Do you have to invent something new to build a successful startup? Absolutely not! Many people believe that you need to have a unique idea to succeed as an entrepreneur. But in the real world, most successful businesses aren’t original, they’re improvements on existing ideas. And sometimes that means looking at your strengths and skills that others would be willing to pay for. This is what Kevin Schrage, founder of Brandarrow, did.
Brandarrow helps SaaS startups grow with paid marketing strategies. Getting paid advertising channels off the ground can be a headache for startups. They need to set up complex ad managers, write ad copy, design creative, A/B test, and so on. Brandarrow manages everything a company needs to set up successful lead generation campaigns, ensuring that it isn’t wasting valuable time or ad spend.
In 2021, Brandarrow already helped more than 40 clients grow their business through paid marketing campaigns, managing over $2 million in ad spend. In its first full year of business, the agency made $300,000 in revenue with a tiny team – that consisted of just Kevin for a long time.
Turning a Passion for Marketing into a Business
Kevin Schrage has been in marketing for the past 15 years, developing, implementing, and managing campaigns for large corporations and his own startups. “Marketing was my first job out of college. I just fell into it. I got a general business degree and wasn’t trying to work in marketing, but I ended up loving everything about it. This idea of having a hand in helping a company grow through marketing was really exciting – it’s been my thing ever since,” he says.
Even though Kevin had several corporate jobs, he’s always been an entrepreneur at heart. Before Brandarrow, he also co-founded two mobile app startups. Because they ran into a lot of issues with app store restrictions, they ended up selling off the portfolio of apps. In 2016, Kevin started looking for a traditional job again out of necessity. And that’s how he ended up at Bizness Apps, Andrew Gazdecki’s (founder and CEO of MicroAcquire) first business.
Writer’s side note: Kevin and I know each other because we worked together on the marketing team at Bizness Apps (the two of us were the marketing team) – with Andrew as our fearless leader. Despite all of the former Bizness Apps employees having taken on new jobs and projects since then, many of us have found our way back to working together.
Kevin says, “Even though I didn’t want to go back into the nine-to-five life, getting hired by Bizness Apps was the best thing that ever happened to me. As someone who’s trying to start a business, it’s such a learning opportunity to work at an already-established startup. Bizness Apps was successful, but still operated with a small team and was figuring out how to grow even more. I learned so much working with Andrew and the rest of the talented Bizness Apps team. I learned more in that year and a half of working there than I did in my entire career.”
“Working alongside Andrew also gave me a new perspective on how to be a successful entrepreneur. I saw him do the little things consistently. It wasn’t about coming up with a great idea and turning it into an overnight success.”
“After Bizness Apps was acquired, I found a job at another startup – but I still had that entrepreneurial itch. I ended up getting laid off from that company, which gave me some time to think about what I wanted. I realized that I wanted to give the whole entrepreneur thing another go, using everything I learned about marketing over the years,” he said.
After Kevin decided to go out on his own, it all happened fairly organically. Friends and family were reaching out to him for help with their website, their campaigns, and so on. He started working on all these different marketing projects and picked up clients quickly.
“At one point my wife (then fiancee) asked me how long I was going to be doing this for and whether I was going to look for a regular job anytime soon. And I was like, ‘What are you talking about?’”, Kevin says laughing. “I had always had one foot in the corporate world, just in case I needed to find a traditional day job again. It was now finally time for me to burn the boats, so to speak. I needed to stick with this course of action and go all in.”
Finding a Niche Is the Key to Success
Kevin planned to fully focus on his agency right after his wedding in March of 2020. One week after he and his wife got married, COVID took over the world. He says, “I was so nervous because I thought it was the worst time to start my business. When companies need to save money, like in a recession or with budget cuts, marketing is usually the first to go. But I told myself I was going to make this work no matter what.”
“What actually happened was that companies suddenly needed digital marketing services. They had to set up their online presence properly now that everything was happening remotely. It became a crucial strategy to stay afloat, so companies were investing in their website and their online marketing approach.”
One of Kevin’s launch strategies at the very beginning was to offer pro bono work. He says, “It’s easy to do stuff for free because no one will complain. I started without the expectation of making a lot of money because it was important to just get clients under my belt and have those success stories and testimonials that I could share.”
After working with all those different clients, there was a snowball effect and companies were coming to Brandarrow via word of mouth. Kevin has never had to advertise or market Brandarrow – which is ironic considering what he does for a living.
Once he built up a small customer base, Kevin realized that Brandarrow needed to become more niche. “I was getting a ton of clients and helping them improve their online presence, but I was doing everything that you would need from a marketing department. I couldn’t do all of it, so I decided that I needed to pick a lane. I chose the paid advertising route because I felt like it was the fastest way for a company to get ROI on their marketing expenses,” he says.
