Building a side hustle into a million-dollar company is kind of the dream, right?
It’s fun to daydream about what life would look like if you had multiple employees, office space OR EVEN an entire HR department.
Okay, maybe you don’t dream about HR departments but all of us dream about having outrageous success.
Well, Mark Miller and Ted Vaughn of the Historic Agency have found outrageous success in just a few short years.
In their first year, they made $6k. Their next year they made $45k and in their third year, they made a quarter of a million dollars all from doing simple things like serving their customers really really well, AND finding things that they were good at that other agencies struggled with.
They share their tips and tricks with us this week AND talk about a new book that is available on October 19th, 2021.
- How to level up from nothing to something and something to something more
- How to face your fears at different seasons of growth with your freelance business
- How to keep from becoming a commodity as a freelancer or web designer
- How to figure out why people are choosing you over someone else
- How to figure out what your client actually needs
- How to Stand Out as a Freelancer and Win Higher Paying Clients
- How to Start a Web Design Business that Lasts with No Experience
This week's guest went from a freelance side hustle to a million dollar agency and only a few years. And they're telling you all their secrets on this episode. Are you ready? Let's go.
what is up self maters? To another episode of this self-made web designer podcast, building something that is now a side hustle into one day, being a million dollar company is kind of a dream, right. It's fun to daydream about what life would look like if you had multiple employees and an office and even an entire HR department.
Okay. Maybe you don't dream about an HR department, but all of us dream about having outrageous. Success. Well, Mark Miller and Ted Vaughn of the historic agency have found outrageous success in just a few short years. Their first year they made $6,000. The next year they made $45,000 and their third year they made a quarter of a million dollars.
And now they're making over a million dollars. They can't. The specifics, at least that's what mark just told me all from doing simple things, like serving their customers really, really well and finding things that they weren't good at, that other agencies struggled with. And I'm happy to say that they are sharing what they have learned along their journey with you.
So you too can find that outrageous success that we are all shooting for. Before we dive into the conversation, I want to invite you to subscribe. To the self-made web designer podcast and get awesome fresh new episodes straight in your pocket to help you grow as a freelance web designer, web developer, or heck even as a citizen of earth.
Okay, so go ahead, take a second. And to subscribe on whatever platform you are listening or watching. Episode on. All right. Are you ready to hear from Mr. Mark Miller and Mr. Ted Vaughn on how to quickly go from a side hustle to a million dollar agency. Cool. Let's do it. What's that? And mark, thank you so much for being on the self-made web designer podcasts.
So good to have you my, my second two-person interview and the life of the self-made web designer podcast. So thanks. Thanks for showing up and being here. Glad to be here. Thanks for having, yeah. So, uh, to talk a little bit about. What you guys do, how, how you got started. I know you run a really awesome agency here in Phoenix.
Um, a little bit of history, mark and I worked together years and years and years ago at the church that I was a part of for over a decade. And so, uh, you know, He, uh, was the first one that I saw doing design. And I was like, man, that guy is amazing. I wish I could do what he does. And it, even though I've put all the effort into trying to learn how to do what he does, I still don't do it nearly as well.
So, um, I'm glad to get your insight. I'm not sure about that when it comes to web, but here you're, you could hold your own stuff. Well, thank you. Thank you. So tell me, tell me about y'all's journey. Well, yeah, I mean, I think we each have different stories of kind of how we came into historic. I, uh, had been working largely in nonprofits, including churches and went out on my own to do coaching and consulting.
And, um, you know, I knew enough about, about design and logo and web to be dangerous, but not to execute and time and time again, I would help clients. Clear strategically and think about their brand and their brand strategy. But then the question was, what about logo? What about web? What about this? So I knew mark and mark knew other designers and I was able to connect to him and they would deliver, and eventually it just became clear, you know, there's, there's a niche here to serve.
Let's figure out how to bootstrap an agency and do it. And, um, that's what we did and much like, um, I think probably what you did. About, you know, um, we, both of us had, um, other gigs that we were working on. Uh full-time and we started an agency and then we woke up and we had, I think, four or five W2 employees with healthcare.
And, um, you know, all the other HR stuff was starting to have, have to be formulated around it. And we were like, you know, Should we actually work in our own business. That would be nice one day, you know, so it was, it was one of those things where we just, you know, bootstrapped it for lack of a better term.
