How Tom Started a Successful Digital Marketing Company While in College

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When it comes to making money online, it seems like everyone is searching for passive income ideas. While passive income is great, it usually takes a lot of time and effort on the front end before you start making any money (and even then, it’s often not as passive as you might have expected).

If you’re looking for a way to start making money quickly, offering a service is much more likely to lead to success. There are plenty of services that are in demand, and you can start making money as soon as you can land your first client. The best types of services are those that will bring recurring income as you continue to do work for the client month-after-month.

Tom Blake is a 22-year-old recent college graduate, and a blogger at This Online World. Tom and a friend started a digital marketing company last year, during their final year of college.

Based in Toronto, Tom works for another digital marketing company full-time while running his own business (with his partner) as a side hustle.

This side hustle is generating a few thousand dollars per month for Tom and his business partner to split. They spend anywhere from 5-20 hours per week working on the business, depending on the demands of current client projects.

→ Related reading: 150+ Side Hustle Ideas to Make Money in Your Spare Time

A Specialized Approach

Tom Blake
Tom Blake

After talking to Tom about their business, one of the things that I found really interesting is the approach they took towards specializing. They specialized in terms of the specific services that they offer, as well as the type of business that makes up most of their client base right now.

Tom told me, “The original idea behind the company was to serve clients for a variety of digital marketing needs (i.e. social media management, content writing, SEO, paid advertising) but we quickly realized the value in specializing in a specific skill and made the decision to purely focus on paid advertising work.

“We offer business owners the ability to outsource their digital marketing work and to have us act as campaign managers on their behalf. Essentially, my colleague and I run Facebook or Google advertisements for local businesses, helping them to acquire new customers, sell their products/services online, and to break into new markets. Additionally, we help business owners plan their market strategy/advertising budgets, and we have also helped with landing page/sales funnel redesign to help make the online selling process more effective. The ultimate goal is to really make more money for everyone.”

By focusing on Facebook and Google ads for local businesses, Tom and his business partner are able to stand out and brand themselves for these services that are in high demand.

Additionally, they’ve also specialized by providing services mostly to furniture stores, although that wasn’t necessarily intentional. Tom said, “That sort of just happened right from the start. Furniture is a great business because a single sale can generate a lot of revenue, but we have also looked at working with other companies in a variety of industries like B2B equipment or even local restaurants.”

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A Brilliant Way to Find the First Clients

One of the most daunting things about starting a service-related business can be simply getting your first client. Tom and his partner used a very smart strategy of offering free website or advertising audits, and some of those leads turned into paying clients.

Speaking about getting started, Tom said, “We threw together a WordPress website with a basic theme and then started reaching out to previous contacts we had from various internships.

“Our pitch was fairly straightforward as well. We would offer free website audits (or advertising audits, if the company was already advertising) and suggest improvements business owners could make.

“Typically we found businesses were either in capable hands already or were just getting started with their online marketing efforts. However, a few of our audits found some significant weaknesses in existing advertising efforts, and that is where we offered a competitive price and better service to secure new clients. Being a couple of college students was actually a benefit in that we had experience from previous internships but were able to offer an affordable price compared to larger digital marketing agencies in the area.”

This approach of offering a free audit or consultation is definitely something that could be applied to other types of service-related businesses as well.

Tom pointed out that the audits also have another benefit – they can help you to know how you should price your services.

He said, “Another great part about conducting free audits is you can usually slip in a question about how much a business has paid for advertising in the past (or you can get a general idea of the companies they have worked with). From there you can do some searching or even call other digital marketing companies to try and get quotes, or see what is listed on their website. We would generally find a price and then go lower since we could afford to at the time.”

In terms of pricing, Tom and his partner charge a flat monthly retainer. The fee depends on the size of the business and its advertising budget. Bigger budgets lead to more time managing the campaigns, so the retainer fee increases along with the advertising budget.

Starting Your Own Digital Marketing Company

While Tom and his partner focus specifically on managing ad campaigns, you could take a similar approach with other types of services. For example, you could manage social profiles like Pinterest accounts, Instagram accounts, or Facebook pages for clients. Offer a free audit of their existing social profiles and point out the ways that you could improve it for them.

