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Building a successful marketing agency in 2022

An Interview with Nick Jankowski

Welcome to E-Coffee with Experts, an interview series where we discuss all things online marketing with the best minds in the business.

In this episode, Dawood chats with Nick Jankowski, Chief Operating Officer at Scale Digital Marketing
Nick has an interesting journey and he talks about he found his way from a Quality Engineer to a marketer and now an agency owner. He shares indepth insights on scaling up your agency successfully. You do not want to miss this!

Read this insightful conversation and stay tuned for the next steaming cup of E-coffee.

The big thing is finding the clients who value what you do at the price you think you can do it.
The strength of an entrepreneur is learning how to say no.

Nick Jankowski
Chief Operating Officer at Scale Digital Marketing
Hello, everyone. Today we have with us Nick Jankowski, Chief Operating Officer at Scale Digital Marketing. Hi, Nick, thank you so much for doing this with us today.

Thank you so much for having me. It’s an honor to be here.

Nick, I'm so excited to talk to an SEO like you with so much experience, but it would be great if you could introduce yourself and what you do at Scale to our audience.

Absolutely. I’m Nick Jankowski, Chief Operating Officer at Scale. I was one of the founders there. We’re a digital marketing agency, but our specialty lies in website creation and website optimization. My specific role there is to focus on the strategy aspect. At the beginning, it’s determining if the client is a right fit. What services would make sense to give? In what order, we want those things in? Then, as we bring that client onboard, the big thing I’m concerned about is, what’s the low lying fruit? What are the things that we want to do next? Trying to prescribe the right work to each month so that we can yield the best results.

From a Quality Engineer to a Marketer, how did that shift happen?

I got into it only because it made sense at that time. It was a natural progression of where my work career was taking me. I went to school for mechanical engineering, and I was like, “you know what? I don’t think I could do this for a living”. Oddly enough, I ended up in a position in the quality department and went to be a Quality Engineer. I worked in that job for seven years, and it just brought no fulfillment to me whatsoever. It just wasn’t who I am.

Exactly, I guess, 95% of engineers say that. I am a computer engineer from background. I started as a Computer Engineer. I worked as a Coder in an IT company for six months, and that was it.

It was the death of my soul there. The people were great. The company paid well, but it just did not fill me. I’m technical but I’m also creative, and there was no creative aspect to it. It was always about fixing things that were problems. So it was always about being reactive. I have always been into web design and development. I got into SEO in the early days of SEO. When just keyword stuff and all that was counted as doing SEO. One of my best friends was looking to quit his job, and their former boss was outsourcing some work to them. He was like, “Hey, we’re starting this side job where we’re doing agency work, would you want to be involved?” It originally started off as a side gig. Later on, we got a couple of big clients, and I was like, “I could actually quit my job.” Pretty much, I couldn’t quit my job fast enough, but what’s cool is that the engineering mindset helped. The idea of being able to look at things and see what needs to be fixed. Use principles like Lean Six Sigma, Damac, where you evaluate things and determine how to fix them, how to track, whether those things are having an impact, and then how to create new work from that. That whole process is very similar in the web and SEO optimization realm because you’re looking at what is and what isn’t working, and determining ways to improve it. I don’t feel like I threw that part of my life away, but, I think it made me be a better SEO.

Absolutely, that engineering mindset helps. At the end of the day, it is decoding what is working and what is not; understanding the data right; understanding the numbers right; understanding the algorithm and everything else right. Nick, as a leader, what do you think has been your greatest learning from the pandemic?

So the pandemic was definitely a tough spot to be. When we entered into the pandemic, we were a team of about 12 people, not to mention part-time people or contractors that we were working with consistently. We just had so much overhead. We were making ends meet back then, and I knew I needed to make some hard decisions even back then, but I just didn’t have the heart to do it. Once the pandemic hit, it made me realize, “Okay, now I have to make some real decisions.” I think getting lean was probably the best decision I ever made. I got lean in the sense that I reduced overhead, which meant I was able to sleep at night. I didn’t just get lean with the employees, we got lean with our services too. We really paired down, and we niched down into services that we did.

Prior to the pandemic, we were much more of a full-service digital marketing agency, and now we only do what is profitable and what we’re really good at. This brings me joy. Doing email marketing, social media management or even some digital advertising stuff, none of that really brought me any joy. It always felt like this necessary evil that came with the things that we did enjoy doing. But I just realized I had so many people to sustain that. Now, we’re down to a really nice lean team. We have repeatable processes and frameworks that we can do over and over again, and it’s much more sustainable. So that was probably the best thing. Covid-19 was not a great thing, but I think the pandemic maybe even saved our company in a strange sense.

