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How Our Business Grew Almost 300% During COVID

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by Patrick Dillon / From Our CEO

February 1, 2022

  • 6 min read

As the owner and CEO of multiple businesses, I have come to realize that my schedule is the most important thing for me to manage. I’ve often felt like I was wasting lots of time doing and thinking about things I shouldn’t be focused on.

As any business owner knows, revenue is what often keeps us up at night. Big fluctuations in revenue make managing a business stressful and make budgeting expenses very challenging. It ends up being so much of our focus until we find a formula that lessens the fluctuations.

For context, WISE Digital is not my first agency. It started in 2019 as I came out of a previous merger. WISE was a fresh start with the most talented people I ever worked with, and we started it with a solid base of clients.

That foundation of beginning client revenue, along with a decade-old pipeline of relationships, allowed us to scale the business pretty quickly. Here’s a glimpse of how revenue grew and what effect the pandemic had on our business:

I get stressed out even looking at that chart. Especially around Q1 of 2020 when COVID hit and crushed our momentum. For me, a change was needed. I was sick of the anxiety, and the pandemic simply forced me to get off my butt and move quicker with making changes in my life and business.

Starting in early 2020, I began taking active measures to get rid of activities that weren’t generating positive returns or ones that were draining me mentally and physically. This included responsibilities, tasks, and people. I became deliberate with my energy, allowing it to flow where it was needed and where it was making the most impact for the organization and our clients.

Despite the pandemic, I wanted our business to come out ahead of our pre-COVID goals for 2020. By the end of that year, we were up 56% over 2019, despite the major setbacks COVID created. This wasn’t exactly where I wanted the business to be, but it was good considering the circumstances. Last year, 2021, brought more growth—64.2%. Now in year three of the pandemic, we’re on track to grow 100-120% in 2022.

What created this growth was two-fold. Part of it had to do with the changes I personally made. Then came the changes our team and company helped make.

I Shifted My Focus as a CEO

I stopped going to weekly networking events. I was part of a weekly breakfast group that wasn’t adding value to me or the business anymore. I also estimated it was costing me about 120-150 hours a year of my time. I put that time 100% back into my own business. Looking back, I should have taken this step years ago. It was a crutch.

I got laser-focused on the numbers. We hear this all the time as business owners, but I knew it was time to focus a lot more on company processes and the financials. The results of these efforts have saved us time and money and made life easier to take on more business as an agency because we have more resources and efficiencies.

Work starts before the sun comes up. I started waking up early and beginning work right after enjoying a good coffee and sunrise. My new habit of starting work at 6 a.m. allows me to chat with our East and Central coast people, and it gives me two hours to clear my inbox and set my schedule for the day before the majority of the West coast team gets started. As a result, I go into each day now feeling more organized and less stressed.

I became a voracious reader again. I returned to reading and listening to audiobooks, trying to get through two books per month on topics related to issues I, or the business, was facing. It gave me a break and some needed perspective.

We Shifted Our Focus as a Company

We set really clear ground rules on the type of clients we would accept. In the first week back at work in January 2020, we got together as a company and talked about clients in a very structured and valuable way. We looked back at the previous year and drew on our collective 5+ years of experience as a team to answer one question—which clients were too difficult to serve, and why?

Some of the company’s greatest lessons stemmed from that meeting, and still today, it’s provided clear rules on what type of business we’ll take on.

We stopped worrying about referrals. Something I’ve been preaching to business owners for years is the idea that referrals are not something you can or should include in a marketing plan. Referrals are not predictable, and they also come naturally to businesses that consistently do good work.

Referrals are not the answer to growth. They’re an inevitable bonus, the result of running a good business, and we need to put a strategy in place for them and then move that to the back of our minds. I wrote a blog post on referral marketing in 2019, updated at the start of the pandemic. It’s still the most trafficked page to our entire website monthly.

We began putting together much more strategic marketing initiatives. The networking group was something I always felt like I should do, and it got me out of the house. But in the end, it really was never that productive. Quitting it forced me to focus on the bigger picture and start putting together a real marketing plan for our own business.

A new multi-pronged approach focused on many core efforts, including website content, SEO, target list building, paid advertising, reputation management, directories, link building, newsletters, inbound and outbound sales, and now video.

We went heavy on SEO and content. At the start of 2020, just before the pandemic hit, we decided as a team to get serious about our own agency’s marketing efforts and double our SEO and content efforts.

In that time, we went through two major overhauls of the WISE Digital website and have grown its size by nearly 500%. It’s paid off ten-fold, and we generated nearly a million dollars in new inbound client revenue from the efforts.

We started working on the design of a sales team. In addition to the marketing plans, we spent a lot of time trying to develop a sales team. It didn’t work the first time. All the clients brought in by the initial sales team left because they were a bad fit or they were sold wrong, and I let go of the whole team.

I started over and brought back the most talented and trustworthy business development leader I had ever worked with. It’s working now, and we have a plan in place for it to scale.

We gave up the idea of having an office (for now). We were remote before the pandemic began. In fact, we’ve always been remote.

The idea early on was to get an office at some point, but the pandemic helped shift our focus to developing solutions for working remotely versus looking for office space. This also freed up a lot of cash that we put into salaries and tools.

We focused on scale for the eventual windfall in business we saw coming. Sometime in 2020, I told all the key talent in my company they needed to replace themselves and become managers in the next year (when COVID started).

The only way to grow was to duplicate the most talented people in the company. My top talent stepped up and filled the roles my partner and I knew they could.

The Course Ahead…

Looking towards 2022, we plan to continue to focus on building out the teams that support all our products, services, and disciplines. At the same time, we really need to think about our business like a recruiting company. As we scale to support more and more clients and partners, we’ll need a growing pool of talented people.

Nothing is easy today, and most business owners struggle with all the change the pandemic has created and continues to force on us. We persist despite these challenges, and we’re committed to the mission. WISE is a great business, a great place to work, and a great partner to have if you’re committed to growing your own business.

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