In this podcast, Carrie interviews Brett Cohen CEO & co-founder of emagine, a digital agency located south of Boston, MA. Brett shares his insights of sales and marketing the “hard way” where there is no substitute for calling and meeting people face to face.
What you will learn from this show:
- Brett met his partner by accident by doing only one cold call by stopping at a fish market. Bill Gadless became his partner in 1996 at emagine.
- You want to “future proof” your business so you are prepared for the feast or famine cycle that occurs.
- You want to stay “top of mind” with targeted companies. When a company is ready to spend money they will think of you because you stayed in touch.
- The portfolio of work that emagine has built has become their biggest asset.
- emagine first grew with high-tech businesses because of the physical location of their office near Boston, MA.
You will learn things like:
- You can still be very successful by being self-taught.
- The hard way of sales and marketing is still a successful model. There is no substitute for meeting people, email campaigns, and cold calls.
- Stretching yourself to take on different industry projects can help you expand your portfolio of work.
- The biggest differentiator for a business is that the project can be executed and delivered successfully.
- Technology is secondary to the business. It has changed many times over the past 10 or 15 years.
- emagine often introduces WordPress to their clients, but their work it is not hinged on the technology.
Lead Generation Tips for Freelancers:
- Proactively look for leads and industries that are spending money.
- Check in periodically so when the company is ready to spend money they may think of you.
- Identify your client’s characteristics and segment them into Bronze, Silver, Gold or Platinum.
- A Platinum client does not come around often and you are lucky to land on on that project.
- The Bronze client is easy to represent but may not have ongoing work and be difficult to work with.
- You want to focus on the Gold clients that will often have a dedicated marketing person that can help you get the work done on time.
- You can concentrate on a specific industry (ex: accountants, lawyers or doctors).
About Brett Cohen
Brett Cohen is the CEO and Co-Founder of emagine, a 50-person WordPress-based Digital Agency. Brett started with his co-founder in 1996 (the dawn of the Web) as a typical “2 guys in a garage” web firm with no college degree and no money. Over the past 20 years, Brett has driven emagine’s growth to become one of the nation’s leading WordPress agencies focused on Healthcare, High-Tech, B2B and Construction. When he’s not running emagine, you may find him on a beach in South Florida listening to his favorite podcast or in his garage building some contraption. Brett lives outside of Boston with his wife and two kids.
Carrie: Hey Brett. It is so great to have you on the show today. I appreciate you joining me. How are you doing?
Brett: I’m doing great, and happy to be here, and looking forward to chatting with you.
Carrie: You and I have talked offline about this idea of future-proofing your business and the different ways that you could do that. When you say “future-proofing,” you mean kind of preparing for the inevitable feast or famine cycle of business?
Brett: Yeah. [00:00:30] I’ve been at this since 1996, and we’ve been through some tough times. The first one being September 11th. We were full steam ahead. We had 22 people at the time working. We probably didn’t have enough work for all 22, but we were [staling 00:00:51], and it was towards of the Dot Com Boom, and then September 11th happened and everybody stopped buying and we [00:01:00] all of a sudden had 22 people with no work to do. That was like the first time that we had an issue where we had to pivot very quickly, so that’s what I talk about when I talk about future-proofing your businesses, building your business in a way that allows you to get through the tough times.
Carrie: Yeah. I think everybody struggles with that at some point or another, especially freelancers just kind of getting their feet wet and starting out. If you don’t have a really full [00:01:30] referral pipeline, it can get certainly dry at times. You talked about sort of that mindset that you guys had after, “Oh crap. I’ve got 22 employees. People aren’t buying,” and a little bit of a pivot there for you guys. What did that entail.
Brett: Yeah, so the mindset when we first started, just to go back a little bit. I had my own little printing business back [00:02:00] through the early 90s in Florida, and then I moved back to Massachusetts, and hit up some people that I knew because I grew up in the area, to do any of their printing. It could be business cards or flyers. I did some design work for ads in the local newspaper. One of my clients asked if I could do a website, and I said, “I never did a website, but if you’re paying, I’m doing,” so they offered money. I went out and bought PageMill 1.0 [00:02:30] and opened the book and learned how to do a website and launched this funny website, that sometimes when I do speaking, I pull it up and show people because I still have it locally, with spinning icons and all that.
But I spelled the owner’s name wrong, his last name wrong, when I launched the site. He said, “Oh my last name, it’s E-I, not I-E,” and I was like, “Okay,” and 10 seconds and I fixed it. I said to myself at that point, I said, “Wow [00:03:00] if I had printed 10,000 flyers, I would have had to eaten that.” I just changed this in 10 seconds and no harm done. I said, “This is the business I want to be in.” But I wasn’t a designer. I wasn’t really a developer. I wasn’t a salesman. I was just kind of a guy on my own, grinding it out. This is a funny story because I actually went out cold calling one time, [00:03:30] just once.
