Whew. What a ride. Today is our seven year anniversary and it may or may not feel like it's been approximately 107 years. Today I took some time to think about where we came from, who we are, the struggles and successes along the way, and where we want to go over the next seven years. What a ride it has been and I can't wait to see what's next!
If you don't know already - I'm Dustin Brackett and I'm the CEO and Co-Founder of HIVE Digital Strategy. I started the agency on January 30, 2014 with David Barella. But the agency looked a whole lot different back then and our plan for what the agency would become was also completely different.
I thought for our seven year anniversary that I'd pull the curtain back a little bit and let you hear our story, our journey, and our plans for the future. Who knows - maybe I'll look back at this post in (gulp) 2028 and laugh.
Where Our Digital Strategy Agency Came From
David and I had worked together previously and had a fantastic working relationship, even if our job was dysfunctional (to say the least). David worked mostly in operations and I worked in marketing. I was marketing a company in an industry that I absolutely hated. It wasn't interesting to me, it wasn't where I wanted to spend my time, and worst of all, it was for people that I didn't want to work for. It wasn't all bad though. I had made some amazing friendships, met a ton of interesting people, and probably the biggest takeaway from that job was that I could do this. Marketing could be my career.
Even though I was working in a business I didn't like, we were able to produce the best year the company had ever had largely in part to our marketing campaigns that I spearheaded. I had done what I set out to do. I had proved to myself that I could do it.
So I quit.
I decided that it was time for me to go out on my own. I needed to build something. I needed to own something. I needed all the pressure, sleepless nights, stress, anxiety, and honestly the full responsibility that came with it. So I did.
I called up David and told him I wanted to start an agency called Bee Social. We were going to be a social media agency that supported small businesses with their organic and paid social media marketing campaigns. Don't laugh. Remember - it was 2014. The world had just decided that social media wasn't a fad. There were so many small businesses out there that needed help and I wanted to be the one to help him. David was on board. So with $2,000 and an idea, we started Bee Social.
The business took off slow and I worked for the first month for 10-12 hours per day at the Starbucks near my house. Finally I decided that if we were going to be successful, I needed an office. I knew that working from home at that time wasn't going to work. If I was going to make my agency work I needed to sign a lease on an office space. Co-working spaces really weren't a thing at this time. So I did. We signed a lease on an office before I signed a single client and just added more pressure on the company to succeed.
After we were all settled into the office and had a few clients under our belt, I remember about six months into the business getting a call from Jacob Carlson pitching this newer software called HubSpot to me. He explained their partner program, the training and support that HubSpot offered to their partners, and how it would help me to increase my retainer size, help me to deliver on more than just social media, and most importantly, help me to scale my agency — something I desperately wanted to do. At this time I was also getting constant requests from our clients for more than just social. "Can you build me a new website?" "Do you guys do SEO?" "Can you write blog posts for us?" I had experience doing all of these things, but it wasn't my plan to deliver on them. We were a social media agency, right?
It was becoming extremely clear that social media was not going to be our end-all-be-all. It couldn't be.
So I got excited about this HubSpot thing. It sounded great. Plus Jacob was pumping me up about other agencies charging thousands of dollars for retainers (instead of the low hundreds that we charged at the time). This was exactly what we needed.
Then he hit me with the price.
Yikes. $800/month AND a year contract?! I didn't even have a client that big at the time. We were only six months old. How could I afford that? I hadn't even proved that I could run an agency long-term yet. We were only six months old and you want me to commit to a YEAR with HubSpot?! I couldn't take that risk. I had made my mind up that we just couldn't do it. It was too early. It was too expensive.
Then one night I remember waking up in the middle of the night and thinking, "this is what I need to do." This is how I grow and if I'm going to be afraid to take a risk like this, then I didn't belong in the CEO chair. I didn't belong running a company.
So I took the plunge.
I bought in. I paid HubSpot instead of paying myself. I remember the conversation with Jacob where I told him that I was going to do it. I vividly remember telling him, "We're going to make this work. But I need to be selling HubSpot within a month. It's too expensive for me to sit on it any longer than that." Jacob chuckled and said, "Let's do it then!" I didn't know it then, but that chuckle was real. There was no freaking way any company could have onboarded with HubSpot and understood it enough to sell it in 30 days. No way. Needless to say, we were not selling HubSpot in our first month. Or our second month. Or our third month. Finally by our fourth month using HubSpot we were somewhat comfortable communicating the value and selling it. We just weren't good at selling it.
