From Building Prank Websites to Exiting an 8-Figure Agency


Sam talks with digital marketing agency coach & advisor Jason Swenk. Jason tells the story of how he stumbled into creating his first web design agency, opens up about the struggles he faced growing his business to 8 figures, and gives advice for the five core areas of business other agency owners should be aware of when they go to scale up their businesses.

Episode Transcript:

[00:00:00] Sam Chlebowski: Happy Thursday everybody, and welcome back to Designing Growth. Sam Schabowski here, co-founder of Motion.io. And as you know, because you’re listening to this host of this podcast today, I am very excited to bring on Jason Swenk to the podcast. Jason is an agency advisor and coach that guides marketing agencies through a proven framework for growing their agencies faster.

[00:00:36] In addition to literally writing the book for growing an agency from nothing to eight figures, Jason hosts the Smart Agency Masterclass podcast, which is the number one marketing agency owner podcast for sharing strategies and stories from real agency owners of what is working today in the agency.

[00:00:54] So Jason, without further ado, how you doing? How’s today for you?

[00:00:57] Jason Swenk: Doing great. Thanks for having me on the show.

[00:00:59] Sam Chlebowski: So I am excited to kind of dig in here and I wanted to first ask you how did you get your start in the agency world, to where you are now and the things that you’re doing, within your business and the amazing content that you’re putting out to help other agency owners?

[00:01:15] Jason Swenk: Well, I think like many of us listening to the show and many of us that have created agencies, I was an accidental agency owner. You know, I knew how to do something cool, which was design a website. and my first website was designing a website called “In Shit”. And it was basically because one of my friends looked like Justin Timberlake when NSYNC was popular.

[00:01:34] And then people started, and this was around 98, 99, and people started asking me to design websites for them. And so I got started by accident and then, you know, over time of, you know, the struggling and hitting my head, Creating that great big prison around my agency because I, I was being reactive rather than proactive.

[00:01:54] I started to get smart and started to create systems and then over 12 years of growing, we grew over eight figures and we were able to have a really successful exit. And then from there, this business, the Agency Mastery 360 – I kind of fell into that by accident too. I had some of my old competitors that ran agencies were like, how’d you work with LegalZoom?

[00:02:14] How’d you work with Hitachi? How’d you work with Aflac? How’d you do X, Y, and Z? How’d you sell? And just started helping ’em out for free. And, and then my wife at the time was like, why don’t you create that as a business? You’re just bored sitting around the house doing nothing. Um, and then I, that came into a podcast and a mastery and that kind of stuff.

[00:02:33] So that’s, that’s how we got.

[00:02:35] Sam Chlebowski: What an amazing story, and it’s cool to hear a specific part of your story for me, and that is that part about exiting your business because it’s something that I don’t know if there’s a ton of. , you know, education out there besides, you know, some of the stuff that you put out about exiting a business.

[00:02:54] And that’s something that we did, at Brighter Vision . We exited that business back in 2020. What lessons would you say that you’ve learned about, scaling up and exiting an agency that you wish you could have, told your former self ahead of time?

[00:03:11] Jason Swenk: there’s a couple things, right? And if you go back to kind of the origin story of, of mine, of like accidental agency owner, what misses out for a couple different years is that clarity in that direction of where you’re going. You’re just, you’re getting people to coming to you and you’re designing and you’re building or doing marketing or whatever. and then you keep getting referrals from that. Like, and I look at a business, if your business is based on majority referrals, you don’t have a scalable business cuz that’s just not dependable and you don’t have the right systems. And it’s hard to do that because then you have to kind of get a laser focused.

[00:03:44] I got to a point where we were a couple million at the time. I think this was around oh seven. Because it was right before two, or maybe it was 2008, when everything went to shit. Kind of like everyone always freaks out, right? Recession. I’m like, well, that’s your greatest opportunity. But I think it was around this time and, and I was miserable at the agency.

[00:04:03] I literally hated it. I literally wanted to just burn it down. I was, my wife even told me to go get a job. I actually even took an interview and they asked me a couple different questions that really changed my trajectory. For good. And they basically asked me, what do you wanna do every day? And what don’t you never want to do ever again?

