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How finding focus drives agency growth (featuring Max Borges)

Getting away from an "anything for money" mentality to build a business that works for you

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Chip is joined by Max Borges of the appropriately-named Max Borges Agency who talks about the evolution of his agency, including how he got started with no PR experience.

When he got started, Max was like many agency owners: he did anything for money. Over time, he got smarter to build an agency that worked for him.

Max discusses how he found focus for his agency and the difference it made in driving growth. He also shares the reason why ex-salespeople make great media relations professionals.

Finally, Max offers practical advice on how agency leaders can improve their websites to attract the right clients — and scare off the bad fits.

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Transcript

The following is a computer-generated transcript. Please listen to the audio to confirm accuracy.

Chip Griffin 

And welcome to another episode of Chats with Chip. I’m your host, Chip Griffin. And I am very pleased to have with me today, Max Borges, the CEO of the appropriately named Max Borges Agency. Welcome to the show, Max.

Max Borges 

Hey, Chip, great to be here.

Chip Griffin 

So I’m going to guess you spent a lot of time Wargaming the name of the agency and, and figuring out the different permutations. Right? Right, exactly. Well,

Max Borges 

look, if if I knew how successful the agency was going to become, I probably wouldn’t have named it after myself. But if things worked out,

Chip Griffin 

you know, they tend to, and I know other entrepreneurs who have had agencies or consulting practices where they have fought the same thing. But you know, hey, at least people know who the big shot at the agency is. Right? Right. So tell us a little bit about the the max borders agency.

Max Borges 

So max board, this agency is the only agency in the country, probably in the world that is 100%, focused on doing PR for consumer tech companies. So it’s kind of a double niche, it’s PR, but it’s for consumer tech companies. And it’s that focus that really enabled a lot of the things that make our company very special. And we’re 50 employees, almost $10 million in revenue. And we’ve been around for 18 years.

Chip Griffin 

Fantastic. And so 18 years ago, why did you decide to start an agency?

Max Borges 

Actually, I didn’t, I was, I was looking for a job. And I sent out over 100, resumes couldn’t get anybody to hire me. And I had one company, where, you know, I knew someone there and they threw me a bone and gave me a kind of a consulting gig working from my little crappy apartment. And that became my first client. And from there, I thought, Oh, this isn’t taking all day, and it actually pays pretty good. Maybe I can get another client. And so I did that. And then I hired some part time help. And then I got another client and just, you know, and I call that the AFM stage of my business, because it’s the anything for money stage, I would basically do anything anybody would pay me to do. And but, you know, with a purpose, and that purpose was trying to figure out ultimately, you know, what were we going to be and what we were going to do when we first started, I was doing a lot of like special events work and advertising work and things like that. Even in the first few years of business, I didn’t realize that we were going to eventually become a PR agency focusing on consumer technology.

Chip Griffin 

I think your story is, in some ways, not dissimilar for many agencies, you’re sort of an accidental agency owner. But that’s how I got into the game myself. I was in politics, I was unemployed. But instead of saying I was unemployed, I called myself a consultant. And lo and behold, I accidentally built my first agency. But there is from what I understand of your background, a slight difference in that you don’t really have a background in PR prior to that,

Max Borges 

right? I have no no PR experience. And I never worked at an agency. And in fact, I never even went to college, I’ve always been kind of an entrepreneurial person and tried starting lots of different businesses. And it’s interesting, because I’ve, in the past, I’ve always tried starting businesses, this is the first business I didn’t actually try to start, it just kind of happened accidentally. And it’s one that I was able to build into something, you know, truly successful.

Chip Griffin 

But that’s a great point, too, because I think that it’s very difficult to force entrepreneurship. And so you really do need to find the right fit at the right time. And, and that’s not always something that you can set out, say, okay, by this date, I’m going to start a business.

