From a Side Hustle to a Boutique Digital Marketing Agency

Photo by Avel Chuklanov on Unsplash

It’s amazing and ironic how a day away from my laptop has helped me get into finally writing this long overdue blog that I’ve been meaning to write since my agency’s 5th anniversary last June. Grateful to find a chance to pause amidst all the chaos.

Before anything else, I’d like to make it clear that I do not intend to teach “steps to side-hustle success” or “proven ways to build a multi-million agency”. While I can say that we are somehow both those 2 things now, I am just not the type to write how-to’s and project myself as a “guru”. I am far from that. I like how Foundr Magazine’s CEO, Nathan Chan, prefers “practitioners” over “gurus” for literal and figurative reasons. This blog is mainly my way of streamlining my thoughts and taking the time to pause, refocus, and hopefully, a few years from now, I can look back to this and see how far we’ve come. I’m letting this be as raw and as “free-flow” as possible.

I’ll be sharing the things I learned — the things that worked and the things that did not — in growing an accidental social media side hustle into a full-blown boutique agency. You’d also see some lines similar to “don’t be like me”, “you can do better”, and “you can grow faster”, merely because you really can!

For context, I started Lit Digital out of a necessity to continue my short-lived partnership with a friend that started from a photography client who asked me if I can also handle their social media marketing.

After my dear friend decided to focus on her full-time work and wedding preps, I did everything from content production, content calendar to Facebook Ads and of course, billing, reports, etc., while working full-time for another company and also trying to become the next big Fashion Stylist in the country 😅. That time, going all-in on Lit Digital did not really cross my mind or wasn’t really a clear option for me. I was a struggling Fashion Stylist & Photographer and Freelance Marketing “Professional” who was also trying to live on my own and finding that one thing that would really make me eager to jump out of bed in the morning. However, just a year in from my styling gigs, I realized that it was really not that “one thing” for me.

Before I bore you into talking about my struggles (also reads broke Millennial who was helping send her brothers to school and helping to pay bills back home and can barely pay for her own bills — it was crazy, to say the least), let’s get straight to the learnings.

Our team has grown a lot but there’s also so much ahead of us. Here are some of the things that worked so far:

  1. You can only grow a side hustle when you start building a team. Obviously, it was impossible for me to grow Lit Digital without a team. Crazy enough, it took almost 2 years for my then-boyfriend (now fiancé) to convince my old self to start hiring with the goal to “multiply me” first and then hire people for certain roles. There’s clearly no growth in staying steady and doing everything on your own.
  2. Establish a positive culture early on. While it took a long time for me to start building a team, I knew early on that culture is something that’s very important to me. Working as a freelancer for years, I’ve worked with several teams and most of them especially offshore teams just didn’t seem to care at all. Fast forward to 5 years, our team now at Lit Digital has this very positive encouraging, and just supportive easy-going culture driven to hit our goals and “get things done” — our unofficial tagline.
  3. Systems to scale. This is also something that has been very important to me from the get-go. Luckily, I’ve always liked systems or creating guidelines or just the need to build a structure. It was my last full-time freelance position that really gave me a better view of business systems and SOPs, which I am still very thankful for until now. I learned the importance of building systems that you can easily implement over and over without having to figure things out from scratch all the time. I also have to add that updating your systems will happen more frequently than you think. Most probably in the first few years while we are all refining that system that works for us. Until this very day, it is part of our OKRs as a team to really refine and establish better systems.
  4. Nobody cares. Taking this from one of the best business books ever written, The Hard Thing About Hard Things by Ben Horowitz. I’ve only read this recently and I’m not even done yet but this is just so spot on. I think a lot of founders would relate to this especially for someone who is trying to scale a side hustle. This line, “When things go wrong in your company, nobody cares.”, is a truth bomb and it will be this way for a while especially while scaling your team and clients. I have so many memories of just pure self-doubt and “WTF” situations but it all boils down to one thing — you just have to keep on moving forward and figure things out.
  5. Quality over quantity also applies to clients. If you’re a seasoned entrepreneur or marketer, you might find this very “newbie” but really, this is one thing most new social media freelancers and small teams should keep in mind. It is always better to have fewer but high-quality clients than having many clients who are and will never be the right fit. Trust me, we’ve had clients who belittled our team or even went as far as to sabotage our strategies just to prove a point. There’s nothing better than having clients who recognize your value and are big in collaboration and partnership. This leads me to my next learning:
  6. Collaboration is one vital key. Let’s just say collaboration is like that finisher sprint from your cardio workout, which optimizes and guarantees better results. I dunno. You get the point. This has been one of our biggest tools in achieving success with our clients. That’s why over the years, our tagline has evolved into “More than an agency, a partner” because we really value partnership and collaboration with both our clients and our team. Campaigns are just more effective and successful when there’s mutual respect and trust in ideas and strategies, openness to collaboration, and willingness to learn from each other.
  7. You must hold your team to a high standard. I hate being the bad cop but I hate mediocrity WAY MORE so I’ve come to terms with myself that I’d rather be the bad cop and be the first to call my team out than deliver poor output. Building a team from scratch is already a big feat and setting standards high is a whole different story. While our team dropped the ball several times before, I’m proud to see how we strive to be better.
  8. It’s okay to try several things. It is true that finding your niche is quite powerful. However, I am grateful to have been part of different projects from Brand Design, Content Production, Social Media Marketing & Management, to Influencer Partnerships, and even E-commerce Website Development. These projects continue to keep our team multifaceted and have brought us opportunities to grow and learn.
  9. You need a solid rock. I am not one to say “believe in yourself even when no one does” because your girl here isn’t the most optimistic person in the world. Truth is, even the most optimistic and enthusiastic person you know has his or her limits. There will definitely be A LOT of times when you will question yourself and be on the brink of giving up. What I’d say instead is that you need to recognize how far you’ve come and be grateful for where you’re at. These two quickly help change my perspective most of the time. When all else fails, what also really worked for me is having a life partner (my fiancé) who completely understands what I’m going through as an entrepreneur and gives me full support and encouragement when I need them the most. I lost count of how many times I almost gave up on Lit Digital from the very beginning up to when the pandemic hit before the first half of 2020, but my fiancé has been there even in simply helping me bounce ideas off. I’m not saying you need a fiancé to scale a side hustle. 😂 What I’m saying here is scaling a side hustle and becoming an entrepreneur is and will never be easy and that it will shake you to the core. What’s important is that you have a good solid foundation to help you navigate through the setbacks.

