How I Started A Marketing Agency That Grows At 84% With $1MM Monthly Revenue
Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?
Hello, my name is Brian Cohen and I’m the Co-Founder and CEO of Visiture.
Visiture is an award-winning eCommerce marketing agency, headquartered in Charleston, SC We are one of the fastest-growing agencies in the retail vertical - landing at #753 on the 2019 Inc. 5000 list. Currently, we represent over 140 merchants comprised of brand manufacturers, CPG’s and retailers - including, Spanx, Gerber Childrenswear, Southern Tide, BarkBox, Cross Pens, Park Seed, Death Wish Coffee, allheart and more.
To date, Visiture has three core service offerings: PPC Management, SEO Management, and eCommerce Web Development. When I started the company in my garage 11 years ago, Visiture had a total of three employees, and we primarily focused on PPC management for lead generation and local businesses. I kept it as a lifestyle company with 7-9 full-time employees until 5 years ago when I decided to focus exclusively on eCommerce.
At the same time, I merged Visiture with a small, but disruptive SEO agency run by Ronald Dod, who is now my partner and Visiture’s CMO. Since then, we’ve landed on the Inc. 5000 list for 3 consecutive years, won the 2018 eTail Best in Class Website Redesign Award for SPANX, and currently have over 100 employees.
In addition, our monthly revenue and profit exceed what our entire revenue was in 2015. Our MRR is approaching $1MM. It’s been a tough road to get here, but we’re going to leverage our momentum and plan to double the company annually for the next 2-3 years.
What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
I was a serial entrepreneur for many years before I got involved with what would become Visiture. It dates back to my elementary school years when I developed a serious baseball card addiction.
I started washing cars, cutting grass, and pulling t-shirts off of the dryer conveyor belt in my family’s screenprinting business. Basically, anything I could do to raise funds to buy the next Sandy Koufax, Mickey Mantle or Don Mattingly baseball card! That hustle continued through high school years, where I worked nights and weekends as a barista at a coffee cart (pre-Starbucks but a similar concept) in the local shopping mall in Atlanta, GA.
After high school, I attended the University of Georgia on the Hope scholarship. Unfortunately, due to some administrative issues, I lost the scholarship and was left trying to figure out how to pay for college.
As luck would have it, one of my childhood friends, knowing my family connection to t-shirts and screenprinting, called me and asked if I could print 800 Greek Life shirts. He was the head of Greek Life at UGA and had the authority to choose the vendor.
I called my father, and he agreed to help me handle the design and printing. I just had to put up the money for the shirts. I ended up making thousands of dollars off of that initial Greek Life order. So, I decided to open a t-shirt company in Athens, GA.
The business was a hit from the start, and we ended up producing most of the shirts for UGA sororities and fraternities. We then expanded to corporate clients and before I knew it, I was doing over $2MM in annual sales at 20 years old! The company was called Swerve.
Forget the instant gratification and focus on long term decision making. If you’re an agency, figure out a way to work with well-known brands that you’re confident you can deliver great results
At 21 years old, I sold Swerve to a larger promotional products company for 7 figures, and I went to work for one of my corporate clients in the steel industry. It went well, but corporate life wasn’t for me. After two years, I “retired” and went traveling through South and Central America.
During these travels, I became obsessed with fishing. While I was traveling, the company that acquired Swerve went bankrupt, and since I financed the sale (a bit of advice, don’t finance a sale… you aren’t a bank), the money dried up.
On a shoestring budget, I came home and started an online fishing tackle business. It went okay, but I ended up selling the business to a local fishing tackle chain. Honestly, it wasn’t a great experience, but it introduced me to eCommerce and online marketing - in the very early days in 2002.
Once I sold the online tackle company, I called up the owner of the small SEO company that had helped me get to the number one spot in Google for “Fishing Tackle.” The timing was perfect as the owner had recently started an online degree directory, and he was printing money hand over fist.
