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Tips For Business Owners Setting Up A Marketing Agency

An Interview with Lane A. Houk

For this episode of Ecoffee with Experts, Dawood Bukhari hosted Lane A. Houk, Co-founder of Signal Genesys and Quantum Agency. Lane offers his profound thoughts on establishing a successful marketing firm, creating the best brand strategy, and keeping track of one’s reputation. Must-watch for aspiring entrepreneurs.

Our white label agency was made just through adding value in Facebook groups & then indulging in strategic partnerships as well.

Lane A. Houk
Co-founder of Signal Genesys and Quantum Agency
Hello everyone, today we have with us, Lane Houk. Lane is a serial entrepreneur and co-founder of Signal Genesys and Quantum Agency. Lane, excited to have you today and looking forward to getting some nuggets out of you in this interview. Thank you so much for taking out time and coming in.

Yeah, I appreciate the invite. I am glad to be here with you and hopefully can share some value with you and your users or listeners.

Okay, before we start, it would be great if you would introduce yourself and your agency to our viewers.

Sure, happy to. So Quantum agency is our white label agency. I’m the managing partner of Quantum agency, the white label agency, and Signal Genesys, a white label SEO software platform for agencies. We built that to serve the agency market specifically. So I’m the managing partner of both companies. My business partner, Matt, leads our development team and is the Ops and Project Support Manager for the software side. I handle the agency side and all of our fulfillment team there. I have a wife, been married 25 years in October. I also have two boys, 19 and 21, and a dog named Max, who’s just about to turn 13. So that’s a bit about me personally and professionally at a very high level.

Well, thank you so much for that. Apart from the two brands you own, you're also a certified hockey coach and also own a hockey club. Tell us more about that.

I have my shirt on today. I’m a part owner of a junior hockey team in Wisconsin Rapids, Wisconsin, called the Wisconsin Rapids River Kings. Both my boys play hockey. I played hockey on the ponds and lakes growing up in Wisconsin. That’s where I grew up, and that’s my connection to Wisconsin. I got my boys on the ice when they were about three and a half and five-years olds when we were down in Florida. They fell in love with the sport and have played hockey for the last 15 or 16 years. In that process, I got certified as a coach and coached the boy’s teams. I coached almost every age group through the years, including high school and U-18 midgets. And about April of this year, I became a part owner of the Wisconsin Rapids River Kings, a junior hockey team in the United States Premier Hockey League. And a good friend and buddy of mine, Paul, is now the GM/Head Coach and also part owner with me in that franchise. So that’s another 100 Piece of Me.

Well, you have always been a hustler. How was Lane as a child growing up?

Boy, how was I? Rebellious. I was born a non-conformist. But I was always going, I could never sit still. I always like to be doing something. So when I was a kid, I was always out playing some sport with my friends in the neighborhood. It would always change with the seasons, and living in Wisconsin, we got all seasons. My grandparents lived on a lake there up north. So I spent a lot of summers and winters on the lake. But I was always going and doing something and never wanted to sit still and just be in the house. And that’s what I think built me into the serial entrepreneur I am today.

What tips would you give entrepreneurs starting a marketing agency?

Focus on one thing, do it well, become an expert, and then if you’re a serial entrepreneur, you’re going to have that in your blood to keep doing new things. But I see a lot of agency owners do. I think they create this agency, side hustle to maybe get out of the full-time job, which is a great strategy. It can be difficult to manage a full-time job, have a side hustle, and then build that side hustle into a replacement for your full-time job or at least your full-time employment with another company. Because then, as an entrepreneur, we always have more than one full-time job, it seems. But focus as an agency and then on a narrower set of solutions. Because in marketing, we can get so wide, it’s so broad. You have so many aspects to marketing, between traditional offline and now online. So when you get into the online world, you have all these rabbit holes: Google ads, Facebook ads, SEO, websites, and hosting. So if you get sucked into it, you can get off focus very quickly, and your sales will suffer. And so I think to focus on a narrow set of solutions. And probably the second tip would be if you’re an agency owner, just getting started, find a white label partner because you need to focus on scaling your sales and revenue. And if you get off to focus on and start getting into fulfillment and trying to do the websites, SEO and PPC, you’ll be like this in your sales momentum. And it’ll just be up and down, up and down. So I’ve seen people spend a decade as an agency owner and not be any further ahead than they were 5 or 10 years ago, simply because they’ve always been doing all the work. And they never managed to find or look for a strategic partner in a white label agency.

