From Side Hustle to Not Selling Out with Agency Owner Rich Brooks

Rich Brooks is a Maine-based marketer and entrepreneur who wears many hats. Along with his 20-year-old digital marketing agency, flyte new media, Rich organizes and hosts The Agents of Change Conference annually, produces a weekly marketing podcast, and is a recent first-time author. He’s also a die-hard Patriots fan and a sales guy from way back...but don’t hold that against him!

The Local Marketing Diaries series shares the journeys of business owners and entrepreneurs as they strive to grow and scale their businesses. This is Rich's story, as told to Patrick Liddy of Vendasta.

YEARS AGO, when I was growing up, we had a computer in the house.

My dad was a psychologist, and I actually programmed a simple “I Spy” style-game that he could use with his patients. As I grew up, I got a little bit away from programming, and when I came back to Boston after college—around 1990—I started reading articles about the web, and I'm like, "Why do reporters know more about computers than me? When did that happen?"

So I bought a Macintosh Performa, and I just started teaching myself and tried to get online.

I ended up building a website for a company I worked for, which was a medical sales company, and showed it to my boss. He loved it. He ended up taking me off the road (I was a traveling salesperson) and had me focus on marketing. And when I got the hang of the business I was involved in, I also tried my hand at investing, after learning from websites like of how lucrative the returns can be.

I loved the website aspect. I hated being in the office.

So ultimately, I quit to do my own thing. Enter flyte new media.

When I started the company that would become flyte in ‘97, if somebody told me, "This will be the next 20 years of your life," I wouldn't have believed them. I was thinking that within two years, either programmers will learn how to design or designers will learn how to program. I wasn't really thinking long-term.

One of my first clients was my dad, who is a child psychologist. He'll admit now that he didn't really see the value of having a website; however, he let me redesign his like four different times in the first couple of years, paying me each time. (I think because he didn't want me to fail and move back home!) Now, of course, almost every psychologist needs a website. My father is also a public speaker with published books, so the website has become a critical marketing tool for him.

But did we know all that back then? No.

I knew that some businesses would need website help, though. As time went on, we and everybody else started building content management systems, and I saw that business was not going to go away. We'd always have clients who are like, "I'd rather just you put it up there for us." But I knew the one-off stuff was going to really atrophy, and that also shifted a major change in the way that we ran our business at that point, too.

Solving challenges like shifts in business focus are hard, but they don’t keep me up at night.

For me, the scariest thing is: “What am I not good at that I don't realize?”

The things that currently keep me up at night are things like issues around HR, because that's not my skill set. I'm great when everybody's happy. I'm great when I'm talking to people. But if all of a sudden there's some HR issue, I'm literally without tools.

What also scares me is that for years I wasn't very good at the numbers. I'm still not. But at least I've started to recognize that, and I've been getting a better understanding of exactly how much we can spend. Now the numbers don't keep me up at night. I'm not constantly freaking out about them because I know, "Here's what we're going to make. Here's how much I can budget towards new computers, towards education, towards raises," whatever it is, because I know we're going to make these sort of numbers.

Fortunately, I’ve had mentors over the years to help with such things, one of whom gave me some of the best advice I have ever gotten.

It was at a time when I was really at the nadir of this company.

I was so frustrated and done with it.

I really disliked coming in those days. There were problems with employee morale, and there were problems with the work going out. We weren't profitable. It was mentally exhausting. And this company came in that wanted to buy a digital agency. They actually wanted me to go to events and promote their stuff. I love public speaking, so it was tempting.

The offer was that they would take over all of flyte new media.

They wanted a digital agency anyway, but they were really buying me. I told my mentor, "I'm ready. I'm ready to get out of this and not have to deal with HR or finances and just know I'm getting paid."

And he says, "Rich, you sound pretty exhausted."

I reply, "I am. I'm just done with this."

He asks, "Have you ever gone to the supermarket hungry?"

I reply, "Yes."

He says, "And is it a good idea?"

I reply, "No, because you buy stupid stuff. You don't make good decisions."

Finally, he says, "Don't sell your company. I've never talked to anybody who sold their company and was glad about it at the end of the day."

That last bit may be an exaggeration, but the advice makes sense. You need to get to a good headspace to make any big decision—especially deciding if you want to sell your company. If you still do, then sell it. But don't do it because you're having a bad day, week, or even a year.

