1. Hello! Who are you and what is your business?
My name is James Carbary. I am from a small town in central Oklahoma, right outside Oklahoma City, and went to college at the University of Central Oklahoma. I studied business (I probably didn’t learn anything from college as it relates to business) and then got the opportunity in 2008 to go on a sweepstakes trip.
My roommate’s brother in law won sweepstakes through a phone company called Alltel. We got to go to New York City on a private jet with 10 of my friends and go to a Giants vs Cowboys game. I sat in a suite next to Jerry Jones, the owner of the Dallas Cowboys, and had the chance to hang out with Barry Sanders throughout the game. It was on that trip that I met Jeff, and he changed the trajectory of my entire life.
He owned a logistics company that had contracted with Alltel to do the logistics work for our sweepstakes. They handled everything: they charted the jet, rented the limo bus, organized the police escort all around New York City, etc — and I hit it off with him. About a year and a half later, he asked me to move from Oklahoma to Orlando to run the helicopter division of his company.
That was my first taste of what it looked like to be an entrepreneur because I got to work for Jeff for the next three years. It was Jeff’s mentorship over that time that inspired me to start my own business. A couple of years after leaving Jeff’s company, I decided to start Sweet Fish Media.
I’d gotten the entrepreneurial bug. When I was let go from a tech company that I was working for (it was a young company and their funding dried up), I thought: Man, I just got engaged. I’m either going to start my own thing, or I’m going to go spend five years working for somebody else, wishing that I would have started my own thing.
Because I had recently become very aware that content marketing was going to be a big deal (and already was), I decided to plant my flag in content marketing and start Sweet Fish, which at the time was a done-for-you blog writing service; we’ve now pivoted into becoming a podcast agency, specifically for B2B brands, mostly B2B SaaS companies. I wanted to start my own business because I was passionate about content marketing and I have a deep desire to do my own thing and be the captain of my own ship. Freedom is a big motivator for me — and owning my own business gives me that freedom.
Finding the idea was was pretty simple. I saw that content marketing was powerful and creating content that allowed your ideal buyers to come to you, as opposed to you having to go to them (and I really liked that concept, even though the idea wasn’t practically unique).
The idea came from realizing that a B2B company can strategically use a podcast to do business development, meaning they can ask their ideal clients to be guests on your show. I think we were pioneers in thinking that instead of using podcasting as just a means to grow an audience, you can also use it to interview your ideal buyers, build relationships with people that can buy from you, and then ultimately turn those relationships into new business. When we started advocating for that approach for our customers, they started seeing results as well.
I already had a podcast that was seeing those kinds of results: we’d reach out to 100 complete strangers to be a guest on our podcast, and 80 of them responded saying that they would be interested in being a guest. That’s when we pivoted the business from being a blog agency to being a podcasting agency.
I started by reaching out to my existing network and got a few clients that way. Then we reinvested the money from that into our own content marketing and started generating business well outside of my own network. We made $1.3 million in revenue last year and are on pace to do 2.3 or 2.4 million in revenue this year. We started in 2015, so we’re about five and a half years in.
We have a twofold-tiered business model, one of which is to produce podcasts for B2B companies. They pay us to do all the pre-production: finding guests, reaching out, booking guests, doing the audio engineering for the podcast, the repurposing of that podcast content into written content, into micro-videos, and into written content for LinkedIn and their blog. Then we distribute and publish all that content.
Recently we’ve also become an independent media company, meaning we’re building our own media properties. B2B growth show is our first; we’ve got four others where people pay us to be a co-host of the shows that we own. It’s our job to grow the audience for those shows, and our customers pay us to have their voice shared on those shows on a regular basis by being a co-host.
We’re very fortunate our revenue has only gone up and to the right. We’ve just about doubled the size of the business every year since we’ve started. A huge reason for that is hiring our current Director of Partnerships, Logan Lyles. Bringing on someone like Logan (who had a background in selling copiers for 10 years), with his level of professionalism and understanding of sales and how to work a sales process really transformed our business. I think the business tripled in size the year he joined the team. That was a huge reason we’ve been able to grow.
Another factor contributing to our growth was riding the wave of popularity and podcasting in the early days. It was difficult convincing B2B companies that they needed a podcast and we’re very fortunate to be in an industry that’s growing rapidly. Now especially with COVID, companies are realizing that they need to figure out digital communication — podcasting sits right in the middle of that.
Besides Logan and I, we also have 20 full-time employees. I think our staff makes up about 72% of our adjusted gross income.
2. How do you attract and retain your customers?
Our first users came just from my personal network. As for our marketing techniques, I actually wrote a book called Content-Based Networking: How to Instantly Connect with Anyone You Want to Know. Our strength and superpower lies in content-based networking.
We started a podcast called B2B Growth. Through it, we’ve been fortunate to have grown the audience for that show over time. We now get over 130,000 downloads on our podcast, but the strategic way that we use our podcast is by having our ideal clients on as guests on the show, (i.e. VP of Marketing at a B2B SaaS company with 50 plus employees) and we use that content collaboration as an opportunity to build a genuine relationship with that person. Sometimes they eventually come back to us and we just have a direct conversation after the interview and ask if they are looking to start getting into podcasting.