Max Borges 

Right. And I think the other advantage that I had, and the thing that I learned from my experience was that, because in this particular case, I didn’t really have a plan. It allowed me to be a little bit open minded in what direction we were going to go over time. And so you know, in the past, anytime I, I started a business, I had a very specific idea specific goals specific plan of what I was trying to accomplish. And I think that probably handicap me from being flexible enough to adjust and to pivot as necessary as the business grew. But with this agency, what I was able to do is kind of look at the different clients that we started working with, and seeing which ones were more successful, which ones were easier for us to work with. And ultimately what ended up happening is about four years into it, I had, I don’t know, eight employees, 10 employees and maybe 10 or 15 clients. And we were doing almost a million dollars worth a year worth of business, which wasn’t bad, except I was going crazy. It was just so busy. And I had so many things going on, and I couldn’t see how I was going to be able to scale from that point on. And so I remember one night in frustration You know, going home and sitting at the kitchen table, and just making a list and this was based on, you know, I was reading a good to great by Jim Collins, I was reading straight from the gut by jack welch and Rockefeller habits by Vern harnish, three really good books that both had the same message, which was figure out what you can be the best at. And so I went home that night, and I made a list of all of the clients who were happy, and who weren’t requiring me personally to kind of jump in and save the day all the time. And then a list of the clients that were requiring my help. And what I realized, is that much the list of clients that didn’t need me at all was about 70% of our clients. And they were all consumer tech clients that we were doing media relations for everything that wasn’t consumer tech, media relations, we was requiring my input and my help. So I was spending 90% of my time on 30% of our clients. And I realized, if I could just not work on that 30% of the clients, I would be, I’d have nothing to do, but I still have 70% of my business. Well, what that would do is it would allow me to focus on getting more of those kinds of clients. And so I’ve shifted my focus toward business more toward business development, and toward getting more consumer tech clients. And I also realize that if we focus just on consumer tech Media Relations, that we could be, we could become the best in the world at it, because we’d already figured out a few things that were pretty cool. One of the things that I figured out very easily very early on, was that if I hired salespeople to do Media Relations, they were way better at it than people who went to communication school, because nobody that goes to communication school goes there thinking I want to bang the phones all day calling up, press, right. It’s not their goal. And so but you hire sales people to do a media relations job. And it’s like shooting fish in a bucket for them, because they’re used to going in and closing a deal where they have to get paid. Now, they’re just basically sending free product samples to media in exchange for coverage. That’s easy for them to do. And that’s what it is that we learned early on. And so I hired salespeople in the beginning to do the media relations work. And they were generating tons of press coverage for our clients and doing a great job with it. So I thought, Okay, this, this is working. And this is this is really cool. So if we can just focus on the media relations, we can put a lot more systems and processes in place, I know you talked a lot about putting systems and processes in place. And that’s a whole lot easier when you have a focus than if you’re a million different things, because it’s kind of hard to system systematize a variety of different things. But when you’re doing the same thing over and over again, for every single client, it’s a lot easier to put those systems and processes in place. So I realized that by focusing that I was going to be able to build an agency that that that could one day be the best in the world at what it does. And today, that’s exactly what we are.

Chip Griffin 

There’s a lot I’d like to explore there. But the first thing that jumps out at me is this notion of hiring salespeople to do pitching, I think it’s a really interesting insight. What does it take to to convert a salesperson or traditional salesperson into a media picture? Is it does it take a lot of coaching? Do they really fall into it naturally? You know, talk a little bit about that, because I think this is going to be a new concept to most listeners.

Max Borges 

Yeah, it didn’t take much at all. Because, you know, with, especially with consumer tech, the product was the idea was the pitch. So you didn’t have to come up with a creative way to present the product, because the product was the creative idea. So all you really had to do was write a very, very basic press release, talked about what the product was. And then the real job was calling up tons of media. And with my employee number two, was a guy named Ted Miller. And he was, you know, really a sales guy at heart. And he was the guy who really helped me discover that salespeople could do a better job at Media Relations than communications. People could. And, you know, I remember the first time we got a PR client, and he said, Well, what do I do, I said, just go to Barnes and Noble. And look at all the magazines and the mastheads figure out who the you know who the people are writing about this kind of product, write down their name, write down their email address and and get their phone number, contact them, send them samples and ask them to write about it. And that’s what he did. And six months later, we had a huge fat book of clips and the client was thrilled and we got a raise and we leveraged that success to get more clients and more clients and more clients.

