This week I sit down with Max Sher from Sher Agency who specializes in designing and developing websites. It’s an interesting story as I got to learn about Max’s journey from freelancer to full fledged agency full of employees, processes, and the journey from doing everything for everyone to niching down.

Learn more about Sher Agency: www.sheragency.com
Learn more about Socialistics: www.socialistics.com

And don’t forget to help support this month’s Socialistics Cares charity Northwest Harvest: https://www.northwestharvest.org/?form=donate

       

Transcript:

Jason Yormark: Hello, and welcome to another episode of anti-agency stories of doing business differently. Excited to have our guest on today that I have had the pleasure of working with on a variety of different ways. I’d like to welcome Max Sher of Sher Agency. Welcome to the show.

Max Sher: Thank you so much. Happy to be here.

Jason Yormark: Absolutely. So, let’s not waste any time. Max tell the audience a little bit about who you are, what you do and a little bit about the agency.

Max Sher: Yeah, so we make websites for businesses. I’ve been running this agency for good six or seven years. If you count my time as a freelancer where I was figuring out what I was doing and what I wanted to be when I grew up. And over that time, I really learned that web design is what I’m good at and what I want to focus on. And that’s what I built a company around. So yeah, I’ve been doing that for quite a while, and that’s what I do.

Jason Yormark: Awesome. So, you started so I’d like to dive a little bit deeper into kind of your journey. So, did you, prior to starting kind of doing your own thing, did you kind work for other web agencies? Did you go down the kind of the traditional path of like nine to five or doing this for other people? Or what did you do before that?

Max Sher: Nothing. It was my very first thing I ever did.

Jason Yormark: Oh, really?

Max Sher: Yeah. I mean, I had an internship at a law firm when I thought I wanted to be a lawyer when I was a kid in high school. And that was no go for me. Not the life I wanted to live, but yeah, the company started when I was 18 years old. I was hanging out in the hookah lounge, and which is what you do when you’re 18, right? And I was just sitting there talking to some friends and the owner had seen me before and he came in, he goes, Hey, max, you’re a computer guy. I’m like, sure, I’m a computer guy. And he says, I’m starting a grocery store. Can you build a grocery store website for me? Now, I had never done anything remotely close to building a grocery store website, but I said, what any 18-year-old who’s overly confident for no reason would say, which is, yeah, I can do it.

And I charged him a thousand bucks. I asked for half upfront, I failed miserably after hiring a designer to build it all out for me. And it was so bad, I couldn’t even show it to him. So, I ended up like I had to pay the designer. So, I ended up trying to do it myself. And I did like a that’s kind of a grocery store website. Turned it into them. They hated it. I gave them their money back and that’s how I learned how to make websites. And that’s how it started.

Jason Yormark: I love it. Well, we’re opposite in that regard, you kind of got the ball rolling early on, whereas it was later in life for me, but we all have different paths to entrepreneurship. So, I love that. I love that. So, okay, so you started, you had mentioned you had started as a freelancer, so before you didn’t go balls in like, business, like you were a freelancer and you kind of had a little bit of a transition into creating an actual agency. Is that how it kind of played out?

Max Sher: I think I always saw it in my head as I was going to have an agency. I had like an enormous amount of confidence that I would be able to do it. Without knowing what actually meant. And on that first project, I tried to hire a freelance developer to do it for me. So, I was always kind of in the mindset of, I want to have someone else do this work for me. However, I didn’t have the experience either working for someone else or having someone work for me, which made that learning curve really hard for me. That was, and then you know, took a step back. I actually was subcontracted by another agency for about eight months, nine months. I learned a lot there. And then from after that I was like, okay, it’s time to start hiring. And then I started building my company.

Jason Yormark: Okay. So now you’ve got your agency how did, was it always named Sher Agency right from the get-go, did you kind of change or evolve over time?

Max Sher: So, when that first guy hired me, I was like, oh gosh, I need to have a business now. Like, that was my moment of panic where I’m like, I need to get official. I’ve got a client. So, I created a sole proprietorship, I think, called Red Brandit, which I thought was super clever. Wasn’t, it was lame and then, then I was Mac Sher Marketing. And then I think three years ago, I was like, you know, if we’re going to be an official agency, I should at least take my first name out of it. So, I changed it to Sher Agency.

