Starting a Digital, Online Agency

How do you start, build and market a digital, online agency?

First, what is an agency? According to most online dictionaries, an agency is a business or organization established to provide a service.

My first decent job out of college was working for a graphic design agency. It was a brick and mortar type of business. All the artists, designers and photographers worked from a central location.

Today, location is no longer a factor. You can source whatever type of talent you need from anywhere in the world.

The brick and mortar styled agencies are still around, of course. They seem to do better within cities. While the larger agencies aren’t prospering as they once were, they’re still out there.

That said, even they have employees working remotely around the world.

In this article, I want to talk about starting a digital “online” agency. With this business model, you can have employees or team members working with you from anywhere in the world.

The overhead is practically non-existent when compared to traditional agencies… and you can personally work from anywhere you can think as long as you have an internet connection.

Any number of services can be offered through an agency, although you’ll find it much easier to specialize in just one or two services. Graphic design is an example. Digital marketing is another. Web development, direct marketing (email), Social Media, Ad development and placement are a few others – off the top of my head.

You get the idea.

Before we go any further, let’s talk about money, time, and effort.

How Much Money Can I Make With My Own Agency?

Technically, an agency is more than just one person. But, let’s say it’s just you and a few SaaS platforms (software as a service) in place of the second individual. How much per year? What do the averages look like? From the available data, you’re looking at $25,000 – $55,000 per year.

Most of that money will come from local clients, the nearest city, etc. I’d say about 80-85% of it – even though your agency may be “international.”

Again, we’re just looking at averages, from low-end to high-end.

Once you start growing, you’ll probably add a freelancer to help you with certain jobs throughout the year. Now, you’re looking at 50k – 80k. I know I shouldn’t have to keep saying this, but once again we’re looking at both ends of the scale. The low-end and the high-end.

Some people fixate on certain numbers, for whatever reason, and then argue that they should be higher (or lower).

Once you’re ready for a part-time employee (as opposed to paying a freelancer on a per-job basis), you’re in the 75k – 100k category. Finally, you take on your first full-time employee and you’re looking at 90k-100k +

Your husband, wife, boyfriend or girlfriend doesn’t count unless they’re drawing a full salary/income in the figures listed above.

You Will Work Hard for Your Money – Especially in the Beginning

Hard work is often categorized with “that which we do not speak of” at this time in history. Work smart, not hard. It sounds great on the surface, but in my experience – working hard IS smart in this business. Sometimes they are one and the same.

With this business, even with the best processes in place, it takes time to become comfortable and proficient with them.

Each client brings with them a different set of challenges, even in the same industry. Each client has a unique temperament and different expectations for their business.

Like an athlete, every time you step onto the field, you must prove why you’re worth the money you’re being paid.

I don’t want to go as far as saying, “You’re only as good as your last effort,” but there is an element of that present in everything these days, isn’t there?

If you get a lousy dinner at your favorite restaurant, how do you respond? That one experience gets magnified in your mind, overshadowing the previous ones that were fine.

Maybe it takes a while before you’re willing to go back again?

To make a good impression, especially the first impression, you will have to work for it.

Start with a Foundation Service

If your business is comprised of just one or two people, it’s good to start by offering and promoting a single, foundational service. Focus on selling one thing, even if there are several other “things” tied to that one service.

One service brings people to the table. Once they’re at the table and have purchased that ONE service, they may be open to buying other services.

Another way to look at this is by asking yourself the question, “Is it easier, cheaper, less time consuming, and requiring less focus to sell and promote one service or five services?”

Everything has to be sold. Nothing sells itself. Couple that with the fact that it’s easier to become known for one thing than several things and the fog begins to lift.

It’s examining the definition of focus from the other side of the mountain.

Focus takes commitment. Commitment requires discipline. Discipline requires practice. Practice involves resistance.

Most people run from resistance. They settle for third or fourth best outcomes because of it.

You must be different.

Get Comfortable with One Set of Tools

Back in the day, the tools of the trade were very expensive. I’m talking about the non-digital world. Designs were literally created on boards, photographed with cameras and sent print shops for the final product.

If you wanted to start an agency, there was a fairly big barrier to entry.

The barrier today is, for the most part, non-existent for most beginners. If you can’t afford Photoshop, there are many other low-cost to no-cost options available.

That goes for all the other software tools and platforms, too.

When I first started, I used mostly low-cost solutions for my business because that’s what my budget allowed. The mistake I made was jumping from one set of tools to another.

This involved more time and energy than I realized at the time. Sure, things change quickly, and you don’t want to be left behind. But, the more time you spend mastering sales and marketing, the faster your business will grow. Think of your day in terms of percentages and ask yourself what percentage is spent “selling?”

This brings us to the next question. When you’re first starting out, how do you market your business?

What’s the most effective way?

Marketing Your Digital Agency

If I were starting over today and had a budget, I might consider paying a team of SEO writers to focus on writing content targeting a set of keywords.

An example being, “type of agency + city.”

In other words, if I lived in Tampa, I might target “web design agency in Tampa.” For quicker results, I’d set up an Adwords Campaign targeting those words.

If you’re a one or two person show, this approach may not be possible for you in the beginning. I’ve always taken the position that you need to have at least seven months of advertising budget tucked away before going down this road.

Sure, Facebook ads might be cheaper. For B2B (business to business) sales, however, that wouldn’t be my first option. LinkedIn might be a better fit, but I imagine Google would be a solid option for attracting local businesses.

