Marcus Taylor is the founder of Venture Harbour and Leadformly. In this episode, Kristine Wellborn interviews Marcus on how he pivoted his agency into a digital product company, and how he used high-profile public speaking, webinars, and blogging to generate leads for the agency.
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Marcus: So, to kick off this 12 episode series on agency growth, I’ve invited my colleague Kristine Wellborn here, to interview me on the process that I went through in building up an agency and how we eventually pivoted to where we are today which is more focused on, building up a portfolio of online ventures including Leadformly our latest venture which is a tool that we built to make it easy to create high-converting lead capture forms. How are you doing Kristine?
Kristine: Great, thanks. Ready to dive in?
Marcus: Ready when you are.
Kristine: Perfect, first of all maybe you can briefly share the story behind Venture Harbor and how you took it from a digital agency in music industry to a company that grows and builds online ventures.
Marcus: Sure so Venture Harbor actually, I never really intended it to be an agency. It actually started off as, you know, since i was about 10,11 years old, I was building these websites in the music industry, i got to a point where i needed to legally put them into their own company so i started venture harbor you know as the name suggests as basically just a holding company for a bunch of ventures. And because I was passionate about the music industry and I was playing drums in a metal band at the time and I spent most of my teenage years recording bands in my bedroom. And through running these websites I started to get emails from a lot of companies in the music industry saying, “Hi Marcus I’ve seen what you’ve done with this website, do you offer marketing consulting or can you help us with our SEO?” And so it kind of naturally evolved into this sort of consultancy agency where we built up a portfolio of clients in the music industry but I reached a point at which, I’ve always been really passionate about building and creating my own websites, and I never really wanted to have lots and lots of clients. I spent a lot of years, before building venture harbor, working an agency and I didn’t really enjoy the whole sort of client facing side of it and so we’ve kind of over the years the clients were great in sort of providing revenue and allowing us to be able to build our own ventures but we’ve sort of tried to move more and more towards being a company that builds basically builds our own clients. We still operate like an agency but the clients we work on are pretty much the ventures we built ourselves. So that’s how we have evolved from when we first started five years ago, to building up the agency and then scaling back to become more of a digital product company.
Kristine: Sounds really good and when you were growing Venture Harbour’s client base what did you do to acquire new clients and what worked best?
Marcus: So I think public speaking was probably the most effective thing that we did in the early days to acquire new clients. We didn’t have a sales team, we didn’t have big budgets to do ads, we weren’t operating like a big agency and so we had to be a little bit scrappy and a little bit kind of going after some of the more guerilla tactics initially. And so I would say there were two things that worked very well, one of which is public speaking. And what I would say about public speaking, one of the things that I certainly found was that, often the smaller events that I spoke at would often actually generate more leads and more clients than speaking at the big conferences. My hunch for why that is, is because when you speak at a big event people assume that you are going to be very busy after your talk. If there is five hundred people or a thousand people in a room, relatively few people come and speak to you afterwards because the assume that everyone else is going to speak to you. Certainly, my experience you don’t end up with too many conversations off the back of those talks, it’s great for credibility not so much for lead-gen. Whereas if you speak like a fifty person or a hundred-person meetup, you are seen as more accessible because of that, you get more people coming to speak to you, you get deeper more, a higher quality conversation with people that turn into better quality leads and ultimately more clients. So I would say public speaking was like a real core part of how we acquired leads in the early days. The other thing that worked very well for us was investing in long-form quality content. The Venture Harbor Blog has built a bit of a life of its own. The first year I really believed in content and blogging and so I spent a year where I think I wrote about fifty articles in one year. And for the first year it didn’t really do much for us but then by the second year we were starting to see some results. That’s now five years ago and the content that we wrote five years ago is now generating about two to three leads a day for us even though we are no longer building in that part of the business. And so blogging has always been this really nice, it’s a very slow burner but very very effective in the long run. I’ve had this rule that I don’t believe in content that takes less than forty hours to create. Just from my personal experience if you are creating content that is really easy to produce, then within six months time it is probably going to be ten different versions of that same piece of content. This, by the way, applies more to evergreen content, content that is not topical. If we are talking about topical content, that’s a different story. But when it comes to things like the best web hosting guide or advice on how to tackle the latest Panda update if you are a SEO company, that kind of evergreen content, if it takes you less than forty hours to produce its probably not remarkable and therefore it’s probably not going to surface to the top of Google or be remarkable enough that people are going to reach out to you. So remarkable content, public speaking, I would say they are the two most effective things we did.
