Episode 30 – Daniel Bianchini – Common Ground

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Audio Transcript:

Voiceover guy:

Hello. And thanks for coming along to, and we have an office doc. The digital agency podcast, where we talk to agency owner directors and learn more about what makes them tick. From the things that make them similar, to the things they’d rather have known sooner. Where they’ve had success, and where they’ve learned some hard lessons. All will be revealed with your host Chris Simmance, the agency coach. And he’ll be talking to a different awesome agency person in each episode, asking them four questions and seeing where the conversation takes us over the next 25 minutes. Okay. So let us begin. Over to you, Chris.

Chris Simmance (Host):

Thanks voiceover guy. And on the podcast today, we’ve got Dan. Hi Dan.

Daniel Bianchini (Guest):

Hey there, how you doing?

Chris Simmance (Host):

Not too bad thanks. Dan, you’re the co-founder of Common Ground.

Daniel Bianchini (Guest):

Yeah, that’s correct.

Chris Simmance (Host):

I had a moment there, because I accidentally called it Common Ground Digital previously in an email, and I got rebuked, so I remember.

Daniel Bianchini (Guest):

At least you didn’t pronounce my surname.

Chris Simmance (Host):

Well, it’s Bianchini, right?

Daniel Bianchini (Guest):

Bianchini.

Chris Simmance (Host):

Bianchini.

Daniel Bianchini (Guest):

Yeah.

Chris Simmance (Host):

There you go. See, that’s what I did wrong, isn’t it? That’s what I did wrong. I did two things wrong. Great start. Great start for the listeners. So Dan, first things first, tell us a little bit about the agency. Give us a plug. What do you do best?

Daniel Bianchini (Guest):

Yeah, sure. So we are a search marketing agency helping tech, SaaS, and B-to-B businesses grow online through SEO, PPC paid media.

Chris Simmance (Host):

And if you had a superpower in the agency, what would it be?

Daniel Bianchini (Guest):

Oh, that’s a tough one. That’s a great question out the bat. Make clients love us all the time.

Chris Simmance (Host):

Definitely need super powers for that one in agency land. I think we can all agree with that one. So how long have you been going for?

Daniel Bianchini (Guest):

So we’ve been going since 2018. We were basically two businesses that came together to form Common Ground. The name is quite apt.

Chris Simmance (Host):

Oh yeah. Okay.

Daniel Bianchini (Guest):

Yeah. So I would come out of a freelance gig for 18 months beforehand, and worked with my co-founder in a previous agency, SEOptimise, White.net, [inaudible 00:02:25]. And yeah, decided that for us, as people in our age range with young families, better to come together and try and work together for a better life.

Chris Simmance (Host):

That’s awesome. And having started my own agencies with without another co-founder I found it hard to get other people’s perspectives. I guess, starting one with a co-founder when you choose to do that, how did you find that?

Daniel Bianchini (Guest):

Yeah. You have your ups and downs, obviously. I think that the positives from it, is you get someone to bounce your ideas around. You don’t take all the stress or the strain all the time, and you can go and essentially say, “I’ve got this problem. How can we solve it?” And you also find that you work with somebody that actually has strengths with your weaknesses, which has been really, really useful. It also allows us to go on holiday without taking laptops. So we can obviously actually de-stress and actually have a holiday.

Chris Simmance (Host):

Yeah. Oh, I should have done that years ago. And what do you think has been one of the biggest successes that you guys have seen since you’ve started the agency?

Daniel Bianchini (Guest):

I think for us, we’ve come through obviously, lots of turmoil in terms of the economy, COVID, obviously current situations, but throughout that whole thing we’ve continued to grow. We’ve continued to push forward. A lot of things that we are really good at is looking at processes, frameworks.

Chris Simmance (Host):

Okay.

Daniel Bianchini (Guest):

Consistency in terms of our deliverables, because we found from previous agencies, previous lines of work, that lots of things were being delivered ad hoc.

Chris Simmance (Host):

Yeah.

Daniel Bianchini (Guest):

And different clients were getting different things despite paying the same for the same service. So we really focused on frameworks and prioritization to a degree.

Chris Simmance (Host):

Yeah. And so it’s really tough, isn’t it? Because you hire people in an agency because they’re really good at what they do. And you don’t want to stifle that creativity or the skill they’ve got, whilst also having to balance consistent delivery of the same essential service to people. So how did you manage to do a balance there?

