What do you do as a digital agency when everyone can “do it yourself with Wix?”.
When you can set up an amazing online store with Shopify?
How do you compete with your brother’s mate (who works in IT), and WordPress and Page Builders (both of which we use exclusively, by the way) and off the shelf themes… not to mention digital & SEO & marketing agencies that are so much cheaper, promising the earth for next to no money?
How do you, the digital agency owner, sell integrations when people can automate everything themselves with Zapier and cloud apps, or make their very own iPhone app for free – using some new mega-meta-app that… makes apps…
How, as a digital agency, do you cut through all of the SEO spam calls and all of the SUPER thirsty networking and terrible advice and MLM and affiliate marketers and unsolicited LinkedIn messages?
How the HELL do you even begin to compete in this space in 2018?
And, how do I even begin to explain what we do to people who don’t know what we do yet?
The answer: I don’t.
Because none of this is a threat to us.
I simply don’t see any of this as competition.
We are more than code.
You might not know, but these days, there are quite a few people around who can code. There is a digital agency on every corner. Some of them are better than us… most are not. There are certainly better creatives, better analysts, better architects, better writers. But there is nobody better than us at… being us, and thinking the way we do, sprinting like we do to solve a problem, and bringing all of that together to make something great.
If it were just about the code, then our clients would go somewhere cheaper. There’s always someone cheaper. They’ve tried. They’ve come back.
Why? Because they can reach any of us on the phone. Because we come to visit them. Because I generally respond to emails within 2 hours, despite being the Managing Director. Because we genuinely care about our clients as friends first and clients second. Because every one of our clients know that I have their best interests at heart, even when we disagree.
You can do all of that yourself with Wix no more than you can perform your own surgery with your own scalpel. You can try, but most certainly, you’ll come to us when something goes wrong.
The democratisation of tech & code has put all of these solutions in the hands of the many, rather than the hands of the few – which is quite fantastic.
Of course, it is sure as gravity that when something is open and free and based on ideals like sharing and trust, there’ll be a chunk of people who ruin it. Many agencies are going out of business at the moment, because they have treated everything that competes with their proprietary platform from 2003 as a threat. Rather than innovate, or adapt, or differentiate, they double down on their “value proposition”, bullshitting clients with technobabble so that they buy the highest margin – rather than the best fit – solution.
Or, by persuading someone who is just starting their business not to use Wix or Squarespace and go with their expensive solution instead.
But I don’t.
Wix & Squarespace are often the right tool for them at that moment in time, and if you try to sell them on a more expensive solution, you’ll end up with another client who doesn’t see value in what we do. If you sell them now, they won’t know that making a website is actually difficult, and is made up of many different disciplines and components. If you sell them now, you won’t get to have that conversation a year later, where they need to start over and look at the architecture, what is and isn’t working, and move everything over to another solution. They just aren’t there yet.
They’re like a first-time pregnant lady who thinks hypnobirthing is going to work. ha ha ha. Let her go.
Right now, that is what they want, and need, and the best solution for them.
But, eventually, if you’re anything but a solo business, and you succeed, you quickly outgrow Wix.
Eventually, Squarespace won’t have functionality or flexibility that you need for the next phase.
Or, eventually you’ll do the maths and realise that you are paying $19 a month, per user, for about 30 apps and you’re actually still living with chaos rather than having tools that were meant to make everything easier… and it might be more cost effective to roll your own tool.
Because the people who use all of this stuff successfully for a while, they might be our customer.
Just not yet.
The internet is about possibilities, not greed.
When you’ve been on the internet for a quarter of a century, like I have, and remember a time before the Internet become a 24/7 flashing billboard and an Intravenous Donald Trump Drip, the web was a place of optimism, ideas, opportunity, collaboration and sharing.
The foundation of Open Source, “share and build upon and share again”, is the very best part of the ideals of the original internet. New careers were created, technologies and relationships were built that have stood the test of time.
The internet has created so many possibilities for so many people… and you simply cannot compete with, or sabotage, that. Nor, would I want to. But, the core principles remain the same: ideas, opportunity, collaboration and sharing. Even though we may run “just another” digital agency in the eyes of a stranger, the reality is that we are in the business of making – and keeping – friends.