→ Related reading: How to Make Money on Pinterest

On the subject of finding your first clients, Tom said, “Using your existing contacts is always a great way to find new clients (if you are comfortable working with mutual friends or acquaintances), and the audits are a spectacularly easy but effective way to provide value to a potential customer while getting your foot in the door.” And without the need to advertise to find clients, this is a great way to make money online without paying anything.

Tom’s biggest piece of advice for anyone who is interested in starting a similar business or starting a side hustle is to focus on the client and what you can do to truly improve the client’s business.

He said, “The whole ‘start a digital marketing company and make easy money’ angle is being pushed to death right now by various YouTube gurus selling courses, but you need to remember one critical thing: the client comes first.

“Without a profitable and successful business, you cannot run sustainable advertising. This fact means that when you are searching for clients you need to be able to walk away from a deal if it is not in the best interest of the business owner. Trust me, this will save you time, aggravation, and your reputation in the long run.

“For example, let’s say your monthly retainer fee was $1,500, and that is how much money you absolutely needed to charge to make up for your time. It is probably unlikely that you could advertise for a local hair salon in a small town and have them make any profit on their advertising spend + retainer fee, so you simply shouldn’t work for them (and you should explain this to them so they don’t get hit by the next guy).

“It is shameful right now how much companies are charging small businesses for services like social media management, knowing full well that they will not see a return on their investment. I know it is a free market and buyer beware, but I highly recommend looking to forge long-term/high-value relationships rather than striking at quick money.”

→ Related reading: How to Make $1,000 Fast

Things to Love About This Side Hustle

There are several things that stand out to me about Toms’ side hustle. Here are some of the most important things to consider if you’re evaluating a similar business model for your own side hustle.

Tom Uses a Skill That He Already Has to Make Money

When Tom was looking for a way to make extra money, he turned to the skills and experience that he already has.

He told me, “Both my business partner and I have worked several internships throughout school, and have had numerous positions in marketing departments for a variety of companies. We were fortunate in that we could see how both larger and small companies would approach their online advertising efforts, and the process wasn’t hard to emulate for other businesses, provided they actually had decent products to sell and had a functional website.”

Your personal experience may be completely different than Tom’s. Think about the skills that you already have and how you could turn it into a valuable service.

Today, many people have experience with social media and growing a following. It could be for your own personal profiles or for a blog that you run as a hobby. You may be able to use that experience and those skills to offer similar services to business owners that don’t have the time or experience to do it themselves.

→ Related reading: 40 Exciting Hobbies That Make Money

Good Income Potential

Like many service-related side hustles, the amount of money that you can make from managing ad campaigns for clients is pretty good. If you’re looking at is as a side hustle and just a way to earn extra money, managing campaigns for just a few clients can lead to some really nice income on the side. Of course, there is also the potential to go full-time.

Recurring Clients

Let’s face it, one of the worst parts of a service-related business is looking for new clients. This is especially true when you’re just getting started and you’re probably not getting word-of-mouth referrals yet.

Services like ad campaign management allow you to provide an on-going service for clients month-after-month. That means that if you can retain those clients, you won’t need to look for new clients all the time. Most or all of your time can be spent on income-generating work, rather than on trying to find work.

Services That are In-Demand

There is no shortage of businesses that need help with managing online advertising. If it’s done properly, advertising on platforms like Facebook and Google can provide a great ROI, but very few business owners have the experience or knowledge to do it on their own.


If you’re interested in starting a service-related side hustle, think about your own skills and experience. What expertise do you have that could be put to good use?

Here are a Few Great Resources for Starting Service-Related Side Hustles

Earn More Writing – Holly Johnson earns more than $200,000 per year as a freelance writer, and this course teachers her process.

30 Days or Less to Virtual Assistant Success – Gina Horkey teaches how to start making money as a virtual assistant (VA) in just 30 days.

Proofread Anywhere – This free 76-minute workshop shows how you find your first proofreading clients.

Transcribe Anywhere – Janet Shaughnessy teaches this course to show how you can make money (full-time or part-time) as a transcriptionist.

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