Kristine: That sounds really good, was there anything else? Did you pay for your traffic to attract any customers to your websites?
Marcus: We’ve done paid advertising, particularly Facebook advertising in the past. To be totally honest, it has never really worked for us on the B2B side like for agency consulting. In terms of other things that worked, I would say to have a more tactical things that have been very effective, one of which is webinars, particularly now with Leadformly, we are seeing webinars working incredibly well, I have noticed a lot of other agencies using webinars are doing very very well from them. So not necessarily something that we did that worked well for our consulting, but definitely a tactic that I have seen be very effective for our other ventures and also used by other agencies and forms. We spend a lot of time at Venture Harbor just improving our lead capture forms and that has had a really big impact for Venture Harbor.
Kristine: And talking about forms, the research was done purely by you or did you hire anybody to do your research? Where did you start? Where do you start researching the form stuff?
Marcus: One of our ventures relies very heavily on a form. It’s a comparison site in the financial industry. We noticed that the site was getting a 16% conversion rate. Now that’s very very good in this industry but we thought it could be a lot better. And so we actually did a lot of our own testing we looked at data from Google analytics, we used Hotjar which is an amazing free tool that allows you to actually see how people are using your forms and using your website. And we thought we could do better so we built a variation of the form which we A/B tested and increased the conversion rate to 46%, which was a huge increase. That’s tripling the number of leads we were getting for that site overnight just by changing the form. And so based on that research, the A/B test we did around that, we started to then try to improve the forms across some of our other ventures including the main Venture Harbor site to increase the number of inquiries that we were getting. I believe the numbers, the results that we got from improving the form on ventureharbor.com. Because we started from 0.96% conversion rate, basically a one out of a hundred people on the site were, this is excluding blog pages but one percent of the people on the main portion of the site were inquiring about our services. When we improved our lead capture form that increased to I think it was 8.9% or 8.6% but it was a huge huge increase.
Kristine: Alright, let’s just recap for our listeners, so you were investing in talks, you were doing public speaking, you were also blogging and still blogging a lot. And you were also researching conversion lead generation forms. That sounds really good. I just thought maybe people want to write it down for themselves. Let’s just jump back a little bit, I know you mentioned you spoke at TEDx, can you share how that came about and what impact it had on Venture Harbor?
Marcus: Sure, TEDx was actually a weird one. I probably have to go back a little bit, in 2012 I actually moved to Australia for a year, my partner is from Australia so I spent a year living in Australia with her and on the way there I stopped off in Singapore to meet a guy called Derek Sivers. I am a huge fan of his work; Derek Sivers founded a company called CD Baby, sold it for twenty two million, gave it all to charity. Just an amazing guy, incredible philosophies on life, he has one of the most watched ted talks of all time. I had the pleasure of spending an hour with Derek in Singapore, and we were talking a lot about comfort zones and how this idea of how you get out of your comfort zones and what impact it has and I left that conversation, my mind spinning with ideas around how to get people to get out of their comfort zones. Whether it would even be possible to measure something like this because I have always believed that, it was William Edwards Deming, who said, “You get what you measure”, or something along that. I am paraphrasing but something like when you measure something that is what you get. So I wanted to find a way to improve people’s comfort zones by giving them a method or a technique to be able to measure. When I got to Australia I was messing around with some code, I hired a guy on freelancer.com to build a tool that would allow people to measure their comfort zones. The thing cost almost eighty dollars to build, I wasn’t really thinking about any grand vision for it. But I got this tool built and I just put it out there. It was the ugliest thing in the world like really awful looking tool, but it went viral and we had, within a couple of months, I think over 30,000 people who had used it to measure their comfort zones. This meant that we had a huge amount of data on what a comfort zone was and how it varied across cultures, age groups, demographics, psychographics et cetera. I’d just moved to Melbourne and I didn’t really know anyone there, I didn’t have any friends there, I was trying to build a network and one of the people that I actually reached out to was a business coach in Melbourne, a guy called Jon Yeo and I had no idea that this guy run TEDx in Melbourne. I just thought he was doing some cool coaching stuff. We went out for coffee with him and he asked me what I was working on, I explained the comfort zone calculator and he said to me, “Marcus, I get three hundred and sixty five applications to speak in TEDx a year, am only allowed to give away twenty or thirty of those slots and I want you to be one of those slots.” I was just stunned at this point.
