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Ryan Stewart is the founder of WEBRIS, a digital marketing agency based in Miami, Florida, which was acquired in 2018 by I’m From The Future (IFTF). Ryan is well-known in the marketing world for relentlessly building — and teaching — the processes he used to scale WEBRIS to $1.1M AR in just one and a half years. Those systems are what allowed him to take a step back as the owner and re-evaluate his role while allowing his employees to take over the work he used to do himself.

Ryan Stewart of WEBRIS shares the techniques he used to build robust, scalable agency processes.

Ryan Stewart, CMO and Founder of marketing agency WEBRIS.

It gave him the freedom to choose acquisition when his friend, Nick Eubanks, wanted to purchase WEBRIS. And now, he’s able to dedicate himself to the work he truly enjoys: growing sales, marketing the brand, and consulting for other agencies. When we sat down to discuss what made his process for processes so great, Ryan shared:

  • The two big mistakes agency owners make with agency processes
  • How to start building your own agency’s processes
  • When it makes sense to bring in a consultant.

Those are the underpinnings of the (more in-depth) advice he gives agency owners during consultations. Let’s dive into each one.

Bonus action list: Get our 2-page PDF summary of action items you can use to build your agency’s processes based on Ryan’s advice.

Two Common Mistakes Owners Make With Agency Processes

1. Trying to Copy Others (Instead of Playing to Your Strengths)

“A lot of times, people want to emulate other people’s success when they shouldn’t do that,” Ryan said. Many of the agency owners he has advised chase after everyone else’s success stories rather than building their own (an irony not lost on the writer of an article encouraging you to imitate someone’s success story).

Here’s the thing: What made Ryan and his agency successful may not be what makes you and your agency successful. Why? Because everyone has different strengths. Ryan knew that he was a strong process person: He could train new people to repeat the techniques he used to drive results. It wasn’t fun, but he was good at it.

On the other hand, he’s terrible at networking and aggressive sales. “I have friends who are incredible sales people who built an agency around that ability. They built an organization around lead generation through cold calling and outreach and focus on closing those leads at whatever price point possible. They crush it (+$15M per year). They know they have a really high churn rate, but their sales operation is so strong that as long as they’re selling to clients, they’re growing. They’re able to mitigate the churn by continuously closing new deals.”

The tactics that his acquaintances use to run aggressive sales-based organizations are not the same tactics that Ryan would (or could) use to run WEBRIS. And if he had tried to use tips that worked for those companies, they wouldn’t have worked for his agency.

Instead, founders have to focus on what makes their agency strong, then double down on tactics that will make that stronger. “I enjoy marketing. I enjoy the act of creating content.

I enjoy building inbound lead funnels and branding. It’s a strong point of mine,” Ryan shared. “But I can’t pick up the phone and cold call people. I’m terrible at hiring people because I’m not a good judge of talent or how they’ll fit into the organization. I look at everyone and think that they have potential.”

If you’re looking to build processes and scale, you need to have a firm grasp of your strengths and weaknesses — along with a realistic assessment of what your team can and can’t implement in its current state.

That said, some founders will go through that exercise and think that since they’re not “process” people, they don’t need processes. That brings us to mistake #2.

2. Thinking You Don’t Need Agency Processes

Many of the agency owners that Ryan advises think they don’t need processes. They talk a lot about how their services are “tailor made” for clients. But according to Ryan, everyone needs processes — including agencies offering personalized services.

“If you want to scale anything, it’s got to be something you can do repeatably,” Ryan said. Especially in marketing, where results are never really guaranteed, it’s important to build up a set of processes. You learn from what works, then keep doing it.

Another issue is profit margins. “Especially with a service business, you hit a cap with your margins right off the bat,” Ryan said. If you want margins to get better, you need ways for people to complete their jobs more quickly and ways for them to hand off work to lower-wage labor. And that’s never going to happen without processes that they can follow.

“The best way to do that is by having a system in place to get entry-level people trained in your system and let them grow in your framework,” he added.

Established processes make it possible to train them and scale.

How to Start Building Agency Processes

A WEBRIS team outing.

The WEBRIS team during a social outing in April 2018. 

Building a process, for most people, is not fun. It requires recording every detail about something you do regularly, communicating those details in a way that your employees can understand, and troubleshooting indefinitely. But the result — systems that your employees can follow to get repeatable, reliable results — means you can spend your time on whatever it is you want to pursue.

What follows are three steps you can take to make that happen.

1. Know Your Roadmap

It’s hard to know which processes you should build first if you don’t know where your company is going. Settling on a roadmap helps you choose which actions you’ll take to ensure your company meets your goals.

Every agency hits a peak and then plateaus at various levels of doing business. For Ryan, his first plateau was when WEBRIS hit $50k/month in revenue. Getting past that point and growing more meant that something had to change.