Chip Griffin 

I mean, it really makes a lot of sense because the process is very similar and you can just as easily Use tool like Salesforce or something like that to track your media outreach. So if you can use the same tools that a salesperson would use, why not actually use people who have sales training? You know, for that kind of process?

Max Borges 

Yeah, absolutely. And I mean, back then we didn’t even have Salesforce, because that was back in, like, 2003. So we just used Excel. And, and, you know, it’s, it’s not rocket science, you know, it’s, it’s really not that that difficult if you’ve got some common sense and, and you’re organized and detail oriented, and, and this particular guy was all those things. And so I use that as the model for hiring, you know, additional people from that point on.

Chip Griffin 

Now, what’s the dynamic for the people on your team? For those who have a sales background versus those who have a more traditional communications background? I mean, in in a normal enterprise environment, sales and PR, have a fair bit of tension, shall we say? But you’re as an agency where everybody’s on the same team? Have you found anything you’ve had to work through there? Do they learn from each other? Talk to me a little bit about that?

Max Borges 

Yeah, good question. You know, as we’ve evolved, and, you know, this was, it’s been now 18 years since I started the agency. And as we’ve evolved, you know, we’ve hired and move toward hiring more communications people, because, you know, having sales, people doing Media Relations, really helped us have a competitive advantage early on when we needed it. And when we were small, and, and needed a way to be able to beat the bigger guys. But as we’ve gotten bigger, we’ve hired more communications people, and then just train them on how to do the media relations properly. And that’s worked out for us, we have now that the only pure sales people that we have on our team are in the business development department, because we have a dedicated business development team, that all they do is bring on new business. And and those are those are sales people. And, and yeah, over the years, we’ve had a little bit of tension, you always have that tension between sales and, and the rest of the team because the sales people kind of want to over promise and the and the people that are actually doing the work want to under promise. But, but it’s the I think the relationship right now is working really, really, really well. I’ve got a great sales team who who understand what it is we do and what we can do. And, and don’t, don’t over promise so that we can, you know, have successful relationships after the sale.

Chip Griffin 

Right. One of the other things that you mentioned was the AFM concept, anything for money, which is something that most agencies start with, some never break out of that right. But I know, I know that you’ve believed very strongly in saying no to the wrong kind of business. And you’ve done a nice job of explaining how you came to figure out who your ideal client was, and wanting to get more of that. But let’s talk a little bit about saying no, because that’s, that’s a scary thought to say no to possible business coming in the door. Because most agencies are on sort of a feast or famine rollercoaster at one point or another in their lifecycle. And so there is this tendency to not want to say no, I think particularly Now, given everything that’s going on environmentally around us in the economy and society and all that a lot of businesses are falling back into that AFM concept. But, you know, why do you Why do you believe it’s so important not to do that?

