7 lessons learned building Omniscient to $1M+ “on the side”

I started working on Omniscient Digital with my co-founder, David Ly Khim, in 2019.

Both of us harbored dreams of entrepreneurship and had been doing a lot of individual consulting. We had wanted to build a SaaS product, but when we found there was demand for our content services, we jumped at the opportunity.

For two years, we experimented a lot, but the business stayed at side hustle size, never more than a few clients at a time.

However, in the last year or so, the agency looks like…well, a business. We brought on our third co-founder, Allie Decker, and now have a team of several full time and part time employees. This month (May 2022), we’ve collected over $150k in revenue.

So obviously, I’m jumping in full time now. Fully focused on the agency, I’ve reclaimed a level of ambition and motivation I haven’t felt since I was 22, scared and green, but determined to prove myself.

My mind is largely positioned towards the future, so I wanted to take this moment to write down what I’ve learned up to this point in building a $1M+ revenue business while working a full time job.

1. Build a business with your best friends

Part of the reason it’s been such a joy building the agency is because I started it with two of my closest friends, David Khim and Allie Decker.

Our goals and values are all very aligned; our operating styles are perfectly complementary.

I come from a growth and experimentation background, and I’m liable to throw out multi-year abstract thought experiments. I love the sales side of things and motivating the team.

David also comes from a growth and product management background, and he’s one of the best systems thinkers I’ve ever met. He perfectly balances today’s needs with tomorrow’s plans.

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Allie is a writer and craftsperson that wouldn’t allow us to skimp on quality (if we ever wanted to). She’s the Don Draper to my Roger Sterling, and is the creative force behind our services.

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We’ve also all grown to become close friends and confidants, which is great because a business partnership can be likened to a marriage in its commitment level.

Because we grew this on the side, we had some challenges, the most obvious of these being time and energy levels.

So in addition to our partitioning of roles (me: sales, David: ops, Allie: services), we also kept each other balanced each week with an “energy check-in.”

These energy check-ins are based on Brene Brown’s “50/50 myth,” which is described here:

“People aren’t built to have one consistent energy level. We can’t always be up to our 50% of our emotional contribution. This is also true for our partner. It’s unrealistic to expect everyone to contribute the same share when it comes to relationships.

Instead, our efforts or contributions should complement each other. There may be times where we need to contribute more. There are also other times where it’s ok to contribute less. Relationships that last are those where one partner is willing to be at 80% when the other is only at 20%.

When we complement each other in relationships, we can cooperate and get to 100%.”

Some weeks, David would have a massive amount of meetings and would clock in at 30%. Then, Allie and I would know we needed to support David or give him some breathing room.

Some weeks, Allie would be at 90%, and thus willing to take on extra tasks with the additional energy levels.

Because I’m addicted to caffeine, I’m pretty much always above 75% (kidding…sort of).

We still do this check-in every single week with our team in our all-hands, and it’s a great way to get a pulse check on everyone’s motivation and energy (and importantly, to avoid burnout).

2. Hire awesome people

This almost goes without saying. It’s literally the advice given in every business book and essay about growing a company.

The people you work with are everything.

Building Omniscient while working full time jobs allowed us to forgo a salary and instead invest it in hires who could level our business up. We wanted to bring in ambitious people who could do things we couldn’t do.

We brought in Karissa to help us grow our audience (through the blog, podcast, YouTube, and our gated offers and events). Doing so was absolutely pivotal in getting us to the place we are with our marketing, especially the fact that we’ve published well over 50 (!) podcasts.

We brought in Glenn to develop content & SEO strategies for clients. His work has been critical in our high retention rate with clients and he’s innovated and built a few new services and tools for us to offer.

We brought in Seema to scale our SEO and content editorial, and she’s not only excelled there but has also contributed to a ton of new and interesting growth ideas for the business.

Mason has been foundational in building out our digital PR program, guest writing program, and link networks. We now have an asset that very few other organizations can compete with, and it’s only growing.

And Sam is the managing editor we dreamed of hiring, someone with experience managing and scaling programs with hundreds of writers and moving pieces. Someone who deeply cares about leveling up writers but also in achieving process efficiency and leverage.

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The team will only grow from here, but the team we’ve brought on up to this point will always impress me in their talent, spirit, and energy.

Hiring also includes a lot of freelance writers who we couldn’t have done this without. I can’t list everyone here because we work with dozens and dozens, but we really did bring in the most talented people we could, and that has also helped our high retention and satisfaction with clients.

It also forced us to better articulate our ideal customer profile and our positioning, as our costs associated with our high end writers meant we also needed to charge quite a bit more than most competitors.

We get the results to back it up 😉 but we still need to hone our messaging so people buy-in in the first place.

3. Will it make the boat go faster?

In building a substantial business on the side, we learned all about ruthless prioritization.

Simply put, we couldn’t waste our time on shit that doesn’t matter.

When we first started, I think David and I probably *did* spend time on things we shouldn’t have. We didn’t know any better. And we didn’t have the impetus of a growing team to focus our attention.

But we kept each other accountable through the journey, always asking “is this the most important thing I can be working on?” And if not, we’d scrap it for the moment. And if it didn’t move the boat (i.e. grow the company or improve our business health), we wouldn’t do it at all.

