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From Agency to Productized Service with Greg Hickman (Part 1 of 2)

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Picking a focus for your agency or consultancy will accelerate your ability to scale and automate parts of your business. Greg Hickman has done both, and he wants to help you to do the same thing in your business.

Mentioned in this episode:

Apply for a strategy session with Liston
System.ly
Infusionsoft
Active Campaign
Jeff Walker
Bonjoro
Schedule Once
ClickFunnels
SalesMessage

For more information on remote selling and a complete list of links mentioned in this podcast, visit this remote selling article on our website.


From Agency to Productized Service with Greg Hickman (Part 1 of 2):

Full Transcript

Liston Witherell:
Welcome to Modern Sales, a podcast for entrepreneurs, business owners, and salespeople looking to have more and better conversations with your perfect clients. You’ll get a healthy scoop of psychology, behavioral economics, and sales studies to help you create win-win relationships. I’m your host, Liston Witherell, and I’m pleased to welcome you to Modern Sales.

Liston Witherell:
And on today’s episode, I have Greg Hickman, one of the owners, wait, Greg, do you have a partner, or is it just you?

Greg Hickman:
I do not.

Liston Witherell:
You don’t. The owner. We have the man, Greg Hickman, the owner of System.ly. And I’ll be sharing all about kind of my deep dive into what he’s doing because I’ve taken a special interest in it, but Greg’s going to be sharing on today’s episode a little bit about how he’s built this business, how systems are such a critical component, and how you can use systems and automation in your business. Now, before we get to that, I do want to let you know if you’re looking to scale sales at your agency or your professional services business, hit me up. I’d love to chat. Go to liston.io/strategy. You can fill out, and Greg, you’d be very proud of me. You can fill out a strategy form, which I will evaluate before I talk to you. And then you can automate a booking which will automate emails to you. So that’s liston.io/strategy if you would like to chat with me. Greg, how are you today?

Greg Hickman:
I’m very good. Thanks for having me, man.

Liston Witherell:
Excellent. Yeah, I’m glad that you’re here. And for all of the wonderful people, my dear listeners, your dear listeners now. Tell us a little bit about you and how you got to be where you are now with System.ly.

Greg Hickman:
How far back do you want me to go?

Liston Witherell:
Take it all the way back to the day. So one thing you mentioned is that you used to be sort of in corporate and you went into development, like tell me what was your corporate job, and how did you make that transition?

Greg Hickman:
Yeah, so I come from big brand agency, part of Omnicom working with brands like Pepsi, Unilever, small cog in a big wheel. Is that right? Or a small wheel in a big cog?

Liston Witherell:
Small cog. Yeah. I think.

Greg Hickman:
Yeah, small cog in a big wheel. And then went to a smaller shop, did a couple of startups, and my last corporate gig was on the client side for a large retailer, Cabela’s, who just in the last I think year or two got acquired by Bass Pro Shops. So if you’re into hunting, fishing, camping, you would know exactly who I’m talking about. And really up until that point, I had a completely different focus expertise than I focus on now, which was within mobile marketing. So text message marketing, mobile apps, mobile websites, mobile commerce. Which in the retail space at that time was and is still very, very important. Slightly before I got to Cabela’s, I had started blogging and podcasting and speaking on mobile at a lot of the events where my now clients would attend. And created tons of amazing connections, sharing the message of mobile to a lot of people, and started doing a little bit of consulting here and there on the side.

Greg Hickman:
And I decided that I wanted to build out some solutions for the small retailer that wasn’t necessarily capitalizing on mobile. So we had a text message marketing platform for small retail companies that were actually in the outdoor space similar to Cabela’s, but independent, so to speak. And I was like the mobile guy, right, in my previous life, and in kind of building out my own business, learning about how to build a business online, et cetera. There was a lot of ups and downs, and I kind of just hit a wall where we couldn’t break past a certain revenue mark. And I was just really frustrated, really struggling. And at the time I had been using Infusionsoft for myself within like client onboarding and some of the sales process and stuff, mainly because a lot of the people that I followed within the online business sector were using it and recommended it.

