Starting Your Own Growth Marketing Agency (with Annie Mosbacher, Co-founder & Chief Strategy Officer at Decoded Strategies)
Matt Bilotti: Hello, and welcome to another episode of The Growth Podcast. I'm your host, Matt Bilotti, and I am really excited today to have Annie Mosbacher back on the podcast. We had her once before when she was working at Nation Builder. And recently, almost a year ago now, switched over to doing a growth marketing agency, doing consulting on her own. And I want to talk about that whole transition, some of the stuff that she has learned along the way. I know a lot of folks that I've talked to in growth always wonder. Can they do it on their own? What would that look like? How would they build that? How would they get new clients and all that? So we have Annie. Annie, thanks so much for joining here again.
Annie Mosbacher: Yeah, Matt. Thanks for having me.
Matt Bilotti: Absolutely. So why don't you give just the quick rundown of your background? And then we'll go ahead and hop right in.
Annie Mosbacher: Yeah. So I have been working in the SaaS space for just about the better part of a decade. I was at Nation Builder, which you mentioned, for several years, worked at another SaaS company over the 2020 year, mostly in kind of marketing and customer success work, so retention and growth marketing being the two pillars that I really love to do, leading teams that really focus on kind of B to B, both S and B and enterprise growth.
Matt Bilotti: Awesome. And so let's talk about your switch to running decoded strategies, which is your agency firm, consulting, whatever you want to call it. Why did you make the switch going from practitioner to that? Was it just you wanted more control over your lifestyle? Tell me more about that.
Annie Mosbacher: Yeah. It still is kind of wild actually that switch happened in my life. It's fun to think back and talk about. So I had joined a new company just right three months before the pandemic hit, so had made a switch, was really excited to join a new software company. The pandemic hit, and then we all had the year that we had, which was not what any of us thought was going to happen. So 2020 was rough, man. It was a year where I think all of us in retention and growth had some of the biggest professional challenges, certainly that I've ever had. And so my year was very full of facing new challenges, retention, how we could support our customers and keep them with us, just in every possible way. So it was an exciting year in a lot of ways. For professional growth, it was a challenging year. And I think by the end of 2020 when we kind of got over the hump of the pandemic, I was feeling the reality of pandemic burnout and just having not only come off of that year, but also come off of several years of leading really large teams and thinking about: What's next for me and what am I looking for? So that was a pivotal moment where I kind of took stock of there are these exciting projects and things that I really wanted to seek out, certainly, the idea that you mentioned of managing my own day and being my own boss. That stuff was exciting as well, but it really was more I wanted to take a little bit of a shift, make sure that I was continuing to challenge myself. And this seemed like the right way to do it.
Matt Bilotti: I love that. And something that I always think about for folks that are making that jump, or the hesitation I hear is like, " I don't know if I could pull it off. Do I have the expertise or the network to get clients?" What gave you the confidence that you could actually make this leap?
Annie Mosbacher: Was there confidence? I don't know. I think certainly there were deciding factors that came into play. And still to this day, like I said, it's like, " Gosh, I can't believe that this is my life now." It's been incredible, but it was a hard leap. To your point, I think there's a lot of self doubt. There's a lot of worry. It's really risky, especially when you've come from the tech world, where for all intents and purposes, things are pretty stable. There's decent job security. There's good stability. There's a lot of opportunities to grow in that world. So a couple factors for me I think really ended up sealing the deal. Throughout the pandemic, I just organically through my network was receiving so many notes and emails and texts looking for thought partnership, looking for some advice and strategy around retention, being that we were in to some extent, uncharted territory. And so it made me realize, not only within the company that I was in, certainly we were wrestling with that, but it really just instilled a more visceral understanding that the tech world as a whole was struggling with this. So it made me realize that there was a new vector to the market of a need for consultancy and agency work, and growth marketing and retention. There are new challenges that everybody was just trying to figure out. So I knew that there was a bit of a market for it, in particular within my own network, which was really promising. I'm not sure that I would've made the leap if I didn't have people that I knew that were hungry for that type of support. I also at the same time as I was kind of going through this, my own process, one of my very best friends and former colleagues, Kristen, was also thinking about going off on her own. And so we just realized there was a perfect moment of serendipity where if we wanted to take the leap, we could do it together, and decided to go into business. So that was both exciting to know that I didn't have to do it alone, but also, the opportunity to work with somebody who I'd worked with before, and our partnership is such that we bring out the best in each other. And so in pursuit of that personal growth, I thought, " Who better than to be able to work and build something with someone who I just think so highly of and I know will challenge me?" So I think the knowledge that there was already a bit of a soft pipeline for my network, and the prospect of doing it with somebody that I knew was just going to be a badass partner really helped.