Um, and I remember one time. We actually, the first person we hired was someone to answer the phones and to like interact with the clients and the account management side, because every, we were doing our other gigs and we, we needed to show up like real, like a real agency or like a real, um, contractor who wasn't doing too many different things.
And so we hired someone to, uh, interface with clients during the day. I would take a client call every day at lunch or two, and then on the way into work and then on the way. And eventually that just flourished, um, into an agency and we were able to leave our full-time gigs, having, I talk to a lot of freelancers who have tried to do what you guys have done.
Um, That kind of success doesn't happen by accident, right? You don't just start working and contracting on your own. And then all of a sudden, like, man, we just have way too much business. We gotta hire people and build a company. It was the other way. RAs. We, we, yeah, we started out, um, Uh, the very, very early stages.
And this is even probably, uh, I think you've pretended before you came into the picture. Um, I think our first year we made like $6,000, uh, me and one of the other designers and we were like, uh, cool. Um, that's $6,000. Great. You know, we can go backpacking with that, I guess, you know, go to REI, buy some stuff.
And then, um, you know, um, we. We're a little bit more intentional and intentional about. Let's see if we can get more sales. Right. And it's something that people forget about. They think, oh, we just need to work on the thing that we're going to do and do it really well and not focus about sales, but I'm a pragmatist.
So I was like, well, let's say we there's actually interest. And then it was $46,000 the next year. And then the next year after that, it was a quarter of a million dollars. And you're like, whoa. And I would say that's where the real. Challenge begins. I think going from a lifestyle brand, a boutique, a designer, or boutique, you know, agency to really wanting to grow.
Uh, and I, you know, it's funny cause I would always hear organizational specialists talk about, um, You know the difference between a $5 million company and a 50 million and a 50 million and a hundred million. And I would just, in my mind, I couldn't fully understand it. Well now our journey of going from like zero to something, something to more, more to each one of those phases has had radical, um, learning, uh, Major speed bumps, friction.
That's both personal professional because you know, often when you start something, the people that helped get you to where you are, may not in many cases, be the right people to get you. To that next place and it fit, it can just feel weird, like the tr trail. It it's just, you know, and I think mark experienced way more of that than I did because he was in Arizona doing this thing in a way more tactical way than I was, you know, I was, I was supporting, but not in the weeds.
Like. I run the day-to-day operations in our Phoenix office and in Ted those in San Diego and has chosen, never to move to Phoenix because he lives in San Diego, like most people that live in San Diego. And so that means great. I don't think there's a lot of that San Diego to Phoenix movement. I don't seem to know it's usually the other way or yeah.
But yeah. And I would say like, um, for your listeners who may maybe like on the, the, um, solo side of just starting out. You know, making those jumps, whether it's with, sometimes it's not just like, oh, I'm growing and I want to have a team because just having a bigger team and bigger office isn't necessarily good.
Right. It's a different set of problems, but sometimes it's where you want to go. It means. Just like some people will get you where you are today. The clients that you have today, the types of clients that you have today may not get you to where you want to go tomorrow and you need to serve different types of clients.
And that's the same kind of like wrestling with that idea, um, as well. So it's not just the people that you have on your team. It's also the type of clients, um, or service offerings as an example, um, that you, uh, have. Yeah, I that's, I think you've hit on something really key with that. And I, and I think it's something that a lot of freelancers, especially in the early stages are having to navigate through and on, on every one of those jumps, I think from zero to something, something was something more and then something more to a lot more.
Right. There's, there's all of these things that you've never done before that you've got to figure out how to do, and you're also. Leaving things in the past that you're really good at, right? Like you, you know, you, you, you dial it in, you mastered that level. And so that's what, you know, for sure, like you could go out and you can get 10 clients that you've gotten, who are like the last 10 clients that you got, but now you're going and looking for a different type of client.
So talk, talk about that transition because I'm sure there was. Fear. How did, how did you face that fear? Was there strategy involved? Was it a conversation? Yeah, a lot of, all of that, I think there's always fear, especially as creative people, we tend to be more on the insecure side for some reason when everyone wants to be us, which makes no sense, but we are.
