Growing from Zero to Agency

on under Digital Strategy, Stories.

Most businesses fail.

Specifically, Harvard Business School estimates 95 percent of new businesses fail, if failure is defined as failure to meet a set projection. That rate is closer to 70-80 percent if failure is defined as inability to get an adequate return on investment. But, still.

Most businesses fail.

Stage 1: A New Chapter

Despite that, I started my own company while in college, and it did well.

This is not its story.

But it is the story about what happened afterwards. In October, 2010, I sold all stake in my previous hosting industry businesses for near an "early retirement" kind of sum, depending on how you live... and I choose to live pretty humbly. I was fortunate. But despite the well-advertised American dream of making so much money that you're free of the machine, nobody actually just sits afterwards.

I loved being the advocate for my own creations, and I generally liked the people that asked. So after a few weeks of waking up to the most beautiful landscape God has yet crapped onto this earth in Dominica:

dominica

(the cannons were absolutely necessary)

I took some offers from former competition to help out via SEO consulting and began this next phase of my life.

The first of these wins was with Nexcess, who like most our clients, have remained a client and continued annual growth that's measured by multiples instead of percentages, as verified by the Inc. 5000. Soon after, others began to catch on, or were graciously referred our way, and I was happy to see them succeeding within their own segments of the hosting world.

It was ridiculously rewarding, and it made something click: I knew so many others that deserved to win. In the decade previous I'd met an incredible number of people with amazing products, that are just so incredibly technical that their full value had not been completely and/or attractively related. And I had exactly the thing they were missing.

Stage 2: A New Company & Process

It didn't take long before I recognized that more consulting requests were coming in than I could handle alone. To build a successful company you need a competitive advantage- I no longer had millions in hosting infrastructure where I'd have to seriously try to fail. But I seemed to have weight to throw around with my name, recognizable at least throughout the hosting industry, so I registered northcutt.com.

Everything became a system in Stage 2. I know one thing well: how to make a hosting company achieve strong growth on a steady timeline. My organic marketing / SEO process works and has always worked, even on a new brand. In fact, it's already led Northcutt from nothing to metrics that exceed half of the long-established brands that approach us.

content marketing progress graph

But I already knew that my process worked. The problem is that making brands enormously successful with consistency isn't enough.

There are more than enough sketchy freelancers/agencies out there to produce paranoid CEOs. So much, I learned, that an immaculate resume and track record will never overcome. So I needed to work on presentation that's honest, but competitive with the hustlers. I opted for a mission that distills to caring and not wasting time. To save more time, I listed public pricing that was clear and attributable. A clearly distilled contribution guide. We needed a framework and structure that was easy to understand:

inbound marketing diagram

We also needed software. Processes. Training. HR. Accounting. Insurance. Certifications.

And doing it meant organic funding. To this day, I don't understand the startup culture that says that being "funded" (either in debt or for equity) are superior. Cash debt risks terrible things. Giving equity implies that more authority is given to some just for being rich, not because they really love or understand the business. Not here.

With that in mind, making myself money in Stage 2 was not my prime goal, if I could in turn invest in tools, contractors, or other elements that made Northcutt a better company. But I made sure that the company itself remained profitable at every turn, to assure that our clients did not incur growth risks along the way.

Stage 3: Implementing the Framework

Now almost 3 years later, we have reached Stage 3. Stage 3 focuses 200% on the people in the equation.

As Northcutt has grown, with every two standard clients, we hire one team member and reevaluate our toolset. While far from the first model tested, it's a law to operate by and it's worked consistently well. An exact clone of myself is difficult to find, but somebody that's actually even better at one, very specific thing, is much easier to find. So I've learned that an ideal account team is comprised of specialists.

This summer, our first 4-member team of specialists was completed and certified self-sufficient, providing a perfect balance of inbound marketing talent. It's also important that we don't get so mass-produced that somebody working on a campaign doesn't know the company inside and out. We maintain elaborate dossiers on every client, and by limiting an account team to a very small # of clients, we can assure that it never grows beyond that team's ability act as an actual employee of that company.

I'm very proud of this first account team, and while I'm still planning on staying very hands-on with all that they do, I think that the bar is set very high for Account Team #2 in 2014. We are hiring again. The foundation's been laid.

The time seems right to declare us as much a legitimate inbound marketing agency as the best of them.

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