Matt Bilotti: Yeah. That's awesome. You have the confidence that you and her could figure it out, and enough of a starting point. I think another... When I think about people making that leap, I think some... There is the, I am all in, committing to this no matter what. And then there's the other strategy, which is kind of like, " I'll do it on the side, on the weekends, and see what happens." Do you have any thoughts for the difference between those?
Annie Mosbacher: Yeah. There's certainly I think a place for a side hustle to happen. I think the building of an entire business with real desire to grow and scale into some significant, I don't know that's doable as a side hustle, nights and weekends. I think there's a lot of opportunity for people who have really fulfilling careers, but want to kind of take something else on, whether from a financial perspective, or just personal growth perspective, to plug in as a contractor, or to take on a few jobs, or a few gigs here or there. But for us, we really wanted to build something for the long- term, build it sustainably, really thinking ahead to a five, 10 year mark. And I'm not sure that we would've been able to do that with as much enthusiasm and as much energy as just taking the plunge and doing it ourselves full- time.
Matt Bilotti: Yeah. So it sounds like a lot of it ties to: What is the intention here? Is the intention making a little bit of extra money? Or is the intention to build something with a very clear vision and that you want to scale up?
Annie Mosbacher: Totally.
Matt Bilotti: So you were talking a little bit about how you were getting some early inbound from folks. How did you... I mean, it sounds like you just kind of worked with them and figured out, let's take something on. But how did you decide the type of work that you were going to do? Did you sit down with your partner and say, " We are going to focus on X, Y, and Z type of work. And we are going to do that and deliver it"? Or was it kind of more of just like, " Okay, this client needs this. We'll do some bespoke thing? And then the next one, bespoke thing. Talk us through that.
Annie Mosbacher: So there was a lot of intention in our early days in kind of how to tackle exactly that question. We read a whole bunch of books about starting your own business, so we tried to seek a lot of advice. And frankly, any philosophy you could create, there's a book that backs it up. So we took from all of the resources out there, what was helpful. But the big things that kind of drove how we both built our products and services, as well as sought out specific types of clients, we really started with a pretty robust exercise to identify. Who do we believe is our ideal client? What is our ideal client profile? What do we think we can deliver on? And who do we think will most benefit from those things? So when we think about building those products and services and how we wanted to start, it was really hand in hand with both our skills and what we believed we had to deliver, but also, who would make the best use of that with the client profile. So that client profile has changed over the course of the year. We don't hold it hard and fast, but it is our North Star and our guiding light. And when we have deviated from that, afterwards we're like, " Man, we should've known. We should've known that this was just outside of really what we've learned." So in terms of kind of where we started with our products and services, my background is squarely in SaaS growth, marketing, and retention. Kristen comes from a really deep kind of brand marketing and storytelling background. So we wanted to put those things together and think about: How do they align? How can we deliver value in a very saturated market? That's something that we think about a lot. There are a lot of marketing consultancies out there. And so we kind of honed it in on kind of a mix of both strategy and execution in mind of growth marketing is the place that we want to start. But if you don't think about retention when you build your marketing messaging, your marketing strategy, your go to market plan, you're totally screwed in the long run. So we really take a focus on almost retention minded marketing from the messaging perspective and execution funnel perspective as well.
Matt Bilotti: Before we hopped onto the recording, we were talking a little bit about the difference in the type of work that you could take on, which is either a little more focused on strategy, or deep in the weeds execution. And you just said there is a little bit of a balance that you struck between both of those things. How do you think about that? The building an agency around, we're going to show up and get in the weeds and set up the systems, and build the campaigns and do everything, versus a little bit more of a higher level.