[00:04:22] And I was like, huh. Like I, I couldn’t answer it. Then I, I had to go home. And when I went home, I literally, um, took a sheet of paper and I said, well, thinking about what I want do every day is a lot harder than thinking about all the shit I want to get. And so I literally kind of drew a circle over my, like I put my fist on the piece of paper, drew a circle around it.

[00:04:47] Everything outside the circle was all the stuff I wanted to avoid. And so I was like, project management, count management, um, client retention, billing, like all the, like all this shit. But, you know, we, I didn’t, I didn’t design a website and get into this business to do. And so I started there and spent about an hour.

[00:05:06] I was like, and then I started thinking all the stuff I like doing. I like coaching my team. I like creating content. I like speaking, right? Like I like being the face. And then I was able to kind of get that direction of where I wanted to go for me, like I built the business around me first, and then I was able to come up with.

[00:05:29] You know, my core or the company’s core values from my core values , right? Because I wanna be around people that believe in what I believe in. I think like with, with exiting the your, your guys company and probably what you’re building at motion now, similar, right? You’re not just hiring people to do a particular task.

[00:05:47] You’re wanting people that believe in your vision that can kind of take it. And that’s part of the thing of building a a business, that you have the opportunity to exit. You have to have direction. and you have to have people that believe in that direction before anything else happens. And most people don’t get to there.

[00:06:04] They just get, they build a business that makes money, but it’s a prison around them. And then they want to sell because there’s one little thing or a couple little things that if they could get rid of today, they’d be like, oh no, I wouldn’t sell. And that’s when they, they come to me like, I only believe you should sell your agency if you get to a point where you need the money.

[00:06:25] You absolutely just hate everything. Like there’s nothing . Right? Right. Um, or you have visions for the next thing you want to do. Because I can tell you, once I sold the agency, I was completely bored. I was completely depressed cuz I didn’t have that significance anymore. Right. Those big companies weren’t coming to me anymore, making me feel good.

[00:06:44] My team wasn’t coming to me cuz I didn’t have a team anymore. so you just gotta think all of that.

[00:06:48] Sam Chlebowski: What would you say to somebody who maybe has a web design shop right now where they have more clients than they can handle, but they are pretty steadfast in wanting to stay as like a solopreneur kind of solo owner operator of their.

[00:07:04] Jason Swenk: you have to do what’s right for you. Some people wanna stay small, but they may be staying small because they’re misinformed or they’re, misconceptions in their mind, right between their ears. . So like I look at it as like, think about when you start, you’re in that fun stage, right?

[00:07:18] Everything’s good, you’re getting clients, you’re making money, and then you start getting more business. And what happens is it gets more complex cuz you have to bring on people. And now you’re in a business where you’re managing people not doing the stuff that you’d loved. And now some people actually do better at managing people.

[00:07:33] And they were like, good, I didn’t want to do the design anyway. And what happens is you you hire these people and you’re kind of a, I can’t remember the author that wrote this, but he talks about you’re kind of in this whitewater, right? The ups and downs, ups and down. And the only way through this stage is through hiring or having the right systems in place, because then you have the right systems in place to double, triple, quadruple your capacity.

[00:07:56] But what most agency owners are thinking well, I’m already maxed out. I’m already working 80 hours a. I can’t double my business cuz I’m doing everything and that means I, I have to work 160 hours. But if they realize going, um, and I’ll give a shout out to, uh, my buddy Dan Martel. He just came up with a really good book called Buy Back Your Time.

[00:08:16] And he did a, a workshop for, um, our agency Mastery, uh, which is like a community for agency owners that want to really master the. and what he talks about is you think about hiring for more capacity at your agency, but how can you buy back some of your time and thinking about, and he, and this hit me right between the eyes, he goes, if you don’t have an executive assistant, you’re the executive assistant, you’re paying too much.

[00:08:42] Right? So look at all those low level items, right? Or everyone should kind of check out Todd Herman, cuz he talks about the 90 day, uh, you know, work week, uh, which is a, a coach and mentor of mine, right? think of, um, how can I eliminate a lot of the BS that I’m doing now so I can really kind of transform into the leader?

