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Spinning off a SaaS business from your agency (featuring Chris Dickey)

What it takes to get a second business off the ground without neglecting your agency

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Many entrepreneurs have thought about creating a new business alongside the agency that they already own. That’s exactly what Purple Orange Brand Communications founder Chris Dickey did when he started Visably, a software-as-a-service business that marries public relations with search engine optimization (SEO).

In this conversation with Chip, we hear Chris discuss the journey he has taken over the past decade and where he sees things headed. He offers practical suggestions for other agency owners who may be considering starting a second business to complement their current revenue streams.

Resources

Connect with Chris at Visably

Transcript

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

Chip Griffin  

Hello, and welcome to another episode of Chats with Chip. I’m your host Chip Griffin. And my guest today is Chris Dickey. Chris is the founder and owner of Purple Orange, and also the founder more recently of Visably, welcome to the show, Chris.

Chris Dickey  

Hey, thanks for having me.

Chip Griffin  

So, before we started recording, we were talking about where we live. I’m in New Hampshire, you’re in Wyoming. And I’m curious what brought you to Wyoming?

Chris Dickey  

Wyoming man. It’s like such a funny state. It’s the shape of a credit card and I just pointed the top right hand corner like that’s where I live. Anyhow, no, I came here I was I had a wonderful position as a marketing director for a climbing magazine called alpinist. And so I did mercury in circulation for alpinist here in the Tetons, and that kind of was a fantastic experience, both in publishing and in circulation. And then from there, I went into agency work and worked for a handful of large and small agencies ended up with Carmichael Lynch And then after that, I started my own agency, and I started my own agency in 2009. And so here we are today and we’re still kicking, you know, through through a recession through pandemic. And here we are.

Chip Griffin  

I was gonna say so you you started coming out of the great recession or you

Chris Dickey  

realize the beginning, really? Two Windows is 2009. Yeah. So

Chip Griffin  

and then and then now obviously, you know, I don’t want to say bookended because I’ve suggested It’s over. It’s not. It’s not.

Chris Dickey  

We’re, we’re still we’re still standing strong. And actually, I we just kind of as of this week, I think we’re, we’re at over 100% of revenue pre pre pandemic, so the agency is doing well.

Chip Griffin  

That is that is great news. And certainly I’ve heard from a lot of agencies in recent weeks that business has been starting to pick up again, bounce back, you know, we’ve started to see the pipeline’s growing and now we’re starting to see the revenue flow behind it. So it’s great to hear that you’re at that point. So obviously, you know you’ve had a 10 year journey. In the agency, first of all, you know what, why did you start an agency and particularly in the midst of a recession? What was your What was your motivation?

Chris Dickey  

Well, you know, I’ll be honest, I think Carmichael Lynch, at the time was thinking about closing their Jackson Hole, Wyoming office, I saw some of the writing on the wall. It was a recession. And I was I was a young, a young guy that I guess I still am, but I was younger back then. And I just thought to myself, you know, I think I have what it takes to do this. I think I have the contacts, I definitely understand the practice well enough. And we’ll just see if I can get some clients and so I really had nothing to lose. I didn’t want to leave Jackson Hole at that time, I was going to have to, you know, to pursue a professional career. So I just opened up, you know, it, I just hung my hung my sign on the door and kind of wait and see what happens.

Chip Griffin  

And I think that that story is pretty similar to probably what a lot of listeners have experienced it, you know, life sort of nudged you in that direction. That particular time and was probably a little bit younger than I expected. But it ended up working out great. And it’s been it’s been a fantastic ride. And then, you know, being part of an agency and I think, you know, we’re, I’m,

Chris Dickey  

I’m probably at the, the older end of the millennial generation.

And so, my, my,

you know, particularly my generation, and my age group, I’m like 39 years old, we were probably the first people to grow up with computers in our classrooms. And we were the very first people to grow up with computers in our homes, these young children, and that has a generational impact on how we approach problem thinking or, you know, problem solving and everything else. And I think, you know, it really pushed us as an agency to think about what’s coming up, we saw the writing on the wall with metal publishing is changing. I was a marketing director for a publisher I saw changing and you know, it was going digital. We all know that. I mean, my God, it’s completely changed in the last 10 years but trying to look around the corner and understand what was sticking for our clients was really what led me to the journey that became visibly.