I walked up the street, and there was some retail shops that I went in with my business cards and said, “Hey if you need any printing, give me a call. I’m right down the street,” and I walked into this fish market where you could go buy like fried fish dinners, takeout. The guy behind the counter said, “The fish store doesn’t need any printing but I do,” and I was kind of like, “Oh whatever. I’m down the street. Come in and see me,” so he came in [00:04:00] and gave me like the first order. I didn’t know him from a hole in the wall, so I made him pay me up front, and that turned out to be my partner, Bill [Gavis 00:04:10]. That’s how I met him, like literally out of the blue.
He was doing his own marketing stuff, and I was printing. He just kept bringing me all this printing. He was doing all of these mailings and these letters and flyers, and I just kept printing them. I never really looked at any of it. Once I started to look at some of the stuff, I was like, “Wow this guy’s good. He can write. [00:04:30] He knows how to market. He knows how to do this stuff.” I had now, since I found the Web, I started to sell websites to some of my own clients, and this was back when I’d tell you, “You need a website,” and people would say, “What’s a website?” That’s kind of where it was at the time.
I had told him about it, and I said, “You got to start getting into the Web.” Now, he literally didn’t even … like when I say he didn’t know how to turn on the computer, he barely knew how to turn [00:05:00] on a computer. I would say, “Hey can you give me that file on a disc,” and he’d say, “What do you mean? What’s a disc?” I’d say, “You know, you just drag it over,” and he’d say, “I have no idea what you’re talking about.” That was his technical level, but because he was a marketer, he drove around the local industrial park, and wrote down names of businesses, and he did a mailing that basically said, “Hey I did a check, and your domain name, Www.YourBusiness.Com is available.”
He got six [00:05:30] appointments, sold four websites for twice as much as I was selling them for, and called me in a panic and said, “Hey can you do the website and we’ll split it?” Then I said, “Okay. Obviously yeah. We’ll do that.” I knew right away. I said, “This is a partnership. He has something I don’t have, and I have something he doesn’t have.” It kind of took about six months, but I convinced him to partner, but right from the beginning, I said, “I just want to be a sales and marketing organization. [00:06:00] I don’t really care what we sell. If we happen to be selling websites right now, then that’s what we’ll sell. If three years from now we’re selling sand, if we know how to do sales and marketing, we’ll always be in business.” That was kind of our approach.
It was like Xerox or IBM. They just develop products to sell because they were a great sales organization and that’s what we wanted to be. Our first hire, the first person that we ever hired [00:06:30] beside ourselves, was somebody to do cold calling. That was kind of our approach from the beginning is we always knew that we wanted to be a sales and marketing organization, and luckily, and we’ve still be able to sell the same stuff 20 years later.
Carrie: I got to say, your first and only cold call had pretty incredible results.
Brett: Yeah, it was so random, and I tell people that. I say, “I never, for whatever reason, that day [00:07:00] I never did it before and I never did it after, and that was just one day.” I didn’t know him. We knew some of the same people because we grew up in the same area, but we didn’t know each other and we weren’t friends, and it just kind of happened organically over a short period of time, and we’re still partners 20 years later.
Carrie: That’s awesome. When it comes to, you mentioned cold calling and clearly, a lot has changed in 20 years [00:07:30] in terms of how we reach out to new prospects or find new leads for our business, but since you guys do a lot of sales and marketing in your company, are you still out there cold calling? Are you still out there knocking on doors, kind of hitting the pavement?
Brett: We don’t physically hit the pavement because we have clients all over the country and internationally, but we joke internally, me and Bill, we say [00:08:00] that we still get work the most difficult way you can get work, is we still mail. We still cold call. We do all the other stuff too. We have the Inbound. We do Google AdWords. We’re in certain industries, but we still do it the hard way because it works. It has worked for us since the beginning, and we’ve never found anything that has worked better, so we’ve continued to do it.
Of course, over the years, [00:08:30] we’ve modified our approach and we’ve specialized in certain industries. We never used to do Inbound. It was all outbound, cold calling and following up and relationship building, but we still do that. We still do a lot of that, and I’ve done some speaking at some WordCamps, and I tell people exactly how we do it, and people have said to me afterwords, [00:09:00] “Why would you tell a room full of potentially your competitors exactly how you guys do it?”
