When I left my job in corporate America, I didn’t set out to create one of the fastest-growing digital marketing agencies in the nation. But that’s what happened.
Through a lot of hard work, soul searching, and teamwork, we built an agency that we’re proud of. We’re still growing and still evolving, but I believe our story can serve as a model.
If you’re looking to start your own advertising agency, here’s what worked for me.
Growing up, my father had a jewelry store. I learned a lot about business from him — he always treated customers well, remembered their names and they seemed to love him. I also learned about business from the side jobs I had as a kid.
One of my earliest side hustles was selling baseball cards, which is funny since I didn’t even really like baseball. But when I set up at shows, I realized women buyers especially trusted me. They walked past the older men who were selling cards and bought from me.
At age 17, I was interning for TransWorld Snowboarding Magazine and then worked as the photo editor’s office assistant. This is where I fell in love with marketing. Eventually, in 1996, I became a web designer and developer through a work-study job and continued to learn. After a brief stint at a radio agency, I moved into web analytics, worked for a Gateway Computers after that (this is where I got into digital marketing), and would later work in leadership positions for ProFlowers, Guitar Center, JCPenney, and Fossil.
During the final five years of my corporate career, I was doing turnaround work, trying to revive failing companies by rebuilding teams and implementing new strategies. But after years of that, I was burnt out. I wanted a break.
I decided to take a year to travel the world. I had done a lot of traveling in the past and knew it would be a great reset. My adventures took me to Antarctica, the Arctic, Bhutan, Morocco, and other incredible spots. But I also experienced a sad turn of events.
A friend of mine passed away. Another friend became paralyzed. Finally, I had a friend diagnosed with stage 4 cancer. (More than five years later he’s been declared “cured” and serves as an advisor to our agency and a board member of our nonprofit) I decided I needed to focus on being present for the most meaningful relationships in my life.
I needed to focus on being a friend.
It was during that time that another friend asked me to help a company for which he served on the advisory board. I agreed because I could help and still have the flexibility I wanted to be there for my friends.
During this time, I realized that I missed being hands-on in marketing. When you grow as a leader within a company, you often focus on managing people and become further removed from the work.
I just wanted to be able to pursue that work while staying true to myself and my values. I never really thought it would be more than “just” me working with a few clients — a perfect fit since I often found myself bored in corporate roles after I had rebuilt a team and made myself somewhat obsolete.
So the idea of starting my own company wasn’t born from some entrepreneurial spirit. It was the solution for the flexibility I craved in my daily life.
And that’s when I found myself accidentally starting my own business.
When I first started working on my vision for Eyeful Media, I approached it as supplemental work to what I was already doing for a website that I had been building while on sabbatical.
But one of the first things I did to make it work was to cut back on my living arrangements. I swapped my mountain-view apartment for a less expensive unit and watched my spending.
For the first few years, it was me and a team of trusted contractors. But eventually, we needed more predictability in our staffing so that we could confidently pitch new clients.
I had reached a point where not only was the work consistent, but I needed to be able to deliver at the same or higher level of quality. Beginning to hire full-time employees was the best way to do that.
As I searched for employees, I found myself more focused on their values and the quality of their work, and how highly they came recommended over where they lived. I knew I wanted to create an environment that didn’t include typical political shenanigans — a place where people were free to be themselves and could thrive.
That’s really what led to our team being fully remote. I’m based in Texas, but we now have team members across 16 states.
Once I had my team in place, we had to learn how to work together without working alongside each other physically.
It was during the pandemic that we all hit our stride in terms of finding that flow. We started using Slack and a platform called 15Five that’s integrated with Slack for video calls. Occasionally, I’ll fly team members out for in-person meetings.
Managing a Team and Incorporating My Values
One of the biggest shifts I’ve had to navigate is going from doing the hands-on marketing work to running a company from a birds-eye view. In past jobs, I haven’t always felt comfortable delegating if I had inherited a team that I didn’t think was strong enough. But now that I’ve been able to handpick my employees, delegating comes naturally. I’ve learned that trusting your employees is crucial for this kind of work – especially in a remote environment – to thrive.
I knew we’d made it when I went on a two-week vacation and was able to leave my laptop behind. That’s when I realized we had created a living, breathing business that could operate without my constant input or supervision. My team even closed a new and exciting client while I was away, and I’d never even seen the request for a proposal.
The other key lesson has been hiring the right skill sets to fill in the gaps where I lack certain abilities. I used to dump everything into a single Google Drive folder before I realized not everyone thinks as I do. From there we implemented project management so that certain processes, especially onboarding new hires, went a lot more smoothly.
The values I’ve tried to install throughout my company and those who work for us are humility, generosity, and gratitude. Our employees average 13 years in the business, and everyone loves learning new skills. They’re also some of the kindest people I’ve had the pleasure of working with. Together we’ve been able to help other companies thrive while maintaining flexibility in our work-life balance.
My favorite example of this is my walking schedule. I usually walk for one to two hours a day. I start and end each workday with a walk and sometimes walk in the middle of the day. Because our team is spread throughout the country, these breaks give me plenty of time to get some exercise, clear my head, walk my dog, and still manage to stay on top of projects being handled across time zones.
5 Key Takeaways for Entrepreneurs
My favorite business book is “The Go-Giver” and we follow many of its principles. We prioritized treating our early customers with significant care, and they rewarded us with countless introductions. In fact, I could probably map 80% or 90% of clients back in a family tree.
I heard someone on a podcast describe this as an inverted funnel — treat customers well and let them spread the word. That’s basically what we’ve done.
Building a team you trust
As I began building my team, I realized their values, skill set, and how highly recommended they came mattered more to me than where they were based.
My strategy has been to pay people really well and to give them autonomy to manage their clients the way they believe is best. When you hire an experienced team, you can do this. Is it more expensive? Yes. But by having a remote team, we save money on things like a fancy office and can instead invest this into hiring the best talent.
The result is that I have no problem delegating to these individuals because I trust them fully and I’ve been able to shift to working “on” the business, instead of “in” the business.
For the longest time, we were using Gmail and Gchat, and nobody was satisfied with those solutions. We finally upgraded to Slack, and it made our lives a lot easier, especially as we learned to connect remotely.
Invest in the right tools so you can succeed. And don’t forget how important in-person communication can be. Last year, I flew 13 team members to Texas for an in-person meeting that proved instrumental.
Hire the right skill sets
I don’t think from an operational standpoint, so finding people who can fill in the gaps in my skill set has been a huge advantage. Surround yourself with people who see things differently and can jump in to help. Don’t ever be afraid to hire people who are smarter than you — they make you much stronger as a team and allow you to keep elevating in your role.
Invest in leadership training
As you scale your business, you may find yourself realizing that the people who got you here, won’t get you there. But by spending time developing your leaders with intentional training, you can avoid that fate and help them grow. Take time to expose your entire team to things like the 5 dysfunctions of a team, active listening, effective meetings, and more. Those few hours a month can make a real difference.