This is a summary of a talk I gave in March at Write The Docs in Manchester: Genesis of a Specialist Technical Marketing Agency. Slides here.
If you want to skip my backstory, click here to jump straight to the lessons you can apply when starting your own agency.
Pretty much since I left university and joined the workforce, I’ve wanted to run my own business. Specifically, I’ve wanted to run a consulting business. It’s never really been about being the master of my own destiny or anything like that (I’ve had the pleasure of working for some exceptional bosses). I’ve always wanted to run my own business because, by nature, I’m a greedy person. Not greedy like I’ll eat all the pizza and leave everyone else with nothing but empty stomachs. More intellectually greedy — I hoard difficult problems. I want to solve them all. And running a consultancy is all about solving other people’s problems.
So that’s always been my goal. But it’s only in the last two years that I’ve been able to make it happen. In early 2017, I showed some blog posts I’d written about software to a colleague who said they were pretty good. And that gave me an idea: could I turn this into a proper business?
Phase 1 - Technical Writing Business
My first plan was to be the guy that wrote documentation and tutorials for software products. Using my online portfolio of work (at this point, I had bylined articles on LWN.net and InfoQ, I sent emails and messages on LinkedIn to people in my business network. I knew a lot of software developers and a few of them had gone on to start companies of their own. So I messaged everyone asking if they wanted to hire me to write technical documentation for them.
The problem was that no one wanted technical documentation. Not even the people launching software products. I had the supply but there was no demand in my immediate business network.
But what people did tell me they needed was something called content marketing.
Now, at this juncture I could have gone outside my own business network and approached companies about writing for them. That’s a totally smart thing to do and is a tried-and-tested way to launch a new business.
But it’s also much harder. Selling things to people that don’t know requires serious skill. Selling freelance/consulting services —- which are inherently based on trusting relationships — to people that don’t know you doubly so.
So instead of expanding my reach to find some demand elsewhere, I decided to listen to what my friends and colleagues were telling me — they needed content marketing.
Phase 2 - Content Marketing Business
With this pivot I immediately found two clients who wanted me to write marketing copy for them every month to drive traffic to their respective websites: one was focused on user acquisition and the other on brand awareness. This service offering turned out to be a great way to mix my technical writing skills with my growing interest in marketing.
Incidentally, the intersection of technical writing and content marketing is a huge opportunity for aspiring writers. If you know enough about software to cover technical products in detail and understand marketing, you will do well in this market. Writing is hard enough when you really understand your subject matter, but being able to combine both technical knowledge and marketing acumen is a rare skill.
Crucially, when you come up against other writers, having a strong technical background helps to differentiate you and make you more memorable. And being memorable is one of the most important things for all businesses.
Perhaps the best part about phase 2 of the business was that it introduced me to strategic thinking. Doing content marketing properly means you need to handle multiple tasks and responsibilities. Translating marketing objectives into content strategy and campaign planning are just the first step. Then you’ve got to write the content. Next, you’ve got to promote it. Connecting these pieces together takes real skill and forces you to come up with a long-term plan before you start.
And based on the results my clients were seeing, I was pretty good at it. So much so that I was starting to get referred by existing clients for new work.
One day I was talking to a potential new client about some content marketing. Two people had referred me for this gig, so I figured it was going to be a relatively straightforward conversion: scope the work, explain how I can help, and close the deal. Yeah. I could not have been more wrong.
After about 10 minutes of talk, the CEO fired me a question.
CEO: What marketing qualifications do you have? Me: Uhh.. none. But look at all these results I’ve achieved for clients.
The call went downhill rapidly from there and finished with the CEO saying something along the lines of “Now I’ve spent the time telling you about our software, I’m wondering if I should just write the blog post myself.”
Afterwards I was understandably (I think) bummed. I was excited about the work and the company and I lost out simply because I didn’t have a piece of paper to prove I could do what I said I could. I had a list of happy clients, but no certifications.
But instead of staying bummed, I decided to take a marketing course. Truth be told, I’d already looked at signing up for a class to gave me a stronger marketing foundation. This was the final nudge I needed.
I searched for the best one I could find and eventually signed up for Marketing Week’s Mini MBA programme, taught by Prof Mark Riston. It’s a 12-week course of pure marketing, and the syllabus is derived from the course Prof Ritson taught at MIT Sloan.
Anyone who follows the @readmodwrite account on Twitter will know what a fantastic choice that was. The Mini MBA is an excellent crash course in marketing that provides you with the fundamentals you need to understand the wider marketing role and where your niche skills fit. I even wrote a blog post about why I signed up for the Mini MBA and it’s still one of the most popular posts on our blog.
Phase 3 - Tech Marketing Agency
With my newly acquired marketing knowledge I pushed further upstream again, into more strategic work. Specifically, I started helping out clients with some branding questions such as “Do we need to create a new brand for this product?” and “How should we structure our pricing tiers?”.
As with the previous leveling up in phase 2 of the business, the new work was both more challenging and much more fun.
Interestingly, being exposed to these kinds of business-steering questions made me much better at content marketing because I understood much better where it fit into the marketing mix and what it could and couldn’t do.
Around this time I started working with freelance writers, editors, and designers to scale the business and take on more work than I could handle by myself. The business moved to an agency model.
How To Start A Business
So here are some of the things I learnt running my business over the past 20 months. While everything I’m about to say is coloured by the industry I work in and the type of company I run, most of these suggestions are applicable to any new business.
Use Your Networks
First, you’ve got to have the right networks. I really like Tom Critchlow’s take on how to use your networks to build a stream of leads. Pretty much everything he has to say on the subject resonates with my own experience. You will be amazed where leads come from when you’ve been in business for a while, and the key to getting the kind of work you want is making sure everyone knows what you do.
As I mentioned at the start, it’s easier to sell into your existing network than building new ones, so when you start out tell everyone. Friends, family, current and former colleagues. Everyone.
Of course, building a new business network is totally possible. It’s just a crap-tonne of hard work. And going out on your own is hard enough without that added burden. Avoid it if you can.
Listen To Your Customers
You’d be amazed at how many freelancers and agency principals never ask their customers for feedback. The single best question I’ve ever asked a customer is “why did you agree to work with us?” or some variation of that. This question provides golden data on how you are perceived by your target market, and it gives you clues on where you might need to make adjustments.
And if you’re not winning the work you want, ask your customers why. It might be time to pivot to a new business.
Once you know why your customers pick you, you can double-down on the bits that are working. This is why the previous section about listening to your customers is so important — when you know what they want, it’s easier to make your company seem like the first choice.
When I say “steal” I’m clearly not talking about plagiarism, which would be bad. What I mean is that you can and should take inspiration from wherever you find it. I’ve taken campaign ideas from other industries outside of software, lifted copywriting tricks from 50-year old textbooks, and repurposed pricing and billing advice from software consultancies.
Nothing is off limits when it comes to finding ideas and inspiration for your business. Many people have done this before. Learn from them.
Land Grab More Strategic Work (Optional)
As you work with clients you’ll come across opportunities to influence their business at a higher level than you’re currently working at. This often involves stretching yourself in some way into new areas and learning, then applying, new skills. If you’ve got the interest, you should definitely pursue it.
You need a really good working relationship with your client to pull this off. But I’ve personally found that, if your clients like the work you’re currently doing, they’ll always want more of it.
I’m always trying to learn more and improve my business. If you have counter arguments to any of the tips I’ve included here, I’d love to hear them. Conversely, if you’ve got any questions about starting a writing or marketing business, hit me up at firstname.lastname@example.org.