Lysa Miller is the founder and CEO of Ladybugz, an Interactive agency based out of Boston, MA and we sat down to talk about how she has been able to build a unique agency model powered primarily by a team of freelancers that she’s been able to scale the business with. It’s a new day and age of workforce, and Lysa has capitalized on this with some great tactics and strategies we discuss in depth.
Lysa Miller is the founder and CEO at the award-winning web design + digital growth agency, Ladybugz Interactive in Boston, MA. Miller and her talented team found an industry niche serving early growth biotech companies across the country. The agency also works with growing nonprofits, B2B companies, legacy brands and independent schools.
Lysa is also the founder of the MetroWest Women’s Network online networking and referral group of 5000 local women. Her goal, to empower and help local women grow using the power of each other.
Recent accomplishments include being featured on the cover of Boston Business Journal’s 2020 Annual Book of Lists and named “Top Women Owned Marketing Agencies to Watch” by Agency Vista.
She has also been featured for her agency expertise in Entrepreneur/Fortune.com, Cloudways.com, CIO, and Business Insider. Lysa regularly contributes thought leadership content locally and to Agency Publications + Podcasts.
Follow her on Twitter or IG @lysapreneur
Learn more about Lysa at www.ladybugz.com
Jason Yormark: Hello, welcome to another episode of anti-agency stories of doing business differently. I’m excited with our guest today. Her name is Lisa Miller, and she is with Lady Bugz. Lisa, welcome to the show.
Lisa Miller: Thanks for having me today. I’m excited to be here.
Jason Yormark: Absolutely. All right. Well let’s, let’s not waste any time. Let’s jump right in. Tell me just a little bit about your background. Give us kind of the story of how you came to be, where you’re at, what you’re doing, and we’ll go from there.
Lisa Miller: Okay. Well, I’m Canadian. So, I came here during the dot com boom to work for an agency. And so, I’ve been in agency life, basically my whole career since I was 24 years old. And, you know, during my time at that agency, I learned a ton. And I went on to be a UI/UX developer for a period of time, but I always freelanced under the name ladybugs, even when I was at that first agency. And I just continued to do that basically most of my career. And then in around 2015, I had grown a significantly nice size business, which I merged with another agency and was there for four years and left to come out and do it again by myself again. So here I am.
Jason Yormark: So, tell me, got it. So, tell me a bit about the agency now, what do you guys do, how many folks do you have that do what you do. Give us a little bit of backdrop on that.
Lisa Miller: Yeah, I mean, I think when I had left my previous agency, I didn’t think I was going to start another agency again. But I did miss the work a lot. And even at that agency, I wasn’t doing a lot of the work. I was doing a lot of business development. So, to jump right back into the work was actually really fun for me. And that is what really inspired me to get going again. Cause when I started helping people again, I just got the bug of like, okay, like I’m just going to help. Whoever comes my way. And the lead pool just, you know, grew, and grew and grew and it grew so fast that I had to come up with a model of how can I scale, how can I do this without with lean ops, lean accounting. And so basically it kind of manifested itself in that a lot of freelancers were really hurting over COVID and here I was with all these leads and not a team. So, I started to build a team of freelance people who already had either small businesses or LLCs or who were just doing their own thing and really needed a partner to come in and give them work so they could get through this time. So that’s sort of, you know, started with one guy. We did a couple sites, we had a lot of fun, second guy some ladies and then after about a year we did our first hire which is a sales operations role. So currently we don’t have anybody full time in a creative or development role. They’re all either their own small agencies or freelancers. So, it’s an interesting model to scale. But there’s definitely room to do it because these people have been working on their own for so long. They’re looking for, they’re looking to learn more, they’re looking to grow their skills, they’re looking to be on a team. And so, one really, really amazing thing about it is that I’ve seen these people go from being like a basic like web designer to a full scale, you know, agile team leader you know, evangelist of all things like SEO and usability and just to bring them up to this higher level. Not that I did, but they brought themselves up by working together. So, creating these teams of people was a lot easier with freelance team members and everybody’s pretty much local. So, I am committed to supporting local businesses in the local economy. So, I would say 90% of our team members are within 30 minutes of our location here in central Massachusetts.
Jason Yormark: Gotcha. And how many folks do you have that are currently part of the team in some capacity?