Jason Yormark: Okay. So, you had mentioned in our kind of before we kind of hit the record button here that you didn’t start out as just a web agency. So, what was the scope of what you did out of the gate?

Max Sher: Everything, I felt, I think in retrospect, I had something that I wanted to prove to myself and to others, and I just wanted to do everything for everyone. Cause you know, I actually could to some degree do most of the services. Like I couldn’t do them all very well, but I could produce a newsletter. I could run Facebook ads, like, yeah, I was good at figuring things out and getting a B minus on them. So, I was doing that for just about every service for every kind of business. And it was actually like growing rather fast. Like, I had like 20 or 30 retainers, and it was super cool to see it grow and realize that I had the ability to do that. But God, it was wearing down everybody in my business. Like there was no scalability. We were stressed out every day. Like I was working until sundown. It was real brutal.

Jason Yormark: Yeah. Your story is not lost on me. So, you’re doing all these different things, trying to be everything to everybody you’re and so you’re not, and you’re not industry specific either. You’ll do anything for anybody, correct?

Max Sher: Yep. Anything for anyone.

Jason Yormark: Okay. So, what happened or at what point did you realize, you know what, I don’t know that the, everything to everybody approach can scale, what was that moment and what did you do?

Max Sher: I was about three years in, so I was in my junior year of college. And I realized that everybody who was working for me hated their job. Like they loved working for me, I think, I mean, at least they told me they did, and they stayed, and they stayed with me through a really tough time. So, I assume that they, you know, we had a good relationship, but the job itself was pretty much impossible for anybody to do well, beyond that I was super stressed out. I was a full-time student, and I was also managing this company that was growing and it was near impossible. So, I looked at it and I’m like, I built this to have freedom, not to build myself a job that I hate.

Jason Yormark: Yeah.

Max Sher: At what point do you take a step backwards to go forward? And it was actually someone, someone gave me this book called built to sell By, I think it’s John Warlow, Is that right?

Jason Yormark: I remember it. Yeah.

Max Sher: That showed me that, you know, it doesn’t have to be that way. And the thing that separates it from being the chaos to the structure is processes. And you can only build processes if you know what you’re going to do in advance of doing it. So that’s how I decided that it was time to focus on one service specifically. And in retrospect, maybe I should have done one industry as well, but one service specifically, and I picked what I’m best at, which is web design.

Max Sher: And I did something crazy. I let go of all my retainers. I you know, I was already kind of supporting myself financially at that point. Like I was kind of out from under my parents, like paying for my rent and stuff. So, it was a scary thing to do for me. So, I kind of like phased it out. So, I took like 10 of them out one month and then 10, the next month and 10, the next while I kind of built up the website. But then on the employee side, it was scary too. Cause I kind of had to tell some people like, hey, we’re not going to need your services anymore. Like They actually, they weren’t employees actually, they were 1099. But still it was not a fun thing to do with people that you were working with every day.

Jason Yormark: But I mean obviously it was the right decision. I mean, you know, I mean, Socialistic started as a social media agency, so we didn’t go necessarily through that process, but I certainly understand how trying to be everything to everybody is a formula for disaster. So, you switched over to just doing web. I’m kind of curious, like, you know, when you have that retainer business, obviously there’s a level of comfort that comes with, you know, assuming that you’re continuing to deliver value to those clients, There’s some predictability in your income as an agency. What was that transition like, you know, going away from that towards project based pricing and then that constant need to, I’m going to guess here that by you going down the path of we’re going to be a web agency and just being the very best at that, the stability and predictability of the retainer world was offset by how much better you are at doing this one thing. And then the demand for that kind of offsetting, you know, you’re getting enough leads, you’re getting enough business for this thing that you do so much better Kind of offset, is that kind of what happened with the business over time?

Max Sher: It is what happened over time. In the moment I didn’t have as much of a plan for that. In the first few years of business, I was actually quite impulsive and I kind of just did things like, as they came to my mind now, I like happy to say that I’ve dialed that back a bit. But it was very much alike, okay, I know that I’m good at solving problems. And like, I will find a solution to this, but I can’t let things go the way that they are. So, what’s the drastic action that I can take now. And it was send out that mass email as of, you know, June 9th, 2020, or whatever year, it was like, you know, we’re not going to, we’re not going to be able to continue servicing your needs. And then from there, then I had that 60-day buffer, which was okay, I need to go find a bunch of web projects. And hire some people to actually fulfill those projects and I need to write processes. So, I kind of put myself under the gun there, like you got to do it. You have no other option.

