After 'Accidentally' Landing Multiple Clients, I Validated And Launched My Own Digital Advertising Agency [$120K/Year]

Maria Popova
$10K
revenue/mo
2
Founders
5
Employees
Wealth Lead Gener...
from Rotterdam, Nederland
started May 2018
$10,000
revenue/mo
2
Founders
5
Employees
898
followers
4
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After 'Accidentally' Landing Multiple Clients, I Validated And Launched My Own Digital Advertising Agency [$120K/Year]

Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?

My name is Maria. I'm 29. I run a digital advertising agency called Wealth Lead Generation HQ'd in Rotterdam.

Our absolute best-seller is lead generation. We run digital advertising campaigns mostly on social media guaranteeing predictable results such as an average of 250% increase in revenue from the new clientele.

We're averaging 16K monthly from our retainer clients and surpassed our first 6-figures in 2021 while still running the agency as a side hustle mostly. That's what convinced me to focus on the business full-time, which I did at the end of 2021 and we quickly scaled to a team of 5 people.

That's an image of my dorm room in Austria, where I studied as an exchange student in 2014. As a foreigner, I struggled with finding conventional employment to support myself and accidentally landed my first remote writing gig.

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That one little success was enough to convince me that there are plenty of opportunities online. I missed 99.9% of parties on campus but learned a great deal about remote work and online business. I made my first money online through the early adoption of bitcoin.

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What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?

I was born and raised in post-soviet Russia, in Siberia. Had humble beginnings, and a very unstable family situation. My parents were both in their twenties when I was born and divorced when I was just 2. Then my dad was shot dead by a policeman reportedly "by accident" when I was 5. That caused me to become introverted.

The country's economy just collapsed and it was very chaotic. My family didn't have much, we lived in the suburbs resembling the ghetto. My mum juggled a job, college, and a side hustle to provide for us. When I was 6, she took me to an elite linguistic school where you have to pass a test to get in. I passed. That's how I ended up learning English at a very young age as well as two other languages.

I continued my linguistics education by enrolling in a university in a bigger city. The academic part of the study never interested me much, but writing and conversational language mastery did.

As a student, I landed a freelance job as a tour guide in the city of Yekaterinburg. The city is frequently visited by travelers from all over the world following the historical Trans-Siberian Train route. The spirit of adventure that these tourists brought with them was very contagious. I started saving money to travel and applied for academic scholarships to study abroad. That's how I got to Austria.

Having experienced the enjoyment of freelancing, by the time I graduated, I knew that I wasn't going to look for employment and turned down every job offer that I received. I decided to continue freelancing but soon realized that this type of business is unscalable.

I got into marketing by accidentally landing several startup clients who needed help with copywriting and social media. I started getting offers for various crypto projects quite effortlessly, purely because I had the guts to react to the opening, show up for the interview, and told the truth that I was a fresh graduate with zero real-world experience and a huge desire to figure it all out. I was also a travel junkie at the time and within just a couple of years visited 30+ countries. While in Austria, I met my partner during a weekend trip to Berlin. We ended up having a distance relationship for the next 3 years.

To succeed in any form of advertising, you need more than just creativity. You need to spend lots of time "listening" to the market.

Bottom line: I didn't have a "normal" childhood and the conventional way never worked for me. At the same time, I inherited an immense work ethic from my family. One of my greatest sources of inspiration is my mother who started her first business at 19 right before I was born. Her 3 businesses failed, but the 4th one succeeded.

Later on, I learned that it's very common among entrepreneurs to feel like the "odd" ones. If you learn how to embrace that, you will most likely succeed.

Financially, freelancing was a roller-coaster. I had times when I was making 10 times more in a month than an average student on campus did and more than many top managers in my country, but there were also moments of hardship. I only knew how to write articles and had zero experience with marketing, sales, the legal stuff, etc. I also had zero understanding of business, what was a viable idea, and what wasn't.

From my startup clients, I learned bits and pieces of that. Lots of trial and error in the beginning. One of the biggest wins during that phase was helping a fintech startup raise 7 figures in a matter of weeks through a combination of social media advertising, PR, and collaborations with influencers.

Between 2012 and 2020 I was failing as a solopreneur but decided not to give up. Eventually, I sought help from people who run successful businesses to learn everything I can. It's an ongoing process.

Take us through the process of designing your service offering

To succeed in any form of advertising, you need more than just creativity. You need to spend lots of time "listening" to the market.

The most successful campaigns that we've done so far all include very specific offers addressing a very specific pain of a very specific group. It takes months of testing and refining before you can create a killer offer. There are no shortcuts. The market and the data are always right and your assumptions as a human being are almost always wrong if you ignore them.

Lots of services we offer are custom. Through testing, we noticed that there are methods that produce great results when done in combination. We discarded what didn't work and maximized our efforts and ad spend on what did work. As soon as we could afford extra expenses, we started investing in education such as training and mentorship.