Also, does focus mean starting with a niche, or is it okay to target everybody you can?

Well, it’s okay to be a generalist agency, as I would call them. But I would highly recommend finding a niche or an industry that you’re going to go deep into, it makes everything so much easier. Now, I’m not speaking from experience other than more recently, I’m now in a niche. Our Quantum agency is a niche agency, we deal only indirectly with other agencies. But for my previous nine years, as an agency owner with Brand Equation, we were a generalist agency. And I didn’t know any better. I decided one day to get out of the financial industry and go into marketing. And I spent about two years trying to figure out in what area of marketing or online marketing I was going to focus. I decided to focus on the agency model but didn’t have anything beyond that, so I just became a generalist agency without knowing any better. I built my agency in those eight to nine years through mostly referral networks. I did a lot of business development and relationship development. So I could grow it into a seven-figure agency, even though it was a generalist, but it wasn’t easy. I had a lot of pain because nothing was scalable. So I brought on a doctor, and the next month, I brought on an auto repair company, but those two types of businesses are very different. So I spent many years learning the business, which has served me well because today, it’s a white label agency. Now I understand a lot of different industries and niches, which allows us to be a good white label partner. I understand so many niches because I spent nine years learning a lot of them and doing marketing for many different industries. But if I were starting today, I would pick a niche and go deep into it. And then usually, the next question is, what type of niches? Like what’s good and what’s not? There are a lot of good niches out there. But the general rule of thumb would be that I wouldn’t pick any niche where the average customer value isn’t worth at least $1,500 to $2,000. When you can find an industry where the businesses in that industry, when they get a new customer and that customers worth $1500 to $2,000 or more to them, each new customer, it makes marketing a lot easier for those businesses. Because all you have to do is get them one or two clients a month, and they’re happy, you get them three or four, and they’re your best friend asking you out for drinks every weekend. So picking a niche allows for scale, it allows you to create one sales process, the messaging for those prospects, and marketing campaigns, and then keep executing on it and executing on it. And secondly, when you’re in a niche, you can focus on becoming omnipresent within the industry, which I like Josh Nelson, a great teacher of this principle. I credit him for just the term becoming omnipresent in your niche and just being everywhere in that niche in the industry associations, targeting the best businesses and constantly being in front of them. And positioning yourself as the expert, the go-to industry expert from all things marketing in XYZ niche. So if you want to scale and make things easy, then pick a niche. But if you want to go broad and have things be much more inefficient and difficult, then don’t pick a niche, but that will be my advice.

No, that's a good one. What made you choose agencies as a niche?

