Hi Harley, please tell us about the major milestones in your career as a Marketing Strategist?
I’ve been in the digital marketing industry really since it began – I wrote my first computer program at age 7, and I built my first website (for my high school rock band) in 1996. Throughout high school and college, I taught myself digital design, email marketing, and web design to help me market my band, which had really taken off. At age 17, we were renting and selling out 500 seat venues – selling tickets, hiring security staff, building elaborate lighting and sound setups, etc. It was quite an early education in business and marketing.
Probably the milestone that changed my life most in terms of marketing was when I was working at Kinko’s during college, and when I was off the clock, I saw a guy struggling with a design file. I stopped and helped him get it working, it took maybe 10 minutes, and he handed me $50 – that was a full day’s pay at my “day job”! On the spot, I decided I was going to phase out of my day job and go freelance.
I worked as a freelance digital and web designer for several years, eventually turning that into a small agency, Orion Creative Group, which I grew to 12 employees and in 2013 ultimately sold to a larger brand agency called L7 Creative in Carlsbad, CA. L7 had major accounts like Vizio, iHome, Harmon, and Thermo Fisher and gave me an opportunity to do top-level enterprise work on web development, SEO, and digital campaigns. Joining L7 was a major milestone in terms of taking my career to another level. Still, it was also crucial because I learned that there are limitations in the “agency model” that was true whether at the level of my first agency or at this larger agency – there are fundamental challenges with scaling, margins, and account concentration that really make it a sketchy business model. That’s why agencies are valued so much lower than comparably sized SaaS or tech companies. I took many of those lessons into launching GeniusVets.
And the most recent major milestone for me was founding GeniusVets in 2016. I had the opportunity to take the lessons I learned in the agency space and create a stronger, more scalable, and more durable business model – a marketing platform + services business focusing on a single vertical, veterinary practices. I was fortunate to have two fantastic co-founders – David Hall, a world-leading SEO and digital marketer, and Dr. Michele Drake, one of the highest-performing independent veterinary practice owners in the country, with over 25 years of practice leadership, and voted #1 in San Diego for 8 years running. With their partnership, I was able to develop a platform and suite of services that have made us the highest-performing company in our industry.
Of course, it’s an ongoing process, and we’re always learning and improving our products and services.
But in terms of what we’ve learned so far: The first challenge we identified was that we could see that independent veterinary practices needed a world-class set of tools and strategies to really perform and compete with national chains, but veterinary practices had minimal budgets. We had to invest a huge amount up-front in developing streamlined and scalable tools that would allow us to deliver effective programs within those limited budgets. We estimate that a typical “agency program” delivering the same set of services we provide (strategy, SEO, content, reputation management, directory optimization, social media, coaching, and support) would cost $15,000-$25,000 per month. With our standardized programs and extremely efficient approach (and because of our vertical specialization) we’re able to deliver that program for about $1595 per month. So this has worked out well, though it took several years to perfect these methods to hit the performance we want within the available budgets.
Another major challenge that we’re still working on is the lack of marketing and even basic business education in our target audience of independent veterinary practice owners. Most of them dislike marketing or were taught in their career that it was borderline unethical to market your business – you should grow just by word of mouth from your clients alone. Of course, in 2020 this is absurd – every business has to market itself to survive, let along grow – but we still have to work hard to get veterinarians to embrace this reality and lean into it. So we do a ton of education – free webinars, blog content, speaking events, and so on, to help practice owners learn how to strengthen their business – improve their culture, improve employee retention, and reach more new clients – through effective marketing.
We’ve found that the key to this is helping practices really understand what marketing IS – that it’s not just advertising, but rather a process of getting clarity on your own business – your mission, values, and culture – and then effectively communicating your culture to your local community through all available channels.
We’ve been fortunate that veterinary practices are considered “essential businesses,” which means they’ve remained open throughout the lockdowns. A small number of our clients had big drops in their revenues (especially practices that did large boarding and grooming businesses, which have been hit hard). For those practices we helped provide temporary special discounts to support them during the crisis.
