Survey: 57% of Digital Marketing Entrepreneurs Started A Business Due to COVID-19
2022: Survey: 57% of Digital Marketing Entrepreneurs Started A Business Due to COVID-19
Few industries were left unaffected by the impact of COVID-19. However, one industry most affected was the marketing and advertising industry. Quarantines, social distancing requirements, and other public health and safety regulations forced closures of many B2C retailers and B2B office spaces. Across the board, these closures forced business leaders to shift strategies and reassess budgets to remain operationally intact enough to meet the uncertain and constantly evolving demands of locked-down consumers.
In the beginning, many budgets were carved to the bone; if it wasn’t necessary to keep the doors open, it was considered discretionary spending. At first, marketing and advertising budgets were some of the most heavily cut expense lines, but somewhere in the first half of 2021, the narrative changed drastically. A combination of innovative content marketing outreach and a resurgence in the economy despite the continuing pandemic meant that there was suddenly a ravenous demand for marketing services across all industries.
Around the same time, the Great Resignation had started sweeping across the American workforce, continuing into 2022. This endless demand for marketing services resonated with the large population of professionals looking to make a career change or strike out on their own, resulting in a remarkable number of digital marketing entrepreneurs opening their doors for business for the first time in the wake of the pandemic.
UpCity partnered with Pollfish to survey 600 U.S. digital marketing agency owners to explore this boom in startup digital marketing agencies as well as how the pandemic shaped the entrepreneurial journey of existing digital marketing agency owners in general. In the survey, Pollfish explored the respondents’ journeys of starting and running a digital marketing-focused agency. UpCity has broken down the Pollfish survey results into two discussions:
- Digital Marketing Training and Business Launch
- Digital Marketing Agency Offerings and Operations
Digital Marketing Training and Business Launch
57% of digital marketing entrepreneurs noted that the COVID-19 pandemic highly influenced their decision to become self-employed
The COVID-19 pandemic introduced a level of uncertainty into the economy on a scale that has not been experienced in several generations. When discussing the initial financial impact the Great Lockdown had on national economies around the world, many experts are clear that the pandemic-driven recession had a greater negative impact on GDP growth than was experienced during the 2008-2009 Global Financial Crisis.
For many of the entrepreneurs surveyed and quoted, the decision to strike out on their own was less a decision than a forced necessity to survive layoffs and job losses to keep a roof over their heads. For those who did choose to leave, their reasoning often ranged from insufficient compensation to there being too much uncertainty in job security. In many cases, new entrepreneurs pointed out that their previous employers were understaffed, leaving the individual surveyed burdened by a workload meant to be divided out over a team of experts.
11% – COVID-19 didn’t impact my decision to become self-employed
32% – COVID-19 somewhat impacted my decision to become self-employed
57% – COVID-19 strongly impacted my decision to become self-employed
In talking more with our community of small business owners and entrepreneurs, we found that while COVID-19 was not always the impetus that led them to open their business, it had a significant impact on how they now operate their business.
“I have been a digital marketing and content freelancer for more than seven years. I did not technically start my digital marketing agency in the last two years. However, I took my freelancing business from a solo enterprise to an agency in the past several years. The COVID-19 pandemic was not something that directly influenced this decision. Other than the fact that perhaps the digital business has grown because of the pandemic. This has required my agency to scale to a larger degree.”
—Emily Mendez M.S., EdS., Founder, Priceless Copy
“The COVID-19 pandemic influenced my decision to become self-employed. I had been working in the corporate world for a few years and was getting burnt out. I was also laid off from my job due to budget cuts related to the pandemic. So, I decided to start my digital marketing agency. I figured that if I could make it through the tough times of the pandemic, then I could make it as a self-employed business owner. Plus, I really enjoy being my boss and having the freedom to work from anywhere.”
—Linda Chavez, Founder and CEO, Seniors Life Insurance Finder
34% of respondents received a digital marketing certification before starting their business
The results of this Pollfish inquiry are extremely telling as to how differently we view higher education in the modern economy, especially when it comes to becoming a business owner. Traditional higher education still holds importance, but it’s not always necessary to focus on the industry in which you plan to open a business. That is because third-party certifications have become much more valuable for providing up-to-date industry skills. The prevalence of those who only relied upon industry-related certifications to open their agency shows that, at the ownership level, it’s more important to come to ownership with a wide range of other skills.