That’s a great question. So if I go back to 2016, my business partner, Matt, and I started building our software to help us scale our SEO. SEO has always been the biggest driver of our monthly recurring revenue. When I began my agency in 2010, I didn’t understand all this, but I quickly learned, so when I started the generalist agency in 2010, we started only doing websites. I learned websites two or three years ago, started doing them for the first few clients, and not knowing any better, that’s all we did. And so, suddenly, I jumped into this agency model and got onto a hamster wheel, not knowing any better. So every month, we had to do 3, 5, 6 new websites to keep that monthly revenue churning and coming in, and that got pretty exhausting pretty quickly. And by doing websites for these new clients, their next question was, well, Alright, great, I got this website, but how are we going to drive traffic to it? How do I monetize it, make people find it, and get visible in Google searches? And so I was like, ah, I have another solution I can sell to my clients, which will start driving the recurring revenue. I could start to build more momentum in that monthly recurring revenue. So we started offering SEO, and this was in 2011 or 2012. In 2012, Google came out with Google Places, now Google Maps. When Google Places launched within months, I knew we were on the cusp of a new frontier online because reviews started to become popular. Google started putting reviews in the listings, and the search results started changing dramatically. So I dug in and learned local SEO and organic SEO for the next many years. And in 2016, we had grown our SEO and monthly recurring revenue to 50, 60, and $70,000 a month over a few years. And we started to hit ceilings because SEO was our biggest revenue driver. But we were taxed at 30 to 50 clients. We hit those ceilings and then bumped down, lost some, and climbed back up, and we could never go over that ceiling because our SEO results weren’t predictable enough. There was too much variance in the results and too many manual processes. Some things would often be undone as you’ve got too many clients on board. So we got to work on building the software that would help us scale our SEO and replace us having to do manual link building, guest post blogging, using PBN, and trying to look for other ways to move the needle predictably, but we were very manual. When we started to build that software, Matt and I, very early in 2016, decided we would build that software for other agencies, not just our own. So in that key decision, when we launched the software, two and a half, three years later, that software, which is now Signal Genesys, was launched into the agency market. So we built it for other agencies. So I began to start work on exposing agencies to our new software. It only made sense then that my agency work, which was still a generalist agency, would also focus on agencies. So in Q1 of 2019, I took our entire fulfillment team for Brand Equation and said, Hey, guys, as of today, we’re going to be a white label agency. Brandy Equation clients will be the first agency we’re going to work for, but from now forward, we will be in this niche. And that coincided with following the advice of Josh Nelson and what he teaches in the seven-figure agency group that agencies should find a niche and not just be a generalist. So I took his advice, took our focus on the software side, and decided to bring them to write together into one consolidated focus on agency. So that’s what I did today. Today on our agency side, we help other agencies. And on the software side, we have a couple of 1000 agencies that use our software for their SEO processes.

I understand. What do you think about giveaways, and what are your thoughts on the best foot-in-the-door offer for an agency?

I was never big on giveaways and still am not today. I don’t like giving away things for free because I think that always minimizes the value perception. In the marketing industry, we’re not talking about low-ticket items, we’re talking about a website that costs 1000s of dollars and SEO that will be 1 to $3,000 a month. So these are not low-ticket items. So value perception is important with both the prospect and the client in an ongoing manner. So giving away things for free seems to me, just in my own opinion, to minimize value and cheapen things. So I’ve never been big on giveaways other than rewarding loyalty to existing customers who refer other customers. That’s a great giveaway, a gift card, or something of great value when they decide to refer other people to you. But the biggest thing I would give away would be value and insight for them as business owners before becoming clients. So in my prospecting as an agency, when I was in that world, I would do a pretty good audit of their business online. I would record it with a video using a service like Loom or something similar. And I would go through a search and show them, here, you’re not showing up for these keywords. These are the best keywords for the services and solutions you sell as a business and are not showing up. You’re on page 2 or page 10. These are the competitors that are showing up ahead of you. Here are some of the reasons why this is happening. I’m showing weaknesses on their website, mistakes with their name, address, and phone number that were out there online that were confusing the algorithm. And I would typically record a 10-minute video and then send it to them as a prospect. And it was valuable, I was taking my valuable time going through their business online, recording some things, giving them insight, giving it away for free, you know, while not advertising, it was for free. It was for free, but I wasn’t advertising that fact. That was just giving them value and establishing at the same time and trying to position me as the go-to expert that could solve their problems.

What do you do as an entrepreneur when you have had, let's say, interference in business?

Plateaus, I call them. When you work out, you work out, you grow, and suddenly, you hit a plateau, and suddenly the body isn’t responding the way it was the previous eight weeks. And when you hit plateaus in working out, you have to do something typically radical. You got to do something different to break out and shock the body into growing more. So, I do the same thing in my businesses. I have done it, what I do is I call it a 90-day burn. So when I feel like I’ve hit plateaus, or there are big goals in front of me that I’ve set that I want to go for, I’ll do what I call a 90-day burn. And that’s 90 days of a lot of extra work. So those are typically 10 to 14 hour days and not many weekends off. I’m doing day work, where I’m working in my business, and then off hours, I’m working on that business. So in time versus on time, in those 90 Day burns, there’s a lot of extra on time. So I’m working on my business, those goals, the strategies, the systems, the processes, and the workflows that will help me break out of that plateau or reach those larger than normal goals.

I understand, that's a good one- 90 Day burnout.