Chip Griffin  

And so tell me about the the services that you offer as an agency and, and you know, why those

Chris Dickey  

specialties so the agency’s name is purple orange, we’re a boutique agency, we’re based in Jackson Hole Wyoming. It stands to reason that we would represent outdoor and active lifestyle, consumer brands. A lot of the stuff that you might find at Rei or you go skiing with we work whiskey brands and apparel brands and rain jackets and tents and stuffing mostly stuff you play with. kayaks, in so it was it was a really fun industry to be in. It kind of aligned with my personal passions. And then we just developed a really strong niche and expertise in this in this one particular area. We actually don’t have any clients in the State of Wyoming, but our clients love that we’re based here. They love visiting

Chip Griffin  

And now prior to the pandemic, were you a virtual agency? Or did you have an office or?

Chris Dickey  

We have an office? I’m in the office right now. And we are.

There’s five of us at the agency. We handle about 12 clients. And, and yeah, we’re all in Jacksonville.

Chip Griffin  

And now, I guess what a year or so a little bit over a year ago, you decided to spin off a software company, which I know is something that a lot of agency owners have thought about coming up with some sort of a product spin off so that they’re not just selling time. What What led you to start visibly,

Chris Dickey  

right. So that’s, that’s a really good point in that like, as an agency owner, you are really selling time and selling hours and it’s it’s hard to scale. It’s hard to scale an agency it’s hard to scale human human work because it’s it’s so tied to the human that’s doing it you can just replicate that human right you got to train somebody else in and hopefully Do the same work as somebody else, you know, but that’s not always guaranteed. With software, you can scale. And that’s what I think was attractive to me. But more so we know we landed, I’ll just tell you a quick anecdote about kind of my agency experience and client experience. You know, this is I think, 2016 2017 we were crankin at purple, orange, we were winning major national awards for our clients, and they’re in their respective kind of gear categories, if you will, with big gear of the Year awards and things like that from the major publications. In what we what we realized was that some of these some of these big you know, Pinnacle PR hits, if you will, were being overshadowed by other hits that we were anecdotally receiving that were showing up at the top of search. And, you know, it was there’s, there’s there are these vanity placements and we will continue to win them. Because they are special, and they do make the clients happy. And there’s something that you can leverage internally, if nothing else. But how many people that reaching is a great question, especially if they’re not, through traditional, I think circulation models. So what what I realized was that we had, on one hand, a pinnacle PR award, that was the best thing that we could have achieved with the client, you know, in the church, you know, in the in the traditional PR sense. On the other hand, we had some of these blogs that we hadn’t really paid too much attention to were all of a sudden, the very top organic search result, Google for some very highly desirable keyword that the client could never even dream of ranking for with SEO. And so we look at the performance of those two, and it’s not even a comparison. I mean, the hit that’s showing up in search was crushing it every single time. And we started seeing this and we said, How can we be more deliberate about this strategy? How can we win more of these hits in search. And we kind of went down this rabbit hole of identifying keywords and then kind of sorting keywords bucketing them by transactional and informational keywords. And what I mean by that is transactional keywords are keywords that are going to populate a lot of e commerce heads, a lot of sales, a lot of click to buy sort of stuff. That’s not PR friendly, informational keywords, populate a lot of information and learning and research. And that’s very PR friendly. And so we had to figure out how do we do that as an agency? How do we focus in on these informational keywords? Once we do focus in those those keywords? Then how do we build lists? How do we do this auditing process? We look at the search engine results page. We work all the way through it. We identify the brand’s footprint we identify the writers and the outlets that are relevant, according to Google are winning according to Google, and we just prioritize them as an agency. Then you start tracking the SERPs and a surface or a search engine results page. And once we started tracking them and putting a deliberate, more deliberate effort into it, we could actually show the client over time, a progression of dominance across the page. Whereas even though their own website had stood no chance of winning a first first page position, we could we could engineer it use our PR toolbox, so that virtually every organic link on the page was saying by this client’s product, and it was insanely powerful and it was very measurable and it was very tangible in terms of ROI. I think it’s something that us as PR practitioners are always struggling with is how do we measure our work? It’s a pretty soft thing and I think a lot of larger companies are just okay saying, okay, we’re gonna have a PR agency and we’re not gonna build a measure it very well and we’re just waiting Nowhere that we want it. Right.

Chip Griffin  

So it sounds like you very much built the tool to help your team service your existing clients that right away that was first.

Chris Dickey  

It was how do we how do we scale the strategy it was we had presented it for a couple years at a time. It was becoming far and away the most valuable service that we’re providing to our clients. And we were still doing everything else really well. You know, it’s not like we weren’t still winning those like top tier PR placements, but this talk to your PR placements, just had a limited value if they didn’t live beyond the flicker of the moment that they were published. And the thing about searches is that it lingers in front of a really qualified customer for a long time. And you think about audiences and how as practitioners we’re trying to reach the right audiences with our communications or Media Communications. You know, there’s there’s a there’s a massive difference. I realized tween, a magazine subscriber or somebody who is literally like kind of just, you know perusing a website, and somebody who’s typing in a specific search term that’s commercially oriented and then clicks on our product. That’s an active information seeker versus the passive information seeker. And if you can, if you can just reach the right customers all day long, you’ll just see insane ROI on your PR.

