The Insider Series: Q&A with Bob Ruffolo, IMPACT Branding & Design

By | July 12, 2012
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Bob RuffoloThis post is part of the Insider Series, which is designed to feature professionals in our industry, offer business insight and discover new paths in the agency world.

Bob Ruffolo (@BobRuffolo) is the founder and CEO of IMPACT Branding & Design, an inbound marketing agency in Wallingford, CT. Bob has more than 10 years experience in online marketing and strategy development. Since founding IMPACT in 2009, he has overseen its growth and development to a thriving 10-person firm.

Marketing Agency Insider spoke with Bob about his agency’s services, pricing, technologies, hiring strategies and more.

Q&A with Bob Ruffolo

MAI: What are the origins of IMPACT Branding and Design? 

IMPACT Branding & DesignBob: IMPACT started out as a very small web design and Internet marketing business out of my condo. Previously, I had worked for a local manufacturing company called Component Engineers doing all of its marketing in-house. At the same time, the president of the company was also having me do websites for his buddies on the side.

After racking up about ten freelance clients, I knew it was time to make the leap. My boss was very cool about it; let me go, and was my first retainer client. I recruited a long-time friend, Will Shay, to go in with me and provide the $25,000 financial backing needed to start up.

Within the first six months of being in business, we were already in need of help. We ran interviews out of my condo kitchen. The first employee we hired was Tom DiScipio (@TomDiScipio). He accepted a part-time position, leaving behind a full-time position with benefits. Shortly thereafter, we moved into our first office, a small 750-square-foot studio in downtown Wallingford, CT.

Together, we molded the company to what it is today with ten employees. We recently expanded into our new 2,600-square-foot location. Tom DiScipio is now a partner in the company.

MAI: What are your core service offerings? 

Bob: About nine months ago, we decided to make the investment to convert into an inbound marketing agency. After speaking with Kevin Linehan (@kevlinehan) and Pete Caputa (@pc4media) at HubSpot, it appeared that inbound marketing and HubSpot would be a natural fit for our agency.

We were already offering all of the services of the inbound marketing methodology at one level or another, but never as a complete marketing solution. Today, we are primarily focused on providing a complete Internet marketing solution to help businesses generate traffic, leads and sales. Almost every client we target is a good fit for the inbound marketing methodology and HubSpot software.

MAI: Your inbound marketing services are structured in packages with a set monthly price. What factors went into this pricing decision, and how do you ensure services are profitable?

Bob: Yes, we have made the transition to be more focused on retainer clients. When we started, everything was project based with a fixed price. This was good to get started, but I was under-quoting and not setting proper expectations for my clients.

We then moved to an hourly model with a flat agency hourly rate of $75 per hour. This worked for us for a little while when it was mostly just Tom and myself doing the work. But as we grew, we identified that our hourly billing model was somewhat broken.

The main reason for this is that not all of our client's requirements were worth the same hourly rate. Also, with such a young staff on hand at the time, there was a lot of training involved in each new project that resulted in many, many hours that we were unable to bill for

Now, our agency is completely focused on signing up retainer clients. We have also identified new hourly rates for all of our services. If I have a task that requires one of my top talents to complete the work, we charge more per hour for that task. If it's a task that one of my younger team members can complete just as fast as one of my top team members, I charge less per hour.

However, what really matters is the client's monthly retainer investment and what services they need to get the most out of their investment. So, together with the client on a monthly basis, we allocate their budget to the tasks that are going to help them generate real results

And since we're working on a retainer model, tracking time is actually more important than it is in a billable hour model. We've implemented a task management and time tracking system called Intervals. As soon as we allocate the client's budget, the tasks and time are entered into Intervals and assigned to an IMPACT team member. It is the responsibility of the employee to make sure that they are completing the task within the budget and to their best ability for the client. This helps us ensure profitability for IMPACT as well as accuracy on deliverables to our clients.

We will soon be implementing a reward program for our employees who consistently complete tasks within budget, accurately report their time, and meet all of the client's requirements for ROI. 

This has proven to be the best model thus far for many reasons. The first being that we are able to set fair expectations on the work were doing. Having a monthly contract also allows us to reallocate hours on a monthly basis to the tasks that are going to prove the largest ROI for our clients. And lastly, it provides our agency with revenue predictability so that I can be more confident when making hiring and investment decisions.

MAI: What does a typical inbound marketing project look like? Do you have a set process you follow with clients?

Bob: A typical program for us has two parts, a start-up phase and a monthly retainer phase. We'll usually spend the first month of a program creating a gameplan in which we will analyze the client's current marketing and develop strategies for improvement.

Upon mutual acceptance of what is required to meet their objectives, we delegate the start-up tasks between IMPACT and the client, as well as set deadlines for completion. Start up typically includes tasks such as website redesign, initial SEO research, initial development of premium content, creation of branded artwork, and so on.

