How we started a digital agency that has helped over 100 brands achieve their business goals

Huemor Rocks Agency feature image
Huemor Rocks Agency founders
Jeff Gapinski and Mike Cleary
Founded: December 2011
No of employees: 15
Location: USA
$125,000 Revenue/mo

Huemor is a digital agency that was started by friends Jeff Gapinski and Mike Cleary. The aim is to provide small businesses with attractive, branded websites that actually meet their business objectives.

Monthly revenue sits at about $125,000 USD per month and Huemor has experienced financial growth each year from the offset. The business broke 1M in 2016 and this year, has plans to achieve 2.2M in sales. Unfortunately, COVID-19 may cause revenue to fall short, but it’s still an impressive goal nonetheless. Jeff tells us more about how the agency started and what’s next.

Who are you and what brand did you start?

My name is Jeff Gapinski, and I started Huemor.

Huemor helps companies big and small discover what makes them unique and channel it into a memorable experience that outsells and outshines their competition online.

Our headquarters is in Pittsburgh, PA and we have a satellite office in Manhattan, NY.

Since opening in 2011, we’ve scaled the company to 15 full-time employees, have worked with over 100 brands, and have earned over 70 international awards, including:

  • The Webbys - runner up for Best Homepage on the internet
  • The Davey Awards - numerous gold/silver awards for clients
  • The W3 Awards - numerous gold/silver awards for clients
  • Horizon Interactive Awards - numerous gold/silver awards for clients, and
  • The Interactive Media Awards - winning best in show for 2018

How did you come up with the idea, brand name and logo for Huemor?

Long Island, NY has approximately 90,000 small businesses between 1-500 employees. That’s a tremendous pool of opportunity for any business.

Back in 2011, when these companies were searching for digital creative services, they were faced with:

  • Hiring a Long Island Company
  • Hiring from NYC

Long Island companies at the time lacked a great deal of experience and specialization with digital. They were mostly traditional ad agencies that had tacked on digital services, or IT companies that had done the same. In either case, it was more of a side dish for them than the main course.

NYC companies at the time were more sophisticated. Several shops existed that focused solely on digital, but they were prohibitively expensive for most small businesses.

Our goal when creating Huemor was to provide a specialized, digital service for small businesses in the Long Island and greater New York area at a price they could afford.

Huemor is an amalgamation of Hue (color) and More (as in, well… more). We also really enjoyed the double entendre of “Humor” as we wanted to provide companies with a fun, on-their-level approach to brand building.

Our symbol is a fragmented color wheel as a nod to the ‘Hue’ in our name.

Describe the process of launching Huemor?

Both Mike and I were working full-time at agencies and doing freelance work on the side when we started Huemor. We didn’t sleep much back then.

Start-up costs didn’t really exist beyond hosting, a domain name, and some business cards.

We had an idea and direction for the company, but to be completely honest, didn’t spend a ton of time formalizing anything. We had gotten a referral from one of our freelance clients to a wholesale cosmetics brand looking to create an e-commerce website.

For us, it was a huge win. The project was the largest (by far) we had worked on and the brand seemed like it had limitless potential. It also forced us to recruit help beyond ourselves because while I was a pretty solid front-end developer, I lacked the PHP (Personal Home Page) knowledge required to drive much of the e-commerce store.

After we had successfully completed that initial project, we ended up signing a year-long retainer with that cosmetics company. The rest is history.

Since launch, what has worked best to attract and retain customers?

The majority of our customers come from two places:

  • Inbound leads via discovering our website
  • Referrals from past clients

Creating an inbound pipeline for our business early on was essential, as neither Mike or I had a ton of pre-existing connections. We placed a really big focus on SEO, awards, and industry directories to build our initial visibility.

Referrals from past clients have been critical as well and, luckily, it’s a resource that compounds every year we’re in business. Making sure the relationship that happens after the sale is just as successful as the relationship prior to the sale is absolutely critical. We also send our clients gifts at certain milestones with the project (project start, project commencement).

In more recent times, we’ve been focusing on content marketing to more specific segments which you can see on our revamped blog section (https://insights.huemor.rocks/). Our goal is to produce really high-quality content that marketing managers, content managers, and business owners will gain value from, and eventually convert them into customers when they’re at a point where they want to make a serious investment in their online presence.

We’ve also started to embark on prospecting and outbound sales as we try to scale. This is still very new and untested for us, but so far it seems promising.

With regards to business growth, how have things changed from a digital, revenue, customer and sales perspective?

In the last 18 months, we’ve become much more focused as an organization - both in terms of our goals and what we’re actually offering to clients.

Our start back in 2011 was pretty humble. We started in Jeff’s basement (it was not a nice basement).