Annie Mosbacher: Yeah. Well, for the most part, we've indexed more on the higher level strategy work. There are a few reasons for that. The first is our background, that's really where we have more experience and expertise. Having come from being in executive level positions, overseeing really large marketing and success teams, most of my work was big picture, high level strategy, delegation to team members to do some of the in the weeds. So from both our background perspective, as well as just recognizing the greatest value we can deliver to clients, I just don't know if me spending 20 hours over a month digging into segments and plugging it into the product, and figuring out how to pipe it into something else, that's just not the greatest use of my time, frankly, because it's not my greatest strength. And I think we have other things to deliver, so that has certainly come up in client conversations and when we've talked to leads and prospects who are very execution mind, and almost don't even care as much about the strategy. They just recognize we don't have somebody on staff who can get into the weeds and kind of get into the tech and do stuff that we need. I've actually found that to be really detrimental when companies just want to go towards the execution and just want to get the technical person to get under the hood because it can cause some spinning wheels, especially if you bring a consultant in to do that under the hood work. So we really try to encourage, let's start with strategy. Let's dig into: What are some of the challenges you're having? Is it in onboarding? Is it in activation? Is it in retention? Are you not building a big enough pipeline? And then from there, we can really dig into pretty prescriptive strategies and action plans that then we hand over to them to execute.
Matt Bilotti: Yeah. It makes sense. And it wouldn't be a Growth Podcast if we didn't talk about scaling in any way. So how do you think about... Do you and your partner... And you're almost a year now, how do you think about scaling yourselves? It sounds like your superpowers are around the strategic stuff. And how do you scale that? And is it necessarily the thing that you need to or want to do? How do you approach that future?
Annie Mosbacher: Totally. So probably because my background comes from SaaS, all I ever think about is scaling and growing. And are we doing things efficiently? So it has been such an interesting challenge to apply that background to a services organization. It's really, really different. But I love the challenge, and I actually think there is so much that agencies and consultancies and service based organizations can pull from SaaS companies and recurring revenue companies. So when we think about scale, there's a couple of different ways that we're trying to figure that out when we're thinking about it. One is certainly the types of products that we deliver. So with that kind of strategy focus, that anchors most of our products, we also know that our greatest superpower, both Kristen and I, and what we share, is that we really have the ability to facilitate dialogue with clients and to tease out ideas and tease out the best kernels of content that they have in their minds and just can't articulate. I think that's a big challenge people in marketing have in particular. We even have it with our own business. We work with external marketers to help us market our business because when you're so close to something, it's just really, really challenging to come at it from an objective perspective. So that's really how we approach kind of our strategy sessions, our kind of strategy recommendations and findings, is it's very collaborative with the client, very facilitation based, so that we can pull everything we need from people. That's problematic in scale because that requires Kristen and I to be on conversations with all of our clients. So we've been really thinking about that. What can we distill that superpower down to the smallest kernel, the MVP of our facilitated style of service? And what does that look like? So for us, we haven't figured it out. We haven't cracked the nut yet. If any listener has, please email me and let me know. But what we've been trying to do is figure out: Is there a DIY product we could build, where we infuse it with a lot of our best practices and our approach, but that somebody who can't pay a decently hefty price point for us might be able to reap some rewards and get some value from that on their own? We've really tried to build our products in a way that they can scale up and down for an SNB market at a price point, as well as enterprise. So we think about that too. What's a kind of SNB version of a strategy package versus what's something that will appeal more to our enterprise clients? So I think that's really for us. How can we scale efficiently with our superpower? And we want to make sure that we're diversifying our client base, so that we've got a healthy SNB business and an enterprise business to make sure that sustains us in growing for the future.
Matt Bilotti: Yeah. I love the way that you're thinking about it because I mean, at core, the way you explain it is just the same that you would build a software product. You think about the target customers, the different price points. It's all about packaging and delivering that to market. You'd also mentioned I think when we were talking earlier outside of this podcast, was that you started to bring in some folks for contracting to help open up some more of your hours. Tell us more about that.
