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When agency owner Nat Eliason started freelancing as a marketing and SEO consultant, he noticed a crucial problem. He’d spend all this time and energy building top notch systems and recommendations for his clients. And then…

“Clients wouldn’t have the resources in-house to do the things I was advising them to do. So when I stepped out of the system, everything that I’d worked on with them kind of fell apart, and they weren’t able to sustain it.”

Nat Eliason, founder of full-service content marketing agency Growth Machine.

Nat Eliason, founder of full-service content marketing agency Growth Machine.

As a freelancer, Nat could’ve just walked away, but he didn’t. He saw a problem and decided to solve it. He thought, “Okay, I’ll just make an agency to handle the implementation for them,” and founded Growth Machine — a full-service content marketing agency with an eye for SEO.

In 2018, after about 1 year of life, Growth Machine grew to $1 million in annual recurring revenue.

We talked to Nat about how that happened: how he came to recognize their “best fit” clients, how they generate more leads like them, and what other agency owners can learn from their success.

Bonus action list: Get our 2-page PDF summary of action items you can use to find better clients based on Nat’s advice.

Defining Your ‘Best Fit’ Clients

Along the way to $1 million, Nat learned a lot about the type of clients he’s looking for — and even more about the clients he isn’t looking for.

The number one thing he learned? Growth Machine’s services aren’t for everyone. “We’re not all things to all people,” Nat pointed out. “We’re very clear about what we do. We create really good content and get it ranked on Google.”

If there’s one universal truth in the business world, it’s that no one business can be everything to everyone in the world. Yet countless startups and agencies fall into the trap of trying to be just that. Nat credits avoiding that mindset as a key factor in Growth Machine’s rapid growth, noting that “it’s been a really big part of why we’ve been able to grow so quickly with such a small team.”

As a startup, the idea of turning down business can be downright terrifying — but saying no to clients who don’t fit enables you to grow in a meaningful and sustainable way.

Agency lead generation: Nat Eliason paddleboarding with his dog.

Nat and his dog, Pepper, learning to paddleboard and thinking about ‘best fit’ clients.

Learning What You Want in a Client

With the mindset that your services aren’t a good fit for everyone on the planet, how do you narrow down the clients you do want? For Nat and Growth Machine, it all came down to trial and error.

When the team took on clients that weren’t a great fit, the disconnect made itself obvious — and Nat made it a priority to audit why that engagement didn’t work. “It can be a frustrating way to learn,” he admitted, “but it means that our clients have been getting better and better over time.”

What does that mean for Growth Machine? Their “best fit” clients hinge on four main characteristics: budget, business lifecycle stage, industry, and familiarity with SEO and content.

Budget

It’s obvious that if a client can’t afford to pay you, they aren’t a good fit — but the mindset of the client about the budget is important, too. “It needs to be somebody who has the budget and is already spending that amount on marketing,” he shared. “They know where their money is coming from and going to.” Those clients will better appreciate the value that Growth Machine has to offer.

Business Lifecycle Stage

Growth Machine doesn’t help clients find product-market fit or figure out who their customers are — period. So their clients need to have some level of marketing success under their belt. “They need to have product-market fit—they need to have another marketing channel that’s already working. If they haven’t figured out a marketing channel that’s doing well for them, then they’re usually hiring us to figure out the business, which we don’t do.”

Industry or Niche

Content creation is a big part of what Growth Machine does. The complexity of that side of the agency can vary wildly depending on the client’s industry. In super technical niches, Nat has to hire highly specialized writers, and they don’t come cheap. The solution? Growth Machine stays away from industries that require highly specialized knowledge. To do otherwise “would destroy our economics,” he said.

Level of Familiarity with SEO and Content Marketing

Growth Machine isn’t in the business of selling clients on the value of SEO or content marketing — they’re looking for clients who are already bought in and willing to invest both time and money to get it right.

“If they’ve already put some money toward content marketing and nothing has come of it yet, they’re usually more patient with how we optimize the conversion part of the process,” he said.

Lead Generation to Target Your Best Fit Clients

Nat and Growth Machine’s lead generation tactics are all about telling their story. That comes down to 3 things:

  • Building your authority
  • Choosing the right stories to share
  • Learning by taking action.

Build Your Authority with Guest Posts and Podcasts

Growth Machine’s biggest source of leads has been content.