By supplementing your experience with either a higher education degree or a certification, you will give yourself the tools necessary to keep a fledgling business afloat and ensure you know the necessary items to offer relevant and meaningful services to your clients. Certifications are a cost-effective way for business owners to better manage the skilled professionals they’ve hired and to speak to the needs of their clients in a meaningful way, without having to invest the time and money into a traditional degree.
20% I received a bachelor’s degree in marketing
20% I received a master’s degree and/or MBA in marketing
34% I earned a digital marketing-related certification
12% I received a non-marketing-related college degree
10% I attended trade school in a non-marketing-related field
Entrepreneurs and small business owners are cut from a different cloth, and not all have followed the traditional path of higher education to prepare themselves for business ownership. Even those that did attain degrees have come to rely more on certifications and other training to prepare themselves to run effective businesses.
“I have no formal marketing education, but I’ve launched 14 different startups from $0 to $2MM or more in annual revenue. At one point or another I’ve earned every non-developer certificate that Hubspot has, as well as Google Search, Google Display, Google Analytics, and Facebook Ads certificates as well.”
—Trevor Longino, Founder and CEO, CrowdTamers
“I had no formal education in digital marketing. I had a bachelor’s degree in business and entrepreneurship, but all of my education for digital marketing had come either from my personal experience and projects or from digital agencies I had worked for.”
—Aaron Anderson, Founder and Owner, LinkPitch
Before they started a business, 36% of respondents practiced digital marketing on the side while working in a different industry
Pivoting careers with relevant transferable skills is a popular strategy for those looking to change industries and improve their opportunities with traditional employment. For those looking to strike out on their own as entrepreneurs and start-up owners, however, it helps to have experience in your target industry first, especially if you’re looking to open something as complex as a digital marketing agency.
Marketing and advertising evolve and shift so rapidly that it’s hard for a solopreneur without a background in marketing to choose to open an agency that provides marketing services that meet the most up-to-date best practices. It’s much easier to speak to clients’ marketing needs if you’re already plugged into the industry either directly via a previous full-time marketing role or indirectly through freelancing and contract work.
27% I worked on an in-house digital marketing team
35% I worked at a digital marketing agency
36% I practiced digital marketing on the side while working in another industry
The insight gathered from our community largely supports the need to have some sort of industry experience before opening a digital agency. While the path for many entrepreneurs and business owners in digital marketing may not have begun with traditional education, many did start their careers working in digital marketing agencies
“Before and during the pandemic, I worked for an agency that provided PPC. I decided to build out an SEO service line (from scratch) to offer to existing and new clients. I’m a former high school English teacher that left the profession because of burnout. I turned to content creation and SEO because it seemed like a great way to use my existing skill set. As a teacher, I helped students grow. As an SEO professional, I help businesses grow. Similar mediums, different audiences.”
—James De Roche, Managing Partner, Lead Comet
“I started in digital marketing about seven years ago at a small internet marketing company in my hometown as a search marketing specialist and eventually became the director of digital advertising at the agency. I left that role to pursue a digital advertising role with a national brand and spent about two years there. I have been doing freelance digital marketing work on the side for a few years and realized I enjoyed that work more than I enjoyed the work I was doing in my full-time role. Earlier this year I decided to leave my role there because of my passion for helping small business owners win with their marketing.”
—Nate Amspacher, Founder, Upstream Digital Marketing LLC
28% of digital marketing entrepreneurs worked in sales and/or customer service roles before starting their business
While helpful, working at a digital marketing agency isn’t the only path for gaining marketing skills in the modern economy. There are still many businesses that handle their marketing needs in-house, providing people working in any department or field the opportunity to contribute to marketing campaigns and gain vital marketing skills.
One of the most important avenues a digital marketing agency owner can follow is that of customer service and sales. At their core, digital agencies are a sales-reliant business model that often relies on high-quality customer service standards to differentiate their services from competitors.