Jason Yormark: Yeah. How long did it take during that transition to kind of get to how long was it before you realized like, yep, this was the best, one of the best decisions we’ve ever made? Like did success come pretty quickly with that?

Max Sher: It was already a good decision as soon as I made it. Like I had like the, the weight of the world off my shoulders and I was like, oh my gosh, like I forgot that it feels like this to not be constantly stressed out about churn rate, you know? And then as soon as I started getting some web contracts you know, probably within three months, I realize like I’ve got a system that works here and now that I’ve, it was actually less so about sales and more about having a system that worked to produce like the product. I realize like, okay, step one, design, step two, development, step three, launch. Like I’ve got steps to what I do. Like this is how it should be, you know, it’s not, everything is a fire, that feeling of relief was amazing.

Jason Yormark: That’s awesome. So, you know, I’m sure that either, you know, there’s people that are going to listen to this or eventually listen to it that are either running in a web agency or thinking about it. So, what’s your obviously you know, a project has to start and an end date, you know, and I’m guessing a good number of the folks that you work with, get into some sort of support role where there’s a little bit of you know, ongoing revenue from that sort of thing, but generally speaking. So, you know, now you’re thinking differently. You’re not, have you reached a point with your agency where success has breeded enough success where you don’t have to do a lot of self-promotion, you’re getting referrals. Like I’m just kind of curious what your world looks like in terms of client acquisition, how much of it is referral based? How much of it is inbound versus you really having to work hard to consistently create new opportunities for yourself?

Max Sher: That is my biggest day Job is creating new opportunities for myself. So, I transitioned from being a person who fulfills these projects to a person who sells these projects. And my current project in my business is how do I get someone else to help me with that? Yeah. How do I stop being the person who finds the deal, closes the deal, and then passes it off to the team? Because then I’ve got a business and not a job that I’ve created for myself.

Jason Yormark: Yeah. What’s the team dynamic, like, what’s your team breakout look like right now?

Max Sher: There are, I think, 10 full time. And I think we’d get a handful of other like freelancers and stuff that help us. So, we’ve got two designers, one in training and then we’ve got a project manager and four developers, an integrations person who like builds out all of our systems and keeps everything going and then myself. So that’s 10 and then we’ve got others as well.

Jason Yormark: So, at Socialistics, one of the things that we’re really passionate about is helping others in other organizations with our socialistic cares program, we always kind of highlight a charity or an organization that somebody on the team is super passionate about. And this week I’ve got Artemis from our team. Artemis, Tell us a little bit about yourself and your charity of choice.

Speaker 3: Hi, so I’m Artemis, I’m actually an account manager here at socialistic and my charity of choice is actually Northwest harvest. So, growing up, I actually suffered from a lot of food insecurity myself. So, this charity means a lot to me since they target people who are food insecure in Washington state. Actually, last year, 1 million people visited food banks in Washington state, and they help provide food that’s nutritious and both accessible for people who are in need. So go ahead and check them out if you can, because what they’re doing is amazing and very much needed.

Jason Yormark: Thank you so much Artemis. If you want to check them out, make sure you take a look at our show notes, we’ll have a direct link to the organization and how you can support them. Thanks for listening.

Now. So, one of the things that I love about my company, it was used to be just me and like eight other women. And I think a lot of that had to do more. So, with social media just kind of lends itself to that kind of gender dynamic. But also, I think, you know, I grew up with a single mom and giving you know, single parents or single moms, an opportunity to have a career and be around their kid. Like inherently I was passionate about that because I kind of grew up in that environment and full disclosure, I worked with Max on our new website, which I love, we worked with them on that.