Annie Mosbacher: Yes. So we did that pretty early on, and that was a bit of a risk. Contracting out work, that is very expensive. It can be very expensive and hits your margins. So we kind of started out the year with a pretty conservative kind of financial model and growth model, where we paid very close attention to our margins. We paid very close attention to our profit margins in particular. That's really important to us. And so the decision for us and looking at it almost on a matrix of more of our time. What will that result in, even if it's at the mercy of paying contractors and bringing contractors on? Where is the algorithm that maximizes all of it? So we've kind of approached that from a place of hiring contractors for certain functions. So we do in many of our client projects execute copywriting. So if we build a strategy and kind of figure out the sales funnels that a company needs to execute on, a lot of that does hinge on coming up with a core brand messaging that can be used in marketing and retention strategies. I feel really passionately that there is not enough alignment between marketing teams and customer success teams around messaging. That's a whole other conversation we could have. But because of that belief, we do a lot of copywriting. While Kristen and I can copy write, I think we're pretty decent copy writers, we like it okay. But it isn't necessarily the best use of our hours in growing the business, and is something that we can absolutely contract out to people who are excellent copy writers, who want that type of side hustle work, to go back to our first question, and our eager and hungry to kind of take on things here and there. So we've really kind of looked at: What are the different functions that are required for us to run our business and to deliver client work that we might be able to contract out? And copywriting has been a big one. We have a couple of other places that we've brought on our contractors to help with, but that's been a huge, huge help for us in scaling our time and making us as efficient as we can possibly be.
Matt Bilotti: That is awesome. And when you think about scaling the business, not just beyond your hours with contractors, but future customers as well, you got your starting point with some inbound. How do you think about scaling your pipeline so that you can get future clients? That's something that I imagine many folks are thinking about as well, if they're thinking about making the leap, they could probably get a couple things going. But how do you actually turn that over into more business over time?
Annie Mosbacher: Excellent question. So I'm kind of an insomniac. And what I usually spend my nights doing is thinking about work. I'll text myself things and send myself emails, all this stuff that eats up my brain in the middle of the night, and that's one of them. How are we going to continue to grow and increase our pipeline? We started this business with the desire to help as many people as we possibly could, and for us to shoot for the stars and see how big we can grow this thing. So we are always thinking about how we can grow and scale, specifically from a pipeline perspective and a client based perspective. So I do think the focus on building an SNB and enterprise business and that two different sides of the business has been a big driver for us. There are lot of consultancies and agencies and even solopreneurs out there who just want to go for the big fish. And we've seen excellent, excellent marketers and really brilliant strategists build their agencies with the goal of getting a handful of seven figure retainer clients onboard. That takes a lot to support, so they've also then had to build a really big staff and a lot of technical infrastructure to be able to support that. And as soon as one of those clients leaves, you're screwed. And we've seen again, brilliant businesses go under for that. So again, that diversity I think for us is a big deal. And so in thinking about how to build the pipeline, we look at a lot of our acquisition tactics in funnels. What are the different funnels that we want to create, so that we can attract those two segments to us in a relatively equitable way? Again, we haven't totally figured it out yet, but we're really trying to figure out, especially going into the new year. We've been so lucky this year with our inbound. How can we increase that inbound and maybe even start to think about outbound? And what does that look like, so that we are building a sustainable low end and high end parts of our business? We also do not take for granted upsell. So a big part of our revenue growth this year has been through upsell. Again, I think because we look at marketing with such a retention eye, there's a meta piece to that, that we want to retain our clients. We want to continue to grow and build relationships with our clients. But we also really want to encourage every one of our clients and their business to not stop just because you have a beautifully written, brand new website. You need to now think about how you're going to get more eyeballs on it. Once you get more eyeballs on it, how are you making more sales? Once you get more sales, how are you retaining those customers? How are you increasing renewals, et cetera? So I think that in addition to increasing our inbound and increasing our new client acquisition, upsell strategy is going to be a big one for us, and it's something that I get really excited about, and isn't always a big focus for agencies who just want to get somebody on a retainer and then just set it and forget it, which is not really our model.
Matt Bilotti: So this next question might be a little silly, given how excited you are and how much energy you have. Are you happy with this switch from in the weeds practitioner to consultant? I guess I would add too. Is there anything you explicitly miss, that you look at and say, " I wish I had that, but still better off this way"?
