Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?
Hi everyone! I'm Kara Jensen, co-founder/CEO of Bop Design, a B2B Digital Marketing Agency. We work with B2B companies in the high-tech, software, industrial, and life science space to develop lead-generating websites, brand platforms, and content marketing programs.
When I started the company in 2009 with co-founder Jeremy Durant, it was just the two of us working out of our apartment part-time, providing web and graphic design services to local small businesses. We made $30,000 in the first year. Fast forward to 2021, we have evolved our service offering, narrowed our target market to B2B companies, have 13 full-time employees, a bench of talented contractors, and work with B2B clients across the globe. We've made the Inc. 5000 Fastest Growing Companies list two years in a row and are on track to gross $2.8 million this year.
What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
For my first two years in college, I was a business major. But as much as I enjoy business, studying it wasn't the most exciting. I was interested in a career in advertising so I switched my major to graphic design and continued to take marketing classes as well. I fell in love with the design, especially branding and website design. As soon as I was confident enough in my skills, I started taking on freelance gigs to develop my design portfolio.
After I graduated, I landed my first full-time graphic design job at a leather manufacturing company. I designed their sales materials, catalogs, and even some of their products. It was an odd job, but it was a good experience, and I learned how design, marketing, and sales were all closely aligned. During this time, I also continued to freelance on the side as opportunities arose.
I moved to San Diego in 2005 and started working for a mortgage company. I was essentially a one-person design and marketing department, helping to support the sales teams for three different divisions. I led the rebranding of the three divisions and launched new websites and collateral. It was an exciting, fast-growing company but it took a hit with the 2007 subprime mortgage crisis and, despite being named "Employee of the Year" in 2007, I was laid off. The company grew to 100+ people at one point, and I was one of 15 employees left when I was laid off. However, they kept me as a contractor, so I added them to my small roster of freelance clients.
Soon after, I scored another job at a national financial advisory firm. It was a big company with extensive marketing, design, and development teams. During my three years at the financial advisory firm, I honed my B2B design and marketing skills working with a large group of incredibly talented people in a high-performance environment. However, the effects of the subprime mortgage crisis on the entire financial industry continued to cause an overwhelming sense of instability in my career. I never got laid off from this company, but I saw many talented people let go for no fault of their own. At that point, I was scared and motivated enough to take my freelance side gig and turn it into something bigger.
I needed someone who could handle business development, and I needed more technical expertise to turn my freelance gig into something that could support me someday. So I convinced my husband, Jeremy, who has been in sales his whole career but had recently got laid off (due to the financial crisis), to put off looking for a new full-time job and start Bop Design with me. He agreed - he did it part-time and did sales consulting on the side while Bop Design grew. I continued to work full-time and did the work he sold at night and on the weekends. We also teamed up with a developer, which allowed us to take on more complex web design projects.
The money we earned from Bop Design went right back into the business to pay for marketing, networking events, and other business expenses. We lived off my salary and Jeremy's sales consulting job. After a year and a half of putting our noses to the grindstone, I tendered my resignation from my full-time job and went full-time with Bop Design. Jeremy followed suit two months later, and we focused 100% of our efforts on Bop Design. Once we both went full-time, the company began to flourish.
Take us through the process of designing your first product.
When I first started Bop Design, it was primarily just me providing our services, so it was limited to logo design, branding, graphic design, and small websites. As we made more money and added more talent, we expanded our services to building more complex websites and offering more professional copywriting to support the websites and marketing materials we created. After a few years, we started doing more digital marketing and SEO work for ourselves, which worked so well, so we added it to our roster of services for our clients.
However, after about five years, we had this long list of services, and we found it challenging to manage so many different types of projects, which was hurting our profitability. So we asked ourselves who our best clients were and what services we provided with the most value? We decided to only focus on new website builds, content marketing programs, and branding projects. These engagements involve a myriad of services, such as copywriting, SEO, design, digital advertising, website maintenance, etc. - but they are no longer available to our clients as one-offs. This decision ultimately allowed us to improve our processes, client service, retention, and efficiency to market and sell.
When we initially started we priced all our services out individually and they were very inexpensive. For example, a 10-page website was about $3,000 but just included the design and development - no copywriting, SEO, ongoing marketing, etc.
As we grew, we bundled our services, so in 2021 if we did a 10-page website it would include design, development, copywriting, SEO, page speed optimization, content strategy, animation or video, custom WordPress CMS, etc. and our websites start at $30,000. We deliver much more value and are strategic marketing partners with our clients, versus just a design or development resource.
Describe the process of launching the business.
The company grew somewhat organically. I already had some freelance clients when I first started, so they just started to get invoiced under the new Bop Design name. We created the Bop Design logo, website, registered the domain, and developed our marketing materials in about two months. Jeremy started cold calling, cold emailing, and networking, so, within another month or 2, we started adding new clients.
We bootstrapped the company - we used 100% of the money we earned from Bop Design and poured it back into the business. We lived off my salary and Jeremy's sales consulting gig.
I see so many owners take out too much of the profit, and they have nothing left to invest in marketing, sales, and employee development.
We were networking quite a bit during this time and met many entrepreneurs who were just starting too. First Jeremy would do research and find companies that fit our target market at the time. Second, he would reach out to the companies on the list that had lackluster websites. Third, cold calling never works as an isolated tactic - it was followed up with an email and direct mail piece. We utilized postcards as direct mail pieces back then - they are inexpensive to print and mail and you can hit a big list without much expenditure.
I'm sorry to say 90% of those businesses no longer exist. I think the biggest lesson from our success was how we handled the financing of the company. We grew slowly and organically, never taking on too much risk, debt, and most importantly, we invested in the continued growth of Bop Design. I see so many owners take out too much of the profit, and they have nothing left to invest in marketing, sales, and employee development.
Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?
When Bop Design first started, we had more time than money, so we found that networking and referrals brought in the most leads. As we grew, we had more money and less time, so we optimized our website for search and developed digital advertising campaigns to bring in leads. We also implemented regular email marketing and thought leadership programs to nurture those leads. It turned out we were pretty good at this.
Thought leadership is essentially an expression of ideas that demonstrate you have expertise in a particular area. Our programs included blogging, social media, writing guides, and white papers to help educate our audience on all areas of digital marketing. Some of our most successful pieces were our Buyer's Guide to Content Marketing and The B2B Website Buyer's Guide - these two pieces help in our lead nurturing and moving prospective clients through the sales funnel. Our blog, which is also full of educational content drives a tremendous amount of organic traffic to our site, helping to generate interest and leads: https://www.bopdesign.com/bop-blog/
Last, but not least, our portfolio, before and afters, and case studies demonstrate we can deliver on what our thought leadership promises.
We now bring in 100% of our new business through inbound marketing. We have B2B clients worldwide and get to compete with some of the largest B2B marketing agencies on deals. We also have a stellar online reputation which helps build credibility and earn trust in the sales process.
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
Bop Design is doing well. In 2020 and 2021, we made the Inc. 5000 list for Fastest-Growing Private Companies in the US - this is something we are very proud of, considering these were very challenging years with COVID. In addition, I took four months of medical leave in 2021 to get a double-lung transplant. Despite these challenges, we've remained profitable and never had to do furloughs or layoffs like many small businesses had to during the height of the COVID crisis.
Our margins did take a hit - our COGs are currently about 62% of our total income - this is something we'd like to reduce to 55%. We plan to streamline service delivery and increase revenue by highlighting our value-added services.
Our new sales are 100% through inbound marketing, we don't anticipate this changing, but our focus is to keep up our rankings for key search terms that bring in ideal customers. Over the past year, we've seen a dip in our search rankings and plan to mitigate this in the coming months.
We will continue with our slow growth model. In addition to reducing COGs and maintaining our organic SEO, we'd like to upsell more website clients into content marketing programs - which help them realize the long-term value of their websites and improve lead generation.
Only the paranoid survive in business. It may be easy to relax when things seem to be going well, but staying focused on the activities that got you to where you are is critical.
Lastly, for next year, we are considering adding two additional full-time team members to round out our technical and content teams.
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
I've learned many things running a business for 12+ years, but here are my top 3:
#1 You can't do everything yourself. Business moves quickly and trying to do everything yourself will get you nowhere fast. Hire good people, partners, and vendors and treat them well. Stay focused on the things you do that bring the most value to your business. Don't waste your time trying to figure out HR policies when your expertise is in marketing. Hire an HR consultant and move on. Time is money.
#2 Don't rest on your laurels. Only the paranoid survive in business. It may be easy to relax when things seem to be going well, but staying focused on the activities that got you to where you are is critical. You can't neglect marketing just because you closed a couple of big sales. You can't stop looking for ways to improve service delivery just because you've got a good reputation. Things can change on a dime, and a business leader's role is to stay one step ahead.
#3 Treat everyone well. To succeed in business, you need to like people and treat them well. I'm not saying you need to be everyone's best friend, but you should have everyone's best interest in mind - whether it's your employees, clients, or partners. Investing in your relationships will always have a good ROI. Happy employees perform better and stay longer, happy clients will buy more services and refer more business, and happy vendors will typically go the extra mile when you need them most.
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
The Bop Design team as a whole uses a ton of software, platforms, and tools to manage the business and deliver our services. But for the sake of time and not to bore everyone to death, these are my top 3 tools for running the business and service delivery.
Running the Business
- Evernote - as an owner, I'm constantly juggling many different meetings, projects, clients, etc. Evernote keeps all my notes and ideas in one place and makes it super easy for me to search. It's connected and syncs with all my devices. I always have this app open.
- Forecast - is our Project and Resource Management Tool, which we just implemented last November. We used Basecamp for ten years, but it wasn't cutting it anymore. Forecast took a while to set up, but it's fantastic and provides more insight into project performance.
- QuickBooks - you can't make sound business decisions without having good accounting data.
- GatherContent - we started using this tool about six years ago for the copywriting portion of our website projects. It makes it very easy to collaborate with clients and manage workflows.
- BugHerd - this is a bug reporting tool we use when websites come out of development. It makes it super easy to collect feedback and manage project status.
- WordPress - we are a custom WordPress development shop, so all our websites are built with this CMS.
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie - was written in 1936, but it's evergreen advice. If you have to read one business book, this is it.
Atomic Habits by James Clear - provides excellent, practical advice for building good habits and breaking bad ones. Running a successful business and balancing it with a healthy, happy lifestyle takes a lot of discipline - this book is a handy resource to help you achieve your goals.
The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck by Mark Manson - is a self-help book for people who hate self-help. In this day and age, it's easier than ever to compare yourself to others - especially when you are running a business. This book helps you focus on the important things in life and forget about the bullsh*t that doesn't matter at the end of the day.
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?
Don't be afraid to test your ideas - that's where real learning occurs. No amount of reading and planning will replace the experience of actually starting a business.
Don't quit your full-time job. Money is like oxygen for a business. If you don't have money, there isn't much you can do. You need enough fuel to get the fire going. Once you've tested your idea for a business and realize you can make money off it, then you can quit.
Are you looking to hire for certain positions right now?
We don't have any full-time positions open right now, but we are always looking for talented freelance B2B copywriters and website designers to help with overflow work. Submit your resume and samples here.
Where can we go to learn more?
Questions? Contact us.
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