No one likes to be micromanaged. Siege Media’s Ross Hudgens is no exception.
Unlike many entrepreneurs, Ross was content to be an employee. His manager gave him the freedom to control project direction and trusted him to make good decisions. But when the agency he worked for brought in a big-shot manager, that person revoked the creative freedom Ross had grown to love.
That gave Ross the push he needed to found Siege Media, an SEO agency specializing in link building. Six years later, he’s the proud owner of a $5M+ agency. He oversees 61 employees and boasts an enviable roster of clients like Intuit, ProFlowers, and Shutterfly.
Ross Hudgens, founder of Siege Media.
Over those six years, Ross faced all the typical decisions of an agency owner. One question he has returned to consistently is, “What kind of growth do I want to have?”
Some agency owners are looking for rapid growth and early acquisition. Many choose to branch out their services and hire executives to turbo-charge company profitability once they hit a certain size.
Ross, like any business owner, wants his agency to grow. But growth isn’t the only factor in his decisions, and he’s made some unconventional choices. For one, he’s chosen not to bring in any executive help, despite having over sixty employees. And rather than diversify his services (and cash in on the extra revenue that might bring), he stayed focused on a single offering: SEO-geared content marketing.
Ross wants to build a company he can be happy running as long as he wants. He’s heard of many agency owners who are “stuck” in the agency they’ve sold for three to five years post-acquisition. If that’s the case, “you’d better like whatever you’re building,” Ross mused.
And as the sole founder of Siege Media, he is only accountable to himself — and the trusted employees who depend on him to steer the company true. In a way, those employees are a big reason he’s been able to grow the company without outside, senior-level input.
He gives his team the freedom and responsibility they need to do a great job, and they make sure he’s able to do his. As a result, he trusts them more than he trusts someone with outside corporate experience to “get” his business and make choices true to his agency culture.
But the moral of his story is not to say that you should never fold C-level execs into your business. It’s a decision that worked well enough for Ross, but he readily admitted there were trade-offs in the process. He can’t always solve his problems with great employees.
In our conversation, Ross opened up about which areas of his business were negatively impacted (finance and sales) by his decision to fly solo. He also shared how he’s using his focus on internal growth to provide a better experience for clients and employees alike.
Bonus Action List PDF: [sg_popup id=”221″ event=”click”]Get our 3-page PDF summary[/sg_popup] of action items you can take based on Ross Hudgens’ learnings as a solo agency owner.
The Two Agency Operations Impacted Negatively by Staying Solo
In many respects, Ross enjoys being the sole owner of his company. The agency’s success is a testament to how well he’s done so far. But one person can only do so many things.
He’s focused on content marketing powered by link building because that’s what he and his team know inside and out. He’s still involved in operations, but he relies on a talented, detail-oriented employee to handle hiring, training, and process-building. In the meantime, he’s still the only person handling sales and agency finances.
As a result, those areas haven’t grown the way they might have if he’d brought in an executive or two to take over those roles.
Learning to Charge His Worth
Business finance isn’t exactly Ross’ favorite subject. He’s an SEO guy who built his business for the freedom to do things the way he believes will generate the best results. While he’s supported by an accountant and a bookkeeper, he makes all financial decisions himself. At times, that’s led him to move more slowly than he would like, especially when it comes to increasing his prices.
“I realized about a year ago that our profitability was getting crunched even though we’re growing because I wasn’t raising prices enough with our size,” he said.
He recognized the issue by looking at revenue per employee. “For us, it was around $100,000. We generally hire junior people, so it’s fine. But if you’re not fully utilized and people are getting more senior and you’re staying at the same cost level, then profitability can get crushed pretty quickly,” he said.
His goal is to get that number to $150,000. That meant he had to raise prices. “People had been telling me we were just weren’t charging enough. We had stuck at a certain price level. I started raising prices but very, very subtly. Say we were charging $3,250 for a post that we create and promote. I’d raise it to about $3,500,” he said.
But he quickly realized that he needed to raise prices aggressively, especially with new clients. To recalculate and learn precisely how aggressive he could be, he looked at one key metric: cost per link. Since so many people hire Siege Media for their ability to build links and drive traffic, the cost per link was tangibly related to their service.
And after running the numbers, Ross knew what to do. “Our cost per link was way better than market — and we also drive other value. So once I did the math and realized our cost per outcome was way better than the market, then it was relatively straightforward to adjust our pricing,” he said.
Consider: If you aren’t confident you are charging what your service is worth, look at the key metrics and deliverables you provide. What is the going market rate for them? Do you add value on top of them?
