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Why I'm moving away from an agency to be more product-focused.

I left my job as a Software Director the first week of March 2020 (if that tells you anything about my sense of timing.)

To make it through the craziness of COVID, and at the prompting of some serendipitous business connections, I started a freelance small marketing agency.

I was immediately swamped with clients, and did basically anything marketing-adjacent to keep the money coming in during the pandemic:

  • branding
  • websites
  • Google Analytics work
  • eCommerce rebuilds
  • etc.

I was afraid to say no to any work because I didn't know what the future would hold.

I hired contractors, built my ad hoc team, and filled in the gaps wherever I needed to.

We were growing every month, had taken on more clients, and were making them really happy with the results.

...

Then my wife and I brought four elementary-aged siblings from foster care into our home.

I realized REALLY quickly that I wasn't going to be able to continue with the excessively long work weeks that were necessary to get the agency off the ground.

...

I'm a firm believer in having always having a plan, but knowing that those plans will almost certainly change is key.

So what's next?

By moving to building products, I will (in some ways) be able to manage my extremely limited time a little better. I will be able to push the products forward at my own speed instead of the speed of a client or deadline.

I've already begun referring new leads to other agencies, am winding down my current projects/retainers, and testing out various product ideas.

One thing that I want to lean into more-and-more is building (or at least learning) in public.

I'm a programmer, and hoping to build something in the digital marketing space, but not don't have a clear direction yet.

Either way, I'm having fun and being open-handed with whatever comes.

Do you have any experience with this? Let me know!

You can also follow over on Twitter, where I'm sharing more of the day-to-day lessons :)

All the best!

  1. 5

    Four siblings from foster care? You are a truly good human being @jamiehoward! I really admire your journey of leaving the job to reaching this post frankly. It must've have taught you quite a lot of lessons indeed.

    I personally can relate with you on few ends. I started off running my own design agency 3 years back but while working with clients, I found a gap and came up with the idea of ruttl.

    What you can do is (if its manageable), keep working with 1-2 clients with a small team and direct those financial power towards building your product. That's been working nicely for me and in fact has largely played a role at reaching the point where ruttl is right now.

    Quick question for you though -
    I'm curious about you marketing agency. You said you were immediately swamped with clients. How did you go about acquiring them? Any particular strategies that might have worked for you?

    P.S - If you have any website, would love to take a look at it :)

    1. 1

      Thank you for the kind words! We're going to be adopting the four kiddos as soon as the courts allow us. :)

      You're absolutely right about using the agency to pay for the product—I have two retainers that keep our bills paid, but allow me to be flexible enough with my time to be a dad AND work on products.

      As far as how I got clients: I thankfully had built up a good network before leaving my job. I had also gotten a reputation for helping folks break down big problems into actionable steps.

      As a result, my first clients literally reached out to me to help them with their marketing efforts. I got a good bit of work from other agencies that didn't want to take on smaller clients.

      Word-of-mouth referrals makes up 85% of my clients.

      The other 15% was from tweeting A LOT and sending out a weekly newsletter (which people passed on.)

      Here's our website: heythunderbird.com

      1. 2

        That's lovely 😍
        I wish you and your family a healthy, happy future @jamiehoward!

        Also, thanks a lot for replying in such detail! 👏
        A lot of the IH community users might find your experience useful.

        I was wondering the same thing if referral was working out the best for you. Good thing that you built up the network before quitting the job haha.

        Had look at your website too. Minimal, crisp and proper to get the job done. I liked your approach 😁

        Cheers!

  2. 2

    Hear hear, @jamiehoward, wishing you all the best with your next endeavor!

  3. 2

    That sounds like something I'd get behind and lend some expertise too. I'm connecting with you on Twitter now.

  4. 2

    What an inspiring and interesting story, Jamie!

    Will definitely follow along on Twitter as I'd love to see where you go in the product journey.

    I also recently got bitten with the maker/build-in-public bug, and am working on my first product (a book → possibly turning into a course). It is a challenge to balance the need to pay the bills, and have time to work on products.

    It's cool to see that you're doing it by just reducing your client load to the minimum. I'm in this process now and it's hard to find the balance.

    Though, keeping it real, I just lost a big contract that I thought was a certainty which sort of forced this on me. Was a blow at first, but I'm trying to see the upside, and devoting this unexpected free time to building stuff that long-term will hopefully be revenue driving.

    And in the meantime, having fun!

    Anyway, was cool hearing your story!

    1. 1

      Love that.

      You're right, changes (especially unexpected ones) can be discouraging when they happen, but they only really set you back if you let them—No lesson is wasted.

      And as for your comments about time, I'm constantly reminded that it's by far the most valuable asset that we have.

      Because of our situation with the kids, I get only about 4-5 hours of work done a day (and some days even less than that), but I find that if I give myself priorities, and then commit to chunks of focused, intentional work, I can accomplish a lot more than I originally believed.

  5. 2

    Hi Jamie.

    Probably not the reply you were looking for but found it very interesting how you got "swamped" with clients directly. I'm a freelancer as well and I have a steady flow of clients but always interesting to know how to get more :).

    After March 2020 how did you start to get your clients?

    1. 2

      The boring answer is that I built up a good professional network over the last 10 years or so and have relied primarily on word-of-mouth referrals.

      Great advice that I heard somewhere else: "Network before you need a network."

      The part of that that's more helpful for IH is that I started a newsletter and invited people manually to follow along on my start up journey.

      Every week, I'd send out an issue and a few leads (as well as podcast and meetup opportunities) came from there over time.

      Finally, I spent a bunch of time being really intentional about giving value on Twitter. That helped me land a few other jobs.

  6. 2

    Hey Jamie, massive respect for what you and your wife are doing for the four kids 🙏

    You mentioned hiring contractors and building ad hoc teams.

    Where/how did you find contractors?
    I'm also curious how you pay them. Do you pay them hourly or by the project?

    Thank you!

    1. 1

      Thank you for the kind words :)

      At any job I've had, I've taken notice of the folks that do great work and don't mind side projects. That helped to build up my "dream team" of contractors when the time came.

      When I launched the agency, some of those same folks were freelancing themselves, so I was able to get their top-tier work for my clients.

      As far as pay, I negotiate with each of them first, but it varies a bit.

      For a typical website project, I might charge the client $125/hr and give them an estimate of how many hours I think it might take. We have weekly or bi-weekly check-ins to make sure that we're still on budget, on time, etc.

      My developer may charge me $45 hour, so that extra $80/hr goes back into the business to cover my pay and other business expenses.

      Does that make sense?

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