How to 4X Your Digital Agency By Establishing the Right Processes

By Jason Swenk on January 30, 2022

Would you like to 4X your digital agency in less than 3 years? Joe Shelerud is the co-founder of the Amazon advertising agency Ad Advance. Joe was on the podcast two years ago talking about using automation to retain agency clients. Since then, he and his partner have managed to 4X their agency and have really seen the results of the processes they were just starting to implement two years back. In this new interview, Joe talks about growing the team, the agency’s first key hires, the processes they implemented to train new team members, and much more.

3 Golden Nuggets

  1. First key hires before scaling. It has been two years since we last spoke with Joe and he has managed to 4X his agency in that time. According to him, one of the key things that he was focusing on back then was building out the automation, the systems, and the structure for his agency. He and his partner were still managing all accounts and the first step for them was to look for ways to reduce the amount of time they spent on daily tasks. Because of this, some of their first hires were developers to make sure they were building those systems and that structure.
  2. Hiring for culture first. When it came time to start building the team and start growing, Joe decided that the priority would be hiring people that were a right fit for the team. “Experience is great,” he assures “but at the end of the day, if you get that one wrong fit within your agency or your group, they can take down the entire group.” This is why the agency has mainly focused on 1. People who meet the culture bar, where experience is an extra piece of the puzzle, and 2. Hiring locally, which has worked better for their team.
  3. Establishing a training process. As they started hiring new team members, it was time to put together processes that would help them get up to speed efficiently. They started analyzing what day did every day in terms of client interactions, picking apart different pieces of tasks that we knew that they could no longer support in the long term. As they were able to do that, each of these little pieces became documents or little training videos, and eventually will be an entire training course.

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E2M Solutions: Today’s episode of the Smart Agency Masterclass is sponsored by E2M Solutions, a web design and development agency that has provided white label services for the past 10 years to agencies all over the world. Check out and get 10% off for the first three months of service.


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4X Your Digital Agency in  <3 Years & Build a Great Team By Hiring For Culture First

{These transcripts have been auto-generated. While largely accurate, they may contain some errors.}

Jason: [00:00:00] What’s up, everybody? Jason Swenk here and I have another amazing episode for you. We’re going to bring on a past guest from two years ago, who 4X their agency. So we’re going to talk about how they’ve 4X their agency, grown, outgrown, many offices and lots of cool things. So you can grow faster in your agency.

So let’s go ahead and get into the episode.

Hey, Joe. Welcome back to the show.

Joe: [00:00:31] Yeah. Thanks for having me on again, Jason.

Jason: [00:00:33] Yeah, man. I’m, I’m excited. So for the people that have not listened to the first show and we’ll link that in the show notes if you go to, but, um, go ahead and tell us who you are and what do you do?

Joe: [00:00:44] Yeah. So for those who don’t know me, I’m Joe Shelerud. I’m located up in Duluth, Minnesota. So we’re up, but kind of on the tip of Lake Superior on the Western edge. You can take i35 up to where it ends and that’s where we’re based out of. I got my start in e-commerce actually selling on Amazon. I’ve got a chemical engineering background. And so I was selling these organic chemistry molecular model kits, and they’re used for organic chemistry courses when you go through something like chemical engineering.

And as I was going through that journey of building out my seller business, um, started really focusing on the advertising side. And as I was reaching out to different agencies to try to manage my own what I found is that the tools that I had built up in the strategies I put in place was actually a lot more complex than what I was seeing these other agencies that they were offering.

So at that point I got this idea that, you know, maybe, maybe I could help out other sellers. So that was about five years ago. I combined up with, uh, Matt Wicklund who’s our co-founder at Ad Advance. And since that point we’ve been really focusing on first on Amazon advertising, but now really branching out into all forms of e-commerce advertising.

So, yeah, now we’ve had a lot of growth in happy to talk to you about it today.

Jason: [00:01:58] Awesome. And yeah, I mean, well, I mean, the big thing that I want to know more about is, you know, it’s been two years since you’ve been on the show, so, and you were like, we’ve 4X our agency since then. So what were some of the reasons, what are some of the systems or what are some of the things that you’ve done that you can contribute to that?

