When I was 18 years old, I fell into my first agency. After going separate ways with a business partner, I had a team and a book of digital marketing clients that I had to keep operating!
So there I was, cold calling by day, studying Google Ads and SEO by night. I wasn’t going to let my team or clients down. I was taking on any clients I could to survive.
If we fast forward to today, I’m now running one of the world’s leading app developers, Appetiser. We’re proud to have one of the most consistent track records for building winning products.
What would I do now if I could do it all over again? While I’m grateful for these, I would certainly decide services for my agency in a more methodical way.
5 Critical Steps for Choosing Services for Your Agency
1. Find the Balance Between Passion, Capability and Economics
Jim Collin, the author of Good to Great, talks about finding your core value proposition through his Hedgehog Concept. When starting, you need to find the intersection of:
What you are deeply passionate about
What you can be the best in the world at
What drives your economic engine
I get it. As someone who has always had a vision of making an impact, I know how easy it is to let your passions be the main driver of how you build your company. Just make sure that whatever you decide, you have the ability to be great at and that it can be a sustainable business model.
Before Appetiser, I started a digital marketing agency called Webhype, where my passion was deeply in technology. I was good at digital marketing, so I was able to ensure we delivered with clients. But even as I was doing digital marketing, I was also thinking about how I could turn it into a platform.
So, while doing marketing, I was starting to make riskier moves for clients before finding someone with the expertise to do so (which I wouldn’t recommend).
But despite achieving my goal of giving clients quality outcomes with these software projects, I didn’t create a sustainable business model. I simply reinvested all the money into making the projects work. It wasn’t until I built Appetiser with my technical cofounder that I found a way to make it scale.
The lesson here was that while it’s about pursuing personal goals, it’s also about developing a sound framework that allows you to find a sustainable business model. While I had the passion, it wasn’t until I had a technical co-founder that I was able to truly create a team that was a global leader.
And with that, together, we found a sustainable business model that we could use to make it work while also pursuing our goals to be technology pioneers.
Since 2016, Appetiser has been nominated for SmartCompany 30 Under 30, ranking in the top seven in the world on the design site Uplabs and winning the Technology category for Melbourne’s Young Entrepreneurs Award.
Michael MacRae (L) and Jamie Shostak (R) holding the Technology trophy at the Melbourne Young Entrepreneur Awards 2019.
2. Find a Niche and Give Them What Your Competitors Don’t
Not everyone is a right fit for your agency — and that’s perfectly okay.
Trying to appeal to everyone is a surefire way for startups to drain resources. Instead, you should focus on identifying the people who could best benefit from your services. And then, through that, give them what they want most!
While we now have a robust corporate division, we worked mainly with startups when we first started. This was a unique market, and our competitors weren’t serving it well. Many competitors were offering high prices, unspecialized offerings, and fixed-price contracts.
We came in with a flexible, agile model, a specialization in only a few technologies (Native, Web, and React Native), value, and quality. This allowed us to gain massive adoption, and we quickly became the #1 provider in Australia.
While we’ve been iterating for the last seven years, these principles are still core to our offering. We’ve just added speed into the mix!
When we entered the corporate space, we saw similar opportunities. Many developers were offering off-the-shelf solutions with high prices but often low quality. This gave us an opportunity to disrupt our matured service offerings.
Answering these questions doesn’t necessarily require grand-scale research. You can start with a small group of businesses that experience the problems you’re trying to solve.
Ask them about a problem they are experiencing and how they are currently dealing with it. Are the existing solutions in the market enough? What do they wish to change to better address their problems?
Or even better, run experiments to test! Run a few marketing campaigns for different service offerings in your target market, then see which ones get the most bites.
3. Start with a Speciality, Become Great, then Expand
Don't try to do it all — at least not all at once. Specialize, and then expand once you’ve got it right.
When we first launched, we offered essentially two services:
Native iOS & Android app development (including ongoing support with the same developers)
As product design is needed to develop apps anyway, we really counted this as one key service: building native mobile apps.
As we grew, we started to separate these services better so product design could stand on its own. About a year in, we created a dedicated support and traction-building team. We then opened a web application division after spending three years getting those core offerings right.
After that, we introduced WordPress marketing websites and then React Native. While we always added value to our clients throughout the process, we recently added a dedicated consulting division.
So seven years after starting Appetiser, we offer a total of seven services.
As Mozart puts it, “the shorter way to do many things is to only do one thing at a time.”
Rarely does something done without focus produce excellent results. Going deep in one service lets you master your craft, industry, and target market. In turn, you put yourself in the position to deliver top-caliber services and potentially elevate you as an authority in your field.
We focused on doing one, getting it right, then doing more. As a result, we saw the most rapid growth.
On a practical side, our different services required different skill sets and engineers. It’s like asking a plumber to handle your carpentry. Maybe you find someone who can do it all — but unlikely, and they would rarely be as good as two specialists.
Focusing on one service first and getting that right allowed us to centralize all our resources on the best talent, get the best results, and grow our business.
4. Expand Your Services to Expand Your Customer Journey
After you’ve mastered a few services, you can start to look at services that extend and expand your customer’s journey.
For example, let’s say you are a marketer building a small business website. After you’ve built them a website, what else could they use?
Search engine optimization
Social media management?
These could be good services to consider. Now, they are getting some traffic. What else could they use?
Priority customer support?
Email marketing or funnels?
Conversion rate optimization?
Offering to rebuild the website after a few years?
Let’s think even bigger! Let’s say you partner with accountants or lawyers to become a small business all-in-one hub?!
This turns a one-time website sale into a long-term customer for potentially years and years. This can make a massive impact on your business. You can also start to bundle these services to give your customers more choice and add value to your offering.
With picking any additional services, make sure you can deliver. Giving your clients a great experience is always better, so they keep returning and referring people to you. We’ve seen that it's always worth prioritizing your client’s success over anything else.
Remember, it took us seven years to get to our seven services! Specialization is key, and you should only expand once you’ve got the capability to offer more services.
5. Be Flexible and Open to Pivoting
Now, let's talk about something real – the grittier side of forging an agency. I’ve mentioned that my first agency was Webhype, where I started by offering digital marketing services. I was excited, I had a plan, and I was convinced it was the path to success. But how often do these tunes ring true?
The biggest sticking point was that the business model wasn’t sustainable, and while I could have made it work eventually, I found myself at a fork in the road upon meeting my technical co-founder.
I had two choices: to cling to my original blueprint of a digital marketing agency or adapt to a new service and, ultimately, a new business.
Obviously, you know the choice I made.
Letting go of your first ideas is no easy feat, but it's a call every entrepreneur faces at some point.
Pivoting can be seen as a failure by most startups, but something important to realize is that pivoting didn’t mean abandoning my dreams; it was a strategic adjustment, a recalibration of my goals in light of the new terrain.
This kind of pragmatic pivot is like switching gears in a car – you're still headed to your destination, but you're making the most of the journey by adapting to the road conditions.
So, as you're standing at the crossroads of service selection for your agency, know this: Plans are roadmaps, not handcuffs. Be open to pivot if the landscape shifts. It's not a step back, but rather, a sidestep that could lead you to surprising new vistas.
Enjoy the Journey!
Picking services is an art, not a science. Like any good business choice, deciding the right services for your agency requires a delicate balance of careful research, creativity, and strategy.
Again, you may not always get it right! But all the research in the world won’t help if you don’t take action. As long as you do right by people, you'll be okay.
As you go through the process of starting your agency, learn to enjoy the journey. Starting my agency has ultimately been the most challenging thing I’ve done – but seeing the growth and success we’ve been able to bring to our team and clients has made it the most rewarding thing.