How Nathan Elly built a $2M/year agency in 6 years
Hey Nathan! How did you get started in search marketing?
I was at University on an entrepreneurship course that had an optional year in industry. The idea was that this sandwich year would give you the ammunition to produce a dissertation whilst applying some of the theory learnt in previous years. As it happens, my friend from the local Cricket club and still-current-CEO, Justin Blackhurst, had just started an SEO agency: SEONext.
It was immediately obvious to me that aligning search results to the user would generate fantastic lead opportunities and would sure to be a critical marketing channel of the future. Given it was early days for his venture and my salary expectations were relatively low, I requested an internship that was accepted and my journey in search marketing began.
What is the origin story behind your agency?
Following my placement year and the subsequent final year of University, I returned to Digital Next in a marketing manager position, although we had plans for expansion. It had always been a personal goal of mine to visit Australia, just as it had always been a company goal to expand the operation there. Given that I had no ties to the UK, it was the perfect opportunity to give the new venture a shot. I started to work night shifts in November 2013, and in the run-up to Christmas, did all I could from an administrative point of view to be able to fly down under on New Years Eve 2013.
At the peak of the agency, what was the annual revenue and how many employees?
We were peaking just before Covid-19 and had been organically growing for a few years. At that point, we were doing about $1.9 million revenue with 10 full-time staff and a network of service providers ranging from content writers to PPC consultants. It all depends on what you consider peak performance, sometimes the juice isn't always worth the squeeze. Over time, we’ve slowly been shifting our goals toward a client base that is easy to deal with and values our services.
How did you get initial sales for the agency?
The initial 6 months were purely cold calling and emailing. Usually, this involved presenting some form of strategic insight or campaign deficiency as the starting point. From there, you just have to do the hard yards and keep the numbers up, as is the case with most B2B sales roles. We did receive the odd referral, but you really have to earn your right to pitch and work with bigger retainers.
As part of the sales pitch, we would leverage our position in the UK market and the opportunity to fast track that natural progression of SEO. I believe a few clients bought into this, as ultimately it was true and enabled us to drive results quite early on in campaigns.
What was the big milestone you were aiming for when you started? Did things get easier after that milestone?
Digital Next is, first and foremost, a digital marketing agency built upon the skills and personalities of its team members. When I started, my main goal was always to bring together a group of individuals who were specialists within their chosen fields and allow them to use their individual insights and skills to give our clients the best results possible. This took a lot of time and patience from everyone involved, but over the past year or two, I feel that we have really solidified a cohesive team that is able to work autonomously.
Overall, it took us 4 years to achieve the goal of an autonomous agency. Another more personal milestone was receiving my permanent residency in Australia, something that seemed a long way off when we began. On both occasions, things got easier as you have more control over your circumstances.
After almost 7 years of being in the services business, what are the major lessons you’ve learned from growing the agency?
The key point here is a services business that relies heavily on people. Yes, there are always ways of utilising automation to improve efficiency and performance, but the bottom line is your agency is only as good as the staff you employ and so recruitment is critical to growing an agency. I've made some bad hires in the past that have sunk too much time and energy. The chances of hiring a bad egg are never zero, so when this does happen, my advice would be to make early calls to avoid prolonging the inevitable. This is a saying I believe to be true.
What advice do you have for agency owners that aspire to get to $2M annual run rate?
I think new agencies should find their niche and grow their reputation off that, cross-selling other services as and when you grow. All you really need to start a “digital agency” is a website, this means the barrier to entry is super low and why competition is slowly saturating the market. Digital Marketing can now be split up into so many facets it's hard to establish yourself as a jack of all trades, it's probably wiser to master one channel, build your case studies and then pitch other accompanying services over time.
Don't force growth either as some business just isn't worth the time and money and will only cost you in other areas. Staff are so important and they will be expected to bear the brunt of client complaints which can be demotivating. Don’t be afraid to be the one to end a relationship if it's just not working out either.