Lisa Miller: So, we have about, we have four full-time employees right now that are all basically operations people. Like we have a project manager to run our digital marketing. We have me and then we have two other people. And then fulltime freelancers. We probably have four that are doing pretty much full-time for us. And then we have about 10 more that are doing part-time projects for us.
Jason Yormark: Gotcha. So, it’s interesting. Cause when I started my agency, I was predominantly freelancers. I was, I guess myself, I was the only full-time employee and it worked, you know, to your point, I think it’s a different world and a lot of people are fine with that. You know, they like to work under that kind of framework because they can you know, they can diversify their income streams and there’s a little bit more flexibility around that. So, there’s definitely a marketplace for that. And then you know, I ran with that for a while and then eventually just got to the point where and I think you probably experienced this well too with some of your full-time hires is like there’s some key hires that I needed to make that, that didn’t work for like director of operations. I think of that nature that are very specific to the business and then ultimately transitioned most of my folks into full time because for a variety of reasons, one, you know, just, you know, the fear of, you know, getting my hand slapped by the government, because I was treating freelancers like employees and just trying to, you know, build a culture where I felt like, you know, certain individuals would probably appreciate the, at least perceived stability of being an employee and the benefits that come with that. So, but to your point, you know, I still have a mix. It’s switched a little bit more, more employees than contractors. But there’s certainly, I think value in going down either path. So how have you been able to scale a business with a workforce that is predominantly freelance? And how does that scale for you? Like how are you able to keep people happy, have you faced any challenges from that really want to kind of understand and get help the audience understand how that can be a successful thing for an agency owner.
Lisa Miller: I think that just being in the agency world for so long, I knew a lot of people. And so, everybody came pretty well vetted to the agency and our philosophy is kind of like, let everybody be adults and let them do what they do best. Don’t let the agency control their process, their creative process. So, process wise, you know, every project runs a little bit differently. But what we try to do is keep like one freelancer, like let’s say, in a specific vertical. So, we have one guy that runs all of the biotech projects. Lady Bugz does like the operations, all of the sales and billing, project management. And he gets to design, he gets to go through the agile process with the client. He gets to do what he does the best. Whereas like as a freelancer, you don’t get to do that. You have to do all the other crap that goes along with it. And so, a couple of ways that we’ve kept people really engaged in the team is giving them that autonomy and freedom letting them create their own deadlines and their own project. Kind of like how they want to work. We actually pay people a large percentage of the project. We’re basically almost splitting our projects half and half between the agency and then the people working on them. So, they’re definitely making a lot of money. And so that allows them to say no to things that are smaller and more difficult and really stay dedicated to us. We also have a very interesting profit-sharing model. So, we share half of our profits with our team. So, if we’re profitable, we take half of that. We just split it amongst everybody. So, a lot of these people like really appreciate that. They’re creatives, they’re not necessarily business owners. They still want to maybe have some small clients. But they want to grow. They want to learn, and they want to make more money. They want to be with their families. So, we’re letting them set the stage of how they work. So, a project comes in, we ask the people who wants to work on this. Nobody wants to work on it, and nobody wants to do it. We say no, and it has to be something they’re truly passionate about. So, like right now we get a lot of inquiries for women’s-based organizations, cause we’re a hundred percent women owned. And so, you know, there’s one specific other woman in the company there’s actually two or three of us that are really passionate about that, but she’s really passionate about the design area in that. So, anything that comes in in that sort of space, then she takes it on. We get so many leads that we get to choose. You know, what clients are best for us. And we get to decide if we’re, they get to decide if we’re best for them. So, I feel like we’re really lucky in that we get so many leads. Cause I don’t think every agency experiences that, but I don’t know. I think at some point you have to let go of the whole, like this is my company. I want to be profitable. I want to make money. I think when you have this mission and this beautiful thing of these people, I haven’t had any challenges. So, you asked me if I’ve had challenges, I have not. And so, because I’ve grown other agencies, so, you know, I kind of knew where I needed to be lean. I knew where I could flex and not flex and even moving forward into building the company, we already have certain roles to defined that we know we’re going to need. And we’re just trying to, you know, we will probably end up eventually hiring a full-time in-house designer too on top of that, for our own needs, but I don’t know. I think just experience passion, also like dedication, like to the people if you read some books, like some business books, like let’s say the book traction, right? They’re all about the, A player. You got to have A players on your team. And like that whole mentality like that just doesn’t isn’t here. This is about, you know, maybe somebody’s an A player in a certain area, but nobody knows it yet. So, I’ve spent a lot of my time working with my team to allow them to grow and lead on their own. And I think that’s somewhere where a lot of owners get frustrated. They’re like, I just want this person to do this job, you know? And they have the job like defined in their head, like, but what about that person? What about the job they want to do? Let them shine at like what they’re really good at. And if they don’t, then help find the right resources so they can shine, cause everybody’s a rockstar at something I’m sorry, everybody has a gift. So, if you can just tap into that gift and be a great leader and have other people contribute, it’s like, it’s like your family, right? If you have a family of eight and you know, let’s say you’re going through some difficulties and you don’t feel loved well when you have any family of eight and everybody loves you, that like really helps. So, it’s kind of the same thing here. If you’re struggling with a skill or something in your life or whatever, you have all these people around you that are in the same situation as you, they’re all freelancers too, they all have struggles too. So, I think that you’d think that you wouldn’t have that kind of an environment here. Like that’s almost like a real culture of a real company. But I think we have a freelance culture, you know, and I think we all get it. And so yeah, that’s kind of how we work, and I don’t know if I’ve just been lucky or what, but it’s been really, really, really rewarding. That’s really all I can say.