To explain that a little further, it takes about six months for SEO efforts to pay off, for example. Similarly, you need to be patient with social media marketing before you see any results. Paid channels have an instant pay-off – when done right. Brandarrow now focuses on everything from Facebook to LinkedIn ads. This is also how Kevin ended up working with Andrew again, this time for MicroAcquire.
From there, Kevin niched down even more. He says, “Before, my clients were all over the place from restaurants to tech companies. I decided I needed to specialize even further to find the right target audience for Brandarrow.” Now he focuses specifically on helping startups in the SaaS industry.
The Power of Broke
Kevin’s first big goal for his agency was to make enough money not to have to get a corporate job. “When I would finally be able to take my foot out of the corporate door because I didn’t need it anymore, that would be success to me. And that gets harder as you get older, to be honest. Once you have a house, a family, kids, and so on, you have more responsibilities and need to have a higher and stable income. As a result, it gets harder and harder to take that risk of becoming an entrepreneur.”
Speaking about money, did Kevin ever consider getting funding for his agency? He says, “I didn’t want funding. I didn’t want to give away any equity and also didn’t want to be in debt. There’s a great book by Daymond John called The Power of Broke. The author says something like if you use money to solve all of your problems, you’re never going to be good at solving problems. But when you’re backed into a corner, you can solve almost anything. You just have to figure it out and work your way through it – and that’s the philosophy I follow.”
But money is always a stressful thing when you bootstrap (or even when you don’t bootstrap). Kevin says, “Luckily, I had money saved up so I wasn’t living paycheck to paycheck, but it was still stressful. And if you are worried about finances all the time, I don’t think you make great decisions. It was important to me that I didn’t have a company that was making all of the decisions based solely on finances versus actually thinking about what the customer wants.”
Kevin needed to find a way to become profitable as fast as possible to avoid those bootstrapped obstacles. Being an agency run by a solopreneur who offers a service meant that his margins were very high. Kevin didn’t have to hire anyone else at the beginning or pay for any overhead, so he was the only expense.
From Solopreneur to Building a Team
When the time was right, Kevin decided to expand the team beyond just himself. Brandarrow now consists of Kevin, one additional full-time employee in the US who runs campaigns, and two other full-time employees in the Philippines, a designer and a virtual assistant.
“Hiring is tricky because it’s a job in and of itself. It’s not only hard to find another person to grow your team, you also need to manage another person’s job on top of everything else. Before I brought on somebody new, I wanted to have systems and processes in place. That way I wouldn’t have to handhold new hires the entire time. What I ended up doing was creating an online course on how to run paid ads,” Kevin says.
“When somebody new joins the team, they take this course to get an in-depth look at how things are done at Brandarrow. That way I don’t have to explain everything one-on-one and they can get right into it. I send all my employees through this course. On top of that, I created standard operating procedures, so they don’t feel like they have to come to me for every single question. Especially as an agency providing a service, it’s important to have those processes in place, so we can deliver a consistent standard of work.”
The course has another purpose too. Kevin can sell his course to clients who do not have the budget to work directly with the agency, giving them a more affordable way to do it themselves.
Testing, Testing, 1, 2
The hard part about owning an agency? When things don’t work out with a client. “Meaning you try hard to scale a campaign and make it successful, but sometimes it just doesn’t work out. It’s not always a marketing issue, sometimes it goes deeper than that when you’re working with startups. They might be struggling to find product-market fit, need to work on their sales process, or have bad onboarding. We can’t fix that stuff,” Kevin says.
To minimize the risks of things not working out, Brandarrow takes a different approach. A lot of agencies want a three-month or six-month contract right off the bat, but Brandarrow doesn’t ask for that. Instead, clients are brought on for a 30-day learning phase. Often going through 500 tests per client, Brandarrow tries to find the best paid ad while also building an effective landing page to go along with it.
Kevin says, “We give the client those assets at the end of the testing phase. If there’s a great product-market fit and the client feels good about working with us, we will offer to sign them on with an official contract. And if the fit isn’t right, the client still walks away with the best performing ads and a landing page that they can use – and they haven’t wasted any money on a three-month commitment. It’s a win-win!”
Brandarrow has successfully allowed Kevin to become a full-time entrepreneur and use all of his hard-earned expertise from his previous jobs. In 2020, the agency made $90,000 in revenue. In 2021, its first full year of business, Brandarrow helped more than 40 clients and made $300,000 in revenue. To top it all off, MicroAcquire is officially partnering with Brandarrow, allowing companies who have just acquired a startup to grow it even further with the help of a tried-and-tested marketing agency.
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