Tales from a Philadelphia Digital Marketing Agency Startup
“So where are we going tomorrow? How’s their wi-fi signal? What about their cold brew?”
Such was the daily, routine line of questioning when we first started this little venture. It feels like only yesterday when we toured the center city coffee shop scene to find our office for the day, but now, as we look at the Philadelphia skyline from our own space, we realize just how far we’ve come.
And how far we still have yet to go.
While we started Grue & Bleen in the not too distant past, the relationships that went into building this idea actually started much earlier. I’m talking decades ago. The entrepreneurial spirit has always been alive for us as individuals, whether we were selling golf balls at the edge of a driveway, marketing a two-man band, or trying to build a video editing empire. The only thing that was missing was the actual cohesiveness from having a marketable idea AND the ability to actually carry it out.
After a few career changes, some added schooling, and the maturation of well-nurtured relationships, all the pieces had finally come together and were ready for assembly. Grue & Bleen was born. Or, well…something was. We may not have had our branding together, but we had our idea, and we understood what we needed to do to become an “everything agency.” Most importantly, between the range of skills and relationship dynamics we each brought to the table, we knew that we could, and with our determination, that we would.
So as we sit in our new Philadelphia office, a newly recognized Top Digital Marketing Agency by Agency List, we thought we’d talk about some of our trials and tribulations, and how we navigated the good, the bad, and the uncertain to go from the living room to the coffee shop to where we are now.
Things Change – Analyze the Data and Act
The core team here wasn’t always made up of the same group of people that it is now. Sure, we always had the knowhow to handle digital marketing, web design, data analytics, and how to generally run a business, but we started as a 5-person team to shoulder that workload. Then we were 4. Then 3. As the group dwindled in size, there were periods where we wondered if this was really possible. By that point, it got a bit challenging from the sheer volume of work to be done, and that still left us without a major component of our team; a void that we needed to fill: someone to handle heavy coding to tie everything together. We had identified the problem very easily. The tough part was finding the solution. Do we outsource? Do we hire? Do we take on another member and risk the heartbreak (and legal stuff) again? …do we call it quits?
As it turns out, a blend! In the short term, we taught ourselves what we needed to do, and shifted around responsibilities. We were all a bit out of our comfort zones, but even though it didn’t feel like it at the time, it was a great boon for our business! We built on our communication skills, picked up some new tech skills, and figured out exactly what was so challenging that we needed more help with. We ultimately determined that the best solution was the long term one, and we opted to take that big risk again and go back up to a team of 4. Best decision ever. Not only do we have the ability to do more of what we need to at a moment’s notice, but our Developer is the best around, and one cool cat! :) (See for yourself, read the developer blog here!)
Lesson: Perseverance and flexibility in the face of a difficult challenge is absolutely critical. Don’t get discouraged; take initiative, and approach problem solving with both the short and long term in mind.
Leading Double Lives – Inbound Marketing After Hours
When we first started here, we had not yet finished where we were coming from. We were very much leading double lives with a day job during “normal” hours and then building an Agency from scratch when we got home. Boy, does that get tiring! You always hear about the life of the entrepreneur being this crazy 100 hour per week gig, and I can tell you that it’s definitely not inaccurate! Now imagine also having a 40 hour a week job on top, or for those of us that were less fortunate, an 80 hour a week one. Yep, that’s right. Not even that many hours in a week. As you might imagine, stress mounted, tempers flared, and patience was tested. Why were we doing this to ourselves, and when would this hell-on-earth end?
As we came to learn, it was entirely our choice. It all boiled down to our financial comfort pitted against our emotional well-being. So what did we do? How did we make it through? We brought in our resident logician to do some analytics for ourselves, of course! While we needed to understand where we ultimately wanted to be financially, we also needed to consider where would be ‘ok’ to be, and set more modest goals. We took a step back and thought of what they might realistically look like, and what we’d need to be prepared to lose in order to regain our sanity; we just needed to be comfortable with taking that risk. That calculated risk, that is. After stripping down everything to our bare essentials and taking a deep dive approach to how the business was functioning and where it could go, as well as what we were willing to give up to make it work, we finally had our answer. Our Freedom Calculator was born. (Aptly named in honor of Philly, where our country’s freedom was born!) This gave us each individually calculated goals to find out when we were in a good position for an exit, to leave everything else behind and devote 100% of our time to bettering our own futures in our Digital Marketing Agency. The crazy thing about it? It worked! (Let us know in the comments if you want one for yourself…open offer!)
Lesson: Sometimes, an easy choice is just not an option. Sometimes, sacrifice is necessary in order to achieve a goal. Sometimes, you gotta take a step back and think about what you’re willing to lose in order to win.
Coffee Shops – Our Digital Marketing Agency’s “Landing Page”
So I lied a bit. Not a lot, but a little. We didn’t exactly start this little venture asking about wifi at the local coffee shops. We had to take the plunge first, because most coffee shops aren’t open for very long once standard business hours come to a close! We actually began with late weekly meetings at one of our houses: a place for brainstorming, strategizing, and lots of pizza. While overlooking the Philadelphia Museum of Art was nice, what we quickly learned was that the once-per-week thing wasn’t where we needed to be, because we fed off each other. We needed each other. For more than a few hours per week. This is likely the main reason we got serious about leaving. We needed to be bigger than we were, and we needed to be an actual team to do that.
Once the Freedom Calculator told us the time was right, we freed up so many hours! Productive hours, too! Not those “oh, I just got home and want to relax, but I guess I have to do that ‘planning for the future’ thing” hours. We now had ALL DAY to meet, strategize, work, and grow our agency. The only problem was that we didn’t have a place where we could consistently go that allowed us to be as efficient as we could be. Working out of our homes felt too much like hanging out. Coffee shops felt too much like being a nomad (not to mention that we were flying through the income we were bringing in by paying for all those coffees to avoid feeling like total mooches). We even tried working out of a bar for a few weeks (because we’re cool like that), but working without windows and only red lighting was better suited to vampires than to our group. On top of all that, have you ever made a client call that needed to be on speakerphone from a public place? Insanely difficult! Not recommended! We knew that even though our business could be done anywhere, it could be done better if we had a home base. We officially made that decision once we realized that if we wanted to make a serious impact, we had to get serious about our day-to-day schedule. Adios coffee shops, hello Benjamin’s Desk!
Lesson: Even if you don’t think you do, you truly do know what you need to work your best. Take time to reflect and figure out what that is, and then make it happen.
The Future – The Grue & Bleen Theory in Action
We’re still a young Digital Marketing Agency. We feel growing pains. We experience triumph and we suffer heartbreak. Things go our way, and former clients go the other way. We know that there are always going to be challenges as we move forward: circumstances will change and obstacles will find their ways into our path. Know that this will all happen to you too. The best advice I can give, and most important thought to keep in mind, is that there is also always a solution, as long as you have the will to find it. Trust me, we’re from Philadelphia: we know what it’s like to be the underdog, and what it takes to overcome the odds!
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