Reading Time: 13 minutes
Overview: In this episode of Digital Conversations with Billy Bateman, Billy is joined by agency owner Jason Swenk. He walks us through some of the first steps to starting an agency, the advantages of using bots to contact prospects right away and the opportunities for marketers right now.
Guest: Jason Swenk– Fresh out of college I was off to work for Arthur Anderson, one of the big 5 consulting firms. I quickly realized that I couldn’t work for anyone but myself, so I decided to change direction, quit my day job and launch a digital marketing agency that quickly grew to a multi-million dollar operation working with brands from AT&T, Hitachi, and Lotus Cars. After 12 years of steady growth, we caught the attention of bigger agencies and sold the agency in 2012.
Billy: All right everyone, welcome to the show today. Today I have the pleasure of being joined by the man, the myth, the legend, Jason Swank agency advisor. How are you doing Jason?
Jason: Doing good thanks for having me on Billy.
Billy: Yeah man I’m really excited to have you on. You’ve got a lot of expertise. You’re one of the OG’s I guess you could say when it comes to digital marketing and agencies. Before we get into it just like telling everyone if they don’t know what you do and who you are. Tell us about your background and what you’re doing.
Jason: Yeah, Jason Swenk. I’ve run an agency by accident for 12 years. We started in 1999 and we grew up real big, working with clients like LegalZoom, Attacchi AT&T, Lotus cars and grew up to a big team and sold it. Then like most entrepreneurs we get bored just sitting around, yeah like what can we go do next and I started developing an iPhone app. Hated it and killed that one right like most people do. Then I was lucky enough that some old agency competitors reached out and were like hey how do you build a big team? How did you sell?
And I started a podcast where I help the agency owners grow faster. So they can basically show them the systems and what they need to do in order to pick and choose the things that they should be doing. Which is the ultimate freedom. So I started that and have been doing that for the past six years and it’s the most rewarding, coolest thing I’ve ever done.
Billy: Awesome man. I know we started out as an agency and trying to figure out what you should be doing and what you shouldn’t be doing, I mean somebody running it for me that was like it’s been my biggest struggle the whole time. It’s like okay, we can do this but should we?
Jason: Exactly, well and we treated it kind of like a buffet. You have to try out everything and see what you like and what you don’t like. And then you should be able to figure it out from there.
Billy: Yeah for sure man. So as you got into, hey I started an agency, tell us just a little bit about your story with how did you get into starting your own agency to begin with.
Jason: It was totally by accident and I owe everything to Justin Timberlake. But I don’t know Justin right. One of my friends looked like Justin Timberlake from InSync and back then in the late 90s at Insync was really popular. I created a fake band, fake website called InSh**. It featured him and two of my other friends and me. It got popular and then people started asking me, they’re like hey can you design me a website for my law practice? Can you do that for my real estate practice?
I was like sure, 500 dollars. And so I was an accidental agency owner. Did that for a number of different years just kind of farting around trying to figure out what I needed to do in order to scale. Then I started hiring people. I started hiring the wrong people. Then I started hiring the right people and putting the systems in. And then grew it up to an 8 figure agency and sold it.
Billy: Awesome man. If somebody whether they stumbled into it like I’m a marketer and I build Many Chatbot or Facebook ads or webpages, whatever it is. What do you see as the biggest mistakes that people make when they’re getting into starting an agency?
Jason: Well they skip the most important part is getting the clarity of where they’re going. Who they are actually going to help. Gaining that clarity took me probably six or eight years of running an agency. And we were just reacting to the market. So that I was just taking whatever was coming and I was never saying no.
I couldn’t do everything right. A lot of times we get overwhelmed because we have so many opportunities and so many things to do and we don’t know what to do. The easiest way to do that is if you had that clarity, that crystal clear path of what you need to do, now we can have that. Then once we have that clarity and we know who was serving then we could actually understand what our perfect prospector or our perfect client actually needs and wants. So then we can position ourselves in a different way.
Then once we do that we can charge whatever we want based on value. Which means we’re going to make more money. Then we’re going to hire the right people because we can afford them. But if you never get past that step one you’re being reactionary. You’re hiring more people and then you’re making less money. And then you’re constantly up and down and it gets really challenging.
Billy: Okay yeah. I’ve been there. It took us a little while before like okay this is our niche. This is where we sit. You can go a little bit outside the path but not too far without just not doing a good job for either your employees or your clients. So awesome.
