This month’s career transition interview is with Corrie Jones. Corrie quit her job in higher education to set up Untapped Digital, a London-based social media agency offering social media services to clients around the world.
Corrie shares how she threw herself into working for herself quite ‘blindly’, finding herself on that first day of sitting at her computer to work on her business asking, “Now what??” It was an incredibly steep learning curve from the start; the biggest lesson? That there’s no such thing as perfect.
Watch the full interview or read the transcript below.
How to run your own agency
Corrie Jones was working at a university, managing their social media in an environment that was pretty focused on print and other traditional marketing channels. She ‘naively’ took the leap to found Untapped Digital, a London-based social media agency offering social media services to clients around the world.
1) At what moment did you decide it was time for a change?
Anna: For this month’s Fearless Fridays. I’m here with Corrie Jones. Corrie, why don’t we dive straight into it and you tell us what you were doing before and what you’re doing today?
Corrie: Let’s do it. Before I started my business, I was working in higher education. I used to work at a university managing their social media channels. It was very much still focused on kind of print marketing and old school methods of marketing, quite a slow-moving place to be. I made the leap to start a social media agency called Untapped Digital, which is what I spend my time doing now.
Anna: Amazing. Sounds very straightforward. What was it that led you to make the change and start your own agency?
Corrie: Yeah, I mean definitely not as straightforward as it sounds, I’m sure. I wasn’t 100% happy working in a nine to five environment. It was quite restrictive in terms of being able to work from home and kind of the development and everything in that role wasn’t where I wanted it to be. Increasingly, I just felt like there’s much more out there that I could be doing. I think I kind of naively went into starting a business because I knew I could manage social media accounts, because that’s what I’d been doing in my day-to-day role, I didn’t think about anything else that went into running a business really. I’d never done anything business like before or studied business or done anything kind of entrepreneurial. I jumped in kind of blindly thinking I’d figure it out as I went, which I did, but definitely not as straightforward, I think, as it can sometimes seem. There’s a lot that goes into it always.
Anna: Sometimes it can be good to be naive, right? Because if we knew everything that it took, we probably wouldn’t take the leap in the first place. It’s good to be prepared, but sometimes a little bit of lack of knowledge, a little bit of ignorance might help.
Corrie: Yeah, completely. I said that to people before actually that I think if I knew everything then now and if I had a real accurate idea of how hard it was going to be, I probably would’ve been less likely to jump in and do it. I think it was good to be naive in a way. It makes it a very steep learning curve, but I guess that it really is the only way to learn things like that.
2) What was the biggest challenge you faced in making the change?
Anna: Okay. We’ll explore a bit more about that in a moment, but what was the steep learning curve? What were the biggest challenges would you say, in terms of both kind of, I guess, leaving, making the decision and then getting the business up and running?
Corrie: Yeah. I mean firstly leaving, it was tricky to set a real deadline for when I wanted that to happen, because it’s not like where you’re going from one job to another and you’ve got a month’s notice period. It’s more kind of traditional and clear of how that will work. I think when you’re moving from a nine to five to setting up a business, there’s so many more unknowns and it’s much… Or I at least found it much harder to set a very clear timeline for that.
Corrie: What I actually did to kind of force myself to quit was I booked a trip to go to a tech conference that I didn’t have the annual leave allowance for. I knew that I at least needed to give my notice a month before that conference was coming up. Otherwise, it would just roll around if I hadn’t got up the courage to give my notice by that point, I just wouldn’t be able to go to the conference. Definitely that conversation with my manager, he was like, “Oh that’s very brave.” It was kind of a subtext of maybe like little bit, “Have you kind of thought this through?” That was tricky.
Corrie: Mainly the trickiest thing, I would say, was once I started, I remember that first week of running a business, I kind of sat down on the Monday at 9:00 AM and I was like, “So what do I do now?” You’re just completely figuring out what that looks like for you and everything that you need to be doing and focusing on and how to get clients, how to work with those clients, how to service those clients, how to deal with conflicts with those clients. Absolutely everything was you’re just learning it for the first time. The steep learning curve came in those moments and those days where I didn’t know exactly what to be working on and had to completely think of that from scratch and then make it work and learn very quickly from where it wasn’t working to kind of know what to do next time differently.