And I would even go as far as telling my family, my wife, hey, look, the next 90 days are going to be busy. I’m going to be traveling, or I’m going to be diving in deep here. So be aware. It’s not forever, it’s not going to be six months, 12 months, it’s 90 days. It’s a manageable amount of time. No one’s going to die from it. So letting family and friends know, hey, this is going to be a pretty critical time for me. Be aware that if I’m not around as much, you know why I’m going deep on my business, and I must do this.

How does one create an ideal brand strategy?

This gets into branding, a subset of marketing. So we discussed that you must be careful and not want to go too far, offering too many solutions. Branding is a whole subset unto itself. But we’ve done a fair amount of it at Brand Equation, from helping people name their brand to its logo design or identity. The first core of the brand strategy has to be the right name. 90% or more businesses get that wrong. Like, it’s just a name; it’s no big deal. It’s whatever they’re comfortable with and like, but there’s no strategy behind the name. So brand strategy; Number one is a strategy in your company’s name. The name of your company should be 100% unique. Most People Fail here, their brand may be quasi-unique, a little unique, and similar to other names. If you want to be found online and to be found online quickly, then find a unique brand name. If you want it to be confusing to Google as to what company you are versus other companies with similar names, choose a quasi-unique name or a quasi-similar name to others. Because then Google will be very confused as to who you are versus other people with similar names or other companies. So brand names should be 100% unique, the .com should be available, and the name should be less than 15 characters, whether that’s one or two words. Why? Twitter limits you to 15 characters in your username. If you want your brand name to be consistent across all your social profiles, including the.com, and let’s say it’s ABC plumbers.com or ABC plumbers, that’s not unique, but let’s say it was .com needs to be available. If ABC plumbers.com is unavailable, we’re finding a different name. Because I don’t want to lose traffic to whoever has ABC plumbers.com. So the right brand strategy has to start with the right brand name. So 15 characters or less, one or two words. Three words will be hard to get three words in 15 characters, number one. Number two, even if you can, it’s still three words. So ideal would be one to two words, 15 characters or less, 100% unique, where you can acquire the .com, the Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and LinkedIn profile. All of those should be available, so they’re all 100% consistent. They’re different if you go to somebody’s website and see their user or social profiles. If instagram.com forward slash ABC plumbers, 123 it’s facebook.com forward slash ABC plumbers XYZ. They’re all different because they didn’t consider a brand strategy that demanded a unique 15-character brand name.

And I'm sure a lot of people don't think about it when they are naming their brands, and that's why many cases we see, like, their Twitter handles don't have the full brand name. And the same problems that we just said.

So what’s happening? Well, number one with the user, try to follow a company with all different social handles, they’re all different, like, it’s just as confusing for the user. But that’s also equally confusing for the algorithm. And so if we want to be found online and we want to be found online, quickly and distinctly as a brand name, then we need to look for a unique name. And that’s not easy, but if you want a sound brand strategy that will save you hundreds of 1000s of dollars in the future, then you best take the time or hire an expert to help you with that. Because if you get the brand name wrong and then later realize that two or three years later, just take them how much you’ve gotten into using that name everywhere. It’s on your website, all over the directory listing world, your social profiles, your Google listing, business cards, and other marketing materials. Changing that later is very, very painful.

Since we are talking about branding, reputation management also becomes very important when creating and protecting your brand. So how important is it to monitor one's reputation, and are there any best practices you follow or suggest?

It is critical. So, very often, especially when I was in the agency world dealing with business owners directly instead of in the white label world, with business owners, I was preaching reputation first. One of the things I would do in prospecting is, if your competition is a 4.8 and you’re a 3.2, I would use that and show them that and then say, look, here’s the bottom line, we can do SEO and PPC and make you more visible in search results. But what we’re going to be doing is we’re going to be getting your bad reputation more visible to more people. We don’t want to do that, we want to fix your reputation first and then get you more visible because we don’t want more people to know about how bad your reviews are right now. So we don’t want to launch a new marketing SEO and PPC campaign and ignore the foot that’s turning gangrene. We need to fix the foot, which is the bad reviews, and then get going with our workout regimen. Yes, reputation management is critical because that’s going to happen. If you have a 3.2 rating and are successful, we will make you more visible online in search and AD spaces; then, people will see your reputation. Google makes it front and center. And then there are other review sites; all they do is report reviews on the company. So the consumer will see your negative or low review rating more than what they are today if we make you more visible. So let’s get some five and four-star reviews in, even if it’s 5, 10, or 12 new reviews quickly, from friends, family, and close customers. And then, once we have new four- and five-star reviews, let’s launch the marketing campaign and make you more visible. So reputation management is critical, and it also directly impacts your conversion. So we can get you showing up on the search, but if you have bad reviews, it will hurt your conversion. There’s nothing we can do, businesses have to do a good job of delivering services and solutions with quality and a quality experience to garner good reviews because bad reviews will hurt their conversions more than they will hurt their rankings.