The truth is, digital marketing entrepreneurs can come into ownership from any discipline at all, as it will provide them with the skills to manage that business process when opening their agency. The key to success for many entrepreneurs and start-ups is recognizing that they know what they know, and they should hire and surround themselves with professionals who can do the things they cannot themselves do or leverage third-party training and education to fill their skill gaps.
This means even programmers, accountants, and human resource specialists have found their way into running a digital marketing agency. What’s important is not that they have the marketing knowledge up front, but that they understand how to run and manage a business and that they know how to leverage the resources and tools necessary to acquire either the marketing skills themselves or to hire skilled and experienced staff who have those skills.
15% Human Resources
18% Accounting & Finance
18% IT services
28% Sales/Customer Service
UpCity engaged the community to allow several digital agency owners who did not get their start in marketing to speak out about their journeys and where they got their start before striking out on their own.
“I worked in the engineering and project management sphere before starting my digital marketing agency. After many years in the male-dominated engineering industry, I decided to say bye-bye to the corporate world and start my digital marketing agency.”
—Parisa Bady, Founder, Meros Media
“I did not work in the digital marketing industry before starting my business. Before striking out on my own to launch an agency, I was in school to be a therapist while working as a dental assistant to help pay for school.”
—Aunia Kahn, CEO, Rise Visible
A majority of respondents stated that wanting to be in control of their schedule was the driving factor in being self-employed. Many respondents also noted that their business started as a side gig and grew into a full-time gig
Many driving factors led our respondents to open their agencies or to become freelance contractors in charge of their schedules. The pandemic forced many workers to redefine what they considered an acceptable work-life balance. The need for flexibility to take care of family and personal health meant that many were no longer willing to accept traditional in-person work arrangements as acceptable, driving many into business for themselves.
Others felt that the quality of service being provided by overworked and understaffed businesses could be improved, and decided to open their businesses to provide a higher quality of service to clients. Another subset of our respondents was already working as freelancers in marketing as a side hustle. The rising demand for marketing services was such that many consultants and freelancers found that they were able to leverage their side-gig workload into sufficient business to sustain them full-time.
Perhaps the most telling and insightful reason provided by our respondents is that a large number of entrepreneurs and small business owners opened their agencies because they wanted more control over pay and opportunities. Despite significant growth in many industries, salaries have stagnated. Opportunities for advancement are also at a premium, as many established businesses would rather hire outside talent or spread the increased workload across existing staff rather than promote internal hires and back-filling low-level roles.
I wanted to be in control of my own schedule
My business started out as a side gig and grew into a full-time gig
I wanted to be in charge of my own salary and/or career growth
I wanted the experience of working in a different industry
I felt that I could make a greater impact by starting a business of my own
I enjoy leading and managing employees
I had a negative experience working for someone else
I had the financial means to branch off on my own
I was inspired by famous entrepreneurs
I come from a family of entrepreneurs
Entrepreneurs strike out on their own for a myriad of reasons, and over the last few years, the uncertainties and lack of job security have only driven more professionals to launch a business under their own brand.
“I got my career started managing gyms under someone else’s brand. I value family and professional freedom, and becoming my own boss and eventually CEO of Smart Shark is what’s allowed me to do that. I also wanted to do something bigger than just growing someone else’s personal wealth by managing their dreams instead of my own.”
—Jonathan Lautermilch, CEO, Smart Shark
“Having worked at many different agencies, I witnessed a lot of different processes and ways of running an agency. It made me realize what I liked, what I didn’t, what worked, and what did not. I was able to take all the knowledge with me of how I wanted to do things, and the way I knew things would work.”
—Lisa Harst, Owner and Founder, The Lifestyle Studio
“Like most folks that set out to start their own business, my main motivators were money and freedom. What they don’t tell you is that you have to choose one or the other. When you’re self-employed, your time is more valuable, but you have less of it. So you have the opportunity to make more than you would work in-house for someone else, but you also carry 100% of the responsibility and headache. The question becomes: which do you care about more? It’s a trade-off for sure. The most important takeaway I can offer is to remember that as my business has evolved, my reasons for continuing to consult today are very different from the reasons that I started in the first place.”