Chip Griffin  

Now, before you decided to build this, did you have a background in technology at all yourself? Or did you have someone on your team who was you know, sort of the the technological whiz behind it? or How did you how did you approach that piece of it? I think that’s, that’s a stumbling block

Chris Dickey  

that is a stumbling block and I have no web technical web experience. So the way it started for me was that I was actually a little bit in denial that this tool didn’t exist. And, and I was just like, okay, it’s got to exist marketing, super sophisticated. There’s so Many tools out there, like what’s just demo and demo and demo and try to find it. And even if it’s not perfect, we’ll just kind of cobble together a couple different solutions. And then we can do it. And there was nothing there was there was nothing that was, you know, my question was very simple. It was, where does my client’s brand exist in search, and I wanted to understand all the touch points in the first page of search, not just their website, not just their advertising, everything. And that tool did not exist. And it took me a couple of years to come to that conclusion. And then I started kind of asking some friends who are in the tech industries, like, what do you think about this? Do you have you have you heard of it? Is it is it doable, and everyone thought it was really interesting, never heard of it, and felt like it was achievable. And so we kind of moved down that that funnel. The very first thing for me and this this was this was a bit of just one of those like moments as an entrepreneur, I think like you’re not, you never know when you’re gonna have these moments. I live in Wyoming Wyoming has not does not have a diversified economy, we are heavily reliant on tourism in oil and gas. And Wyoming wants to diversify its economy. So they so they threw out these grants, it was a very limited time offer. And they were like, okay, we’re gonna throw out grants to anybody who wants to start a technology company, Wyoming. It just happened to coincide with when I was having these like, kind of serious thoughts about how maybe making some software. And so we just kind of slapped together a business plan, threw it out there, and we won the grant. And that’s right. That became our seed that was like, kind of a risk free way of pursuing this thing and hiring some people and going down this pathway and seeing if we could produce an MVP product. And then from there, we did and we were able to file patent for it and share it share with some investors and they thought it was pretty interesting and then won a second round of more substantial funding. And now we’re here where it We’re doing tech in Wyoming.

Chip Griffin  

Yeah. And now you mentioned that you had, you’d hired a team with some of that seed money. Did you? Did you use any of your existing team? Or did you really keep the two entities in the team sort of separate?

Chris Dickey  

It’s a great question. So I did I, the way I used my existing team, so there are two separate companies there, I have not muddled the books there. The way I used my agency was was as the guinea pigs and as the people who would figure out product market fit for us. And so, you know, we like these are real practitioners working on that working on the tool every single day and presenting it to clients and acquiring they’re accountable for the work and to see them kind of work through it and figure out how to use it and what was valuable and what needed to be added and what wasn’t, wasn’t as valuable. That process was really interesting and very helpful for us. was to kind of craft, I think what the product looked like and how it was gonna work.

Chip Griffin  

And so, you know, you’re now I guess what? What stage Would you say that that the visibly is at now, from

Chris Dickey  

where we’re in, we’re still very early. So we started in 20 2019, early 2019. We use most 2019 to develop NDP we won, we were able to get close some funding before the pandemic hit, which I feel very fortunate about. And then we basically just been we hired a proper team that’s full time. And now we’re really running pretty hard. We just released our beta, which is free, anyone can show up and use it. It’s, we we’d love to be able to use it because then we get more feedback on it. And we’re rolling out a pro version of what we are offering this fall and the pro version will be much more kind of enterprise level, really much more helpful for agencies and allow you to really scale a strategy to that too. The level that I wanted it to be scaled to.

Chip Griffin  

Yeah, I guess I was gonna be my next question was is it tailored for in house or brands? Is it is it large entities

Chris Dickey  

SME way the way that this is a way that visibly has evolved it’s a it’s a very has a lot of potential for PR. And it has, I wouldn’t say it’s the future PR, you know, it’s for any brand that had that where search is, is a powerful touch point for a customer. It’s going to be important for that brand. Not every brand search is an important touch point. There’s a lot of brick and mortar operations. There’s a lot of nonprofits that are more regional things like that. But if you’re a national brand and you’re using and search is a great way for people to discover what you do, then visibly is will be a great tool for you. Ultimately, visibly just two things were a listening platform kind of like a talkwalker or rescission or meltwater from that perspective, but we listen within search results. So we specifically are looking for keywords and we’re listening within those keywords and figuring out where your brand exists. Number two, we’re a list building tool. And this is what’s kind of interesting and really powerful for for for PR people is what one of the pieces that we recognize that, you know, as an agency is that, like I mentioned the beginning of this conversation that, that there are these transactional keywords and they’re these informational keywords. And, as, as a PR person, it’s not enough just to just to figure out where your, where your client exists and the you know, at, you know, in a search, what you need to do is clean the extract of a PR hits, and see which ones you want and which ones you missed.