Jason Yormark: I mean, it sounds like you’re tapping into two distinct areas that I think are attracting and keeping that kind of talent, which is financially you’re giving them, you know, more and then you’re allowing them to work on the, you’re giving them the power to work and focus on the things that they enjoy doing and not all of the other stuff that you know, typical business owners have to deal with. So, I think you package just those two things together and I could see why people would stick around and choose to work on your projects versus other ones that might be coming their way. So that’s really smart. You said something there I think that stands out that’s related, but a little bit different. Cause I know if there’s agency owners listening to this, they heard this and they want me to ask this question, you said, you’re getting tons of leads. Like you have more leads than you could deal with. And I’m very curious, tell me a little bit more about that. Like how are you getting these leads? Why do you get so many, like what are the things that you’ve put in place or why is that happening for you? Cause a lot of agencies struggle with that.
Lisa Miller: So, if I tell you the secret, I’m going to have to kill you and everybody listening to this. So, but basically…
Jason Yormark: You can keep an eye level.
Lisa Miller: No, I will, basically marketing 101. So, you know, the three Ps, product, placement, and price. So, or product positioning and price. So basically, when we went into this, we defined who we wanted to target. Me and a couple people from other, we’ve all had different agencies. Some have had small projects; some have worked on enterprise. And so, we defined the pain points of where we worked and how we felt chained sometimes in a job working on certain projects. So, we wanted to, and we felt like clients felt like that. Like you’re chained to this process. So, after kind of doing a couple projects together and we started out really slow in the beginning, we were just doing a project here and there getting our feet wet. I was just really lucky because I had income because I was doing a lot of digital marketing too on the side as a freelancer. So, I was basically making a full-time salary and then trying to, you know, do this project idea. And so, the team and I just really defined like what our ideal client looks like with a little bit of flexibility of like who we really want to help. Like if we are, if our ideal project is such and such company with $40,000 for a website, what if one comes for $10,000 and we really are about their mission? How can we still do that? If we want to, how can we do whatever we want? So, we kind of came up with a model of what we had to do versus what we want to do. And so, we sometimes take lower price projects because we’re passionate about them and we are all in agreeing to that together. So, some projects, people will take less money just to do it, because they really believe in it. And so, we targeted these specific types of companies where they needed somebody earlier in the process, but they needed somebody with like our sort of like enterprise level and expert agency level expertise, but they didn’t really have the money. So, they, you know, you might go to another agency and you’re, let’s say you’re a startup certain type of company and you want to get a website and they only do stuff that’s $80,000, right? Let’s say the company invests in that and they don’t, you know, it’s too much money. They don’t get a return on it. So, these companies are only willing to invest like a certain amount of money. So how do you create the product that they want, a process that they enjoy for that dollar amount? And we were able to do that using lean operations and using agile. So basically, there’s a little bit more work on the client end when you work with us. So, we call it like, we’re a do it with you company, not a do it for you company. We never want to be order takers here. That’s not our goal. And so, you get to walk with them through this journey of like who they are, where they want to go, and you give them this product that they can grow with. And so, a lot of companies will start with us, they’ll grow with us, and they’ll stay with us. We have not lost a client since we’ve started. Which is like amazing. But I think people just want to work with people who care, and they really care about them learning. Like a lot of these people are marketers and they don’t know how a process works. They don’t know how SEO works; they don’t understand accessibility. And when you bring them into the process and teach them and show them and go through this agile, they come out very educated and they feel good about what they got. They don’t feel like, well, I just had the agency do my website. I have no idea how they did it. So, you come out with this like customer satisfaction kind of at the end where they feel like they’re really ingrained with your team. And we’re small enough that we don’t have a ton of processes where every time they want to talk to somebody, they have to send in a support ticket. So, we have like a certain set of team people that work on these projects and it’s an open