[00:09:06] And so I look at running an agency. transforming from an owner to a C E O. Here’s the five roles, okay? And you want to get to this, this part that as fast as you possibly can, and then hire people that does everything else. So think about the first one I’ve already kind of gone over. Set the vision and the direction for the agency, right?

[00:09:28] This will enable your team to make decisions without you. I’ll give you an example. Um, this was at my business, maybe eight years. We were, I told my team, I said, write, um, write an article or a blog post on the top 20 conferences for agency owners to go to. They came back with 20, they had four of, or three or four of ’em.

[00:09:51] I couldn’t stand that conference. I hated these people , right? I go take that shit out like I don’t like them. And my team said, now I’ve set the vision for them cuz our vision is to be a resource I wish I had when I was running the first agency. Um, and they go, is the conference not good? I said, no, I hate these people, but it’s good for the agencies.

[00:10:14] I’m like, okay, I see what you’re saying. Run with it. Right? So they can make better decisions and they can call you out on your dumb ship. Number two is being the face of the organization. Now, most people don’t want to do that because they think everyone’s gonna want to come to you. Perfect example for this is Gary Vanderchuck of Vander.

[00:10:32] Do you think he works on anybody’s account? Hell no. He doesn’t , right? But they come to him for that. So you’d be gotta be, the face of the agency should be creating content, kind of like what you guys are doing. Number three, you should coach and mentor your leadership team. Now, if you’re coaching and mentoring everyone, you’re, you’re messing up like you should have no more than five direct. Because your whole job is to coach them, to get them to where they need to be better in the business and better for themselves. Okay. Number three is build the key strategic relationships that only you can do. And then the last part is understand the KPIs. You don’t have to be an Excel nerd or, or geek or whatever people call ’em now nowadays, right?

[00:11:17] Just understand what are the metrics that we’re going. you know, what’s the kind of growth, growth, um, uh, net profit margins that we need to be at? You know, where are we going? What can we, like, how much are we bringing in? Uh, you know, someone told me at, in, in our mastery, they go, if I was on a deserted island, here are the KPIs that I would want to know if the business is doing.

[00:11:39] Okay. So those are the five.

[00:11:41] Sam Chlebowski: These, five core roles or, you know, areas within your business. It’s really cool to hear, especially from you, somebody with, you know, much more experience. this point I, you know, I think you have 10 years or something on me at least within your career.

[00:11:54] and I just finish up this guide that I’ll be kind of releasing over the next couple weeks. That is, how to start a web design agency and it’s part one from kind of your earliest steps. Part two is kind of in that middle growth phase, and then part three is all about scaling up the things that you just mentioned.

[00:12:09] almost exactly what I had wrote down. and what I kind of communicate in that video series it’s incredibly important stuff. That idea of. Not only removing yourself from tasks and finding people who you trust that can lead departments, that can lead initiatives on their own, that are capable of kind of that project-based work, but aligning a team around that through, key performance indicators, OKRs, you know, whatever you want to call them.

[00:12:35] But having those goals, down in writing is, kind of a big part of that. There’s that stage, of course, when you’re going from zero to one, but how you get from one to two or two to three, that requires a lot more clear communication of the overall goals, in my opinion.

[00:12:51] And it sounds like you would’ve agree. And I think that those KPIs are kind of a fundamental part of getting there. I kind of just wanted to switch gears a little bit here, because I know on your own podcast you are talking to a lot of people in the marketing space and the kind of the cool things that you’re doing now, I wanted to get your general sense of within the agency world, how has the marketing landscape changed within the past two?

[00:13:15] Jason Swenk: ever since Covid, it’s actually had a, a pretty big effect. People have really realized that digital marketing is what people need. And then, you know, it’s changing even more every day really, with a lot of these AI tools out there. Uh, you know, chat GBT and copy.ai and Jasper, and there’s, I mean, there’s, there’s literally AI tools that will write websites and landing pages and it, it’s, it’s things that can make us more e. and literally the other day I go, I was using, I said, um, I was doing a video and I was, I, I was saying, I don’t wanna watch this eight minute video to write this description. So literally, I, I ran this through an engine, gave me the transcript, put the transcript in chat, G B T or whatever, copy AI tools out there, said, write me a description for YouTube.