What do you think are the biggest opportunities. If I’m going to start an agency right now where do you see the opportunities? Late 90s early 2000s Billy just building a website was a big deal for business. Now you can build your own website if you want to in a day, in a morning really if it’s light. So where do you see the opportunities for agencies right now?
Jason: Well especially with all the craziness going on right now. This is the best opportunity in our lifetime to start and grow an agency, by far. There’s entire markets that have been closed down. Think of the hospitality industry. We can’t meet at conferences anymore and that’s how a lot of businesses actually used to generate their business. Who are they going to look for? They’re going to look for us marketers that can connect them to their perfect audience.
When I started in the dot bomb era in 99. This is when all the crashing of all the stupid valuations all that and a lot of big companies went under. Then we went through 911 and we grew again. Then we went through 08 we grew again right. There’s always opportunity. Now obviously if everybody’s safe and well and all that kind of stuff. And the first responders get all the credit and they should because they’re in risk way. But the agencies are right behind them about helping the economy recover because we can connect them.
I see a lot of agencies growing and the ones that are actually starting to pull back or that they were never really good because the market was just always good that they kind of existed. They’ll go under which means us that know how to do the marketing and do it well for people you’re going to hit it out of the park.
Billy: Awesome. You’re right, those of us that if there were agencies that the market was so good we were just riding the coattails, you gotta get it together. You’re going to be out of business. If you’ve been doing a good job your clients are going to probably ask for more. That’s what we’re seeing as well.
They’re like hey help us engage, do this bot thing better and let’s do more of it because it’s what we can do right now. So what would you advise somebody, there’s a ton of people I’m sure that have been laid-off in marketing. Unfortunately when they start cutting things there like oh well nobody’s buying so let’s cut the marketing staff.
Jason: Those people are freaking idiots right. A quote from Henry Ford and he basically said stopping marketing to save money is like stopping your watch to save time. Makes about as much sense as brown toilet paper. Literally we were in a room of 1000 people screaming at one person a couple months ago that’s for marketing. Now you’re in a room of one person, you can whisper. So why would you cut back marketing that’s a dumb thing I’ve ever heard.
Billy: I know but we were seeing it happen though that’s the stupid thing.
Jason: Those people need to go under anyway. Those were the ones that were riding coattails.
Billy: But if you’re working for a business and they just like, everyone’s cutting things across the board well we’re going to have marketers that are good at their job that just like people at the top there are so disconnected that they decided we don’t need you for right now.
Jason: And that’s why this is the best time. If you’re a marketer and you know how to do something amazing why do you want to work for anybody ever again? Go start your own business at marketing whatever you have passion for.
Whether it be an agency or go find something. There’s there’s no excuse if you’re just going to sit there and just try to find another job like woe is me. You have to be resourceful and innovate and you’ll be fine. You’ll look back and this is the best time for me in business.
Billy: Yeah with marketing the great thing is like if you’re good you can just go out do it on your own. You don’t need to go work for IBM or Cisco or any of these big companies. You can just put out your shingle and get going with the tools that we have today.
Jason:I mean about like there were doing this. I don’t even know where you’re located, I’m in Colorado I think you were saying Utah.
Billy: Yeah we’re in Utah.
Jason: So we’re pretty close. We’re doing this over zoom but I talk to people all day long all over the world. My business is not shut down. I still can operate because of technology. If you’re a marketer go get it man.
Billy: Alright man. One of the things i did want to talk to you about is I know you were one of the first to use bots. We are bot company, we’re bot consultancy. So I want to talk to you a little bit about your journey with bots. You told me before we got on an interesting story. Really dive into that, tell us about what you think about using bots right now because it is a really hot space.
Jason: Oh yeah definitely so now I mean this was years ago. I remember seeing bots and I’m like oh this is cool. And it was just at the time where my contact page used to have a form on it. And I’d always get those damn people from you know where you’re at. They’re hitting me up with their spam crap all the time, all day long. I mean I got to delete this contact page and who wants to use the contact page. So I was like I’m going to take my contact page and will put it as a Messenger bot.
I’m going to create a character out of it. So I called it Donbot, like Don Draper. So the first thing goes and says hey I’m Don but I’m not trying to trick anybody saying this is this is me yet. I’m just saying, hey this is Jason’s personal assistant Don bot. Are you an agency owner? Are you starting an agency? Or other. Then it takes them and then asks them two other questions. And then it gets on directly with me. And then what I would do before anybody else, the cool thing is on your phone I could record a voice memo to them. So you would be chatting with Don and then once it was done and I’d see on it and be like oh this is a qualified call. It would be like hey Billy I’m glad you’re starting an agency.