If we were just about code, we’d be trying to sell our code. And we aren’t. We are selling the best solution for a person that we care about.
Which brings me to: The Elevator Pitch.
I have to give a talk soon where I am expected to ‘pitch’ what we do, and it has caused me an unbelievable amount of stress. Not because I don’t know what we do, or because I am afraid to talk (we all know that isn’t true), but because they’ve given me a narrow framework to work with – in which I have to talk about us, differentiate us from the 4 other digital agencies that have given exactly the same talk before me, in 2 minutes.
It made me anxious to have to talk about what we do, because I generally don’t pitch or do any marketing aside from this blog, and some LinkedIn stuff every so often. Every client we get comes to us already warm, referred, with an immediate problem to solve (often a problem created by another agency). We have built a reputation as fixers for a reason, so we prove ourselves, and they generally stay.
So, it has always been inconsequential what a stranger thinks our business is or does, because, if we are taking on clients where we need to explain what a digital agency is or does, not only are they not our target market – we’ll die. If we are competing on the code alone in 2018 – we’ll die. Because we differentiate on being the 2nd, 3rd, maybe even 4th agency that helps them with their problem when nobody else has.
Thankfully, I gave up trying to impress strangers, or justify my existence, a very long time ago.
I’ll tell you this: Strangers will always think we are just about the code. They’ll compare us to Wix. There are people out there who think they can prescribe their own medicine or cure cancer with coconut oil too. They aren’t our customers, because they cannot be helped until they admit they need it.
Our friends know we are so much more than that. And our friends stay with us because we aren’t like any other Digital Agency.
And like Wix, or Squarespace, or even other agencies: none of them are a threat: a) because there is plenty of work and a right fit for everybody; b) because we simply don’t compete on the same field – in fact, creative agencies needing a specialist digital & SEO partner are also clients and c) we are in the business of the intangibles, which are almost impossible to replicate.
There is no one way to do business, just like there is no one solution FOR business.
The old fashioned, dominant (and dare I say certain type of male) approach to business is far too focused on the close – whether or not it is the right solution (and relationship) for the client. When you visit a doctor, are you suspicious when they push a specific drug or treatment on you, that, conveniently, is non-PBS and no generic available? Those doctors pitch. Good doctors don’t have to.
There is WAY too much groupthink on business tactics: “value proposition”, “features” and “pitch” vs intangibles like trust. Yes, getting clear on those is a good idea, but again, that gravity thing where people ruin it.
So now, every networking event is full of insincere and agenda-driven people only talking to you for as long as they see you as part of their funnel, and as just another email for their CRM. Ask how many accountants I went through this year until I found mine, because they put me in their funnel rather than having a real conversation.
That old mindset of “mine” and “grab” and “protect” and “deceive” (VS “everyones” and “share” and “make meaningful connections” and “see what comes out of it”) is outdated thinking, should die, and it is the main reason why we not only develop on Open Source platforms, we also GPL all of our own code.
And, yep, there’ll be people who ruin it, but that’s okay too.
We make money being us.
If there is one takeaway I can give you, please let it be this: even though technology changes, the humans we are working with haven’t.
People are still people, the medicine changes and evolves, but, trust me, despite the hype about AI, very few people will trust a robot doctor to make critical decisions (or hold their hand) when their life is at stake.
Not to labour the medical metaphor, but we are the agency people come to when they’ve tried everything else, and yet still live with chronic pain, because nobody seems to be able pinpoint the cause.
We are the people you come to when the over the counter stuff doesn’t work, or when someone else has hurt them, you’ve tried to perform your own surgery and it needs to be stitched up.
We’re the senior specialists you call when others are in way over their head, when you need to stop the bleeding, or you need a second opinion or a creative solution that is outside the norm, all based on years and years of trial and error that you cannot learn from a book.
We are also the people who, every day, are trying to re-establish trust in an industry when clients have been sold homeopathic remedies and sugar pills by someone else.
How on earth do you even begin to pitch that?
We are so much more than code.