In this week’s “From the Ground Up” interview, we sit down with Angelo Frisina, founder and CEO of Sunlight Media, an UpCity Certified Premium Partner and one of the top digital marketing agencies in the United States. Below we discuss how a traveling musician came to own a digital agency, the benefits of working with subcontractors, why it’s so crucial to stay current in this industry and more!
Q: Let’s start with a brief history lesson. Tell me about how Sunlight Media got its start.
A: Sunlight Media is a website design and development agency based out of Los Angeles, California. We do a lot of custom WordPress work, we work with fashion and e-commerce stores on Magento and custom PHP development, and we do some digital marketing in the form of SEO, social media management, PPC, and similar type services.
To be honest, the company really came together by accident. I was a full-time traveling musician for many years, most of my life actually. During that time, I was always interested in computers and had learned some basic development and programming singles like HTML, CSS, Flash…you know, the basics.
I started taking on one-off projects here and there mainly for fellow musicians or bands that needed a website. As a musician, there’s a lot of downtime with touring and traveling; you’re in airports, hotels, you’re doing sound checks, you’re sitting on planes or a bus for hours. I took on these web design gigs to keep me occupied during my free time and it slowly started to build up my portfolio over time.
More people started to come to me and my existing clients were asking about upgrades and marketing services and things I couldn’t offer, so I was losing money and business fast. I was turning down a lot of great gigs because I just didn’t have the time to take on another client. I didn’t want to stop touring completely either, so I had the idea of running my business as an agency rather than a one-man shop. I knew I would need to hire developers and marketers to make it work, and I would need to step into more of a project management role. Once I moved away from being a developer and started to focus strictly on project management and growing the company, that’s when Sunlight Media began to take form.
Since then, I’ve put together a great team of designers, marketers, developers, and project managers who take care of the majority of the projects that we receive daily. My role is focused on large scale project management, sales, and marketing for Sunlight Media, and those kinds of executive duties.
Q: That’s awesome! So let’s talk a bit more about those early days of Sunlight Media when you were just starting to expand and hire your first employees. How did you prioritize where you were going to invest your money?
A: It was more or less entirely based on the projects I received. Like I said, now we do a lot of WordPress development and PHP work, but that wasn’t my strong suit initially. I knew how to use the dashboard, make software and plugin updates, and things like that, but I wasn’t a true PHP developer. I kept getting requests for WordPress sites, so I started by finding a solid developer with WordPress and PHP skills. I ended up finding a few people that I worked well with and we just grew from there.
The cool thing was when our website started to gain some traction with SEO and people started to reach out to me. I get developers that contact me with their resume and want to network. Over time, that’s allowed me to develop a pretty extensive database of designers and developers so I can always source the right person for the right job as needed.
Q: Cool. So you’ve built this network of designers and developers that you contract for different projects, and you handle the project management. Right?
How do you decide whether someone is the right fit for Sunlight Media? How do you ensure that the people you’re bringing in are going to be right for you and your clients as well?
A: In the early days, I used a lot of Craigslist to find local developers that were looking for freelance work. It worked surprisingly well! I also used guru.com back in the day and I found some very good offshore developers that can help with lower-budget projects.
These days I’ll use UpWork if I’m looking for something particular, but most of my staffing is done through established relationships that I’ve built over the years. I know a lot of developers and marketers so it’s usually a matter of looking at their portfolio, seeing the work they’ve done and giving them a call. Beyond their work, I look at things like their communication skills, their timeliness, and things of that nature.
Q: That’s amazing that you’ve been able to build such a strong network of potential talent that you don’t need to worry too much when it comes to finding someone for a new project. I’m sure it helps that you prefer to work with freelancers rather than maintain a staff of your own as well.
I want to touch on something you’ve mentioned a few times. You offer several different services ranging from web design to digital marketing. Would you say your decision to expand into these diverse areas was based mostly on project-based demand?
In other words, what’s your approach to scaling not only your team but the services you offer?
A: Again, it’s heavily demand-based. For example, there was a period where we were working with a lot of fashion brands and e-commerce stores. They would regularly come to me and say that they need a product photographer, but I wasn’t capable of handling those types of requests. I realized I was losing out on potential dollars and potential trust I could build with the client, so I reached out to some cool photographers I had in my network and I was able to add photography as an additional service. It’s not necessarily one of our largest services, but we still get requests for product photography, especially from startup fashion brands; it’s a great additional revenue stream that I would have missed out on had I not taken advantage of my existing relationships.
Q: I want to dive into the composition of your team a bit. You mentioned that you like to use a lot of contractors and freelancers because that type of model enables you to leverage your connections more effectively. I noticed on your site that you always have some permanent staff members listed.
What does the makeup of your team look like in general?
A: Honestly, it’s mostly freelancers and subcontractors. I’ve had a couple of employees in the past that helped me with project management, but at this point, my team is almost entirely comprised of contractors that I have established relationships with. The vast majority of the people I contract are located in the U.S. (mainly California). In a lot of ways, my team is really no different than any other team that is mostly remote.
Q: The reason I wanted to explore your team’s composition a bit more is that I think your decision to work with contractors rather than hiring an internal team is interesting, especially in today’s market where many people are doing all they can to promote the fact that they do everything in-house.