At this point, the SEO company didn’t have any clients, but he agreed to sell me the website and train me on the services. In the early days, I was doing everything: sales, content writing, backlinking, etc.
This SEO service evolved into Visiture which, at the time, was focused 80% on PPC, and I was personally managing the Google Adwords accounts for our clients. I had recently gotten married and had a baby on the way, and we didn’t have much money. This forced me to hustle and grow the business. There’s nothing like needing milk money to drive innovation and creativity.
Describe the process of launching the business.
In the beginning, I absorbed the name “Better Search” and the processes from the agency that I had hired in the tackle business. Keep in mind, this was the early “wild wild west” days of the internet, and SEO (search engine optimization) was primarily meta title and description optimization, keyword density tweaking, and reciprocal linking.
Not that SEO has changed that much over the years. It’s still two core tactics that help companies rank at the top of Google. First, you have to have good content that tells the search engines what your webpage is about. Secondly, you have to acquire links from 3rd party authoritative websites. These inbound links tell Google that your site is relevant to the keyword(s) that you’re trying to rank for.
Shortly after I started Better Search, I was approached by one of my clients asking if I could handle their PPC. It was a large national brand in the real estate vertical. I knew a little about Google Adwords, but my childhood friend, Adam Phillips, was the most advanced PPC marketer I knew. Adam ran a small agency called Ventura.
We decided to join forces and form a new internet marketing agency. The first step was to choose a name for the business. My wife, Adam and I sat in our kitchen with a whiteboard and wrote down columns of nouns, adjectives, verbs, prefixes, suffixes, etc. We started combining the columns to find a good name.
One of the most impactful decisions that we made was to focus on clients with recurring revenue versus project-based work for a few large clients. This allowed us to predict our monthly revenue and make investments
Each time we found a name we liked, we would search the domain registrar to see if the .com domain name was available. It was frustrating because every name we searched was already taken.
For one reason or another, I was fixated on the term “visit”. The way I saw it was that we were responsible for the visit or visitor to each of our client's sites. It just so happened that when I combined “visit” with “ure,” the .com domain was available. It was fate because this loosely defines the art of the visit. It’s the perfect name for an agency that is responsible for driving organic and paid traffic to client sites.
In the early days, we didn’t have money to pay employees so Adam and I handled everything. I had personally leveraged everything I had to pay the bills. Therefore, in the early days, all the proceeds from the business went to pay Adam and me for living expenses.
Looking back on it, I wish I had taken a loan or found an investor as we were financially forced to focus on instant gratification when we should have been making long term decisions. The tight cash flow was scary, but it was also exhilarating.
I handled the account management, bookkeeping, invoicing, sales, and SEO execution while Adam managed all PPC campaigns and drove overall strategy. We soon realized that we had to hire someone to execute on the SEO work so we posted a help wanted ad and brought in our first employee, Carly Messmer. Carly was with us until very recently, and she still consults with our SEO team today.
Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?
In the early to middays of Visiture, we worked with a large range of customer sizes and industry verticals. We had dentists, auto dealers, national publishers, hospitals, and small eCommerce brands. Looking back on it, it sounds chaotic but it wasn’t. It worked, and we grew the business to nine employees and about $1MM in annual revenue.
Keep in mind, this was the early days of eCommerce - before Shopify. Magento was just making its mark on the online world with its early open source “community” version. My partner Adam and I were both passionate about eCommerce, which unconsciously led us to bring on more and more eCommerce brands.
Around this same time, we began to market outside of just word of mouth. We drank our own kool-aid so to speak and began running PPC ads on Google Adwords for all types of internet marketing terms. We had a shoestring budget in the early days, but Adam and I were managing the ads so we were able to hyper-focus on low-cost CPC’s and minimize our cost per lead.
It didn’t hurt that it was the early days, and the competition was much less than it is today. Around the same time, we began executing content marketing to increase our SEO rankings for terms like “internet marketing agency.” We didn’t get a ton of leads but when we did, we closed them at a super high rate. We were scrappy, and most prospective clients like that they were working directly with the experts.