Greg Hickman:
So I just started getting really good at it and became fascinated with it. And when I hit the wall, I was actually hosting a podcast with a buddy of mine at the time, it was called Zero to Scale. And around episode 50, he’s like, “Hey, well if you were to do something different, what would you do?” And I said, “You know what? If I had to do something different, I’d probably focus on automation. I’m fascinated by it. All of the types of people that I want to work with are using it.” So I was way more passionate about serving the online business person versus independent retail. And so, he basically challenged me. He’s like, “Well, go get three clients. If you can get three clients in the next 30 days, that will unlock your ability to think about it more.”

Greg Hickman:
He’s like, “You’ll overthink it if you think beyond that. So go get three clients.” In six days, I had seven clients. And I was like, “Oh, the pain is real.” One call closes versus six months to a year sales cycles. Within a matter of two months, I was making more money than I had been making in the previous mobile stuff. And that’s when I was faced with what I felt like was the most difficult challenge actually, which was like, “Man, this decade plus of experience in this arena that I’m essentially throwing away.” I’m not throwing away, but you know what I mean. To go do this thing that’s completely unknown. Obviously there’s more traction here already. And he basically said, “Do you want a real business, or do you want to be the mobile guy?” And I said, “I want a real business.”

Greg Hickman:
So I when all in on it, and fell in love with it even more. Had the chance to be behind the scenes of a lot of online influencers and entrepreneurs building out their systems. And started it off with sales funnels, and marketing funnels, and all that. I think we’ll talk about this later, but I really found way more opportunities to help people in the back side of their business in the fulfillment and operations side using automation as well. And then we started working with service providers that it kind of rang true even more, and became way more clear that you need to automate. It’s called marketing automation, but it really is just automation. You can use it in all areas of your business, not just sales and marketing but fulfillment, operations, et cetera, to really create a lot of efficiencies. And I just kept going down the rabbit hole of systems and automation, and we were essentially a done for you service provider, and then have kind of evolved into a training and coaching and implementation company.

Liston Witherell:
Okay. So hang on there, I want to come back to that. But one thing you said earlier was you had all this experience, you’re the mobile guy. And you said, or your friend challenged you, and thanks buddy, that was probably the best advice maybe you’ve ever gotten. Cheapest advice, certainly. He challenged you to go try something new. You mentioned that you were throwing away your experience. Now I agree with you when you corrected yourself, like of course you leveraged what you’d learned into the next thing, but take me back to that moment. What were you kind of thinking when you thought, “Okay, I’m going to have this divergent path now if I go into automation. Whereas before I was doing mobile marketing.” What were the risks there in your mind?

Greg Hickman:
Yeah, in reality, I don’t think any of the risks, they were just stories I was telling myself, but I had spent literally over 10 years in that space and developing some really cool things, and it just kind of felt like in big brand and big retail, everyone was already investing and diving into mobile. But coming from the background that I had, I just didn’t want to work with big brand and big agency. And so I wanted to help the smaller guys, but the smaller guys were still trying to figure out stuff way before mobile. So mobile was still like, I was way too early for them. So I was like, “Man, do I really want to wait this out? I’ve spent all of this time. It could only be another year or so of when they’re all kind of hip to the party and ready to jump in on mobile.”

Greg Hickman:
And at that point, I was like, “You know what, I’ve been banging my head against the wall long enough. I am interested in automation, and I do want to have a real business.” And I think it actually really came to when I said “If it wasn’t mobile, would I still be working with independent retail?” And the answer was no. And that was the aha moment of like, “What types of people do I want to work with?” And it was this online based entrepreneur that was kind of creating a business, work from anywhere, work from home, build a lifestyle that you want. That was the intriguing part. I was like, “Man, there’s something about these people that I’m interested in. It’d be awesome to work with people like that, that just got it.” And that was more of it. But yeah, I mean, literally everyone knew of me as the mobile guy, and I would speak on it. 14, 15 speaking gigs, getting on stages, having fun, meeting new people. But it wasn’t turning into revenue in any way, shape, or form. It was just a persona.

