5 Strategies for Building a 50-Person Agency
In the last month, we officially hit 50 team members, distributed between San Diego, Austin, Orange County, England and yes, Grenada. This milestone was notable enough that I thought it was worth reflecting on.
Last year, I talked about five strategies we used to make the Inc. 5000 list. This year, I want to share five things I believe make a real difference in growing a significantly-sized agency, the next step beyond early-stage growth.
1. Find Your “Blue Ocean”
“Blue Ocean Strategy” is a great business book. The core idea behind it is that instead of going head to head against dozens of competitors, instead find an ocean of uncontested market space.
This in essence is solved with differentiation. Solve a problem, but do it in a way that you seem to be the only core solution in the customer’s mind.
Good examples of this:
- Johnathan Dane of KlientBoost, whose PPC agency stands out with thought leadership through content marketing. Lots of people do PPC, but most PPC agencies can’t even begin to market themselves well outside of paid, and that’s why KlientBoost stands out for many of their customers (and me).
- Peep Laja of ConversionXL, who does the same for his CRO agency.
- Marshall Simmonds and Define Media Group do SEO for publishers. Lots of people do SEO, but few pick a niche which allows them to stand out in the marketplace. I’ve seen this done for law, real estate, SaaS, B2B — all of which are possibilities. The less obvious, the better.
- Biasedly, I think we do this decently at Siege Media with our philosophy of creating content that ranks, as well as helps you rank — and only do that. There are lots of SEO agencies and several link building firms, but few who focus on an intersection of link building and content development for rankings.
To get to 50+ people, though, I think you need to pick a problem that’s big enough to fuel that big of a business. It’s often impossible to completely avoid competitors at this size, but it’s still worth considering how you differentiate against similar options.
For example, I love how Aleyda Solis stands out from the crowd as a mobile/international SEO consultant — however, I’m not sure if there’s a 50-person agency in terms of demand for it (and that’s perfectly OK too). For that reason, it also works in her favor in terms of less competition in the marketplace.
2. Build Likability Into Your Company
Seems weird to say that being likable is a business strategy, but it is. Agencies are at their core people businesses. People want to work with people they like.
That partially comes down to hiring likeable people, but it also comes down to building a business that’s likable.
I specifically like what Seer Interactive does here, even if not deliberate. Their brand is likable. It’s light, they volunteer a ton, their team seems great — all of these are qualities that encourage you to work with them.
Similarly, the previously mentioned KlientBoost has a team page that exudes the light-heartedness they work with. This makes them an attractive partner, one you’ll both not only get results from, but enjoy the process with, too.
Finally, Stone Temple has built an affable brand through their light-hearted videos and not-so-serious on-site experience. There are some arguments in SEO circles that their videos might be a little too light-hearted for our industry, but it’s hard to argue with the results. They’re now an 85-person SEO agency.
I didn’t especially build Siege for this in terms of the public-facing persona, but I definitely try to not be a jerk publicly, and we specifically hire for humble, likable personalities. That has certainly gone a long way towards client retention (and employee retention, since they end up working with people they enjoy).
3. Make Hiring and Retention as Important as Service
To get to 50+ people, a lot of your time and effort has to come down to making the people working with you enjoy it, while also bringing aboard new ones that match the same qualities, if not exceed them.
Over the years, we’ve slowly ramped up our efforts here by:
- Continuing to add to our benefits plan to make us competitive with if not superior to others in the area
- Proactively pursuing Glassdoor ratings (but not in a “fake” way)
- Adding an employee referral bonus
- Investing in a better office even though it wasn’t necessarily bigger (meaning, the investment was almost entirely in work environment, not ability to add more revenue)
- Promoting team bonding through monthly events
- Investing in a careers video as well as a built-out careers page
These in total accelerate our ability to get great people, as well as retain the ones we have. They can do the same for you.
We’re not quite there yet, but a natural add-on to this are also having an active Instagram presence promoting your culture. I again like a lot of what Seer Interactive does there if you’re looking for inspiration.
4. Continually Reinvest Back in the Business
In the last four years, much of our profit has gone right back in. In order to get to 50+ employees, you have to believe in the long-game.
Specific examples of this:
- We spent $20,000 on our website to differentiate against competitors/aid recruiting
- Invested in a new office in Austin without any base in the city
- Bought a house in Austin that could be leveraged for cross-office employee stays
- Invested in a bigger/better office in San Diego
- Invested in a stage/set for our Content and Conversation videos
- Continued to re-invest in side projects the moment they became profitable
- Made deliberate decision to pay people well as they deserve it, instead of at 12 month review periods
I don’t think it’s possible to stay ahead of the curve/continue to fuel growth in a competitive environment without the willingness to take money out of your own pocket to do so.
You can of course run a profitable lifestyle agency without doing this, but if you want to get to 50+, I believe this kind of re-investment is needed.
5. Build Scale Into Your Service
It’s somewhat obvious, but it should be said in addition to points one to four — do great work.
The less obvious way of addressing that, though, is suggesting that you build scale into your service. What I mean by that is that your company actually gets better at 30 employees than it does at five. Many companies go the opposite direction.
We’ve been doing outreach for 5+ years now. We had some relationships at the beginning. Today, we have 5,000+ publisher relationships from content we’ve placed online. We maintain all of those in our outreach CRM, BuzzStream. Every day, that number grows.
Not just our outreach has improved, though. We’ve been able to attract better teammates because we’ve become more reputable.
Similarly, we mostly have one core service — content marketing that helps SEO. We’re aiming to improve our training, but you can see how the cross-polination and education between the team amplifies at 50 people in a way it didn’t at five when we only do one thing.
If we had eight different service offerings, quality would break down and our processes would erode, not improve with size.
On the same wavelength, there’s a lot more incentive to invest in better training when it can scale to every single person on our team, rather than smaller percentages of the whole. We’ve started to do this in the last six months with a dedicated position on the task.
The counter to this is with size, I am less involved in every single client. That said, the above efficiencies and the experience of our team far makes up for founder involvement at 50 people.
If you’re in the early stages of your agency, you can think about how your offering scales. Point five strongly relates to point one. If you do one thing really well, it turns out that one thing is a lot easier to scale, and it often improves with time.
Full service agencies have their own advantages if you can find a way to do that in the best possible way, but I believe the path to 50 is a lot easier with one core service offering that has efficiencies that build over time and into a much larger team.
Headcount as a Metric
50 people is not the goal. It never should be. Building a lasting, sustainable business that makes a large impact is the goal, and it should be for you too.
The above strategies can help you grow, and potentially get you to 50+ employees. That said, I don’t find a 50-person business impressive. It’s the long lasting, profitable, sustainable businesses that are most worth all of our admiration. Aim for that.