The situation you were talking about, taking that decision of saying no the first time to a client because you're not used to doing it. I mean, you're used to taking everything on. I think that is difficult, but once you do that, with time, you realize that's the best thing you have done. Now you get to focus on what you do. The market is so wide that what you're good at, it will take time to actually exhaust that 100%, but, like you said, do that well and sleep well at night.

I agree. If there are companies out there that are currently experiencing this feeling of unsustainability, the best thing you can do is learn how to say no a lot. In fact, I think the strength of an entrepreneur is learning how to say no. You’re going to say “no” 100 times for every one time you say yes. When you are struggling to put food on the table, sometimes that’s a difficult decision. But I think if you can get into a routine of saying no to the things that aren’t going to be good for you in the long term, you’ll have much more success.

Following that, what would you say are the top three skills needed to be a successful entrepreneur?

Speaking from my own life, the number one thing is, learning to have balance. I’m a very passionate person. I feel like I get very ADHD sometimes where I’m fixed on things. I would say learning to have balance. I’ve got a wife and two kids, and I’ve got other responsibilities in my life. So learning how to turn off work is huge. Learning to be present with the people that you’re with and not always be on your phone thinking about the work. Set work hours. Those work hours can be whatever they want. If you want to work on Saturdays, if you want to work nights, that’s fine. I think you have to have hours where you say, “Okay, these hours are sacred, and I’m not going to let work enter into these spaces.” At some point, when all the joy and the excitement and all that stuff goes away, you’ll realize it’s all you have, and then it owns you. So I think learning to have balance is probably the first one. Another one is learning how to delegate. If you’re working as a solo entrepreneur, there’s not really much to delegate. I think I’ve made a few mistakes while doing this. First, that I’ve always tried doing things myself, maybe because it was faster or easier. So learning to not do everything yourself, like work instructions, be it written or video ones. Training people to do things so that I don’t always have to do them in the future. Taking an extra 20% of the time to get someone else to understand how to do it so that the next time they can do it 100%. John Maxwell once said, “if somebody can do something 80% as good as you, then you should give it to him”. I totally agree with that. So learning how to delegate, and delegate it correctly. Don’t just give somebody something. Take the time to train them properly and establish reasonable expectations. I think that is going to lead to long-term success.

I think training, making proper processes from day one is important. A lot of entrepreneurs often make this mistake. They don't even think of processes and SOPs till the time something is not properly working. Then comes a time when you go back to point one and then try making processes and training people. Processes can always be approved, but I think making them from day one is very important.

Absolutely. A mistake a lot of entrepreneurs that I’ve met made is reinventing the wheel every time they do something. If you compare what you do, it’s going to become a lot easier to standardize and make into a formal process. So I would say that is huge. We use Loom internally. We do Loom videos of us doing things, and that has been a lifesaver. You don’t have to spend hours figuring out how to perfectly bullet point what you want to say. You just literally do it and record yourself doing it, and it’s done.

We use Vidyard. The habit has become so much. My team was telling me last week, “Have you ever realized how many emails you're actually writing now? Even to your clients you're just sending Vidyard Videos." I said, ”Well, it's easy, it's fun. It's interactive." It is also more effective”.

Absolutely. It’s better in every single way. It saves you time. Especially for emails, voice inflections and a smiling face — text is just so harsh sometimes. It’s amazing how much time those things save. That’s awesome.

Yes. There was an instance, I didn't do it deliberately, but it worked. It was only because of habit. So we had a case where we had a long weekend in India, and there had been a mess from a teammate. Normally, in an email, you would apologize and say it will be done today. The guy forgot to tell you about the holiday and stuff. I just made a video and sent it out. The reply that came back to me was something that could have been an escalation. But the video, the voice and interaction saved the day for us.

That’s a huge win. Relatively inexpensive. So I would definitely recommend anybody do something that they are not doing yet.

So, how does a typical day of Nick Jankowski look like?

Is there even such a thing as a typical day!? I have started getting into a habit of blocking out hours of my day for things. I’ve been doing this for probably a year now.

The reason I asked you this question is when we're talking about the skills required for an entrepreneur, what hit me was when you said, “when you're with somebody being in that moment and not looking at your phone”, I think that is something which most of us do. We don't enjoy the moment. So that is why I wanted to understand what you're doing on a typical day.

My day has a lot of meetings — a lot of internal and external meetings. That can be fairly draining. So I do try to make sure I block out times. I try to do a couple of things consistently, e.g. reading. I try to give myself usually 45 minutes to an hour to read. I block out my lunch. I take an hour for lunch every day, which is something early on, as an entrepreneur, I never did. Those are the necessary moments for me to recharge before the meetings because when I’m in meetings, I just pour myself out there. I give 110% and use every last molecule in my brain. I need those types of moments to be able to do that. But when I’m not in the meetings, a big part of what I’m doing is focusing on improving our processes. So I spend a lot of time using tools like Zapier in our CRM. I’m always trying to create new automation, trying to streamline or simplify things. That is a big part of what I do. Once it’s five o’clock, I cut it off. I go upstairs because we work at home. That was another big change from the pandemic. Cooking dinner for the family, and usually, the rest of the evening is time to hang out with them. It’s just another one of those things that I know that I need to be able to refresh and start again remembering that everything I do Monday through Friday, usually between 06:00 A.M and 05:00 P.M, I do that for my family. So that’s the reward at the end of the day. My wife, who gets to stay home with the kids, plays with them, that I believe is also the reward for the work that I do.