Liston Witherell:
Oh, interesting.

Greg Hickman:
And it was like, “All right, I just got to shed that persona to get to the next level.”

Liston Witherell:
Yeah. And so you said within seven days you had six clients. I’m guessing you had some relationships in place to facilitate that.

Greg Hickman:
Yes. That was huge. Right. So I’ve been speaking at all these events, building these amazing relationships with never asking for anything because I wasn’t targeting those people. They brought me on their podcasts, and I got to talk about mobile, and so their audiences got to hear my name. And then I went out to a couple friends that I knew were using it and I said, “Hey, if I can help you do this stuff with Infusionsoft, would you be open to a 90 day contract? Where I do X, Y, Z, you pay me this. And at the end of the three months, we can reevaluate.” And I got a handful of people to do that. And I kind of sold slightly different scope of work to each of them on purpose, because I didn’t know to what extent I wanted to do that for people, right?

Greg Hickman:
So I kind of wanted a little bit of variety knowing that hopefully by the end of three months I would walk out and say, “Okay, this is what I love about it, and this is what I hate about it. This is what I’m going to keep going forward with, and this is what I’m going to shed.” And that’s exactly what happened. And it allowed us to evolve really quickly. But yeah, I did have the ability to go and say, “Hey friend who has a group of a couple thousand Facebook users, would you throw out a message and say, is anyone interested in this sort of help?” And I was able to get two, three customers just from that message alone. So yes, definitely had the relationships, and it was massively helpful.

Liston Witherell:
No one has ever ended that sentence, “I had the relationship with, and it was horrible. There was no reason to have those. It was such a waste of time.”

Greg Hickman:
Yeah, totally.

Liston Witherell:
Okay, so you build this company now where you’re focused on automation, and you have clients, and that’s going really well, but you start to realize that what? What changed that led you into more of a coaching and training model?

Greg Hickman:
A couple things. One, lack of experience, I think, led me down a path where I built a service based model that was out of my control. If I tried to relaunch that style of delivery now, it would be completely different. We probably could keep growing, but what I felt in our process was a lot of these people hired us to build out these things using Infusionsoft in their business. And when you start to use a tool like in Infusionsoft, like in ActiveCampaign or whatever tool you use, they’re really the backbone of your business. And what we’ve found is becoming the person that was responsible for that in these clients’ businesses really was handcuffing them in a way that sucked for us. Because the word Infusionsoft comes up in a sentence, and now it’s our responsibility when some of these people were using Infusionsoft for five years before we even started supporting them.

Greg Hickman:
So there was stuff that we did not build that would break that was now on our plate, and it turned into we were troubleshooting a lot of stuff that we never built, but now we had to take ownership over. And it was sort of like we were like their internal Infusionsoft person, and I just felt like we’re becoming a glorified freelancer, and really just an employee of their business, or at least that’s how we got treated in a lot of cases. Which again, if I went back, I think I could have readjusted that, but I didn’t know any better at the time. That of waking up every day to fire drills, I was like, “This is not what I signed up for.” My analogy always is like, even though I don’t follow NASCAR, “There’s the guy that builds the engine. He’s not the guy that’s jumping over the wall in the middle of the race and changing tires, right? That’s the pit crew.”

Greg Hickman:
Like the day to day executional stuff. We didn’t want to be the day to day admin of the tool. We wanted to help build engines. We’d start off building engines, and it would turn into us becoming the admin. And so the evolution was, we were doing done for you. We realized that everything we sold was a retainer. And then we’re like, “All right, well, we noticed there was an 80 20, there are specific campaigns and automations that we’re constantly building. Let’s package those up and sell those as one off projects to inject some cashflow.” We started doing that, and we saw that that was selling way easier, and it was easier to deliver for us, because we could create systems around delivering the same thing over and over and over again.

