How This Founder Turned His Creative Agency Into a Funnel for His SaaS Business (A Cautionary Tale)

Most people make business decisions based on upward mobility, but not Zlatko Bijelic. He based them on a dog. Back in 2016, before working from home was more common, Zlatko wanted to be a remote worker, not some cog in a machine. If he worked for himself, he’d create the life he wanted, which included time to hike and develop creative pursuits.

Zlatko has always put his quality of life over money. He left a full-time job in consulting for his four-legged friend. “I had gotten a dog a couple of years before that and I decided, I’m not leaving this guy alone for eight hours. I wanted to be with him and work from my house. I didn’t want to go back to a nine to five.”

After early success as a freelancer, he started a creative agency, Tako Agency, that pulled in seven figures at its height. Zlatko should have been thrilled, but his heart wasn’t in it, so he launched a sister agency, 920Four, that focused on SaaS development. Then that too all came crashing down. 

What happened?

Scouring Upwork for a Fresh Start

When Zlatko quit his role as project manager to spend more time at home, he didn’t have a nest egg. Instead, his impulse left him desperate for money to pay for rent and dog food (it adds up!). Zlatko made an Upwork account, hoping to use his technology and project management skills to land jobs online. But how could he win jobs without reviews from previous clients?

Zlatko had no option but to slash his rates. Eventually, clients began to respond, and he noticed many of them wanted Shopify expertise. Zlatko researched the platform in his free time, and once he was confident he’d understood the basics, he rebranded as an ecommerce expert. The specialization worked. Finding clients was no longer a problem, but he didn’t have any long-term goals at that point – just to stay home with his dog and support his lifestyle.

Then one day, Zlatko landed a client that made him rethink his approach to business. The client had hired him as project manager, but Zlatko was also sourcing developers and vendors and managing them too. Was he getting paid for this extra work? No, and he thought “Why don’t I start my own agency?” He was running one, anyway.

Tacos and Fish

Zlatko enlisted two of his friends, one as project manager and the other as a designer. Next was registering an LLC, but they needed a name. Tako Agency? Two out of the three were eating tacos on the call. And after all, “Who doesn’t like tacos?”

Tako Agency landed a $30,000 project in its first month. Zlatko panicked. Did they take on too much? They didn’t even have a developer. He turned to his team and said, “Somehow, we are going to figure this out together. And we are going to kill it.” 

What was the project? A fish company in Alaska wanted to update its paper-based management system to a streamlined digital process. Zlatko and his team delivered: “We made fish sexy.” If they could do that for fish, they could tackle anything.

After that first client, the team continued to use Upwork to find clients and garnered many positive reviews – even a few testimonials. Zlatko reached out to a friend for SEO help. Together they worked to bolster Tako Agency’s ranking online. Although he admits to being a bit impatient, Zlatko stressed that doing SEO was worth it. After a few months, their site received more traffic, organic leads, and ultimately, more customers.

On paper, everything was great. Tako Agency was busier than ever. But Zlatko felt unsettled. He’d left his nine-to-five to find a healthy work-life balance, hoping to pursue SaaS ideas he’d filed away in his busy brain. Instead, he worked incessantly on client requests, leaving no time for anything else.

When Your Plans Fail

Things got worse when the pandemic hit. Not only was Zlatko waiting on many unpaid invoices, but his clients were also asking for refunds on deposits and advance payments for projects still outstanding. “My heart was breaking for them. I refunded approximately $50,000 to my clients. But on the other hand, my business was going to end up in the gutter.” 

Zlatko was despondent. “I grabbed a blanket and laid on my couch for five hours.” But payroll was coming up, and lying comatose was not going to help anyone. He needed to vent, and more importantly, devise a plan. He started a podcast, which would serve as a place to ask other entrepreneurs for advice and share his struggles.

Zlatko asked his guests how he could get his business back on track. They told him that Tako Agency needed to stop taking one-off projects. It was too unpredictable and bad for cash flow. Zlatko should only accept jobs with a retainer. And lastly, charge a minimum project scope of $20,000. Zlatko was apprehensive, but what did he have to lose?

In the first twenty days of the new retainer model, Tako Agency added $60,000 in revenue. The timing was perfect. As Tako Agency’s customers closed their retail shops and pivoted to online sales, demand was high. “Towards the end of 2020, we got to $95,000 in retainers in one month. It was insane.” In 2021, Tako Agency pulled in $1.4 million in revenue.

But all of this explosive growth meant Zlatko had no time to pursue his passions. He took a two-week hiatus from work (back to the couch), and his Creative Director offered to step into the CEO role. “The people that work at Tako are so dedicated. We have an amazing team. I would work with them for the rest of my life. But to me, answering clients that want everything done yesterday burns me out. Having someone step in for me allowed me to return to what I love.” 

Zlatko was beyond thrilled to finally have time for building SaaS products. “I have two hundred ideas that I could blast out tomorrow if I had the people power.” He hired a couple of developers and launched a sister agency, 920Four, that Tako Agency funded. 

Too Much, Too Soon

Everything worked smoothly until Zlatko and his CEO parted ways. The agency pulled Zlatko back into day-to-day operations, forcing him to pause 920Four. Worse, Tako Agency was in serious financial trouble. 

Since he’d invested most of Tako Agency’s profits into 920Four, the agency had no buffer for quieter periods. It hadn’t seemed risky because the agency was doing so well, but then work slowed down, and now not only was 920Four frozen, but Tako Agency was in dire straits.

Zlatko refused to fire his team. They had stood by him through the uncertainty of the pandemic and beyond. Instead, he pulled money out of his life insurance. He says “I love my team. I knew that we would get through this together. We would get new clients. There was no way I was leaving them hanging.”

If Zlatko’s entrepreneurial journey were a rollercoaster, he’d be suffering one of those stomach-churning dips as of the writing of this interview. 

“I’m going through a hard time with my agency. People don’t talk about money troubles. Full transparency, it’s happening right now. I’m in the chaos.” For the first time, Zlatko had to delay payroll. 

You might wonder why Zlatko agreed to this interview at all. He answers this best: “I want to prevent other bootstrapped entrepreneurs from repeating my mistakes. I grew too big, too fast, and now I’m trying to right the ship.” Thankfully, he’s done it before, and he’ll do it again. And this time around, he has a second dog in his pack.

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Andrew Gazdecki
Andrew Gazdecki
Andrew is an award-winning serial entrepreneur with three exits. He’s the founder and CEO of MicroAcquire, the world’s most founder-friendly startup marketplace, and its rebellious child, Bootstrappers, which gives voice to the entrepreneurial underdog. When not building businesses, he writes for Forbes, Entrepreneur, and now, Bootstrappers.

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