, and end up coming out better in the end.
You might feel like you’re slamming your head against the wall but eventually, if you’re hovering in and around a certain space (or industry, or group, or skill, etc) long enough, the opportunity comes up.
Upwork helped and we found an incredible writing team at emdashblogging.com that has helped us be found within a few weeks of them coming on board. You probably want to diversify that too.
Instead of thinking you can get 100% of your clients from two big sources, you should consider getting 10% of them from 10 different sources. We now get most of our clients from word of mouth, Upwork, SEO, and building relationships with non-competitive but like-minded businesses and agencies.
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
We’re really happy with what we’ve built. We know exactly how to do all the steps of our business, we choose our clients carefully, and we create success through all of our prior mistakes. We like to present ourselves as the mom-and-pop shop of Facebook and Instagram Ads.
We don’t plan to grow our agency size per se, as we very much enjoy being a boutique agency, helping smaller businesses instead of relying on many (often bad) clients, controlling the process, being honest with our clients, and having a great work/life balance. Pricing and services could be updated in the future, as the social media landscape changes.
That could include moving more into the Metaverse, and how we can use our digital marketing experiences and creative abilities to channel into brand new experiences. We’ll be keeping our eye on the metaverse and the opportunities there.
Also in the near future, we feel as technology allows users to do more on their own, service providers will not only need to be more creative but be able to manage. This is why we’re adding more consulting services to our repertoire - a less expensive service that can allow small business owners to build things the way, with a bit of a guided hand. We’ll be firming up what that looks like as we grow.
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
We’ve learned to:
Not wait for perfection before starting.
Know what I want and deserve from clients, and state it clearly.
Not waste time on people that don’t fit or understand your way of doing things.
Not stop any given effort just because I didn’t have initial success with it, because building upon efforts adds up exponentially.
Get help as soon as you can afford it.
Meet people in your space, and build relationships. Eventually, they will be a resource to you.
Never stop learning! Things constantly change in our environment, so staying up to date on best practices and new developments is a must.
Understand finances. We hit some snags during our first years financially and tax-wise because we were completely clueless. Getting financially organized helped us grow as a company.
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
- Google Analytics
- Google Data Studio
- Google Drive
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
She started ads WAY before they were the ads we know them today, and forged a very risky path for her career this way. Were ads going to work? Was it worth her time to learn this huge platform? She explains her concepts very simply and realistically and did not at all remind me of any of the big ‘gurus’ out there that adore themselves, which was a huge attraction to her work.
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?
Honestly, if you want it bad enough, just do it, fail, and learn. With fortitude and that learning experience, not much can stop you.
One of the biggest things we’ve learned is not to be caught in the moment by immediate gratification or failures. You might feel like you’re slamming your head against the wall but eventually, if you’re hovering in and around a certain space (or industry, or group, or skill, etc) long enough, the opportunity comes up. And instead of being beaten out by others, you’ll be the one to land the job or get the client or beat out your competition, whatever it is. I feel like that belief that it will work, is what separates of lot people from being successful and those who aren’t. Simply by just continuing to do it.
Are you looking to hire for certain positions right now?
We’re not specifically hiring, but we are constantly learning. So if you’d like to connect as a job candidate, potential resource, or anything at all, we love meeting people and learning. We can all help each other one way or another.
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.
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