[00:14:09] Wrote me a description, then write me a title for it. I mean, it was, and I was like, man, you know, like we have all the, like in the old days when go back to, you know, horse and buggy days, like we had to, you know, watch the video and then write really bad copy and then, you know, have someone fix the grammar and fix the spelling and then post like, like, it’s just, we’re getting a lot more efficient and that’s what I’m real excited about for agencies.

[00:14:39] Because now, like, and this is where it’s gonna really hurt people, is the, the low level people, right? Like people at the fiver level, like they’re gonna go away, like AI’s gonna replace that, but they’re never gonna replace the middle and the the high end tiers.

[00:14:52] Sam Chlebowski: And I think in some ways because content creation has gotten more efficient. Even examples like you just shared with chat G P T and other AI programs. because of that it has kind of a resounding effect where because people are putting out more content. When people are looking for marketing design services, they’re really going to gravitate towards people that.

[00:15:14] They align their own values with, or their company’s values with, because people are able to put out more content, they’re able to kind of express who they are and the values of their company and their brand more. I think it really starts to make it when you know a client is looking for those services, they want to find somebody that’s like them.

[00:15:31] They want to find somebody that has done work with similar clients. and because they can find that information, they can find those agencies much more.

[00:15:39] Jason Swenk: I totally agree.

[00:15:40] Sam Chlebowski: In terms of tactics, for growth, one of the things that I’ve seen is, the way that kind of the standard playbook has changed within, the last like five to seven years when we were first getting going at, brighter Vision, that was the agency that I was working with my co-founder at.

[00:15:57] there’s a standard playbook of like blog newsletter, Google Ads. We started to mix in some webinars at the end there, but what has really changed I think, in the last couple of years is this focus on organic content, but not just any old organic content, high quality video content. That can be distributed in multiple ways across multiple platforms.

[00:16:22] know that you do a lot of video, you have your YouTube channel and then you are posting, clips of that on the various platforms. is that something that you would agree with that sort of shift and focus kind of towards video content? And what do people need to know about video content as a part of their marketing?

[00:16:41] Jason Swenk: Yeah. I mean, that goes back to kind of the number three thing, or I, I can’t remember which number order I had, but you know, being the face of the organization, right? Like you’re not only building the brand of the agency, but you gotta build your personal brand, all right? Like, I think too many times people think, well, and, and I made this mistake at my agency, or it could have been a lot bigger.

[00:17:04] I never branded myself, I never wanted to toot my own horn. I still hate it, but you just, you have to do it. There’s some people that love to toot their own horn. We all know who those people are, but, um, and no one listening on this show wants to tooth their horn. So, um, y’all agree? So I think. When I, when I started this business is really when I started getting into a lot of video.

[00:17:27] And the reason being was there was only a couple people actually helping agencies at the time, and they were all just blogging and just writing, but you couldn’t figure out their tone or their personality. And I was like, well, I wanna create a vi and plus I sucked at grammar and not all these AI tools were out there, right?

[00:17:47] So, um, Grammarly didn’t exist, which is one of my favorite. Makes me look smart. And so I was a really bad writer, but I was a better communicator. Even though a lot of, if you go back and watch some of my first videos, I look like a hostage and like the video was really bad, but the content was good. And I was like, I can communicate my personality in order to attract people that believe in what I believe in.

[00:18:11] Like I don’t wear a suit and tie. I’m not gonna attract those suit and tie people like buttoned up. There’s places you go. I’m more of a ball cap t-shirt guy that I’ll tell you how it is. Like if you stink at something, I’m gonna tell you, you stink at something and this is what you need to do if you wanna fix it. So I could get my personality through that. And people buy from people, not brands. And so that’s why I feel if, if you can create the macro content, right? Like we’re. and then you slice it up into the micro content for other things like you know, per platform specific. Then you know, over time you’re going to get a lot of momentum and you’re gonna build that moat around your business where most people can’t touch you because most people, like when I started, I think there was maybe one other agency podcast out there when I started eight years.

[00:19:05] Now I could, I couldn’t even tell you how many there are, but most people give up after a couple months. Hell, I, I would love to look up the percentage. I need to hire an assistant and do this. Look up the percentage of people that stick with it over a year. I bet it’s not many, um, because you don’t see that momentum for a long time.

