Victor Ramirez is the managing director of An Abstract Agency, a digital marketing agency in New York City. After seeing how much his then-employer was paying for poorly crafted websites and email campaigns, Victor stepped in to do a better job.
Getting to know An Abstract Agency
What inspired you to start your agency?
I have been a musician/filmmaker since I was young. This meant always building websites for and promoting my various projects.
While working at a music venue, I saw a check the owner cut for a poorly done website and email campaign. It was way more than I was making handling microphones. After convincing the owner to give me a shot, they became my first client.
How did you launch the business?
A lot of people ask me, “How do I quit my job and start making money?” as if it’s an overnight thing. If you’re a designer or a developer, you can’t just quit and start making $50,000 a year freelancing.
In the beginning, it was about frugality and keeping a day job until things got running. I worked my job full-time and worked on building my business every night.
It can negatively affect your social life. Every dollar I made from the business went back into the business. Every other dollar went into saving money to make sure I had the cash flow to quit my job when I had enough clients to pay my bills.
What obstacles did you face?
I had clients that would call me at 3 a.m. I used to think that was OK. They were on vacation and didn’t take into consideration that I have office hours. They might call me because their website didn’t load on a friend’s phone properly, and they thought it was costing them money. It was that their friend had a 2-year-old phone.
I had to learn work-life balance and set up a professional phone system to create boundaries.
Other obstacles were cash flow and learning to create recurring revenue. I would get so caught up in a project that I’d forget the most important part of my job is finding new projects. Now, the first half of my day is focused on growing my business.
How did you identify your niche in the market?
There was a lot of demand. It took a while to figure it out. Our niche isn’t by industry. It’s a type of business — people who are interested in constantly growing their business and preferably on WordPress. Not people who are just trying to maintain the status quo.
In the beginning, I’d work with someone designing a website, and then they would say, “OK, why aren’t I making a million dollars?” or, “OK. We hit our goal for the year. That’s good until next year.”
Building a website isn’t enough anymore. A website is your base of operations.
After a website, you need to constantly be promoting it and driving qualified traffic. We help businesses find out what to do next. If they’re in a crowded market, blogging might not be the best idea. Maybe they need Facebook Ads. Maybe they need to do joint venture podcasts or events.
The nice thing with WordPress is that there are existing integrations to do most of these things.
Someone who wants to grow is willing to listen and take that risk. They’re constantly looking for the next thing to do, and we’re there to help. That’s a great niche for us.
Tell us about your agency’s business model.
We’re a digital marketing agency in New York City that specializes in WordPress. We gain leads by teaching free marketing classes at the biggest co-working spaces in the city. From there, we get people to buy more advanced classes, consulting or digital marketing services.
Are there any client success stories that you’d like to share?
We had a theater ticketing startup called TodayTix come to us for help with their search marketing and website conversions. Their ads said, “By Broadway for Broadway at Insider Prices.” This meant nothing to the customer in a crowded market. Additionally, all the ads were directed to their homepage or a ticket page with no calls to action or benefits.
The first thing we did was research the biggest pain points for people buying broadway tickets. Potential ticket buyers concerns were, “Is this a scam? Do I have to wait in line?” To combat that, we found press quotes that answered these concerns and placed them all over the website. Stuff like, “ABC News Says — The end of long lines and shady websites.”
Additionally, we created a specific landing pages for new customers that stated all the benefits to get them to sign up, without getting distracted by all the other options on the website.
The results were amazing. The ads with the benefit-focused copy went from one-percent to 30-percent click-through rates. Most landing pages experienced more than a 10-percent conversion rate, meaning they either signed up for the email list or downloaded the app.
Goals and philosophy
What are the goals for your An Abstract Agency?
The goal is to educate as many people as possible in what actually works online. There is so much misinformation and so many snake-oil salesman online — it’s exhausting. The best clients are educated clients.
How are you enacting this education? What does that look like? Any examples? (E.g. training sessions, documentation, tutorials, etc.)