I always say, “Because it’s really, really hard, and I know none of you will do it, so I have no problem telling you that that’s how we do it.”We do the one thing that nobody else wants to do. Everybody wants to put up a website, write some blog posts, and just kind of wait for the business to fly in. In a perfect world, that would [00:09:30] be great, but it just never really happened that way for us.
Carrie: That’s such a great point. It is hard work to get out there and to drum up business. The longer you do it of course, the larger your referral network grows and that can snowball in a positive way to some degree, but there’s no substitute for getting out, meeting people, shaking hands, pounding pavement, whatever analogy you want to use, whether that’s digital or in person. You mentioned [00:10:00] the word “specialization” in there. What role has that played in terms of trying to find new customers?
Brett: Yeah, it’s huge. For us, I don’t think we started off saying, “We’re going to specialize.” I think what happened with us because of where we were, we were right outside Boston, there was just a ton of high tech companies within half an hour of where our office was, right [00:10:30] outside of Boston, Rhode Island, New Hampshire, Connecticut, a couple in Maine. We just started kind of selling to those companies because those were the companies that were here. We didn’t sit down strategically and say, “Well before we do anything, let’s specialize on an industry,” but that’s kind of what we did.
We realized that every project that we sold and completed and launched was helping us to get the next one. We were building [00:11:00] our portfolio, and we realized that after a certain amount of time, after a few years, and we had done a ton of projects, and they were all in kind of the same types of industries, maybe at the time we were in like two or three different industries. Our portfolio was impressive to the point where if we were pitching a company and our competitor was, even at times, if our competitor was better and we knew they were better, the company would choose us because they would look at our portfolio [00:11:30] and say, “They’ve done like 50 companies that are just like us? Could be our competition even? How can we go wrong?”
I’ve used that IBM quote back in like the 60s and 70s when I’ve done some speaking when they talk about, “No one ever got fired for using IBM, for buying IBM.” It’s true. That’s what happened, so we realized, we were like, “Every project that we did was helping us get the next project,” so people [00:12:00] didn’t come to our portfolio and just see kind of all over the place. They came to our portfolio and saw 50 companies just like them, that they knew who they were. The other people didn’t know who they were. People used to say, “Well who do you do work on?” I’d say, “We do work for big companies that you’ve never heard of.”
It’s all B-To-B. The average person never heard of most of our clients, but if you were in that space, you knew exactly who they were and that’s kind of how we built our business, and our [00:12:30] portfolio became our biggest asset, and everything we did was to build that portfolio, which even meant taking on some projects that weren’t as profitable because we knew we wanted that company in our portfolio, stretching ourselves a little bit, taking on projects that were probably a little bit too big for us at the time because we knew we wanted that company in our portfolio. That was our focus.
Then what we did, once we kind of realized what had happened, looking back, [00:13:00] we said, “Okay specialization in industries is really the key to this thing, and let’s add industries.” Then we went after construction. The Big Dig was happening in Boston, which was like a $14 billon project, so every construction company around here was flush with cash, and we said, “Oh they’re a great industry. They have money. They’re way behind in technology. Let’s sell to them.” We started getting those types of clients. The first one was hard, but then the next one saw that we had the first one and they all knew each other and [00:13:30] it just snowballed. We kept adding industries, and that’s kind of how we did it.
Carrie: You established kind of a core specialization, nailed it, built the portfolio, and then reached out to other industry verticals.
Brett: Right, and the specialization had nothing to do with the technology. It had nothing to do with the design. It had nothing to do with actually what we were building. It had to do with the types of companies that we [00:14:00] were trying to work for. Some people look at specialization and say, “I’m the best at Flash developer,” or, “The best ASP.Net developer,” or, “The best WordPress developer,” or the best anything. It could be the best designer. We never really took that approach. We used to say to the people that we were pitching, we’d say, “At our level, at the types of projects that we’re talking about, anybody that you talk to should be good at design and technology,” [00:14:30] so that wasn’t really a differentiator for us.
Believe it or not, back in the beginning the biggest differentiator for us was that we could execute, is that we could actually deliver on what we said we would deliver, and that was a differentiator at the time because a lot of companies were around and promising the world and never could deliver on it. Our specialization was just about the industries that we served and had nothing to do with what we were actually selling.
Carrie: I think that [00:15:00] is so key and so important. I want to hang out on that point just for a little bit, that you guys were serving an industry, providing a solution, but the technology that you used to do it is really quite secondary. It’s not that you guys are an enterprise-level WordPress agency. WordPress is one that you use. You picked the tool that’s best for the job [00:15:30] so that you can sell a solution to somebody and the technology doesn’t really matter.
