Nov 12, 2020
James Kwon is Founder and CEO of Figmints Digital Creative Marketing, a 20-person, full-service, multi-seven-figure digital marketing agency that specializes in accelerating leads to sales. The company utilizes SalesAmp, which James describes as “business development representative as a service.” SalesAmp came under the Figmint’s “umbrella” when James and April Williams, now Fitmints President, merged their two companies. (The way these two companies “came together” is described in a short video on Fitmints’ website’s About page.)
Eight years ago, when James discovered that his first chosen career in culinary arts did not provide him with sufficient creative opportunities, he started Figmints with a focus on providing UI/UX (User Interface and User Experience) web services, which he did for number of well-known companies back when few people were doing it.
In this interview, James discusses the sales process gap the often occurs because “sales and marketing typically don’t like each other” – the marketing department wants the sales team to take leads earlier, while the sales team wants marketing to push leads further along before the “hand off.”
In 2018, James was looking for a partner to better fulfill his vision for where he wanted his company to go. The synergy between Figmints HubSpot operations and North Star Marketing’s SalesAmp, a marketing process focused on building pipelines for individual salespeople, created a marketing powerhouse that far exceeded the expectations of the two merged companys’ leaders. Today, the now-expanded Figmints develops the right content for the exact right audience. As individuals respond (download information, attend webinars, engage with content, open email), the SalesAmp piece takes over with Figments’ internal sales team reaching out to prospects on behalf of clients. Over time, Figmints delivers a thought leadership, content marketing, and funnel program that nurtures customers through the client-journey until they are comfortable enough to talk with the client’s sales team.
Unlike most agencies where generated leads are handed off for follow-up to client sales/ boiler rooms (which may or may not get the message right), Figmints operates as an “educational ambassador,” running the inbound HubSpot process on behalf of its clients’ salespeople. Most of the Figmints’ clients have long, complex sales cycles. When the questions get too complicated, the client takes over.
In his HubSpot Inbound 2020 presentation, “My Cheat Sheet: How to Growth Hack Five New Companies or Offerings This Year” at HubSpot Inbound 2020, James promoted the idea that entrepreneurs should consider starting multiple companies at a time. He lists a number of reasons that this practice makes sense and lays claim to launching close to nine sub-brands, of which four or five are still active.
James is a big proponent of systems, optimization, and efficiency for everything from workflows to automated engagement to follow-up processes. He says he uses “several dozen pieces of software that combine together to make my workflow easier.” But, he admits, people are complicated. Early on, the agency experienced high employee turnover. “There is no way to love people efficiently,” he says. Today, employees stick around a lot longer because the agency invests in employee growth and meeting with them for frequent one-on-ones. He highly recommends utilizing Entrepreneurial Operating Systems (EOS), as described in Gino Wickman’s book Traction.
ROB: Welcome to the Marketing Agency Leadership Podcast. I’m your host, Rob Kischuk, and I am joined today by James Kwon, Founder and CEO of Figmints Digital Creative Marketing based in Providence, Rhode Island. Welcome to the podcast, James.
JAMES: Thanks so much for having me, Rob.
ROB: Excellent to have you here. Why don’t you start off by telling us about Figmints and what is the superpower of Figmints? Where do you excel?
JAMES: I like that. Figmints is a 20-person, full service digital marketing firm. Started here about 8 years ago. My personal background – I guess I’ll tell you a little bit of the story. I started in UI/UX and design. Actually, I have a degree in culinary, so that was where my creativity journey started.
Got to find out that I couldn’t be as creative in the kitchen as I’d like to be, and I wasn’t that good at it, so I left to do design work. I could be more creative in front of a computer, so I started to do design and became what I call one of the first UI/UX designers because that category really didn’t exist when I started. I was Employee #5 at CVS.com, helped them launch that award-winning site at the time. Worked at BEAM Interactive, got to work on some really high profile, awesome sites like Mini Cooper, Virgin Mobile, Deutsche Bank, the list goes on and on. Name drop, name drop.
