How To Find The Right Formula For Quick Agency Growth

By Jason Swenk on November 17, 2021

Are you looking for the right formula for quick agency growth? When Ellen Jantsch was working as a head of growth in a small tech startup, she felt there was space for an agency focused on testing and executing strategies into long-term sustainable growth. She held on to that idea while she worked as a freelancer and when she started Tuff, a remote growth team for hire. They work with teams in nearly every industry to deliver actionable strategies to attract and keep more engaged customers. Today she joins the podcast to talk about how she found the right formula for quick growth for her agency, her strategic move to grow the agency’s most valuable asset, and the moment she started thinking of a more repeatable formula to generate new business.

3 Golden Nuggets

  1. Test to find the right formula. When discussing how to find the right formula to grow your business, Ellen recalls that, more than anything, what helped her find the right fit for her agency was finding what didn’t work for them. “Testing and experimentation was a much quicker route to finding what was going to work,” she assures. The agency relied a lot on word of mouth at one point and at one point they started to try different approaches, from outbound sales to putting on workshops and events. Finally, they focused on an SEO strategy that now brings 75 leads per month to their door.
  2. The foundation to grow your most valuable asset. In an unusual move, for her second hire, Ellen searched for an HR person. “If you’re serious about building a remote team and a small team,” she assures, “you have to put a lot of foundation in place.” So, she worked with this person to set a career framework and think about the hiring processes. They decided on details like how to set up benefits and compensation and how to create an inclusive hiring process. It took a lot of time, but your agency team is your most valuable asset, after all. By the time she figured out what direction she wanted for the agency and the type of roles she needed to hire, there was already a solid hiring process in place.
  3. A predictable pipeline is everything. One of the things that became very clear for Ellen when she thought about what she could do to continue to grow her agency was that she would need to figure out how to create a more repeatable formula for generating new business. A more predictable look at revenue and growth would allow making strategic hiring decisions early, versus hiring someone when the pressure is up due to so much work. The only way to get ahead of that is to predict what the next six months are going to look like.

Sponsors and Resources

Wix: Today’s episode is sponsored by the Wix Partner Program. Being a Wix Partner is ideal for freelancers and digital agencies that design and develop websites for their clients. Check out to learn more and become a member of the community for free.


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Finding the Right Formula For Quick Agency Growth and Generating New Business

Jason: [00:00:00] What’s up, agency owners? Jason Swenk here. And on today’s episode, we have an amazing guest, uh, fellow Coloradan, if that’s a word, I don’t know. I just moved here so I don’t know. But we’re going to talk about how she’s grown her agency so quickly. And, uh, go over some of the strategies that have worked for her and some of the things that might not have worked, so it helps you avoid them.

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

Hey, Ellen. Welcome to the show.

Ellen: [00:00:33] Glad to be here. Thanks for having me.

Jason: [00:00:36] Yeah. Excited to have you on. So tell us who you are and what do you do?

Ellen: [00:00:39] I run a business called Tuff. We’re a small, fully remote growth marketing agency partnering primarily with startups, scale-ups, helping them get traffic and grow their revenue. We focus on tactics like Google ads, technical SEO, content, creative, Facebook ad, CRO, and email. Really trying to figure out how to test quickly and then operationalize small wins into long-term sustainable growth.

Jason: [00:01:04] Awesome. And so how did you get started creating your agency?

Ellen: [00:01:09] Primarily through freelancing. I think that’s probably a common story, but I had done in my career prior to freelancing corporate marketing worked at an ad tech startup worked at like a really small startup as a head of growth. And I knew… Felt like there was an opportunity to, to start an agency like Tuff. But wanted to hone in on my own kind of experiences, primarily from an executional standpoint.

So I freelanced for about a year and a half. Some consulting to strategy work, but a lot of executional work running Google ads, running Facebook ads, writing email copy. Trying to just kind of hone in on the services that Tuff was going to provide initially. And then got to a crossroads where it felt like I had enough money in the bank.

I knew I didn’t want to ever take capital as I started Tuff. And so I, I pretty much planned to have enough, enough money to pay myself a salary as well as two other people for six months, even if we didn’t sign a single client. And at that point about three years ago, decided to start Tuff and put the freelancing work to the side.

