Read More
Joe Rinaldi

Joe Rinaldi

In the early days of web design, there was more work than any one shop could handle. Everyone was super selective on the clients they took, and project focused. There was no need for a business development person as much as a need for filtering through the mass of inbound leads. If you treated people fairly, did decent work and kept your commitments you would succeed. As they say, those were the days. And they are gone. So now what? What are we hanging on to from the past that's hurting our future? It's time to figure it out because there is a new wave of agencies coming in without the baggage. And if the established shops want to succeed, some changes are in order.

Need to get your biz dev on track? Join us for Biz Dev Camp!


Announcer: 
Welcome to the Bureau Briefing, a podcast by the Bureau of Digital. An organization devoted to giving digital professionals the support system they never had. Each episode, we're gonna talk to a member of our community doing awesome, inspiring things. Now for your host, Carl Smith.

Carl Smith:
Hey everybody, and welcome to theBriefing. You know who I am. I say it every time, unless this is the first time you're listening, in which case, "Hi. I'm Carl." 

And I'm excited today, because I have a very good friend of mine, Mr. Joe Rinaldi, on the show today. 

How's it going, Joe?

Joe Rinaldi:
Hi Carl, it's going great. How are you doing?

Carl Smith:
I'm good. I'm already going to get the giggles before we get going. 

Joe Rinaldi:
Yeah, I'm afraid so.

Carl Smith:
Now, Joe, I know I met you before 2012, but 2012 was what stands out. It was at the very first Owner Camp known as Shop Talk, at the time, and you were just hilarious. It's changed, but you were personable, you were this nice guy, you worked at Happy Cog, all these things going on.

Joe Rinaldi:
I'm travel-sized. 

Carl Smith:
You are travel-size. Well, you were. I don't know anymore. None of us are. But the thing I remember the most was you just seemed to know stuff. It never seemed like it was going to happen, and then you would just sit back and you would go, "Well, what about this?" 

And then some sort of gold nuggets would flow forth. And this, I know, I'm going to ask you for money in a minute.

Joe Rinaldi:
Fair enough.

Carl Smith:
But no, what was amazing was this became kind of how you were introduced to the Bureau community, you became known as the biz person that everybody wished they had. And we just had to go find recruiters that weren't dicks. And as soon as we realized that that well was dry, we met you. So anyway, today on the show I was really hoping we could talk about business development at digital agencies. 

I had an article out lately that, it didn't catch me as much grief as I thought, but it just basically said that digital agencies suck at biz dev. So I'm going to let you talk now. You're the guest. But why do you think we struggle so much, as digital agencies, with finding work?

Joe Rinaldi:
Sure. I think in now partnering with 20 or so digital agencies in consulting, so now that I've moved on from Happy Cog, I'm consulting in business development with digital shops through, my handle is now Clutch. So I've had an opportunity really to peak over the hedge, and learn a little bit about how people's business development practices have evolved over time, learn more of the story of how folks got started, and I have half-baked notions for why I think this is. I don't know that I would consider any of them scientifically valid based on sample size. But my suspicion that's been kind of proven a couple of times with folks that I've worked with in particular, is that especially the people that I'm fortunate enough to work with who tend to come from that kind of Bureau community, those people, those owners, they kind of live in a swim lane within a swim lane of the industry. So there's-

Carl Smith:
I think that's fair.

Joe Rinaldi:
Yeah, there's a lot of work that happens, and then there's a lot of different size shops, and different kinds of shops, and then within that there's the Bureau community, and then even within that, there are the people that I got to know early in the baby steps of the Bureau, who have worked with more and more, who tend to be founders and owners, and biz dev folks that have a lot in common just based on their shared background, or when they started and founded their shops. 

So within that sample size, I think that in many cases folks were just really fortunate starting out, that they were the beneficiaries of an unquenchable demand, and really short supply. So when the industry really took off, and I would say in my understanding of this, this is probably post-dot net crash. So this is that second wave of agencies that start in the mid-2000s, as opposed to the folks that started off really at the vanguard like Zeldman did in '99.