—Brandon Seymour, Owner and Principal Consultant, Beymour Consulting
42% of respondents started their digital marketing business on the side while working full-time for an employer
It shouldn’t surprise readers that inflation and employment instability has many professionals relying on part-time side jobs and gig work to make ends meet. For some, they are content with the income and networking opportunities provided by the gig work, but for others, this approach is an opportunity to build up something more substantial. Since the start of the pandemic, gig work has become a strategy for insulating against unexpected layoffs and restructuring.
Performing marketing work on the side while still working full-time has also become a strategic method for establishing the foundation for future business owners. For aspiring entrepreneurs, automation software, digital tools, and online gig platforms can be used in the background to build a brand and engage with customer inquiries while still allowing aspiring owners to perform in their full-time jobs. Taking this approach allows entrepreneur-minded individuals to build a portfolio of successful projects and positive reviews that over time will allow them to build a stronger client base that can eventually supplant the full-time paying job.
21% I was laid off/unemployed when I started my own business
36% I left my full-time job to start my own business full-time
42% I started my business part-time while I worked full-time for an employer
60% of digital marketing entrepreneurs initially operated their business as a one-person freelancer and/or consultant
While we’ve talked about the various avenues to digital marketing agency ownership taken by our respondents, there’s an underlying reason so many have either worked for agencies previously or have offered marketing services as freelancers independently. Having these skills at the outset, aspiring entrepreneurs can avoid the initial need for personnel on the payroll, which is one of the most expensive P&L line items for any business. Once they’ve established a strong client list and lined up enough future work, they can focus then on building out staff to expand services and handle a larger workload.
For many professionals just starting, third-party outsourcing platforms such as UpWork and Fiverr allow entrepreneurs to provide services to a larger number of clients while managing the experience of new customers and building up the assets necessary to truly bring on the full-time staff down the line.
14% I hired my first in-house employee fairly quickly
26% I outsourced some of my tasks to third-party help
60% I started out as a 1-person freelancer/consultant
57% of respondents have a business partner and classify themselves as a Co-Founder
Not every entrepreneur is willing to take the plunge into ownership on their own, and in many cases partnership offers a myriad of advantages. The fact is that many partnerships grow out of two individuals with similar aspirations with a complementary mix of skills that will help them operate the agency effectively. These partnerships rely on the strengths of each partner supplementing the knowledge or skill gaps of the other partner.
A significant percentage of our respondents preferred to go at it alone, supplementing the gaps in their skills with training and education or outsourcing to professionals via other channels. Solopreneurs tend to have a wider range of experiences and skills combined with the financial means that allow them the freedom of independent ownership.
43% I don’t have a business partner, I’m the Sole Founder
57% I have a business partner, I’m a Co-Founder
The paths taken by entrepreneurs and start-up owners who have opened digital marketing agencies of their own are highly personal. Our respondents come from every industry, but a large percentage of those surveyed came into ownership by establishing their skills and credentials working for other agencies. These experiences have given owners and operators the knowledge necessary to tailor their services according to the needs of their target clients. The Pollfish survey explored in-depth how these service offerings were affected by the pandemic.
Digital Marketing Agency Offerings and Operations
16% of digital marketing entrepreneurs focused on offering social media marketing services when their businesses initially opened. 39% of respondents originally serviced small businesses as their primary client type
As the Pollfish data revealed in a previous section, startup digital agencies are often single-contributor operations when they first open their doors. Single operators have to limit the scope of the services they offer. That means they often will specialize in a specific marketing niche, such as SEO or content marketing. Our respondents show that trends leading up to 2022 had many agencies prioritizing email marketing and social media marketing efforts, as these two channels are known for providing a significant return on investment.
Similarly, small agencies were rarely able to handle the scope of the marketing campaigns that large enterprise clients required, so in the beginning, new digital marketing agencies were more likely to focus on small business clients. This allowed the small digital marketing agencies to offer extremely granular and well-executed marketing campaigns in their niche that met the limited needs of smaller, growing clients without getting overwhelmed managing more complex enterprise campaigns.
11% Content Marketing
9% Paid Advertising
16% Social Media Marketing
9% PR/Online Reputation Management
12% Email Marketing
10% Affiliate Marketing
24% Enterprise businesses
36% Mid-sized business
39% Small businesses
When first opening their doors, entrepreneurs and start-up owners have to decide what services to focus on and how diverse a set of clients they can help. This often includes whether to focus on small and mid-sized enterprise (SMEs) businesses or larger enterprise-level clients.
