Frank Cowell | [Top Agency Series] Pivoting an Agency Business from Project-Based to Recurring Services
Smart Business Revolution

Frank Cowell is a speaker, best-selling author, and the CEO of Digitopia, a revenue operations firm based in the San Diego, California area. With 20 years of digital marketing experience, Frank works regularly with CEOs, Chief Marketing Officers, and Vice Presidents of Sales and Marketing who are looking to create amazing brand experiences while accelerating growth.

Frank is also the Host of The Digital Utopia Podcast and Author of Building Your Digital Utopia, which details a concept he pioneered to help brands create digital experiences that systematically accelerate growth. Prior to founding his first agency, he worked in sales and marketing with Tandy, AT&T, and other technology companies. He is a Veteran of the United States Marine Corps and regularly volunteers his talents to the San Diego AMA, while mentoring young people in the areas of strategy, sales, and marketing.

Frank Cowell, the CEO of Digitopia, is John Corcoran’s guest in this episode of the Smart Business Revolution Podcast where he explains how he pivoted his agency from a project-based business model to a recurring services model. Frank also talks about the mistakes he made during that transition, the challenges he faced, and the lessons he learned. He also shares his tips for maintaining a low client churn rate. Stay tuned.

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Here’s a Glimpse of What You’ll Hear:

  • Frank Cowell talks about building his first web page in the 90s and selling information products
  • How Frank started programming and coding and how he began his own web development company
  • What Frank would do differently building his first content management system (CMS)
  • Why — and how — Frank transitioned from a project-based business model to a recurring services model, some of the mistakes he made in the process, and how long it took to stabilize the business
  • Frank’s advice on keeping a business’ churn rate low
  • How the COVID-19 pandemic affected Frank’s business and the tough decisions he made to get through it 
  • Frank talks about the mentors that have guided him through tough periods and the people or organizations he admires
  • Where to learn more about Frank Cowell, his book, and his podcast

Resources Mentioned In This Episode

Sponsor: Rise25

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Episode Transcript

Intro 0:01

Welcome to the revolution, the Smart Business Revolution Podcast where we ask today’s most successful entrepreneurs to share the tools and strategies they use to build relationships and connections to grow their revenue. Now, your host for the revolution, John Corcoran.

John Corcoran 0:40 

All right. Welcome everyone. John Corcoran here. And you know, I love doing this show because every week we get to talk to smart CEOs, founders and entrepreneurs of companies ranging from Netflix to Kinkos’ to YPO, EO, Activision Blizzard, LendingTree, OpenTable, Ace Software, and many more. I’m also the Co-founder of Rise25, where we help connect b2b business owners to their ideal prospects. And this week on our top digital agency series, we have got Frank Cowell, he’s a speaker best-selling author, CEO of Digitopia, which is a revenue operations firm based in San Diego, California. He has over 20 years of experience in digital marketing, and he works with CEOs, CMOS, and Vice Presidents of sales and marketing looking to create amazing brand experiences while accelerating growth. He founded his first agency in early 2004. And what’s interesting, to me at least, is that he developed an early content management system (CMS). You’ve heard of WordPress, well, this is a similar type of idea very early on. So we’re gonna talk about how he developed that and how he’s morphed the agency and company over the years into a different type of company. He’s also the author of Building Your Digitopia and host of The Digital Utopia Podcast. And of course, this podcast is brought to you by Rise25, where we help b2b businesses to get clients referrals and strategic partnerships with done for you podcasts and content marketing. And if you have any questions about how that works, go to rise25media.com or email us at [email protected] 

Alright, Frank, among a couple of other things, I just want to give you a quick shout out for first of all, thank you, sir, for your service in the Marine Corps. And also I know you’re a survivor of children like I am. So we’ve walked that walk, not so easy. But let’s talk about you know, when you started, your company started with no easy task, creating a content management system. This is even before WordPress was around. And, you know, in those days, just imagine a Herculean effort to put something like that together. So how did you take on that, as an initial project, when you’re getting your company off the ground? Seems just like a massive undertaking.

Frank Cowell 2:44

Yeah. So thanks for having me, John, I’m excited to share this story. And some of the other things that we’ve talked about with your audience, you know, on the topic of the content management system, you know, if I go back to the mid 90s, now, this is about 95 96. You know, there was this thing called the World Wide Web or the information superhighway. And back then, there was no such thing as Google. In fact, there weren’t any search engines at the time. And you would buy a yellow pages book, quite literally a physical book of the various websites that you could look at on the internet. This is dating myself, I’m a dinosaur in terms of the internet and the World Wide Web and what people know of it today. And so back then I became really intrigued about this idea of having a web page. What does that mean? And I remember early on, someone told me, I forget who it was. But they said, Oh, yeah, you know, your AOL account, you can actually host a web page there, and other people in AOL can find it. I was like, really. So I started, you know, I went home that night, and I started poking around at these web pages. I was like, this is fascinating. You could probably make money with this. And so my first foray into the internet was actually putting up a web page or to, to sell information based products within the AOL kind of universe, which was really kind of an early, you know, World Wide Web before. You know, the rest of us really knew what that was. And

John Corcoran 4:15

that really does take a while before you made some sales, or did you make it

Frank Cowell 4:18

actually happen? And it happened kind of quickly, wow. But then there just weren’t these concepts of like, SEO and paid advertising and whatnot. There weren’t concepts like that. So you know, the orders would literally come in through the mail with I’d open an envelope and there’s a cheque.

John Corcoran 4:35

Do you have a way of accepting payment online? Oh, no, no, there wasn’t

Frank Cowell 4:39

even online payments. Like I would get checks in the mail and then it would physically mail them. The information packet that they requested, not even like emailing a PDF. 

