Jason Swenk has been an entrepreneur as far back as he can remember. It started at age 12 when he began pulling sunken golf balls out of the pond at the local golf course, and selling them back to the golfers. And it was this same ingenuity that inspired him to start a digital marketing agency during the internet boom of 2000. He ran the agency for twelve years and grew it to 8-figures working with clients such as Hitachi, Lotus Cars and AT&T. After profitable selling his agency, Jason decided to develop a new type of media business with the unique proposition of providing the support and resources he wish he’d had while running his marketing agency.
If you have a marketing agency (or are working in one), this episode was made for you! In this interview, I sat with Jason Swenk and dive into all the tips and tricks he secretly tells his customers to build a successful marketing agency.
→ He had a digital marketing agency that helped local businesses get more customers through online channels
→ The agency focused on SEO, PPC, and social media advertising
→ The agency grew to a team of 15 people and generated multiple millions of dollars in revenue
→ He worked with a wide range of clients, from small mom-and-pop shops to large national brands
→ He eventually sold the agency and moved on to coaching and consulting other entrepreneurs and agency owners on how to scale and grow their businesses
→ He started an agency in 1999, creating websites for clients
→ The agency grew over time, working with bigger clients and becoming a multimillion-dollar agency
→ He sold the agency and now coaches other entrepreneurs and agency owners on how to have breakthroughs, think differently, scale, and approach problems in new ways
→ And a whole lot more
Bronson: Welcome to another episode of Growth Hacker TV. I’m Bryson Taylor and today I have Jason Swain with us. Jason, thanks for coming on the program.
Jason: Hey, man, thanks for having me.
Bronson: Absolutely. I’ve been looking forward to this one. I’ve been following you online and seeing what you’re doing. I’m super excited to have you on. For the people that don’t know. Tell me a little bit about you. You ran a multimillion dollar marketing agency. You’re able to sell that. And now you’re actually in the business of coaching other entrepreneurs and other agency owners on really how to have breakthroughs, how to think differently, how to scale, how to approach the same problems in new ways. And, you know, reading your blog, reading your website, the material you put out on a consistent basis is just incredible. And so I want to dig in today and see if I can extract some of that good news for my audience. Sound good?
Jason: I absolutely not. I don’t give anything away.
Bronson: Well, I tell you what. Give us the teaser and they’ll come to you for the rest of it.
Jason: No, just kidding. I’ll give you everything.
Bronson: Sounds good. So first, before we jump into the the coaching part of it. Right, let’s talk about the agency that you ran, because a lot of people say they know what to do and they’re willing to train you, but they actually have no idea what they’re doing because they never did it themselves. I think that’s one of the key, you know, differences. Tell me about your agency. What was it? What was it like? What was the story there in a nutshell?
Jason: Yeah. I mean, yeah, I totally agree. There’s so many people out there. Like they just kind of see the lifestyle that a lot of us live and they’re like, Oh, we want to do that. And all we need to do is talk about success and motivation and you can get there. I’m like, it’s you’re just full of crap. And so, yeah, so my agency, I started in 99, but I actually started it by yeah, I mean I started it before, I guess right after Al Gore invented the Internet. And and I actually know why I started the agency to Justin Timberlake, even though I’ve never, ever, ever met him. But one of my best friends looked just like Justin. And so instinct was really big. So if you have any young people watching this, they’re like, Who’s in sync? Look it up. Justin Timberlake. But I created a website called the Internet and it got popular, and then people started asking me for websites. So literally I started from my apartment doing $500 websites, and then I just kept doing that and I’m like, Man, I can, you know, people pay me for this. And then I started realizing that I couldn’t do everything and I needed to hire people. So then I started hiring people and then I started getting in bigger and bigger clients. And eventually we started working with clients like Lotus Cars and AT&T and Aflac and Hitachi and Lego Zoom and and doing all this, you know, really big work. And I’m not talking about like little slivers of stuff. I’m talking about like the website and all that kind of stuff for them. And we did that for 12 years. We grew to a really good sized team, multimillion dollar agency. And then, you know, someone offered me a a nice sum for it, and I wanted to do something different, even though I didn’t know what I wanted to do. And so I took it.
