Hitting Capacity: When UpBuild’s Cup Runneth Over

For the last two weeks, I’ve been sending emails to prospective UpBuild clients to let them know we’re not going to work with them. Well, at least not for another month or two. Why? Because our team is at capacity and asking a business to pay us money for technical marketing consulting when we’re not able to service them to the absolute best of our ability is wrong. Is that a polarizing statement? It shouldn’t be.

In my experience, it’s essentially a coin toss as to whether or not this will cause us to lose the opportunity to get a client’s business. I’m more than okay with that. I’m honestly proud of it.

In this post, I’d like to explain why UpBuild turns clients away or puts them on a waiting list rather than trying — as most other agencies would — to make the sale and continue growing the business.

How Did It Come to This?

In my agency experience prior to founding UpBuild, it was not uncommon for me to find myself with upwards of 20 clients in my care. That’s 20 businesses whose SEO I was responsible for. You can already see where this is going, right?

If you’ll bear with me through some math, let’s assume that I divide my time equally among those 20 clients. Out of the 40 hours I get in the office per week, we need to take away at least 4 hours for the internal company meetings that most agencies hold regularly.

Then consider the 2 hours that it typically takes to generate a monthly report each month. Plus a 1-hour call with each client every other week and call that 4 hours per month total. That’s one more hour per week per client that we must further subtract.

40 hoursStandard work week
– 4 hoursCompany meetings
– 20 hours1 hour for maintenance on average
x 20 clients
= 16 hoursfree hours available for 20 clients

That leaves me with 16 weekly hours free, which equates to .8 hours per client.

16 hoursremaining hours free
/ 20
# of clients
= .8 hourstime to left for each client

And, oh wait, we’ve not accounted at all for:

  1. having multiple people from the agency [usually between 2 and 5] on each call, and
  2. all the time that an Account Manager likely needs to spend routing communication between the client and the SEO team.

Let’s underestimate to the extreme and say that I’m left with .5 hours for each client after all that. The conversion here is simple, but I hope it’s shocking nonetheless. Our grand total is 30 minutes per week that I have to actually work on improving a client’s SEO position!! Is that crazy? Yes!

Photo credit: https://unsplash.com/@tjump

The other shameful secret of many agencies is that the math above only represents what the agency is getting paid for (i.e., how many hours per month are “in scope”). The reality is that fire drills and other emergencies happen all the time. What this often leads to is a situation in which the SEO practitioner spends 8-12 hours in a week addressing a critical situation for a particular client to the detriment of all their other clients. Sadly, the workload is seldom lessened and the cycle continues.

Yet, all that the agency (specifically, its sales team) has to do is sign new clients at a faster rate than it loses them.

while(acquisition >= attrition) { everything = dandy};

The tragedy is that no one who’s aware of this issue is happy about it (with the possible exception of the agency’s shareholders and/or partners), yet it continues and is enshrined as “agency life”. Furthermore, it’s only a matter of time before client after client has the realization that they haven’t been treated like the high-needs, prioritized, fire drill client and they begin to as where their results are. That’s when the wheels start to come off of the party bus.

How We’re Working to Change That

I’m fond of making the crack that “everyone at UpBuild shares similar agency trauma” and this situation is at the root of a lot of it. When I founded UpBuild with the goal of building an agency that was the best place in the world for people like me to be able to work, I knew that this issue had to be addressed. Hence, UpBuild was founded with a Day One rule that we’ve never (@team, correct me if I’m wrong) broken:

Senior Marketing Strategists are limited to having 4 clients max. Full stop.

That means that in a standard 40-hour week, they have 25% of that time to work for their clients. We don’t have an account management layer, we don’t do monthly reports (which most people never read anyway), and we keep meetings to a bare minimum.

What happens when our 4 Senior Marketing Strategists all have 4 clients each? What does UpBuild do when we’re at our theoretical and philosophical capacity? We get in touch with all the prospects in our Client Discovery pipeline and let them know we can’t work with them.

…yet. It’s not a permanent thing; it’s just that we’re going to have to slow our roll in the proposal process and pray that doing so doesn’t lose us their business. Sometimes a client is completely understanding and, luckily, their true goal is often finding the right SEO partner, even if it takes a bit longer. Sometimes, a prospective client simply can’t wait, and who in the organic search space could possibly fault them for walking away? The ideal start date for some is “yesterday” and in those cases, my only hope is that we can point them in a good direction so that they can get the assistance they need sooner than later.

The Downside

The downside of us drawing this line in the sand is that we’re opting out of the chance to earn more revenue. Profit will — with 100% certainty — not be as high as it would have been if we’d decided to take on all comers.

Photo credit: https://unsplash.com/@gooner

The second and more deeply hidden downside is that of potentially burning bridges. I’m rarely concerned about the money; my deep-seated insecurity (for better or worse) lies in letting people down. While most will understand our position when they get the news, some don’t. Sometimes you can clearly read the boiling annoyance between the lines of a terse email response. Other times, you just never hear from that prospective client again.

The last downside is that this can cost us the opportunity to work with a client we’re legitimately excited about working with. If Headspace, Brain.fm, or Slack came calling this week, I’d be asking them to join our two-month waitlist, just as I would for supercomfysocks.com (No, that doesn’t exist).

But seriously, dream client, please still fill out our contact form so we can chat. You never know when our workload could change.

The Upside

The upside here is massive. While the loss of revenue is very real, the fact that we’re experiencing a capacity “problem” means that our revenue and profit are fine. More than fine. If my goal with this business were exponential revenue growth, then this would be far more concerning. Luckily, my goal with this business is to do “just a bit more than fine”, thank-you-very-much.

The real upside here is that it’s good for the team. Sure, we all feel overwhelmed by work from time to time — even in the best circumstances — but when being overwhelmed is the norm, then it becomes a problem. My hope is that our policy ensures that overwhelm is perpetually kept as an exception rather than the rule.

Another related benefit is that, by turning away clients when we’re at capacity, we can actually do amazing work! When the UpBuild framework is operating as intended, team members can spend 25% or more of their mental energy and time working on each client’s respective wicked problems. That’s a game changer, right?

Here’s another upside: I get to keep my word to our team and deliver on the brand promise that we make when hiring new team members: that UpBuild is going to be the best agency SEO setting you ever experienced working at.

The last and perhaps most valuable benefit from a business standpoint is the confidence this instills in the clients who do wait around to work with us. What better way to put our money where our mouth is than to prove that when you work with UpBuild, you’re getting our absolute focus, all the time and effort that you’re paying for, and a team that isn’t overwhelmed and burned out.

Wrapping Up

Focus is simultaneously one of our most important company values and a key selling point. Will maintaining and defending our Focus in such an extreme way cost us revenue, turn off prospective clients who we’d otherwise love to work with, and limit our growth? Absolutely.

But can we log off of our computers each night and feel proud of the time and attention we’ve given to our active clients? Can we feel great about this idealistic company we’re building together? You bet we can.

Until next time, happy optimizing.

Featured photo credit: https://unsplash.com/@alexandru_stavrica

Written by
Mike founded UpBuild in 2015 and served as its CEO for seven years, before passing the torch to Ruth Burr Reedy. Mike remains with the company today as Head of Business Operations.

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