Marcus: I had no intention for this thing to blow up and I had just been offered to speak at TEDx about this data we had captured. So that is how it came about really, it was a very weird fluky sort of thing but in terms of how it’s impacted Venture Harbor, it’s obviously a fantastic thing from a credibility perspective. I think there is this curiosity that a lot of people have around meeting people that have spoken at Ted. I think Ted’s caliber for people that speak at Ted is quite high, I don’t necessarily think fit into that caliber but I think people have curiosity, and because of that it has made it much much easier to have meetings with really fascinating people and it’s just opened a lot of doors that I think without accolade like TEDx, speaking at TEDx would definitely be harder. But there’s certainly not been any direct leads or clients from it, all of the benefits from speaking at TEDx have been very indirect. The other thing I would say is, it’s made it incredibly easy to speak at other big events. A lot of conference owners and event organizers they need to know that you are going to turn up for the event, you are going to deliver a good speech, and having spoken at TEDx saves them so much time because it is a very good litmus test for them to know that you are an experienced speaker. I’d say that side of it as well, it’s made it a lot easier to do public speaking
Kristine: So you would say you were building authority by participating in something like that and recognition for your brand?
Marcus: Definitely, I think it is a real big benefit for me personally, and also Venture Harbor as a company to be associated, to be able to use a something like TEDx, just through association. I think that adds quite a lot of credibility, definitely.
Kristine: I know you mentioned that you are working on a new venture right now called Leadformly. Can you tell us a little bit more about that and why you created it and how the idea came about ?
Marcus: As I briefly touched on earlier, for a lot of our other ventures [Inaudible00:13.59] in particular which is the financial comparison site, we discovered that forms have such a huge impact on conversion rates. That instance we went from 16% up to 46% conversion rate, tripled leads overnight by improving the form. Venture Harbor, I mentioned, we went from 0.96, basically 1% conversion rate up to 8% conversion rate. That’s 700% increase in leads by improving the form. And across pretty much all of our ventures we have gone through this process of improving forms because it’s usually the path of least resistance, it’s a relatively easy thing to fix that has a huge impact on the bottom line. Now the challenge that we had in doing that is that surprisingly, it’s actually really difficult to improve forms. The process that we had to go through time and time again with all these ventures was we had to brief, what kind of form we wanted to be built, then we had to go to a developer, get them to build it, which cost a lot of money because it’s all spoke [sic] development work. Had UX designers design the Photoshop psd’s so they all looked nice and then we had to apply our own knowledge around conversion optimization to make sure that the form was going to convert well. So you’ve got all these different people and departments, you have got UX design, conversion optimization, development and you have got to get them all in the same room to design what the form is going to be like. And we just found that going through that process, it would take us two to three months to deploy a really good form. And I think the first form we built cost over $8000 to get built and we looked at it and said there has to be a better way. The ROI is good, it makes sense for us to spend that amount of money and time improving the form, but it shouldn’t take months to build an amazing form, it shouldn’t cost thousands of dollars. So we built Leadformly to solve our own problem, it’s effectively a tool where you can use a drag and drop interface to build a high converting lead capture form. We built it for ourselves and realized a lot of other companies have the same problem or a lot of companies are using contact forms that were just provided to them by their IT team or contact forms provided by Salesforce.com or whichever CRM or email tool they are using. And it just seems crazy having seen the results, that you would leave such an important part of your funnel; such a key thing that has a huge impact on your conversion rate, to an external company or to an IT team that just don’t have that knowledge or that experience around UX and conversion that we found to have such a big impact. The real mission behind Leadformly, what we are trying to achieve on a wider scale is, we want to make it much easier for companies to fix this part of the funnel to have a leaner, more efficient funnel on their website so they can 2x 3x 4x number of leads they are getting for their business just by improving the form. The way that we have done it is Leadformly is, basically we have a range of different form templates where we have taken all of these insights that we have learned about how to improve form design from all of the A/B tests we have done, we have baked all of those insights into a set of templates so that all you need to do is then basically choose which template is relevant to your business and then we have done all of the optimization for you. You get up and running quickly in a matter of hours rather than having to wait months and spend a lot of money like we did.