Jason: [00:02:11] Awesome, and so what were the roles of the two people that you hired first and why?

Ellen: [00:02:16] Yeah, two people. Um, the first one was a PPC strategist, somebody to take over a lot of the day-to-day executional work I was doing for clients, Google ads, Bing ads, YouTube ads, that type of work. It allowed me to take off one hat and pass it to somebody else.

The second hire was crazy to think about now, a non-revenue generating employee. Somebody to help us with people ops. I do think that if you’re serious about building a remote team and a small team, you have to put a lot of foundation in place.

We worked on a career framework. We thought about hiring processes. How do you set up benefits? How do you think about compensation? What’s equitable? How do you create an inclusive hiring process? Just spend a lot of time getting that in place before we started actually thinking about building a team.

Jason: [00:03:00] That’s great. No, that’s really great. That’s first time I’ve heard someone bring on like an HR-type person as their second role.

I thought you would say like project manager. And everyone always thinks they’re not billable. Like, they’re billable. I don’t know why no one thinks that, but I usually tell people around the 10 person mark to get the HR and people usually are shocked. They’re like, I thought you had to do that much later on.

But I think a lot of people think they’re just doing paperwork. And they’re not doing all the other things to make sure you get the right people.

Because the people in agency are the most valuable asset.

Ellen: [00:03:36] Especially in a service-based agency, you know, I think it’s people work with Tuff because they like the experience of the team members here.

And if you don’t get that right, then you have a lot of employee turnover. The cost of hiring the wrong employees is astronomical, if you ask me. And so I’d rather get it right the first time around.

Jason: [00:03:54] Yeah. Well, do you guys feel that you’ve got it right on the first couple of hires? I know. Man, I hired so many of the wrong people. I got rid of a lot of the right people too. Many, many years. Cause I didn’t have that person.

Ellen: [00:04:06] Yeah, we really struggled in the beginning, mostly because we had a strong process for hiring, I feel, but didn’t really know what we wanted. And I think that goes back to as well as being the kind of first-time founder never working on an agency before.

We hadn’t really established our playing field. So we were kind of like saying yes to every opportunity. We were doing any type of service that we could offer. We were just trying to generate revenue. And I didn’t have a clear enough picture around what we actually need out of team members and what kind of like the long-term vision and who the right client is for Tuff. And we’ve kind of paralleled those.

And as it became more clear around where we get the right results and the types of clients we want to work with, it becomes a lot easier to hire because you know exactly what you’re looking for. But in the beginning it was a cluster. I was just shocked anybody wanted to work with us, to be honest.

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Jason: [00:04:50] Yeah, I think everyone has to go through the cluster. It’s like that Vegas buffet, you’re trying out everything.

What was the pivotal moment where you got that clarity?

Ellen: [00:05:00] Yeah, I think it probably happened about 18 months ago. And two things became really clear if I was going to continue to have any chance of growing Tuff, we had to figure out how to hire talent that’s adaptable, autonomous more senior in position.

So not people that we’d have to train extensively in the beginning who had experience working on small teams. So really honing in on characteristics versus job responsibilities, and that’s been really helpful. Um, the second thing would be how do you create a more repeatable formula for generating new business?

I think when you have a more predictable look at revenue and growth, it becomes a lot easier to then make strategic hiring decisions early. Versus waiting to kind of like feel the pinch in the stress of like, oh gosh, we’ve got a lot of work. We’ve got to hire somebody else. Or this whole thing is going to collapse. You can get to a point where you slowly get out of that and get ahead of it with hiring and you can’t do that unless you can predict what the next six months is going to look like.

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Yeah. Building a predictable pipeline is everything, right? Like if your business is built on word of mouth, which I always joke around saying that’s just not scalable. And you’re relying on other people, then you’re going to take on work that you probably shouldn’t be. Because there’s no such thing as a bad agency client and only a bad prospect or a bad process.

And, and so when you can build that predictable pipeline, it makes things a lot easier where you’re picking and choosing. So let’s transition to that. What’s worked for you for building a more full pipeline?

Ellen: [00:07:25] I think more than anything, what hasn’t worked. I have found at least with Tuff, testing and experimentation was a much quicker route to finding, finding what was going to work.

And I think in the early days we relied a lot on word of mouth. Um, larger agencies. We tried to kind of like create partnerships for any clients they didn’t want.