How do you plan to grow from here? What does the strategy look like?

We’ve been in the process of doing a few things lately, and one of the biggest ones, which also seems very obvious, is “charging what we’re worth”. For a long time, we did not charge what we were worth, and so far below what we could charge. We have been actually in a process. As we get a new client, we’re basically increasing our price until we eventually get to the price that we’re shooting for. We’ve realized you don’t always need to take on more clients to make more money. The big thing is finding the clients who value what you do at the price you think you can do it. So we’ve been trailing in that process, and we’re slowly moving all of our existing clients who kind of grandfathered into that new pricing structure. That has been the first one. I think probably part and parcel to that have been continuing down this vein of what we’re doing. We’re working on de-commoditizing ourselves. SEO is a commodity. People are going to go as uninformed buyers. They’re going to go to my website, and they’re going to go to 20 other agency sites, and they’re going to compare our prices. So, we are in the process of doing some things that are proprietary to us. We’re building some of those things out and establishing our service offerings as more of a product that is a little less line items and a little less negotiable and a little bit more like, “hey, this is a framework that we know works, and this is what we’re selling. We’re the only ones selling this thing.” That way, we stand out as our own thing. When people are comparing it, they’re not comparing apples to apples, they’re now comparing apples to oranges, and it gives them only a little bit more room to think. So, it’s nothing mind-blowing, but for us, our core essentials to our business are enabling. So we’re growing internally and in turn that’s helping us grow out.

Tell us your favorite client story.

So I’ve got a lot of cool client stories. One thing I’ll preface this by saying is that unlike a lot of agencies, we don’t work with contracts. We don’t make clients sign a one-year contract to work with us. We believe in proving ourselves with our work. One client in particular that I’m thinking of; we’ve now been working for six years. They work in industrial manufacturing-type settings. They go into those places, and they help with injury prevention and ergonomic assessments, and they do this stuff. They’re helping basically preventing preventive maintenance on the people and keeping them healthy. If people get injured, helping them recover faster. So it’s a very big-ticket item. Only companies with 100 and 5200 plus people are even going to be able to consider a solution like that. When we first started working with them, they had no web presence. Their logo was just a written word. Their website was just abysmal. It was not mobile responsive. They were getting one to 300 people per month to their site. Now over the course of the six years that we’ve been working with them, we’ve helped them redo their branding. We’re actually in the process of doing a new redesign because every three or four years, it’s time for another refresh. So we’re re-creating a new look for their website now. We have been doing a ton of SEO for them, and we’ve been averaging 6 blogs a month, doing backlinking and all these awesome things. As a result, they are consistently getting anywhere from 12,000 to 20,000 people to their site every single month now. When you look at their traffic breakdown, 80% of their traffic on a regular basis is from search. That is one thing I’m proud of. You can see that hockey stick effect of their growth taking place. That is the quintessential example of what SEO can do for you. That’s like true sustainable traffic. They don’t pay a dime for anything. They don’t do any paid advertising with us or with anybody else. Pretty much, they’re doing a little bit on social media. They’ve got some people coming directly, maybe because they saw them at a trade show. Basically, their growth can be attributed to doing SEO well, and that’s something we’re proud of.

You're talking about SEO again. What does your SEO process look like?