This year, just because we’re creating so many relationships (not with just anybody), we’re not trying to get marketing thought leaders; we’re going after people that can actually buy our service, and build relationships with them by bringing them on as a guest on the show. It’s a marketing technique that has been our secret sauce..
I read a book called Never Lose a Customer Again by Joey Coleman. The thing I learned most from that book was that instead of celebrating winning a new customer, we need to be celebrating getting a result for each of our customers. People don’t sign up just for the sake of signing up for your product or service. They sign up because they want to get a result. By building our processes and building our team in such a way that we can actually deliver a tangible result that moves the needle in our customers’ businesses.
If you’re helping your customers get results and building processes and systems that are optimized around getting those results for them, then they have no reason to leave. For the longest time, I thought the result that our customer wanted was to have a show. But, what our customers actually want is to have an audience, so we’ve got to build in components of our service that actually help our clients get an audience and help our clients interview the right people that they want to do business with. When we help them do that, they see results and they stick around.
3. What were your challenges and obstacles of growing your business?
When you’re working with people in a service-based business, you’re obviously dealing with people a lot. Lots of challenges come with that. If you have a difference of opinion, you have to figure out how to communicate really well.
I still don’t think that’s something we’ve mastered here at Sweet Fish, but we’re figuring out how to communicate as a fully remote team.
The biggest thing to overcoming these challenges is simply getting up and attacking the next day and not getting bogged down with a mistake. It sounds cliche but you’ve got to move forward and learn from every mistake and see it as an opportunity to grow.
We were originally a blog writing agency that pivoted into being a B2B podcast agency, so we focus specifically on producing podcasts. But we’ve also added services like: video content, written content, audiograms and other types of content that relates to the podcast.
The tagline on most of our employees on LinkedIn says: we produce podcasts for B2B brands. That’s an intentional strategy. Because, even though we do a lot of other things, I want to make sure that our positioning is rock solid and very differentiated. I don’t want to be just another marketing agency, because there are lots of those and they don’t stand out in the crowd. I don’t want to be just another shop that can do digital marketing.
I think there are very few agencies focused on podcasting. It allows us to own the ocean, as opposed to having to be very competitive with a bunch of people that claim to do the same thing, even though we do a lot of the same thing that other marketing agencies do. We see enormous traction in the marketplace.
A mistake people often do is not addressing conflict soon enough. I’m a nine on the enneagram, which means I hate conflict. I have had to learn a lot in the last couple of years around, being more proactive in communicating when I’m frustrated about something and not letting it boil up and become this massive problem that then becomes an explosive reaction. I’ve learned to bring those things up earlier in the process and communicate a lot sooner than I would have. I’ve learned many things, but this is one of the biggest lessons I’ve learned.
4. What has been helpful to help you to grow your business?
I read all the time. Patrick Lencioni’s book The Advantage is my favorite book of all time. Craig Groeschel’s leadership podcast is super helpful.
We used Trello a lot, but we’re about to move over to Asana. But in terms of products, Trello has been a huge resource for us.
Having strong people has also been imperative for growth. Many people would say that being only five years in, we should not have the leadership team that we have. I sacrifice a lot of profit to have the leadership team that we have (it demands a higher level of compensation), because I believe it’s been one of the best things that I’ve ever done in the business. I managed to put a group of people around me at the leadership level who are much smarter than me in their respective areas.
The business has grown significantly more by bringing in a competent and incredible leadership team than if I’d hoarded the profit and tried to make those decisions myself. Bringing on someone to do people and culture, take over our hiring and processes around that, someone to run operations and finance, someone to run sales, someone to run audience growth, and someone to run creative. Having the right people to take lead on these things is allowing us to scale the business at a clip that most agencies never experience.
5. What is your advice for those are starting productized services?
One mistake I see product services making is not being specific enough. When it comes to your positioning, get hyper-specific with what you do and who you do it for. The reason our tagline isn’t We Help B2B Brands Grow is because it’s vague. But when we say We Produce Podcasts for B2B Brands, it says explicitly what we do and who we do it for. We could probably even be more specific and say we produce podcasts for B2B SaaS companies, but we keep it at Brands just because for brevity it’s a little bit shorter.
Also, you gotta have really clean processes. That’s something that we’re trying to get better at. As you scale and grow quickly, it’s really hard to outgrow your processes.
6. What are your plans for the future?
I want to be the biggest business media company in the world. I truly believe we’re building something really, really special here. Our Why is to inspire people to own their career because 90,000 hours of your life shouldn’t suck. I think the way we’re going to inspire people in their career is by producing niche content that is hyper-relevant in a bunch of different industries and for a bunch of different job functions — perhaps for every industry and for every job function.
Regardless of what type of work you do, I want Sweet Fish to have a media property focused on serving that niche. I want to grow the audience for each of those media properties. I would imagine there’s going to be close to 1000 in different media properties that we’ll own by the time this thing is said and done, and we will have incredibly engaged audiences for each of those media properties.
I don’t want to be a service business forever. I think being a service-based business right now will fund our ability to build a media company without going and having to raise outside money. Because of my desire for freedom, I don’t want to be handicapped by what an investor says that I have to do.
We’ve got five media properties right now, between B2B Growth show, the B2B Sales show, the Manufacturing show, the CIO show and Crafting Culture.