I started the agency because I really enjoyed working with small to medium size firms. Fell in love with marketing somewhere along the lines. I fell in love with business, fell in love with marketing, just this infinite pool. Today, we’re really focused on accelerating leads to sales through a program we call SalesAmp. It’s like a BDR as a service.
What I’ve learned through the years – I don’t like the term serial entrepreneur, but I guess it describes me because we have probably four or five different sub-brands that I’ve launched. Over the years, actually, it’s like nine. But today we’re still working on four or five of them. I’ve had a blast getting to trial things very quickly, test things very quickly, trying to measure the growth very quickly. And we do that for clients as well as ourselves.
ROB: Right on. BDR, business development representative – a lot of times this is somebody who’s banging the phones, banging emails, possibly even sourcing or scraping leads or has some process feeding into that. How does that thread go from a background in UX and UI to sales assistance?
JAMES: Great question. What I love about design is coming up with creative solutions, and when I started the business 8 years ago, I realized that you get to really be infinitely creative in business itself. There are major levels you can pull within business operations, HR, people, but especially, of course, in sales and marketing that was the area that was closest to the world we were already living in, doing websites and branding and brand story.
We merged about 2-½ years ago now with another agency. The CEO there is now our president, April Williams. She had developed a system that she called SalesAmp, and we really added a digital layer as they’ve folded into our agency. That process, we think, is really transformational. We have a lot of great clients. Philips Healthcare is a client of ours. That’s probably our biggest. GE ABB is a client of ours. Lots of medium size clients as well.
But the whole idea is sales and marketing typically don’t like each other. Well, in a lot of businesses, they typically are frustrated at each other because marketing wants sales to take leads earlier, sales wants marketing to push leads further. There’s this gap that happens in the middle, and we thought this was a tremendous need. So we actually developed a process to not only develop the thought leadership, the content marketing, the funnel, but also have an inside sales team that reaches out on behalf of the client to hand-hold that prospect all the way through till they feel comfortable having a conversation with the sales team.
These larger organizations have felt tremendous benefit from having this service from us because it reduces that frustration. Salespeople are busy; they flat-out just don’t want to do it. [laughs] So yeah, we’ve had a lot of fun putting this together.
ROB: That’s really interesting, and that makes your journey make sense. If we were doing conferences this year in 2020, you and I might have been speaking face to face at HubSpot’s Inbound conference, where you were speaking. We’ve recorded there the past couple of years, and quite often we’ve talked to BDR/SDR as a service companies, but they’re usually coming more from the perspective of building lists and then banging out calls for those lists.
Do I understand that you’re actually generating warmer leads and then also pulling those leads through to some point where you hand them off in the sales process?
JAMES: Yeah. Not to give away too much of the special sauce, but for the value of this podcast, for the value of your listeners, I’ll share with you what we’ve found to be more impactful is actually running the good old-fashioned HubSpot inbound process specifically for salespeople. We run that process on their behalf – because you’re right, a lot of these outbound sales/boiler room type of “I’m going to call 1,000 people a day,” those tend to fail because they don’t get the story right. The game is just numbers, “I’m going to call as many people as possible.”
But the inbound process is all about connecting the right content, having as much helpful content as possible to that exact right audience. What we’re doing is combining both of those worlds. We want to develop that content, do it on behalf of the sales team, and then as people engage, we’re reaching out to those individuals. As people download, as people attend the webinars, as people start to engage with that content or even open an email, those are the people we reach out to.
And then on the calls, we’re actually leading them into more content, bringing them further through that journey. That I think is pretty different than a lot of companies out there that are just a roomful of salespeople reaching out.
ROB: That definitely makes sense. Where do you get to the point where you hand that lead off? Are you sometimes able to bring them all the way through to closing sale, or is there typically a point where you’re handing them off to an account executive, an AE or something like that?
JAMES: Yeah, we’re working on a program where we can bring the deal all the way to close. Of course, there’s a lot of complexities. Most of the clients we work with have long sales cycles. They’re very complex deals. You have to have some industry knowledge to be valuable there, to actually make the close or get people to sign on the dotted line.
But what we do is become educational ambassadors. We know enough about the business to be able to guide that individual, and once it becomes complicated or once the questions become a little too complex for us, we’ll immediately tee it up for that salesperson at the company.