Overall, though, the veterinary profession has hung in there extremely well. And an other unique thing that happened during the lockdown is that millions more Americans adopted pets. So veterinarians nationally are up year-over-year in their businesses from 5-10% typically – and many GeniusVets clients are up to 20%-40% or even more!
So we’ve geared up to expand in 2021, utilizing both digital tools like webinars and virtual events as well as trade shows when those return, to help us reach even more of the industry.
Also, our GeniusVets.com directory launched earlier in 2020, is a powerful new tool that lets practices “claim” their listing (similar to a Yelp profile, but better designed for the needs of a veterinary practice). This directory has been an excellent help for practices wanting to stay visible to their local community during COVID and will continue to help them improve their SEO and community relationships into the future.
Our goal with GeniusVets is to take the tools and software used by the biggest companies in the world – the kind of incredibly powerful tools we used in our agency careers to help enterprise clients – and make them available for individual veterinary practices.
It starts with strategy – actually having a cohesive top-level marketing plan addressing all channels, especially organic search. Most small businesses don’t go to the trouble to have a real strategic plan and just try to throw small amounts of money at a variety of tactics – paid search, advertising, social media etc. – and then also don’t really track what’s working or try to optimize their programs. With GeniusVets, because we have hundreds of practices across the country implementing our systems, we have been able to invest massively in strategy and optimize that strategy over time by reviewing an enormous, nationwide data set. This is something no individual practice could possibly do – they wouldn’t have the exposure, knowledge, or scale.
In terms of software tools, we execute on our strategy using a best-in-class toolset that includes:
- High-performance websites
- Customizable, highly optimized SEO content and blogs
- Directory optimization
- Reputation management
- Paid search management
- Call tracking and analytics.
- Social media management, “starter content”, and inspiration libraries
- Web analytics
In addition, our directory platform, which contains over 36,000 veterinary practices, is continually updated with new educational information and content to attract pet owners who want to learn more about how to better care for their pets. We can then connect these pet owners with GeniusVets member practices in their area.
With your vast experience in global marketing roles, what do you think the future of marketing looks like in the next 5 years?
I believe that the “full-service agency” model is dying. Many people would disagree with me here, and cite the massive growth of international holding companies like WPP, Omnicom, or Dentsu. But I think the same reality applies to them too – they just won’t feel it for longer because of their scale and resources. Small local agencies absolutely feel it now. They’re experiencing relentless downward pressure on prices driven by self-service platforms, offshoring, and vertical solution providers like GeniusVets, who can apply strategies at scale and deliver excellent results for a fraction of the cost of a typical agency. On the flip side, talent always wants to be paid more, and agencies (especially those with a strong tech component) are now competing with their Fortune clients for talent – a fight that agencies are structurally unable to win because they just don’t have the margin. Facebook will always be able to pay a front end developer, more than a local agency will because of Facebook’s massive scale and margins. And I think fewer people will want to run these small full-service agencies because it’s stressful, exhausting, and not very profitable.
So if full-service agencies are dying, what is going to replace them?
In the future I believe that vertical-focused platform companies like GeniusVets will do the vast majority of small business marketing. We utterly dominate in terms of results and value per dollar when compared with a local non-specialty agency – how could we not, when we have dozens of staff constantly innovating on strategies specific to our client’s market? A comparable budget to GeniusVets, but deployed through a local agency, might buy a few hours a month from a team of 2 or 3 staff, who have to learn how to market a veterinary practice from scratch on the client’s dime. So we will always be more effective in that scenario.
And I think parallel things are happening in most industries.
I think there will be a lot of variety in the details – you’ll see more CRM and business software providers that blend in marketing services, e.g., MINDBODY or Audigy. Others will come in and offer narrower services that are designed to be self-serve, e.g. Advice Local or SEMRush.