I tell myself now that if I ever feel this way, I’m sabotaging my team’s potential and that I’m not giving justice to the hard work we put in day in and out. THUS, just give it your best shot and just go for it.

These first few years with Lit Digital have been quite a journey but I’m glad I stayed the course and just never gave up. It’s proof that you should just never give up easily. While there are a lot of things that worked, here are 3 main things that did not help us scale faster:

  1. Being too hard on myself. Now, this article is partly for a team but mostly for a founder who is currently side hustling and also wants to scale. For the most part, who you are as a person and how you treat yourself now would really play a big part in your team’s growth. I take pride in growing Lit even despite the pandemic but I am also guilty of being really hard on myself beating myself up too much when things go wrong keeping me from moving forward or bouncing back faster than I want to. So yes, don’t be like me. Know that you can definitely scale and grow your team faster.
  2. Thinking we’re too small for a certain client. This one needs no explanation but just to keep you from falling into this trap of extreme self-doubt, I tell myself now that if I ever feel this way, I’m sabotaging my team’s potential and that I’m not giving justice to the hard work we put in day in and out. THUS, just give it your best shot and just go for it. Last year, we closed our 2 biggest accounts that I really thought we didn’t have a shot in but we won the projects and will always be a good reminder that we’re never too small. We win games by actually playing them or in our case, giving them our best shot.
  3. Wearing too many hats. This is still a struggle for me that I’m consciously and slowly trying to resolve not just for myself but for our team. Too many times, wearing many hats tend to just spread yourself too thin that ultimately keeps you from being there for the team when they need you the most.

I guess that’s it from me for now. I hope that while it has been therapeutic writing down my thoughts here, the same thing goes to you reading until this very last part (or at least gave you some encouragement).

Our team is a work in progress. Thus, our core values — down to Earth, down to learn, down to work. We have a long way to go. Keeping this in mind and at the same time knowing that we’ve earned our stripes comes this good balance of humility and confidence to take on bigger projects ahead.

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If you have a similar side hustle or even an agency and you’d like to have a conversation about this, please don’t hesitate to reach out! (LinkedIn, Facebook, Instagram)

If you or your company is looking for a full-suite marketing team, (shameless plug 😅) let’s get it done! Go ahead and check us out at litdigitalph.com or email us at hello@litdigitalph.com.