One of the things that stood out to me was and as the team told me that they felt like our site needed a little bit more of a kind of like a feminine feel like what we had before was really dark and masculine looking and feeling. And as I went through the process of trying to find a new web agency, I think that’s one of the things that stood out with you and your team is that you had that, which nobody else did. Like, I mean, everybody knows when it comes to like programming and development, it’s very obviously heavy male centric, which is unfortunate. I think that’s probably starting to change a little bit, but that’s something that stood out with your team. Like you kind of had a balance there, and I think in your portfolio and the people that we engaged with that balance really stood out to us. Like these guys are really positioned to help us kind of see things from both perspectives in that regard. Was that purposeful in terms of who you have and how you do what you do, or did it just happen to play out that way?

Max Sher: You know, I think as like with everything, when you’re hiring for someone just like when you’re marketing to customers, you’ve kind of got like an avatar in your head of like who the right person for this is not all of our designers are female. But like When you think about who are the people that are going to love this job that are going to be great at this, like those personality traits tend to be female. However, I think what the real thing is that I’m looking for when I hire for that role specifically which is the person that you were interacting with is a designer is like being really, really organized and being a really great communicator and just being really smart and creative. Those are the things that I’m looking for.

We actually don’t hire designers with any knowledge of design. Sometimes they have like a little bit of UX experience from school. That’s like my favorite degree if we’re talking about that avatar that I’m hiring for. It’s someone with a degree in like UX or design or something like that, but they don’t know how to design websites. We take them through a process of training them through an internship, and that’s what turns them into the person who can do this job. The role that we’re talking about here, they’re both designers and developers actually, they’re primarily designers, but they know how to develop as well.

Jason Yormark: Yeah, no, there’s something unique there. I definitely noticed a difference when we were going through that process of talking to different web agencies and something felt different about the conversations and the things that you guys are doing versus everybody else that really stood out. So, it’s interesting to kind of hear how you’ve kind of taken that approach in terms of, because I think that that’s, or a lot of it lives, right. Is like, you know, when you talk about somebody being a coder or a developer or somebody being a designer, it’s like different parts of the brain, it’s hard to be able to do both, but to have an understanding of I think is where there’s a big difference. Cause I think, and I’m just speculating here that a lot of web agencies probably have really siloed approaches to it. They’re like we have a designer, we have developer, that’s all they do. They don’t think about the other thing and when they need the other thing, they just work together. Whereas I think true artistry that executes on good user experience is probably works better when you’ve got a person that speaks the language at least a little bit and understands it. So that those things kind of aligned a little bit better. So that’s certainly what we’ve experienced. So that’s cool to hear how you’ve been able to kind of get it there.

Max Sher: I think it’s essential. Because another reason that I think it’s essential is the designer in our company is the client’s point of contact. So, you’re going to have questions like, hey, how do I edit X, Y, Z on my website, the designer needs to your point of contact. It would be a terrible user experience If your point of contact didn’t know anything about how your website works, that would suck. So having them be really sharp and know how to, like, if they had to, they could go in and build the pages. Maybe it would take ’em longer than one of our full-time developers, but they could do it. That’s I think absolutely critical to our success.

Jason Yormark: Got it. So, it sounds like things are in a good place, but what would you say is your, what’s your biggest challenge right now? What’s the thing that keeps you up at night, if anything in terms of, you know, where you’re at as a company, as an agency.

Max Sher: It’s never really been a problem, but it definitely still gives me the most stress sales. I’m still the only person doing it. We’ve got good sales systems that bring in consistent leads. We use, we have a great Upwork funnel. We have a great clutch funnel. We have good LinkedIn funnel. We’re starting to build some other things too. My own marketing, like on my, my podcast and TikTok and stuff like that has started bringing in some business as well. But in terms of predictability, like you said, we don’t have a massive amount of our business that’s retainer. We do have some, right, but it’s not, it’s not the 80/20, right. It’s not the majority of our business. So that’s My job is I have to find sales.

Jason Yormark: Gotcha. What you know, I always, it’s interesting when you think of retainer business versus project, they both had their advantages and disadvantages. Obviously, the advantage to a retainer is like that predictability long term kind of predictability of your revenue. Whereas, you know, with project base, it’s like when it’s done, it’s gone. But it’s a more tangible thing. You know, I would argue that, and I could be wrong here, but I would imagine the life cycle, like the sales life cycle for you is shorter than it is for us. When somebody’s considering a long-term relationship and spending that money over a period of time, they’re probably going to take a little bit more time with their decision and with social media, you know, there’s some tangible piece to it. Let me touch taste, feel like they can see the content and stuff like that, but there are some elements to it that are kind out the ether that you just don’t know.