“When we first started out, custom web design and development services were our primary offering to new clients. Initially, we worked with smaller and solo law firms who were still in the early stages of their business.”
—Bryan Osima, Founder, Legal Hero Marketing Inc.
“Design and SEO were our core services when we first opened in 2002, so much so that we had to change our company name from SEOdesign.com to SEO Image to better represent SEO and Online Reputation Management. We initially targeted small businesses mainly. In the beginning, our target clients didn’t understand what we did, so half of all sales calls were their first introduction to SEO. We spent a lot of time detailing the importance of website optimization and how we combined these services with optimization of content, images, and backlinks.”
—Alan Rabinowitz, CEO, SEO Image
While 15% of respondents still offer social media marketing services most heavily, 38% of them now mostly target mid-sized businesses in 2022
In the post-coronavirus economic landscape, social media continues to be a priority for many small agencies, while the playing field has evened across other marketing tactics. This is largely due to how much time consumers continue to spend consuming content on Facebook, LinkedIn, and other platforms after a significant uptick in social platforms used throughout the pandemic.
Because of the prioritization of content marketing across social networks, the workload on small agencies has eased significantly, allowing small agencies to leverage available automation and management software platforms and apps to service more medium- to enterprise-level companies.
10% Content Marketing
10% Paid Advertising
15% Social Media Marketing
8% PR/Online Reputation Management
11% Email Marketing
10% Affiliate Marketing
29% Enterprise businesses
32% Small businesses
38% Mid-sized business
In the wake of COVID-19, the marketing industry has had to adapt to new business needs and changing consumer habits online. With client businesses needing to adopt eCommerce and online shopping platforms as well as more robust content marketing, this caused a shift in the service offerings of many small agencies and startups. In some cases, agencies also had to reconsider their targeted customer base.
“We’re still strong in SEO, but paid marketing, both on Google and Meta properties, has seen an increase in adopters and their budgets, and we’ve seen social media coaching take off as well. Our primary client focus has shifted in that we’ve niched down recently to work with home services business owners. We have a niche customer type now, but definitely some similarities. We see more businesses interested in digital market services or learning more about what to do.”
—Drew Rigler, Owner and Director of Digital Marketing, Planet 8 Digital
“While we started out as a web design company, ShiftWeb is today much more than a web design company. We offer a full suite of digital marketing services, from SEO to content marketing to social media advertising. While our primary customer type is still small businesses, we’re also working with more mid-sized companies. I think this is because as the internet has become more essential for businesses of all sizes, they realize they need to invest in digital marketing to stay competitive.”
—Sinoun Chea, Digital Marketing Consultant and CEO, ShiftWeb
56% of digital marketing business owners target a mix of both B2B and B2C businesses as their main client type in 2022
The data gathered by Pollfish reveals an interesting shift in the marketing sphere that shows marketing strategies have become largely homogenous regardless of whether the campaign is designed for business-to-business (B2B) service providers or business-to-consumer (B2C) retailers. This has allowed small digital marketing agencies to build more diversified portfolios than they might have in the past, improving their ability to generate a more stable and reliable revenue stream.
13% – B2C
31% – B2B
56% A mix of B2B and B2C clients
22% of respondents leveraged credits cards as their main type of business funding, followed by bank loans at 21%
To offer digital marketing services to clients, new agency owners need to secure new technologies, IT infrastructure, and software licenses to do the work. Depending on the scale of the agency, and how fast the business grows, there will be an eventual need to secure office space and the associated digital technology and telecom services, as well as eventually support staff. Altogether, this means that no entrepreneur can get their brand off the ground without the necessary funding.
Small businesses benefit from special interest rates on loans and credit cards designed specifically to help them leverage cash flow and manage income streams more effectively This makes these two sources of funding extremely popular with aspiring small business owners. Aside from bootstrapping, credit cards and bank loans through the small business administration also provide a degree of independence in that the debt lies with the company but isn’t reliant upon investors or friends and family.
Another popular method being leveraged by modern business owners to get businesses off the ground is crowdfunding sites. While crowdfunding still ties the success of the business to outside funding, it does allow aspiring business owners to test the market demand for the services they are looking to offer.