Daniel Bianchini (Guest):

So I changed the word from almost being process, to a framework. Because for me, a process is you have to follow it almost line by line, item by item, and just do everything. Whereas, a framework gives you guidance. It’s these are some steps that we want you to go through. If you need to go off, down certain angles, because the data’s telling you to do that, or the research is telling you to do that. You have free rein, as long as you then come back towards the framework afterwards, and you continue forward providing the client with the service, the highest possible output that we can give them.

Chris Simmance (Host):

Yeah. So you call it a framework, while I call it recipes. So when I work with agencies, we work out all of the tasks that they’re doing. And we come up with a recipe. I call it that, because similar to you, you can kind of go off track, but you can always come back. So, if you’re making a cake, it doesn’t matter what cake you’re making. It still has the same key aspects. You add this, you add that, you mix it up, you heat it up. But what you add in and what you subtract from it, it still becomes a cake, whether it tastes good at the end or not, it’s still a cake and you get to be a bit creative. So similar type of thing. So, if you could go back to 2018, when you two set up the agency together, and you had one opportunity to give yourself, just you, some advice, what might it be, do you think?

Daniel Bianchini (Guest):

To be honest, I think it’s starting there with those frameworks. We didn’t bring that in until two or three years later because-

Chris Simmance (Host):

Oh, I see, right.

Daniel Bianchini (Guest):

We were getting going and we were moving forward. And it was the success of bringing that in, that really brought all of our team together. And it really brought the agency to life, and it took us up the next level. I’m seeing lots of other agencies do that at the moment. And they’re talking about it, and it’s becoming a big thing. Especially within the SEO industry, where everyone wants to talk about being bespoke. We do different things. And the reality is, we fairly do similar things.

Chris Simmance (Host):

Yeah.

Daniel Bianchini (Guest):

We’re doing keyword research. We’re doing content audits. The outputs are fairly similar. So, getting that right from the off would allow us to a scale even quicker than we did without that.

Chris Simmance (Host):

Yeah. No. But if you’d gone back in time then. Say you’d given yourself that bit of advice. Do you think you’d have listened to it, given all of the other things that were going on when you first started out?

Daniel Bianchini (Guest):

Probably not, because probably I needed to go through that pain to do that. And I read a lot. So reading books from the industry, but also from a bit further afield, getting advice from other agency owners as well, that’s been there and done it. I mean, I don’t proclaim to have all the answers, so I’d like to speak to other agency owners. I know you had Kev on recently.

Chris Simmance (Host):

Yes, yes. Yep.

Daniel Bianchini (Guest):

So we talk a lot, and I’m always picking his brains and stuff like that. He’s local to me. So yeah, just getting that insight is really useful.

Chris Simmance (Host):

Yeah, so that’s part of the reason. So from my perspective, not to plug too much in my own podcast. But I run an agency mastermind sessions where it is a case of, agency owner founder director, leaders, all meeting up in the same space where it’s safe to talk about stuff that, because real wisdom is knowing you don’t know anything.

Daniel Bianchini (Guest):

Yeah.

Chris Simmance (Host):

And you can practice as much as you like you can do as much as you like, you can be great at certain things, but there’s always going to be someone else’s learnings and lessons that you could benefit from. And I think that’s quite important. And if you’ve got someone close to you with that, then that’s great, especially physically close. But if not, then group sessions, those sorts of things are fantastic. If you’re starting out, you know the sorts of pressures when you’re starting an agency, it’s mostly cashflow related.

Daniel Bianchini (Guest):

Yes.

Chris Simmance (Host):

Especially when there’s two of you as well, because you’ve got separate lives, separate lifestyles, you might have similar personal goals, but cashflow is really important at that point.

Daniel Bianchini (Guest):

Yeah.

Chris Simmance (Host):

And you want to get the work in first and then fix it later. So it’s a bit of a balancing act.

Daniel Bianchini (Guest):

Yeah. I completely agree. As you say, cashflow is something that will always be something we look at when we started, we did something slightly different. I think it’s become a bit more mainstream now, but I read the book Profit First by Mike Michalowicz.

Chris Simmance (Host):

That’s a great book.

Daniel Bianchini (Guest):

So when we came together, I was talking to Matt and I said, “If we come together, we need to work on this system, because yes, we need to make the profit. And obviously we need to take that out and we can look at our costs, but that money can then be reinvested to allow us to grow and grow and grow, as well as support our own personal lives.” As you talk about.