Bronson: Mm hmm. What were the some of the mental breakthroughs that you had, you know, as you went along your journey? Because I’m a big believer that it starts in the mind. You know, if you can’t have an idea, it’s never actually going to happen. So, you know, they’re paying you $5 for a website. You start scaling up. Tell me some of the key moments in that growth over that ten or 12 year period.
Jason: Well, I remember one of like how to raise my prices so none of us ever charge what we’re actually worth or actually look at the value that you actually deliver. And I remember I think we were charging maybe five or 10,000 for websites at this point in time of this story. And this client calls us up the website and invites us in, and they want us to pitch to them a website. So I was like, okay. And so I walk into this office and I’m like, looking around, I’m like, Man, this office is huge and like a huge boardroom that goes way down. I sit in and it literally was like the suits, like all these suits, like, just like me, if you guys can see the video, right? But like more professional and I’m wearing a tuxedo t shirt for people that can’t see it, but so they all walk in. I’m like, man, who is this company? And so I pitched to them and literally at the time when we were doing this $5,000 website, I had a paper proposal and literally I was taking orders of like what they wanted, and I handed it.
Bronson: To them.
Jason: And they go, You know, Jason, we liked everything that you had there. There’s one of my cats.
Bronson: There was one of them, yeah.
Jason: So but yeah, I always tell people my only competition is cat videos and procrastination. So look, your video is going to go viral since we have a cat we got at all.
Bronson: I mean, there’s actual value here and there’s a cat in it.
Jason: And a tuxedo t shirt.
Bronson: And a tuxedo t shirt. I mean, we’re we’re golden.
Jason: You can’t you can’t write this stuff. And so literally, I present to them, they’re like, Jason, we like everything. But you know your price that you offered his way at low and I was like, man, what is this? So I go back to the office and I tell my some of my employees, it’s like, Yeah. I met with some company that they thought 5000 was too little. What should we be charged? Hello? Who was the company? It was Berkshire Hathaway. I never heard of.
Bronson: Kind of a big deal.
Jason: Yeah, kind of a big deal. What?
Bronson: To Warren Buffett’s now?
Jason: Yeah. So that kind of got me over one of the mental block. I mean, we had so many different mental blocks that we jumped over, but it just opened my eyes up saying, Oh, man, I can charge more. Even though 5000 was such a big difference from 500, you know, a few a few years later. And obviously eventually we started selling million dollar websites. So, you know, there’s a big jump, but that was one. And then another one was, you know, knowing that I couldn’t do everything like as entrepreneurs or an agency owner, we think we go through different stages in our business, right? So at first it’s kind of like, alright, figure it out. How to get people to pay us money for something that we know how to do, and then we do that. Then it’s like, All right, well how do I scale it past myself? And that’s the biggest thing. And it takes the right systems. Like, I truly believe that systems outperform talent all day long. And if you have the right people but you have bogus systems in place, you’re not going to grow. And you have to have a documented process in order to do all that. And some of the systems are, you know, knowing where you want to go, right? So so many of us don’t. They just like me, like they create a website and shit get website, and then we don’t have that clarity of where we want to go. And so it starts there. And then it really goes into kind of the positioning, like positioning for where we want to go and then what’s our offering and then getting into the prospecting, right? So that’s what a lot of people do wrong, but those are some of the shifts that you know. Yeah, yeah. Right now.
Bronson: So it seems like I’m hearing two like key themes here. Tell me if I’m wrong and this might be what you teach other people. One is the systems, right? You said that explicitly. It’s really teach them systems, not talent, which is, you know, nice to hear because we can all be a part of a system. We can’t all just be talented, right? You can’t become a better design and become a better coder overnight, but you can think more systematically about what you’re doing. So I love that. And then the second one, it seems like you’re talking about alignment, right? There’s alignment in what do we exist for? Who is our customer? What are we doing for them? Are we trying to meld given all of that? Is that is that a true way to say it? Alignment is a big piece of what you teach.
Jason: Oh, yeah, big time. Yeah. I mean, you have to know where you’re going in order to actually get there. I mean, it’s it’s not by accident, right? It’s like we’ll start off the business kind of by accident, but then we need to figure out, you know, what to do next.
Bronson: Yeah. All right. It’s cats. And, you know.
