Many of us share the same problem: we want to work for ourselves but don’t know how to begin. The good news is that it’s simpler than it ever has been. As it becomes more common for anyone to create their own digital agency, and easier to upskill or reskill through online course providers, the only thing holding us back from running our own businesses is the confusion around old education models that no longer serve us. It’s more possible now than ever before to develop one skill and turn it into a business venture without enrolling in a formal program.

The Wall Street Journal reported earlier this year that universities in the U.S. received a steep drop in applications to M.B.A programs. Although it’s traditionally been one of the most popular higher degree tracks, the cost of tuition is deterring students from enrolling. Nearly half of students at top M.B.A. programs in the U.S. borrow $100,000 to finance their degree. Universities themselves are moving their programs online, offering shorter, specialised masters’ degrees instead.

The answer is, somewhat ironically, to stop focusing so hard on business. In a world where you can build, market, and manage your own product or service from the comfort of your living room, it’s time to start championing the bottom-up approach to entrepreneurship: Supercharge your skillset first, then create a business around those skills.

One area that’s especially fertile for opportunity in this way is digital marketing. Even if your goal is simply to work for yourself, and you’re not sure you want to stay in digital marketing forever, you can use digital marketing as a launching pad into entrepreneurship and the life you want.

Here’s how it can be done.

Develop the right skills

By studying and working in digital marketing, you’ll gain the following skills:

  • Designing ad campaigns
  • Lead generation
  • SEO & SEM
  • Display advertising
  • Data analytics
  • Conversational interfaces
  • Social media and Google Ad words
  • Content strategy
  • Building landing pages
  • Augmented and virtual reality
  • Machine learning and AI

Many of these skills are transferable. Here are other jobs you can land with these same skills:

  • UX writer
  • UX researcher
  • Web designer
  • Content strategist
  • Data analyst
  • Product designer

You’ll also learn a thing or two about starting your own business along the way. Digital marketing, in particular, can lead straight into an entrepreneurial career.

“In reality, you are the product of the agency or company you work for,” writes Ron Dod, SEM expert and Co-Founder of Visiture. “You can do what you do for the masses very easily and provide a ton of value doing so. This is pretty much how every agency begins.”

Dod also makes the case for ditching traditional education models like the M.B.A., which take several years, and starting up a business as soon as you have the chops to do so.

“Waiting to have a family or waiting for the kids to go to college is not always the smartest idea. Being energetic and naive can be a great asset, in my opinion. The best time to start a digital marketing agency is right now.”

Freelance before founding

Before creating your own agency, you will need experience managing projects and working with clients. It’s best to work for a few companies on a contract basis to gain this experience before you jump straight into your own venture. Plus, you’ll have an easier time acquiring clients if you have the background to back up your pitch.

Not everyone believes prior experience is necessary, though.

“You absolutely do not need to work at a digital marketing agency before starting one of your own,” says Dave Rogenmoser, CEO of Proof, a Y-Combinator-backed startup. “I have never worked in the industry at all before and just started offering digital marketing to companies a few months ago and already have 9 clients—literally starting from nothing.”

Once it’s time to recruit clients, whether you’re seasoned or not, start by generating leads for clients for free. You can ask for testimonials and referrals and work your way up to charging clients from there.

“What I realised is that if you can provide results upfront for free, you don’t need a resume,” says Ippei Kanehara, CEO & Founder of IppeiLeads. “I generated free leads for business owners to earn their trust, I only asked to get paid after they got some leads and closed some jobs from me (I made them $$$ first).”

After that, he says, you can do some active prospecting and sales to get more clients.

One of his tricks is to create a short video on his desktop showing a business how they’re currently ranking on Google compared to competitors, and to send it to them with an offer to improve their position. The more offers you make, the more money you make.

Ippei began making over $10,000 a month running his own digital marketing agency this way, creating five short videos a day and working until he had clients who paid him monthly.

Importantly, find a mentor along the way—someone who is actually running their own successful digital marketing agency—and let them take you under their wing.

Find your niche

When it comes to digital marketing, it pays to specialise.

“I recommend digital marketers who want to be CMO one day to specialise first and then broaden their skills,” writes Kevin Indig, VP of SEO and Content at G2. “Increasing your value is easier as a specialist than a generalist. You can connect better and faster with people because the field is smaller. You can build out hard skills quicker from deep knowledge in one thing, compared to shallow knowledge in many things.”

There are a few niche routes you can follow when it’s time to strike out on your own. Do you want to be a social media marketing agency? A paid advertising marketing agency? An SEO agency? Here’s some information about each option.