Um, and, uh, there's actually some interesting research about that, but, um, the, the thing that I think. I was struggling with is okay. So the first part was we were just going to do design right. And design started to get commoditized immediately. Right. And you're all. You know, um, listeners probably now, right?
Like, uh, Canva to Canva. Now everyone's a designer. Right? My, my wife has students in her seventh grade class that use Canva better than some people I know use Photoshop. So there's, there's that. And, and so that first step for us was, okay, what does it look like to be more strategic with our clients being more certain full service, I'll adding different offerings.
And that was really scary because. We didn't know how we were going to deliver those services, or if we knew how to do, I mean, we knew, I knew how to do marketing, but like it's different between marketing strategy and then running your PPC campaigns and running traditional media and running all this stuff.
You need people to actually do that. So, um, we sat down and, um, and this was, uh, in the early days to figure out, okay, what does that offering going to be? And we, we felt like we needed. Uh, strategic offering that allow us to speak into the bigger picture and then move in and sell the whatever services we wanted to that the client, after they, we built trust with them, they were like, okay, yeah, we need a website or, yeah, we need this.
And whatever was part of your plan. And we'll just hire you to do it because we already know you and we're comfortable with you. So that, that was a big fear. And we bought, we, we looked at it from a strategic standpoint. What is it that we need to be able to do that? Not. People's standpoint necessarily, but like how were you convinced the client?
Right. And that's where I think we're a little bit more, uh, um, process oriented than traditional agencies. Is that okay? What is it going to get to have that conversation from the client? What is the offering? What is the process that we're going to walk them through that builds that trust that lets us do something else and then we'll figure out how to do that.
Something else once they say yes. Um, and so that was kind of the first iteration of that. And I think that. The next evolution of where historic is at is in this journey of discovering, okay, what is it that we do super uniquely and really, really good that no one else does like that unfair. Advantage or the only minus, um, or uniqueness, whatever language you want to use to describe that.
And to sort of, we're kind in this place of trying to find our voice, which has led to a new book about how we approach brand and some other things. But Ted, you want to add anything to that? Yeah. Well, I think it's interesting because as you were sharing earlier, Chris, about, um, you feel like you've got everything dialed in and you're in the sweet spot, then you have to kind of.
I, I feel like for me, this journey has been more of like tripping and stumbling my way forward and learning as I go. And oftentimes having to having intuitive guts, being smart enough and courageous enough to figure out how to serve a client. When really, if we're being honest, I had no effing clue how to actually do it because it felt like the first time.
Each time we served our clients, especially in the areas of brand that are more about culture and strategy, maybe the higher part of the funnel. You know, when you get into design, I think it's a little bit more narrow and specific, but I think the stuff I was dealing with was more. You know, I would say every client is this unique amalgamation of culture and conviction and context, and like there's no cut and paste.
And now I know that it's true as an artist and in design, but it's also true in how we approach all of our brands solutions. So I think, I think one of the things I felt, and maybe a lot of your listeners feel like is I don't know that I ever get to a place where it's so perfectly honed. We can just now repeat this thing and do it again.
And again and again, this is not about. Scale of a S of a narrow thing. This is about for us charging enough to do the work before, during, and after that actually serves the client well and getting paid. When everything about the client's world is getting commoditized. So they want to commoditize you.
They want to grind you. And really what they need is a partner more than they need a logo. What they need is a, somebody to walk with them. So I think in many ways, what we've found is our greatest attribute is the strategic advising and partnership with our clients, all the deliverables that come on the back end of that.
Are that much more trusted and wanted and needed and helpful and frankly efficient. Um, but if you get the partnership or the trust piece wrong, then you're just a commodity and they're better served going elsewhere, both hit on how you really kind of found your sweet spot and a lot of different marketers call it a lot of different things.
Your secret sauce. There's your tilt is the latest one that I've heard. How are you going to tilt yourself to serve your client? Um, and, and you guys kind of found it with, with culture and with strategy and kind of a top down, um, I guess, strategy from looking at, you know, who are you guys? What are you, what are you trying to accomplish?
And then going from there and then giving them something that serves them best. So did that realization come. From the get-go. Did you discover it as you go along? Cause there's a lot of people listening who are like, how do I find that sweet spot for myself that only ness or that uniqueness about me that really allows me to stand out and serve higher paying clients.
