Was hiring an agency for my e-commerce side hustle a masterstroke or a master fail?

Brooke Hemphill
By Brooke Hemphill | 3 June 2024
Brooke Hemphill.

Working with agencies should have adequately prepared me to hire one for my own business. Right? Brooke Hemphill asks the question.

After running a successful PR consultancy for almost a decade, I did something unexpected. In late 2023, I launched Curlytops, a small e-commerce business.

It took 30 years of fighting my naturally curly hair but I finally figured out how to look after it. I wanted to share this new-found wisdom, along with the products I found helpful. So I decided to create an online store.

How hard could it be to run an e-commerce business, I thought. It’ll be fun. Something to get me off my computer!

And indeed, it’s shockingly easy to set up an online store which is why every Tom, Dick and Sally is out there flogging coasters made from their underarm hair or whatever.

It is, however, slightly more challenging if you want to make actual money while doing it.

As I soon discovered, this requires a dedicated exercise in marketing. Obviously, right? And that, in turn, involves a shitload of time at the computer working on SEO, social media, content creation and a whole lot of other things that quickly gave me a pain in the neck.

As a marketing communications consultant and former industry reporter, I’ve spent years watching from the sidelines as my clients create and run campaigns for their clients. I guess you could say I’m something of a marketing voyeur.

While this has given me an understanding of the principles of marketing, I’m no CMO.  And when it came to paid media for my fledgling e-commerce store, after a couple of months of trial and error, I knew I would be throwing money away if I kept going.

So I hired an agency.

“You hired an agency to run your ads? Oh.”

The look on the business coach’s face said it all. I’d done something bad.

“Many of the people we work with have been burned by agencies,” she went on.

It’s a message I’ve seen reinforced by ads targeting small business owners on social media – usually from other agencies spruiking their wares and increasingly from AI platforms that claim to automate your campaigns and increase your ROAS or they’ll keep working for free until they do.

But after all these years of working with agencies, I had faith there were good ones out there. I felt like I had a decent handle on vetting and selecting one. Client reviews and success stories seemed like a good barometer. As well as experience in my category. I did my due diligence and got some advice from one of my agency clients about questions to ask and things to look out for.

I felt like I’d made a smart decision. But maybe it was an epic mistake. The business coach certainly seemed to think so. Then again, she was trying to spruik her own services that were worth a similar figure to my new agency’s rates. To be fair, she did give me a couple of good pieces of advice.

That’s the thing about the e-commerce space. There’s no end to the ‘experts’ and ‘gurus’. Granted, some are legit but plenty are simply making sales pitches dressed up as help for you and your business.

You only need to linger too long on an Instagram ad for SEO backlinks before the spamming starts. Give them your email in exchange for a free report on how to grow your database then get ready for the avalanche. You’re in their funnel now. They’re not going to let you go until you opt out.

And forget about those free webinars promising you the secrets to ranking number one on Google or the pre-launch strategy that will double your sales overnight. They seem promising but after tuning into one too many, I’m here to tell you not to bother since they all follow the same formula of giving you enough information to confuse the shit out of you leaving you convinced you must pay for whatever it is that they are selling.

Navigating the space is challenging and, I imagine, a microcosm of what CMOs with big marketing budgets are doing every day – trying to determine the snake oil salesmen from the genuinely helpful.

After my chat with the business coach, I spent several sleepless nights wondering if I was about to lose a stack of money.

Three months in, you’ll be pleased to hear I haven’t. Sales have seen a marked increase. Average order value is up. And while we’re still a little ways off our target Marketing Efficiency Rating, it’s definitely tracking upwards.

If you're pondering whether to hire an agency for your business, do your homework, trust your instincts, and be prepared for the naysayers.

Right now, engaging an agency seems less like a gamble and more like a calculated step towards growing my business. And while the road to e-commerce success is fraught with as many pitfalls as possibilities, understanding your limitations is smart. So is navigating the path with the help of the right professionals.

Brooke Hemphill is a marketing communications consultant and the founder of Curlytops.

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