If you’re starting with some working capital, you can bypass all the above and hire an ad manager.

On the flip side of the coin, we’ve all developed ad blindness to cope with the thousands of ads we see every day. That’s why you need to plan for a sustained effort if you go down paid advertising path. And… you must account for your advertising overhead in your pricing.

For me, word of mouth marketing has always worked the best. Whether you call it word of mouth, referrals or something else – I’m talking about your business being recommended to others, by others.

Business owners can open doors for you to connect with other business owners. Everything they say carries more weight than if you said it yourself.

That’s how my business grew.

It an “organic process,” just like a tree growing. With time, the roots grow stronger and deeper. Eventually, your reputation takes on a presence of its own and you become a familiar brand in your marketplace.

I usually get recommendations without asking for them.

When you think about things like –

  1. Doing a good job
  2. Having great customer service
  3. Being reliable, etc.

All of those things should be given… but they aren’t. Everyone says they’re reliable.

They aren’t.

Everyone says they know what they’re doing and will do a good job.

They don’t.

Everyone says they have good customer service.

Once again, they don’t.

While you don’t separate yourself from your competitors by saying those things, it’s becoming increasingly easy to do so by doing those things.

I’m not sure how many new clients I’ve picked up over the years because the former connection was unreliable, didn’t do a good job, and had lousy customer service?

This trend continues to grow with time.

Have a Process for Everything

I didn’t use a contract for my first few client projects. Then I had my first bad experience. The guy who ordered the project and the business owner turned out to be two different people. From all outward appearances, that didn’t appear to be the case when we first connected with the company.

My partner on the project didn’t see this coming, either. The finished product wasn’t exactly what the owner was looking for… but we didn’t realize we weren’t working with the owner until the very end. Fortunately, worked it out.

That was the last time I did a project without a signed contract. No matter what type of agency you have, there are plenty of contract templates out there you can use or adjust to fit your business.

Invoicing, bookkeeping, project management… all these things were made easier with the right tools and processes in place. Finding the right tools was a nightmare for me.


Because if I couldn’t learn how to use the tool quickly, I got frustrated and stopped using it.

Processes are supposed to make life easier for you. They should make life better. If they don’t, you have the wrong process, or you’re using the wrong tool within your process.

Don’t Hesitate to Get Help When You Need it

Sooner or later, you’ll find yourself needing help with a project. The project may be beyond what your skillset can handle. Or, it may be too big for you to finish on schedule by yourself.

If you’ve never hired a subcontractor before, don’t be overwhelmed or intimidated by the prospect of having to do so., and even are examples of sites where you can find experienced freelancers for just about any type of project you can imagine.

Some people look at Fiverr as having a “lower-class” of subcontractors. While I understand why some may come to that conclusion, that hasn’t been my experience. There are skilled and unskilled freelancers on every platform out there. Don’t judge the person just because they’re on a certain platform.

Do your homework. Ask questions, etc. Don’t assume the person is a good fit for you without doing a little digging. That makes sense, right? It’s just like anything else you purchase online. You read reviews, do comparisons, and give it some thought.

Everyone Starts at the Beginning

Despite all the information out there, all the courses, and all the expert advice – we’re all newbies in the beginning.

I admit it’s often more enjoyable reading, thinking and talking about business than actually doing or practicing it. I think many of us enjoy the theory or information part so much because it’s controllable. It’s all on paper. Everything seems to work easier when we’re imagining the process. Everything adds up.

It’s when we start experiencing the delays and setbacks, that’s when the deeper, lasting business and life lessons occur. Like the character Daniel’s endless wax on wax off lessons in the Karate Kid, we don’t see the value when we’re in the midst of it. That usually happens after the fact.

Personal Branding

Let me finish by talking briefly about personal branding. In the past, most agency owners were more or less “invisible” behind the company name, brand or image.

The past decade, however, has seen the rise of the personal brand.

When you combine the two (agency + personal brand) you have more of a hybrid model. It’s not really a business model, it’s more of a marketing and publicity model. Personally, I find it more effective than the older approaches to marketing.

With this approach, you become the highly visible face of your agency business. Name recognition becomes a key element of your marketing efforts.

Basically, you market yourself and the agency behind you follows.

If you’re a decent salesperson, you probably see this as a simple, common sense approach.

Honestly, I’ve found over the last 20-years that my clients really don’t care how many people work for me. In other words, the numbers don’t make my business more legitimate or less legitimate.

All that matters to them is the job getting done right.

Summing it up

When you step back and push all the labels (agency, freelancer, etc.) to the side, what matters at the end of the day is being seen as an asset to your clients.

An asset as opposed to an expense. That’s the key to longevity.

Whether you see yourself as a freelancer, an agency, a thought leader, a hired-gun or anything else – you need to be an asset above all.

I hope this information has been an encouragement to you!

Feel free to comment below.

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Jim Galiano

Jim Galiano is an Internet consultant, web developer, author and podcaster who started doing business online in 1998. His consulting, marketing and publicity services have been used worldwide since 2002. Jim has been interviewed by a variety of media sources including the Wall Street Journal and CBS News in New York.

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About Jim

Jim Galiano is an Internet consultant, web developer, author and podcaster who started doing business online in 1998. His consulting, marketing and publicity services have been used worldwide since 2002.

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