But the people that started kind of mid-2000, 2005, 2006, I think we're really appreciative as well that they were able to ride a wave of demand, and they were able to build their business in a very specific, idiosyncratic way. And a lot of times what that looked like was agencies being very discriminating about what clients they would work with. Agencies kind of requiring that clients work with them in a project by project basis. And really picking up a project, executing it, putting it down, taking the medicine show over the hill to the next town, doing it over again. Finishing, moving on, and it was I think a way of thinking that was built towards surviving the demand that people had to go through. There was a lot of inbound leads. There were a lot of relationships that generated referrals. 

When you blogged something, you were one of dozens of bloggers as opposed to hundreds, or thousands of bloggers, so differentiating yourself in terms of sharing ideas was really powerful. As a result I think that agencies got really good at marketing, but they didn't get really good at sales. It's just a muscle that got exercised less, and other muscles got exercised more.

And then as the industry evolves and changes, and as clients' capabilities change, and as there's more and more competition, the overall kind of balance of things shifts, and it's just whether or not you're able to anticipate that change and start to adapt in advance, and really ride a second wave. Or if you have to react to the change, and then you're kind of scrambling to figure things out and bolt things together. It's a little bit more harried, but to me that's where a lot of the I guess imprecision, or the experimental nature of sales, kind of has its roots in the early days of these founders lives in a lot of cases. 

Carl Smith:
That's amazingly insightful.

Joe Rinaldi:
Well, thanks.

Carl Smith:
nGen started in 2003, and our first client was Chase.

Joe Rinaldi:
Jesus, really.

Carl Smith:
Yeah. Somebody knew somebody. They knew that we were doing stuff, and I mean it took three months for that first client to come through the door, but when they did, suddenly we had more work, and more work. 

And it's Aaron at Electric Pulp who said this to me, probably in 2005, he said, "Once you get to seven years, the flow shifts. Right now, you're out there, you're kind of looking, but once you do enough good work and you treat people fair, the leads will start coming in faster than you can look at them."

Now, Electric Pulp had Guy Kawasaki, and they had a lot of other people out there that were very pivotal to seeing that work. But with nGen, we started seeing the same thing, and to your point, after the dot bomb, right? After the bizt, it was like a lot of smaller people I think, or smaller companies, started to think, well, this is accessible now. Before it felt so big, and you couldn't do it, but now it was like, oh, this replaces the yellow pages. And so the shops that existed, like nGen, we'd get 10, 15 leads a week. You know?

Joe Rinaldi:
Yeah.

Carl Smith:
And to your point, our business muscle, our new business muscle, was much more about filtering out the leads for the one or two that we wanted.

Joe Rinaldi:
Yes.

Carl Smith:
We never knew how to go out and look for it.

Joe Rinaldi:
It's an overwhelming amount of work to wade through that stuff, too. It's not like you're just sitting back lighting cigars, and waiting for projects to start. There's a lot of work involved in vetting clients, and weeding through those inbound. I mean it's a nice problem to have, don't get me wrong. It's a great problem to have, but it's still an absolute operational commitment, and a resource drain, and I think what people would wind up doing, and I don't know if you saw this with nGen, but I think I saw it at Happy Cog, was you get to a point where there's enough of this kind of inbound that you have to hire someone to be business development, and take that on as an un-billable total overhead kind of expense that comes with the territory. And I think some shops were even more reluctant to invest like that. More shops were the owner and principal really wanted to kind of keep their hands on that, or they didn't want to bring on someone that wasn't billable, and there's a lot of reluctance to really assign resourcing towards that kind of effort. 

And then eventually maybe that kicked in later, but I think by and large, most of the owners that I know even, I think would be quick to admit that they probably hire for biz dev, whether that's sales or marketing, or a combination of both. They probably hire for that position six months after the need, because they've been so far pushed over the edge that they can't ignore the need to bring in a resource and work on this anymore. And there are very, very few, I can think of one example in my mind of people that have invested like six months in advance of where they need business development to be in order to generate increased results. It's like survival staffing as opposed to strategic kind of building a team, and growing a capability to plot a course. 