Brett: For us, it doesn’t. We’re probably one of the bigger WordPress agencies out there. We have 50 people. That’s big in this space, but we’re not known like some of the other agencies as being like the top WordPress development companies because that’s not what we lead with. We never lead with technology. [00:16:00] In 98% of the cases, we’re introducing WordPress. Companies aren’t coming to us because they’re looking for WordPress developer. We’re finding the right companies and we’re introducing WordPress, and sometimes, it’s an issue. They don’t want WordPress, but we’re usually introducing it.
Our business is not hinged on WordPress. If WordPress was gone tomorrow, we literally would not miss a beat. We would just, whatever [00:16:30] the next project was, we would do it in Drupal or do it in something else. When I listen to other podcasts and I meet people in this space and I hear their elevator pitch, and it always starts with, or it always at least contains WordPress, I always say to myself, “Take the WordPress piece out of it, and build your business around something else that isn’t hinged on the technology,” at least my opinion. I just feel [00:17:00] like you have to sell yourself and have a differentiator versus just saying that we do WordPress.
We’ve pivoted five to six times on technology over the years. Stuff comes and goes. I mean, at one time, ColdFusion was the biggest and best thing that was out there, or Flash, or Flash homepage intros, and if you weren’t doing those, you were dead back in the day. [00:17:30] I think that you got to find something else and go with it and you should be introducing the technology if you can. If you have a specific skillset around a technology that nobody else has, then fine. We don’t really think of ourselves like that. There’s plenty of great WordPress development companies out there. We don’t fancy ourselves as that company. We do a good job. We can work with the best of them, [00:18:00] but that’s really not our lead.
Carrie: I think that’s so important just from a mental shift of thinking of ourselves, and I’m speaking for myself too, thinking of ourselves as only serving on a particular technology, in this case, WordPress, but again, feast or famine or a September 11, there’s going to be times when you’ve got to change direction. [00:18:30] Maybe WordPress will up and die. I don’t know. It just celebrated its 14th birthday. Hopefully it’s not going anywhere.
Brett: I don’t think it will. I don’t think it will. 90% of everything we do is WordPress, but we just go after it a different way. We’re trying to develop markets for WordPress. We’re going into markets that aren’t using WordPress, and we’re introducing WordPress. [00:19:00] We’re leading with ourselves as a company, and we’re trying to bring WordPress in, which isn’t easy all the time, but what it does for us is it removes a lot of competition, not that we don’t have competition. But if we were just going after kind of the established WordPress industries like publishing, everybody’s going after them.
Carrie: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Brett: If we were going [00:19:30] after them too, we would be competing against all these great WordPress agencies. We try to go where there isn’t competition, not that there’s not competition, because there’s always somebody, but at least we may be pitching a big project and we may be the only ones pitching WordPress as an alternative. That’s our approach, is we’re going after certain industries that we’ve identified [00:20:00] as good companies that have budget that have people in place to get projects finished, that aren’t going to nickel and dime you when there’s changes or after the fact support, or they’re not sending out a quote to 100 other [00:20:30] WordPress people.
Brett: We’re finding the companies ourselves, and we found that it lets us have less competition. We can differentiate ourselves. We can usually work with higher margins, and that kind of our approach.
Carrie: It goes back to you guys are proactively looking for leads, not just waiting for one to come in through some organic [00:21:00] SEO and land on your website.
Brett: Right, no. We do get that. We get it, but it’s usually industry-specific. We may get some hospital out in Seattle that happened to find us because we did some other hospital in Phoenix and they liked the site and they found out that we did it and they find us and that’s like an organic lead that way, but most [00:21:30] of the time we’re really aggressively going after certain markets that we’ve defined. We’re not always right. We’ve gone after some markets that we’ll never be able to penetrate because they’re just really locked up by other technology and other providers that are much bigger than we are that have already identified this industry or this market as a great place to be. Any time there’s a big market with a lot of money to spend, [00:22:00] there’s usually a lot of players in it.
Carrie: Well, let’s talk about … A lot of folks that listen to this show are freelancers, so they maybe don’t have the huge marketing departments or they are their marketing department, but what are some lead generation kind of tactics or tips that could apply across the board?
Brett: For the freelancer, this is kind of how I would do [00:22:30] it if I was on my own now, and it’s a way that we did it. We just didn’t plan on doing it that way. I’m giving you kind of a revision of how it happened. I would look at my current list of clients and I would kind of segment them and say, “Who are my bronze, silver, gold, and platinum clients?” Right? I would say, “The platinum ones are probably [00:23:00] those ones that don’t come around often that you just happen to land on and that was a great client, but it’s going to be difficult to find more of those.” The bronze are the ones that are easier to get but don’t represent a lot of ongoing work, where it was a tough project or just wasn’t a great project for whatever reason.