“Sometimes it’s the process, maybe it’s a pipeline thing, sometimes it’s a people thing. It can be a number of different things,” Ryan said. Once you figure out what’s holding you back from scaling to $3M, $5M, $10M, and beyond, you can start prioritizing.

2. Build What You Know — and Be a Part of the Process

“You have to know your product or service really well because you can’t build a process around something you don’t understand,” he said.

When you’re ready to build processes, you have to pick something your company already does well. Picking something untested is a recipe for frustration and wasted time.

In addition, Ryan believes that you, as the company founder or owner, should be the one to build the processes — at least in the beginning. If you’re already running a $10M business, then there’s probably someone more “in the thick of it” who could take charge. Ideally, you’ll build out processes for tasks you’re still currently doing. But if you’ve handed off that task to someone else, you would need to work closely with them to build out documentation and learning materials for that process.

For example, the first process Ryan built out was for link building. At the time, not many large agencies were offering link building; instead, they were all about “massive data crawls and analysis,” he said. Link building was harder to scale, so most people didn’t offer it at scale.

But Ryan knew how to do white-hat SEO link building. So he built a process around a need he identified in the market.

“I built those processes to offshore that work, because I knew what people were willing to pay for a link and I knew what it would cost me to deliver that at the quality needed. So I built out very detailed processes for people overseas to do manual outreach. Finding links, contacting them, negotiating, tracking, getting them placed… all of that. And eventually, I took that process and turned it into a video course training, which has done very, very well for me,” he said.

If you’re not sure what to start building out first, follow this hierarchy:

  1. Something you do well and that has more opportunity in your market
  2. Something you do well that your agency currently provides as a service
  3. Project management

Why project management as the third option? It will help your team accomplish tasks more reliably. Ryan found that, early on, he spent most of his time acting as project manager for a handful of employees. By documenting what he did to keep projects moving on schedule, he was able to hire an actual project manager and free up his plate for more relevant work.

If you’re not ready to document processes you use while serving clients, then project management is the next best place to start.

3. Use a Whiteboard and Start Testing

Ryan Stewart on Whiteboard Friday for Moz

Ryan is a fan of using whiteboards to flesh out ideas and communicate with his team.

Once you know your roadmap and the first process you want to document, it’s time to sit down and start documenting.

Ryan prefers to start with a whiteboard. Referencing his link building process, he started by asking himself, “What do I do to go from nothing to a secured link?” Then he diagramed all of the steps and people he needs to go through to make that link a reality.

You might miss a couple steps on the first pass, but it’s more important to get something down, then revise later. Once the whiteboard notes are fleshed out, Ryan turns them into a document. And once that’s been tested on a handful of employees, he turns it into a video training.

“Break it down to the SOP level,” Ryan urged. “Turn a process into a series of subprocesses.”

It’s not a task he finds enjoyable. “I’m not a detail-oriented person,” he laughed. “But I understood that, in order for me to be successful, this is what had to be done.”

Getting Stuck? Hire a Consultant

Sometimes, your process just isn’t working. Or perhaps there’s an aspect of your agency you don’t have enough experience with to build a process.

For Ryan, the time to hire a consultant was when his design team needed assistance in building out their process. “Our lead designer was always under water — as most design teams are. While we all had our own theories, we had difficult time pinpointing exactly why that was,” he said. So, they brought in someone with significant design experience.

“Consultants are valuable because they provide an unbiased, outside perspective. And we were all marketers and developers. Having somebody with that inherent product knowledge who’s been through it before and who could help us make a final decision on what we needed to do was incredibly valuable,” he added.

As a result, they were able to improve efficiency for the design team and pin down a process that worked for everyone.

If there’s a process you aren’t familiar with, or that your team is arguing about, you can save significant time and frustration by bringing in someone from the outside to settle the conversation.

Final Thoughts

Ryan and his team celebrating when WEBRIS was acquired.

Not everyone has the same motivations for establishing agency processes. For Ryan, it was to get out of the daily grind and let his employees take over all the tasks he didn’t want to do. That allowed him to grow the business, navigate acquisition, and re-prioritize his time commitments.

Now, he’s working on a project to turn all of his agency’s successful processes and learning documents into a training program for other agencies. All of his new video material will go up on theblueprint.training.

While he still maintains a connection to his agency “at the executive level,” he now has time for new projects — like the training course — that he truly enjoys doing.

“Do you still want to be changing page titles and reviewing reports or do you want to be running and managing a business? Not everybody wants to be doing the latter, which is fine. But that’s what you need to ask yourself,” he said. Building out processes and finalizing the acquisition “has been a very positive step for my career, because I knew I needed to get myself out of the weeds if I wanted to have multiple businesses and be at the executive, not the job, level,” he explained.

Bonus action list: Get our 2-page PDF summary of action items you can use to build your agency’s processes based on Ryan’s advice.

Action items [PDF] to Build Agency
Processes That Scale.

Action items [PDF] to Build Agency
Processes That Scale.