Carl Smith:
Right, and then that person who comes in when you're overloaded has no chance. Even if they're a great person, cultural fit, understand what you do, they're not going to have any time to get onboarded. They're going to get slammed. Right?

Joe Rinaldi:
Yeah, absolutely.

Carl Smith:
Or it's going to be like we've been paying this person for four months, and nothing has changed except we had a false sense of security, and now it's even worse. 

Bringing them on ahead of time I think is great, but then, well the whole thing is, if that person doesn't understand as an owner, or the former owner of a digital agency, if somebody didn't understand what we were about, what it was we sold, and that it was the experience of working with nGen. There was a by-product of it, which was the product, but why people hired us was because we would tell them no. We would sit in front of a board of directors and say, "That is stupid."

People would hire us to be their hit men. Their marketing hit men, you know?

Joe Rinaldi:
Yeah.

Carl Smith:
And so suddenly a new business person came in, and brought us an elementary school. We would be like we can totally do this work, but they're not going to pay us what everybody else is paying us. So I don't know, I-

Joe Rinaldi:
No, I agree, and I think when biz dev people are brought in, whether it's a sales person that's closing, or it's someone that's in charge of outbound or whatever, there's a huge amount of time it takes just to learn nGen stories, and to learn the case studies, and to learn the history, and go native. That takes time, and even if you're lucky enough that you have somebody that was president of a fan club, and knew all that stuff coming in, which is kind of the way I was with Happy Cog. I had gotten to know that team over a long period of time. I'd done my homework. But even still, coming in, there is an amazing amount of just history you have to internalize in that role that takes a long time to soak in. 

And then, on top of that, that person invariably is not able to spread their time really strategically across closing inbound leads, outbound biz dev, content marketing, social strategy, account management, partnerships. All the things you can be doing in business development, that person is probably brought in as a lifeboat because you're swamped with inbound, so they're day is taken up with vetting and closing; vetting and closing; vetting and closing.

And then when that's slow, when there's a one month lull in inbound, then we'll do some herky-jerky outbound, and fire off a bunch of emails, and then get pissed when no one said, "Oh great! We have a project tomorrow." That's speaking from my experience. It's just there's a lot of work that can clutter up your agenda, and this stuff has to get done, and it's hard to then slice up your time strategically. Because the other thing that I think I've kind of been validated in this in the people I have spoken with, time and time again, is I love the idea, and I was so bought into this myself, and I am the biggest advocate of this at one point, there’s this desire to PM the sales process. Like let's just get organized. Let's try to set some goals. And I'm not saying I'm against goals, but I think what PM-ing the sales process implies to me, is a lot. 

When I think of a project manager, a project manager is a partner to a client. They lead projects. They are not order receivers; they are order givers, and they are masters of their domain, and they make things happen, and they negotiate timelines, and they have domain. And in biz dev, especially with responding to inbound, or deadlines the clients set, you just don't have that reliable week to week schedule, or rapport with the client to where you're a partner yet, where you can actually, "PM" the biz dev process. Biz dev is going to eat when it wants to eat, and it's going to crap when it wants to crap. It's like the tyrannosaurus rex in Jurassic Park. 

So I think you can set big goals, like okay in this quarter I want to make sure that we focus on outbound in this kind of campaign twice. And these two campaigns, I want to make sure they occur sometime between January 1 and April 1. Sometime in that window, I want this to happen. 

But you can't say every week, I'm going to spend 20 hours in inbound, and five hours in outbound, and five hours in account management, and five ... your weeks are chaos. Like, I can't do that this week. I have to fly to Minnesota to pitch someone, and lose two days to travel, and be there for a day. I can't then get that time back to do outbound this week. 