John Corcoran 4:48

So what were you selling? What was the information?

Frank Cowell 4:51

Oh, there were a couple of things at the time. One was a packet on different work from home programs. And then the other one was, like reselling one 900 numbers. And, you know, once you have one, you can kind of put whatever content on it you want, or a couple of different things.

John Corcoran 5:10

And I know you’re a big advocate of content now, you know, creating content. So was what you were doing, essentially creating content and these early days, or is it?

Frank Cowell 5:20

Yeah, that was essentially, you know, info based, info based product business is all that was, and which wasn’t new, right, the internet brought a new era of that into the forefront. But info based businesses have been around a long time pre internet. So the internet just really took those things to another level. So that kind of really started my passion for like, Whoa, what’s possible on this thing, and just really dug in and taught myself how to program because I remember the first time I put up that web page, I had to pay some guy found on AOL 50 bucks to develop the web page. And at the time, I actually, to me, that was a lot of money at the time and had to ask my wife for the $50. Okay, is it okay? If I use $50? Like, that’s the situation I was in at that time. And I remember when I wanted to make updates to it, I was like, Oh, crap, he’s gonna want to charge me $50 again, so I just cracked open the file and was I had done some programming when I was in junior high, some applesoft basic, and I was like, I can figure this out. And once I saw that, you could, you know, work with the tagging system that was HTML, then my mind kind of exploded, and I kind of just went for it from there. And that eventually led to me working for a web development company in marketing. I wasn’t a web developer. And they had a content management system. And this was enterprise level. And I just started programming at home as a hobby, really just truly as a hobby. And I had this, what Michael Gerber in The E-Myth calls an entrepreneurial seizure, which is, Hey, I could do that better, I can build a better CMS. And I did, I set up my computer as a web server. And I just started coding my brains out and started building something that I thought was better and I didn’t have a business plan, I’d even have any intent, really, for business other than I’d already kind of been helping people build websites on the side. And so eventually, I got to the point where I said, You know, I kept threatening myself, I’m gonna go out on my own, I’m gonna go out on my own, I’m gonna do it, I’m gonna do it. And this went on for like, six months, I’m going to do it, I’m going to do this soon, I’m gonna go out on my own, and start my own web development shop. And, then the company ended up laying me off because I was working remotely, and they wanted all remote workers to come back home. And that was back when remote workers weren’t looked favorably upon Yeah. And I said, No, I’m already living where I’m living. This is kind of like the violent shove I needed. And so that kind of started my journey. So I went into the marketplace as a web developer, you know, a company of one. And

John Corcoran 7:38

using the content management that I had built. Yeah, essentially, like saving you time can make it easier to develop these web pages, probably correct. Because a software tool in itself or so

Frank Cowell 7:48

yeah, back then the general marketplace didn’t know what a content management system was, it was really only for the enterprise. And I wasn’t selling the enterprise. stupidly, I was selling to really small mom and pop businesses. And they weren’t even trained to know to expect CMS and what it could do for them and whatnot. So there are a lot of things that I did wrong in the launch of that venture like I should have just launched as a software company, I should have just launched it aimed at the enterprise in so many things. But instead I was doing, you know, websites for small businesses leveraging my CMS

John Corcoran 8:19

Yeah, and hard, you know, should last challenges back then imagine by that point, 2002, you could probably accept payments online, but it still was easy, I’m sure. Even if it was bigger,

Frank Cowell 8:29

easy. In fact, the big thing back then was the Yahoo e-commerce platform, the Yahoo shops, that was the big thing back then. And that lasted until they actually had a pretty good corner on the market for a little while. They are pretty innovative. But then it was so proprietary, it just wasn’t able to grow exponentially the way things do on the internet.

John Corcoran 8:49

Mm hmm. Yeah, it’s funny I Around this time, so 99, I’m working at the White House in Clinton years, and I was self taught myself HTML at the time in order to create a website. And I remember how difficult it was when I used Netscape Navigator. And there was nothing. There was a web designer built within that, that I use to build web pages. But still so manual, even like, linking one web page to another web page and creating those links was such a pain in the butt. That’s when I discovered WordPress. I was like, Oh my god, this is revolutionary, saves so much time. So what do you remember the name of? Did you have a name for the CMS?

Frank Cowell 9:25

didn’t even have it? I did. I called it CMS AX.

John Corcoran 9:29

Got it. Got it. So looking back now, you probably know, if you were to do it over again, probably would have made it more of its own software startup.

Frank Cowell 9:37

Oh, 1,000%. Because I was so early, I actually could have garnered a lot of enterprise level conversations and had a lot of big software deals go down. Yeah, the way I built it was very modular, where WordPress has plugins or whatever, you know, I had, you know, similar concept of plugins and, and a whole framework for how developers could develop on the platform. Just follow a few simple rules and create plugins. So along with a site hierarchy tree, like site tree type thing, the whole whole nine. So definitely like if I could go smack myself silly back then and go back in time, I’d say, hey, go to IBM, go to Coke, go to Dell, go to HP, go to these companies and sell them, you know, license the software. Right? That would have been the game changer.

John Corcoran 10:23

Right? Right. Yeah, hindsight. 2020. So, you know, with that knowledge, though, you know, I’m sure that that was really advantageous for you as you morphed into what became an agency that became your company now. And, and I want to talk about I know, you know, for many years, you are more project based, and then you shift to more of a recurring service, which is a real challenge for a lot of companies. There’s a lot of companies that find themselves creating projects, but they want something more recurring, which creates more Predictable Revenue. So talk a little bit about how you came to that realization, and how you made that shift.