Joe: [00:02:17] Yeah. Yeah. So it was really fun listening back cause it was about two years ago exactly that we recorded our last episode. And when we were doing that, one of the key things that I was focusing on is just building out the automation or the backend, the systems and the structure for your agency. So in the first three years that we had built up Ad Advance, Matt and I were managing pretty much all of our accounts.

And over that period, we were really focused on, all right, we’re in their day-to-day, how do we make our lives easier? And how do we make sure that we’re getting that massive value that we can get to our clients while also reducing the amount of time that it manually takes to do all these pieces?

And so since we were doing it day-to-day, it was a great driver to really develop those systems in that structure. So before we even started scaling the agency, some of our first key hires were actually developers, versus account execs. And so we spent a lot of time developing the technology that goes into the backend to automate the pieces that should be automated, all those pieces that are just manual tinkering so then we could really focus on the core things that we do well as an agency.

And that’s really working with our clients, setting the right goals, building the relationships. So that initial first three years, kind of going up to when we recorded our podcast, it was really focused on the process and getting that all in place.

Since then, now we’ve been on this big scale phase where we’ve been able to leverage that technology, um, and really grow it our agency.

Jason: [00:03:53] And so the team has probably grown in the past two years as well?

Joe: [00:03:58] Yep. So two years ago it was Matt and I, and we had just hired Eric. Eric was our first local hire. Since then, now the office in Duluth, every new hire has been local and we now have 14 people in the office here. We’ve gone through three different offices since two years ago because we keep outgrowing them. And so it’s been really fun to watch and see this team expand, but implementing the same practices that we built up from day one.

And really delivering that performance that Matt and I personally could do, but being able to transition it to this big team, um, and really seen that succeed overall.

Jason: [00:04:36] What was the stages of the different roles that you were hiring that you brought in since the, you know, it was the three of you now it’s the 14 of you?

Joe: [00:04:46] Sure. As we were scaling up, um, the, the core people that we were hiring were our accounting execs, um, to work directly with our clients and kind of overtake that role that Matt and I were initially doing from the start, which is working directly with our clients as we go.

And so one of the key pieces that we took into account is hiring for culture first over experience, and it’s really worked out well for us overall. So any interview that we had do, like experience was great, and we do have a lot of people with previous digital advertising experience, which is awesome, and they can bring unique perspectives to the table. But at the end of the day, if you get that one wrong fit within your agency or your group, they can take down the entire group.

So we’ve really focused, first, you have to meet the culture bar to get into Ad Advance. And at that point the experience is just some extra pieces that go along with it. And the other piece that we probably gone against the grain for, especially over the last year, is we are just hiring locally. So we work all in the office and we’ve had to transition back and forth with COVID as we can.

But what we’ve seen is when we’re all in the office, you get all this collaboration that is so hard to drive when you’re working remotely. And you see this support in just this organic group coming together that again, it’s really hard to drive when you all work in remotely. And we had some awesome case studies for this too, because we had to go remotely for a couple of months and we had to onboard some people remotely.

This is a lot harder than being able to just look over to the person next to you and yeah, just talk through things. Or we’re in kind of an open area in our latest office, you can overhear some conversations and so when somebody else is talking to a client and they say something awesome it’s like, oh man, like, yeah, that is a great strategy or I love that approach that you took.

So it’s really that culture-first approach that we’ve found has worked really well for building out our, our agency. And then also going locally, it’s worked great for us in that collaboration that you get. It just seems. It seems to have so much of an impact for us.

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Yeah, I love that you started hiring first to replace client interaction that you and your partner had, because now you can concentrate more on your business and building that, versus building other people’s businesses. And that’s usually kind of a trap that a lot of people get into.

So how’d get the account managers up to speed? You know, what was like kind of the training regimen or were you hiring people that have the skills? You know, after the culture obviously fit, you know, tell us a little bit more about that.

Joe: [00:08:43] Yeah. So we have some people like our initial local hire. He had a lot of digital advertising experience. So getting him up to speed was pretty easy from a technical standpoint.