Anna: How long did it take you, would you say, from sort of sitting down that first Monday morning going, “Okay, I have a business,” to feeling really… I guess you never get completely comfortable, but at least getting into a routine and having that consistent income.
Corrie: Yeah. I always feel like every day that I wake up and run the business, I always feel like it’s the first day of doing it in the sense that I feel like I learn so much every day that I’m like, “How was I managing yesterday when I didn’t know this piece of information that I do know today?” Which is quite nice in a sense because you feel like you’re always learning and developing. In terms of a consistent income, so I started the business in October 2016, and I got a client in March of 2017, something, that got me back up to the point of a monthly income that I was at previously in my job.
Corrie: I’d always set that as a goal for myself, “I just want to replace my income from before,” but then I kind of realised that I was thinking quite small and actually, with a business, you can go far above and beyond that. That was how long it took to kind of get to the same point as being in my job, but now [inaudible 00:05:31] far exceed and surpass that financially.
Anna: Amazing. It’s quite arbitrary isn’t it? Trying to match your salary. It could be a really high salary, in which case maybe you don’t need that much, or it could be a lowish pretty arbitrary salary that someone has set for you. It’s interesting because it sounds like it’s the other side of the coin in each case. It’s the autonomy that we dream of, but that doesn’t mean that you then have to get up and direct yourself. There’s no boss telling you what to focus on and there’s no sort of blueprint to follow and there’s no structure at all. There’s a learning curve, which is really exciting, but it also means that you’re constantly sort of a little bit flying free and not quite sure what’s going on.
Corrie: Yeah, completely. I mean I definitely went from one extreme to the other in that I left my previous job because there wasn’t the autonomy I was looking for, there wasn’t the development that I was looking for. Now what I’m doing, there’s so much autonomy and so much development that that almost then becomes the scary thing within itself, that you go from one end to the other. I’m definitely more comfortable now at this end of things where you are figuring out for yourself what that looks like. The possibilities are kind of limitless in the sense of what you can do, which I think to some is a bit scary and overwhelming and definitely a lot of days it can feel that way. I find it much more empowering than being in a job that you’re not enjoying where your possibilities are a bit more limited.
Anna: 100%. I guess it’s almost three years now since that first regular client. Are there any new challenges that have reared their ugly heads now that you’re a bit more into sort of further along in the business?
Corrie: Yeah. I mean, yeah, now that there’s a team involved, obviously managing people becomes a whole kind of thing unto itself. The bigger that you get and the more kind of we develop as a company, the bigger kind of client projects that we’re taking on. I think the more that you’ve got going on at any one time almost becomes the issue. It’s ironic because two, three years ago, I’d have a couple of clients and I’d be like, “Oh, I want more. I need more to be going on here.” Now, it’s almost like, “There’s too much, there’s too much.” Your to-do list just gets so long and feels kind of immeasurable as to how much you could get done. I think my perspective on the challenges is much more different now to what it used to be.
Corrie: I used to, when I first started the business, I was such a perfectionist. I’ve heard a lot of founders say this actually, that they thought they wanted everything to be a certain way and they felt like, “Oh, I can’t do this yet because I haven’t finished my website. Or I can’t contact that client because I haven’t perfected how my personal brand looks.” All these different kind of excuses they are really, at the end of the day, that we make for ourselves and why we can’t get further ahead. Actually, running a business has been the biggest lesson in that perfect just completely does not exist. There’s nothing in the world that could be perfect.
Corrie: You could spend months and months and months doing something and it still wouldn’t be perfect to everyone. Everything that’s happening now at the moment with coronavirus is a great example. We’ve had client projects that we’ve been working with people set to launch or release this week or in the next few weeks, and then you have to scrap things and change plans and everything because you know it’s not the right time to release them. I think you just learn very quickly that mistakes are there to be made. Mistakes actually help what you’re doing, because you learn more from mistakes than you do from when things are going well because that feedback is exactly what you need.
