Defining your target market is a crucial early step in almost every new business. It helps founders form a plan of attack as they’re focusing on prospective clients. But it’s often debated how much time you should spend on finding a perfect niche vs defining other things: your overarching strategy, your commitment to creative ventures, and your plan for teaming up with the best in the business.
In 2006, Leslie Bradshaw was in Washington, DC founding JESS3, a creative agency that specializes in data visualization. While it may seem that firms like hers do best when they've carved out a niche early on, it's not always the reality. Speaking with Bradshaw, now Managing Partner at Made by Many, you get the distinct feeling that her success has come less from defining her perfect place in the world, and more from quick adaptation in market with a rapid pace of change. She gave us the lowdown on what she’s learned about finding your place as a digital agency.
Lock In Your Reputation First
We asked Bradshaw, having founded two companies herself, to discuss the level to which entrepreneurs need to define their market. She immediately emphasized the impact of reputation when you're just getting started, explaining that it’s less important to stay within a narrow spectrum of skills and technology and more beneficial to build up your reputation among the kind of companies you want to do business with.
“You can position yourself and talk all day about what your specialty is, but you have to actually be known for doing exceptional work in that area before people will actually believe you. Lead with what your strength is and achieve a reputation. It will be a snowball: You might start out as a freelancer or subcontractor, and then take on a project just outside of your reach in terms of brand, prestige, and budget.”
One way to do that, she says, is to team up with agencies who’ve been around longer.
Partner with Bigger Agencies for Access to Bigger Clients
If you’re struggling with getting valuable, consistent client work, try following Bradshaw’s approach in her early days as a cofounder. In the first few years, she partnered with other agencies to get bigger projects. These firms had more people, more money, and more connections at the time, but were hungry for new creative energy. She and her team would provide the insight into what was new in digital and social, and in turn got access to projects they wouldn’t have otherwise.
It was about four years into running JESS3 that Bradshaw got the confirmation she needed that they were on the radar of prestigious clients. The agency got a call from Google asking if they’d do a project—the tech giant found them, convinced they were the best for the job.
Bradshaw encourages partnering with other digital agencies to take on projects that might be out of your reach. Many are willing to strike up white label agreements with fledgling firms, so you'll have the opportunity to team up and get a few household brand names under your belt. Then you take the relationships and experience you’ve earned and go out on your own. It takes time, but it pays off.
The Perfect Website Launch
Bow Down to the Power of the Side Project
Bradshaw calls out side projects as a huge factor in getting noticed in the creative world. In the past, she’s done this with labs projects, internal side projects that an agency does in addition to client work, often getting them attention on social networks and media mentions. As Bradshaw tells it, doing side projects to show off your talent can be a huge catalyst to finding new business.
“Start experimenting with your own dollars”, she suggests. “Start releasing labs projects that ‘win the internet’—ones that are super creative and interesting.” Eventually, she explains, people will find you online. Even if the resulting inbound leads are largely unqualified, it’s a good problem to have. The power of the side project, however, isn’t just to be found by future clients. It’s also about building credibility when you’re going after new business. If you want to prove you can do something that you’ve never done for a client, she says, you’ll have to do it on your own.
Take Hackaball, an experimental project by Bradshaw’s current company Made by Many. Made by Many, whose projects usually center around commissioned work for clients looking to identify new market opportunities, started a side project building a “smart ball”. The ball teaches kids basic programming skills through play, by reacting to various actions (like being dropped, bounced, or shaken) with the response they program into it. What started as a loosely directed side project turned into $241K Kickstarter—the ball is currently in production and slated to be integrated into several schools’ curriculums upon release.
At this point, you may be wondering who has time for a side project when you’re trying to run a growing business. But Bradshaw takes a realist approach—when it comes to innovation, side projects, and time management, she stresses the importance of standing out:
“If you don’t have much time, you better be ready to work around the clock. You have to do it all. In order to build something, you have to find the time to do something. Even if your client projects are boring, you can be an active contributor to the open source community through GitHub or help answer questions on Quora, Stack Overflow, and Reddit. You can even team up with other creatives to produce cool, unexpected results."
She did recognize that not everyone will be able to pull off the side hustle in addition to their usual workload. But when you’re up against people with more resources, better connections, and bigger names, you have to find time to get noticed. A side project can be the way to do that.
Have a Network of Talented People to Partner with When Things Get Busy
As you’re developing your reputation, you’ll undoubtedly come across projects that are too big or out of scope for your agency to take on alone. But if it’s exciting, or opens doors, you’ll want to take it on—even if it’s not within the parameters you use to define your target market.
The best way to deal with this, according to Bradshaw, is to partner with other great minds. At Made by Many, they believe partnering is the best way to expand while staying focused on their mission.
What does this look like in action? You can find talented partners by reaching out to the people whose work you admire, whether in person or in online communities like Behance. If you’re in UX design but need a content expert, for example, find freelance copywriters or agencies with day rates. Discuss what a project together might look like, from planning to client interactions to payment. By doing this, you’ll build relationships with people who can keep you from spreading yourself too thin when a big, exciting job arises.
Turn to Tech for New Revenue Streams
What happens when the market you defined isn’t working for you? How do you pivot? Bradshaw answers this question by turning to tech. “When you have to pivot,” she explains, “pull back and look at your larger strategy. Tech is your biggest lever for generating new revenue streams.”
Here’s an example—Made by Many did a campaign for Burberry in 2009 called “The Art of the Trench”. At that time, the high-end fashion industry wasn’t sure how to use social media for marketing without diminishing its image of exclusivity and luxury. Meanwhile, Facebook was gaining half a million new users a month. The agency saw an opportunity.
They centered their tactics for the Burberry campaign around Facebook—an idea that was risky at the time for the long-established fashion retailer. They made a digital product using Facebook OAUTH and encouraged users to upload personal shots in their signature trench coats to be featured online. And it paid off. The Art of the Trench campaign sent conversion rates soaring, along with Burberry’s trench sales, which increased 85% YoY.
While simply using Facebook wouldn’t hold up as an innovative tactic today, their strategy does. They were looking to use the latest technology to connect people.
According to Bradshaw, “the best technical minds win”. When you’re operating an agency, you have to think about the what and why—adapting the how to be the most productive, innovative approach at the time.
Be Flexible with Your Tactics
It’s tempting to define your space in the market with specific technology and tactics. But those things will change, and you’ll need a larger vision to turn to as you’re selling yourself to potential new clients.
When asked about the parameters she uses to define a target market, Bradshaw focused on strategy—for her, that means to be at “the tip of the spear of the internet”. For you, it may mean something entirely different: creating immersive consumer shopping experiences, building highly complex financial tools for institutions, or developing fast, powerful websites for agile startups. Whatever your goal, Bradshaw stresses the importance of using the most exciting, innovative tactics out there to win over the types of clients you want to work for.
Defining what you’re good at is important. But looking at your target market as a narrow set of parameters outside of which you shouldn’t take on business may not be the right approach. There could be several industries, company sizes, and technologies used that fall under your larger vision—stay open to change, always be learning, and push your creative boundaries to discover your real place in the digital market.
“We were always first on the newest platform,” says Bradshaw of her days as a founder. “That let us achieve the reputation we needed to do something really exciting.”
Leslie Bradshaw is a leading voice on entrepreneurship, women in technology, and life at an agency. You can follower her on Twitter, Medium, or read more on agency growth and best practices on the Pantheon blog.