Neither myself nor my partner had prior experience with running a business. That's why we decided to seek help with installing efficient systems. Through research, we identified entrepreneurs who successfully run agencies and online marketing businesses and were open to sharing what worked for them (in webinar/mastermind settings and private conversations). We took action on pieces of advice they gave us on how to improve our operations, e.g., how to do the outreach on various platforms, how to present ourselves online, how to structure conversations with potential clients, etc. Having a strategy and a step-by-step plan gave us a sense of direction and helped make our goals more attainable. Having mentors and more experienced business people in your network is essential, however, when it comes to execution, you have to realize that a mentor won't build your business for you. At the end of the day, you have to take action on the strategy yourself and be consistent with reaching out to a large number of people.

To this day we are testing lots of different offers because the market changes fast. Every new service that we launch goes through thorough testing before we make it publicly available. We don't have a narrowly-defined niche, therefore we always make sure that we stay relevant to our audience - the ambitious entrepreneurs. As a business, we strive for preserving our authenticity and human face. That means that almost anyone can reach out to us with a proposition or idea and if we feel that other clients could benefit from that, we can find a way to offer it.

Stanford's free course on How to start a startup is a great free source. It's not entirely new, but many fundamental principles it teaches still ring true today.

We almost gave up realizing that the amount of action required to kick it off is much stronger than what the two of us could do. What we learned from that is that it's okay to ask for help from somebody more experienced and who has walked a similar path before.

I do have a diploma in digital marketing, but I wouldn't say you need a diploma in marketing to run an agency. Nor that you need a business degree. Most of the useful things I learned are from other marketers who got amazing results and were willing to share.

Startup costs:

We started Wealth Lead Gen after we built a buffer first because we knew that we wanted to focus on the business full-time at some point. If your budget is zero you can still get started by setting up your social media profiles and starting with building a following. At some point, you will need to invest in your website, marketing, and ads. But don't worry about it now. For a start, you only need a smartphone or laptop. We've spent about 200$ to pay for content on our Instagram.

Legal stuff:

From research and my more experienced colleagues I learned the basics of legal and the must-haves such as contracts, agreements, and policies. My advice is to focus on that after you land your first client.

Describe the process of launching the business.

We started with building an Instagram following. It took about a year before we started seeing results and some traction. It can be done much faster with an investment of under $2000. We used paid follower growth on Instagram through a combination of shoutouts and giveaways on influencer and celebrity pages. This way you can attract real active accounts. We retained the growth by sharing social media hacks and implementing a hashtag strategy. To increase engagement, we post reels. Currently, lead gen campaigns on Instagram and Facebook are one of our main sources of new leads. If you are just starting on Instagram and you have a $5000 budget, you can buy an account in your niche with following and engagement and rebrand it. That will save you a ton of time and money.

Part of our daily life is busting myths about social media and explaining them to our clients. Growing organically on Instagram is now next to impossible. We are upfront with our clients about it offering them premium paid follower growth as a service and assisting with a monetization strategy so that they can see a return on investment faster. We also understand that not everyone agrees to play the paid Instagram game, however, based on our experience and clients' success stories, the cost of missed opportunity is much higher in the long term if you decide not to. Social media monetization is one of our most important USPs. Having spoken to hundreds of entrepreneurs, we realized that social media remains a stigma for many. One of our greatest strengths is that we help our clients turn every social account into a revenue-generating funnel.

If you are looking to grow organically on social media, TikTok might be the right platform for you. By posting 3 times a day you can grow very quickly there and land new business as you do so.

We did get a simple website, however, we didn't actively promote it and used it mostly for credibility. Make sure to have a contact form and a clear call to action.

For financing, my partner and I used a buffer that we've built from working full time and 2 credit cards with a total limit of $3500.

There was no official launch, we just started reaching out to hundreds of business owners cold and let our existing network know about what we do. We pretty much used every opportunity to talk about our business. Since we started with paid ads, we started landing new clients immediately in high volume.

Paid follower growth helped us to increase the response rate from the cold outreach on Instagram and LinkedIn. We crafted a simple message that would pick the interest of business owners and allow us to start a conversation. Having a website also helps to increase your online credibility. Most of the business owners would check it to see if you are legit. We wouldn't recommend investing too much money into it. We have done a bit of cold-calling and cold emailing, but that hasn't been very successful, so we stopped. We started the cold outreach with hundreds of messages weekly, but soon realized that it didn't produce the results we expected. Instead, we decided to identify 10-20 ideal clients and started building long-term relationships with them strategically by providing advice and value.

Currently, we acquire new leads through a combination of paid ads on Instagram and Facebook, outbound cold outreach on Instagram and LinkedIn, and networking and referrals. We don't believe that one method is better than the other and use what works in combination. This way we make sure our pipeline is always full.

Lately, we started meeting people face-to-face and taking field trips to clients and noticed that it also helps to increase trust and build stronger relationships.

We did grow slowly in the beginning, because we were both working full time and spent every waking hour building new connections. All that took place during the lockdown in early 2021, so networking events, meetings in person, and travel weren't an option. We had to go all-in on social media.

We almost gave up realizing that the amount of action required to kick it off is much stronger than what the two of us could do. What we learned from that is that it's okay to ask for help from somebody more experienced and who has walked a similar path before.