“Content continues to be a big source of leads for us. I’ve written guest posts on bigger marketing blogs, and that’s driven a number of interested people,” Nat said. “Podcasts have been a really, really good source of leads,” he added. “I’ve tried to go on every marketing and ecommerce podcast I can get my hands on.”

Their lead generation strategy for content is of the plant a tree variety — the best time to start is yesterday. Nat credits his lengthy history of both talking and writing about marketing with establishing Growth Machine’s authority in the space.

“I built up a reputation in the internet marketing space,” he said. “That’s been a big driver of leads for the agency.”

Choose the Right Stories to Share

Posting success stories to Twitter is one of the ways Nat Eliason does agency lead generation.

When it comes to choosing which stories you tell, Nat considers 2 main questions:

  • Which stories are compelling to your best clients?
  • Where does it make sense to share that data?

When Growth Machine starts to see compelling results with a client’s website, Nat shares those results on Twitter, along with the kinds of work that led to them. “Who did you make the most money for?” he asks. “Who did you create the nicest sites for? Who did you grow the blog of the most? Who did you increase the conversion rate on the most?”

Another thing Nat considers is believability. In order for storytelling to build your authority, people have to trust what you’re saying. “Google Analytics charts don’t lie. It’s a lot more reliable than someone saying, ‘Hey, we grew by this amount this year.’ Did you really?”

Agency lead generation through proven growth.

That’s why traffic data and Google Analytics charts are his go-to. “Traffic numbers are impressive and useful data in isolation. High is good; low is bad,” Nat explained. “But with conversion metrics, you never really know what it is, if it’s in isolation; it’s hard to look at a conversion rate and know if it’s good or bad.”

What if You Don’t Have Those Stories Yet?

By the time Nat founded Growth Machine, he had a lot of success under his belt: He was already a proven SEO and content expert. But if you’re just getting into the game, you still need to develop those compelling stories and results.

“People have to know who you are and have seen some of your work for you to get those first few clients. If you crush it on the first few clients, that can be your name brand. But having some of that initial groundwork in place helps a lot.”

Nat’s advice? Don’t limit yourself to results your agency has gotten for clients: You can leverage any success into authority, even if it’s from your personal accomplishments.

Nat even launched his own side project, a blog about tea called Cup & Leaf, as a way to prove his mettle, test out his theories, and generate more data and insights to share, unencumbered by client privacy issues.

What Didn’t Work for Nat & Growth Machine

The lead gen tactics Growth Machine relies on now aren’t the only approach they tried — there was some trial and error there, too. One tactic they were happy to leave behind: outbound lead generation.

Content marketing took off for Growth Machine, but Nat wanted to grow faster. So he worked with an expert to pull together an outbound strategy.

Here’s how Nat describes those efforts: “We basically lit $10,000 on fire.”

He quickly figured out the problem: Their business just isn’t well suited to cold outreach. “We have an extremely narrow client base,” he noted.

In the end, that failed campaign helped Nat and team narrow in on the efforts that actually yield the right leads. “We focus on creating more brand awareness and more interest in the agency so that we can increase the number of people coming to us,” Nat said, “instead of us having to reach out to them.”

Who Are Your ‘Best Fit’ Clients?

“We’re not all things to all people.”

Nat’s story is a perfect reminder that your business isn’t for everyone. Growing an agency in a meaningful and sustainable way boils down to finding the people best suited to work with you — and running away from the rest.

When you know who your ideal clients are, it’s easier to market to them, to streamline your operations, and to develop long-term client relationships that pay off for years to come.

That’s the founding principle Nat relies on. We can’t say it’s the one and only recipe for million dollar growth — but it certainly worked for Growth Machine.

Bonus action list: Get our 2-page PDF summary of action items you can use to find better clients based on Nat’s advice.

Kiera Abbamonte

About Kiera Abbamonte

Kiera's a content writer who works with SaaS and ecommerce companies. Located in Boston, MA, she loves cinnamon coffee and a good baseball game. Catch up with her @Kieraabbamonte or KieraAbbamonte.com

Action items [PDF] on Exercises to Define &
Find Your ‘Best Fit’ Clients

Action items [PDF] on Exercises to Define &
Find Your ‘Best Fit’ Clients