In this week’s “From the Ground Up” interview, we sit down with Diona Kidd, co-founder and COO at Knowmad Digital Marketing, an UpCity Certified Premium Partner and one of the top digital marketing agencies in the United States. Below we discuss how Knowmad transitioned from custom development to digital marketing, why they’ve chosen to scale intentionally rather than quickly, how they’ve created a stellar five-star reputation, and more!
Q: I’ve worked with your agency since your partnership with UpCity began so I’m already intimately acquainted with who you are and what you do, but let’s start by having you tell us about the history of Knowmad.
A: My colleague William started the company in 2002 and I merged my company into Knowmad in 2006. At the time, we were an open source programming company. We were a web dev shop, creating pretty complex web applications for a variety of purposes. Everything was snowflake, it was all uniquely built for unique situations. That led us into building websites, which started around 2004, and we started offering digital marketing around 2008.
We just started looking at what was going on at that time and it just seemed like there was a lot of smoke and mirrors when it came to Internet marketing. We were programmers, so we understood how it worked and people would say things to us that would be so off-base and we would have to be the bearers of bad news that unfortunately that’s not how this works. We got into Internet marketing in order to take the smoke and mirrors out of it.
Around 2008 or 2009 was when we first partnered with HubSpot and really dug into closing the loop on different digital marketing offerings. It took awhile but we eventually figured out how the Internet was going to integrate into our clients’ larger lead generation efforts. By 2011, we were creating full-scale lead generation engines for clients.
Q: Awesome. One thing I’ve noticed with a lot of people that come from the development side of things is that they can find it tough to transition to dealing with a less technologically literate audience when they try to offer web design services. What was your experience like with that transition?
A: I would say the biggest challenge wasn’t the external changes, but making the shift internally. That was a major pivot for us and it caused a shift in the people that worked at Knowmad. We needed different talent to provide a different service. We needed to add people with a marketing background.
Beyond that, the shift from talking with CIOs to speaking with marketing managers was tricky, but that comes down to understanding what your audience wants and needs. We’ve pivoted the business a number of times in the past, but each time the thing that has remained consistent (and will always stay with us) is that we talk to our customers and hear what they need. Not only that, but we understand the biggest challenges they’re facing, where they’re trying to go, and how we can help them get there.
People talk a lot about being a “partner” with their customers but we really take that to heart. It’s our job to understand how we can leverage our skills to make them successful; they’re the hero and we’re their support.
Q: And I think that attitude is then reflected in a lot of the reviews your clients have left for you on Google, Facebook, UpCity, and others. Too often people fall into the trap of thinking that if they just provide great service that reviews will come, but that’s not usually the case.
You’ve built your business in a way that creates the environment for generating positive reviews, but what advice do you have for those people looking to really double down on review generation? What’s been your secret thus far?
A: Our mantra is great service, great work, great culture.
Great service means providing a seamless and positive experience for our clients. We do a check in with them periodically just to make sure things are going well, seeing if there are any challenges, and interfacing directly with the client in their own space.
Great work is obviously delivering the best possible quality and results to our clients.
Lastly, great culture means making an investment internally in order to foster great relationships between our different team members. Happy people create great experiences. These check-ins create space to ask for online reviews.
The biggest thing for us is valuing relationships. Our reputation is a result of that. It’s not that we necessarily think about our reputation everyday, but we think about the relationships we have and the relationships we want to build. We make sure those relationships are cared for and that pays off dividends. We’ve invested, for instance, in an executive coach that works with our entire team on how to have tough conversations, how to have more open conversations that deepen the relationships we have with our clients, each other, and our vendors. We pride ourselves on working with a clear and open line of communication and investments like those help us continue to offer those to our partners.
As a result, we’ve created relationships where clients will take us to multiple companies that they work for. One client that comes to mind has worked with us for over 12 years and has taken us with him to his third company now as a CIO. We’re not necessarily working directly with him, but when someone at his company says they’re looking for someone to do development or digital marketing, he calls us in.
Q: That’s a perfect example of the type of relationship we’re always trying to promote to our clients. We love the idea of the flywheel of engaging audiences, converting prospects and delighting customers here at UpCity and I think that’s a great example of the way that delighting customers can increase the lifetime value of a customer relationship tenfold.
A: That’s what you get when you have the other person’s best interest in mind. You’re not just trying to sell them more stuff; you’re trying to figure out how to help them win.