Always be on the lookout for somebody who does it (cold acquisition, sales, management, etc.) better and finds a way to offer them value in return for sharing their knowledge.

Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?

In the startup space, I learned lots of creative ways of doing marketing without having a huge budget to spend.

Marketing and advertising campaigns are similar to scientific tests. You have a business owner approaching you with a specific problem such as not getting enough new clients or wanting to scale, but feel stuck. And you need to identify what the root cause of this problem is. Based on your data and research, you make a hypothesis and then you test it by running a campaign and measuring the response. Then you fine-tune the variables (copy, graphics, targeting, the offer) based on the data that you got from the experiment.

The most important components of a successful advertising campaign are product knowledge and the knowledge about the real consumers who use it. Presenting the features of the product or service most attractively in the language that potential buyers use is key.

Don't forget about targeting. It needs to be the right offer for the right people on the right platform and in a manner that speaks to them the most.

99% of our new clientele comes from social media. That's why having optimized profiles is crucial. Personalize messages when you DM people and don't pitch them right away. Allow some time to get to know the entrepreneur (potential client) and their needs.

Your profile needs to have a good-looking headshot (doesn't have to be done by a professional photographer, but it has to look professional, be clear, not blurry). It also needs to give your profile visitors a clear idea about who you are and what you can do for them.

Our traffic increased significantly since we started using marketing automation tools and paid ads. We started with spending under $100 and gradually increased it to a couple of thousand per month as we scaled.

  • Screenshot 1 illustrating results of our SEO: we got on the 1st page of google for some keywords in less than 45 days.

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  • Screenshot 2 illustrating the average results we get with a $1000 ad spend per month.

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  • Screenshot 3 illustrates how effective Instagram reels are for boosting engagement and growth compared to other types of posts.

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How are you doing today and what does the future look like?

We've been growing by 50% the first 2 years and 100% last year.

Currently, we are focusing our efforts on attracting enterprise-level clients in 6 core industries that we love focusing on: real estate, financial services, fitness, dentistry, food industry, and IT.

We are extending our sales department and are actively making ourselves more visible and known. When you do marketing for clients, you seldom have time to do your own.

Next to that, we are developing e-courses that will help small businesses get on track with their marketing.

Our long-term goal is to accumulate capital that will enable us to turn the agency into an investment firm that will identify entrepreneurial talent and mentor them. Our mission is poverty alleviation through business and finance education. Therefore, we are on the lookout for partners who resonate with that and will help us bring this vision to life.

Simply said, we are looking to help youth from harsh environments learn how to start and run a successful business so they can elevate their communities. When I started as an entrepreneur at 19, I wished I had someone more experienced to show me the ropes.

Our avatar/ideal customer has changed over time from just any business owner to a busy entrepreneur who does well but is still unfulfilled. We help them create generational wealth by building a strong brand.

The company has steadily transformed from a digital marketing agency for small businesses to an agency for established companies that want to scale. We are getting noticed by bigger brands who want to increase their brand equity and in some instances realize their ambition to go public. Due to our expertise with successful social media monetization, we execute effective branding strategies for them in the least amount of time with the most return. Exciting times!

Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?

  1. Not focusing on building a personal brand early enough
  2. Networking more
  3. Getting clear on what kind of people and industries we want to work with. It would have made the search for the right people much faster.
  4. We tried working with everyone in the beginning and wasted a ton of time talking to small business owners who couldn't afford our services.
  5. Installing automation and systems as early as possible and delegating everything that doesn't benefit the long-term vision or propels us towards our goals.
  6. Not asking more experienced people for advice often enough

What platform/tools do you use for your business?

Canva.com awesome for content creation, awesome functionality, and ease.

Veed.io - video editing, easy to use.

Facebook Business Suite - scheduling posts for Facebook and Instagram.

Answerthepublic.com to inspire content creation.

What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?

Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?

If you want to grow on Instagram quickly, focus on reels, stories, and going live.

To grow on TikTok quickly, go live 3x per day every day for a minimum of 1 month.

One of the most common mistakes we see with starters is focusing too much on things that have little impact on the financial well-being of the business such as spending too much time improving websites and social media feed rather than talking to potential clients.

Although social media is a great source of our new business, one of the best clients we got came from personal conversations offline. The more conversations you start, the closer you get to landing new business.

Be open to changing your ways and treat every potential client as a unique case with unique needs. No cookie-cutter strategy fits all. Sometimes it takes up to 3 meetings to nail everything down before the client gets ready to proceed.

Don't forget about your lifestyle, needs, and values as a human being and entrepreneur. Keep an eye on the big picture and be willing to change systems if they are not performing well. Be willing to look at the ugly parts of the business (every business has them!) and improve them.

Are you looking to hire for certain positions right now?

We are always on the lookout for talented creatives (designers, copywriters) and partners/affiliates.

If you refer us, we will pay you a referral commission.

For details, fill out the contact form on our website or DM me @realmariapopova on Instagram.

Where can we go to learn more?

If you have any questions or comments, drop a comment below!

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Maria Popova, Founder of Wealth Lead Generation
Pat Walls,  Founder of Starter Story
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