They told me a marketing agency from Bulgaria will never make it …(a.k.a how we survived the pandemic as a new business)

When Automagically, an Agile marketing agency for businesses without a dedicated marketing team, launched it was just me and a domain name. 

In February 2020, the business hired its first full-time employee. 

In March 2020, we moved into our first office space in downtown Sofia. 

Then, on March 13th, 2020, on my way to Automagically HQ, I heard the now ubiquitous term LOCKDOWN for the first time.

Since this date, so much has happened. Lockdowns, vaccines, furloughs, remote working, social distancing and SO. MUCH. CHANGE.

Mid-pandemic, a change I noticed around me was a bunch of new businesses I was aware of shutting down. After 1 pandemic year, “a bunch” had turned into “a lot”. After 2 pandemic years,  “a lot” became “most” new businesses. By Automagically’s second birthday, most of the businesses that I had seen make their first strides at the end of 2019 had become obsolete.

One of the businesses that continued to grow despite the adversity that seemed to be toppling others was ours. Over the course of the pandemic, the Automagically team expanded with 3 new members, our client portfolio became more stable and varied, and we doubled our year-over-year revenue. How did that happen?

We made no genius moves, we had no incredible bouts of luck and no outside investment. 

When the pandemic hit, many people told me a marketing agency from Bulgaria will never make it, but here we still are. So, I’m writing to tell you how we survived the pandemic as a new business by staying Lean in hard times.

Minimizing Costs… Duh!

From the start, being prepared to stay Lean was an important aspect of getting hired to join the Automagically team. Staying frugal didn’t mean we wanted to limit ourselves in the ways that mattered. Instead, it meant being careful with where we decide to allocate our funds and why. For example, many organizations around us were paying for an arsenal of tools they didn’t use. We kept a close eye on which tools we were actually using and which ones we could stop subscribing to, even if it meant just switching them off for a few months. 

Savings also came from annual subscriptions over monthly subscriptions to tools that we knew we would rely on in the long-term. 

Overall, being frugal with our budget, allowed us to have a buffer in anticipation for harder times if our customers all churned at once. It also allowed us to say “no” to clients that weren’t a good fit, helping to ensure that, even in hard times, Automagically stayed a good place to work.

At the times when our buffer was at its highest, we would have been able to pay everyone’s salaries for 12 WHOLE months without any revenue coming in. Maybe we went a bit overboard… a buffer of 6 months is more than sufficient for a sense of safety and security.

Having this runway made us feel safe in our roles and confident that we would continue to be able to do great work together despite losing some business.

Using Free Capacity to Build Our Own Marketing

To say that we didn’t lose any clients over the course of the last two years would be untrue. We did lose some clients whose businesses didn’t weather the storm of the VUCA we were all dealing with. This meant we had moments of increased capacity as a team, so we could focus on internal efforts. 

We had neglected our own marketing for Automagically services for so long that the well of new leads was in danger of totally drying up. So, we rolled up our sleeves and used the pandemic to start the Automagically blog, build our outbound sales efforts and begin to evangelize what we believe to be the dawn of the “agile marketing agency”. We even launched our first ad campaign in Google search targeting this important keyword.

These new channels helped us reach our revenue targets for the past quarters despite the customer churn.

Reinvesting Profits in New Hires

Contrary to what you might believe, the pandemic was actually a good opportunity to hire for smaller businesses that could afford it.

Excellent professionals were getting furloughed from their positions at larger enterprises and looking for opportunities to join smaller, more grassroots organizations where they could feel part of a tight-knit team.

While others around us didn’t hire during the pandemic because they didn’t know if they would be able to pay salaries in the long-term, we decided to risk it and hired 3 full-time employees during this period. In the boutique agency world, that’s actually quite a lot.

Virtual vs In-person TeamBuilding

As part of rigorous cost-saving measures, many organizations needed to cut nice-to-have costs. For most businesses, team building activities fell into this category. We knew that we needed to keep the team connected so that we could continue using remote working to our advantage, instead of making it a threat to team motivation. That is why, we switched to virtual team building activities which are more cost effective than trying to bring everyone together in person (flying them in from different locations etc). 

Our favorite virtual team building activity was a caipirinha-making class via Airbnb Experiences led by Alessandra from her kitchen in Rio. Doesn’t get more authentic than that!

Creating Partnerships 

One of the best cost saving strategies is as old as time itself. Offering up our free capacity to the right partners was a great way for us to explore the barter economy during this difficult time. Through partnerships with some of our customers and other players in our network, we were able to upskill members of the team and move our process away from an expensive work management platform to one that we could use for free by exchanging marketing services for licenses. Quid pro quo.

Bartering is no way to build a business in the long-term, but, when we did it in moderation, it allowed us to cut our costs significantly while still keeping our focus on optimizing processes and upskilling our team members. 

Listen to Your Team and Share 

Keep your friends close, your enemies closer, and your team members closest. Ultimately, it’s your team that can help you rise in hard times.

Throughout the process, we aimed to stay honest about what was working well and what was failing in the business. Frequent check-ins on finances and making decisions as a team about what was important and what could be slashed improved our communication and trust in each other. As a result, we continued feeling like team members, instead of just employees, and dealt with challenges proactively.

Frequent retrospectives and 1-1s with the team made sure that we kept our pulse on what the team needed at each point in time. Listening to what people were feeling was an important aspect of how we managed to avoid getting sucked into the void that was this pandemic period and failing as a business.

For every leader who claims to be customer-centric, your team members are your customers too. Listen to them as carefully as you would an end customer if you want to be successful in any environment. 

Staying Positive

Likely, many other businesses like ours did all of this and more to stay afloat during this difficult period. Yet, many were still forced to downsize significantly or worse…close their doors. There are no guarantees when you’re dealing with VUCA. So, we consider ourselves extremely lucky to still be here.

With the risk of sounding too sappy, staying positive and motivated is what TRULY kept Automagically’s doors open during this difficult time. So, we’re also grateful for all those times someone on the team encouraged us to keep our chin up when times were tough.

Yes, they told me a marketing agency from Bulgaria will never make it in this time of volatility, uncertainty, change and ambiguity. When the pandemic hit we were a new business, swimming against the current with no injection of cash. 

I understand why it looked like we were doomed.

Well, we’re still here, alive and kicking. 

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