Max Borges 

Well, it’s, I think what’s really important, Jeff, is that you work extra hard to find the right clients, so that you’re not tempted by the wrong clients. And if you sit back waiting for business to come in the door, versus going out and finding the business that you want, then you’re going to be tempted all the time to sign the wrong business, because you’re going to be in a position where you’re saying no, too often. So yes, you do want to say no to the right to the to the wrong business. But you also want to put yourself in a position where you know, the kinds of clients that you want to go after because it fits into your niche, and it fits the profile that you’re looking for as being a great client. And then you go out and find those clients, whether that whether you do that yourself, which you probably would in the beginning as the agency, owner and founder. But over time, it also allows you in that focus facilitates the ability to hire a biz dev person who can go out and find those kinds of clients to pick one of the challenges that a lot of agencies have with business development people is because they don’t have a focus. The only person who can sell the agency is the founder because the founder is really kind of creating an offering for every new person that they talk to as opposed to having a set Offering, that’s, that’s made, especially for certain kinds of companies, that then you can hire a biz dev person to sell on your behalf. And, you know, we’ve gotten to the point, and this happened years ago, where my biz dev team is better at selling my business than I am. And, and, and I remember the day that that happened, because I was I was I walked into one of my biz dev people’s office, while they were on a conference call, and overheard a prospect telling the biz dev person that, that they, they hope that they would keep dealing with that biz dev person, rather than deal with me because they liked that person better. And that was like, Oh, that’s great. Good. So, um, so I think that that that focus, you know, focus is, is really just the catalyst that facilitates so many important parts of what, what I call an autonomous agency, which is an agency that essentially can run itself one day, and that can really grow. But yeah, it is, you know, going back to your question about saying, no, it is important to know that when you say yes to the wrong client, you are inviting a lot of heartache into your business, and there’s a huge opportunity cost that goes along with that. And you’re inviting complexity into your business. And you really have to, you’ve got to hate complexity, you really want to keep it simple. And, and by having the wrong client, then you’re bringing in the, the need for you, as a business owner, to have to be involved to make sure that that client is successful, because maybe your team doesn’t know how to do it. And one thing that I always like to say is, don’t sign a client that your team can’t handle. Right, right, if you find yourself in the pitch thinking, I’m going to have to be involved, or I’m going to need to promise this client that I’m going to be involved in order to get the business. And that’s the wrong business for the long term for you to build, you know, a larger agency. And that’s assuming you want to build a larger agency. And I know you’ve spoken lots about deciding whether you want to be a freelancer, or whether you want to be an agency owner, but I’m speaking to people that want to build an agency that does millions and millions of dollars a year in business, but doesn’t kill you. And that one day, you can maybe sell that agency. If that’s what you want, then you’ve got to focus on only signing business that your team can handle.

Chip Griffin 

Right. And I think it’s important to focus on something that your your team more or less is currently compiled can can handle to right because I work with a lot of agencies, and I’ve been in agencies where, you know, you aim for the stars, and you’re trying to bring in that giant whale client that is so much bigger than anything you’ve ever done before. It’s much smarter to grow gradually and gradually increase the size of engagements, even though it can be really exciting, it’s a sign that half million or million dollar contract, if you’re sitting in that pitch meeting, going to your point, if you’re thinking GC not have to hire three more people for this. And for more people for that, you know, hit the brakes, because it takes a while to bring those people on and get them into your system. So the likelihood that you make a good first impression with that client is going to be much lower.

Max Borges 

Yeah, I agree. 100%, I think it’s very, very difficult to build a business where you’ve got to hire a few people, every time you saw a sign an agent, a new client. Not only that, but it puts you in a position where those big clients, then they kind of own you, whether you like it or not, because if they let you go, you know that you’re gonna have to fire some people, you’re gonna have to downsize, like, it’s going to hurt your business. And you want to try to scale up with the most number of small clients as possible. And some people go Wait, that sounds like a terrible idea. Why isn’t it easier to have more less big clients and more small clients? It is if you’re all over the place in what you’re doing. But if you have a very narrow service offering, if you’re really servicing a niche, with with a narrow service offering, then you can handle and you can systematize working with lots and lots and lots of smaller clients that then if one of them goes you know, you don’t lose sleep over, you know, at night, and I can say that, you know, in the first few years, when we were small, of course, every client’s a big part of your business because you don’t have that many to start with. But after being you know, five years in maybe when I had 2025 clients, then I didn’t worry about it because it was you know, one client would go and other client would come in and and it was just Part of business it was, you know, it was like any other business where customers come in and out, and you don’t worry too much about it. But if you have a client that’s 2030 40% of your business, that’s not a good way to live, because then they’re going to start dictating what your business does, how it works, you know, and, and, and start causing you all kinds of stress, you don’t want