Annie Mosbacher: Yes, totally, totally, on all of those things. So the short answer to that is I'm so happy with the decision that I made and the way that things have been going so far. It's actually one of my happiest years professionally because I get to build something from scratch. I'm really helping to drive the course of what we do. And every decision that I make, every decision that I make with my business partner, we see the positive or negative of that. And I think it's hard in a really large tech company in particular to see that immediate results of your actions and your decisions. And so there's something so rewarding about that. In my career, I had gotten to a point that I loved, but that also was a challenge, which is I started managing such large teams that so much of my role certainly was high level strategy, but a lot of it was about kind of the management of a relatively large organization that sat under me. And that took me away from being able to get into strategy and planning, and almost the creative strategy that I found myself really hungry for. And so that's a bit of a double edged sword. I really miss managing people. That was always something that I loved about my career. I miss having a team. I miss running team meetings. I miss setting massive scale OKRs, which I know is so nerdy, but I did, I really loved that part of my job. But is has also, the absence of that has freed me up to kind of tap into almost a more creative, strategic brain that just wasn't possible when I was working in the tech grind, where there was always crisis, or there was always a quota that wasn't being hit. And there was always management need, or hiring, and this has just freed me up to kind of engage my brain in a different way, which I'm really so thankful for.
Matt Bilotti: That's awesome. What a cool thing to be able to say, that this is one of your happiest years professionally. That is fantastic.
Annie Mosbacher: Oh, it's amazing. I've gotten to work with companies that I never, never in my wildest dreams would've thought I'd be able to work with. And so I think that's been another big benefit, is you get to work with so many different people, personalities, companies, challenges. When Kristen and I get on a sales call with a new company, both of our eyes just start to light up when they describe really gnarly, hard problems because we've either seen that before, or we haven't, and we want to be able to apply interesting ways of solving that problem, so it's been awesome.
Matt Bilotti: That is amazing. All right, before we wrap here, was there anything else that you want to touch on that we maybe didn't get a chance to talk about yet?
Annie Mosbacher: Yeah. I think as I was reflecting on this and thinking about people out there who might want to make the leap for themselves, hopefully this was all helpful, but something that for me I've tried to kind of hold on as a mantra, as I've learned over the course of the year is to be open to surprises. So I am somebody who likes to plan. I like to have a plan. I like there to be a plan. That is just my nature. And throughout my adulthood, I've learned that sometimes you have to go with the flow. And agility is certainly something I don't take for granted. But the course of this year, the number of surprises that have come up in positive and in not so great ways has just been astounding. And we've learned so much from the kind of unexpected things that pop up. One of our kind of best verticals that we've started to work with is enterprise IT providers. I have never done anything with IT in my entire life. I know the word Kubernetes because one time I was in a software engineering stand up, where they brought it up. But that's just not really a vertical or an area that we ever would've thought, " Oh, that's going to be a brad and butter part of our business." But really organically over the year, that has been an industry that really needs a lot of marketing support, that doesn't have a lot of resources. It taps into our technical brains because we come from a SaaS place, so we can understand just enough to be able to make it really palatable for a wider audience. And what a surprise, and what a fruitful surprise that's been. So I would say for anybody that is looking to kind of summon the energy and confidence to make a leap, be open to surprises because they may end up being the make it or break it moment, so keep an eye out for those.
Matt Bilotti: Love it. What a great thing to end on. Annie, thank you so much for joining again on the podcast. It has been a pleasure.
Annie Mosbacher: You're welcome, Matt. It's so good to talk with you.
Matt Bilotti: Yeah. All right, all of you listening, thank you so much for doing so. I know there are so many things you can listen to, watch, work on, play, there's so many things you could spend your time doing, and you're spending it here listening to the podcast, and I super appreciate it. If you're a fan, leave a review. I'm trying to get a few more written reviews there. Also, if you've got any feedback, ideas for topics, guest suggestions, whatever it might be, my email is matt @ drift. com. Thank you again for listening, and I will catch you on the next episode.
Annie Mosbacher was a practitioner of customer retention and growth for 15 years, but in 2021, she decided it was time for a change and went out to start her own growth marketing agency. That move has turned this year into one of her happiest professional years.
In this episode, Annie explains why she knew it was time to start her own growth marketing agency, how her practitioner experience influences prioritization, and how she and her co-founder balance in-the-weeds versus high-strategy work.
Some key moments include:
- Why Annie made the switch from practitioner to consultant (1:30)
- Finding the confidence to make a career switch (3:30)
- How to determine if your passion is a side-hustle or a full-time job (5:40)
- The importance of building a business with intention (6:50)
- How to balance in-the-weeds vs. high-level strategy work (9:35)
- How Annie looks at scaling a services organization (11:30)
- Why Decoded Strategies decided to hire contractors (14:40)
- How to scale pipeline (16:40)
- What makes this year Annie's happiest professional year (19:40)
- Annie's mantra for the year (22:30)