So all that to say it's a lot to orchestrate. There's a lot of options and opportunities you have at your disposal, and by and large, agencies are committed to business development and sales to a point of just enough to handle their existing biz dev needs, that it's hard. It's an incredible expense, and it's a huge leap of faith to get out in front of it and say, "No. What we're going to do is we're going to add another marketing person, or a biz dev person, because we know our goal is to grow by 15% year to year, and that means X number of projects. That means X number of leads. That means that's another person in addition to our biz dev person to give us a chance to accomplish that."

So like I said, it's not an easy decision. It is a luxury in a lot of cases to be able to behave that way, but I've seen how dangerous the opposite can be time and time again.

Carl Smith:
Listening to you share that, I understand now why most digital agency owners, or founders anyway, probably shut down that sales person, and possibly even the biz dev process that they're not involved with. First of all, you do have imposter syndrome. They're worried that people are going to find out they don't know what they're doing, and all that crap. Right?

Joe Rinaldi:
Yeah.

Carl Smith:
But the bigger part is, like when I was running nGen, I hired people that could do the work that we had a history of doing, that we could sell. And we knew that history. And I knew those people. And when you mentioned it, if people don't know the mythology of the company, they can't sit down and share. They can't sit down and share, well, this is why we fired the Girl Scouts. Right? They can't say, well this is why we turned down that project with Microsoft. They can't set that tone because they're like, well that's a horrible thing, I would never say that. 

Actually, it levels the playing field, and for us that's a good thing. So my eyes are opening to the fact that as a founder, as an owner, if you or anybody, actually ... how has anybody who's been at the company for a while, you need to realize that when you bring in somebody to manage, if it's just sales I think that's tough. But if it's a bigger biz dev effort, like helping people with marketing and sharing the work that's going on, and helping create a culture where everybody is excited to share who the company is, the company is going to change. And you have to be ready for that, because they're going to bring in work that wants to come in, not necessarily the work that you want to have come in.

Joe Rinaldi:
Yeah. At the same time, though, I think that's a really interesting point because I'm really interested in the idea of replenishing your network of kind of continually restoring your stock of client contacts or industry contacts or people out there that become part of the web of connections you have. 

And I think that another element in why biz dev has become or grown into less of a set it and forget it reliable part of the business, and maybe more of a challenge for some folks, is I think as your career develops and you spend less time actively cultivating your network, your network kind of waxes and wanes over time. It grows when you're actively meeting people, and making connections, and then it will kind of contract when you're not kind of exercising that the same way, and I think you see sometimes principals in time can start to step a little bit back from the front lines, and they have operational concerns that demand that of them. 

And they have other priorities that start to get in the way. They tend to get older. They tend to have families. They tend to travel less, and socialize less, what had been the by product of being active and social maybe five years ago, now is like a chore. It's a chore to go to refresh Pittsburgh, shake a bunch of hands, and go to those kind of community events. So an owner's network kind of shrinks a little bit over time, and your clients graduate out of a place where they can really help you, or they change careers. 

And I love the idea of as you grow your team, and you kind of reinvest your team. You can reinvigorate your network with the people you bring on. To your point though, it's incredibly helpful to make sure the network that they kind of sweep in with represents the kind of clients you're going to work with. They feel analogous to the kind of projects that you're really excited about. But I think when you can strategically pull that off, and you can kind of amplify your agency or your team's network with your team members, I think that's a really underutilized way to nurture that network.

I think always hire for fit first. Hire for capability. Those are the most important things to look for, but if you have two candidates, and one was a product designer at Evernote for four years, and brings with her a massive network of designers that now are working different product companies, and et cetera, et cetera, I would absolutely hire that person over someone who is equally skilled, who maybe comes from a less dynamic background and doesn't bring that network with them.

Carl Smith:
You know what's interesting? When you're talking about the network, I don't know that I ever thought that way. I think it's absolutely right, but I always thought we were doing stuff in front of people. 

Joe Rinaldi:
Yeah.