Kristine: Well you just proved that it’s a great business opportunity, you turned the problem into a business opportunity for yourself which you’ve done with the online form builder and you really narrowed the market and I don’t think there is anything out there focusing specifically on lead generation and its good that somebody thought of that so thank you, am sure lots of customers, potential customers and leads will go and check it out.
Marcus: If there was another form builder that did it, I definitely wouldn’t have built this, it would have saved a lot of time if there was something already out there.
Kristine: Yeah I definitely agree. Good job.
Before we go on if you are looking to grow your client base and capture more leads for your agency then I would recommend checking out Leadformly. Leadformly is a lead generation tool that is run by yours truly that enables you to upgrade forms on your website to conversion optimized forms. They are going to increase your conversion rate and help you capture more qualified leads from your website. Using Leadformly we have seen agencies capture up to 700% more leads, so if you are interested in giving it a try we have a fourteen day free trial that you can check out at Leadformly.com that is L-e-a-d-f-o-r-m-l-y dot com once again that is lead formly.com
Kristine: So now I wanted to jump into quick fire questions, and what is your number-one book recommendation for agency owners to read?
Marcus: Ok there is only one, the book that probably had the biggest impact on me when I was growing the agency was Good to Great by Jim Collins. That was probably one of the few books where it completely changed my thinking and my strategy for growing the agency. Incredible book I’d highly recommend to all agency owners, if I can have another one though, the other book that I would highly recommend, one of my favorite books of all time, Influence by Robert Cialdini, incredible book
Kristine: Those sound really good, I actually haven’t read those so I add them to my big list of lead generation and marketing books. What are two of your favorite tools that if taken away would make your job really difficult or impossible to do?
Marcus: Wow, okay, if I go back to the agency days, I would say the tools would have to be, or one of them would have to be Quote Roller. Quote Roller is a tool that makes it really easy to build proposals and get them e-signed online. Not only did it save me a huge amount of time, not having to build proposals and word documents, but it also meant that more of our proposals were getting accepted by clients faster, because clients could now e-sign them, instead of having to print them off, sign them on paper and stick them in the post. So Quote Roller was an absolute life saver. Now though, I would say probably one of my favorite tools that I couldn’t live without, probably something like Asana. There are so many ideas flying around that having something where you can have that all in a centralized place. I am toying between Asana and Trello because we use them both quite heavily to store and manage ideas. It would be definitely Quite Roller and then something like Asana or Trello.
Kristine: What is one piece of advice you would give to an agency owner who is looking to grow from six figure revenue to seven figure revenue?