  • After 6 months or so, we got our first office above a bar in Massapequa, Long Island. (It was 500 SQ/FT)
  • After another 6 months or so, we moved to our second office in Farmingdale, Long Island. It was a renovated industrial space just under 2,000 SQ/FT. We resided there for 4 years.
  • In 2017, we officially opened up our second office in Pittsburgh, PA. It was located on the 31st floor of the PPG building in the center of downtown.
  • In 2018, we shut down our Farmingdale office and moved to a smaller location in midtown Manhattan.
  • In 2019, we moved our offices from downtown Pittsburgh to the east side where we currently reside in our 2,500 SF/FT facility.

Since opening our office in Pittsburgh, it’s been a natural shift from NY being our headquarters. We had migrated some employees over, and now both myself and Mike reside in Pittsburgh full-time.

From a financial perspective, each year from our start we experienced growth. 2016 was a notable one - we broke the 1M mark for the first time. This year we aim to break the 2M mark, but may fall short due to COVID-19.

How is the business doing today and what does the future look like?

At the end of last year, we projected 2.2M in sales for 2020. Since the COVID-19 pandemic has hit, sales numbers have been off from this target.

In the short-term, we plan on continuing a slow and steady expansion in the greater Pittsburgh area. Longer-term, we’d like to start to build up our NYC location and possibly open up another location on the west coast.

As of now, Mike and I don’t have a formal exit plan. The agency provides us with a comfortable living and it’s enjoyable. If the right acquisition offer came along we’d consider it, but until then we plan on sticking around.

What’s been the biggest learning experience since starting your own brand?

Advice I’d give a new agency owner is:

Don’t be afraid to fail. You’re going to fail, a lot. Make sure each failure becomes a learning opportunity. Really analyze what went wrong and come up with actionable steps to be better next time.

Don’t chase revenue. We had a burst of sales in 2016 and grew our team really quickly. Problem was, our infrastructure and processes didn’t grow with us quickly enough and we had to back-peddle in 2017. Instead of chasing gross revenue, focus on being efficient and profitable. Once you get to a place where you’re comfortable with how things are being run, identify what’s making it a success and plan for your expansion. Start by identifying your costs and then use that to project your sales.

What are your top 3 tips for website design?

1) Always Start With Your Customer:

Before you start any design project, you should start by understanding your customer. It's critical, as a business owner, to understand what influences their buying decisions. Interview existing customers that you feel fit the mold of an ideal client and pick their brain. Turn all of those points into a user persona, and then let that be your starting point for everything that comes after.

2) Don't Underestimate Copy:

It's rare to find small businesses with really good looking websites, it's even rarer to find small businesses with really good copywriting. It's great to have a professional-looking website, but it needs to sound the part as well. Good copy will help build your brand's personality and influence conversions. Unless you have a background in writing, let a professional help you. You can find affordable copywriters in a lot of places either locally or through services like Verbilo.

3) Test Things Out:

Don't assume anything. It's imperative that you actually run real tests from time-to-time to see what works and what doesn't. Use tools like Google Optimize or Optimizely to help set and measure the tests. Use tools like Hotjar to see how your customers are interacting with the website. This level of scrutiny will add tons of revenue to your business over time.

If you're interested in learning more about how you can implement these things and more, be sure to check out our website optimization series. We go really in-depth on all aspects of websites from homepage design, about page design, service page design, product pages, category pages, checkout, and more.

What are some of your favorite online business tools you use to run Huemor?

TypeTool Name
PlatformWordPress, Hubspot
Project ManagementAsana, Everhour
AnalyticsGoogle Analytics, Hubspot Analytics, Hotjar
AccountingQuickBooks
ProductivityAsana, Everhour, Slack
AdvertisingSEMRush
Social Media ToolsHubspot
SalesHubspot
SEOSEMRush
DesignSketch, InVision App
MarketingHubspot

See what business tools other founders are using here.

What have been the most influential books, podcasts or other educational resources?

All businesses should read Profit First by Mike Michalowicz. It has changed my business entirely.

For agency owners I’d suggest reading Traction, by Gino Wickman and Built to Sell by John Warrillow.

Who have been the most influential people for you during this business journey?

My wife has been a rock for me. Also Joel Burnstein has been an amazing resource for Mike and I regarding sales, and frankly, business in general.

Any other advice you’d like to share with other aspiring entrepreneurs?

Owning and operating your own business is no joke. The amount of time, energy, and resilience it takes to keep up with it cannot be understated. It will be one of those most harrowing and rewarding things you’ll ever do if you decide to embark down this path.

Are you looking to hire for certain positions right now or open to new investors?

We’re temporarily paused on new hires at the moment, but are always looking for talented people to join our team. You can learn more by visiting our careers page.

Where can we go to learn more about your current offers/promotions/programs?

We offer two key services to businesses: Build and Grow.

We also have a ton of helpful content surrounding website strategy for marketing managers, content managers, and business owners on how they can make the most of their online presence.

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