Social media marketing

Create an agency that manages businesses’ Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter pages to increase followers and design engaging posts that help the brand reach a wider audience. You’ll be posting text and image updates, creating videos, managing paid social media advertising, and designing content that drives audience engagement.

If you already enjoy social media, or have a big following yourself, this might be the right avenue for you. There’s a growing demand for more authentic social media strategies—for example, by featuring real people instead of models in Instagram ads—so if you have a strong creative vision and work ethic, there’s a great opportunity in helping brands create a more approachable, “Gen Z” oriented voice right now.

Paid advertising

If you go into paid advertising, such as Pay Per Click (PPC) marketing, you’ll be creating ad campaigns for companies using tools like Google Adwords and working to generate the most leads possible while keeping the cost per click as low as possible. You might specialise in search engine advertising, which lets advertisers bid for ad placement in a search engine’s sponsored links when someone searches for a keyword related to their biz offering.

“When done properly, PPC has the power to deliver relatively quick and quantifiable results,” writes Brad Smith, founder of Codeless, “results that clients and stakeholders can’t argue with, regardless of their industry knowledge, as they watch revenue leap forward and cash swell in their accounts.”

SEO

If you start an SEO marketing agency, you’ll be helping rank businesses’ sites to the top of Google. In the beginning, this kind of marketing may take more time than the others, as it takes a while to build site authority, but Ippei points out that you can also make some lucrative long-term contracts: “Once the site ranks it’s very little maintenance.”

If you’re a problem solver at heart, this may be the right digital marketing business for you. You’ll need to find creative ways to help sites rank, and fight until they’re occupying that top spot in Google results. Activities you might be doing to accomplish this include working with bloggers to create long-form content and optimising pages with proper headings and keywords. There are tools and plug-ins like Yoast available to make this process easier.

Lead generation

This involves building a lead generation website for a business with a tracking number and area code, creating a Google Maps listing, ranking the website, and directing leads toward the business you’re working with. Every call or lead that’s directed through you to the business you’re working with generates income for you.

Lead generation is a great model because it’s scalable. Once you get going, you can be selling hundreds of leads per day, working with companies in various industries. You can also automate it by using lead distribution software.

Affiliate marketing

Considered one of the best types of agencies to start right now, an affiliate marketing agency involves earning a commission by promoting other companies’ products and services. It’s easy to get started: choose a product you like, promote it, and make money from each sale that comes from your efforts. If you have a decent social media following or a highly trafficked website going for you already, it’s even easier to create a business around it.

Run your own business

Once you’re successfully running your own digital marketing agency, you’ve essentially learned how to work for yourself. You’ll know how to settle on the right business model, build a client base, manage client relationships, and turn a profit. Any time you want to shift gears, you can repeat the process with a different skill: design, product development, content writing. Simply educate yourself, create a portfolio, land a few gigs, and create a business. The point is to learn by doing.

Once you’ve been at it for a while, you can also become a consultant, coaching others on how to build businesses of their own. That means that by taking on a new skill like digital marketing, you are investing in three possible careers at once: working for a company, working for yourself, and coaching others.

If any of this sounds daunting, just zoom in and look at the actions you’ll take every day: signing up for a course, taking the course, building a portfolio, landing a job, creating a website, doing the necessary research, finding your first clients. If you can accomplish one thing each day related to these, your efforts will automatically add up into progress.

Just make sure you start off on the right foot. While a traditional formal degree might take several years, follow an antiquated curriculum, and leave you with a pile of loans to pay off, you can learn a new skill in a few weeks, find a job right after that, and work in the field while developing your own agency.

The world moves fast, but so can you.

Co-creagency

Finally, let’s take a moment to acknowledge that solo entrepreneurship isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. We need to work together to create more sustainable businesses that impact the world in a positive way, and swapping competition for collaboration is the first step. The sooner we can set our egos aside, the better.

For inspiration, look to European start-ups like Goal Girls, a Berlin-based collective (or “co-creagency”) where members join forces in a holacratic work culture to design marketing campaigns and pursue other creative projects. Their tagline: “a creative agency for experiential marketing and brand activism.”

In other words, the fastest way to work for yourself is to work with others. It may be just you, yourself, and your laptop when you first envision your entrepreneurial future, but it’s the support and inspiration of people who share your passions that will carry you swiftly into your best self.

 

To upskill in digital marketing and take your career to the next level, register to one of our on-campus or online courses here.

 

Author: Saga Briggs.
Saga Briggs is a journalist covering trends in learning, creativity, intelligence, and educational technology. Follow her @SagaMilena

 

 

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