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May 11, 2022

Sabir x Zubin Mowlavi

TL; DR

Zubin Mowlavi is an expert in building brands and helping eCommerce companies to grow their presence in highly competitive sectors. He is the president of VaynerCommerce and the go-to guru for all things eCommerce in 2021, but his career began over twenty years ago when he founded Lucid Fusion.

In the latest episode of This Week With Sabir, he sat down for a discussion about building an agency, establishing an effective agency culture, and scaling with a view to eventually selling the agency.

It was an insightful discussion that covered all of the following points:

  • How to Build a Strong Agency Culture: The culture within your agency must be strong, supportive, and reliable. It is the foundation on which everything else is built and is something you can’t afford to overlook.
  • Agency Acquisition: How do you grow an agency with a view to selling it? It’s an important question and one that Zubin Mowlavi discussed in more detail.
  • Training Agency Employees: It can be difficult to watch your employees leave after you have spent years training them, but it’s something that you need to accept and embrace. Zubin Mowlavi discusses the reasons why.
  • Embracing Change: If COVID has taught us anything, it’s that nothing is ever guaranteed and you should always expect the unexpected. As an agency owner, it’s essential that you move with these changes and find a way to exploit them as opposed to hiding away.

At the end of this hour-long interview, Zubin Mowlavi gave his biggest and best advice of all—the $100,000 snippet that every agency founder must see.

Watch the full video or read the full guide to learn more and see this 6-figure tip for yourself.

Building A Digital Agency With Zubin Mowlavi: Top Tips

I have been fortunate enough to speak with Zubin Mowlavi on several other occasions, including a rapid-fire eCommerce Q&A. He is incredibly knowledgeable on the subject of eCommerce and so I was delighted when he agreed to appear on This Week With Sabir.

During a 60-minute interview, I picked Zubin’s brain about the trials and tribulations of building an agency, establishing an agency culture, finding the best agency talent, and acquiring customers through which an agency can grow and prosper.

If you’re thinking about building a digital agency or you’re already in the process of doing so, Zubin’s journey can help you immensely.

You can watch the full hour-long episode below and I recommend doing just that. In the following guide, however, I will cover some of the tips, strategies, and pain points discussed in the video, tapping into Zubin’s vast well of experience to highlight the points that could help you as you get to grips with agency life.

Finding The Best Agency Talent

There was a time when you could just hire a computer guy and let them deal with everything. They were like the neighborhood whizz kid—when your computer stopped working, you gave them a call.

These days, there are many specializations and the same is true for all disciplines, not just developing and website building.

A good writer can assist you with everything from SEO to copywriting and academic essays, but many are limited to just one or two of these things. A developer might have a good grasp of WordPress, Shopify, and Java, as well as a decent understanding of HTML and PHP, but that doesn’t mean they are best suited for coding apps in the latter.

Even if you find a Jack of all Trades, that doesn’t mean they are the best person for all of those jobs.

A good digital agency is one that’s built on specific talent, as well as general talent.

The general talent forms the foundation. They can do everything that you need them to do, they are trustworthy and reliable, and so you can grow with them and utilize their broad range of skills.

But as the agency grows and the roles become hyper-focused, you need some specific skillsets in your team.

How you hire those agency employees is entirely up to you.

You could hire them on a full-time basis, as recommended by Shay Berman in a recent This Week With Sabir podcast, or you could hire them as freelancers.

In the first instance, you have full-time, contracted employees who will always be there when you need them. Where freelancers are concerned, you only need to pay them when they work, but they will also have other clients and there are no guarantees with regards to availability.

Adapting To Changes

One of the reasons that Gary Vaynerchuk (GaryVee) is so successful is that he’s always ready to adapt and always willing to change. Those traits are essential when building an agency, as times are constantly changing and the needs of your clients will change with them.

Just because WooCommerce works well for you and your clients now, doesn’t mean it will continue to work in the future.

What happens when everyone decides that Shopify is a better platform? What happens when Google Ads and Facebook Ads are no longer king or there is a dramatic shift in SEO that renders your current software useless?

If you dig your heels in and refuse to change, you’re just fighting against the tide and will eventually be swept away.

Instead, you need to move with the tide and see where it takes you.

It’s not just about applications and software, either.

COVID has also highlighted the need to adapt. Many businesses have failed during the pandemic while others have flourished.

On the one hand, it has been difficult to keep supply chains going and to manage employees and offline businesses. At the same time though, eCommerce sales have gone through the roof and it has never been easier or cheaper to attract customers to your online business.

Warren Buffett said that you should be fearful when others are greedy and greedy when others are fearful, and the pandemic is a great example of this.

When lockdown began, many business owners were fearful. They stopped their advertising, halted all freelancing contracts, and withdrew money from platforms like Google Ads and Facebook Ads.

As a result, they weren’t able to profit from the avalanche of sales that followed, and when they eventually restarted all of those campaigns, they had missed their opportunity.

The ones who profited the most during this time were the “greedy” ones who acted on that fear. Rather than battening down the hatches, they flung open their doors, embraced the changes, and increased their output. As a result, they were able to grab all of those extra customers and turn this huge negative into a positive.

Success is a combination of strategy, hard work, persistence, and luck, but you also need to take risks. To borrow another phrase, You can’t win the lottery if you don’t buy a ticket.

Always Deliver Value

Whatever you do, always deliver value for your client. Whether you’re building websites, writing content, creating images, or helping them with their advertising, your number 1 goal is to provide value.

It’s easy to get lost in the metrics when you run a digital agency. You focus too much on profits and expenses. But if you’re not providing value for your clients, none of that matters.

That value is the thing that keeps them coming back. It’s how they justify paying you all of that money, and it’s also the push that they need to pay you even more and to recommend you to friends and colleagues.