But overall, what we started to do is each day analyzing what we’re doing for client interactions, and then trying to document that or trying to transition that over. And it was just picking apart, different pieces each day that we were doing that we knew that long-term, we could no longer support.

And as we were able to do that, each of these little pieces became documents or little training videos, items like that.

We had a recent hire and he’s got an education background and so he came in and he was super fired up to put all these things together into a nice learning management system. And so now we have this structure training program, so everybody can go through their Ad Advanced university training and get certified, gone through all the different steps that we have.

And again, each piece how do I leverage what I’m currently doing and can expand that to many, many people as this agency keeps growing? It’s really interesting that the first person that we heard locally, how much time Matt and I had to spend with them directly versus now when you have 14 people in there, you’ve got to find other ways to do it.

So it’s a constant challenge, but it’s constantly, it’s a fun little adventure to figure out how you can transition each of these little learnings or pieces of information to the team as we keep growing.

Jason: [00:10:14] I love it. And I love that you mentioned kind of a learning management system and a trainer, obviously. When we were building our sales team, we had a sales trainer. That’s how you do it. A lot of people think, oh, I’ll just bring some skilled people in, and then you’re wondering why everybody’s doing things all differently. And even if you do have SOPs for them to follow, they’re just literally going to be like, oh my gosh, like, how do I, how do I scale this digital agency? And then they start thinking bad thoughts.

Joe: [00:10:46] Yeah. And that’s what we’ve seen too. As we’ve implemented the learning management system. It’s great for the nuts and bolts on what you need to do, but there’s gotta be that support that goes along with it. And so another piece that we established is everybody who comes in as they’re new with the team, they have an established mentor and they sit next to that mentor for the first two to three months.

We did this weird thing where we’d love to, we switched desks every month to just to build relationships with different people. We just randomly draw for desks in the office. But they stay with their mentor each month for that first two to three months and make sure that they’re getting the support as they go, because you can read all these SOPs or these documents or watch videos, but putting them into practice and then dealing with different circumstances that aren’t specifically covered.

These are all the pieces that, you know, that’s why we value just being in person so much too, is you just get that interaction and having that established mentor, it’s just somebody that they know that they can go to, to, to build up the skills.

Jason: [00:11:46] Yeah, I love it. Well, is there anything else that I didn’t ask you that was, that contributed to, you know, 4Xing your digital agency in the past two years?

Joe: [00:11:56] I think the last thing is, you know, we focused a lot on the tech and the process as we started scaling and that system has worked out really well. It’s going to pull out, you know, typical reports or client dashboard where people can log in to pull the information they need, bidding optimization, stuff like that we can incorporate in.

But the other major piece when you’re establishing it is always asking the question should this be automated? Should this go into the software? People hire people to make sure that they’ve got another member of their team. And so what we want to do is you want to be very, very clear on what should go into the process versus what should go into human intuition and experience.

And so we try to make sure that’s very clear, the goal setting, the relationships, you know, all those key aspects and how advertising ties into the business as a whole. These are all the things that people are hiring us for. So I’d say probably my last word of advice is just making sure you’ve got a really clear line in the sand as you build out these processes.

Really what should be automated versus what comes down to us and why we’re being hired to do the job.

Jason: [00:13:04] I love it. What’s the website people go and check out the agency?

Joe: [00:13:08] Yeah. So you can go to Feel free to follow me, Joe Shelerud on LinkedIn. Um, yeah, we’ve got a lot of good resources and information there.

Jason: [00:13:16] Awesome. Well, Joe, thanks so much for coming on the show and I’m thrilled with your growth with your digital agency over the past two years. Hopefully, I’ll be back on in the next two years and you’ll have even bigger growth. So make sure you go check that out. Now, if all of you listening, if you guys enjoyed this episode and you want to be around amazing agency owners on a consistent basis where we’re constantly, you know, seeing the things that you might not be able to see and sharing the things that you actually need to do so you can have the rapid growth that Joe had.

I want you all to go to and fill in an application. And if we feel that you’re right for the mastermind, we’ll have a conversation and see if we can have some fun together.

So go do that now and until next time have a Swenk day.

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