Q: Obviously a big part of that is the talent you bring in. We hear a lot from our partners that finding leads is hard, but finding great talent is almost as big a struggle. You guys are in a great city for talent being located in Charlotte, but when it comes to finding the right people, what are you looking for? How do you find the right person that will be able to have those tough conversations?
A: You’re absolutely correct about Charlotte being a great city for talent, but there’s also a lot of competition here. That’s what being in a great city means, you’re going to compete for talent. There are a couple of ways that you can grow a business like ours. You can scale really fast, but that tends to create shallow relationships and you have to staff heavily and quickly. Or you can be more intentional about growth, which is what we’ve chosen to do. We’ve found that this has helped us retain customers longer and retain our staff longer. This might mean a heavier investment for us – not only financially but in terms of time commitment.
I spend a lot of time in the community, talking to peers and friends in the industry, keeping an eye out for potential talent, and maintaining relationships. There’s a lot of time spent essentially managing a pipeline of potential talent.
That might mean volunteering time with people, speaking with future graduates or those looking to make a career shift, or even just having coffee and a chat with people that are interesting and talented in our industry. We recently brought on a new employee, Chris, this year. I spoke to him initially two or three years ago and we just kept an ongoing conversation. We don’t feel the need to hire very fast because we prefer to build those relationships and hire intentionally. That’s why our team is able to gel so quickly.
The other thing we’ve done is we’ve gotten really clear about what our values are and what requirements we have in order for someone to able to fit in at Knowmad. I’ll look for those values before I even talk about technical skills. I want to find out if someone is coachable, do they have other people’s interests in mind or is it all about them, is it all about building a resume or do they really care about the company and clients? We need people that are always learning, that love to excel, that are agile and are determined to get stuff done.
Q: Those are the same types of things we look for here at UpCity as well and I think you’d find the same at most successful companies. For our final question, I want to focus a bit more on the relationship between Knowmad and UpCity. You’ve been a partner of ours for a number of years now, so can you tell me a bit about how your partnership with UpCity has helped your business?
A: As mentioned, I’m constantly on the lookout for potential partners, vendors, staff members, etc. That was how UpCity originally caught my eye. We ended up talking about the Marketplace when it was in its early stages and that’s where the partnership started.
I handle a lot of our marketing here at Knowmad and I remember getting us into the Marketplace and we saw a pretty unusual bump in traffic. We’ve had experience with other marketplaces or directories in the past, but normally it doesn’t lead to much of anything.
UpCity was different.
We seem to get traffic from Hubspot and UpCity, but we don’t see it as much from others. There are plenty of agency directories out there, but once I saw the conversations we were having, I started to look into what you offered even more. I saw that you provided white label services and because we prefer not to scale too quickly, we’re always looking for strategic partners that can help provide top quality offerings. I’m not going to hire 100 people if we can utilize a strategic partner and scale more intelligently.
You guys have been a huge partner for us on that side of things. We still deliver a majority of our clients work in-house, but your team helps augment our services so we don’t have to worry about staffing up quickly. As a result, that’s allowed us to provide more services to small businesses – as opposed to just mid-market – around us that just need a website and marketing help. The growth of our local SEO services is really a direct result of the partnership between Knowmad and UpCity.
The other key result of our partnership with UpCity is that we’ve been able to create focus internally and that’s allowed us to expand our core services like web design. With that, we’ve realized at least a 30% lift in conversions on websites we design. We’ve also been able to expand our digital outreach team to really double down on our SEO services to create even more visibility and traffic for our clients. All this combined means we’re seeing on average a 25% gain in the first six months of working with a client on their search traffic.
Q: Wow. That’s pretty incredible!
A: We think so too! Overall, UpCity has been a great partner for Knowmad and we’re excited to see where else this partnership takes us.
Diona is the co-founder and COO of Knowmad, responsible for overseeing operations, service management and marketing of the agency. This includes team development, hiring, service design & delivery and Knowmad’s brand management.
She has over 20 years of experience creatively using Internet technologies and digital marketing to improve business performance. Her career began by designing and developing the Internet-based technology platforms for a pharmaceutical drug discovery company and several large e-commerce businesses.
Diona’s career has been focused on growing businesses and individuals, including herself. As a result of her drive for growth, excellence and experimentation, Diona is a change-agent. She likes to test new ideas and “best practices” in order to assure the highest quality client service.
Diona has authored articles and featured columns for various online and print publications including, but not limited to, HubSpot’s Marketing Blog, Developer.com, Business2Community and Greater Charlotte Biz. She has also spoken and taught workshops at various industry events across the United States.