ROB: Got it. I want to pull on one thread you mentioned earlier. You mentioned a point of merging with another agency. Quite often, especially when you get to being more entrepreneurial, I think a combination of let’s say ego and logistics and financial concerns can be an obstacle to getting together –
JAMES: Just those little things. [laughs] Yeah.
ROB: [laughs] Nobody has those problems. How did you come to this point where it just seemed to make sense to team up and pursue a whole that was more than some of its parts?
JAMES: I’m going to throw a lot of that to April, who was the CEO of this previous agency and is now our president. There was a lot of humility from the start. We met each other actually at a faith-based Christian CEO roundtable group, and we’ve known each other for a few years. That story – we like to use the word supernatural. It feels like it was more about the things that were happening, and we were going along for the ride, really, and submitting a little bit to what we felt like was the best way to move forward.
You can see that story, and I would highly recommend anybody to check out that full story, on our website, on our About page. I think there’s a 4- or 5-minute video that explains the process there. But all the work that was done to start that humble process was really from April, and I was following along.
ROB: We will look to get that video into the show notes. It’s a great point that so often, some of these roundtables, some of these accountability type groups where you open up a little bit could be a place where you open up enough to figure out how you and someone else can work better together. Makes a ton of sense there.
We mentioned Inbound, and at Inbound you gave a talk, and your talk was “My Cheat Sheet: How to Growth Hack Five New Companies or Offerings This Year.” Tell us about that talk and what some of the key takeaways and maybe even key questions were from that.
JAMES: That talk came from our merger, I’d say was really the catalyst. It freed me up to dwell and live in – I think my gifting is ideating, looking towards the future, thinking about where we could create new products, new offerings. In the past, we really only ever had time to do half to one product or offering at a time, and we’d slowly test them. I realized that this probably means we’re spending too much time trying to develop that offering before we launch it out.
Obviously, as a speaker, I wanted the title to be as provocative as possible, so I made the argument that you shouldn’t just start one offering or one new company; you should try to start five. It’s kind of an arbitrary number. Three, five, ten – you should start as many as you can that warrants – that you think is a good idea. Go and test those MVPs (minimum viable products) out there.
Very quickly into that segment, I talked about a few different reasons why you would want to do that. One, 80% of these ideas are going to fail, whether it’s a new company or a new offering. So hey, if you start five, maybe one will succeed. It gives you this massive leap ahead. It gives you this opportunity to play in this blue ocean where your competitors may not be thinking smaller, running those MVPs, making sure that you’re testing the biggest parts of the idea. It forces you not to spend too much time on it.
And then of course, you get some thick skin. After failing many, many, many times, it becomes second nature, and you start to move forward much more quickly.
ROB: This may tie together; you mentioned that your company had at one point up to nine offerings, and now there are five. Are there lessons and maybe an example of one of those that was an experiment and one that was put to rest?
JAMES: Yeah, there’s so many failures in there. [laughs] Happy to talk about it. Very early on, we built a platform for the wedding industry. Early on, when we introed video as a service, we were doing videos for weddings to make ends meet. We quickly knew that this needed to be not part of our brand, so we created a separate brand for that.
The wedding industry is an entire universe. For any of your listeners who might be in the wedding industry, it is complex and unique and special, and there’s a lot of people that you need to know and a lot of ways that you do business in it that are different than other industries – which I guess you could make the argument is true for every industry. But we quickly realized that we need a champion for this. We need a champion for any of these products that we create or sub-companies we create, and I couldn’t be the best champion for it
It did fail. We wound up twilighting the offering. There was actually a software component that was added onto it. But it was a lesson learned that the offering was a little too far away from what we do. Today, a lot of our products that we’re testing are things that we can actually use ourselves or we can use for our own clients, which makes it a little bit more – the resources make sense to allocate for ourselves.
ROB: How do you think about when it’s too soon to put an idea to rest or maybe recognize after the fact that it was a little later than you should’ve turned it off?