The next issue was our perception in the market. Bee Social – does that sound like a company you'd buy a full inbound marketing retainer from? Neither did anyone else. We were the "social guys". We had developed a reputation that I had hoped for on day one of launching the business, but loathed a year later. I remember friends and family even referring to me as "the social media guy". I cringed every single time. I had to eliminate that reputation. No one was going to buy a website or SEO or a full inbound marketing retainer from someone that was only known for social media.
So – we rebranded. We became HIVE Digital Strategy and maintained our "bee" theme, but became an agency that sold more than social media. We became an inbound marketing agency. We became a strategic partner. We elevated our position in the market and slowly but surely eliminated the reputation as "the social guys".
Our HubSpot Journey
Oh our HubSpot journey has been an interesting one. Back when we became a partner I think there were about five other agencies in Colorado that were partners. It was not a crowded space and I saw that as a huge opportunity. We used HubSpot ourselves and we were seeing good results. We were starting to rank, starting to attract, convert, and close more deals. But we were still young.
When you're a young business – in any industry – you take the money people are willing to pay you. We fell HARD into that trap. We were extremely underpriced. I was working 8am to midnight seven days per week to deliver on campaigns that people were paying me hundreds maybe a thousand dollars for. We weren't making money, burning ourselves out, and driving ourselves crazy because we were working with clients that did not fit who we were or what we were. But we needed the cashflow. If someone was willing to write me a check, you better believe that I took it. That eventually bit me in the ass.
If you know me, you know that I'm stubborn, opinionated, and I am going to do my own research before I just take anyone's word for truth. The team at HubSpot was constantly pushing me. Telling me how to structure my business, how to sell my services, how to communicate value, how to position HubSpot within my retainers. It was a lot and honestly I wasn't ready or willing to listen to most of it. I didn't want to specialize in an industry. I didn't want to create personas. And the idea of turning away a "bad fit" prospect made me want to throw up. You're telling me that I'm supposed to turn away someone that wants to write me a check?! Get the hell out of here.
So the first two years went on. HIVE grew at a steady, if not slow pace. And we had not yet tiered in the HubSpot Partner Program. At that time, there were tiers of Partner, Silver, Gold, Platinum, and Diamond. We weren't even Silver. It was frustrating me and it was frustrating HubSpot. Their success is largely dependent on partners and to have a partner not tiering after that long is not good for their business. Finally I decided that maybe they knew more than I thought. Maybe they did have some wisdom that I could use. Maybe they could help me with my business processes, maybe they had other agencies that I could talk to. FINE.
So I joined the very first Project LIONS class. And the very first follow up LIONS class. I started talking with other agencies. I joined masterminds, workshops, group sessions, and took advantage of every resource that HubSpot wanted to throw my way. And we tiered. We finally became a Silver partner! It was one of the biggest little wins ever. It worked. These HubSpot guys actually know some things. These other agencies are actually willing to help and they're not just looking at me as competition (like I was looking at them). There was a community of similar people with similar problems working together to support each other. It was wonderful.
So less than a year later we tiered to Gold. Then less than a year later we tiered to Platinum.
I was asked in an interview with a potential new hire this week, "what has your partnership with HubSpot done for your agency". It took everything in me to not tell him that HubSpot made our agency. They turned an idea of a social media exclusive agency (which today sounds a little silly) into a full blown inbound marketing agency that is known throughout the industry. Two guys with $2,000 and an idea really created a successful and well-respected inbound marketing agency. And I don't know that it would have happened without HubSpot and their support. David and I were in our early 20's when we started the agency. We didn't know, well, anything.
Where Are We Today?
Today, we're growing faster than ever. We just came off the best year we've ever had as a company (during a pandemic). We are continuing to grow our team. We are a Platinum HubSpot Solutions Partner Agency and we have our sights set on becoming a Diamond HubSpot Partner Agency in 2021.
We have continued to take HubSpot's advice and we're being so much more strategic about who we work with and why we work with those people and companies. We have created an amazing team of Client Success Managers, content creators, developers, business development, and strategy folks that are really the glue behind everything and I couldn't be more grateful or happy to have each and every one of them.