So I didn't sell it. I worked on fixing it.

In the end, the company that wanted to buy flyte ended up imploding, but we're still here!

I feel that the last two years have been great, and we're on a trajectory for great growth this coming year. In fact, somebody just reached out to me and said, "Hey, we're looking to buy a digital agency." Immediately, I was like, "I'll see if I know of anybody looking to sell one." But I would never do it.

Despite all this, I’ve never felt ‘burned out’. Still, I'm not saying I never had those moments where at the end of the day, I'm like, "Pour me the stiffest drink you have."

My business is my creative outlet, so that's part of it for me. It's not like I go home and play guitar or anything like that. This is where I get jazzed up, so I haven't experienced a burnout that lasts for days, or weeks, or months. That being said, I sat down at the beginning of this year, I said to my business consultant, "You know, I just turned 49. I'm coming up on 50. I don't know that my energy level for this job is going to remain the same way for another 5 or 10 years. I need to change something up."

So part of this over the last year has been determining how to continue to grow this company while doing things that continue to interest me and not taking a hit. Because I've tried to separate myself from the company before and let it run while I'm off doing speeches, and it kills my company. I have always been the rainmaker for the company.

Part of my goal this year and going forward is to get my team to the point where they can run it without me.

One of the things that I'm doing is I'm taking a month-long sabbatical next summer. Me and my daughters are jumping into a camper and we're going to spend a month on the road! I'm not saying I'll never check in, but my goal is to be on the road enjoying time and checking out the U.S. as much as I can for a month and unplugging as much as is reasonable.

The idea is for me to get out of the middle of the company, plus arrange the company to move towards recurring revenue, which means a LOT more marketing for local businesses.

We used to be very project-based, meaning you build a website, create a digital marketing strategy, maybe do some local SEO, and then you're done, and the client doesn't see you anymore. We’re trying to minimize that, because it is a feast and famine model. Every month, they're going to pay us a set fee, and we're going to take care of things like your Facebook ads, and we're going to write blog posts for you so you don't have to hire marketing people because we're providing a positive ROI every single month for you. You're never going to move away from us because every month, you spend a dollar with us, and we make you a $1.50 or $2. It becomes a no-brainer.

Plus, I realized—and I don't know why it took me so long—that customer acquisition is a lot of work! It's expensive. It doesn't pay off all the time. However customer retention is easy and is a much higher ROI.

We're really going to shift our focus more towards the customer retention model. So where maybe 15% of our attention was on customer retention before, I want to flip that and make it 85%.

What can you do so that every customer feels the love?

I know that may sound goofy, but, you know, in the last few weeks, I've had two or three conversations with people who hired us to do a good amount of work, and one of the things that I heard is, "I feel like I'm being taken for granted by my current vendor," or something along those lines. And I thought, "I’ve behaved the same way. I need to change this!"

This is where my team comes in.

It's about everybody in my company doing something different to make it happen.

It's about more check-in policies.

It's about more phone calls.

It's about things like finding an article in "Help A Reporter Out" and realizing, "Oh, I've got a client who would be perfect for that," and sending it over. Whether you're being paid for it or not, it's constantly figuring out how do I help this client grow.

And those clients will never leave you. The smart ones won't at least, and that's what we want, the smart clients.

When things do go wrong though, you cannot hide from the client. As painful as it is, you need to be in front of the clients explaining things. They need to know that you feel their pain. And, you know, sometimes things that you do just aren’t going to work out. Or there are things beyond your control, like when Google changed their algorithms.

I've had clients who were abusive to my employees. They're no longer clients. I just walk away from that.

I had one project for a client, and this was a well-respected company. Everybody loves them from the outside. I liked everything about them. We went into a meeting. I saw the way that they treated some of their employees and another contractor, and even said something to us which I thought was completely inappropriate. I remember apologizing to my team on the way out there, and I never took another call from that prospect.

I understand that sometimes small businesses are in a situation where you have to deal with that, but you should try and get out of an abusive relationship as early as you possibly can. And it could just be you break up with them and say, "I don't think this is working out for either of us."

Sometimes you have to walk away from money they might owe you, too. It can be challenging.