I think mark might have a different answer. I think we always knew what it was. We didn't know how to monetize it. So we opened doors and closed deals was what we're actually writing about and talking about, and now getting paid to do, but it took a long time to actually it's like we'd spent all this energy consulting for free asking great questions, getting to know them to get a design contract that was essentially chasing a deliverable.
And it was like, ah, like either we're going to be a creative agency and become this incredible all about our creativity. Right. And it's like, hire the unicorn, be this incredible, whatever it is, but be about creativity or we're going to be about process and strategy. And like, yes, we do design. Yes, we live creativity as we love digital.
But those all come on the back end of what we're going to be differentiated by. And I think we always knew what we were best at. I just don't think we had a clue how to monetize it in the early years. Is that fair? Mark? Do you agree with that? Yeah. For your listeners, I would say, you know, you probably know.
And if you can't, you can ask about why are people coming to you? And sometimes we actually don't pay attention to that. We think it's nice. And we're so focused on, I need to build these awesome sick websites, or I need to learn the latest as if it's Elementor or web flow or whatever the thing is that you do.
Or, you know, I need to be, get more efficient and Figma and blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. And we've we've we missed this thing. And so we, the, you know, the two things people came to why people came to us and why people stayed as far as clients. We're concerned is, um, our strategy and how we felt like we could walk them through a process.
And then we became partners, um, and they were more successful because of it. And two, because of the way we treated our clients is why they would stay. Right. So those two things, we, in fact, I just had a. The big client in Atlanta tell us they fired all of the other agencies that they work with because no one treats them the way we do.
And I'm like, I, all we do is we're nice. And we over-communicate, that's the only two things. So like we're polite. Uh, I don't want to say there. Yeah. But, um, it was. You know, so you kind of know like why people are sticking around or why they're coming to you. I mean, it might be hard in the first days, but when do you start getting clients pay attention to that stuff?
Because if there's a way to harness that through your messaging, through your product offering or service offering, um, and how you sell, uh, then you're going to start finding your uniqueness in that, or your only your tilts or whatever it is. It's so simple, but I think so many people. Don't just think to ask, why did you hire me over the other people that you were interviewing or talking to?
You know, like it's, there's, there's some thought in our minds of like, I've got to figure this out on the, on my own, and nobody's going to tell me what their playbook is or why they're making the decisions, but it, like, I found that to be true as well. It's, it's really much more simple than that. You just, you can't pretend like, you know, something that you don't know when it comes to.
Getting hired or finding the right client. Like you've just got to, you've just got to go out on the limb and kind of ask and see what happens. I also think you have to ask the question, um, are, are we truly doing this to be a lifestyle brand or do we actually want to grow and scale? And if we want to grow and scale, what does that look like?
Because you can grow in scale and still kind of be a lifestyle brand. There, there are modest trade-offs, but if you want to grow in scale to certain levels, there are huge trade-offs. And. What I learned is we went into that naive to what the consequences might be. And then we realized it as they were biting us in the ass.
And maybe that's the way it is. You know, maybe there's no way around that. If you're like, uh, you know, more creative, you know, outside, whether it's a design or something, you, you can still. Niche down and find your uniqueness in that. Right. I don't know if you've had, um, Corey Miller on the show, Chris, but I'll introduce you to him if you don't, but he's a great illustrator here in town.
Um, and his name. He really found his niche in working with, um, microbrewers. Like he, you know, he illustrates these great patches for the different national parks and different things, but then found a niche in, um, working with microbrewers, designing really awesome cans. And, you know, you don't need to go upstream necessarily if you want to be a one man shop like him and, and just kill it.
And just everyone comes to you. If they want a really awesome can design. That's totally fine. But again, ask why people. Coming to you and what that is. But yeah, there, there are different challenges that you're going to face, whether it's that versus I want to grow and have 10 people or 20 people in my shop.
There's another set of problems. You guys mentioned something. Um, both of you kind of touched on this that I think is really important. And you know, a lot of folks who are just getting started, they might not have caught it, but I think it's. It's super impactful. It's the idea that you're getting hired to, you know, check off a task list versus being hired to be a consultant and a strategist.