Whereas the website’s like, I need this thing and then you deliver this thing and then I have this thing. I can see it; I can touch it. I can feel it. So is there some truth to that in terms of, I’m kind of curious about your sales life cycle. Like when you find a qualified lead, do you find that you’re able to close those Within a relatively short period of time?

Max Sher: Probably two to three weeks. Usually it’s like the first meeting, like we’re going over, what it is I give them a ballpark price and then if they don’t flinch, usually then we have another meeting like that week or the next week. And then usually the next week we close the deal.

Jason Yormark: Yeah. No, that sounds about right. We’re about twice that I would say so that my instincts were correct on that.

Max Sher: One thing that I think’s really nice about like the project life cycle though, instead of a retainer, it’s just like a sense of accomplishment that the team gets, because you get so much satisfaction, like launching a website and we had that conversation in the slack channel. Everyone’s patting each other on the back. Like we launched the website. It looks awesome. It’s great. It’s great for morale.

Jason Yormark: Yeah, no, I get that. What percentage of leads that you get, would you say end up being qualified versus not?

Max Sher: I think it’s like 32% right now.

Jason Yormark: 32. So 32% of the leads that come in actually don’t bulk at your prices or qualified. So, when I think of qualification for you guys, obviously price plays into that. And if you’re listening like here, one of the things that, you know, and I’ve done plenty of websites. So, I understand it. It’s very interesting cause some people just don’t understand the amount of time and effort expertise that goes into the design process. I’ve come across clients in the past when I was kind of a freelance like, oh, I want a website. Like, and then their expectation is it’s like, oh here’s $500, gimme my website. You know, go press your buttons and spit it out of the website machine. I’m like, no, that’s not how it works quite actually. So, you get what you paid for.

And I always think of things in the context of bronze, silver, gold. And it’s interesting, our journey. I did our first website. Then I paid somebody bronze. You know, I paid them 3000 or I think to do the website, you get what you paid for. And it was great. And then I think the next, the next iteration was when we came to you and I came out, I’m like, well, I hope to spend about 5k a month on a website. And then I quickly realized what I wanted and what I was like, it didn’t align. And then it was when I had the conversation with you, I’m like, okay, we need to reset our expectations here because they have what we want, but this is a different tier. So that’s where we got to be if we want to do this thing. So, it’s interesting to hear. So, would you say that when you have these leads come in and you say 32% of the leads that come in are qualified, is how much of that is price centric or are there other elements that play into that?

Max Sher: A lot of it is price centric. I had a call today with someone who was willing to pay, but I didn’t think we could accomplish what he wanted. So, for example, someone will come to us, and they’ll say, Hey, you know, I just started this business and I need to start getting a ton of traffic to my website. So, I want you to rebuild it so that it starts getting traffic. I’m like, okay, hold on a second here. If you want me to rebuild your website and it’s to generate traffic for you, you’re going to be disappointed when I build you an awesome website, the perfect website, and it still gets no traffic. So, let’s talk about this and see like, what are the steps that need to happen for you in order to start getting business from your website. Like we can throw up a bad landing page and get traffic to it, or we can throw up the best website and get no traffic. They can be correlated, but it’s not causally linked. But most of the time it’s price related.

Jason Yormark: Yeah. And when you think about the leads that come in, how much of them we kind of, I think we can even think of two buckets. We got solopreneurs and then well, actually I’d say three buckets, solopreneurs, small business. When I say small business, less than a million and then kind of corporate bigger entities that are doing multimillion dollar businesses. In terms of where you’re at in terms of the life cycle of your business, the projects that you work on, do they live in one bucket more so than the other in that regard?

Max Sher: Typically, if they’re less than a million, they can’t afford us. A million plus I would say, I’d say the sweet spot is probably 5 to 10.

Jason Yormark: Yeah. Gotcha. Awesome.

Max Sher: That’s not exclusively true. Like by any means in some businesses it may like at an earlier stage, they can.

Jason Yormark: Yeah. So, what’s the next thing for you guys? Like where do you want to take this agency? You know, what’s your kind of two-year plan where you want to be?

