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Growing an Inbound Marketing Agency: A Personal Story

By John McTigueJun 22, 2015

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My partner, Chris Knipper, started Kuno Creative back in 2000. I joined the company in 2004. It's been quite a ride since then. We have transformed ourselves several times and tripled the size of the company in just a few short years. Our biggest transition was from a traditional marketing company into an inbound marketing agency.

In 2015, it feels like we have finally hit our stride, like a racehorse reaching the backstretch, ready to unleash its true potential. How did we get here and what have we learned? For me, it's personal.

Change is Good

In many ways, our journey mirrors the dramatic changes we have seen in marketing over the past 15 years. Back in the day, our clients would call and ask for a new brochure or maybe a direct mail campaign to promote a new service or event. We would respond as quickly as we could, and the price would reflect how much time we spent creating the product. Sometimes our dance card was full, and we had to scramble to get things done on time. Other times, we suffered through a couple of slow months and had to promote ourselves to get new business. Most of the time it was stressful, and we had to ask too much from our designers and ourselves.

As we progressed through the early 2000s, the Web became much more important, and we underwent our first big transition to website design and hosting services. There were no cloud-based CMS solutions available back then, so we built websites from scratch by hand coding them and either hosting them on our client's server or on ours. We leased a server from Rackspace, and I built our own custom CMS using ASP.Net. Yes, I used to be a contract developer back then, so I did all the coding and support for Kuno's websites.

The good news: there was a lot of demand for websites, and we grew our business substantially. Before long, Web design was more than 50 percent of our business, and it's been growing ever since. The bad news? Our designers didn't know HTML and CSS, so with one person (me) responsible for the Web, I quickly became a serious bottleneck. With me spending all my time on Kuno, it made sense for Chris and I to join forces, so I became his partner in 2004.

The obvious solution to the labor problem was to hire more developers and web designers, but back in the early 2000s there weren't that many people with the right skillset, and most of them were working for software companies. So, we limped along for a few years until the first commercially available Web-based CMS solutions came along. After kissing a few frogs, we decided on a platform called BusinessCatalyst, an Australian company that's now part of Adobe's online suite. We started moving existing customers over to the new CMS and signed up all of our new clients for the new service. BusinessCatalyst was great because our people could design and update a website without coding skills, and my responsibility was greatly reduced, especially for support during off hours. Aleluia! Now we could start to scale the company without me as a bottleneck.

The Birth of Our Process

In the middle of the decade, we started to look inward. How could we grow faster and still be lean and efficient? How could we enjoy our work more at the same time? This boiled down to a couple of key problems. First, we were spending too much time cranking out websites and other marketing collateral with endless customer revisions and scope creep. Second, we didn't know how to sell our services in any sort of consistent way. Everything was customized, and our pricing was pure guesswork. We gave away a lot of work back in those days.

Chris and I have always had a great relationship, and our communication has been open and honest since the beginning. We did a lot of soul searching and research to figure out how to move forward without adding more stress. One of our clients was heavily into lean manufacturing and required us to participate in "kaizens," meetings to address and solve problems in a structured way.

This experience rubbed off on us, and we began to formulate our own process—a repeatable, efficient way to do our services and also sell them to our customers. We examined and documented everything we did to build a website, design printed marketing materials and create and execute a marketing campaign. We looked for ways to streamline our processes to reduce costs and stress. We overhauled our sales process and service offerings to be aligned with our processes and reduce friction with customers. We still do this today, as it's a core part of our mission and business plan.

The Inbound Revolution

At the same time, 2007-2008 to be exact, we started to learn about inbound marketing from the likes of HubSpot and a few pioneers like David Meerman Scott and Seth Godin. The idea was to turn the tables on marketing to your customers. Instead of reaching out to them directly with email, mail, advertising and phone calls, you attract them to your website by providing interesting or entertaining content, which in turn prompts social media shares and higher visibility in the search engines.

We weren't comfortable or familiar with this idea right away, so I started blogging and experimenting with new-born social media networks like Twitter and Facebook. Blogging wasn't really new, but in those days it was considered to be similar to a news section on your website, and the art of blogging hadn't really blossomed yet. When our website started to pick up traffic from organic search and social media, the light turned on in a big way.

I attended one of the first inbound marketing conferences, then called the Inbound Marketing Summit in early 2009 and met Mike Volpe from HubSpot. We chatted for a while, and I asked him about providing inbound marketing services for our clients if/when we moved them over to HubSpot. He mentioned that HubSpot was considering a Partner Network that would help to support a new class of inbound marketing agencies and provide them with incentives to sell the software. When the Partner Network became a real thing later that year, we were one of the first to sign up. We started our inbound marketing services in earnest toward the end of 2009, and we never looked back.

Now inbound marketing is pretty much all we do at Kuno Creative. We believe that inbound marketing is the best solution for any company seeking sustained growth in revenues over time and an unforgettable presence in the digital world. After all, nearly everything we do is digital these days, so that's where marketing needs to be, as well.

We still do website design, but now it's an integrated part of a plan to capture and nurture qualified sales leads. Occasionally we'll go back to our roots with print design or traditional marketing campaigns, but those are the exception now rather than the rule. We aren't content with the status quo, however, and we've been adding new services and aligning our processes to make them as effective and efficient as possible.

Inbound marketing has evolved in recent years, and so have we. There are two competing trends to keep an eye on. First, according to HubSpot, by 2020, customers will manage 85 percent of their relationships without talking to a human. Second, there's so much content being published every day that consumers will eventually become saturated (if they aren't already).

Marketers can't be content with consistently writing blogs and social media posts every day. Publishing a lot of average-quality content isn't going to attract customers like it did just a few years ago. According to Rand Fishkin, "...really, where I want folks to go and where I always expect content from Moz to go is here, and that is 10x, 10 times better than anything I can find in the search results today."

So, while it's imperative to attract customers online, you need to provide consistently excellent content to succeed. Our approach now is to publish targeted, high quality content in very specific channels frequented by buyers rather than numerous posts across random broad networks with mixed interests. We also recognize you must focus on all three types of content, owned, earned and paid media, in order to succeed.

The Pay-Off

Kuno Creative has grown considerably both in staff and revenues in recent years. We're proud to be one of the Diamond Tier HubSpot Partners, and we take our inbound marketing leadership seriously. We attribute our success to the lessons we've learned along the way.

Over the years, Chris and I have built a team of motivated, creative, thoughtful people who know what they're doing and are constantly finding ways to improve our services and processes. We've put together an outstanding Leadership Team that handles daily operations and allows us to continue expansion with more quality people.

We continue to learn, not just new ways to deliver inbound marketing but also ways to improve our culture. We're now in two cities, Cleveland and Austin, and our teams there have created comfortable workspaces and great new ways to collaborate both in person and through digital media.

We're not taking ourselves too seriously these days, and we're seeking ways to give back to our communities. All-in-all, I feel like we've matured as a company, but we're still young and growing. I'm proud of what we've accomplished, and I'm excited about the future.

Thanks for listening! John McTigue

 

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The Author

John McTigue

With over 30 years of business and marketing experience, John loves to blog about ideas and trends that challenge inbound marketers and sales and marketing executives. John has a unique way of blending truth with sarcasm and passion with wit. You can connect with John via LinkedIn, Twitter and Google Plus.
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