Greg Hickman:
And we could essentially productize the different things that we were building. The webinar funnel, the Jeff Walker style launch program, whatever. That then led us to the next transition, which was while we were always done for you, we were never full service. So we never wrote copy, we never did the ads, we never did the design of landing pages. We were always the automation, and the connecting it to all of those other things. The types of people we worked with, they had copywriters, or they wrote their own copy. They had their landing pages. Those weren’t needs that they had. So we were always just the automation element, and bringing it all together. And so what ended up happening was we’d sell a project, we’d sell like a webinar funnel, and we’d be like, “Hey, here’s the copy that we need, right? We need three emails here, five emails here.”

Greg Hickman:
We’d even give them samples, and it would take 90 to sometimes a year to get the elements that we needed from them. And by that time, the scope changed. They didn’t want to do it anymore, and it just created a lot of mess. And I was like, “We systematize it to the point where our work could be done in three or so business days from the receipt of what we needed from them, and the only variable is how long it took for us to get that thing.” And so then we realized giving kind of just this open ended, “Hey, get it to us whenever” sort of thing, even though we challenged them to get it to us quickly, their business, things happened, and it just got delayed. It got delayed, it got delayed.

Greg Hickman:
And we had literally one client that took a year to get us like seven emails. Then I was like, “Well, why don’t we just make this into a done with you experience so we can serve many people going through this exact same thing, delivering the exact same thing. We give them the templates for the copy, and we just show them how to insert the copy into the finished piece. So we do our piece, they get a piece of training that shows them how to copy and paste into the tool of their choice. And now it’s like, whenever they’re done with their copy, they’re done. But we can wipe our hands and move on to the next person.” And that’s kind of what evolves. Like, sweet. Going from one to one to one to many doesn’t change anything. It’s still the exact same process for us.

Greg Hickman:
And that’s when it became apparent, one, that that’s possible, and it’s way easier for us and clients. Actually, the real benefit is they understand the engine that they now have because they had to go in there. Even the simplest thing of putting their own copy in, they have a better idea as to how it works. And so when it breaks, or they change something down the road, they at least understand the plumbing, because they’re the ones that are going to be responsible for the day to day, and we are not. So that’s when it kind of clicked. I don’t necessarily want to be a full on done for you ever. Everything we do is very done with you. We give you a lot of the stuff already built, and then we just customize it and tweak based on your business. And what that does for us is, well, it enables the client to know how this important piece of their business operates, and also so that they can hand it off to somebody else.

Greg Hickman:
And we actually even help with that process too, because the owner in most cases isn’t the one doing it. It was like, “Okay, done for you packages delivered through one-on-one. Okay, we can deliver the same package one to many, and now we only need some specific training and resources to help them finish it off. And it’s more scalable for us. It’s faster for them to get live. And they actually know more about how it works, that they feel more confident in their business. And it kind of felt like a win for everybody.

Liston Witherell:
Well, I think one additional thing that you didn’t mention there, which is in your favor is, when clients sign up for this one to many model where they’re getting training, plus some coaching with you, and a little bit of hand holding, but maybe in a group setting, it also has the benefit of having an expiration date. So they have more urgency now to do it. They’re not going to say, “Hey Greg, hold on. It’s going to take me 12 months to get you these seven emails.”

Greg Hickman:
Exactly. Yeah, that definitely created some more urgency as well.

Liston Witherell:
I had a guy on last week, his name’s Chris Martinez who runs DUDEAgency.io, and he kind of went the opposite direction of you. So he seeing some of the problems that you’re talking about, but rather than focusing on, “Okay, how do we deliver strategy in a one to many setting at scale?”, he instead shifted towards, “How can I just do the hands work, the actual implementation, and grow a team overseas?” And I’m curious, why did you make the decision to focus on strategy rather than just building a team of doers who could continue to give you that subscription income?

Greg Hickman:
If you’re familiar with like WP Curve?

Liston Witherell:
Yes.

Greg Hickman:
One of the original productized services, you know, now like a design pickle.

Liston Witherell:
Yeah. Alex is a friend of mine.

