Agency Journey Episode 35 (Y17M2)

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I spent the last full week of July in Spain on a family vacation. We stayed an hour outside of Barcelona. I loved the view we had from the home we rented, a sweeping panorama of trees with the Mediterranean Sea off in the distance.

The view from the villa we stayed at in Spain, about an hour outside of Barcelona.

I thought more than a few times what it would be like to live and work in Europe with primarily American co-workers and clients. Being 5-6 hours ahead means that mornings in Europe are relatively calm when you can do some focused, quiet work. There’s some overlap towards the end of the day, especially after 3PM local time as activity gets underway on the US East Coast.

The drawback I can see is that unless you have some hard boundaries, it’s easy to get sucked into working very late. There’s continual action online until midnight, when the US East Coast folks start wrapping up their day. The late dinner culture of eating after 8PM could make it easier, but I generally don’t like the idea of eating so late.

I’ve heard of people who’ve tried different working hours, from starting later in the day and working till 10-11PM or those who keep it disciplined with signing off right at 5 or 6PM and picking back up early the next morning. I’ve been US East Coast-centered my entire working career, so it was an interesting thought experiment to imagine, and I can see myself years from now, maybe when the kids are much older, perhaps trying to live and work from Europe, even if only for part of the year.

About Agency Journey: This is a monthly series detailing the happenings at my agency Barrel, founded in 2006. You can find previous episodes here.


Celebrating Lucas’s 10 Years at Barrel

Lucas Ballasy, who joined us as a designer in 2013, celebrated 10 years of being with the company this month. It’s been both inspiring and gratifying to see him grow and evolve into an impactful leader at Barrel. The Barrel partners put on a surprise dinner party for him in Philadelphia, close to his home and also where he went to undergrad at Temple. We also invited members of his family, Barrel alum Max Rolon, and Isaac Potter, our Principal Designer whom Lucas recruited, hired, and mentored over the years. It was a beautiful night and a wonderful time.

We celebrated Lucas’s 10th “Barrelversary” at Vetri Cucina in Philadelphia.

I’m excited with how Lucas’s role continues to evolve and expand at Barrel. Much of the progress and stability we’ve been able to achieve at Barrel has been due to his persistent and creative efforts. His leadership at Barrel has also been what’s allowed myself and Sei-Wook to invest time into building up Barrel Holdings and our other businesses.

Related: check out my LinkedIn post about the dinner celebration

A Couple of Client Website Launches, Opportunity to Improve Content Experience for Clients

We helped launch a couple of new websites for our clients in July. One was for Sweet Loren’s, the #1 natural cookie dough brand in the US. The other was for BioLite, an innovative social enterprise and makers of popular portable camping stoves & power stations.

Two client website launches in July: Sweet Loren’s (left) and BioLite (right).

Both sites were built on Shopify and done in quick fashion – they took under 4 months to complete. They’re characteristic of quick turnaround projects that we’re seeing more of this year. Clients may be slow to sign and commit to spending money on projects these days, but once they do, it’s been full speed ahead, with everyone eager to see a return on their investment by completing projects on time or on schedule and getting it launched.

For us, it’s meant being smart about upfront planning and making sure we’re designing and building sites that don’t present complications or headaches during testing. We’re also being strategic about reusing components and being tight on processes like design revisions and site walkthroughs.

One area that we identified as an opportunity for improvement is around content, especially how we can better facilitate and assist our clients in collecting, creating, and inputting them into the website. Right now, the process is fairly manual and requires a lot of heavy lifting on the client side. We’ll need to tighten up the way we can offer an all-inclusive content management experience including handling copywriting, image sizing, and on-page SEO work.

Barrel Holdings: BX Studio and Vaulted Oak Continue Their Growth

We met for our quarterly Barrel Holdings get-together in July to run through each company’s business performance. Barrel had one of its most profitable quarter in years, owing to much better cost control, strong gross margins, and new business wins.

Left, the Barrel partners got together earlier for our quarterly book discussion. Middle, the Barrel Holdings quarterly review of business performance. Right, a dinner at COTE Korean Steakhouse.

Our Webflow development agency BX Studio had its best quarter ever and continued to show strong growth, exceeding the pace toward the target we set at the start of the year. The demand for Webflow websites from businesses small and large continues to grow, and BX is in prime position to capitalize on the growth of the platform.

Vaulted Oak, which provides ongoing website services to clients on Shopify and WordPress, also maintained its growth rate. Unlike BX Studio, which relies on a steady flow of new client projects, Vaulted Oak has a sticky base of clients that continue to re-up on their quarterly retainer plans while also adding additional hours or agreeing to change orders for more work. Vault Oak’s strength has been in retaining long-time clients and steadily growing their spend.

Bolster, our fledgling brand design agency, was also represented by our newly hired General Manager Sam Bertini, who is based in NYC, and Creative Director Henry Alcock-White, who dialed in from Victoria, Canada. Bolster will start to present financials next quarter but this time around, we shared the vision for Bolster’s business model and how we would jump start the business.

All in all, it was really great to see all the progress being made across our companies. I could feel a quiet sense of confidence among the group as we talked about the importance of sticking to the basics of our businesses: keeping clients happy by delivering on the promised work; hiring, developing, and keeping good people; and finding ways to continually improve all aspects of the business.

Top of Mind

Rethinking Agency Marketing

About a year ago, I wrote about the progress we made with having a marketing coordinator helping us post consistently on LinkedIn and better manage the emails we send out to our list.