It's a good place to be in when you can fire a bad client, but everybody's needs to know their own tolerance for bad clients. And picky clients are not necessarily bad clients, and clients demanding better work from you are not necessarily bad clients. And clients with complaints are not necessarily bad clients either.

I'd rather have somebody complain constructively about something we've done that we can fix and improve on than they not say anything, at least not to me, but if their friends ask, "Hey, who did you go for a website?", and they reply, "Well, certainly not flyte because they did this…" I'd rather hear those complaints right away so I can either fix them or address them.

We're going to screw up.

We're going to mess stuff up.

But the bottom line is I never want anybody to say, "flyte new media took me for granted, took my money for granted, took my hosting fee for granted, took my SEO for granted."

This goes back to having the right team in place.

However, assembling the right people, especially in a place like Maine where there's just not a lot of people, can be a challenge.

Part of my goal has always been to have employees. I could easily just assemble virtual assistants and remote employees anywhere. There's nothing wrong with that, but I've always loved the idea of keeping a local workforce. It's rewarding to me. We just had our holiday party and I was able to hand out profit-sharing checks to everybody. It's not going to change their lives, but it was a good chunk of change. I felt good about that. Plus, it’s money going back into the local economy, so that feels fantastic.

It is a challenge though, and I don't love turnover. I don't love burning through people, and I'm terrible at firing people. I didn't fire anybody until about 16 or 17 years into running this company. That is not a point of pride for me. There were people who should have been let go. And they would have flourished in other places. It's not like I wanted to be mean, I just kept them around too long. I was like that bad boyfriend who would just ignore you until you finally break up with me so I don't have to break up with you.

You need to find people who have a serious work ethic for certain jobs.

Some jobs are just about production, and you gotta get those people who are totally fine coming in, head down, and crank out six to eight billable hours a day. And then you've got other people where I’m like, "I need you to think. I don't need you to bill out two, four, six, eight hours a day. I need you to think about: do we need to be trading hours for dollars, do we need to be offering new services, is what we're offering worthwhile or valuable to our customer base anymore, should we be putting on events instead of just writing another blog post."

I've had situations where work just dried up, too.

And that's very scary, when you've got employees that are relying on you for a weekly paycheck. And there were times (This gets back to when I really didn't know how to run a business) where I stopped taking pay because I needed to make sure that everybody else on my team got paid. It was difficult, and it was challenging. I had a little bit of a buffer, but I remember just looking at that stack of uncashed paychecks in my desk drawer and thinking, "You gotta figure out some way to fix this. The company can't pay you, and it can't pay you for the last two to three months' worth of work."

The lesson that this has ultimately taught me is you cannot rely on one-off projects. You have to build relationships with people. You have to come up with some sort of retainer business in an industry like this.

Part of it as well is just building up those reservoirs and just protecting yourself. Not always easy to do when you're a startup, but as you start to mature, you need to start thinking about this.

Going forward, I definitely still want to continue to grow my company.

My goal was never to have as many employees as possible, but I am also recognizing that we're not deep enough. Like the Patriots' "next man up" kind of a thing. If one or two people left my company now, I'd really be struggling for the next 6 to 12 months to replace them.

I'd like to maybe double the company in terms of employee size, at least one and a-half times the size we are now, so that if somebody goes on vacation, things aren't dropped. If somebody leaves for a different job or they move out of town, it wouldn't be the end for us or it wouldn't be such a strain on the company.

I want to grow people in terms of their responsibilities. I do want to put myself in a position where I can continually go after the things I personally want, which is more opportunities to speak, more travel, exploring different venues for what we're doing. Those are things that kind of keep me jazzed, keep my energy levels high.

And I want to make sure that I'm never the bottleneck for this company. I need the company to be able to run without me even though I plan on staying here for a long time to come. And if this sabbatical goes really well, I may decide, "Hey, I'm 50 years old. I've been running this company for 20 years. I'm taking one month off every summer."

We'll see how that goes.

As told to Patrick Liddy exclusively for Vendasta. Design by Rory Lawford. Vendasta is the #1 platform for selling digital solutions to local businesses.

About the Author

Patrick Liddy is a former Content Strategist for Vendasta. Prior to Vendasta, he earned his Master’s Degree in Public Policy & Management and was a Marketing Specialist at a digital marketing agency in Maine.

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