JAMES: I think it’s always later. In hindsight, we should’ve stopped maybe at the beginning. [laughs] But I think you realize when you run out of money, certainly. I set some ground rules. “Hey, this can’t take more than this much time” or “You can’t spend more than this many dollars” or “We want to see this many customers come in and this type of feedback.”
It’s a good example of where everything was going the wrong direction. Our feedback was starting to get worse, it started to slip way behind in the priority, we couldn’t devote as much time or dollars to it, and so we made the – I won’t even call it a difficult decision. We made the very real decision that we needed to put an official stop to that project and move on.
ROB: When you talk about feedback, some people are very numbers-driven and some people are very intuition-driven. Was that assessment of the feedback and the priority more of a gut feeling, or was that a measured consideration?
JAMES: I’d love to sound smarter and say it was very measured. [laughs] At the time, that was one of our early ones, and it was a little bit more gut, which means we probably spent more money than we wanted to or needed to. But today we have much more strict measures of when things are going off the rails or when it feels like it’s not getting the attention it deserves or we’re getting feedback from our clients. I think you need both. You need to have some soft measures, asking people what they think, scale of 1 to 10. You start to create metrics around soft measures, which I’m a fan of.
ROB: What’s another offering that maybe is a little bit further along that was an experiment, but now looks a little bit more promising? And where did it come from?
JAMES: At the end of my talk at Inbound, we created an offering that was born from this process. I give a little story about Tim Ferriss, which I’m sure you’ve heard of and maybe your listeners have heard of. Tim Ferriss is a prolific startup and entrepreneurial writer. He wrote The 4-Hour Workweek.
There’s a story about how he wrote the second book, The 4-Hour Body, and the way he arrived at the decision to write that book was really clever. Instead of surveying people or writing a chapter or anything like that, he designed a handful of book jackets and went to a bookstore – if you remember what bookstores were, they were these places people go to buy books. [laughs]
This is probably illegal, so I don’t recommend this necessarily. He took the books off the shelf and he swapped the jackets with his book jacket and he put it back on the shelf, and he stood back and actually tallied as people stopped, picked up the book, opened the book. He would give them scores – a point for stopping, 2 points for picking up the book, 10 points if you tried to buy the book. Then he arrived at the decision to write 4-Hour Body. And the subtitle of 4-Hour Body is “An uncommon guide to rapid fat loss, incredible sex, and becoming superhuman” – why would you not want to read that book, right?
But that process, since we don’t have bookstores anymore, or I don’t recommend this same sort of process, we’ve developed a similar system using Facebook advertisements and other advertisements where we create what we call fake ads. They look like real ads, but they point you to a very generic landing page that captures information and lets you know that this is coming out later.
This program, we like it a lot. We think many companies would benefit from it, and we’ve developed a separate offering just to do these validation tests. We call it BentoSpring. Bento like bite-size, spring like launch, so bite-size launch. The term “Bite-Size Launch” was taken, I think, so BentoSpring was our next best name.
We’re piloting that now. We’re getting that off the ground. I think it’s definitely still valid. But this is a great example of a product that we could use that we offer to our clients. It’s relatively inexpensive, so when we offer it, we say, “Oh, we actually have an offering we call BentoSpring.” It could be its own separate company, but it doesn’t need to be its own separate company. We have the offering out there, and if people want to engage with it, they can give us some money and do it.
ROB: I can certainly see that sort of thing – from a distance, you can see the tea leaves. Even if you told somebody, “We have a scoring system like Tim Ferriss’s. We give points for likes, we give points for comments, we give points for clicks, we give points for form fills” – the actual process of doing it could very easily be something that a client doesn’t want to do.
JAMES: Sure. They don’t know how to do it. They don’t know how to do it, they don’t have an ad platform set up. Again, this is designed even if you wanted to start a brand new company and you have two or three in your ideation phase. “Gosh, these are all great companies,” or “These are all great things that I could be doing. Which one should we do?” Well, let’s go test it. Let’s go build out a bento test and test some ads out there. Let’s see which ones are easier to set up, which ones can get the most impressions versus will see the most click-throughs.
And then you have these prebuilt ads. Once you get that up and going, you can just re-run the ads and point them to real offerings.
