A couple months ago, I wrote about five business lessons we’ve learned in the last 15 years. While we’re not really into crowing about our accomplishments or self-mythologizing—there’s a reason “Humbly Confident” tops our Core Values, after all—the first draft was absurdly long. So I trimmed it to our five favorites and called it a day.
Many of those edits included sales and marketing advice—not the kind of content people typically see on our blog, and a bit too “LinkedIn” for an introspective post. But the lessons are good. I know they’re good because I made a lot of embarrassing mistakes learning them, and in some cases, they saved our agency.
5 sales and marketing insights
So here they are: Five insights into sales and marketing that we learned the hard way—and are serving us well as we head into our 16th year.
1. BizDev is everyone’s business—but especially the owner’s
Whether you’re the sole proprietor of a company or share ownership with partners, bringing in new business is among your top goals. For any service-based firm, business development should be everyone’s focus, but it’s especially true at a small agency. Everyone on your team should recognize opportunities to strengthen client relationships. But for owners, biz dev is the most critical part of what you do.
Owners can’t do it all, however. There’s a difference in the abilities required for leading a team, managing a project, and doing the work. But ownership requires a separate skillset all together.
Every business owner needs to understand the abilities they offer and adapt when areas need improvement. Organizations thrive when each person knows and leans into their unique abilities. But the fundamental truth is no business gets off the ground without someone on the ownership team being a salesperson.
A common trope within digital agencies is that the owners want to get out of sales because they don’t like it. But in many cases, they’re the ones who are best suited for it.
A critical focus for every business owner is setting the vision for the company, which is almost the same thing as sales. Ultimately, clients aren’t just buying what you do but where your firm is going. After spending years and years trying to extricate myself from sales only to rescue those negotiations again and again, I finally realized: That’s what I do here.
If you’re good at sales, it should be your number one priority. But if you’re not, you need to find and empower someone who is.
2. Sales isn’t about convincing anyone
Have you ever been asked to speak to one of your firm’s clients and felt the need to excuse yourself? “I don’t want to sell anything,” you might say. It can be a natural impulse, even if the person who asked never used the word “sales.”
Almost everyone feels like sales is some sort of dark art of changing people’s minds or slowly wearing them down until they relent. Here’s what sales is: It’s extra pizza in the break room.
All you’re doing in sales is going up to people and saying, “Hey, we’ve got some extra pizza. Do you want some?” They might say they’re not hungry, and that’s fine. My response? “Let me know when you are, and I’ll get you some.”
That’s sales. You have something people want, and all you’re doing is making it available to them. It should feel natural. If they aren’t sure what they want, simply ask intelligent business questions: “What’s working for you right now? What isn’t?” Is it garlic bread? An underperforming website? Listen for how you can help.
And if you can help, explain what you do and why you think it’s great because, ultimately, you do think it’s great. And they will come to their own conclusion. That’s it.
3. Uniforms provide a powerful connection for teamwork
This may be the most unusual item on this list because seems weirdly corporate. Who do you associate with uniforms? Most likely, the military or the police. But firefighters, doctors, and construction workers also wear uniforms. They don’t have to reflect authority or power.
Uniforms are a ritual, and rituals are a very powerful reflection of culture. Through ritual, you can build, mold, and tend to your organization’s culture. That’s something we latched onto very early at Four Kitchens.
We have these bright green track jackets we all wear with our logo hand-sewn on the back. They’re very personal and exclusive: Only Web Chefs get them. You have a clear identifier from across the room at a conference that you’re with Four Kitchens. That’s a powerful reminder of teamwork.
But! You have to make a uniform your team will want to wear—not some $3 mass-market shirt with your tagline of the week. It needs to be clothing that people actually like. When people leave Four Kitchens, they often say things like, “I’m hanging up the track jacket.” It’s symbolic, like a team jersey.
I don’t think a jacket, hat, or specific uniform is the only way to bring your organization together. But if you can create a ritual that reaffirms everyone you’re working with is collaborating toward a unified purpose, your work grows that much stronger.
4. Make swag that’s actually valuable
I take personal offense at the plastic crap our industry produces and gives away at events. There’s an environmental impact from all the “free” stuff we put out in the world, and it’s all just garbage.
But swag is a powerful marketing tool. If you want your swag to make an impression, it has to be useful or beautiful (or both)—which is, admittedly, a difficult challenge to meet. What can you offer that will make people say, “I need to go to that booth, and I need to talk to those people to get that thing”?
Obviously, given the reality of COVID-19 precautions, we likely have to change our approach to events going forward. But in the years before the pandemic, our answer to that question was an annual, limited edition t-shirt celebrating our feline alter ego: Four Kittens.
The shirts were always hand-illustrated and thematically aligned with that year’s host city. They instantly became a tradition. People lined up at our booth the morning the trade show floor opens. In New Orleans, the kittens were parading down Bourbon Street; in Los Angeles, they were lounging on the beach. And in Nashville, we celebrated hot chicken by changing it up a bit: The four kittens became Four Chickens.
If you’re sloppy with what you use to promote your brand, it makes your brand feel disposable. However, if you make your swag with intention and effort, people will wear it, hold onto it, and use it simply because it’s good.
5. Nothing beats content marketing
In terms of networking and knowledge sharing, events like DrupalCon present tremendous opportunities for the development and open-source communities. But if you want to communicate the value and expertise your business offers to the widest audience, you have to invest in content marketing.
Across formats that include eBooks, white papers, and podcasts, our content marketing offers a peek into how we work with clients. Our content marketing provides a more complete picture of who we are and the value we provide than any event ever could.
In addition to reaching an audience larger than any convention floor could accommodate, content marketing clarifies and strengthens your unique perspective. Does your firm have the right mix of skills and experience to tackle a tricky development issue with Drupal, WordPress, or any other digital platform? That’s great. Put it in writing. It’s the best way for your next client to find out.
In trying to express what we’ve learned over the years in how we approach our clients and our business, this list still feels like just the beginning. As we continue to improve and grow 15 years after we started, I feel the same way about us as an organization as well.