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How to Get Your Digital Marketing Agency Acquired: Specialize in One Service, Then Offer Them All Later

Today, a company’s website is the centerpiece of its marketing and public communications.

According to PR Newswire, as much as 70 percent¹ of small businesses in the US today have a website. Also, Demand Metric reports that 80 percent² of US internet users interact with content sites like blogs. Statistics like these have created a rush for a new type of marketing agency specialized in designing websites with content creation in mind.

While in high school, Alex Price created his UX and digital marketing agency, 93digital as a way to make extra spending money. Originally, he helped businesses design webpages for 10 dollars an hour. Over seven years, he grew his business into an agency with a reputation for creating SEO-optimized websites on the popular content management system, WordPress.

By the time he sold his business to marketing and communications giant, Clarity, in 2021, 93digital’s digital marketing services for SaaS clients covered everything from UX design to SEO. The acquisition wasn’t so much an exit as Alex’s chance to scale, and he’s stayed on to lead 93digital after getting acquired.

Alex credits his success to doing one thing super well and then adding new services as the business grew. This is the story of how he achieved that scale.

Starting a Business to Escape Chores

Alex has always had an independent streak. He claims he first started his business was so he wouldn’t need to do chores for spending money.

“When I was in high school I argued with my mom about going to see friends,” he says. “She said if I wanted pocket money I had to clean the house. I said, ‘No thank you,’ and started my own business.”

Like many growing up in the mid-2000s, Alex was captivated by the internet. He created an account on Elance (now UpWork) and began constructing websites for any client that came in the door for ten dollars an hour. “I wanted independence and I wanted to learn,” he says.

Alex continued freelancing throughout high school and into university. After one year at King’s College, he dropped out to focus on running his business full-time at the age of 21. “Things were getting busier and I’d built a lot of momentum. I wanted to focus on the agency exclusively. Dropping out of uni felt like a big thing at the time and it was a scary process to go through but it allowed me to focus.”

His decision to focus on his agency quickly paid off. Six months later, even his former university asked him for help with their website. And in 2015, 93digital landed its first large website redesign. “It was a website project for a membership organization in the UK worth 20,000 pounds (roughly 25,000 dollars). That felt huge after ten dollars an hour. “

Immediately Alex hired two full-time employees and got to work. Today he says hiring full-time employees so quickly may have been a rash move, but the safety net from a well-paid four-month project made him feel confident to scale.

London’s Leading Enterprise WordPress Agency

As Alex went from building websites alone to developing an agency, his team increasingly specialized in WordPress – a free, open-source content management system (CMS). 

WordPress was created in 2003 as an easy way to start an online blog. It has since evolved to support newsletters, online galleries, web stores, and more. It’s particularly popular among search engine optimization (SEO) specialists.

Today, most businesses, particularly tech companies, derive traffic from Google searches (roughly 20.6 percent³ of online traffic for commerce comes from Google). They create helpful blogs answering customer search queries to rise to the top of search results. For example, a restaurant might write an article targeting the keyword “best restaurants in Indianapolis.” 

Ranking high for a coveted keyword isn’t always as easy as writing an article, however. First, you’re competing with potentially thousands of other people trying to rank for the same keyword. If you want your content to rank highly, your website must also meet Google’s website standards such as page loading times. WordPress is one of the most versatile website builders that meets Google’s latency standards (that means the pages load reasonably fast).

“We became known as an enterprise WordPress partner,” says Alex. “WordPress was growing quickly at the time and it was easy to use for our clients who were digital marketing people in tech software. They wanted to move quickly and get SEO results.”

93digital sourced most of its first clients through SEO and paid ads instead of word of mouth. “We were weirdly back to front,” says Alex. “Word-of-mouth built over time. Strong case studies and a client portfolio that people in the industry-recognized were also key to creating steady organic lead generation.

“We work with fintech, adtech, edtech – pick a word and add tech on the end. Usually, we’re sought out by digital marketing managers at these tech companies when they are in the ambitious scale-up phase. They’re recently venture-backed and trying to grow fast. We also work with late-stage tech companies in niches like AI. I find them all fascinating. I love learning about these super technical businesses building the future of the world.”

However, as with most agencies, 93digital began to expand from building WordPress websites into other parts of digital marketing. They launched a peripheral business called 93x in 2018 to handle SEO and paid ads.

“We ended up with a wider offering that spanned the website and digital experience side over to what we call the digital performance side,” he says. “That’s the SEO and paid performance stuff. 93x handles things like creating blogs to rank on Google and online advertising through platforms like Facebook and Google.”

Things went well over at 93digital for those six years. By the time it was acquired in 2021, it had reached a run rate of $3.5 million a year and built a team of 35 employees.

Getting Acquired by Clarity

Alex is one of those rare founders who decided to stay on with his company after acquisition. He looks at the acquisition not as his big payday, but as a way to achieve scale for his business.

“We doubled in size as an agency over COVID and we wanted to keep that momentum going,” says Alex. “I wanted to be around other leaders and create a global footprint.”

Around the end of 2021, 93digital began courting potential buyers. After a few meetings, they sat down with fellow tech-focused PR and marketing agency, Clarity, and saw a match. “We had this awesome first meeting and could tell it was a great cultural fit,” he says.

93digital and 93x swiftly inked a deal and moved into Clarity’s network. “After being a team of 35, now we’re a team of 150. It was the next chapter for me as a founder and person,” says Alex.

The Biggest Bottleneck for an Agency Is People

When it comes to creating and scaling a digital marketing agency, Alex thinks founders should specialize first before offering new services.

“The biggest trap for new agencies is trying to offer every service to every client,” he says. “Choose one thing and do it well. For example, one full-service digital agency that now employs hundreds of people started just doing content marketing for sports brands. The way they grew was through delivering great work and building great relationships with clients.”

However, Alex understands the attraction of saying you can do everything as an agency. He has seen firsthand that the largest clients with the most funding want everything from one partner.

“The clients we work with look for an agency that can be a complete end-to-end partner,” he says. “They need someone to help them scale globally and effectively. That was a big part of why we chose to join Clarity. We could then take a client from one end to the other.”

As for scaling an agency, Alex says his most important advice is to hire people you trust and to delegate.

There’s no shortage of agencies with ten people that never get beyond ten people. I think that’s down to a lack of hiring the right people.

“I think a lot of founders and managing directors are their own bottleneck when it comes to scaling,” he says. “There’s no shortage of agencies with ten people that never get beyond ten people. I think that’s down to a lack of hiring the right people. It’s also a lack of ability to delegate, trust, and empower the people that you hire.”

When compared to a low-overhead business model like SaaS, agencies can seem like an unproductive way to run a business. Why risk losses by relying on salaried staff to provide value? Alex’s story shows that people-driven agencies can both generate reliable revenue and attract acquisition offers. In some cases, scaling staff is more valuable than scaling products.


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Sources:

¹28% of Small Businesses Don’t Have a Website, According to New Survey Data (prnewswire.com)

²Content Marketing Infographic | Demand Metric

³Search engine marketing statistics 2022 | Smart Insights

Andrew Gazdecki
Andrew Gazdeckihttps://acquire.com
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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