ROB: Exciting stuff there, James.
ROB: We’ve talked a bit about your journey along the way. As you reflect on the 8 years since you took the leap and started the business, what are some things you’ve learned along the way that you might do differently if you were starting over? Maybe some broader lessons on running the show, more than maybe individual offerings.
JAMES: One of the biggest lessons I’ve learned as an entrepreneur – and about myself, so this may not apply to everybody or all of your listeners – but for me, I’m a fan of optimization and efficiency. I love setting up systems. I think that’s why I fell in love with marketing. I fell in love with HubSpot because we can create these systems, we can create workflows. You can automate a lot of that engagement and follow-up and process. I use sequences every day. I have probably several dozen pieces of software that combine together to make my workflow easier.
But here’s what I found out. There is no way to love people efficiently. You cannot do it. Loving people is designed to not be efficient, or relationships are designed to not be efficient. So early on, there was a lot of friction in the business because I would hire employees and they’d stay a year or two, and I’d get frustrated when people get that millennial itch. I had somebody say, “James, I’ve been here two years. I learned everything I could. I think I’m going to leave and travel the world.” And that guy did really well.
But today, we’ve held our employees a lot longer. We’re invested in our employees to see them grow, painstakingly taking time out of the day to set up one-on-ones with every individual, more one-on-ones with the people closest to me in the leadership circle. Those are the things that have been very painful lessons, but such powerful lessons growing the business to where we are now, about 20 employees, multi seven-figure.
But that’s something I think could be its own book of lessons, per se, for loving people, caring about people, just treasuring this opportunity that I have to make an impact on their lives.
ROB: Really helpful. One-on-ones are such a key connector of that. You mentioned days. Are you doing those mostly weekly, or more often or less often? You said some people are a little lighter cadence if they’re not as close to you in the organization? Maybe you do more of a touch base on occasion?
JAMES: One-on-ones seem like such a simple answer. If I say it, some of your listeners might think, “Of course, I’m going to do one-on-ones.” But you wind up not doing it unless they’re really regimented. I recommend highly that – first of all, we run on an operating system called EOS (Entrepreneurial Operating Systems), a book called Traction by Gino Wickman.
Once you start to get into peer groups, you’ll hear the EOS model over and over and over again. So I highly, highly recommend looking at EOS because it gives you a framework for meetings, a framework for how you do business, how you set it up, how to look at finances, how to look at hiring, core values, etc. It makes the argument that every business runs on an operating system – some on purpose and some not.
The EOS model recommends doing one-on-ones at least every other week. I would say as the visionary or the leader of the company, with my integrator, who’s April and my number two, she and I meet every week and we have a one-on-one cadence there. Then with the rest of the leadership team, I meet with them at least once a month. I do two or three one-on-ones a week, and the gaps are filled with the rest of the team.
Other members of the team might have rotations with me once every 6 months, which I think is fine, but they’re doing one-on-ones with their direct reports at least once every other week.
ROB: It’s such a helpful tool. It’s so good for empathy, for relationship, and coupled with process. When we do our one-on-ones, I have a cheat sheet. I take notes. I don’t take the best notes on it, but even the simplest things of making sure you jot down the names of their family members and key milestones, those sorts of things – it’s process, but it’s process that, to your point, helps you love people well and maybe at a little bit better scale than just relying on your brain.
JAMES: Totally. 15 minutes. Here’s just a few of the questions we like to ask.
One, we always start off with that personal touch: “Hey, how’s your wife doing? How’s your husband doing? How’s your boyfriend/girlfriend? How are the things that we last talked about? I heard that you just bought a house. Congratulations. How’s that going?”
Then we dive quickly into “What’s going well? What’s not going well? What would you be doing differently if you were in my position? What information can I give you that you might be curious about in the company that you may not have regular visibility into?”
This is a key one. I love when we both share, “What can I keep doing, start doing, and stop doing?” This is a really helpful framework. Keep doing is an opportunity to say “Hey, you’re doing a great job. Love that you’re doing X. Please keep doing that. I notice that you weren’t doing Y. Can you start doing N? Also, I noticed this thing. Maybe you should stop doing that.”