Chip Griffin 

not just stress, but it also kills your profit margins. And, and one of the things that you’ve described by being a specialist by having focus, you’re not only able to serve your clients better, because as you say, you’ve made some observations about what works and what doesn’t in that in that niche that you’re in. But it also allows you to become more efficient, and way more efficient. If you guys throw that all away by bending over backwards for your well, clients. You’ve lost all that ground you’ve gained. Oh, yeah,

Max Borges 

yeah, way more efficient. And we’ve been, we’ve been far above, you know, industry average profits for our entire, you know, 18 years of business. And, and a big reason for that is because we’ve been able to put systems and processes in place that allow us to deliver greater value with less effort. And that’s the key, it’s not about charging, more or less, it’s about being able to accomplish more with less,

Chip Griffin 

right. Now, you also made a good observation a few minutes ago that I wanted to circle back to because you said that you don’t want to be in a position where you’re having to say no, too often. And I think that really comes down to making sure that the public or your target audience understands who your ideal client is and who it isn’t. Because Ideally, you should be naturally attracting people who are good clients and repelling those who are not. So So talk to me a little bit about how you do that, because I think most agencies, they’re so focused on communications and marketing for their clients that they don’t think about it for themselves, you know, how have you managed to, to create an image for the max Borgias agency that says, These are the clients that should be coming to us?

Max Borges 

Yeah, well, like I said, it took us four years to figure it out. But, you know, we figured out that we could do something special for consumer tech clients in the PR area. And so we focused on that. And so then we started focusing all of our messaging on our website, you know, to say, we’re 100%, consumer tech focus. So clients know, when they come to our website, if they’re a good fit for us, we make it really clear. And this is a big problem with a lot of PR agencies, you go to their website, and you don’t really know who they’re speaking to, it doesn’t feel like they’re speaking very, very specifically to you. But I assure you, if your consumer tech company, and you come to my website, you’re going to feel like we’re speaking to you. Because that’s all we do. Like, we know your industry, we know your business, and you’re going to feel a connection, and you’re going to feel like, Oh, these guys, these guys feel my pain, they know what it takes for me to succeed. I want to work with these guys, where if you were, say, a company in fashion, or entertainment, or a restaurant or hotel, and you came to my website, you’d immediately like, leave, and go, I’m not gonna call these guys because they’re not right for me. And so it over time, what happened was kind of a self selection process, where people just knew that we weren’t the right agency. So we didn’t have people coming to us that were bad or bad fits and saying, Hey, will you work with us, we really want to work with you, like a hotel is not going to want to work with us, because it’s going to be very clear to see. And then from a biz dev standpoint, you know, we’re we’re going out and, you know, we go to CES, we go to the consumer tech shows, we go after consumer tech companies, and we make sure that our business people know exactly the kinds of clients that we can do great work for. And that’s what we focus on. And you know, every once in a while something will come up that’s maybe a little bit out of our sweet spot. But as long as it’s one foot in our sweet spot, and one foot out, we can learn something from it. But it still allows us to use our expertise, we might take it but that’s even that is few and far between. It’s, it’s it’s really you you’ve got to be disciplined in your commitment to focus on whatever niche you choose with the idea and the knowledge that that is going to reduce complexity in your business. It’s going to allow you to strengthen your value proposition. It’s going to allow you to attract staff that want to work in the area that you are focused in, it’s going to allow you to attract clients that want to work with you. Like all these things work so synergistically and so beautifully, that as long as you’re you’re pushing and you’re working, you know in a disciplined way toward that it comes together in a way that’s really quite magical.