We work with various startup bootcamps and accelerators in New York City. At those events, we speak weekly and help startups cut through the fluff online. Also, we teach weekly classes at various co-working places around our city.
WeWork, one of the big ones, likes it so much they cater the events — and their members love us. We recently began recording everything we teach at these events, and we’re going to be publishing the recaps online.
What’s your guiding business philosophy?
Help others succeed and they will reward you. There are times that I’ve spoken with someone in a consultation and they’re not the right customer for us. I tell them to come to a class or refer them to a colleague. Both the colleague and the person I referred remember that, and it sometimes leads to even more leads down the line.
What strengths do you bring to the table as an entrepreneur?
I’ve been told I have the ability to distill the most abstract concept down to simple analogies. This has helped me cross divides in an organization between CEOs, developers, marketing teams and investors very easily.
Where do you see your business in five years? 10 years?
In five years, I’d like to be a 20-person team with more teachers than just me and giving back in a huge way. I currently volunteer 100 hours a year teaching underprivileged students to code here in New York City. I’d love to have 20 people doing that, and then in 10 years, 50.
Tools of the trade
What online tools help you run your business?
Great hosting saves me a lot of headaches. I’m not a dev ops person, and that practice is dying with managed hosting. By having to not worry about security, speed, caching and other issues, I can focus on doing the digital marketing that helps grow a client’s business.
Businesses are so exhausted trying to find out what’s best for their business. They’re just looking for someone to tell them and save them the time.
Most of these other tools are all about having a system and automating processes. People who manually do social and don’t plan in advance are wasting a lot of time. With these tools, I save time and can pass these ideas down to my clients.
Was there a turning point in your life that led you to where you are today?
In college, I asked my accounting professor, who owned a very successful practice, what college courses to take to start a business. He said, “No college course can teach you to run a business. Just try running a business, and you’ll learn more in one year than four years here.” Blew my mind.
What did you do after hearing that advice from your professor?
I got really disinterested in school and eventually dropped out. I did exactly what he told me and tried running a business. I managed a bar and a mobile DJ business. It was miserable, but I learned a lot in marketing by promoting the bar and my DJ work.
How do you balance the needs of your business with your personal life?
Boundaries. No calls after 6 p.m., and I don’t work weekends except for personal projects. I write for an indie comic I’m working on, play guitar, read comics, and watch all the great shows in this Golden Age of television.
What's the most valuable lesson you've learned since starting your business?
Learning to set boundaries. You don’t call your doctor or car mechanic at 3 a.m. with your problems. Why do online professionals allow their clients to do it?
What's your best advice for other entrepreneurs?
Same as above. Say no. You waste a lot of time saying yes to everyone. “No” can sound scary to some people. If you’re honest, it’s easy. If you have a family you say, “I just want to let you know that I have set office hours from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Before and after I’m with my kids and unavailable.”
When you take calls during your kids soccer game realize you’re being unfair to them, too.
Also, don’t be afraid to say no to bad projects. You’re the expert, and sometimes you have to remind people. I had a client that wanted to spend $50,000 a month on advertising, but didn’t want a mobile site.
Google punishes you in ad spend if you don’t have a mobile website. I said no because I knew that if we ran the ads without the new site, it would fail. By telling him, “I can’t do it this way, and anyone who does is doing you wrong,” I gained his trust. It messes with people when you turn down money.
Do you have a particular example of when you wish you had just “said no” to a client?
A venture capital firm referred us to one of their companies — a startup that had no developers in-house and didn’t want our development services. They were using an offshore freelance service. They just wanted consulting on Facebook Ads to their primary site.
On day one, we told them they needed to add better buttons, speed up the site, and add email capture forms to make the ads a success. They “yes’d” us to death that it would get done, but with no proper team or someone to get it done quickly, it got pushed on the back burner.
By day 90 of running ads, the client was upset. They didn’t get the results they wanted and wasted a lot of money. Not only were they unhappy, but their venture capital firm was upset too. This cost us a relationship and a lot of future business. We got the consulting fees, but that cost us in the long run.