Let me know what your biggest challenges are. Then the first response everybody is like how do you automate that? I’m like it’s not automation dummy, it’s me and so I could actually help them out. So by doing this within two months we made I think if I can remember right, we’ve done a bunch of presentations on the exact number, but we make like a quarter million dollars in two months. Because I could direct people to what they needed.
Now I’ve done a lot of speeches on this and a lot of marketers they hear it and then they screw it all up. So anytime I would respond to people no one would respond to me anymore because they’re like oh whatever it is. I’ve kind of cut back the contact page. I still have the Don bot going on. I still have conversations with them but nowhere near the revenue it used to be. Why did I tell anybody about it?
Billy: Why do you think the revenue went down? Was it just like you’re telling them.
Jason: Engagement. You got to think my audience is agency owners. So they’re trying to figure out the technology. Then it’s new and I’m responding to them and I’m having conversations.
Billy: Yeah so you’re just filling it up with tire kickers.
Billy: That makes that makes sense. You took it out. You’re back to the regular contact form.
Jason: Well I don’t have a contact form. I still have the Messenger bot.
Billy: Oh you still have the bot.
Jason: I still believe that Messenger marketing is amazing right because you can directly contact them. Especially on the application if you think about it like if i’m looking for window shades right and then this bot helps me out and all that kind of stuff. Still amazing technology, just my business right now it’s not what it used to be.
Billy: Yeah no, it’s the bots are, I mean, most of our customers are B2B. So the traditional way is I come to the side and fill out the form. Somebody is going to call me back. Whether you call that person an SDR or BDR. They’re gonna qualify me again after I’ve already filled out the form. Then if they think I’m good enough, put me on the calendar for an AE to give me the real demo or have the real pricing conversation.
Whereas like what we’re doing is we cut out that conversation for people that have already raised their hands and said yeah I’m I’m interested. Use that bot to qualify them and let them book a meeting right there with the AE or depending on your availability of your sales team or if you’re just a business owner like get alerted every time you have one of those people going through the bot and jump in if you can. Just talk to that person. Nobody’s got the patience to, well not nobody, but most people don’t have the patience to fill out that form and then fingers crossed that somebody is going to call you back or email you. And you may have lost interest even if it’s later that day.
Jason: Exactly and having just a regular form on your contact page is like you going to a store you finding those perfect pair of sneakers that you want but you have questions. And then they have this thing on the wall saying write your question out, put it in the box. You never know when someone’s going to respond to it for sure. With the bot I can respond to them right away. So people are like how are you responding all the time?
I was like well, if I’m at my kids swim meet or track meet or traveling or an airplane like that’s when I can do it. I can multitask while I’m waiting for other stuff. So I could respond to them whenever. The cool thing is I hit them every time because it’s in their pocket. Which was always pretty cool so I probably need to go back and see how I can innovate a little bit more of my chat thinking about it.
Billy: Yeah you’ve gotta constantly change it. Our first customer they’d set up a bot and it was not doing great that’s why they hired us. So we tested it and all they want to do is book demos for the sales team. So we said OK what do you really need to know?
They’re asking too many questions to begin with and then paired it down, tested the options, the questions which order, who were going to which agents were on it and started knocking it out of the park for them. But then a year later, I mean we kept tweaking things along the way, but we realized this has gotten a little stale. We need to change it up. So if you just like set it and forget it for months at a time like it will work but only kind of. It kind of loses its luster. It’s one thing we’ve found like you gotta always be just tweaking it and changing a little bit to keep that bot performing.
Jason: Exactly, I’m a slacker.
Billy: You gotta get after it man! Send us your bot we’ll work on it. Okay man well before I let you go, is there anything that you’re just thinking if this Billy guy was really smart he would have asked me about this.
Jason: No, I think you did a great job. I mean the thing I want to leave everybody listening with is this is the greatest time for marketers. It may not seem like it right now you just have to be resourceful and figure it out. And if you do ever want to create a business this is the perfect time. The biggest businesses today were created in times like this. Well we’ve never gone through these times but downturns right. Like Uber and Airbnb and all those were created around 2008 if I can remember. Take hold of this opportunity don’t look at the negative. What I tell everybody is just swank it.
Billy: I like it man. So if people want to get a hold of you and learn more about what you’re doing where can I find you?
Jason: Here’s the URL, SWENK.it and it takes you right to the website with all the videos and podcasts interviews and all of our knowledge. So just go there.
Billy: Awesome man. Well thank you so much Jason’s been a great convo.
Jason: Also thanks a lot.
Billy: We’ll talk later.