Jason: [00:07:43] That doesn’t work.

Ellen: [00:07:45] No. Let’s see, I put on workshops, I went to events. I would like get in touch with people that had been connected with LinkedIn. We tried outbound sales, um, saw some success there, but definitely not like a natural skillset for me. So a bit of a stretch. So we tried a whole bunch of different things for about a year. Um, got exhausted.

And finally realized how do we generate more inbound leads then have, have healthier conversations and get people knocking on our door and getting curious about working with top and wanting to work with us. And so we started getting really specific with an SEO strategy.

So that took, you know, that’s a slow burn. It’s not a, it’s not like paid acquisition. It’s not like referrals. It takes a long time to build it was a schlep. But now when you go into Google and type growth marketing agency, you’re going to see Tuff in the number one spot. If you type content, strategy, agency, technical SEO agency, YouTube ads agency, we’re going to be in the top three.

And now we’re lucky and humbled enough to have 75 leads knock on our door a month. And we maybe take on one or two. And I couldn’t have predicted that level of scale ever, but the organic acquisition has really been important for us.

Jason: [00:08:52] Very cool. Yeah. You know, I always tell everybody, it’s kind of like, as you’re building and growing the business, you got to experiment with what’s not working. And then kind of go back to kind of the basics and really build on that foundation.

And what we found too cause a lot of times. In the very beginning, when we were growing our agency, we grew it from being in the search engines and people coming to us. Then when we started getting, wanting to get to the next level, we started realizing, man, we need this outbound channel. Man, we need this strategic partnership channel. You know, Google changes one thing, we’re toast.

And then we’re laying off a lot of people. So it’s always… always a work in progress.

Ellen: [00:09:37] Yeah. I couldn’t agree enough. And I think we kind of, you know, like we partner with clients every day to think about growing revenue and acquiring new customers or users for them. And we try to apply the same process for Tuff.

So we do quarterly growth marketing strategies. We stay pretty committed to it, but I would say we’re like in that moment right now, Jason, where 75% of our leads come from organic traffic. And when you think about having all of your eggs in one basket, it’s terrifying. And so we’re starting to get to this point where we’re capturing a lot of existing demand, how do we start to create a little bit more demand? And how does that look like for us long-term?

Jason: [00:10:12] Yeah. I almost even look at it too of like, when I hear 75 leads a month, I’m like, okay, good. How can I make them even better? Or how could I even convert them more? Like I was talking to Darby or skill specialist. I’m like, well, out of the conversations that you set up, how could we have the ones we want… How do we increase that conversion rate?

Just a little bit. That’s always those little fine tweaks that work. I’m going to ask you something I’ve never really asked anybody that I’m gonna start doing the show. What’s the thing that you’ve regretted that you haven’t done in the agency yet?

Ellen: [00:10:47] For the agency. Hmm. That’s such a great question. I think, um, this is very tactical, but I apologize. It’s top of mind. We didn’t add on our creative team until recently. And in the growth game, we’re really metrics driven data driven, thinking about tactics and the strategies behind those. But if you don’t have really good creative, you’re not going to get very far.

And for so long we outsourced that. Not really trusting in our processes, not really understanding what that would look like in house. And we didn’t bring it in house until about three months ago. And now I’m like, oh shit, we need to triple that team tomorrow.

And so I think I would’ve just looked a little bit more holistically at our services and figure out… Again, it just goes back to how do you exchange the most value? And where can you team be the strongest?

And I was slow to, I was slow to pick up on that.

Jason: [00:11:34] Awesome. Well, Ellen, this has all been amazing. Is there anything I didn’t ask you that you think would benefit the audience?

Ellen: [00:11:40] No, I think you’ve covered it.

Jason: [00:11:42] All right. Perfect. Uh, what’s the website people go and check out the agency?

Ellen: [00:11:46]

Jason: [00:11:48] Awesome. Very easy. Everyone go check it out.

And if you liked this episode, make sure you guys subscribe. Make sure you hit the like button, comment. And uh, if you guys want to be around amazing agency owners on a consistent basis. Where you can grow your agency faster because you can get their opinions and then they can share what’s working for them. So you can scale and grow faster.

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And until next time have a Swenk day.

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