Well, the first thing that we do is we have a discovery call with people. If you were to go to our website, that’s the call to action. Let’s have a discovery call. The reason we like to have that call is because we want to find out if SEO even makes sense for you. I believe that SEO does make sense for everybody at some point. We recognize some people — maybe they’ve got limited cash — need to see results right away. At least from where we’ve seen, SEO is not the thing where you turn it on, and you see results the next day. Generally, in our experience, you’re looking at a time frame of maybe three to six months to start seeing the results come in a way that’s going to yield anything tangible. For us, we evaluate. Does it even make sense right now? Would they be better off maybe going and doing some paid advertisements? This is because they’re going to instantly show up in front of their target audience, assuming they know who their target audience is and they’re going to be able to start driving some of that traffic. Then, determining what we need to do first if we focus on doing content and backlinking and all of that? Do they have a site that speaks to their target audience that conveys their value propositions? What do they do? Who do they do it for? And all of that. In a lot of cases, clients don’t have that. So generally, we like to start doing some UI/UX improvements or some copywriting just to get things to a good baseline. From that discovery call, if they come on after having a proposal, we onboard them. First month is usually the key set of things. We do an audit. We’ll make sure the analytics are set up correctly. Sometimes we’ll even set up some additional analytics, like Hotjar or something like that. Establishing a baseline because that’s the big thing. A lot of times, our clients are under the impression that they’re doing so well in certain areas. We just like to establish formal baselines of where they are ranking for particular keywords? What is their organic traffic? What’s their bounce rate? What are their typical search engine results, impressions and things like that. So understanding where they’re at and then generally the first three months is spent doing a lot of technical site work or UI/UX improvements. This might be to make their site load faster or maybe pages are missing H1 titles or something else. We’re generally fixing a lot of that stuff. And then, after 3 months, we get into building out content. That can be anything like blogs, white papers, infographics, even videos and then comes link building. For us, we focus highly on backlinking, which is probably the highest priority type of links. We’re also thinking about internal linking of the site, as well as linking out to other people because we know those are factors that people are concerned about. So once we get into that three-month range, it’s pretty standard that we’re focusing on content and link building. So months 1 to 3 are usually focused on the technical work, fixing all those core issues. Post the third month, we focus on the creation of content and building out link profiles.

While doing keyword research, how do you calculate the value for different search queries? An exact match keyword versus a long tail keyword?

This is not an exact science. I think it’s a little different for each client. Generally, before we even start doing keyword research, we ask them what types of keywords or phrases matter to them. Obviously, they’ve got their own branded keywords that are unique or proprietary to them and then they’ve got the industry keywords that they’re concerned about, and then there are competitor keywords. But generally, they’ll give us anywhere between 5 and 20 keywords or phrases that are important to them. That helps us understand what’s the vernacular that this particular company is concerned about because there’s a lot of different ways that you can talk about things. There might be multiple terms pointing to ultimately the same product, but we really want to understand how you think about it and how you want to talk about it. Then we’ll research a bunch of keywords. We try to have a blend of both the exact- the Big Head Comet type keywords and the long tail keywords because the shorter the keywords, the harder they are going to rank because of the high competition among them. So we believe in having a blend of both. Then generally, what we’ll do is keyword grouping and then keyword mapping. So we’ll group tons of similar keywords. Honestly, at this point, Google is more concerned about context than just content itself. So they are evaluating, and they can understand if there are synonyms or things that are contextually the same. So first, we’ll group those things, and then we map those things out over multiple pages. Contrary to popular belief, you’re not only trying to get your home page to rank for every single keyword. So, figuring out which keywords belong on which pages help simplify the way we think. It’s an easy way to steal down 100 and 200 keywords into really small bite-size chunks. We usually do experimentation from there to figure out which words we are going to have the best success with.

I think also one thing a lot of people miss is, at the end of the day, it is not only about looking at the keywords, the importance and the volume, you also have to look at that conversion is going to happen if you are in the top ten because the maximum CPR is there. But then, what are you competing against? Sometimes for some keywords, the top five positions will be Amazon or Wiki. You might have a lot of long-tail keywords for that particular service or page where you can at least for three of those long-tails you can rank in the top three positions. So it makes sense to focus on them and get the clients and conversions.

Absolutely. Sometimes, this comes with setting proper expectations with the client upfront. They’re only thinking about those couple of big keywords but just setting the proper expectations like, “hey over time, these are the keywords that we could start to rank for. So we’re going to keep them on the list and track right now. You’re not ranking for it at all. So for us, showing up from zero page to page three is a huge win. However, that win isn’t going to get you anywhere.” So that’s a long-term strategy. The long-tail variants are more of the short-term or interim term strategy, which gets you some initial results.

Well, Nick, how have you seen link-building change over the years?

The biggest change, probably, has been in the difficulty of finding the opportunities. You can reach out to hundreds of people and a lot of people just don’t get back to you. The other thing is people understand the value of an actual do-follow backlink. People are starting to charge for those things. So, understanding that there’s a pay-to-play aspect to link building is important. Also, good quality backlinks are going to take time to establish and probably are going to cost something. So nothing good is free, and that’s the biggest thing.

Nick, I like playing a quick rapid-fire in the end. So a quick rapid-fire of three questions. Play it well. Just answer whatever comes to your mind.

Sounds good.

Your favorite superhero?

I’m going to have to just go with Superman. I feel like he’s iconic.

Favorite day of the week?

I’m going to be lying if I didn’t say something other than Friday because it’s just that now I have to look forward to the weekend.

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

I think in my mind, it would be an action movie. But I think in real life, it’s some weird, melancholic, independent film that has no real climax. It just kind of ends. I think that’s a real-life version of me. I’m very boring outside of work.

Well, I kind of have fun with you and chatting with you. Nick, thank you so much for your time today. It was fun having you.

It was a blessed being here.

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