Jason: They they are actually cat fighting right now. And like when you were talking, I was like trying to text my wife, like, over here going like the cats are fighting, let them out.
Bronson: Yeah, right.
Jason: Like, literally, either give me one. Give them.
Bronson: What’s your thing? They’re rumbling.
Jason: Wow. You didn’t ever have that. I actually locked my kids upstairs. I should have, like, the cats in different. Right.
Bronson: Right. This is a TV first, for sure.
Jason: A cafe. And you had a cat fight.
Bronson: At a cafe? Oh, well, you know, I love some link bait, so that’s going to be the title, you know, watch. Watch me and Jason have a cat fight. They got mad each other. Let’s see what they said.
Jason: That’s right.
Bronson: So let me ask you this. You talked about moving prices for 500 or 5000. Is it easier just to add a zero and man up or do you get there slowly? Do you say, all right, 500? No, we do one 4000. Like, do you just jump these huge increments and see what happens sometimes?
Jason: Well, you need to actually measure your value that you’re providing, right? So, you know, every every particular client I talk to is never charging enough, but I never just say, hey, double your prices. Right? Even though that would be easy to do, so basically say, hey, well, tell me about the past couple successes you’ve had and the value that you’ve actually provided. And then we kind of try to backwards math that. And then the other thing too is, is it’s kind of a perception thing, right? It’s kind of like the Berkshire Hathaway, right. Was I they were anticipating spending 200 grand on a website. So, you know, and all of us when we actually do our pricing, a lot of times we’re trying to race to the bottom. And I’m like, don’t race to the bottom, right? You want to race to the top. You know, even if you get less clients, you can get more. And then, you know, you don’t have to have a huge staff and you can actually do more. But, you know, it’s starting out with measuring how much value that you actually provide and knowing that like so many businesses don’t know that. And if you don’t know the value you actually provide, how are you going to market that? How are you going to sell? How are you going to create a culture where your employees understand the value that you provide? I remember having my project, one of my project managers came to me one day and said, You know, Jason, we’re charging 150,000 for this website. And, you know, it only takes you probably about 11,000 actually do as your cost. So how do you sleep at night? I’m like really good. And then I.
Bronson: Proceed on $130,000 sofa.
Jason: There you go. And then I told her, I said, well, what you’re not understanding is the value. And I’m sorry that I have not communicated that to to you or to the team of the value that we actually provide to our clients, because they’ll actually make millions from what we’re actually doing here, you know. So it’s about understanding that in order to figure out everything else.
Bronson: Totally, when you start, you know, selling your value, you, you probably change the way you talk about it. It’s not just we build you a website. It’s not a no. We create a way for you to gain millions of value yourself. And we do it through a website, through this other stuff we do. And so you’re not just saying, oh, I build a website. It’s I don’t know. I do this thing that’s very valuable for you. And here’s what it is. Is that true?
Jason: Well, it’s about what they want and what they struggle with. Right. You’re delivering them a solution, right? Even no matter what you do for your business. Right. It’s not about what you do or the features that you have. It’s about how you can help someone and understanding what’s the problems that they’re having and then what are their feelings that those problems are actually causing them. That’s why they actually buy. And so when you can understand that, that changes kind of the whole perspective for everybody.
Bronson: Yeah, you know, it was interesting this morning I got an email from a company about what they’re going to do in 2017, kind of their, you know, beginning of the year thing. And it was a list of features they’re going to have in 2017. And I thought I just fell so flat. It’s a company with promise, but these features mean nothing. Why are you building them? Who are you building these for? What was the person that made you need to build this feature? Like, I’m looking for the real marketing in this email and there wasn’t. It was just, here’s some features because we’re going to engineer the crap out of this in 2017.
Jason: Yeah, it’s crazy when people lead with features or they just have bad marketing. They bad marketing people that you know are going to help them.
Bronson: So yeah, no one wakes up saying, I need these three features. I want to run to find them. No one wakes up with a feature need.
Jason: No, I mean, I mean, even like I just bought a new a new jeep. Right. And so I got the the Rubicon Hard Rock. It’s got a nice log, lots of lots of really cool features on it. Right. But if they sold to me like all the features, I wouldn’t have probably bought it. But if they, they sold it to me where they said, hey, you can go to the mountains and no one’s going to go over stuff that you can’t write. And like, it’s like you can be the bad ass for this, right? So I’m like, Oh, cool, right? They’re selling me something else.
