The “cool factor” of being an entrepreneur is at an all-time high. Everyone seems to want to be a successful entrepreneur. Among many paths, starting and running a digital marketing agency seems to be popular. Many people feel that since they went viral on Instagram, they can be successful in social media marketing or managing other aspects of marketing for others.
Unfortunately, the learning curve (and competition) is more robust than you might think. If you get past all the hurdles and booby traps, you can have a successful digital marketing agency. I should know — I started and built a digital agency that went on to be ranked as one of the fastest-growing in America.
But there are many things to look out for, none less important than these dreaded pitfalls that many gloss over when they get started:
1. Signing The Wrong Types Of Clients Too Quickly
Never rush into your first three sales. These are the most important sales that set you up for success — or massive failure.
I see far too many new digital agency owners boasting about how they get sales within a few days of opening up their doors. Everyone wants to make that first sale. But often, people will lower their standards or take not-so-ideal clients just to get going, which can be a huge mistake.
I had an experience early on where I took in the wrong type of client. The client was the opposite of all of the standards I set for myself and my company. My core values, reputation and ethics are critical to me. After a few months of working with this client, we realized the mistake and cut them loose.
My top recommendation is to stick to your core values as a company, once you know what those are. And it’s important to decide those early on, or you don’t really know what type of client you are after, which makes a disaster scenario more likely. If you start accepting clients without guidelines in place, you are more likely to get the wrong types.
2. Setting Expectations And Not Protecting Yourself Legally
One of the sad realities of toxic startup culture is that companies not doing well will often look for a scapegoat. Marketers can be easy targets and tend to get blamed for almost everything that goes wrong.
Now, when you add in a more substantial sum of money, and a startup hires your digital marketing agency, the stakes get even higher. You could be hired to grow someone’s social media engagement, but the next thing you know they are wondering why a household publication hasn’t covered them yet. Or, you could be hired to help with press and communications, but the client asks why they haven’t gotten any sales yet. A lot of this misguided scapegoat mentality you can’t control. But this comes down to two things you can control: setting expectations properly and protecting yourself legally.
At a minimum, proper expectation-setting involves making it crystal clear what you are willing to do (and not do) to help your clients. Then, reinforce your deliverables by not agreeing to anything additional unless you amend the agreement (and charge more for it). Finally, never do verbal agreements, and always permanently set things in stone with contracts that you have made through your own lawyers, explicitly stating what’s included (and not included, if there’s any doubt). Then, disputes have to rise from the contract rather than through unrecorded or convoluted conversation history.
3. Focusing On The Wrong Markets And Spreading Too Thin
Focusing on the wrong markets goes hand in hand with selecting the wrong initial clients, and can be just as bad. Just like choosing the wrong clients, picking the wrong industry to focus on can also be devastating. For example, I consulted a digital agency that was adamant about getting into the mobile app space. The problem was, other than being app consumers, nobody on the team knew the first thing about successfully marketing a mobile app.
It’s important to know what your and your team’s core competencies are as marketers. If you don’t know the first thing about marketing mobile apps, stay away until you do, or until you hire someone who can help with that.
The one last pitfall worth mentioning is avoiding working in too many separate industries. You don’t want 10 clients in 10 vastly different industries — that’s going to make your life way more complicated. You ideally want no more than one or two types of unrelated markets, depending on your scale and capabilities.
4. Not Adopting A Winning Mindset
I’ve always been an optimist, and it has served me well. But being a smart optimist comes with a responsibility to look out for the dangers as well — just as being a pessimist is not going to work too well if you don’t have at least one ear open for “positive” upsides. I’ve adopted the mindset of “hope for the best but plan for the worst,” which I think can work for many people and, ultimately, provide a formula for a great mindset.
This mindset can apply to many areas of life and business. Still, for the sake of the topic at hand, you should hope that marketing is going to go well and things will be smooth and dandy, but plan for if it wouldn’t, and come up with ways to overdeliver on the value that you provide. Don’t mistake this for throwing in tons of extras that aren’t agreed upon and set the wrong expectations. I’m talking about finding small ways to overdeliver without setting the bar at a level that you can’t sustain.
Growing my agency over 2,000% in just a few years has taught me many things. If you can keep these pitfalls that I learned in mind when building and operating your digital marketing agency, you’ll be in a much more sustainable position with a big leg up on the competition.