10% Crowdfunding sites
12% Angel investors
13% Loans from family and friends
21% Bank Loans
22% Credit Cards
47% of digital marketing entrepreneurs operated their business fully remote pre-COVID. 42% of respondents still operate their business fully remote in 2022
Digital marketing agencies are unique in that most of the software platforms used to execute marketing campaigns and activities enable remote collaboration. This means that new agencies and established agencies both were able to fully embrace the remote work model throughout the pandemic, an arrangement a significant number have chosen to maintain despite many industries embracing a return to the office. However, according to Pollfish survey respondents, there was a shift to working in physical office space, likely due to a growth in business that necessitated space for more staff and the ability to meet with more clients.
1% – Other
20% – I used shared workspaces like WeWork
47% – My business was fully remote
32% – I had a physical office space
22% – I use shared workspaces like WeWork
36% – I have a physical office space
42% – My business is fully remote
Our community of entrepreneurs and owners run the full spectrum when it comes to how they’ve structured their businesses before and after the pandemic.
“We have always been a remote-based company. We have team members across the country, which has actually worked out better for us. We have boots on the ground across the country so we are able to see how things affect businesses and customers in a variety of markets.”
—Maximilian Naza, Owner and Founder, PasciVite
“When we opened in 2017, we were fully in-person. Today, we employ a hybrid in-office and work-from-home setup. Employees have the option to work at our office in Washington, DC, and/or work entirely remotely. This flexibility allows BluShark Digital to expand its hiring pool and offer post-COVID perks.”
—Seth Price, CEO and Cofounder, BluShark Digital
“I’ve been working remotely now for almost seven years, four prior to starting my agency, so the remote work world was not foreign to me. Our team has been remote and will continue to be remote for the foreseeable future. The work-life balance of working from home is so wonderful I cannot imagine giving it up.”
—Lane Rizzardini, Co-Owner, Marion Relationship Marketing
40% of digital marketing business owners plan to start an additional business in the future
We’ve already established the above that entrepreneur-minded business owners are more apt to juggle a side gig to build their brand while working full-time. This proclivity for running multiple businesses tends to follow startup owners and entrepreneurs throughout their careers, and as the Pollfish survey data shows, a majority of our respondents already own multiple businesses or plan to open additional businesses in the future. Many will point to income stream diversification as a key component in their personal success, and a crucial component of the freedom that entrepreneurship allows them.
15% – I don’t intend to start any additional businesses
22% – I’m unsure at this time
24% – I already own multiple businesses
40% – I plan to start an additional business in the future
The COVID-19 pandemic had a significant economic impact on the marketing industry in ways that forced business owners to reassess how they operate and the types of businesses to which they provide services. A shift in the types of marketing campaigns brands needed to be executed on their behalf meant small agencies could go after larger clients, and the boosted demand for marketing services ensured there was plenty of work to go around, enough that entrepreneurs with skin in the game already are more willing than ever to open additional businesses to cash in on increased consumer demand.
Are You An Aspiring Digital Marketing Entrepreneur?
With uneven inflation and supply chain issues still plaguing the economy as a whole, the subsequent uncertainties still have financial experts anticipating some level of recession or economic downturn to hit the economy in the coming months. The threat of a recession and further layoffs and restructurings mean that many workers still do not feel their positions are secure at their current employer.
Despite the uncertainties, many business owners learned the valuable lesson through the pandemic that marketing must remain a prioritized business process through any time of crisis. Because of this, the demand for marketing services should remain steady despite what 2023 holds, and there will continue to be a need for digital marketing service providers.
About the author
David J. Brin
David is the Managing Partner for the Code Ninjas franchise responsible for the Baton Rouge, LA market, where he facilitates the education of youth in programming, game design, and STEM education fundamentals. A lifelong learner, David combines a passion for strong business practices and solid marketing strategies honed throughout his 20-year career in the food and beverage industry with his desire to share those best practices with other business owners as a contracted copywriter for Gartner. When he's not helping his daughter build her digital art-focused social media brand, he's creating content focused on digital marketing trends, B2B best practices, and IT and cybersecurity managed services.