[00:19:25] So it’s a big investment in your time, but it’s the best payoff that you could ever do.

[00:19:31] Sam Chlebowski: I could not agree more, and it’s something that I have only just started to realize the benefits of, starting this podcast back in. July. It is definitely a struggle first because you’re putting this stuff out and nobody’s listening. You feel like you’re spending way too much time, more than you should, producing these things and clipping it up and putting it out on the platforms.

[00:19:53] But my two big takeaways that I’ve found are, number one, it starts to get faster and easier. the more experience you get as you get like templates built out, as you get a process built out and. Number two, content and having a library of content has kind of this snowball effect where.

[00:20:10] People aren’t gonna listen to a podcast with two to three episodes. People aren’t going to subscribe to a YouTube channel with two to three videos. You just have to build up that library, and that’s when you can really start seeing kind of the benefits of that. So those were kind of two things that I’ve realized.

[00:20:27] You know, since we’ve begun this journey at Motion io and kind of building out our content streams,

[00:20:32] a question along these lines of Systems and processes, and I know that’s a big part of what you help other agency owners do. let’s say, for an agency owner out there that has kind of reached, flat growth, it’s kind of like a plateau. Maybe they’ve hired a couple people, they’re getting leads consistently, but it’s not growing month over month.

[00:20:52] What are the key systems that they need to be looking at and what are the things that they should be doing at that point in their business to break through to that next level of.

[00:21:01] Jason Swenk: When people say, I’m getting some leads, right? And or plenty of leads. It’s depending on what type of leads, right? Is it the same leads that you’ve been getting or is it the leads that you actually need in order to scale? so for example, most agencies that are trying to scale, they think they need to double their client base.

[00:21:20] Ah, you just need to double your pricing. and they’re like, well, my current clients wouldn’t pay that. Oh no, no shit. Like you need to go get new clients and new, you know, have new prospects coming to you and new leads. And so here’s the 10% rule. Okay? This is like, let’s say you were starting up for zero or you just wanna make it over.

[00:21:40] Most people just wanna make it over the seven figures, which. is some kind of mountain that they want to climb, but I also tell them it’s more important on profit. Like I’ve met a lot of $10 million agencies that are 1% profitable. I’m like, that sucks. Like that really sucks. Like we need to switch that and really look at it.

[00:21:59] So here’s the 10% rule. I want you to make a list of a hundred perfect prospects that you want to go. That can pay you double that fee. So let’s say you wanna do seven figures. I want you to find 10 or, or list out a hundred people that can pay you $9,000 a month. Now what you’re gonna do is the next step is I want you to research them.

[00:22:25] Who, who do I need to contact? um, who are the people, um, what’s the opportunity for them? What’s the challenges, right? That’s step number two. Three is what’s the irresistible offer to them? So like a lot of times what we do, um, I’ll tell you our irresistible offer, I say, you know, Hey, uh, go to this website.

[00:22:47] and if you’re an agency owner and you’re wanting us to do you an agency blueprint where we’ll actually map you out how you can double or triple your agency, you know, together go to this and then here’s the irresistible part and be like, Hey, you’ll love the plan. You’ll go execute it yourself. Perfect.

[00:23:07] Wish you luck. Number two, which is the most common? You love the plan. You want our help? Great. We’ll help you. Three. You hate the plan. We’ll give you your money back. There’s nothing for you to lose. So that’s an irresistible offer. And then what, what you’re going to do is transition from that foot in the door.

[00:23:22] I call that a foot, A foot in the door offer, right? Because they’re paying you now, they’re 10 times more likely to pay you again. And I don’t care what you charge for it. I have people charge 300 bucks. I have people that charge 20,000. It doesn’t really matter. Um, because there’s no risk for that person.

[00:23:38] That’s the irresistible. then you do like a, a project for them fixing something that you guys outlined, something that shows value impact to them. So if you were designing a website, maybe you did, um, a, uh, let’s say you do a site map. Coming up with a site map is really hard. Like where do things need to go and what pages do we need to have?

[00:24:03] Then the project could be more of a deeper web. and show them some results, and then ultimately would be, you know, a retainer to, to build out everything and maintain it. Now, if you do that, the 10% rule is you made a a hundred people list, you contacted a hundred people and you chatted with a hundred people.