Bronson: And then you can go into features because that is allowed because of 20 different features on the jeep. But none of them are the reason you bought you bought to get to the top of the mountain. I think that’s a great story that applies to every single product ever. And good marketers, good CEOs, good entrepreneurs will always hear that. Let me ask you this. You know, we talked about features being one of those things that. You know, don’t matter as much, people think. What are some of the pitfalls that you see over and over agency owners come to you? They think the answer is X and it’s not. What are some of those things they just keep getting in ruts about?
Jason: Well, they keep making themselves the star. And this is true with any particular business, right? And literally, if you think of like any like as marketers, we’re storytellers, right? We’re telling stories. And if we make ourselves the star, we make ourselves Batman. That makes our visitor an R prospect. Robin Wright. Right. Wearing like the ugly green tights.
Bronson: That’s awesome.
Jason: And I don’t think anybody’s ever dressed up as Robin for, like, Halloween, right? No one wants to be Robin Wright. No, not the cool people, I think.
Bronson: I would never wanna be Robin.
Jason: No, no. So. So you can’t be Batman, right? Because they want to be Batman. And so if they’re Batman, then you need to be that trusted advisor, which is Alfred, right? The cool, you know, you know, guy that can actually guide Batman. And so if you actually do that in your marketing, if you do that in everything that you do, then people are going to relate to you more. Right. And so, like, if you go to any agency website or any, you know, any website in general, they’ll always be like, oh, we’re the best agency. We do this and our best people and best process and all that bullshit that no everybody else says. And the reason they do this is because they look at the bigger guys and they’re doing it wrong. Right. But if they actually change that and they actually change it and saying, look, you’re struggling and really get laser specific about who they’re actually helping. Right. And so, like, if you go to my website and be like, hey, are you an agency owner? And you’re wanting to know how to grow, scale and possibly sell your agency, then you need to click this magic little green button, right? Right. So it’s going to relate to them a little bit more. And that’s what they need to do.
Bronson: Yeah. Now, that’s awesome. I love that analogy with Batman and Robin and something I want to keep in mind with my own marketing. Have you ever seen an agency that couldn’t be helped? They came to you. They wanted to grow. This is they actually could not add a zero to their bottom line. What is it that makes it just this isn’t going to work.
Jason: They’re doing it for the wrong reasons. They are comfortable where they’re at. They’re kind of like they’re kind of where Blockbuster was, right? They’re like, Oh, we’re on top of the mountain. We’re cool, we’re rural hip, we’re the Mad Men, right? You know, smoke and whatever. And then, you know, I’m like, All right, well, if you’re comfortable, that means you’re going to go, you know, your cat videos and procrastination people are going to go away. Buy it, right? Yeah. And so, yeah, I can’t help those or there’s a ton of people, I mean, out there that, you know, they want to know how to do everything, but they’re not willing to take the risk and actually freaking go do it, which, you know, taking action. I mean, that’s why I kicked the shit out of everybody is because I take massive action. No one can out implement me. Like I will have an idea and I will go do it. Yeah, right. And if I fail the no problem, I fail and then I just go on to do the next thing. But too many people are afraid to kind of play the game, right? So if you think of like Monopoly, right, you should look at your businesses Monopoly and say, I am just going to roll the dice. I may land on Boardwalk and I have to pay my son, you know, all my money for all the hotels he has. But then we can play again. Yeah, I can live another day or I can work out a deal with them. Be like, I’ll take you to swim class or.