And you also have these deliverables that you got to do, right? Like they need something, you know, whether it's a logo or branding package. Or web website or, or, you know, marketing campaign for some new product or something that they're launching. But at, at the core of that is the why behind the, what, which is, you know, figuring out how to be successful or, you know, trying to accomplish something that they have that deeper level of motivation for.
So talk a little bit about that. Like, was that an, a natural assumption? Like, did you always know. We're never going to be the task list driven folks. Or did you find that as you went along and then how did you, how did you make that more of a, yeah, I think we stumbled into that a little bit because we we've always wanted to serve the client.
Well, which meant we never like had a unique style necessarily. If that makes sense. Like, if you're a designer or an illustrator or you do web designs and you could even web design, you can have kind of like a niche. We never really had a visual. Niche and we just want to serve the client well, so we would, we were actually really good at becoming a Swiss army knife for that client.
Um, and I think that led, you know, Ted, you want to talk about how that there's just, that just led into the natural conversation of like, what does it actually mean to serve them well, and where do we see the gaps that our clients are facing? Going back to something we were saying earlier, you know, what we were really good at was asking questions that revealed certain things.
That we didn't know how to serve beyond revealing, but it built trust. And then it led to a design contract. I think what, when mark says we backed into it, I think what we backed into was realizing, you know, what we're actually really good at and helping our people see we actually, as an agency aren't designed to do so we got, we have to change that.
Um, but I don't, uh, But I also think to your question, Chris, I think it's safe to assume that most of the time, the clients, that you're serving that any of your listeners are serving, don't actually know what they need. They think that they need something that is the tip of the iceberg when there's probably the rest of the expert below the water that you need to somehow address or at minimum talk about in order to serve them well in design.
But if you don't. At least address the whole iceberg, then you're, you're guilty of just helping them chase cool. And that doesn't actually help further most causes unless the cause. And the mission is to chase. Cool. And then, great. We'll do that for six months and we'll have to do it again. So, you know, I think to a certain extent, um, the assumption I have is every client we're talking with, doesn't actually know the full extent of what they need and our job and opportunity is to help them see.
And then be prepared to serve them in it. If we can. I think we could just end the show off that note. That's incredible advice. And I think very insightful. Um, but before we do I, you guys just released a new book. It's it's really awesome. So I'd love it. And it, you know, you kind of mentioned that it's talking about culture and brand and the connection between the two.
So talk, talk a little bit about that. And, uh, and, and, and what you guys are doing. Yeah. So, um, it's called the culture, but my brand, uh, it, uh, releases October 19th. So depending on when this episode airs, uh, and we, and we came to this, this, again, this is one of those other things that you would just start paying attention to the patterns around you and the work that you're doing, you can really offer some great value.
And for us, it was seeing how there is a pattern amongst. Clients we're working with that. A rebrand would, would bomb horribly, no matter how great the strategy was or how great the creative or how awesome the website. I mean, sometimes we do entire packages and they would never see the light of day, um, after a board would approve them and then others would be super successful, like w V you know, 10 X, the value of what they paid or.
X or a thousand X the value. Um, and we're figuring out why are there these two things? And we came to the realization is that the internal organizational culture, um, had more to do with whether or not a project was going to be successful or the brand was going to be successful than the actual brand.
Right. And so we've all probably been a part of organization where it's really difficult, uh, there's backbiting or backstabbing or whatever. Uh, there's governed by politics. You don't actually really know what is important, all those things. And so we found patterns and those patterns, we call, um, six layers of Marcie culture.
So Marcie being that big sign outside of a movie theater or theater, um, that draws people in and we found that. Um, those six things being. Principles, which are, uh, the, the behavior, when you can articulate what the behavior is, that lines up with your values and your brand, then employees are going to actually work on the things that, uh, need to be worked on to grow your organization and to deliver for your customers architecture, which is internal, um, structures and systems.
You know, if you say your people centered, but your expense report is done in SharePoint and it takes like four hours. No, one's going to really care about people anymore. After that experience, um, rituals, uh, which we have really great examples of like the NASA jet propulsion laboratory and how they. Uh, rituals through their pumpkin carving contest every year to show creativity and engineering, um, lower, which is the stories that people tell about organizations, whether they're good or bad, every organization has a story.