Anna: That’s very true. If it goes too well too soon, then you’re quite lucky and then you get further along and then you crash and burn, it’s probably better to sort of learn organically along the way. Have you read the book, The Company of One? I just read it last month. It talks about the fact that you shouldn’t just set the minimum income that you want, but actually a maximum too. As you said, you might be growing too big and actually that’s not part of your vision for how you want your business and life to be.
Corrie: Oh wow, that’s interesting. No, I haven’t read it, but it sounds similar to a book that I read recently by the founders of Basecamp called It Doesn’t Have to Be Crazy at Work. They’ve done something similar in that they’re going up against all these big, big Silicon Valley companies and they have said, “Actually we don’t want to do things that way. We don’t want to grow that quickly. We want to protect our team, protect everyone’s wellbeing and mental health and everything like that.” They’ve put some really interesting policies in place that enable them to grow at that steady pace. They didn’t actually have any plans for revenue goals or anything like that, but I’ll have to check out that book too. That sounds interesting.
Anna: Basecamp was one of the examples he put forward actually, so that’s interesting. In terms of the team, was that an organic thing that just happened? Or was that a very intentional choice that you really wanted to have a company with a team, office and all these things from the beginning?
Corrie: [inaudible 00:10:12] work on a day rate [inaudible 00:10:14] quite small and I’d seen [inaudible 00:10:18] and all of this and I thought, I could get on board with that. Then, kind of quickly I realised that it was a lot of work to [inaudible 00:10:32] level, which meant it couldn’t just be me managing things. Again, with that kind of perfectionist tendency that I had at the start, it was quite difficult the first time that I was outsourcing a task and I was outsourcing something that used to be something that I worked on. I think it’s different maybe if you’re outsourcing for a skillset that you don’t have.
Corrie: When you’re outsourcing for a skillset where you do have, and that was a task that you were doing for clients before and then you’re asking someone else to do it, it was definitely a challenge in how you delegate that and manage that person. It started, in terms of growing the team, it started because it got to the stage where I was like, “I cannot do everything in a day here. I’m limiting where the business could get to by acting like I can get all of that done. It needs to be other people working on it as well.”
3) Where did you get the support you needed to make it happen?
Anna: Okay. Where have you got the support along the way? Has it just been learning by doing and trial and error and making lots of mistakes and finding a way around it, or what have you been doing to get the support you need at the different stages of your business?
Corrie: Definitely learning by doing is a massive, massive part of how we do things. Like I said, I’ve never studied a business course, I’ve never kind of done anything particularly formally in terms of learning how to run a business. It has just been seeking advice from the right people at the right time for the stage of business that I’m at. Sometimes I think it can be difficult to find those right people who are good to give you that advice at that time, so that can be tricky. When you do find someone who either perhaps runs a similar business or has a business in a similar industry or at a similar stage to you, it can be really invaluable to get their viewpoint and words of wisdom on what to do at that stage.
Corrie: I also read a lot, and actually my 2020 new year’s resolution was to read more, but I read a lot of business books or articles or watch videos. Kind of where I feel like my knowledge or skillset is lacking in a certain area, I will seek out different resources specifically on that topic rather than just kind of on all business topics because I think that can be quite overwhelming. It’s good to think to yourself specifically, what’s the issue that I’m having today or this week at this moment in time and who’s the best person to learn from to get over that issue?
Anna: I think that’s a really good piece of advice. I think no one’s ever said that, but I think it’s such a key one because it’s so easy to join a membership group with all these courses and to read all the books and to follow all the emails. I did this right at the beginning, five, six years ago, and actually you sort of read it, you read the stuff, you watch it, and then you just feel overwhelmed. Whereas actually if you go, “Hang on a second. At the moment, the focus is to reach people or to build the brand or whatever it is,” and then you can speak to the right people and so on, so that sounds like a much more focused, sensible way to do it.