At the enterprise level it looks a bit different because there’s long been a tradition of big companies looking for big agencies to get an alignment of scale. Ultimately, if you’re going to commit $100M in advertising spend, you need a company that can soak up and utilizes that budget, and that means a big company. However, I see the big agencies more and more serving as strategy consultancies and budget managers, and less as creative or implementation teams. The great Harvard Business School book Business Model Generation talks about “unbundling” – basically the splitting of an overall “whole product” (marketing services) into a variety of different specialty vendors, overseen by a strategist either within the client company or (mostly in the case of enterprise) a large agency of record (AOR). Web development, data analytics, search engine marketing, PPC management, programmatic ad buying – at scale, all these specialties are increasingly done by smaller specialty companies that get their marching orders from the AOR. I see this trend continuing, with AORs serving more as a conduit for funds and a “single neck to choke” that reassures enterprise clients who would not be comfortable directly managing a galaxy of smaller service vendors. Enterprise wants someone to blame / fire/sue if things go sideways, so they pay a premium to the big AORs to serve as the “single neck to choke”.
I’m fascinated by how rapidly TikTok has grown and attracted such a passionate audience – it just goes to show that while Facebook is still dominant, new platforms can rapidly grow and become interesting and gather a following.
Personally, I’m a massive fan of SuperHuman – it’s transformed my email processes and saved me hundreds of hours already. For years there have been new email clients getting launched but they all still mostly had the same paradigm. SuperHuman really re-imagines the process. As an executive, I get a ton of email, and any tool that can help me more rapidly manage it is very much appreciated.
I’m also interested in all the new martech platforms growing up out there, such as Drift, Outreach, and Seamless.AI. I think these are examples of tools that are still only being used mostly by marketing pros, but which could be transformative as they enter the mainstream.
First, get your business fundamentals right before you worry about scaling or raising capital.
Here are a few things I mean by “fundamentals”:
- Have a clear mission and vision that represent an important change you want to make in the world – and that you can align others with to help you on the journey.
- Build a strong company culture with clearly defined and shared values – and really live it. As my L7 Creative partner used to say “it’s not a principle until it costs you money” – so put your money where your mouth is when it comes to building a company with high quality, empowered people and giving them the resources they need to be successful.
- As Jason Fried says in ReWork, “start a business, not a startup”. In other words, force yourself to create the discipline needed to be unit profitable at your current scale before you worry about scaling up. Granted, there are niches where it makes sense to burn tons of capital to try to get to scale and figure out the business model later, but let’s face it – it’s unlikely you’re in one of those niches. More likely, if you have the desire to scale up using someone else’s money before you’re unit profitable, this is a form of laziness and unwillingness to confront the hard work of making your business model work. Figure it out, so it works small, then scale it up.
Beyond this, I’d say that a CEO’s job is not to make the product, it’s not to raise capital, and it’s not to micromanage the staff. A CEO’s job is (1) to be the goal-maker and visionary for the company – defining where it will go in the future; and (2) to build a great, empowered, and effective team to go accomplish this goal. Everything that isn’t (1) or (2) is someone else’s job. In a very small company, you’ll be doing a lot of other stuff yourself at the beginning. But the sooner you start to bring in and empower more team members to take on the other roles so you can focus on (1) and (2), the better you’ll do.
And in terms of finding good people to take on these roles – the key is to assume competence and assume ability. When you bring someone into your organization, have the attitude that they will succeed and can do the job. Expect excellence from people, giving them the room to show it and the resources and support and freedom to pursue that excellence based on their own determinism, and you’ll maximize the likelihood that they rise to the occasion and become effective team members. On the other hand, if you micro-manage or assume they’re incompetent, they’ll prove you right! Many CEOs I’ve worked with as a coach has felt they “couldn’t find effective people” when the reality was that they weren’t letting the people around them be effective.
As a CEO, you need your headspace clear to do an amazing job with creating the envisioned future for your enterprise. If you’re too busy micromanaging the team or doing their work for them, you will be too distracted to be effective at your most important role. Create an amazing work culture and environment for your team, and you’ll attract great staff, great customers, and ample opportunities for growth, now and in the future.