Today, we are inbound marketing experts. We are the ones guiding all marketing strategy, execution, and decision making. We are really, really good at what we do, but we are also continuing to learn. We know that in our industry things change in a blink and if we don't stay ahead of what's coming next and our own education then we'll fall behind and our clients will fall behind. We know that because of all that has changed in the last seven years. Think about this, these are just some of the major changes that have happened in our industry since I launched Bee Social:
- Google+ went under
- HubSpot launched Sales Hub, Service Hub, and CMS Hub
- Social media went from a great organic marketing tactic to a pay-to-play tactic
- Advertising on social media was rolled out to nearly all platforms
- Google has had 82 major algorithm updates
- Mobile responsive websites became a thing
- HubSpot Partners and Providers went from 5 to 68 in Colorado
Just to name a few.
We're not a perfect agency. I don't think that exists. We're still a relatively small team, but it blows my mind to think back to our early days and the work that we produced then and then look at what we produce today for ourselves and for our clients.
In 2020 we decided that we were going to dive in with both feet to all things HubSpot. We had always supported HubSpot and that was our main software focus, but we also worked in other tools and platforms, but it was time to specialize. Yeah, yeah, I still hear you Jacob!
We were wasting time working in less friendly and worse systems for clients like Pardot, Marketo, etc. It was taking too long, the results weren't as good, and our team was getting frustrated with it.
So in an effort to really leverage our immense HubSpot skills and knowledge, in the second half of 2020 we launched a new offering called HIVE Hub. HIVE Hub is a task management solution for all things HubSpot. There is so much that you can do within a HubSpot portal, but not every business has the skills, training, time, or bandwidth to do those things. Our team does them every single day – and we're really freaking good at it. So we decided that there was an opportunity for that. We could help people that didn't necessarily need us to build out a marketing strategy or manage their advertising or create content. They just needed support in HubSpot. Plus it opened up a brand new market for us, one we're really familiar with – other partner agencies. We could become a white label partner for other agencies to help them support their clients, deliver great work, and increase their HubSpot partner tier. It has taken off extremely fast and we're super excited about where it is headed.
Man. Thinking back to where we started, I never thought this is where we'd be today. I'm not even sure I could think that far ahead at that point. From working at a Starbucks by my house for 10+ hours a day to get the agency launched to today seems like multiple lifetimes.
The future is more exciting to me than ever. We have embraced the pandemic lifestyle and have transitioned into a fully remote agency. We are eliminating our office space and our team will be working remotely into the future. With what we do, there is really no need for a physical location and it has even opened up our hiring possibilities since candidates don't have to be located near our office anymore.
One area of HubSpot that we hadn't previously embraced was the HubSpot CMS (or COS in the early days). To be frank, it was the dog of HubSpot. It wasn't well developed, thought out, or really even useful. It was a good idea with no resources or support behind it. That all changed a couple years ago. HubSpot started to invest in the development of that tool. They started to give it functionality that we all were used to from other content management systems like WordPress. They started to make it viable. And maybe most importantly, they realized that COS was a dumb name.
In 2019 we bit the bullet and killed our WordPress website in favor of a HubSpot CMS website and we've never looked back. We had been on WordPress since our launch in 2014 so this was a HUGE move.
With the advancement of HubSpot themes in 2020, we're PUMPED about the possibilities of where CMS Hub is headed. So much so that we are in the process of transitioning away from website development on other platforms. HubSpot's CMS is so flexible and developer friendly that we can do more on their CMS than any other and we can do it our way. We can build what we want to build with no restrictions. If we (or our clients) can dream it, we can build it. And it's been a fun transition.
Over the next seven years, I envision us continuing to grow our team, our skills, and our knowledge even more. I would like to think that by 2028 that we are a team of around 50 people, an Elite HubSpot Partner Agency, and the industry leader. So much will change between now and then and I can't wait to take on those challenges.
The next seven years are going to be crazy, fun, stressful, intense, trying, exciting, and every other adjective that you can think of, but I can't wait for the ride. I am beyond proud of my team and the growth that we've all had over the years. These last seven years have been the absolute best years of my life and I can't wait to continue the story.