Bronson: Whatever, right? Yeah. No, you know, it’s so true. I mean, I remember, you know, I used to run an agency back in the day same way, you know, you did wasn’t charging enough. And the first chance I had to charge 30,000 for a website, which was a mind boggling number to me back then, you know, I remember talking to my brother, who was a partner with me in the business and saying, like, look, we’ve never done a website for this much. And half the stuff they’re asking for, we don’t know how to do it. And then we just looked at each other like, What do we really think? We’re not going to figure it out. I mean, is it is it really possible that we’re not going to figure this out? Of course we are. I mean, let’s just go get the deal. We’ll figure it out as we go. And we did. I mean, it was hard. It wasn’t easy, you know what I mean? Yeah. But like, we took that step, and now we’re not a $5 hour agency. We’re $30,000 agency. It was another kind of notch in the belt, and we kept moving on from there, you know. But you’re right, you have to just do it. Like it was very uncomfortable. It wasn’t that it was easy to go and do it, but it’s I keep making those kinds of decisions the same way you do over and over with everything in life. I mean, you might fail. Okay, so what? You know. Yeah, you might not also. And then you got this life that you designed that you actually want to live. So let me ask you this. So 2017, you know, you got into the agency game in 99, you’ve really seen the entire thing. I mean, I don’t know if there was much of an agency game before 99 and I was designing websites in 99 also. It was like nothing.
Jason: Right. Yeah. Netscape composer.
Bronson: Right, right. Yeah, exactly. I mean, I was in the Microsoft one front page.
Jason: Front page and velocity hosted website.
Bronson: I mean, my first website was in. Geocities. I figured out how to put a gif of fire on the page, and I was like, I’m a genius. I just give on the page.
Jason: I remember you had the log in to telnet and do a change mode 755 in order for an image to actually be able to get permission to actually view. That’s how I did it.
Bronson: That’s. Yeah, it was crazy. So you’ve seen it all 99 to now. What is new? What is the trend? What do you think is going to happen in 2017 and beyond? That’s different for the agency game.
Jason: Being more. Really kind of narrowing down and being more personal. Right. You know, agencies and agencies are trying to look really, really big. And I think the smaller you look and the more kind of boutique and more niche down, I think is the sexier part of it. You know, for people because, you know, when we you know, when I started, you know, you had to say a full service agency because there was not that much. Right. You know, we didn’t have all these different things. I mean, they’re Snapchat agencies or Instagram stories, agencies. Like there’s tons. So like, I always laugh when someone says they are full service agency because I know they’re full of shit. I’m like, you really can’t be right. I mean, even like, like, even like VaynerMedia, which is a really big agency, they don’t say they’re a full service agency. Right? So I’m like, come on, you know, so you, you just got to kind of play to your strengths and and and you’re do what you do best. Right. And don’t be don’t be afraid to kind of, you know, I almost want people to say say no to stuff because they’re saying yes to everything, you know? And I had a hard time doing that at the agency and in my business. And, you know, but I realized that if I said yes to the wrong thing, I was saying no to the right thing. And so and that’s how I actually started charging more to like I remember one client came to me, I was like, Oh, there’s no way I want to work with him, but I don’t want to tell him no. So 80,000. And then he said yes. Like, shit, what do I do? Yeah, like I’ll do.
Bronson: Yeah. I used to add a jerk tax, you know, as an invisible jerk tax. And if it was worth it. Yeah. If they took it, then I was willing to do it. But it was a stupid fee.
Jason: Yeah. Yeah. That the tax. Yeah. I think the tax you.
Bronson: Got to do is you got to do all of it. All right. So a couple of final questions here. These are ones like to end every interview with. One is, what are you doing right after this interview is over? No matter how boring, mundane or awesome it is.
Jason: I will go play with my kids that are upstairs locked in the room. And then also I’ll probably I’ll let one of my cats outside so they don’t kill each other.
Bronson: Okay. And then what is the best advice you have for anyone that’s trying to grow their startup, whatever that startup might be?
Jason: Don’t think of success. Think of significance. And so, you know, my dad taught me that through his actions. You know, it was like success is only like, you know, hey, I’m making money or, you know, I make this amount for this company or I get this amount of words, like that’s success. But if you know, the true kind of holy grail is being significant, right? People need you where people like what you do actually makes them successful. And then if you can get even better than that, what you do actually makes them significant to other people. Right. And so, you know, that would be the advice I would tell you.
Bronson: That’s awesome advice to end on. I like the way you approach everything. It’s I love the systems thinking. I love that everything’s aligned. I love that it’s about significance, not just the bottom line. It seems like if you really put together the whole package of what you’re teaching, it’s the kind of life you’ve been proud of, you know, when you’re done living it. So Jason, thank you so much for coming on Growth Hacker TV and sharing your wisdom.
Jason: Yeah, man, thanks for having me.
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