What would you say are the positives and negatives of utilizing a contractor-based model like Sunlight Media rather than hiring a team of in-house staff members? Has your decision to utilize contractors almost exclusively affected the way that you do business?
A: I don’t feel that it’s affected the way I do business and I don’t see any negatives at all. This is the digital age, right? I don’t believe it’s necessary for everyone to be working in the same office or to have employees that work only for Sunlight Media. In fact, from my experience, generally, the best talent (I’m talking senior-level engineers and designers) don’t want to work in an office setting. They want the freedom to work where they please and they want to be able to leverage their skills to the best of their ability. It’s generally the junior level designers and developers that are looking to get experience and establish a portfolio by going in-house.
These days a lot more people want the flexibility to work from home. They want to be able to work their own hours; they don’t want to deal with traffic coming into an office, parking, public transportation, buying lunch, etc. Working from home tends to make people more productive and happier.
Most importantly, clients seem to be okay with it as well! I’ve never had a client ask to come in and sit down with a developer to watch them work. As long as we’re meeting the client’s needs, we’re hitting deadlines, and we’re communicating regularly, the client has no problem.
Q: I totally agree! We have the same philosophy here at UpCity as well. I’m fortunate enough to be able to work remotely from beautiful Colorado and we have team members all across the country and in Canada too!
As an agency, have you ever received any pushback during the pitch process because you don’t have an in-house team?
A: No, not at all. Potential clients look at our portfolio, they see our customer reviews, and they see our customer service. They’ll call or email and always receive a personal response from me; their questions are being answered and their needs are being met and those are the most important things.
Every now and then I’ll have a client that might be concerned about a project being sent to offshore developers, and how I react depends on the customer. If they have enough budget for me to utilize domestic contractors, then I’ll assure them that no part of their project will be sent offshore.
Other times, I’ll have clients who will come to me with a budget that frankly requires offshore developers. In those situations, I’ll sit down with the client and explain that based on their budget, I’d need to source the project to offshore developers and discuss with them what that means.
Ultimately, no one has ever really cared who did the work or where they are in the world as long as it was completed on time and within budget.
Q: It’s great to see a remote-work success story like that and I think many of our partners will be relieved to hear your take on the matter. Sometimes agencies can shy away from outsourcing work because they feel it can damage their brand, but you’re living proof that that’s not always the case!
Speaking of building a brand, Sunlight Media has amassed quite a decent amount of positive reviews and has a reputation for providing great work. What would you say has been your most successful review generation strategy thus far and what advice would you give other agencies looking to build a more successful reputation?
A: Well, as far as review generation strategies go there’s not a lot you can do except ask for them, right?
The UpCity platform and your review request tool have been great and we’ve taken advantage of those lately. As far as Google and other review sites are concerned, we mainly focus on asking for reviews once projects are completed. We simply circle back to our clients and say, “We’d love to get your feedback, please leave us a review and share your honest opinion on our services.”
It sounds too simple to work, but that’s it! I’ll include links to two or three review sites in the email and some clients bite and others don’t.
Q: Ultimately, that’s the first and last word in review generation, isn’t it? ASK.
I only have a few more questions for you and I wanted to chat about the future of digital marketing and where you see the industry heading. If you had one piece of advice for business owners looking to invest in digital marketing today, what would it be?
A: Oh god. That’s a tough question. Digital marketing, in general, has become highly competitive in recent years, especially SEO. It’s hard to boil things down to one piece of advice because things have changed so fast that the complexity is off the charts: there’s SEO, social media, email, PPC, influencer marketing, content marketing, the list goes on. There are just so many different levels to digital marketing that it’s hard to choose one piece of advice, but I think the biggest thing would be to stay current.
I’ve had clients in the past come to me and say, “I read an SEO article last year and learned this and that.” I have to be the poor soul to tell them that that strategy was obsolete about a month after that article came out. Digital marketing is constantly changing, so staying up to date with current trends and current technologies, following industry leaders like Neil Patel and Brian Dean, reading and absorbing as much as you can from blogs and social media channels is essential. If you want to be successful in digital marketing, you have to stay current.
Q: I know it’s a HUGE question, but thanks for boiling it all down for me. I couldn’t agree more that staying current is what sets apart good marketers from great marketers.
The last question I have for you before you sign off is how has your relationship with UpCity affected your business?
A: Well, I’m a Diamond partner with UpCity and that gets me a decent bit of traction in terms of clicks through to my website. Potential clients land on my UpCity profile, look at my reviews and portfolio, and if they like what they see there then most of the time they click through to my website. It’s definitely been a helpful channel in terms of generating new leads.
Angelo has been involved in the creative IT world for over 20 years. He built his first website back in 1998 using Dreamweaver, Flash, and Photoshop. He expanded his knowledge and expertise by learning a wider range of programming skills, such as HTML/CSS, Flash ActionScript, and XML. Angelo completed formal training with the CIW (Certified Internet Webmasters) program in Sydney Australia, learning the core fundamentals of computer networking and how it relates to the infrastructure of the world wide web.
Having worked with a variety of companies in Australia and the USA has provided Angelo with a diverse set of communication skills and a strong understanding of individual customer needs. Sunlight Media strives for 100% customer satisfaction. Angelo’s primary role is to ensure that this objective is met with each and every project the team encounter. He is also a triple national of the U.S, Australia & Italy, and enjoys watching European Soccer, MMA and Australian Football.