Don’t start multiple companies and don’t allow anyone else to sway your direction. Pick one company, one core product or service line and be the very best at that
This went on for a few years and we continued to grow marginally but mostly it was a lifestyle company. What ended up allowing us to scale was the fact that our clients were performing really well.
One of our clients, Apartment Finder, went from 250K organic visitors a month to 1.5MM organic visitors a month in only 18 months' time. Working with this brand and the associated case study opened the door for many other opportunities - not to mention that the team at Apartment Finder told all their friends about us in other industries.
I have a few pieces of advice in regards to marketing growth hacks. First, as I’ve mentioned, forget the instant gratification and focus on long term decision making. More directly, if you’re an agency, figure out a way to work with well-known brands that you’re confident you can deliver great results.
Don’t try and get rich quick.
Come in aggressively and win the business and then use that logo and case study to fuel your growth. It’s the cheapest form of marketing - similar to an online brand finding a well-known influencer to endorse their products.
Focus on what you’re best at.
For Visiture, our growth happened by becoming the subject matter expert in eCommerce marketing. Finally, focus your marketing efforts on becoming the thought leader through content marketing.
For Visiture, we established authority by speaking at industry trade shows, getting published in the most respected publications (e.g. Search Engine Journal) and generating content that solves users' research queries. We accomplished this by creating SEO and PPC guides, blog series, and tons of blog content.
70% or more of our new business found us via our content marketing. Here’s a screengrab from SEMRush showing the growth of our organic traffic. Regardless of if you are an agency, D2C brand or an established omnichannel brand, content marketing should be the foundation of your marketing. It’s what has driven our success and the success of our merchants.
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
Visiture is doing well both from a growth and profitability standpoint. Our revenues are up 84% YoY, and we have a very healthy EBITA and cash flow. We’ve built out a full leadership team inclusive of the C Suite and HR, and we spend quite a bit of time studying and tweaking our utilization and efficiency ratios.
Since we are an agency, the majority of our COS (cost of sales) are people and thus we run a thin GP%. This economy and job market make it tough to hire and retain top talent, but we’ve built an amazing culture that allows our team members to grow and mature inside the organization. So far, we’ve had a very low employee and client turnover, and I think this speaks volumes about the organization.
Our revenue is currently split as follows between our three service lines: 35% SEO and Content Marketing, 35% PPC Management and 30% Design and Development. We’ve recently built out a new service offering for Amazon PPC management, and we have future plans to add email marketing support and analytics offering. Additionally, we are constantly looking for new media outlets to push out adverts for our merchants, like Pinterest paid ads and LinkedIn.
Our goals this year is to exceed $10MM in annual revenue (which we are ahead of schedule) and then grow 60% or more each year thereafter. We’ve built out a sales team so that we can start approaching the brands we want to work with versus the brands that want to work with us. This will allow us to scale dramatically.
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
Yes, I’ve learned quite a few lessons over the years, and if I could do it all over again, (regardless of the industry or business type), I would do it differently. I could go on for days about this, but my top three suggestions to any budding entrepreneur are as follows:
- 1. Instant gratification versus the long view
- 2. Focus and simplicity
- 3. HR
Instant gratification versus taking the long view - As aforementioned, due to personal economics, I was forced to make short term decisions to pay the bills for the first half of Visiture’s existence.
If I had it to do over, I would either raise capital or take on debt to allow my company to focus on the long view. This would have allowed me to invest more in marketing, people, and processes to scale more effectively.
It all worked out, but now our mission statement includes “take the high road and long view.” We attempt to apply this philosophy to every decision we make - both micro and macro.
Focus - In the early days, we were the “jack-ass” of all trades. We were working across many verticals and trying to be everything for every client. We quickly learned that focusing on 2-3 things and only one vertical (online retail) was the only way to scale.