conversation, if they want to grab anybody, we still have support to support them. But if they want to grab that expert and talk to them for five minutes or they want to directly email somebody that open conversation is there and we’ll continually reach out to them, you know, and then we’ll do growth sprints with them. So, we could come back six months later, if a biotech decides they want to tackle a different vertical and they want to build a new section on their site, the site’s built so we can easily do another agile sprint and do that with them again. And so, with the lead generation, it’s all about targeting to those people, speaking to those people. And when those people come in through a sales lead on the website, they’re already like 85% ready to buy. So, our close rate is really, really high. And I think that just comes with you just always have to be reiterating and innovating and asking questions and getting the right answers for the clients. And I think so many people, they define a process and that’s it. They create a sales proposal and that’s the same one they use every time. That is not our philosophy. Every single time we’re improving that. We’re looking at the mistakes we’re making, we’re looking at questions, people ask, how do we make that process, like a little easier for them and take, be like always one step ahead of them. And I don’t think that’s something you can ever stop doing. But I think that as you grow and you become more process oriented, the thinkers, aren’t thinking about that, cause they’re way up high and the doers are doing the job. So, when you have doers and thinkers altogether, you have this really amazing collaboration where you can really, you know, my goal was to just change the whole experience with clients and to really enjoy it, have them enjoy it and have the team enjoy it. So, that’s how we’ve done it.
Jason Yormark: Well, that’s great. In terms of the freelance portion of your teams, what has been your typical, how do you source that? Basically, like how often are you adding to your team or having to replace folks and what are some of the tactics that you’ve used to attract and, or well, to find the right people, I guess for your team.
Lisa Miller: Yeah. So, I mean, I think enough people know me and they know what I’m doing. So, in the beginning it was just like reaching out to people I already knew. We haven’t had to source a lot of new people because a lot of people started out with one or two projects and we’re trying to grow everybody to, with what their expected income is. And I think we’ve pretty much grown almost everybody, but two or three people because they came in later. And so, we’re still growing what their, you know, what their jobs are going to be in their revenue pool. And also, some of these people are digital marketing people, so we’re training. And that sort of thing. So, I’ve probably, I haven’t lost anybody, so that’s amazing. But everybody’s been working more and more for ladybugs. Because it’s, again, it’s just like this culture that they don’t have to think about. But sourcing new people again, it’s like reaching out to people like I was looking for another SEO person. I reached out to a friend was like, do you know anybody who has an SEO business that just needs a couple new clients? Sure. Here’s five people talk to them all, you know. I have another friend in BC who does my ads. So, we have like our whole Canadian thing going. And so, I’m always trying to, you know, she doesn’t need a lot of work. She just needs like two or three clients. And that’s the other thing. Like we have a great profit model, so we don’t need to be like, we don’t need to take on everything. We can be really picky. We can find the right team member. And then the other thing we do, and I did this at my previous agency too, is we try to send, we try to vet leads really, really well here before we ever send them to anybody. But we’re also supporting other agencies doing that sending them things and we’ve had really great agencies send us things. So, that kind of goes both ways because I think everybody just wants the best client for them. And when you try to work with every single client, it’s not, it’s not successful. You want to work with the right ones who have, who you’re going to be able, like our really strong suit is SEO. So, you know, we do really, really well with SEO clients. And we do, you know, some social media, but we’re not a social media agency like yourself. So, we would partner with somebody like you for social media if a client really needed that and we’re okay with that. We don’t need to bring that under white label. We just bring in a partner and hey, we want to work with another agency and that’s great cause we learn. I love learning. Learning is the best part of the whole journey.
Jason Yormark: You know, I was looking at your website before the interview. I mean you had mentioned SEO’s kind a big part of what you do, is that the number one is that you’re like superpower or is it, or is the web development, web design kind of the entry point for a lot of your clients, what’s like the service that draws in the most business that then, you know, pulls in other things.