Chris Simmance (Host):

Yeah. Yeah.

Daniel Bianchini (Guest):

So that was a key thing at the start, was let’s run on this [inaudible 00:09:22], and that’s done really well throughout the four or five years.

Chris Simmance (Host):

And I think, running on that model as well, if you’re relatively religious about it, then it throws up some nice surprises later, you pay your tax bill, you’ve got a few extra pounds in another pot. And then that’s for bonuses for people and things like that. And if you run it that way, it’s both safe and you can grow, and you get nice little surprise at the end.

Daniel Bianchini (Guest):

Absolutely. Yeah. So I mean, as we was going through obviously COVID and stuff like that, and revenues were falling across the industry.

Chris Simmance (Host):

Everywhere, yeah.

Daniel Bianchini (Guest):

Yeah, exactly. We felt safe and secure, because we could see from using the Profit First, if we built up everything that we needed to over a period of time to sustain us for quite some time. So, it’s been a lifesaver, but also something that’s allowed us to really progress as an agency and push forward to where we are today. And also allows us then to invest in the future.

Chris Simmance (Host):

Yeah. No, no, exactly. I think you spot on. It’s a healthy way of running an agency. Because it’s a people business, so it is an algorithm of a business, really. You put good people in with the good processes. As long as you can add customers in, then you make some money. But what do you do after you’ve made the money? Some agencies haven’t got a clue. And some agency owners know exactly what they’re doing with the money, and they take it all out and then they realize they’re screwed. But I think having that kind of Profit First mindset is actually really quite a big focus that most agency owners, if you’re not already doing, should really look to.

Daniel Bianchini (Guest):

Yeah. I completely agree. And it allows you to do other things, to like bring in different revenue streams. If you wanted to, because obviously being in a service business, you are reliant on clients and things can change a job of a hat. I mean, regardless how great your work is, economics business is going out. I mean, whatever it could be, it impacts you without you actually having any control.

Chris Simmance (Host):

Yeah.

Daniel Bianchini (Guest):

So you can invest into different parts of that, different agency stuff.

Chris Simmance (Host):

So do you think there’s something that you’ve you learned recently or something that you’ve learned through, I don’t know, big screw up or a big win that’s that’s something that aside from processes and the Profit First that’s now become an indelible part of the business.

Daniel Bianchini (Guest):

Yeah. So, communication-

Chris Simmance (Host):

Yeah.

Daniel Bianchini (Guest):

So one thing that we’ve learned fairly recently was, I’ll be honest, we lost a client. And we lost that client predominantly because they had a new member of staff on the team, and replaced a previous member. And we dropped the ball on communicating, being overly supportive and talking through what’s happened, what our plans were, where we were going. And then, the relationship was a bit more of an uphill battle, which then led to them going, “Ah, I used to work with an agency X, Y, and Z.” And then that conversation gets brought in.

Chris Simmance (Host):

Yeah.

Daniel Bianchini (Guest):

So with that, we brought in a bit more around account management. We changed the structure of the team slightly to be a bit more account focused. Whereas, before we was very much specialty.

Chris Simmance (Host):

Yeah.

Daniel Bianchini (Guest):

So if you were doing SEO, you speak to an SEO because they’re going to be the best person. We didn’t really want the Chinese whispers as such.

Chris Simmance (Host):

Yeah. It’s a balance, isn’t it?

Daniel Bianchini (Guest):

It is. Yeah. So we’ve now brought in some account management to support that and to really improve the communication. But I think we’ve only been able to do that now that we’re in a much better position from an income perspective.

Chris Simmance (Host):

Yeah.

Daniel Bianchini (Guest):

They’re not an available source as such.

Chris Simmance (Host):

Yeah. Yeah. So-

Daniel Bianchini (Guest):

[inaudible 00:13:06] in some cases.

Chris Simmance (Host):

It’s one of the hardest parts of running an agency. Personally, I found it really tough spending a lot of money on a non-billable person.

Daniel Bianchini (Guest):

Yeah.

Chris Simmance (Host):

However, if you get the right non-billable people, they save you money in the long term. Either by a client churn, or if it’s in HR, then it’s by staff churn. If it’s in finance, then it’s obviously by saving money on the P&L, depending on what it is that they’re saving. It’s non-fee earners are often the ones that are overlooked, because they don’t earn a fee. But you’re quite right, and communication is massively important if you’re wanting to grow an agency. You need to know how much is too much or how little is too little. And I think one thing that lots of agency folk, not just agency owners and agency leaders forget, is that people come to you for a service that they couldn’t necessarily do themselves.