Greg Hickman:
Yeah. We were trying to create the WP Curve for Infusionsoft users, which there are a couple now that kind of exist. We had some overseas team. I just felt like the type of clients we were working with, it was more about the strategic implementation than it was the hands to keyboard. Nowadays, wallet’s extremely valuable that I can import any campaign to my clients 85% done. So I don’t need to have people overseas. Literally any type of automation that you would use in the platforms that we support, it’s 85% done. All the tags, the timers. If you want to add an email here or there, it doesn’t break anything. It’s really just, “Where’s the content, and where are the landing pages, and how do we connect them?” I just felt like it wasn’t really necessary to go have a team. If there’s someone that wants to go support that ongoing, totally cool.

Greg Hickman:
I do think there’s a place for it. It just wasn’t the model that I wanted. Being a marketer and coming from the background that I came from, while I love the systems and the automation piece, it’s the “How do you use it to achieve a goal?” And that’s the strategic part that still fascinates me. And that’s kind of why I feel like you look at, and no disrespect to any of these people, because I love them. There’s a lot of people that are certified partners in these automation tools that are great implementers, but they’ll never build a business, right? They’ll always be able to execute on someone else’s vision. Whereas I can hear what your problem is, and I can create the solution, and then find other people with that solution. And that’s more of an exciting business for me.

Greg Hickman:
You can always find someone, and I don’t want to necessarily say it’s commoditized, because, I mean it is commoditized, but there are not that many good people that are out there, I think, that are combining the strategy and the implementation that you can get both of those in one place. And I think we’ve packaged it up nicely that works for our type of client. They want to know what’s going on, and they want to be able to have someone in their business manage it versus external. Again, these tools are a core piece of your business. And the types of clients that we work with, and even big agency, and if anyone is listening that comes from agency, at Cabela’s, we would pay the best agencies, and we would literally have them write into our contract that they have to teach us what they’re doing so that we don’t need them anymore within a year.

Greg Hickman:
I do think that the business owner that wants to create the team and grow something that’s big and not this full on freelancer contract deal, will want this stuff internally, and it will benefit to have it internally. And those are the types of people that we want to work with anyway. We know it should be managed internally if you want the best results. I don’t think that sort of solution is going to be what you want. When you’re outsourcing to people overseas, the delay could cost you a lot of money.

Liston Witherell:
Yeah, totally. I think the delay is a big thing. That’s one thing that I’ve found with my own outsourcing is there’s a loss of immediacy, and there’s a loss, often of just sort of rapport, which it’s hard to quantify that, but it means that you’re not clicking quite as much.

Greg Hickman:
Yeah. It depends on the type of business you run, but what we’ve seen is when you work with providers like that, some are really good. I don’t know anything about this agency that you’re talking about, but the dream, or I think the initial selling point is that someone is doing it for you, right? But when that person’s not available and something needs to be done, and you don’t know how to do it yourself, you could be in a bad situation. And we’ve had clients that lost hundreds of thousands of dollars due to that situation alone.

Greg Hickman:
It’s like, “Oh, this person’s overseas, it’s their weekend. They’re not checking in.” When you have the service that has a lot of these constraints, and I’m not saying overwork your employees either, but when you have your own team, typically the team is bought into the vision that if there’s a fire drill, all hands on deck and they’re jumping in, and the problem can get fixed. When you’re just paying a service provider who has their own schedule and you’re one of many clients, those things probably won’t happen. Unless you’re paying some sort of extra service fee and these people are on demand, which no service like that I think is really, while they might promote it that way, is actually doing that. So I think you just kind of expose yourself. So again, depends on how you operate your business, and how you’re using these tools, and how planned out you are, for sure. But yeah, there’s benefits to both.

Liston Witherell:
I agree with that. And I would always favor building the business that you’re building, where it’s much more on the strategy and sort of the, “I’m building intellectual property that’s associated with me, and people get to know me for something.” Which has all kinds of other benefits and leverage in the future. So I want to talk about, speaking of IP, how you think about automation, and how you teach your clients to use automation in their businesses. But we’re going to keep the listeners on hold. So hit subscribe. If you’re not subscribed, tune in tomorrow for part two of my conversation with Greg, where he’ll be telling you everything he knows, I’m exaggerating, but the good stuff, he’ll tell you the good stuff about what he knows about automation. We’ll see you then.

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