Quick aside: “will it make the boat go faster” is a phrase originated by the British rowing team. It was a guiding principle where, in the face of any option or action, they would ask, “will it make the boat go faster?” If the answer was no, they didn’t do it.

For us, this involved balancing Eisenhower’s four quadrants, particularly things that were “important and urgent” (short term stuff) with “important but not urgent” (long term stuff).

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For instance, we knew we’d eventually draw inbound traffic with our blog. But we deliberately ignored that early on because we knew a) it would be a long cycle before it produced leads and b) our blog DR was too low to compete on the high intent keywords we wanted.

Instead, we launched a podcast to build brand affinity and get our target market onto the podcast. And we did direct sales to our network and incentivized referrals, all while we slowly built links to the website in the meantime through quotes in other articles and link requests.

Now we’re at a point where we can compete on blogging, so we’ll work on scaling up that channel.

But this is the thing: we didn’t try to do it all at once. We did what was impactful, and let the small fires burn.

4. This should be fun

Another interesting cultural artifact that resulted from us starting this on the side: we wanted it to be fun. Actually, we *needed* it to be fun, otherwise we couldn’t have mustered the nights and weekend energy to work on it.

This sounds obvious, but many service businesses operate from not only a scarcity mentality, but a “all revenue is good revenue” mentality.

The principle (and reminder) “this should be fun” made it so we didn’t take on clients who we didn’t think we would like working with. That actually allowed us to scale much better because we were choosy with who we worked with. We defined a good target client, and we also avoided the energy suck of shitty clients (and oh boy, are there clear red flags).

This also guides us in our daily decision making. Of course, there will be things that you’re not absolutely ecstatic about working on, but they still need to be done. But any time there’s a piece of work we repeatedly do that we hate, we step back and question it. Can this be automated? Can it be outsourced? Can it be neglected entirely? What would the cost of eliminating this be?

We ask this of our team as well. I think if you’re passionate about what you’re doing, it just leads to better work, more energy, and a flywheel of infectious enthusiasm.

We now have several guiding principles that we use to manage our company. They’re all available for viewing on our website:

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5. Letting go of perfectionism and control (or, automating and outsourcing)

On the idea of outsourcing, automation, and elimination: it was hard.

All of the co-founders, myself included, are self-proclaimed perfectionists. Or at least, we were. I think we’ve made tons of progress in this area. I’m now a former perfectionist.

Building this on side, though, was a forcing function that effectively made micromanagement and perfectionism impossible. We *had* to outsource stuff, and trust those to whom we outsourced it.

Obviously, this includes hiring our current team, but even before then we had to get comfortable with letting go:

  • Doing a podcast without a full strategy and plan to distribute it.
  • Creating and launching a course in only two months.
  • Experimenting with outsourcing various aspects of our writing and marketing.

Not all the outsourcing experiments worked, but each one pushed us further outside our comfort zones.

I’m happy to say that, while there are some things I could still let go of, we’re all much better at doing this today. It’s a psychological battle and it takes practice, but it’s crucial for scaling a company.

6. The long tail of serendipity

Over many, many years and hustling, each of us co-founders have built valuable personal and professional networks.

David and I did a bunch of public speaking. I used to go to like 10 conferences a year. Allie built a successful freelance business and an influential Twitter presence. I wrote hundreds of articles for CXL.

And we all worked at HubSpot, where we built a great network as well.

All of these things helped us massively when we were starting the agency and they continue to help us out.

The thing about an agency is it’s hard to predict what’s going to bring you clients. Content marketing can work, podcasting can work, sales can work. But you have to get the timing right; if someone’s not looking for a $10k+ agency, they’re simply not interested in doing a deal.

You have to be on someone’s mind at the time of interest. And that’s where long tail connections have paid off.

People I met at conferences years ago, people who have read my blog posts from CXL in 2016, people who were at HubSpot but left to lead new companies…they’ve all helped us along the way.

I call it the “long tail of serendipity,” because there’s no single action or event or thing we did or can do to predict this stuff, and of course, there’s a lot of serendipity involved.

But the cumulative advantage to having done all these things made it way easier to start, build, and scale this agency. We have no intention to stop doing these things that helped bring about serendipitous opportunities.

7. Balancing long, short, and infinite games

The short game is to get to $250k/mo by the end of this year.

The long game is to build a stellar company where our employees can develop personally and professionally.

The infinite game is to continue building and treating work like play. Enjoying what we do and building the financial freedom and options to do that.

It’s important to keep all of these in mind as you go about your daily business. If you forget the short term games, you’ll never get to live out your infinite game. You’ll just be day dreaming.

But if you only focus on the short term stuff, you suffer a lot of stress and potentially burnout. You become what you swore you’d never become, and you lose yourself and the vision of your long term life.

We do biweekly founder calls to keep the short games aligned with the long games and the infinite games we all want to keep playing.

Conclusion

While I could have jumped sooner, I’m glad I started Omniscient while working full time.

It gave me the runway to try out interesting things, and it created forcing functions that ended up creating a healthier business from both a cultural and financial perspective.

Now it’s time to scale. I want to build a remarkable company. And I’ve never been so excited in my career to work on something.

Alex Birkett
Alex Birkett is a product growth and experimentation expert as well as co-founder of Omniscient Digital, a premium content marketing agency. He enjoys skiing, making and experiencing music, reading and writing, and language learning. He lives in Austin, Texas with his dog, Biscuit.

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