Every client has different requirements, so it is critically important that we perform our analysis and develop a strategy based around each client's identified objectives. We then take a look at all of the start-up tasks delegated to IMPACT and mutually agree on budgets. This allows us to set fair expectations.

Within the first 12 weeks of the program, all the tasks required for start-up are completed, and we transition to our monthly retainer services. Using Intervals, the client has access to see what IMPACT team member is assigned to the task, when they will be working on the task, and the time associated with each task. This promotes a transparent working relationship.

We follow similar steps for retainer months, and set monthly expectations on a month-by-month basis. Throughout the process, we pay close attention to key marketing metrics and benchmarks to ensure that we are improving on a monthly basis and reaching the agreed-upon benchmarks. It's all about client ROI.

MAI: Your agency does not participate in RFPs. Why? What is your preferred approach to new business opportunities? 

Bob: Our company has never been successful with RFPs. We found that the decision maker on RFPs is a hired buyer that is mostly interested in price

Before modifying our sales process, we used to create blind contracts on what we thought the client needed, and our close rates were very low. We also used to make presentations to boards, and pitch them a solution. Sometimes, we would even go as far as developing creative along with other agencies for the client to select their favorite. What a waste of time! We don't believe in any of these sales models any more.

We prefer going through our sales process, which is a much better solution to RFP and pitches. Our process involves us qualifying the client as a fit for our services, identifying their needs and objectives, deciding if we can help them reach their objectives, providing a solution to their challenges, agreeing to a partnership, then writing a contract that we know will be signed. It's just been a lot more successful for us.

MAI: What technologies are critical to your agency’s success (i.e. time tracking, project management, marketing automation, etc.)?

Bob:

  • HubSpot: This is one of the most important tools we use. HubSpot allows us deliver more services and greater results in less time and cost for our clients. It is also a critical tool we use for our own lead generation.
  • Intervals: As discussed earlier, we use Intervals to assign client tasks and track time. 
  • Salesforce: Our CRM. We have it connected to HubSpot to transfer leads, lead intelligence and closed-loop reporting.
  • Highrise by 37 Signals: Used to track all of the notes for our clients.
  • Quickbooks Online: Accounting and invoicing.
  • GoToMeeting: Web conferencing.
  • Google Apps: Email and calendar.
  • Themeforest: Website templates and themes.
  • Adobe Creative Cloud: Photoshop, Illustrator and Dreamweaver.
  • Wordpress: When I need more CMS power than HubSpot offers.
  • Media Piston: Outsourced blog articles and content creation.
  • ODesk: Outsourced programming and code troubleshooting.
  • VPN: Remote access to our files.

MAI: IMPACT Branding & Design recently relocated its office. What advice do you have for other agency leaders who are also looking to expand their space?

Bob:

  • Avoid cubicles and offices. An open work area saves space and promotes a creative and collaborative work environment.
  • Choose a location that fits within your growth plan. If you are planning on doubling your agency in five years, ensure you have space to do so.
  • You want your employees to feel at home and comfortable in their work environment, so try to find a location that they will enjoy. In this industry, it's normal to work long hours. You want them to enjoy their time there. 
  • Don't choose a location next to a day care or a train station. Mistakes I've learned from my first lease.

MAI: Who is your ideal hire; what do you look for in new employees? 

Bob: Young entrepreneurs. I am looking for individuals to join our team that have a desire to help us take our agency to the next level. I also need employees that complement my management style. I'm a creative and passionate individual with a ton of crazy ideas, but I am not the most organized. Employees that do well in our system are organized, take and record good notes, and work quickly and efficiently. 

Occasionally, we are looking to bring on game-changing talent, but right now, we are grooming most of our own talent from within.

MAI: How do you maintain a positive culture and enjoyable work environment? 

Bob: You're in the foxhole with your team, and it's critically important that everyone maintains a close-knit and collaborative attitude to ensure that all client requirements are met, deadlines aren't missed, mistakes aren't made, and we're proving an ROI for our clients.

The only way you get this kind of dedication from your employees is if you empower them as key members of the big picture. When they understand that, they'll be happy to do whatever it takes to build the agency. You also have to lead by example. I never take a day off, and I'm often the first one in and the last one out. You never want to lose the respect of your employees. 

On the other hand, you have to be fair. When an employee needs to work from home or is plain old mental blocked, you have to understand and work through it with them.

Lastly, you need to ensure a team/family environment. They team at IMPACT all gets along very well and will often hang out outside of work. We also do a weekly lunch called "Fiesta Friday.” Invented by Natalie Davis (@natalieIMPACT), we all eat and laugh together, order Mexican food, and talk about our weeks/weekends. Sometimes, clients will join us. It's just a little thing we do as a team that goes a long way.

Bob Ruffolo is the founder and CEO of IMPACT Branding & Design. Connect with him on LinkedIn, or visit his blog.