Burnout Taught This 18-Year-Old Founder How to Thrive in His Second Business

As a child, when William Ferreira, founder of Social Buff, imagined his future, he thought that he would end up in Hollywood. When he started film school, he didn’t want to sit in a classroom. He loved connecting with people and realized he couldn’t do that behind a camera. After dropping out of college, he pursued his plan B: entrepreneurship. He and his friend joined forces to launch a creative marketing agency. Social Buff is Act II, but don’t worry, we’ll get there.

What does it take to run a marketing agency as a teenager? “You have to know how to build and maintain relationships, but more than that, you have to move fluidly between many different groups,” William says. He encountered resistance at first. “Any time you have a new idea, people will be unsure about moving forward, but that never bothered me. I love a challenge.”

Personality is hard to teach, but thankfully, William is a born mingler. He has an innate knack for making friends, which helped win over his first few clients: “I just walk up to people and make them feel comfortable.” His biggest asset is his self-confidence: “If you’re a young entrepreneur, you have to believe in yourself first, otherwise, no one will believe in you.”

When “Living the Dream” Becomes a Wake-Up Call

Success comes at a price, however, and William didn’t have a proper work-life balance. Essentially, he had no life at all. “I did three years nonstop with my first startup. I didn’t do anything besides work for seven days a week.” Concerned friends and family raised the alarm. This wasn’t sustainable and something had to change. The grind was killing him. 

“People commented that I was working too hard, damaging my mental and physical health,” William says. “I isolated myself. To grow a successful business, you have to have a high level of discipline but at the same time, you have to understand what you’re doing it for. If you don’t have time to invest in your family and friends and enjoy the life that you’re building, eventually, you will crash.”

When an opportunity arose to sell his shares in the agency, William took it as a sign. Selling made sense.  He left and began to consult while traveling the world. “I could consult remotely via laptop,” William says.” It was an opportunity for me to take my gap year.” But like most entrepreneurs I interview, the itch to do more became too persistent to ignore. 

William moved to London to explore his options. He met a fellow entrepreneur, Aran Spencer-Higgins, whose skills complemented his. When Aran suggested creating a new agency, William considered whether history would repeat itself. In his first startup, William worked with his good friend, but on reflection, it contributed to his burnout. He says, “There were a lot of reasons why that wasn’t great. It was a combination of our age, our expectations, and at face value, we were good friends, but as business partners, there was a lot of frustration.” 

Might things be different the second time around? William thought the risk was worth it, so he and Aran joined forces to launch Social Buff, a creative agency that runs social media marketing campaigns for clients. When you’re building a team, you always want complementary skills and talents. To paraphrase Glennon Doyle, some people dream in color and others in spreadsheets. That’s pretty much the core of this team. William explains, “I nurture relationships and my partner creates algorithms.”

Another advantage is that they both brought clients from their previous startups. “All of our business is network and referral-based. When Aran and I merged our talents, we united our networks.” 

William in the Wild

A big part of the stress surrounding William’s first startup was the business model. He’d charged per project, making it hard to budget long-term and employ enough staff to cope with fluctuating demand. If Social Buff was going to remain viable long term, he needed to approach payments differently. A big entrepreneurial goal from day one was establishing recurring revenue.

“With project-based branding solutions and website solutions, it’s very hard to hire against that, especially if you need full-time employees,” William says. “You don’t know what your billing cycle is or where and when you’ll win your business. Plus, our average contracts were six months to a year, and then we would have to start all over again.”

William adapted his business model to encourage a more predictable revenue stream: “We charge a retainer for specific marketing services. Whether it’s managing paid social campaigns, content, or organic social. This monthly retainer is set up with Stripe which is a great platform that we were able to leverage for recurring revenue. 80 percent of our revenue came from recurring direct debits. This helps our business stay profitable.”

Growing While the Rest of the World Shuts Down

Few brick-and-mortar businesses at the time of Social Buff’s launch exploited online sales, and the partners saw an opportunity. Clients were reticent, but the numbers didn’t lie. Armed with growth metrics and other data, they persuaded their clients that online sales were the future.

William explains, “Younger audiences made a lot of their purchase decisions online even if they bought products in-store. Many brands weren’t adopting a digital-first approach and failed to understand what was required to connect with their target audience online. Naturally for those who didn’t have an online store, building an online community would then allow you to offer choice across online or offline sales.

“A lot of businesses lack the knowledge or expertise needed to implement a digital-first approach. I knew that implementing a robust digital marketing strategy, with the option to buy online would allow brands to have more ownership over their consumer, but also create more opportunities to increase revenue across multiple touchpoints.”

William’s sales pitch was convincing, and anyone immune to it flipped when the pandemic hit. Social Buff’s phone didn’t stop ringing. William and Aran decided to say yes to all business, no matter the scope. “It was everything from ‘Could you help find us find fulfillment partners?’ to ‘Can you package our products and send them to customers?’ ‘Could you help us design an e-commerce site or can you run a performance marketing campaign?’ or ‘Could you do our email marketing?’” Whatever their customers asked for – and they asked for a lot – William and Aran did it.

“We do what we know we can deliver based on our experience as entrepreneurs, working with different brands in-house, operational experience, and marketing experience. We focus on how we can help as many people – be it entrepreneurs or brands – as possible. We grew through that demand from a tiny team to over twenty in a little over a year.”

William accepts multiple speaking opportunities and conferences.

Throughout the pandemic, William continued to expand Social Buff’s network, capitalizing on the merger of his and Aran’s professional networks: “I said yes to every podcast interview and press interview. I talked about how brands could not only survive but also thrive through the uncertainty that the pandemic brought.”

The partners are looking forward to another stellar year. They’ve already hit well over six figures of growth and William even has time for Crossfit and family functions. William says “We are very clear about our vision. Our self-discipline is immensely important. No one is going to get me up in the morning, so I’ve got to go out there and get it done myself. I see my passion as a lifestyle, not simply a job. I’m always willing to learn so I know how to listen.” William is only in his twenties but that sage advice takes many people a lifetime to learn.

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Andrew Gazdecki
Andrew Gazdeckihttps://microacquire.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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