[00:24:23] All you have to do is convert. Convert 10% of them, 10 of them paying you. 9,000 is over a million, but most people don’t wanna put in the. into that, or thinking about or making that list. They’re just waiting for people to come to you or they’re, and here’s the cop out for a lot of agencies, they try to be a white label solution to other agencies.

[00:24:45] I think that’s cop out because they’re gonna pay you shit fees. They’re gonna treat you like shit. They’re not gonna follow your process. I’ve b I’ve done this, like I’ve worked with the biggest agencies in the world and they’re idiot. Um, because they didn’t follow our process and they were the biggest agency and they said, you gotta follow our process.

[00:25:03] I’m like, it it like you never worked out. Make sense?

[00:25:08] Sam Chlebowski: Yep. what you had shared about building that list of, you know, those hundred people that you want to go after and those hundred, you know, sort of target accounts. it’s something that I’ve used for. Other parts of businesses as well. It’s like partnerships. Like, Hey, what are the hundred people that you would love to partner with that you think you have synergy with that could share, about your services that can refer clients back and forth and go after them.

[00:25:32] whether you’re using it as a way to get clients or whether you’re using it as a way to land new partnerships. I do think it’s something that, takes time to do. , it can be easy to put off and not want to do that work, but I, I will say that like I gonna a hundred percent vouch for the strategy because it works it helps really align you and your goals and where you want to get to, with the steps needed to take you there.

[00:25:57] So couldn’t agree more

[00:25:58] outside of work, Jason what are you passionate about? What do you like to do? how do you spend your.

[00:26:02] Jason Swenk: Well, I live in, uh, Colorado, in the mountains and,

[00:26:05] Sam Chlebowski: Oh, where at?

[00:26:06] Jason Swenk: in Durango, Colorado

[00:26:07] Sam Chlebowski: Oh, you live in Durango. That’s crazy. My wife is, from Durango. She, uh, grew up there. Her whole family still lives there.

[00:26:15] Jason Swenk: Oh, very cool. Small world.

[00:26:17] So, um, we built our dream house on our dream property. and so I spend most of my time in the outdoors, hiking, mountains, snowboarding, skiing, my own biking, climbing, doing all kinds of outdoor adventures. So that’s, that’s what I spend my time doing.

[00:26:31] Sam Chlebowski: Very cool. Well, if I am, I am about to have a kid, so it’s, uh, you know, it could be a little bit before we’re up there again, but if I’m back in the neighborhood, Now that I know that you’re a mountain biker, I will definitely, let you know ahead of time. I, uh, I’ve done not a ton of riding out there, but have been on a couple rides out there and it’s really, really fun terrain.

[00:26:50] Jason Swenk: Yeah, it’s the best mountain biking in the world, someone was telling me that Durangos had an Olympian and some kind of bike Olympics every year for the past 40 years or something like that.

[00:27:02] Sam Chlebowski: Yeah. and the first American, uh, winner of a stage of the tort of. From Durango and that

[00:27:08] Jason Swenk: Yeah. That was this past year.

[00:27:13] Sam Chlebowski: Wild stuff. It’s cool that we share that connection that’s, wild that you are out in Durango.

[00:27:19] Very cool. Well, thank you so much Jason for coming on, sharing your time, sharing your expertise. This has been a great episode. one final question before we close out here. If people wanna learn more about you and what you are doing, where should they go?

[00:27:33] Jason Swenk: Yep. So easy website to go to is AgencyMastery360.com. That’s where we put all our resources. I always find that agency owners need to master three things: attract, convert, and scale. And that whole website’s dedicated to building a community around that. So go to AgencyMastery360.com.

[00:27:51] Sam Chlebowski: And I, we will put links to Jason’s website here in the show. Notes for this episode. until then everybody, this has been another great episode of Designing Growth. Thanks for tuning in. If you’re liking the content that we’re putting out we would also love for you to go leave us a five star review. Apple, Spotify – hit that five-star review button. That would be awesome. And if you don’t like the content that you’re hearing, that’s okay. Leave us a comment, send us a message and tell us what we should cover next. With that, thanks again Jason, and talk to you soon. Every. 

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