And that impacts the way people will operate and execute on the brand vocabulary. Custom words that, again, point back to these values and then artifacts, uh, which are the physical manifestations of your brand. That could be. Uh, office space to, you know, swag items or reminders, uh, like IBM gives all of their field consultants, uh, design thinking, uh, notebook that has all the tools that they can use with a client.
Um, and that's just a great artifact to point back to, um, their value in helping solve problems for clients. So we, we just were, we noticed that the ones who do these six things really well had rebrand. We're super successful and the ones that had problems, misalignments confusion, one thing didn't match the other thing, uh, it, it, it would fall apart.
So we're super excited about the book. I think, um, it can help, you know, as for your specific specifically for your listeners, as they're working with other clients, how they can look at these six layers and identify either opportunities to speak in and deepen the relationship. To make sure their pitches go well and they can sell more work or even to offer, like, if you buy the book, we have all the tools that we use as an agency, um, available to anyone who buys the book.
So you'll be able to download the actual, like worksheets we use with our clients in defining some of this stuff so that they can live out, uh, an aligned brand and organization and really flourish. When more customers, as we say the book, you know, if you're listening to this and you have zero interest in culture, um, because it just feels way beyond your scope.
What we have found is even when we were just doing design and web, we served our clients better. When at minimum we asked questions that probed and pulled out of the. Questions and understanding around culture and that inspires the client to understand that you're actually taking time to know them, be a student of theirs, and that informs the design.
So my hope would be that this book serves to give a whole new quiver of arrows, to people who do just design work, but can do it better because they're asking questions and potentially expanding scopes of work because we're providing ways to translate that design into collateral sweats. Physical.
There's a lot of ways that you, your design can further culture, which opens opportunities for work and selling new things. So, so I think it's going to be a really helpful book for anyone in our world for that reason. Yeah. And I, to piggyback on Ted real quick, just that even if you're doing web or product design or something, it will help you understand what is going to be a long-term successful for the client, understanding their culture versus, Hey, we built this really cool website.
You can't edit, edit it at all. So good luck. And here's the keys, you know, and then realizing their culture values that more than they value something else. Right. And so that's gonna make you a better long-term. Well, I really appreciate you guys being on the podcast. If somebody you're trying to connect with you or somebody is trying to find the book, where would they?
Yeah, so the book is available on Amazon and everywhere books are sold, but you can also check out culture, built my brand.com to grab a free chapter and. Uh, download the tools that we use, uh, here at historic agency. And you can also check out historic agency.com to learn more about, um, our organization.
And, uh, you can follow me on LinkedIn, just. Hmm, search Mark Miller. I think it's Mark Michael Miller. Maybe. I'm not sure how to be a lot of mark. Miller's like a mark. Miller's not probably easy, but you can look up. Ted Ted Von has a T E D V a U G H in it. Excepted ticked off. I haven't quite, haven't quite gotten my dance videos.
Yeah. These are invading on your daughter's face if she's going to be upset. So, yeah. That's amazing. Well, I know for sure, we're going to have to have you guys on again and just pick your brains on everything that you know is you've built an awesome agency, but really. I appreciate you being on the show and, and, um, and hope the launch of the book is successful.
Yeah. It's fun. Were you taking notes? They were such awesome tips and insights about building a successful agency from the ground up. I love the idea that what makes you. As a freelancer or web designer developer or whatever is going to show up eventually, as long as you're paying attention. So think about, or even ask why clients are coming to you rather than going to someone else.
Why are they hiring you versus your competition? And notice the ways that you're really able to help clients and move the needle forward in their business. And then once you figure those things out, start running. Leaning into them. Hey, if you want to know more about mark and Ted visit culture built my brand.com.
You can download a free chapter from their book that launches October 19th, 2020. One. So it's going to be awesome. I'm going to be one of the first persons to read it, and I hope that you read it with me. And if you'd like a transcript of this episode, there will be a link in the show notes that will take you to this episode's web page.
I can't wait to hang out with you again. Next Wednesday. When another episode is dropping, it's like a party every single week and it's. A lot of fun until then keep going and don't forget you don't quit. You.
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