Chip Griffin 

I think that’s fantastic. And I think anyone who’s listening if they’re thinking about their own an agency’s website, go take a look at your website, rewind, listen to the last couple of minutes and see if your website passes that test. Because I know when I challenge agency leaders on the vagueness of their websites, they always say, well, we’re afraid of scaring people off, we want to have the conversation and see if they’re fit. And what I always tell them is, you should be scaring people off with your website. It’s it’s one of the first steps in the qualification process, you should be spending your time more profitably than dealing with bad fit clients that know they’re bad fit clients right out of the gate. So

Max Borges 

Well, I think the big The first problem there, if they’re saying that they’re afraid of scaring people off, they’re still in the AFM stage, there’s AFM in the anything for money stage, there needs to figure out how to get out of that stage and figure out what they’re going to focus on. before they can even do that. And so, yeah, that would be the first first step they need to start thinking about.

Chip Griffin 

But I think, you know, one of the the other things that I wanted to explore a little bit with you, as I know that you have, you have really given a good definition to or good context to why people fear failure. And it’s, you say it’s not because they fear failure, it’s because they are afraid of looking stupid, I think that feeds into the AFM concept, but it feeds into a lot of other things that that we do, whether it’s in what we’re doing professionally for clients, or building our business, or even in our personal lives. So, so talk about that insight, because I think it’s really spot on.

Max Borges 

Yeah, well, you know, I, I always ask people, would you rather be smart or rich, and I’d rather be rich, then, you know, people think that I’m smart, if I have to make the choice between the two, right? So but a lot

Chip Griffin 

of people ask just people,

Max Borges 

well, if you can be both, that’s great, but, but you know, don’t let being smart get in the way of your being rich. And, and, you know, you’ve got to be willing to make a fool of yourself every once in a while, if you’re going to take a risk, if you’re going to challenge the status quo in some way. I mean, I had plenty of people, over the years, challenge what I was doing with my agency, and the way that I was approaching it, and, and, and I just didn’t care, I thought I was onto something, and I was going to stick with it. And, and, you know, I knew I was gonna have a successful business, and I didn’t care if people laughed at me or, or made fun of how I did it. It worked for me, and, and I stuck stuck to it. And I think that’s really important. But it’s also important, and this gets into a lot more, you know, kind of a personal side of this thing. But you know, you have to look at the people who are really close to you, you know, your spouse, your your family, you know, and and go, you know, am I afraid of what they’re gonna think of me. Because that can have a real impact on the decisions that you make. And sometimes you don’t even realize that that’s impacting you, and impacting the choices that you make and the risks that you take. But I think that trying to be aware of how those things affect you. And then, and then, you know, working around that so that it doesn’t limit the choices that you make, and the risks that you take, personally, will will help you.

Chip Griffin 

Where you’ve offered a ton of great insights here. And you’ve also shared a number of additional insights in a book that you came out with not too long ago. So before we wrap up here, why don’t you share a little bit about about that book?

Max Borges 

Sure, can I am I allowed to say the title of the book, go for it, how to be fan freaking tastic. And it’s available on Amazon, probably easier to find it if you just search for Max borgess author, and it’s about 120 really, really cool quotes about how to make your life. Great. And what it says on the cover is 100 plus pages of practical advice on how to stop sucking at life and start being fan freaking tastic. So people will check it out. It’s only five bucks on Amazon. It’s really cool book and people seem to really like it so far. So thank you, Chip.

Chip Griffin 

Fantastic. And if folks want to learn more about you or the max Borgias agency, where should they go?

Max Borges 

Well, they can go to Max borgess agency.com. That’s probably the best place to look me up on LinkedIn. And yeah, check out the website, and you can see what a focus website looks like.

Chip Griffin 

Fantastic. And I encourage you to do that and go back and re listen to that segment of this interview, because I think it is great advice for any agency looking to improve the quality of their own website. So, Max, thank you for all the insights that you’ve shared today. It’s been a great conversation, and I know listeners have gotten a lot out of it.

Max Borges 

Thank you, Chip.