Don’t see building an agency as providing marketing, content creation, or website building services. Think of it as providing value any way that you can.

Ultimately, that’s all that matters.

Be Prepared To Embrace New Technologies

Zubin Mowlavi talked a lot about using platforms that are no longer around and platforms that eventually caused problems.

He built a team that understood how to use these programs, scaled alongside them, and was then forced to watch as they disappeared and stopped being the platform of choice.

It happens. It’s normal, and when you’re building an agency, you need to embrace these changes and move with them.

Ecommerce moves quickly and as a digital agency, the onus is on you to stay on top of those changes and ensure that your clients have the best platforms and tech.

Building A Strong Agency Culture

Don’t worry so much about losing talent.

That was Zubin Mowlavi’s advice. It’s also advice that I’ve heard from several other guests on This Week With Sabir, and yet it’s something that many business owners ignore.

You need to stop spending your time worrying that agency employees will leave and acknowledge that there will always be more agency talent to hire.

As long as you’re building an environment in which they can learn, grow, and improve, you can keep turning over skilled employees and ensure that your business flourishes.

People will leave. There’s nothing you can do about that.

Many times, it’s not even your fault.

Life gets in the way and forces a change of plans. Maybe they are starting a family. Maybe there is an emergency that forces them to move back home. Maybe they just want to try something new.

If you’re building a digital agency, there’s a good chance that you’ve made similar decisions yourself. You probably worked as a freelancer and/or for another agency, in which case you likely used their resources to improve your skillset. They gave you the tools you needed to make it to where you are now, and you should be prepared to do the same for others.

Obviously, you need some stability and you need people who will stay with you throughout. But you can’t expect that from everyone.

If you find top agency talent, keep educating them and incentivizing them. If they work well and improve quickly, promote them, pay them more, and give them more responsibility. Make their life easier and their job more rewarding and they are more likely to stick around.

But if the day comes when they decide to leave, so be it.

Build At Your Own Pace

If you’re building an agency on a shoestring budget and are worried about taking risks, then build slowly. Use your own skills as a freelancer, hire one or two trusted agency employees, and take it from there.

The great thing about growing a digital agency is that you can rely on freelancers.

Acquire as many clients as you can handle, and if the contracts keep coming, hire some freelancers to manage them. You’ll be paying those freelancers on a contract-by-contract basis, so you have nothing to lose if your clients go elsewhere and the work dries up.

Starting small and growing slowly is a great way of building all types of businesses and it’s something that I discussed at length in my guide to Launching an Online Business in 2021.

After all, many businesses fail because they grow too fast or build too soon.

If you have contracts equating to $20,000 a month and you hire a team that costs $15,000, you’ll have enough room for profit and growth. But what happens when your biggest clients leave and you find yourself with an income of $5,000 and expenses of $15,000?

At that rate, you could be months or even weeks away from complete destruction, and for entrepreneurs on a limited budget, that’s just not a risk they can afford to take.

The $100,000 Question

The digital agency industry is difficult. You are constantly trying to find new clients and keep your current ones happy.

It’s like being a freelancer, only the responsibility and risks are magnified.

That’s the bad news. The good news is that if you get it right, it can be a hugely profitable venture. An agency acquisition could net you a 6, 7, or 8-figure profit in just a few years.

It’s something that Zubin Mowlavi knows all too well, so at the end of our discussion, I asked him for his best advice—something that could generate over $100,000 in value for anyone thinking about building an agency.

His advice was threefold:

1. Set Goals

Behind every successful entrepreneur, you will find a long list of goals—some weekly, some monthly, some yearly. It’s how they keep track of where they have been and it ensures that they know where they’re going.

Make your goals both realistic and aspirational, such as acquiring your first client within the first 4 weeks and breaking your first million within 2 years.

What do you want to achieve this quarter and this year? Where do you want to be in 1, 2 or 5 years from now?

Answer those questions, create those goals, and push yourself to meet them. Once you have them written down, make sure you adjust your goals every quarter according to your current progress.

2. Stay Focused

Maintain your focus, especially if you are focusing on agency acquisition. Discover what you do well and focus on that area. That’s how you attract the attention of someone like Gary Vaynerchuk and it’s how you sell a digital agency for big bucks.

Don’t spread yourself too thin. If you’re great at writing and know everything about the craft, focus on copywriting and gradually branch into general content creation. If you’re a master of Google Ads, then that should be your initial focus.

I’ve referred to Kitchen Nightmares several times in This Week With Sabir and it’s a show that is also relevant here.

Many times, Gordan Ramsey visits a failing restaurant and discovers that they’re losing thousands of dollars a week and have a menu that reads like a Russian novel.

They are giving their customers too much choice and their kitchen staff too much work. All of those ingredients must be purchased in advance, and if they have a slow day, they’ll create more waste and lose more cash.

Inevitably, the massive menu means they’ll need to rely on frozen food, cheap ingredients, and microwave cooking.

By keeping everything simple and streamlined, they can focus on creating the very best dishes every time and ensure that customers are happy.

It’s the same story with a digital agency. Focus on what you do best and keep doing it.

If you grow into one of the country’s biggest agencies, something that can rival Gary Vaynerchuk’s empire, then you can start thinking about branching out and covering more areas.

Until then, keep it simple.

3. Understand What You Want

Do you want to build something that you can run every day, something that you can sell, or something that can be managed by executives when it has achieved a certain level of growth?

It’s important to answer this question early in the process and to understand exactly what you want and where you are going.

When building an agency that you’ll run yourself, you can afford to focus more on entry-level employees and don’t need to worry too much about managers and CEOs. After all, you’ll be doing most of the work and will always have control.

If you’re hoping to adopt a more passive approach, you’ll need to think about building an agency that can run itself, which means thinking about strong agency culture and capable agency employees.

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