Whether that be because of the scale that you can gather with an agency, or because of the skill that you have, that they don’t in internally. And oftentimes, you’re trying to explain something to someone and you think it’s really, really clear, and you’ve made it really clear to the client. And you might, as the SEO, not the account manager, be getting a little bit frustrated with like, I’ve given you the answer to this like eight times.

Daniel Bianchini (Guest):

Yeah.

Chris Simmance (Host):

And the client’s thinking, why is he being so rude to me? All I want to know is, what does this mean?

Daniel Bianchini (Guest):

Yeah.

Chris Simmance (Host):

And it is really hard to not cause friction that way. And having a bit of an account manager layer in there does help. It can cause that Chinese whispers as you call it, but it can help filter the conversation. So when we had that put in place, when I was running the agency, I found that, not in a bad way, the ignorance in the job of the account manager, of what SEO is and what PPC is and things like that, asked questions, threw up questions and had conversations internally, which helped the internal communications outward.

Daniel Bianchini (Guest):

Yeah.

Chris Simmance (Host):

And that person was just learning their job at the time.

Daniel Bianchini (Guest):

Yeah. Yeah, absolutely. And then, like you said, and the biggest thing we did have a camera manager a little while ago, and it just didn’t quite work as we expected, was just having a little bit of knowledge they can have a conversation at a high level around it as well. If you’re going in and you don’t have that, I think it’s again, a little bit more difficult, even if you’re learning from your internal and your peers and SEO and PPC team.

Chris Simmance (Host):

Yeah.

Daniel Bianchini (Guest):

Are in part in their knowledge, just so that you don’t purely become that middle person.

Chris Simmance (Host):

Yeah.

Daniel Bianchini (Guest):

And you are taking a message from one to the other. If you can engage in a conversation, talk about some metrics, talk about the work and be confident in that. Not going into the 10th degree and stuff, but having that confidence that, I mean, that’s really valuable.

Chris Simmance (Host):

Yeah. No, totally agree. I think it’s hard. I don’t know how you felt about it. Like you say, getting the account management layer in non-billable person. Having to change the business structure or the team structure, sorry. When something has forced your hand, it feels a bit crap doing it, especially when it costs money, doesn’t it? But how long did it take you to go, “Ah, this was a good move. This is the right thing we should have done.”

Daniel Bianchini (Guest):

It’s taken several months, but I think that’s because we are, as a business, starting to let go. Matt and I are starting to let go of different things as we’re growing as a business. Everything was held or the responsibility was with Matt and I. We’re now starting to push some of that responsibility down, so they can grow into their role. So like the head of SEO, the head of PPC, the account manager, they can start to grow, and we don’t become that bottleneck. They have decision making responsibility. So I think once we got over letting go, again, it becomes easier.

Chris Simmance (Host):

Yeah. I think, that song from the Disney film, which we can’t say too loudly, because otherwise when this gets listened to through Spotify or get taken down, it is all about letting go sometimes. And you can’t hold on too much to too much, but it is your baby at the same time. It’s very tough. Especially, when you see the impact of everything from a helicopter perspective, the team often are on the ground and they see the impact of their action, but they don’t see the ripple effect necessarily of all of those sorts of things.

Daniel Bianchini (Guest):

Yeah.

Chris Simmance (Host):

And I find that spending time with the team teaching how to do critical thinking properly and how to manage importance and urgency quite often helps with that kind of, does this have a knock-on impact style thing, which then makes you feel like you can walk away, and you can trust that they’ve got the cognitive skills to be able to tackle that sort of thing.

Daniel Bianchini (Guest):

Yeah. Yeah, absolutely. I mean, you put them in that position because they’ve got skills, they’ve got the responsibility that you want from them to do a job. And for me, it’s always been about, you’re never going to clone yourself. And sometimes you actually don’t want to clone yourself, because then your weaknesses are going to just be transported down. So if you can train somebody up to about 75% to 80%, and then they can take themselves the whole way and bring in new skill sets, I think that’s the way to go forward.

Chris Simmance (Host):

Yeah. I think you’re right. And also the world isn’t quite ready for two Dans.

Daniel Bianchini (Guest):

No. No, I’m ready for two.