Max Sher: I don’t have a two-year plan. I have a four-year plan. Four, I want to be at a place where I could sell this business for 10 million. I don’t, you know, I don’t know if I will sell it when I get to that point, but I want it to be at a point where it’s like, okay, this is something valuable that we’ve created here. Like this is a great business. One of my mentors says like the best way to get a business ready to sell is to build a business that you never want to sell. So, I love that concept and it’s still inspired heavily by that book I cited earlier, built to sell as you can tell. So that’s what I want to do. And it’s kind of a volume game at this. Like I think our prices probably will increase over the next two years. I don’t know by how much. But it’s going to get to the point where we start to build more teams of designers and developers and it’s battling one constraint to the next. So, we just hired a new designer. Our constraint was capacity. We hired the new designer. Now he’s being trained and he’s doing a really great job. So now we’re in the process of, you know, okay, now we have to upgrade our sales funnels. Like, how are we going to get two more projects a month to keep this guy busy? And then I have to go back to that capacity. So, it’s going back and forth between those two over the next couple years.

Jason Yormark: Yeah. All right. So, four years from now, you sell this thing. What are you doing then?

Max Sher: It’s a great question.

Jason Yormark: Do you even know?

Max Sher: I got a cliche answer for you, which is to start SAS company.  But who knows?

Jason Yormark: Yeah. I thought about that too. I’m much older than you. So, my answer to that is not as ambitious, but so I was curious, I think agency owners kind of like, what’s the agency’s usually a means to an end. You rarely see somebody start an agency and do that forever. You know, at some point they want to exit, and then there’s this other thing that they’re kind of striving to be, that’s a little less stressful and demanding, you know, so for me, you know, promoting a book and doing speaking gigs and helping other people, you know, kind of find their path and learn from what I learned, that’s kind of where I want to be. But, you know, I’m later in life. So, I’m on the down the downside, like, you know, I’m not climbing the mountain anymore. I’m kind at the top and I’m looking at, you know, working my way down.

Max Sher: Fair enough. And that appeals to me too, also of like helping people who want to, you know, climb that same mountain. If I get to the top and I find like, hey, there’s a three step way to get to the top of this mountain and you can do it in three less years. Man, that would make so many people’s lives easier if I can help them do that. I see the appeal of that for sure. And maybe SAS isn’t as easy as we think. I bet you, there’s a bunch of SAS founders laughing at us right now.

Jason Yormark: I’ve always wanted to do that, but I just said the missing piece for me is I just didn’t really ever know anybody or connected anybody that could do the technical side of it, cause that’s just where the, that’s where it ends for me. Like I have nothing of value to bring on that side of it. Awesome, well, is there anything that I didn’t ask you or anything that you want to add that you think might round out the conversation?

Max Sher: No, but if anybody’s in that same position where, you know, you’re kind of trying to do all things to, for all people and you’re finding yourself super stressed out, you don’t need to take as drastic of an action as I did to solve that problem. But the solution has to be a flavor of build a process that actually makes it, so you know what you’re doing each time before you start doing it. Like if you’ve noticed there’s a motif in my career, which is like shoot first and figure out where it’s pointed later, like that is essentially the kid that I was when I started this company. And that’s what got me into a lot of trouble. So really building up blueprints for all the processes and deliverables you want to give clients is going to make your life way easier. And that’s the only advice I can give on that.

Jason Yormark: No, I love that. The biggest takeaway for those that are listening, that kind of piggybacks on that is I I’ve never talked to or heard from somebody that vertical down either by what they offered or who they offered it to and said that that was a bad idea. Like it’s really the path that you need to take, especially if you’re just starting out that’s, it’s a tough world to compete, so awesome stuff. Well, max, thank you so much for covering out some time today. How can people find you and what you do?

Max Sher: Yeah, www.sheragency.com S-H-E-R-agency.com. Come visit us, take a look at our stuff. And there’s ways to get in touch with me specifically on there if you’re looking to contact me.

Jason Yormark: Awesome. And I can speak like I said earlier, max and his team did our website, and we absolutely love it. So, if that’s a need of yours you could, they’re the ones that go to. Trust me, I put in the legwork on it. So again, thanks max for joining us. And for those of you that are listening, like share, subscribe, thank you for listening. We’ll catch you at the next episode of anti-agency.

Max Sher: Thanks everybody.

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