How should one handle their social media channels, let's say, after a mishap or a bad review?

You have a bad review, we’ve always counseled clients, you need to respond. We say look at it if it’s legitimate and you did a bad job. Own the owner review in your response, call the client and try to introduce service recovery, whatever that looks like for you. See if you can make that better. See if you can turn that two-star review into a four-star one. If it’s not going to happen, and you are responsible, like the customer was right, you did a bad job, own it, and move on. But still respond because if you have a negative review and don’t respond, you’ll let the next consumer and their imagination run wild with that. Responding by owning it and graciously apologizing is one way. If it’s not legitimate or is an overstated review, like the customers being extreme, then you just got to try and neutralize it with carefully worded language so that you don’t incite them even more. Still, at the same time, you neutralize it. An example I got would be that we’re sorry to hear that you had a negative experience or less than five-star experience with our team on the recent service call. Our goal and aim are to provide a five-star experience for every single customer every single time. So one of our representatives will reach out to you to learn a little bit more about what happened and see what we can do to make it right. If I’m a consumer and I read that, I’m like, okay, well, like I understand that not every single instance of customer communication or service delivery will be five-star. But if you own it, and then to say we’re committed to that, you’re going to neutralize that negative review a lot more than if you don’t answer it at all.

How would define Elon Musk's online reputation?

His online reputation?

Yes.

How would I define it? Growing, negative and positive alike. He has fans and detractors, but it is growing as he weighs into the potential transaction of buying Twitter.

As an agency, what is your strategy to win new clients?

Add value. Come from the book the Go-Giver. I don’t know if you have read the book. I may have a copy on my bookshelf, trying to see if I can spot it, but I don’t see it sticking out. But I have read that book several times. It talks about the five laws in business, and I think law number two is to add more value than you ever ask for in payment. So I always try to leave value, helping people before I ever ask for or before they pay me to do something for them. The principle I discuss and how it translates is that I am in Facebook groups with other agencies, and I answer questions, offer help, and add value and intel to them as agencies, that I know will help them and help them grow. In doing so, I attract people who say, hey, I saw your post on XYZ, and I think I need more help, we might be a good fit. Can we meet? I have grown our white label agency by adding value to Facebook groups and strategic partnerships. So we have some strategic partnerships with Influencers or hubs of agencies. So we build relationships and strategic partnerships with some of those people or companies and then add lots of value to those groups.

In the end, I like playing a quick rapid-fire round of three to five questions. I know we are short on time.

Sure, fire away.

What is your go-to pastime?

As far as what I like to do for fun? I have several, and they are all outdoors or sports. I love to play sports. Today I will be fifty-one this year. I am not as active in sports as I used to be. I used to play adult hockey that was a big thing I liked to do. I like to camp, go four-wheeling, spend time at the beach, go fishing, and shoot. So outdoor activity that’s what I like to do. Then I am a sucker for reading and research. I love to read and research to expand my knowledge. So when I want to chill out at night, I will dig into some reading and research and become more informed.

If a movie was made about you, what genre would it be?

Action-adventure.

Favorite superhero?

Jesus, I don’t follow Marvel often, so he is my superhero.

One subject you would like to learn more about?

Crypto.

Yeah, that's an interesting one. Lane, thank you so much for your time, it was fun having you.

Thank you.

Hopefully, I will get to talk to you soon.

I appreciate the time very much. Hopefully, it was good and insightful for you and your audience. And if there is anything I can do to help, please let me know.

Sure, thank you so much.

Thanks, Dawood; take care, and have a good day.

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