I had a hard time in the early days saying no to clients. Honestly, it was hard to say no to the money. Now, we are in a fortunate position. We can turn away clients that aren't a good fit culturally or that we don’t think we can deliver great results.
Now, we can give a firm NO to any request for services outside of our core offerings. In retrospect, if I had the confidence to say no earlier on, I would be much better for it.
HR - I was involved in every single hire until January 1st, 2018. At that point, we had approximately 30 FTEs. We decided to bring on a Director of HR, and she was our first “non-production” hire.
It was the best decision, and it allowed us to scale to over 100 employees in June of 2019 - only 18 months later. Not only did this allow us to scale immensely, but the caliber of the hires improved dramatically.
The takeaway is that my managers and I were not exceptional at hiring. Nor did we love doing it. Our HR team is amazing at hiring rock stars, and I wish I had pulled the trigger on this hire much earlier. It would have saved me from years of heartache and would have allowed us to scale at a much earlier point.
One final note: Early on, one of the most impactful decisions that we made was to focus on many clients with recurring revenue versus project-based work for a few large clients. This allowed us to predict our monthly revenue and make investments in our people and our marketing. It also removed the risk from any one client leaving. This is one of the reasons that our sales team focuses so much on subscription-based eCommerce merchants. You can read a great case study about one of our box of the month clients here and another one here.
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
Visiture is a Google Adwords Premier partner, Magento Professional partner, and a Shopify Plus technology partner. We also have other partnerships such as Listrak and Bronto for email and quite a few agency partnerships that use us as their resident SEM experts. In addition to our partnerships, we utilize the following tools on a daily basis:
- Google Analytics
- SEM Rush
- Google Adwords
- Bing Ads
- Facebook Ads
- Google Apps (Sheets, Docs etc)
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
In the last couple of years, I’ve become obsessed with podcasts. I listen to “How I Built This” with Guy Raz religiously, and I enjoy “The Tim Ferriss Show” as well. I relate to many of the other founders, and I tend to learn better ways to communicate with my team and my clients from things that I hear on these podcasts.
Most of my reading these days is for enjoyment, but as far as business books go, I recommend The Alliance by Reid Hoffman (Founder of LinkedIn) and Rework by Jason Fried (Basecamp). I’m more of an auditory learner but I do aspire to read more books about philosophy and business processes. Why do you ask? Because business is easy, and people can be difficult!
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?
I’d recommend that you not allow yourself to get distracted. Don’t start multiple companies and don’t allow anyone else to sway your direction. Pick one company, one core product or service line and be the very best at that.
We spent years utilizing the cowboy method and trying all types of different service lines. I even started or ran multiple companies at the same time. At one point, I was running 3 companies at once. It didn’t work. It was stressful, and it didn’t help me build a successful company. It just distracted me.
Our growth didn’t come until we had a plan, and I had divested myself from the other companies. At that point, all we had to do was execute our plan. I tell people all the time that I don’t need to add on anything or change what we are doing. That allows me to maintain a laser-sharp focus. I’m confident that we can get to $30MM a year by just scaling our three service lines and executing the sales and performance goals we’ve set for ourselves.
Are you looking to hire for certain positions right now?
Visiture is always hiring and constantly looking for rockstars. You can view all of our open positions here. If you don’t see a position that fits you but you think our culture and our way of life fits you, drop us a line. We might have the perfect opportunity for you.
At this time, we don’t offer internships very often, but we do have a JAC program. Coming in as a Junior Account Coordinator is a great way to become an expert in the eCommerce space by starting at an entry position.
My advice is that it's never too late to start over. The only mistake you can make is continuing to do something that you aren’t passionate about. With passion comes opportunity and fulfillment.
Where can we go to learn more?
The Visiture website is a great resource. Our blog houses a how to guide that contains basic 101 information all the way up to the super technical information about PPC, SEO & eCommerce Design. A few of the most popular posts are “The Ultimate Guide to eCommerce SEO” and “The Ultimate Guide to Google Shopping.” Below are some additional links to engage with the Visiture team!
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