As part of a series here on SMB Forum, we’re putting the business spotlight on small to mid-sized companies across multiple industries.
We recently had the chance to sit down with the founder of content marketing agency Scoop Studios, Maggie Patterson. She shared the story of her company, how it evolved as a purely offline company to a fully online one, and her best advice for creating an online business.
Maggie left her job working for a PR agency back in 2005 in an effort to create more flexibility for her growing family.
“I was working as an Account Director in a PR agency, and I had a lot of demands on my time, including a fair bit of travel,” Maggie explained. “I was pregnant and knew that as soon as I had my son that I wouldn’t be able to continue on this path — especially as my husband, who’s in law enforcement, worked shift work. I started thinking what I wanted was a schedule that was more flexible and to be able to be my own boss.”
Working in a consulting capacity with clients for the five years before starting her business, Maggie gained a lot of skills that set her up for being a small business owner. “I saw this opportunity in the market where a lot of companies weren’t in a position to hire an established agency, but they had a need for my communications and marketing skill set on a freelance basis. Once I figured that out, I put the wheels in motion and decided not to go back to work after my maternity leave was over. I’m so grateful that I had the opportunity to acquire a lot of the skills needed to run a business from my previous role.”
As a consultant, Maggie’s startup costs were extremely low, but it’s not something she recommends to anyone in 2019.
“I started my business with a used laptop, a dial-up internet connection and some serious hustle. My startup investment in my business was under $500, and in my first year of business, I kept my expenses to the bare minimum. Those investments quickly paid off as I had everything I needed, and I wasn’t worrying about the money side of things. Of course, when I started, this was a couple of years before social media was mainstream, and you could get away without having a website. I definitely wouldn’t recommend that approach now.”
When asked what she’d do if she was starting a small business in 2019, she had this to share, “What I did in 2005 isn’t something you can pull off in 2019. Today, you at least need a simple website and a social media presence on the platforms that your potential clients use. That digital footprint is essential to legitimize your business, and without it, it’s going to be a challenge to get people to trust your company. I often hear from prospective clients that our website is the reason they reached out to us.”
One thing that stood out to me from what Maggie recounted in our conversation was how different the first year in business was than what she expected.
“I came from a corporate culture where we were scrappy and prided ourselves on trying to figure things out. While I had professional skills, there were definitely areas that I knew I was in over my head. The perfect example is accounting. While I had experience managing invoices and client budgets, I didn’t know the first thing about taxes or profit and loss statements. I tried doing it myself and quickly figured out that I needed help. By bringing in an accountant year one, I’ve saved myself time and stress by not messing around with the books.”
Maggie also faced a really unexpected challenge in her first year. “I started off with a business plan where I had a very modest monthly income goal. I thought if I could just reach that goal, I’d be all set. Within six weeks of starting my business, I booked enough clients that my goal was met. It was an amazing problem to have, but it also meant I had to throw out my business plan and figure out a much more realistic one. It’s a great example of how easy it is to underestimate the potential of our small business.”
As a result of having more business than expected, she found herself falling prey to a common problem for small business owners. “When I think about that first year in business, my mind is blown by how hard I worked. Starting a business, you know you’re going to work hard, but you don’t really think about how that’s going to impact the rest of your life and that it may be necessary to ask for help along the way. Learning how to ask for help was humbling, but it saved me from burning out in those early years of my business.”
From the point she started her business until 2013, Maggie operated mainly as a freelancer, meaning she was up against a ceiling of how many hours she could realistically work in a week.
“As a freelancer, everything I did was hours based, and while I would occasionally partner with another writer, the reality is that my business revenue — and my income — was capped in this model. I reached a point where I knew I had to get okay with how much money the business was making, or I had to take a giant leap forward.”
Maggie’s leap forward meant getting the business online and creating a website.
Taking her business online completely shifted Maggie’s business for the better. As she explained, “The website was a turning point for the company and for me as a small business owner. I went from being a freelancer to realizing I owned a company that had real growth potential. What was most interesting was the perception potential clients had of the company because of the website. Suddenly, my business was credible because we were online, and we had more potential clients knocking on our door. That meant we could raise our prices and hire a team to support our growth.”
As her small business continued to grow, Maggie realized that she was outgrowing her personal brand. “When your name is on the door, people want to know you’re the one doing the work. As my team grew, this became more and more challenging, and we moved everything under a new brand, Scoop Studios. Now, clients understand from day one it’s a team-based approach and that they’re hiring an independent agency — not a freelancer.”