The gold ones, and look at the gold ones and say, “What makes these gold clients? What is it about these clients that make [00:23:30] them gold?” You’ll find some of the same things. It’s either they have a dedicated marketing person that can work with you to get the project done because as a freelancer and even small agencies, when you’re dealing with an owner of the company, today they want to get this website done. It’s the most important thing in their world, and they’re with you on it day in and day out, but next week they have a truck that blew two tires and they’re out there changing [00:24:00] it themselves, and now the website is not important and the project kind of hangs on the vine for a long time. How many times does that happen, right?
Carrie: Oh yeah.
Brett: It happens all the time, so that could be a characteristic of a gold client, right? Somebody that has a dedicated person in charge of getting the job done, getting the project done. It could be industry. You might look at your gold client and say, “You know what? Every single one of these are [00:24:30] professional services.” All my gold clients are either accountants, lawyers, doctors. “Okay let me segment them. They represent a gold client.” It could be number of employees. There could be a whole bunch of things, but once you kind of segment and figure out who your gold clients are, then you have to try to get more of them.
That’s who you want to try to go after. I know it sounds simple, “Oh just get more of them,” but that’s what you build all [00:25:00] of your tactics around. For us it’s the tactical stuff. Even way back in the day it was getting a list. Back then you would buy a list of companies, but that wasn’t good enough, so we would actually call the companies, get not just one contact, but we would get all the contacts. We would identify who the decision-makers are, whether it was CEO, CTO, CMO, marketing person, secretary, whoever it was, and we would contact [00:25:30] all of them.
We would send them each a mailer. We would call each of them multiple times. We would figure out who the decision makers were and then we would check in with them, even when they said, “We’re not interested. We’re all set,” which was 99% of all of the interactions, right? They were all “All set” all the time, but in this business, you know it’s a timing issue. Not everybody needs a website today, or not everybody [00:26:00] needs to have work done on their website or SEO. Well, everybody does need SEO at all times, but they don’t know they need it. We just tried to stay in touch. I always use this story. We live south of Boston. You’re in Texas right?
Carrie: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Brett: Where we are, on the morning news, there’s like three or four big furniture companies that advertise nonstop, competing with each other. [00:26:30] It may happen where you are too. Okay, so where we are furniture must be very profitable because there’s like three or four big ones and they’re just all over the news at all times. Buying furniture is like a website. You don’t need a couch all the time, right? But eventually you are going to need a couch or a bed or something, and what they’re trying to do is just stay top of mind. [00:27:00] That’s all we try to do, is we just try to stay top of mind so that when you do need a project or you have a need, you may talk to three other people, but you’re going to talk to us too.
It’s like if I need a piece of furniture, I don’t know exactly who I’m going to buy from, but I know the three places I’m going to try because they’re advertising to me every day on TV and on the radio. We try to just stay top of mind by just touching these companies year after year and not to the point where it’s [00:27:30] annoying. I’m sure it’s annoying, but where we feel it’s annoying, but to the point that we just kind of stay in touch, and we’ve literally had companies that we’ve talked to for five or six years that never did a thing with us that we ended up doing projects for because we just stayed top of mind.
Carrie: When my water heater went out, I hired one of the plumbers that I had seen their commercials a million times [00:28:00] during the morning news, so it does work. Yeah.
Brett: Yeah, it works, and it doesn’t take a lot of energy. Somebody could identify 20 companies that they’d really want to do work for and just kind of stay in touch with them, either through mailings or through phone calls, just checking in and not being persistent or really tough on the phone, just checking in. You’d be surprised how that works. Now, it’s tough, and most people don’t [00:28:30] want to do that, but it does work, and again, I’m thinking about for the freelancer who wants to try to get some more work now. It’s not the easiest way, but it’s the most cost-effective way to do it, versus saying, “Oh I’m going to go drop X amount of dollars in Google AdWords,” or, you know, “I’m going to spend a year and develop my blog and write all [00:29:00] this great content and get all this organic SEO.” That’s kind of what works, but the specialization works too.
Carrie: Great stuff. Good food for thought. Brett, we are going to have to wrap it up, but I would love if you could share where people could find you online to just say hello or see what you’re up to.
Brett: That’s a good question. I’m personally not [00:29:30] … you know, I’m on Twitter. I think I’m @BrettMCohen, two Ts, and Emagine.Com, E-M-A-G-I-N-E.Com. That’s pretty much it. Where else should I be?
Carrie: Oh, I think that’s pretty good, and I will include links to those in the show notes. Thank you so much Brett. I appreciate your time.
Brett: No problem.