Carl Smith: I thought of it as, I never thought of it as these are the people that we know, and we need to make sure we keep finding new people, and we need to do all that. What was interesting, and this was in the late '90s all the way through probably 2006. 2007 it started to fall out of favor, but we used to tag sites, remember? You'd put at the bottom of the site Powered by nGen. 

Joe Rinaldi:
Yep.

Carl Smith:
All that kind of stuff. And then suddenly it became not professional to do that.

Joe Rinaldi:
Right, that became like what a small shop would do, or what a schlocky kind of shop would do.

Carl Smith:
So we got 40% of our leads from those things.

Joe Rinaldi:
From that bread crumb trail.

Carl Smith:
And you know what? It's starting to come back.

Joe Rinaldi:
I think in talking to one of my clients recently, they were quick to identify that a lot of their inbound is triggered by one exact client, and the impression that that client, and that work has made. They field inquiries where people say, "I know you did this work for so and so, we want to talk to you." 

And I think Happy Cog had that with Zappos. And Teehan and Lax had that with Medium. And Metalab had that with Slack. There can be just a signature project that gets so much attention that a webby or something like that will connect the dots. 

But a lot of times, one single project, one single brand, isn't pervasive enough that you can google who redesigned Zappos, and find out. If you looked at a site that was a lesser known brand that didn't have so much buzz around the redesign, then the only way you'd be able oftentimes to discern who did what, is if there was like a link in the footer or some kind of tag there that would kind of bread crumb you back. Or I guess case studies on the agency site, things like that would be another opportunity for that, but the best biz dev ... nothing replaces good work in business development. Period. That's the best biz dev. Good work is the best business development. 

It's just like time and time again, it's such an old axiom, but it's so awfully true that that is the most important element in business development. But if you're not connecting the dots to let people know who did that good work, then it's going to wither and die. You have to market it and promote it. You have to occasionally win awards. You have to write and speak about it. You have to draw attention to your good work. You don't want to be the person trying real hard in the corner hoping people noticed, and not ... don't be that person in the rom com who's like, "I hope they like me." 

You have to really lean into it, and you have to market, and you have to be intentional. And you have to make sure that those stories are told, they're told the right way, told to the right people. They lead back to you in a variety of ways. That's what marketing is. But it's critically important more and more to facilitate that, because there's just so much noise out there. It doesn't happen as seamlessly or as easily as it might have at one point.

Carl Smith:
And I think that becomes one of the issues that a lot of shops have, is the consistency of sharing what they're doing. And content marketing is just two words that were put together that maybe I don't understand what it is, but it sounds like what we've been doing forever. 

Joe Rinaldi:
Yeah, absolutely.

Carl Smith:
Right?

Joe Rinaldi:
I think the guys as Chromatic say this really well. They say, "Go be smart in public." That's what it is. That's what it is. Now is that a blog post? Is it a pod cast? Is it-

Carl Smith:
Giving a talk.

Joe Rinaldi:
Speaking, whatever. All of that is exactly that. Be smart in public. Go have a chance to make that kind of impression, and it is. It's a very tried and true, and very battle-tested approach that everyone under the sun for the most part has invested time and effort in over the past ten years, in some, way shape, or form.

Carl Smith:
Yeah. Joe, thanks so much for being on the show today, and congratulations on all the success with Clutch. I hate to tell you this, but I hear really good things.

Joe Rinaldi:
Thanks, Carl. I appreciate the begrudging support.

Carl Smith:
You're welcome. And we're going to get to hang out this September at Biz Dev Camp, the first ever Biz Dev Camp, which is crazy popular. We all want the answers, so we're going to sit down and try to figure them out together. So I look forward to seeing you there. And for everybody listening, you can find Joe at, www.thatwasclutch.com. I think that's correct, isn't it?

Joe Rinaldi:
Yes, sir.

Carl Smith:
All right, and we'll talk to everybody soon. And be consistent in your biz dev efforts. That's why it's not working, people.

Comment