And it shows you your blind spots. And

it also shows you the most relevant writers and the most relevant publications for any given subject in the world. And, you know, it’s like, we spent so much time as PR people developing lists, like so much time, right? And a lot of times it’s like they’re not even that good.

pretty broad don’t come on. We all know that.

Chip Griffin  

There are companies built around this.

Chris Dickey  

I know that. I know that. But, you know, I guess my point is, is that Google is the world’s foremost, search engine has, without question, the most sophisticated algorithm to determine what the most popular content other weapons, sure, and we’re able to essentially harness Google’s algorithm for PR and for list building. And because we’re able to segment those results and identify all the earned media, through by by using machine learning and software, we are able to pull up any number of search results. It could, like, you know, the freemium version that’s out right now, like you can do one at a time and you can we don’t we don’t limit it, but it’s only one at a time. When the pro version comes out. You can do unlimited effectively so you can do thousands of searches. You can could impact thousands of keywords. So you can extract all of those. All of those PR heads out and boom, there’s your media list at least, especially if you’re trying to figure out like, who’s who’s really relevant in the eyes of search engines. Right? So

Chip Griffin  

now, if if I’m listening to this, and I own a PR marketing digital agency, and I’m thinking about going down this path myself, what advice would you offer to an agency owner who’s contemplating the idea of, you know, creating a product or a sass platform or something like that, in addition to the agency?

Chris Dickey  

I think, I think it really has to start with your client’s needs in your in your, in what you want to accomplish for them as an agency. You know, I never thought I was gonna be a tech entrepreneur, like this was one of those like needs that slapped me on the face and I was like, I cannot do it. So I think I think what I would say was that I was a bit of a reluctant entrepreneur and I think that was to my benefit, because I wasn’t, I wasn’t too keen to follow a direction that wasn’t fully fleshed out.

And, and I, I established

the need. And we tested the need with with real life clients, we did this for a pretty good test period of two or three years, and really developed what the practice should look like. And then had a really good sense for what the software should should do.

Chip Griffin  

I think you made a couple of really great points there that are worth listening to, since I’ve also been down this path of having an agency and spinning off a software company. The first is not to force it. If you if you set out and say I’m going to build this platform, but I don’t know what it’s going to do. That’s a mistake. And the second piece is to tie it in to the work that you’re currently doing. So let it solve a problem for you and your clients. And that will help you create a much better product at the end of the day than if you’re trying to create a solution to someone else’s problem.

Chris Dickey  

Yeah, I think So I think there’s people who find, you know, one thing that I think I struggle with, not struggle, but something I’m aware of is is the difference between what’s a product and what’s a feature. And a product needs to be like kind of a core foundational idea that then you can just build out a round. And I think a lot of people come up with features, which are interesting and useful and very nuanced circumstances, but they’re not a product.

And,

you know, understanding the difference between the two is actually pretty important if you’re going to spend this much energy and time and money going down this rabbit hole. Right? So

Chip Griffin  

yeah, it’s sort of like the difference between a magazine article and a book, right? They’re, they’re both great, but they serve different purposes. And that’s the same thing with a with a product like this. You need to go beyond that feature. And you need to build something that’s going to be resilient.

Chris Dickey  

Well, then to one particular case study, I went through your client, but think about how many Clients are going to use this and how many people from different industries are gonna find value with it? And that’s, that’s a hard question.

Chip Griffin  

Absolutely. Well, Chris, this has been really great. I think a lot of folks have been able to take some useful ideas out of this. And as they’re contemplating the idea of doing something themselves, and they’ve, of course, learned about a useful product along the way, too. So if someone wants to try out visibly or they’d like to learn more about you, where should they go?

Chris Dickey  

Yeah, check it out. It’s a B is a B. Li, calm. It’s a play on the word visibility. And it’s just yeah, be visibly calm and we have a beta and it’s free and we’d love to hear from you.

Chip Griffin  

Fantastic. Well, I encourage folks to give it a look. And again, I really appreciate you being with me today, Chris. My guest today has been Chris Dickey, the founder of Purple Orange and Visably.