Today, Maggie’s team includes a full-time employee, along with a roster of trusted contractors, and she shared how this approach works for her small business. “Having a combination of full-time resources along with contractors means we have stability and consistency for our clients, but we also have the ability to add the right resources at the right time without adding significant payroll commitments.”
One thing we hear from our customers is how challenging it can be to manage the online and offline parts of their business, so we asked Maggie what some of her challenges are.
“Hands down, one of my biggest challenges is figuring out what to prioritize with our online marketing,” she volunteered. “You’d think because I work in digital marketing all day long this would be easier, but the reality is, as an SMB owner, there’s always something new, and you constantly have to assess if it’s right for your business.”
When I asked her how she deals with this, Maggie had this to share, “My clients are always seeking our input on their online marketing, and so I ask myself the same questions I’d ask them around the potential ROI of a strategy or platform. The other consideration with online marketing is what would happen if a social media platform went away tomorrow. I always recommend that business owners focus on their website and their email list as those are online marketing assets they control. Those may seem like basic strategies — but they work. For our business, we know that creating blog content with specific keywords that rank on Google is more effective than social media.”
Outside of online marketing, Maggie detailed how her biggest challenge is ensuring her team is putting their clients’ needs first and that they’re living up to their vision for client experience. “We promise our clients that when they hire us, we’re going to make things simpler for them,” she said. “That means we have to be on top of the details every step of the way and consistently focus on serving our clients.”
She went on explaining how making small, relatively low cost improvements to the brand can have a big impact.“ For example, we recently invested in updating our proposal software, and that’s made a significant difference. Plus, we had our designer update all of our templates for client reports and strategy documents and that helps reinforce overall client experience.”
Scoop Studio’s current website was built in early 2016 and is a fully custom Wordpress site. Maggie divulged that a significant investment was made into both the design and the development of the site which has resulted in some ongoing challenges.
“Over the past year, our custom-built site has become harder and harder to manage. There are so many custom elements that any time we want to update content, it becomes a much bigger deal than it needs to be. As content creators, we want to be able to make updates quickly and easily as the business evolves.”
She went on to share her frustration with website updates being needlessly complex: “The website is truly the cornerstone of our company’s online presence — especially as there’s no physical office, and the team is 100% virtual. Our website is our storefront, and it helps create confidence with potential clients so they’re ready to reach out to Scoop. Plus, we’re found in search on subjects that are relevant to our clients which helps them discover and connect with us.”
Recently, the Scoop team made a number of light updates to the site, and Maggie said it’s become clear that it’s time to upgrade the site.
“The website we currently have was the best available option for our needs at the time it was created — but now it’s not ideal. With the latest generation of responsive website builders, there’s no need for us to stick with what we have and to have to continue paying a developer to make simple changes. In 2019, we’re going to upgrade by rebuilding the existing site on a responsive website builder, so we’re able to make changes in a matter of a few clicks.”
Best of all, the Scoop team is going to make the move to a new platform without changing their branding or content, so this is a purely technical change that will save time and complexity in the future.
When I asked Maggie about her best advice for someone who wants to start a business online, she emphasized that starting an online business isn’t that different than starting an offline one.
“Many times, we think an online business is so different than an offline one, and having run both, I can tell you the same concepts apply. The perfect example is how I thought that online networking would be so different than the in-person networking I’d done for years. I quickly discovered that it’s pretty much the same; you need to show up, be of service, be clear on the value you deliver and be willing to follow-up.”
She wrapped up by detailing how critical the website is to your online business. “For any business, there needs to be a focus on investing in your website first, because if you’re not being found online, people simply won’t do business with you. Your website needs to be the central hub for any other online marketing you do, including social media or email marketing. I see people get caught up in social media or other tactics, but they’re not thinking about how they don’t own that platform, and ultimately, you want people to go back to your website as that’s how they can engage and do business with you.”
A number of things stood out to me from my interview with Maggie, but the biggest one that’s most applicable to SMBs is just how important your website really is — no matter what kind of business you run. As we saw in Maggie’s case, having a solid website helped her business grow as it legitimized her business, and today, it’s the backbone of her thriving small business.
You can learn more about Maggie and Scoop Studios at www.scoopstudios.com.
Featured Image: Via Maggie Patterson
Image 1-4: Via Scoop Studios