Marcus: Okay, I think it has to come down to getting good at building processes. The difference between a company at six figures and one at seven figures or seven figures to eight figures, comes down to the quality of your processes. Now a lot of companies that I have seen fail with processes make the mistake of thinking that if you add more people to something, it builds its own process. A lot of companies try to scale by putting more people onto set problems. While that can sometimes solve the issue, often as the agency owner or founder if you don’t really understand the problem, adding more people to fix that problem doesn’t really make it any better. I found that you have to really understand the problem. You have to probably do it yourself for a while, to understand where it breaks, understand the nuances of how you actually solve that problem, and only when you fully understand it, can you then build the right process around it, get the right people to then take charge of that process and that’s when you can scale up. For something like an agency where you constantly have to balance, bring in new clients on board and acquisition with retention, it’s so important to have systems, you can’t just rely on putting sales people out there to bring on more clients and then cross your fingers and do good work to keep the clients around, there has to be very very solid processes in place to ensure that you can predict three months in the future, six months in the future where the company is going to be both revenue wise, retention wise, number of new leads and when you have all those processes to predict, what all these numbers are going to be, that is when you can really afford to scale up. Particularly grow in order of magnitude, whether that is six to seven figures, seven to eight or potentially even eight to nine, I think it really comes down to the quality of those processes.
Kristine: Yeah talking about processes, what were your biggest causes for client churn in the early days when you were growing?
Marcus: I think it has to be probably the same issue that every agency faces, communication. We are as guilty as most agencies that we weren’t communicating to our clients as well as we should have been. I am one of these I would always say pre-Madonna people where I like to believe that if the work is good, and the quality of the work delivered is exceptional, that the client will be happy, but as we all know that’s rarely the case. You can deliver really great work but if you are not communicating with a client properly or you are not actively nurturing those relationships, the client may not understand or may not even see that you have delivered exceptional work. So I think definitely for us, the biggest cause of churn was focusing too much on the quality of work at the expense of communicating and building those relationships with clients and that led to churn. Again going back to my previous answer I think the solution is not just saying yes we need to communicate with our clients more or we need more account managers, I think it comes down to processes. Putting processes almost building a CRM system for the account managers so that they know when to get in contact with those customers. When you have sales people there is that rule that a sales person should always know when they are next contacting, when they are next following up with then. I think the same should be true with account managers, you should always know when you are next checking up on that customer, and you should have a scoring system to know what is the health of a client. One thing that we have learnt particularly with Leadformly, building software as a service is the concept of customer success, where you are constantly measuring the health of a customer and seeing how close they are to achieving their desired outcome. I think if agencies applied the same mentality of actively monitoring the health and success of clients, and looking at it in real time, that would be a huge huge advantage for agencies. It’s definitely something that I wish I knew about a couple of years ago when I was growing the agency.
Kristine: That’s a good lesson to learn for sure, but if we talk about something positive, what is the one thing that you are proud most [sic] while building venture harbor or maybe right now this particular moment?
Marcus: There is sort of two parts to it that I am most proud of that are very connected. It comes down to building a place that I believe is nice to come to work to. I absolutely love coming to work. We spend a lot of effort and resources trying to make the office a really nice working environment. We are actually based in the middle of the countryside in between Oxford and Reading in the UK. We have beautiful offices. I think really focusing on that and building a really amazing team here is something that I am personally very proud of and something that every employer, every agency owner can relate to is, there is something really rewarding about providing jobs. Creating something out of nothing that then provides opportunities for yourself and for others is a very rewarding experience and thing to go through. Often the busyness of the agency can sometimes distract you from that but when you take a step back and think about what you have actually created, for me personally that is something that when I do get those opportunities to stop and think about it, it’s very rewarding.
Kristine: That sounds really positive, I am sure your colleagues and teammates are very happy. I wanted to ask you a few more things about Venture Harbor, what’s next for venture harbor, what are the plans?
Marcus: Leadformly is our main focus at the moment, where we are sort of fully focused on that right now trying to build up. We started to get quite a lot of initial traction from the customers, so we are starting to think about how we are going to scale that up and that is going to be a big part of the next six to twelve months is sort of focusing on that. It is going to be more of the same at a bigger level. We have got to a point where Venture Harbor is this nice vehicle and this kind of breeding ground for coming up with innovative new projects, where once or twice a year we will collectively agree on an idea and then we will build it. I think over the next two, three, five years it’s just going to be the same sort of thing like creating these amazing ventures but at a more ambitious level, and that is something that I am really excited about because every time we build a new venture, its more ambitious, its more challenging which means that we are all growing personally as well as professionally.