Corrie: Yeah, completely. I think there’s so much information out there now on how to do these things and if you let the information come to you, it’s sometimes just not the right time when you need that information. I always find that if I check my emails first thing in the morning, which potentially is a habit to get out of anyway, but then you might read an email from a brand that says, “10 ways to improve your SEO,” and then instantly I’m like, “Oh gosh, we’re not doing much with SEO. Should I look into SEO more?” Then, you’re reading this blog they’ve put together like, “Oh wow, we’re not doing any of this.” It doesn’t mean that it’s not good information to learn, but actually was it top of your priority list for that day? No, not at all. Is it going to move the needle the most?
Corrie: Really, every day, I think the way that I find to grow quickest is to think what will actually move the needle today and not just do this kind of busy work that makes you feel like you’re making progress. Actually, what’s the task you need to be doing that will mean that tomorrow you’re slightly closer to where you want to be in business? Sometimes it is this busy work with thinking of things like SEO or perfecting the website and everything like that that definitely, in running an agency, the things that we do to move the needle are actually emailing potential clients or getting on the phone to people and trying to book in new contracts. It’s not necessarily the work that people want to do, because the SEO and the web and everything is more kind of the pretty keep busy work, but that’s what you actually need to do to make progress that day.
Anna: It’s the pretty work. It’s the comfortable work. You do it behind the scenes and, as you say, it’s tempting because some guru has said you’ve got to these things and we’re not doing any of these things and so on. Actually, the uncomfortable work of picking up the phone, talking to someone the old school way is actually more effective.
Corrie: Completely, completely. That is what most of my day-to-day is now is that sales and business development side of the business, which three years ago if you’d said, “Oh, sales is such a massive part of your business,” I would have said, “No, it’s not. I’m a social media consultant. I don’t do sales.” I really, really hated it. Now I’ve come to accept that is, if you’re running an agency and you are in that business development role, sales is what you do really.
Corrie: A lot of people don’t like picking up the phone to someone they’ve never spoken to before and explaining a service to them and pitching them that service and all of that side of things that goes into it. Actually, that will definitely, I guarantee, be much more effective if you’re an agency owner than reading a blog post about SEO and convincing yourself that’s the strategy to have for that day.
Anna: A little bit off topic but since you’re talking about this, I’m curious, what do you do then? Are you cold calling? Have you done research? Have you done lots of work on understanding exactly the type of companies that you want to be working with?
Corrie: We don’t do that much cold calling. We do emailing and LinkedIn messaging. Then, offline, we do quite a lot of either speaking at events, where it’s maybe a co-working space that’s hosting them and we’ll come along and speak to that audience about how to use social media for their business, or where we’re not speaking at the event, I’m just kind of in the audience where I think it’s an audience who would potentially be a good fit for us to work with as an agency. I’ll meet people and interact with them in person there. I think that mixture of having that online activity and that offline activity works really well for us.
Corrie: We’re still quite lucky that we get a lot of referrals through from past clients or old colleagues or people that just kind of know of us and have worked with us and had a great experience. They want to recommend other people, which is always a great way to bring new clients in because you’ve immediately got… That relationship is slightly more built up than if it’s just someone that you’re messaging on LinkedIn or cold emailing out of the blue.
4) What’s the best part of your lifestyle today?
Anna: Okay. You talked about the autonomy and the challenge that was missing from your past work. What are the best things about your work and life now? Do you have all the things you were dreaming of? Are there unexpected sides that are even better than you thought? What’s it like now? What are the best parts of what you’re doing?
Corrie: Well, there’s so many unexpected sides. Like I said, because I kind of so naively started a business, I don’t ever recall actually sitting down to think about what it would be like running a business and kind of the stress or bad sides of that. The good things are, I think, I’m just so much more excited to work on what I work on every day. There’s such a pride you get from building something ground up and looking at everything that happens with it and thinking, there was a stage where this was just an idea in my head and now it’s actually happening.
Corrie: I think more so the most exciting thing to me is just the possibilities of where it could go and knowing that that is completely on your shoulders and what you put into it is what you get back from it. Because with previous roles and jobs I’ve had, I never felt like what I put into it was what I got back out. You could be sat in the office working until 10:00 PM trying to get something done in a nine to five environment and you might get kind of a well done or something like that, but you didn’t, or the roles that I was in, you didn’t get a financial reward for that, you didn’t get a promotion or anything kind of extra.