In the time since, we’ve mostly kept to the same activities: posting on social, primarily Barrel’s LinkedIn account; sending multiple newsletters out per month; and publishing news and blog posts on our website.

After some deeper analysis and reflection, we felt that just doing more of the same was not having much positive impact. While our follower count on LinkedIn increased, it’s been tough to see any correlation with lead volume (which has been down this year) or, more specifically, any uptick in marketing qualified leads.

One new channel that we expanded into was podcasts with our DTC Patterns Podcast. It’s still too early to judge its impact, but the subscriber and listen count is fairly low a few months in. We’re going to give it a bit more time before we make the call on this.

We decided in July to reduce the marketing coordinator position from a full-time one to a part-time role as we reallocate budget and resources to other activities.

Here’s what were thinking in terms of next steps, all of these already in motion:

  • Invest more dollars into marketing automation, especially campaigns that support our outbound lead generation efforts. This means creating some kind of nurture drip that can help us stay top of mind to outbound leads for the next 6-12 months, especially those who were interested but didn’t have a specific project for us right now. We’ve contracted with a HubSpot consultant to help us set things up more effectively.
  • Focus on efforts to co-market and collaborate with partners like Shopify, Recharge, Rebuy, and Klaviyo. This could be webinars, conferences, merchant dinners, content marketing, and any other activities that helps all of us generate leads. Explore contracting or hiring a partnerships manager type resource to help scale our activities here.
  • Invest in turbocharging the social presence of myself and Lucas through consistent posting on LinkedIn and Twitter. We’re working with a firm called Deal Bridge Media and leveraging our personal accounts to share our thoughts on agency business, leadership, ecommerce, and working with clients. So far, so good. I had a couple of months with 100k+ impressions, which was a lot more than anything I could’ve achieved on my own. The primary goal here is to keep showing up on the feeds of our target audience and be top of mind for opportunities.

A few things I want for us to work out this year:

  • Find ways to gauge and measure the success of these efforts. The challenging part is that oftentimes, many of the activities above go hand-in-hand. For example, our outbound lead gen efforts, coupled with persistent follow-up emails and introductions to our various partners have led to some near wins (still waiting on some). We’re also sure that for some opportunities, being active with our partners and also posting frequently to our social accounts has given us a leg up. It’s hard to separate out cleanly and say “this was the more important activity that we need to double down on”.
  • Get a handle on what our overall sales and marketing budget needs to be at a baseline. This is not a number we’ve closely monitored, so it’s unclear how we can measure performance or plan a budget for next year. For starters, we’ll need to organize how we categorize sales and marketing expenses both in terms of resources (people who work on it) and other investments (attending conferences, sponsoring events/dinners, hiring 3rd party services, etc.).
  • Develop a clarifying value proposition and target audience. This is an area where I think we can take bolder steps to get more specific and test out different campaigns to see what sticks. We’ve been too general in painting “Shopify ecommerce” as our main marketing play. Those in our space that seem to be doing well have taken the extra step in their positioning, even if it’s not explicitly stated, like “helping brands on Salesforce Commerce Cloud make the move to Shopify Plus.”

As a business that’s advised and handled various marketing functions for our clients, we ourselves have run a fairly basic and unsophisticated marketing program. As we’ve shored up areas like delivery and certain aspects of business development, I think it’s about time marketing gets a major makeover as well.

Oh, and we’ll also be launching a new Barrel website soon, too.

Shared with Partners

“The attempt to create a life devoid of disappointment is the attempt to avoid the vulnerabilities that make the conversations of life real, moving, and life-like; it is the attempt to avoid our own necessary and merciful heartbreak. To be disappointed is to reassess our self and our inner world, and to be called to the larger foundational reality that lies beyond any false self we had only projected upon the outer world.” (David Whyte, Consolations)

My Barrel journey has been and continues to be filled with disappointments. And this is okay. I’ve learned over the years to embrace disappointments, to learn from them, and to use them to learn more about myself. In the end, without disappointments, it’s impossible to appreciate and enjoy the wins and successes.

“That’s how a company sustains growth over time: Combine a clear vision with systems to keep people focused on delivering value every day. Always look to the future and be willing to completely reinvent as needed—or better yet, before it’s needed.” (Scott Davis, Carter Copeland, and Rob Wertheimer, Lessons From the Titans)

Dual focus of ensuring you deliver daily while also being mindful of the future and how to navigate – this duality is something that’s become clearer for me in recent years and has helped me to be intentional with how I split my time.

“Blaming everyone and everything else for our problems and challenges may be the norm and may provide temporary relief from the pain, but it also chains us to these very problems. Show me someone who is humble enough to accept and take responsibility for his or her circumstances and courageous enough to take whatever initiative is necessary to creatively work his or her way through or around these challenges, and I’ll show you the supreme power of choice.” (Stephen R. Covey, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People)

If I can force a double meaning to my series name “Agency Journey”, I’d like it to be on the word “agency” and how, other than a type of business, can be understood to be the act of making one’s own choices and decisions to drive an outcome – taking responsibility, owning up to mistakes and circumstances, and taking action is what I’m coming to see as the core theme of this series.

1 Comment

  1. Kaitie says

    Hello! I am also considering a partnerships manager type of position. I am interested to follow your journey through staffing changes. Please continue to share 🙂 This post has also given me inspiration to work towards turbocharging my own personal social media accounts. I am not a poster. At all! But I do see the benefits, and I am thinking it’s time I get uncomfortable and post regularly on my own accounts. I very much enjoy your blog, looking forward to continue following your journey. Kaitie

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