Chris Simmance (Host):

The world’s not quite ready for one Chris, I’m afraid. I’m sorry to everyone else who listens to this that sees me everywhere. So if there’s an agency owner director leader, that’s just starting out or just about to start out, or sitting in their agency or in house right now thinking, I’m ready to go. I want to start an agency. But I’ve been waiting for Dan’s podcast to listen to his one piece of advice. What would you advise them to do beyond not doing it?

Daniel Bianchini (Guest):

Yeah. I think for me, I’m going to give two if that’s all right.

Chris Simmance (Host):

Yeah, sure.

Daniel Bianchini (Guest):

I think, the first thing is, know your target market. I think that’s something that we are really focusing on now, is who’s our target market and go for them. Don’t be concerned about being a one for everybody. Whether it’s e-com, SaaS, B-to-B, whatever it is, try and be specific.

Chris Simmance (Host):

Yeah.

Daniel Bianchini (Guest):

And I think the other point is, back to what we talked about, the Profit First model. Read the book, get invested in that, because that will be great for you to reinvest and build your business going down the line.

Chris Simmance (Host):

Yeah. No, totally right. I think if you look at those agencies that are… If they know their audience, they know their target market, they’re like the spear fisher, you get one or two fish, but you get the ones you want, and they’re big. If you’re the big super trawler, you get a massive load of tiny little fish and half of them are dead, and they’re not going to last. And you can’t really use them because of some directive of some sort, and you’ve got to throw them back overboard.

Daniel Bianchini (Guest):

Yeah.

Chris Simmance (Host):

If you really focused on who it is that you’re working with, then you can hone those procedures that you put in place, the frameworks, you can hone them down to suit the who much better.

Daniel Bianchini (Guest):

Yeah. Exactly.

Chris Simmance (Host):

It makes selling a lot easier, and also makes communication a lot easier as well, if you really know those people.

Daniel Bianchini (Guest):

Exactly. And when you’re, as you said, the outbound message is to the right people, you’re targeting them. You’re not too worried about everybody else clouding your judgment. And when they come to your website, or when they speak to you, you’re talking their language. So it does help with-

Chris Simmance (Host):

Yeah. And I think you can tell the agencies that think about that or have thought about that, versus the ones that are just trying to get as much business out there as they can. And that’s fine up to a point, because everyone needs to make money and everyone’s got overheads, and sometimes being niche down or being focused on something isn’t necessarily what you want for the purpose of the reason you’re running the agency. But eventually over time, something clicks where you realize, I shouldn’t be selling to people who build radiators. I should be selling to these sorts of people, whoever they might be. Because you just realize it clicks with you and it clicks with them, and there’s something that resonates better, and you can build on that. Selling to someone that you just don’t understand is really hard.

Daniel Bianchini (Guest):

Yeah, absolutely. And it’s hard to sell that, but I mean, you should just turn it away, but it’s hard to say no sometimes. So it’s learning to say no. But as you go through that process, it becomes more difficult, it becomes more laborsome. Whereas, when you’re talking to your exact market, it’s a fairly smooth process. You’re talking the same language. You know what they want, they know what you’re giving them. And it becomes, I don’t want to say simpler, but less unchallenging conversation to have.

Chris Simmance (Host):

Yeah. I mean, the objections you get from a sale that you know how to speak their language is a lot less than the ones you’d get from selling to any old person. And then just think about the different iterations of pitch deck you need for the different types of businesses, and the time spent on that. And the opportunity cost lost through other marketing you can’t do.

Daniel Bianchini (Guest):

Yeah. I mean, imagine you’re doing two pitches or three pitches a week, and one is to e-com, one’s to SaaS, one’s to B-to-B, and then the following week you’re doing similar. It’s like, I’ve got to do with this. You’ve got to switch mindset, switch language.

Chris Simmance (Host):

Yeah.

Daniel Bianchini (Guest):

Yeah, it’s time consuming, and it’s mentally challenging.

Chris Simmance (Host):

It’s a killer. It’s a killer. So I mean, that’s great advice to end the podcast on, I think. Know your niche, find a niche. Not necessarily a niche, but find your audience at least, and know who they are, and be quite relentless around it.

Daniel Bianchini (Guest):

Yeah.

Chris Simmance (Host):

Thank you very much for coming on, Dan. It’s been brilliant to talk to you.

Daniel Bianchini (Guest):

Oh, you’re very welcome. Thanks very much for having me.

Chris Simmance (Host):

And in our next podcast, we’ll have a different agency owner leader, and listen about their story along the way. Thank you very much for listening.

 

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