Corrie: I think now at least I know that the time and the effort you put in, you are building something that you know will kind of last and will provide. I think that’s the really exciting thing and the pace at which it moves as well, that you can think of an idea and then implement it in the business and that can have real impact, I think, is fun to play around with for sure.
5) What one piece of advice would you give to someone who is considering making a big career or lifestyle change?
Anna: Mm-hmm (affirmative), mm-hmm (affirmative). I know you’ve already given us a few tidbits of tips, but what key advice would you give someone who’s at the stage maybe of feeling they’re looking for more autonomy, maybe particularly now in quite a difficult climate, what would you say in terms of how… Would you go into the business naively, as you did, or would you give some more advice on maybe you should sit down and think these things through a bit more?
Corrie: Yeah, I mean I think hindsight’s a wonderful thing now. I would definitely start things up differently. I think as a solo founder, I’m always really intrigued as to what it would be like to have had a co-founder. Then, I think potentially you might move a bit more quickly than I did because obviously you’ve got double the resource immediately of someone to work on it, but you’ve also got someone to bounce ideas off with and you’ve got different complementary skillsets that you can use to grow that.
Corrie: We also never sought funding, it was just completely self-funded from kind of savings that I’d had from a previous job. With the type of business it was, I had me, I had my laptop, that was all we really needed at the start to get things going. It wasn’t particularly… There was no kind of investment that I needed to make really. From the start, it was just as clients started paying invoices, that was the money that was in the business bank account. Were I to do things again, I don’t know whether I would go and seek investment so that I could get staff from the start and have an office and go after kind of bigger client contracts from the start rather than grow it over the three years.
Corrie: I think I would advise if someone is thinking of starting a business or wants a bit more autonomy, do have a look at the numbers, do look into whether it’s the right time to start for you. Also, I think don’t kind of talk yourself out of it before you’ve given it a go. I think because if you think about it too much, like you said, sometimes naivety is a good thing because it means that at least you do jump in and get started. If you’re too kind of logical and well-researched, I’d say there’s an argument for it starting to look a bit impossible on paper.
Corrie: Sometimes it’s not how it stacks up on paper which is what will make it work, it’s the grit and the determination and the hard work that you’re going to bring to it is actually what will make it work. I think keep that spark alive, but perhaps look into it a tad more than I did because I was like, “Yeah, running a business, cool,” and jumped straight in.
Anna: I love that. As you said at the beginning as well, this perfectionism that we have, it’s just not possible to control every element. Even if you have the most beautiful business plan, and I’m all for visions and strategies and business plans, but that’s going to probably evolve in many different ways when you actually get out there and see what happens and these unexpected things that come along. I think great to do some thinking and look at the numbers, as you said, but there is a point at which you just have to start trying and talking, picking up that phone as you had to do and seeing what happens in the real world.
Corrie: Yeah, exactly. Time is the most valuable resource that we’ve got and you don’t want to waste it. You could spend years and years and years on this amazing business idea or writing the most perfect business plan, and actually there’ll be some elements [inaudible 00:22:04] even I’m like, “Oh we could tweet this, we could tweet this.” You learn so much from actually speaking to your clients and working with them. You can’t write a business plan that works without having spoken to the audience that you’re going to be selling or selling to in that business. The best thing to do is learn by doing and make those mistakes so that you can say, “Yeah, that was not the best way of doing it. Let’s try it again this way.” At least you’re doing it from learned experience rather than just being sat with a bit of paper, thinking about the best way to do it.
Anna: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Perfect, well, congratulations on coming so far. I’m really happy that you’ve been able to grow the business so much and excited to see what happens in the future. Where can we find you? Where can we find out more about your agency on social? Where’s your website? Where can we find [inaudible 00:22:52].
Corrie: Yeah, sure. Our website is www.untappeddigital.co, C-O. On social, you can find us everywhere by searching Untapped Digital and we will pop up.
Anna: Perfect. Thank you so much for your time and, yeah, look forward to seeing how the business evolves in the coming years.
Corrie: Amazing. Thank you. Thanks so much for having me. It was great to chat with you.