But the opportunity for the other person to say the same to me – what should I keep doing, start doing, stop doing? – opens it up. And honestly, if we’d had the opportunity to do that earlier on, I think we would’ve kept employees longer, they would’ve been happier, and I think we would’ve been able to see those frustrations or those pain points that there’re bottling up internally and made decisions about those and tried to make some shifts around those sooner. It’s pretty simple. I think employees just want to be heard.
ROB: Absolutely. Much like killing a product offering, it’s one of those things you will only realize that you started doing too late.
We were talking a little bit before we started recording about taking your office virtual during COVID, so I’d imagine one-on-ones are an easy habit to keep going, but in terms of other habits and systems and things you had going in the name of the culture of the organization and connecting people, how has that changed and what are you doing differently now that you’ve embraced virtual?
JAMES: What a great question. I wear this very proudly, so I’m going to take off the humble hat and say that I think we’ve been doing really well culturally as a remote agency. We’ve been practicing going remote once a month for the last 5 or 6 years just because we’re very capable of it, and employees like going remote. We actually give all employees a day a week where they can go remote themselves. We were built to transition to remote fairly easily. We use Slack, and we have our virtual meeting rooms and things like that.
But I’m very impressed by the way April and the team have risen to the challenge and stayed together culturally. We’ve always done a Monday morning huddle with the team, and that’s continued, but we added a second meeting, a Wednesday morning check-in where we don’t do any work talk. Or typically we don’t do any work talk. We actually play a game together virtually. This has been really fun.
We do online Pictionary, we’ve played Scattergories, Taboo, Bingo. We told scary stories. It’s 30 minutes, 9:30 on Wednesday, and it’s just a lot of fun. We make it the team’s responsibility, so every team member, we rotate, they bring their game, and then they teach the game and we just play. That kind of culture has just kept us sane, I feel like, and it’s kept this rhythm of “Oh, it’s easy to keep this process going.”
So that’s been really helpful. And now, as the restrictions ease up a little bit, we’re actually starting to do the opposite where we’re trying to meet together more often and do things outside, have barbecues, bonfires, and have drinks together. We did a kayaking trip. Here in Rhode Island, we have the beautiful ocean. We’re the Ocean State, so we have beautiful water activities we can do.
So, keeping those things fresh has really helped our culture, and I feel like we’ve done a tremendous job at that.
ROB: That’s super solid. I think you are pulling towards what I’m seeing emerge also. “The new normal” is overused, but I think historically, many companies, including yours, and mine for that matter, have been default in the office. Not in the office is unique. We’re probably moving more towards default remote and sometimes you’re going to do something together. That’s kind of what you’re describing. There’s a coworking space here that has an outdoor – they have like 50 picnic tables, and it feels nice to be near people without feeling uncomfortable being near people. I know that’s kind of a weird, convoluted thing, but in our reality. I think you’re really interestingly there.
JAMES: Yeah, totally. There’s just new things that we need to consider. Like since we’re saving on office snacks, we just started to give our employees a stipend so that they can buy their own snacks or buy remote work setup that they can do. We’re shifting some of the dollars that we did spend or we have been spending over to areas that make more sense.
Those get-togethers or working together, sometimes we have a Zoom room open where we just aren’t talking to each other; we just have it open and see each other’s faces while we’re working, which is really nice. Or getting together one on one to work together for half a day and just work next to each other. Not for any particular reason or particular meeting, but just to be in the same space, which is I think helpful for your psyche.
ROB: Awesome. James, when people want to find you and they want to find Figmints, where should they go to find you?
JAMES: Figmints.com. Fig like the fruit, mints like the candy. You can reach out to me, firstname.lastname@example.org, or on our website I think we have most handles @figmints, so Twitter.com/figmints, and Facebook. But email is pretty good, website is pretty good. We’re not so big you can’t get in touch with us. [laughs]
ROB: Excellent. James, thank you so much. Maybe someday we’ll go back to conferences and hear you speak live. Until then, thank you for joining us here virtually.
JAMES: Yeah, Rob. Thank you so much for inviting me. I appreciate it.
ROB: Be well.
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