Siege Media was named in Inc Magazine as one of the Best Workplaces in 2018.
A One-Man Sales Team
At this time, Siege Media’s sales operation relies entirely on an inbound funnel. Ross qualifies and responds to leads himself.
“We are doing business development through videos, which has helped us scale. We have a video person who then interviews me and edits it to make it polished. It’s allowed us to get a lot of inbound leads — plus doing good work for people and getting referrals, of course,” he said.
The good thing is that Ross is swimming in leads because his inbound funnel is working the way it’s supposed to. But he isn’t able to get to them all in time. “I just have a bandwidth issue. For example, I might tell potential clients I’ll have a proposal to them seven days from now, and then I never have time to finish it,” he said.
That’s not to say he isn’t closing deals. But he’s letting a number of potential clients slip through the cracks. And the solution to his problem is one he’s still considering.
Ross wants to improve Siege Media’s time to proposal. Once that’s taken care of, he might implement techniques like outbound lead generation, better lead qualification, and outreach to old prospects.
He can’t do all of that by himself; there aren’t enough hours in the day. Even so, he doesn’t believe bringing in a salesperson with executive experience is the right way to go.
“After talking to some people (and this might be different based on the industry), I think that most people just don’t like talking to salespeople in general. They want to talk to someone experienced who knows what they’re doing and who actually gets the service offering. So if I take someone from our current team who is personable and who gets our service, they might actually be better at sales,” said Ross.
At the same time, he recognizes the trade-off is that person needing to learn as they go — as does Ross. But it’s an option he’s willing to explore before hiring a sales department head.
Consider: There comes a time when owners can’t respond to every lead personally. When that happens, do you find someone who knows sales but not your company, or do you start with someone who knows your company and train them in sales?
Invest in Your Employees and They’ll Invest in You
Some Siege Media team members pose for a photo.
Keeping agency organization simple is one of the ways Ross stays on top of it all.
Siege Media is organized into two main departments: content marketing and graphic design. Graphic designers who do well are promoted to the art director position; they manage five or six other graphic designers. Once there are five or six art directors, Ross promotes someone from their ranks to manage them. Same thing goes for content marketing roles.
In part because that practice has worked well for him, and in part because Siege Media’s offering and process are so unique, Ross has many reservations about bringing in senior level talent.
“I imagine if I brought someone in, even at a content marketing manager or director role, it could be demoralizing to the rest of the team. I’ve seen that happen at other companies, where they bring someone in above you… That’s functionally a ‘lack of confidence’ vote. Why couldn’t one of those people have done it?” he queried.
He’s more open to hiring from the outside for sales and finance roles since those don’t stem from content marketing or graphic design. But he’s also not going to write his people off for those roles.
“For example, we have a person I think might be good at sales. He’s really creative and outgoing and personable. He brings people together. He’s proactively shown interest in upselling to clients. So sales is a natural extension for him. And we have another person functionally in the same role as he is now, but she’s hyper-organized. It made sense to me to give her things like hiring and process because she naturally leans towards that. And another person is great at link building. So she made more sense for managing ongoing strategy for clients in a director position,” he said.
This system works well for him because he has a hands-on style and invests time in getting to know the people who work for him. He’s also proactive about their training and happiness.
Each employee gets $1,000 each year to invest in professional development. And if he notices someone who seems unhappy, he sits down with them to discuss their role, career options, and general well-being. For anyone looking to have better employees, Ross recommends trust.
“One thing that’s helped us was just trusting in and delegating to people. The quicker you trust people, the faster they grow and show ownership and do a great job,” he said.
Being able to train those employees up from the beginning is a large part of Siege Media’s current size and success.
Consider: Sometimes the best person for a new role is already in your company. When is it the right time to promote and hire from within versus looking for someone on the outside?
Siege Media’s offices are dog-friendly, a perk the whole team enjoys.
Thoughts on Siege Media’s Future
At $5M+ yearly revenue, Siege Media is a success. And for agency owners who care about more than raw revenue and growth speed, Ross’ story is encouraging. He was very open about the decisions and processes he wrestles with every day, and with the fact that what has worked for him won’t work for everyone.
“Because I’m the only person doing sales, we can’t grow hyper fast like some companies have. We just grow fast enough that you feel the cracks show when they happen, and hopefully we can fix them quickly enough that they’re not major structural issues,” he said.
In the future, Ross could decide that bringing in executive help is right for his company. But for now, he’s still happy with the choices he’s made. It’s more important to keep building the company he loves while continuing to evaluate and adapt as needed.