10 lessons from 10 years in business

May 2019 marks 10 years in business for Xander Marketing. Starting out a decade ago with a niche dating site and commercial cleaning company as our clients, it’s been an interesting journey. In Spring 2009 we were still trying to get to grips with the credit crunch, the worst recession in generations and there was a lot of uncertainty in the market. For many, the enduring takeaway from this period is “if we can get through this, then we can get through anything.” Things have evolved and changed in the last 10 years, so what have we learnt in 10 years?

1. A lot has changed but nothing has changed

We set out with a mission to support small and medium sized businesses that want to do marketing but don’t have the time, resource or know how to do it in-house. Xander Marketing can fill the role of an outsourced marketing department. To this day we still do that. However, when we started, we were focusing on any small business. Now we specialise in doing this for SaaS businesses.

Pivoting, chasing shiny new objects, getting bored and trying something else are sometimes essential in business, however many times sticking to what you know is important, and that’s what we’ve done.

As marketing has evolved, marketing tactics have changed, yet, the core principles of marketing, and what an agency does have remained the same.

Sometimes there is an argument to change. By tweaking around the edges, aiming for evolution rather than a revolution, is a good way to grow a business. 

2. Pivoting to SaaS was our best move

In 2013 we set up a sub-brand – TSMA (The SaaS Marketing Agency). This was a test to see if focusing on a niche would work. We’d been working with SaaS businesses since 2009 and are most experienced in this niche so it was a logical test. A landing page was set up in an afternoon and some Google Ads were targeted at it. The next day we had our first lead, then our next one and very soon our first client under TSMA (a £50m+ SaaS business).

For a couple of years, we ran both brands side by side (naturally TSMA’s one page landing page become a fully-fledged website) but this was tricky – two websites, two sites to optimise for search engines, two Google Ads, two sets of business cards, two phone numbers and so on. So, we started to ask bigger questions – should we keep two brands, should we have one – and what should that one focus on, and be called?

In 2015 we made the decision to keep the Xander Marketing brand and just focus that on SaaS. This was risky – what about every other business, and so on? One prospect, a legal firm, we were talking to and close to winning work for saw this and seemed to think we’d forgotten everything about marketing any other business overnight and quickly pulled our proposal (their loss :-)).

Looking back this was a smart move and it’s worked out well. As far as we know we were the first fully dedicated SaaS marketing agency, and as SaaS is the industry that continues to grow, other agencies are now following suit.

3. Not one size fits all

We work well with smart, ambitious clients. We’re fast, organised and flexible. We have a team of people that are skilled in their marketing disciplines and we very much ‘get stuff done’. We have an opinion and will challenge ideas, but ultimately respect a client’s final decision. We don’t work well with certain companies and clients and that’s fine – there are plenty of other options for them. We turn down work where there’s not a good fit, we very occasionally fire a client. We’ve come to realise what we’re good at, where we’re strong, where we can make a difference, and where we can’t.

4. Packages have been helpful

We’ve had indicative packages on our website since 2012. These have been hugely beneficial, giving real life examples of how we work, setting expectations of budgets (both minimum and typical) and giving prospective clients a starting point for working out what marketing they want to do. Whilst we’ve spent 10 years searching for the ‘holy grail’ of set (and not indicative) packages it’s not possible (yet) for what we want do. If we want to be a flexible, marketing department, everyone is different, and we respect that.

5. Build a loyal team

This goes without saying but is so true. We couldn’t be where we are without our team, most have been with us for many years, including one from inception. This doesn’t happen overnight – for marketing talent it’s never been easier to find freelancers and employees, however, finding good ones is a big challenge. We’ve had our fair share of unreliable, unsuitable and difficult team members. However, we have a wonderful team now that get work done to a high quality, work well together and can be trusted.

When you find good team members give them freedom, look after them and respect them. We’ve never been a 9 – 5 traditional company and that works well for us.

6. It doesn’t matter where you’re based

From year 1 we’ve worked with international clients and 10 years later have worked with clients in 5 of the 6 inhabited continents (just South America to crack). Why limit ourselves to just local companies? Why should companies around the world restrict themselves to what’s just available locally? The world is more connected than ever, and we’ve rode this wave over the last 10 years. We probably couldn’t have done this 20 years ago, and certainly not 30 years ago.

7. People buy experience

It’s a cliché, but people do buy experience. Many marketing agencies offer similar services on paper, however, over the years as we’ve built up a client base and case studies, clients tend to partner with us as we’ve worked with over 100 (and counting) B2B SaaS businesses. This means we’ve seen most things when it comes to marketing a SaaS business. Client X has this challenge; ah yes we did this for Client Y last year, and so on. Experience means we can get up and running quicker and make fewer mistakes.

8. We’ve stayed independent and ‘full service’

We appreciate good marketing software; we have our favourites, but we’re not tied to any software vendor. If we were a reseller of marketing automation software, we’d always recommend that as we get a commission, dismissing the fact if it’s a good fit or not for a client.

Service wise, a real pet hate of ours is when someone asks for marketing advice on a site like LinkedIn or Quora and a bunch of marketing agencies jump on and say they must just focus on one thing (which happens to be their discipline). The SEO agency advocates SEO, the copywriters recommend content marketing and so on. There is not one answer and because we do most things, we can really recommend what a client should do, not just what we do, or what software we sell.

Inbound marketing isn’t always the answer, email marketing isn’t dead because an agency doesn’t do it and there are still non-digital channels!

9. Not being big isn’t a bad thing

We’ve grappled with growth in the last decade. Whilst we’ve steadily grown revenues and clients every year and are a ‘decent’ size now we’ve often asked do we want to really get bigger. Double, triple, 10x what we have. We know the path to doing that, but for now would rather focus on fewer but better clients, a great team without having to constantly hire and less stress.

And what’s it all for? Whilst it impresses some clients to have a team of 100 people in 5 offices around the world we think if you asked most of our clients they’d rather we stayed as we are and looked after them in the same way, rather than having a bigger team and therefore more (but less experienced) people on their accounts, something that would ultimately force prices to rise.

This isn’t to say we won’t grow or change but for now we’re happy where we are.

10. Clients – you can’t live with them, you can’t live without them

An agency/client relationship is just that – a relationship. It is rewarding, challenging, joyful, frustrating, stressful and much more! Sometimes it just doesn’t work, sometimes it lasts a long time and other times there is a natural progression needed for the client, or sometimes the agency.

Without clients we wouldn’t be in business and you have to remember that on the bad days. And with every client, no matter what the experience, you learn something. We’ve stopped counting the number of clients we’ve had now, but it’s certainly over 300. And to every one of them we want to say “thank you” – thank you for trusting us with your business, for working with us in whatever big or small way, and with a few exceptions, it has been a pleasure on both sides.

10 years on, 10 years more?

It’s been an interesting, exciting and rewarding 10 years. Will we be writing a similar blog in 10 years’ time? Who knows, hopefully! On ending this first decade, I want to say a big thank you to everyone that has helped us on this journey. Our team, our clients, coaches, mentors, friends and family to people we’ve never met like authors, bloggers and podcasters. And here’s to the next 10 years…

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