Should Your Agency Specialize In A Vertical Market?

On the very first episode of Agencies Drinking Beer, Kyle and Kevin interview Heather Carson, co-founder of Onboardly. We discuss choosing a niche, being upfront about money and involving your team in the sales process.


When deciding on her career path, Heather Carson gravitated towards computer science — an interest stoked by her grandfather who worked for IBM. Eventually, she figured out that she was better at selling other people's technology rather than making it herself.

Still, that early love of code and deep appreciation for the talent required to write it now allows her to empathize with her clients on a deeper level than most PR professionals.

Heather runs Onboardly with her partner, Renée Warren, and together they help funded tech startups acquire new customers through, what they call, demand marketing, which involves content and PR.

Kevin and I sat down with Heather over some Stella Artois and Sleeman Ales to discuss why Onboardly focuses on a narrow target for their client base, how they find and choose great clients, and the results they're seeing from specializing in a vertical.

If you didn't get a chance to listen to the podcast episode, here are some of the major points along with show notes at the bottom. All quotes are from Heather.

[ NOTE: I highly recommend subscribing to our podcast on iTunes and listening to the full interview! ]

"Niche over broad any day."

Heather believes that Onboardly's success can be attributed to choosing to work only with clients that they can provide value to. Those clients happen to be tech startups which is vastly different from working with large enterprises, universities or any other type of company.

I know when I ran an agency we would take on clients from virtually any industry whether we had knowledge and expertise in it or not. I always viewed it as an opportunity to learn about other industries and a chance to offer an outsiders perspective to our client.

However, by choosing to work with funded tech startups only, Onboardly has been able to focus their sales and marketing on the startup community, instead of shotgunning to the world at large. Heather and her team offer great results to their clients because they can empathize with their needs and challenges in a way that other marketing firms cannot.

Being upfront with clients about money

Cash-flow, or lack thereof, is one of the biggest challenges with running an agency. The sales process is long and waiting to collect on invoices can kill a small agency that still has to pay salaries and rent every month.

Heather has managed to reduce this problem, even eliminate it with a simple policy:

"Our terms are net-zero, they always have been since we opened the doors. Every month we always get payment up-front and if it doesn't come through within a couple of days before the beginning of the month we put a hold on the work."

Again, it goes back to choosing a solid market to go after. Funded startups have money in the bank and little in the way of red tape. There aren't layers of bureaucracy that keep a small agency from getting paid, like requiring purchase orders or getting through to accounts payable.

I remember working with a university client where our payment got delayed 60 days just because the accounting staff had gotten behind on work during the christmas break.

"A huge issue that a lot of agencies face is waiting 60-90 for payment. With the exception of one, not a single client in the three year history of our company has come back and questioned net-zero. When you're confident about your work, your reputation is solid and people want to work with you it's not a problem. If you can talk about money from day one and not have to skirt around it, life becomes so much easier."

Why clients need to be involved in the process

Most of Onboardly's clients are startup founders who excel at either the business side of running a startup (sales, raising money, building a team etc.) or the technology side. Very few are marketers themselves who understand content marketing, SEO, PR and social media.

On one hand that's great for Onboardly — they get to come in and fill the void that the startup founders can't fill themselves. The founders can focus on building their business while Onboardly puts in all the effort required to drive targeted traffic to their website.

On the other hand, Heather and her team are able to produce better results when clients get involved in the marketing. They like it when their clients give them ideas and step up to help them produce killer content.

"What we're trying to do isn't just sell a product and list the features and benefits to news outlets. We're presenting our clients as thought leaders. Eventually I'm going to have to put them in front of a reporter to conduct a media interview, and if we've merely created a false persona then the authenticity is gone and it's not going to resonate with anyone."

Why you need to choose clients your team can get behind.

Heather is very careful when it comes to pre-qualifying leads to make sure they are a good fit for Onboardly and vice versa.

Even still, she occasionally has taken on clients that turned out to be a bit difficult or non-responsive. In her opinion, it's not a problem that can't be overcome. After all, challenging clients are part of the game.

But being selective is important for the sole fact that it gives your team more time to spend producing amazing work for the best clients.

She goes on to relate:

"When you get greedy, that's when there's trouble. That's the mistake we made a year ago when a lot of people were coming to us wanting to work with us. I thought, 'this is a miracle', and we signed on more clients than we could accommodate. The work was good, but our team was really stressed out. So when you're pre qualifying, choose the clients your team is really going to want to work with. If the client isn't exciting for your team it's going to be hard to motivate them to create stellar content on their behalf."

Right before signing a contract with a client, Heather always tells the client she needs to get her team's blessing before moving on — often to the astonishment of her clients. Isn't she the owner? Why would she need her team's blessing?

Some of you may disagree with Heather. After all, It's a marketing agency's job to make otherwise boring products stand out. Isn't that what being creative is all about?

Perhaps that is the case if you're running a traditional branding or advertising agency. You have to find a way to make toilet paper brand exciting to mass markets.

But Heather thinks — and I tend to agree with her — that to create great content, it's impossible if you aren't, at the very least, interested in the product.

Show notes

Should Your Agency Specialize In A Vertical Market?

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