Lisa Miller: So, it’s really funny because it is mostly web design. And that is because we are very unique in that space, and we really speak to the clients. We haven’t really focused on building our digital marketing too much, but we do have a nice piece of that, which is 30% of our business. And I think that our SEO and marketing clients are very different than our website clients believe it or not. And so that’s kind of hard to market to them when we speak so well to the web design clients. But we’re just letting that kind of grow naturally and naturally has been good enough for us, for sure. So yeah, we are making most of our revenue on websites. We’re basically doing websites from anywhere from $20,000 to $60,000 a site and we’re putting people through like a three-to-four-month process. So, you know, you can do a hundred thousand dollars website and maybe that’ll take you eight months. So, it’s really not that much different. And it’s, I think it’s a lot faster creatively, so I think it’s really rewarding, like for a designer to design like 10 websites a year or 20 versus three and be stuck on a project for like so yeah, so that is where we are.
Jason Yormark: That makes sense. I’ve always, there’s always been a little bit of an envy about agencies that are web based, because I’ve always talked about like, look there are advantages and disadvantages to both sides. Like with us obviously like when you’re doing social media or marketing, there’s typically a retainer it’s ongoing, as long as you’re doing the job, there’s some consistency there and predictability. But there’s also this whole idea of like, you know, trying to connect the dots between the work that you’re doing and the results that it’s netting the company from a revenue standpoint. Whereas like with a website it’s like, it’s a tangible thing, right? It’s like a client usually comes in knowing our website looks like crap, we need a new website. You don’t really have to talk them into like, hey, you should really have a new website. Like they’re usually coming to you. Like, I know I need this thing. It’s not a question of whether I’m going to do it. It’s a question of who I’m going to do it with. So, I think if you’re able to kind of position yourself well, and you’ve got a history of doing that well you don’t have to sit there and play the education game. Like with me, it’s like, I may have to educate, you know, a prospect on actually social media can benefit your business. Here’s how, whereas with website you’re like, you don’t have to sell them on a website. They don’t need to have a website. So, I could see how that could really work well for you. But so, well this is super interesting stuff. It was really great to get to know you and your history and the success that you’re having. Is there anything that I didn’t ask you that you think might be helpful to the audience around either hiring freelancers or just some things that have been really successful for you?
Lisa Miller: Yeah. I mean, I think that if you have an idea in your mind of a business you want to grow, especially in the agency world, like this is your time to be an agent of change because people are tired of the same old crap and like every time you start a new company, you get to start over and you get to change things and you get to redefine when you have a company that’s like, you’ve been doing it for 20 years. You get used to doing things a certain way. And every time you introduce something new, it’s really, really hard to change the mindset of the team and the whole company. And every little change is a big ripple change. So, like just going into your agency with your own ideas, with your own uniqueness and not listening to anybody, cause everybody, why would you grow an agency, someone else’s way when that’s not what you’re good at. So, I’m just a believer in individuality and using that gift to get you where you want to go and just letting the naysayers, like even they could be encouragers and thinking they’re helping you by telling you not to do something, you know? So just race all that.
Jason Yormark: I hear you. I’m all about authenticity. So, I completely agree with you. Awesome. And lastly where can people learn a little bit more about you and your agency?
Lisa Miller: So, we’re pretty easy to find cause we’re lady bugz with a Z, which I’ve been told many times is a horrible name. And, but you know, people remember it, it’s easy to find. It’s been with me my whole adult life. So, I don’t think she’s going anywhere soon.
Jason Yormark: You’re always going to get people that say that I’ve had a few people here and there think that, you know, our name has something to do with socialism and I’m like, no, it’s just social media. So, you’re always going to have somebody that gives you a hard time about your name.
Lisa Miller: It’s a great name. I love your name.
Jason Yormark: Thank you. Well, we will put you know we’re going to put your information in the show notes. So, if you’re listening feel free to check out Lisa@ladybugz.com. Lisa, thanks for being in the show, covering out some time today. Really thrilled to have you on the show.
Lisa Miller: No I’m honored that you invited me on here, so thank you so much.
Jason Yormark: Awesome. Great. Thank you. And thank you to all of you that are listening, be sure to like share, subscribe, all that good stuff and we’ll catch you in the next episode of the anti-agency podcast. Thanks for listening.