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What I've learned from 10 years of leading a marketing agency

Shama Hyder
young business entrepreneurs celebrating a succes

This year marks ten years since I first launched my marketing agency. I wish I could go back in time and tell myself what I am about to share with you!

But first, let’s think back to 2009. The country was in the middle of the most significant recession since the Great Depression, and finishing up graduate school. Armed with a master’s degree in Organizational Communication and Technology, I still had no money (or “capital,” as I eventually learned it was called), no network, and the job market was tanking.

It was in this environment that I first started my marketing agency, Zen Media. I loved marketing, but I had zero experience running a business. I distinctly remember speaking to an early client, and they asked, “What are your net terms?”

I’d never heard the phrase before, so I put them on hold and repeated the question to my first employee on the payroll. She chuckled as she told me it meant: When do we want to get paid?

The answer: Yesterday.

I realized that while I understood digital marketing and marketing in general, I needed to learn more about running a business. I had no idea how to do bookkeeping or HR or project management.

Since then, I scaled my agency from zero (okay, well, $1,500 bucks) to over a million dollars in revenue in the first three years alone. I was also recognized as one of the top 100 entrepreneurs in the U.S. by the White House and the United Nations. Not bad for a kid who started a business at 22!

So, here’s what I’ve learned.

Lesson 1: Play to your strengths

I stole this straight from the SAT playbook. When you study for the SAT, they tell you the best way to increase your score is to play on your strengths and not focus too much on your weaknesses. I was only a few years out of high school when I started my agency, so I applied this advice to my business.

I could have spent years learning how to do bookkeeping and HR and still would have only had a surface-level understanding. So right from the start, I outsourced and hired for what I didn’t know, reserving responsibilities related to my core strengths—marketing, digital marketing, PR, social media marketing—for myself.

There are several takeaways here:

  • Acquire the humility to know what you’re not naturally good at and focus on cultivating and deploying your core strengths.
  • Develop a keen eye for talent with strengths and skillsets that you lack.
  • Create a diverse, well-rounded team, and then empower and trust them to fill in the gaps of your weakness with their strengths.
  • Foster a culture of mutual learning where you stand to learn as much from your team as they stand to gain from you. This concept is one of the most powerful ways to promote growth, not only of your business but in your business.

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Lesson 2: Invest in the long game

A business without customers is a hobby.

No business can function long term without a solid customer base that makes repeat purchases. It doesn’t matter whether you’re building the next hottest app in Silicon Valley or starting a local cupcakery in downtown, you need folks who are willing to pay and keep paying for your services!

When I started my marketing agency, I had no network, no contacts, nada. Usually, when people start a service business like a consulting or a marketing agency, they come from a corporate background, and most of them have a Rolodex of contacts (that’s LinkedIn today) to take with them. I didn’t. I did know that to get clients I’d need to:

  • Get them to trust me.
  • Give away so much value that they’d be crazy to go anywhere else!

The hardest battle for businesses today is relevance. I remember talking to a professor in the early stages of my company, and I’d mentioned something like, “I don’t have a ton of competition.” Remember, this was when social media was JUST starting, and most people had never even heard of Twitter. He looked at me, smiled, and said, “Ms. Hyder, even God has competition.”

Yup. I heard that. It doesn’t matter how special you think you or your business is, your prospects always have a choice. It’s your job to get them to choose and keep choosing you.

In my case, I invested heavily in making connections with my audience. I asked prospects for their burning questions and then answered them in detail in my daily blog posts. To collect email addresses, I created a free e-book exclusively for subscribers. I used the email list to send a weekly newsletter, where I shared the latest industry trends and strategies.

I also used social media to engage with my audience directly, responding to every single comment or tweet I received. I still do! I knew I had to WALK the talk.

I became a case study for the power of creating value-adding content. Many people asked me why I wasn’t charging for the material, and the truth was I didn’t because I was playing the long game!

In other words, I wasn’t just about exchanging goods and services for a quick buck. I was about building relationships of trust, and that meant being extraordinarily generous with the value I was creating.

If you’re a hot app developer, maybe you give away the free version to everyone and convert a percentage of those folks to paid customers. In the software world, this is called a “freemium.”

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying you can simply throw free stuff at people, and your business will magically grow. The point is that when you’re in the early stages, trust comes at a premium, so you must go to extraordinary lengths to earn it. Those extra steps involve making certain strategic sacrifices—giving away that e-book or a free version of your app—to prove your company’s worth to potential customers.

Lesson 3: Leverage technology to successfully scale

When you have five customers, you can give them each personal attention, but as you grow, that kind of service is no longer scalable. But here’s the thing: While personal service isn’t scalable (there’s only one of you, after all), personalization is scalable.

Personalization refers to the ability to anticipate and respond to every customer in a personal way, often in real-time. This is where technology comes in.

Say, for example, that your customers routinely ask the same dozen or so questions. Using a messenger bot (also called an automated assistant) to communicate on your behalf, customers can receive instantaneous responses to their questions and digitally interact with your brand.

This small piece of technology enables you to maintain personalized service at scale and leverage multiple touchpoints, whether that’s through email, social engagement, loyalty redemption, POS, customer surveys, and so forth.

And don’t forget the role of technology when it comes to your “internal customers,” your own team. At Zen Media, our remote team is spread out all over the country, and technology allows us to communicate, creatively collaborate, interact with clients synchronously, and successfully scale.

Regardless of whether you’re a B2C or B2B company, ensuring a consistent customer experience across these multiple touchpoints is essential to growing your business. The customer journey has become increasingly complex, and your audience requires repeated, constant exposure to your brand to bring them to the buying decision and purchase destination.

And since customers (external and internal) are increasingly becoming “digital first” in terms of their interactions, this isn’t possible without technology. One of the reasons I was able to scale successfully is that I figured this out early on.

Stick with the journey

Starting and scaling a business, as I did with Zen Media, isn’t easy. Don’t let the “boss babe” glamour or social posts of anyone fool you. Overnight success is years in the making. Compound interest isn’t sexy, but it is a game-changer.

But—the rewards are worth it, and it’s a lot easier to enjoy the entrepreneurial journey with lessons from those who have successfully reached their destination.

Here are my key takeaways from my first decade in business:

  • Play to your strengths, create a diverse team, and foster a culture of mutual learning to promote the growth of your business as well as in your business.
  • Invest in the long game with value-added content to build trusted relationships and establish a stellar reputation.
  • Leverage technology to scale your business by delivering a consistent, personalized experience across all customer touchpoints and enhancing collaboration between your team.

The entrepreneurial adventure is never linear or entirely smooth. In scaling your business, it’s perfectly normal for there to be fits and starts, challenging obstacles, and seemingly insurmountable setbacks. Don’t be too discouraged by any of this. What matters is to stay the course, to learn and evolve as you go, to know you’re not alone and that the journey is much more meaningful than the destination.

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