Kristine: Sounds really good thank you for sharing, but what can we expect from this podcast? I know you started and you will do the series of 12 episodes, what can we expect from the podcast?
Marcus: When I was growing the agency there weren’t many resources around for agency owners to actually learn, how do you grow an agency? I was very lucky in that we are only 45 minutes from London and there’d occasionally be some kind of event or meet up for agency owners to learn from one another. But even still there is a real shortage of information out there on how do you acquire clients for an agency, how do you prevent clients from churning? And so I wanted to create this podcast to share some of the things I have learnt and to interview some of the most successful agency owners around and the agency owners that are doing things differently. I want to connect with agency owners that have different approaches to growing an agency. Perhaps agencies that are using software to bring in clients or agencies that are using events to connect with their clients more often. I want to interview, get in the heads of these agency founders that are doing things in an interesting way, and share what they are doing with the wider community of agency founders so that we can all learn and take lessons from each of these episodes, apply to what we are doing, so that everyone listening can build their agency faster, scale up, improve their retention of clients, find new ways of acquiring clients to achieve all of that and that is what I am hoping we can achieve with this podcast. It’s just helping agency owners get access to some really amazing information.
Kristine: Well it’s good to see, I call it sharing movement, you know when you actually are sharing your best practices, experiences so other people can join in and learn, I think the time is really over when companies were really hiding the way they were succeeding and why and what were the reasons what the processes they were using were? So I am really glad you are on that wave and I hope more companies will learn from this and will be sharing their best practices so we can build a strong network of agencies and maybe other companies later on. Well fantastic thank you for your time, we will be wrapping up right now and I just wanted to remind our listeners if they could leave a rating, five star rating maybe on iTunes? Thank you for joining and keep listening the next episodes will be coming out soon, thank you.
Marcus: Awesome thanks guys.
Thanks for listening to this 10x agency podcast if you are interested in acquiring more leads for your business I would like to invite you to a free webinar that I will be hosting on how to acquire three hundred percent more leads on your website without increasing the traffic. In this webinar I will be sharing how you can turn your website to a lead generation machine four strategies on how you can boost form submissions by three hundred percent and much more. So if you are interested all you need to do is go to Google, type in Leadformly acquire more leads, that’s Leadformly spelled Leadformly acquire more leads and the landing to register for the webinar should appear at the top. As I said its completely free, we run this webinar every single week. Once again thanks for listening to this week’s episode and stay tuned for next week’s episode of the 10X your agency podcast.
Episode 1: How I Grew an Agency That Built 8 Online Ventures & Led to a TEDx Talk (Marcus Taylor, Venture Harbour)
Episode 2: How an 18-Person Agency Built 64 Startups With an ROI 10X Higher Than the Average European VC (Tim Morgan, Mint Digital)
Episode 3: How a PPC Agency Reached $250K Monthly Recurring Revenue in Under 2 Years (Johnathan Dane, KlientBoost)
Episode 4: How to Hire a Great Team, Attract Leads on Autopilot, and Scale an Agency (Eric Siu, SingleGrain)
Episode 5: How to Grow Your Niche Agency & Avoid Common Hiring Pitfalls (Danny Ashton, NeoMam Studios)
Episode 6: The Mindset & Beliefs Needed to Build an Agency (Paul Rouke, PRWD)
Episode 7: How an Agency Reached 100,000’s of Marketers by Building Software (Dan Sharp, ScreamingFrog)
Episode 8: From Selling an Agency & Burning Out to Launching SaaS & Giving Away $1M Worth of Free T-Shirts (Sujan Patel, Web Profits)
Episode 9: Agency Culture Hacking: How to Set Values, Work Remotely & Retain A-Players (Jonathan Anderstrom, Creed Interactive)
Episode 10: How to Scale & Sell a Multimillion Dollar Agency (Jason Swenk)
Episode 11: Running an 80-Person Agency After a Multi-Million Dollar Sale (Tim Grice, Branded3)
Episode 12: Building a £4M agency with 270 clients in 2 Years (Mark Wright, ClimbOnline)