John Saunders, Founder, 5Four Digital (Miami, FL)
John Saunders, Founder of 5Four Digital, honed his SEO, SEM, and PPC digital marketing skills when he started his career working for an agency that provided dealership-level marketing services for automobile manufacturers. When John figured out that he wanted to use his skills for different kinds of projects and a more diverse clientele (SMBs, tech-startups), he started his own company. Today, 5Four focuses on brand identity (logo design and brand guidelines), and website design and development on Shopify, Webflow, and WordPress platforms.
In this interview, John explains how to build automated linkages that will increase customer engagement and discusses 3 “shopping” platforms: WordPress, Shopify, and Webflow.
John says WordPress was a game-changer – it made CMS (content management systems) “accessible” for people with lower-level HTML and CSS skills. The platform is flexible enough that amazing sites can be built with either the supplied templates or with custom code. A disadvantage of WordPress is that it requires the use of an extensive array of plugins for website “attributes,” and these and other security measures need to be maintained.
WordPress with a WooCommerce plug-in works well for ecommerce, but John has found that Shopify allows the agency to more quickly scale stores for its clients. One Shopify app, Teelaunch, provides companies with low cost, high-quality print on demand products so customers can create an MVP (minimum viable product, Eric Ries: The Lean Startup,) and build their own brand for less than $1000. Another CMS option, Webflow, can produce outstanding websites. It has a slight learning curve but is easy to use and highly flexible.
Although John currently sees Webflow as ”the future,” an organization’s decision to use a particular CMS platform should be based on a number of considerations.
Through the years, John has developed systems and standard operating procedures which allow him to delegate tasks to his staff or to automate processes, so the work gets done automatically.
One tool he has found to be particularly helpful is Zapier, which provides a way to “web-hook” different websites, platforms, and apps. John uses Zapier to cross-integrate his company website contact form with Slack (to notify John that the form has been filled out), and then with Mailchimp to send a “thank you for your interest, here’s another form.” Response to that drives another form for scheduling . . . and that information is sent to Colony. John says Zapier can be used to link Facebook to Gmail, Facebook Forms to Google Sheets, with up to 10 such linkages free.
John recommends written website SOPs to facilitate task handoffs to clients if the client prefers to maintain the site.
5Four Digital was already running remotely when Covid-19 hit. John’s SOPs and integrated technology continue to keep the agency operating smoothly. Many of his team use Asana to manage tasks. He notes that not everything he has done succeeded. However, the failures often provided the tools, resources, and experience he needed for subsequent projects . . . that did succeed.
John recently started a company offering downloadable illustrations featuring people of color so sitebuilders have beautiful pictures that promote diversity. BlackIllustrations.com. He is also involved in digital education and sees a lot of that in the future replacing the traditional four-year degree.
John can be found on his personal website at JohnDSaunders.com and @JohnDSaunders on Facebook and Instagram. His agency’s website is: https://www.5fourdigital.com/.
ROB: Welcome to the Marketing Agency Leadership Podcast. I’m your host, Rob Kischuk, and I’m joined today by John Saunders, Founder at 5Four Digital based in Miami, Florida. Welcome to the podcast, John.
JOHN: Hey, Rob. Thank you for having me. I’m super excited to be here, man. Thank you.
ROB: It’s excellent to have you here. Why don’t you start us off with an introduction to 5Four Digital and where you specialize.
JOHN: Absolutely. My name, of course, as you said, is John D. Saunders. I’m the founder of 5Four Digital. We focus and allocate our resources towards a couple key services. Those are brand identity, which is logo design and brand guidelines, as well as website design and development for Shopify, Webflow, and WordPress. Those are our main focus areas.
ROB: That makes perfect sense. WordPress obviously has been around for a very long time, Shopify a decent amount of time. Webflow is a little newer. How has that development of competencies happened? Did you start in one of those areas? How have you decided where to keep your skills sharp?
JOHN: Great question. I started in WordPress – man, it was at least 10 years ago. WordPress put CMS, or content management systems, on the map in regards to making it accessible for people that either have an entry level to HTML and CSS or high level. You create these amazing websites either using templates or doing custom code.
I started doing that with WordPress, and man, it was an exciting time because I started out and I learned everything I could from YouTube videos and other things like that. This was in the infancy of WordPress, so it was before they even had all these templates and themes. I was able to build a site for my mom, who’s a teacher, and we built this tutoring site. Kids were able to go on, fill out the contact form. I was able to take this idea I had in my head and make it something tangible. That’s when I was hooked.
As the agency grew, we really thought to allocate our resources toward a few key resources, and WordPress was that main one. As ecommerce started to build up and develop, I thought, WordPress is great. We have WooCommerce, plug-ins that integrate well. But I feel like Shopify was the perfect platform because we were able to scale out stores for clients at a quicker level than WordPress. So, we did that with Shopify.
Then a couple years ago, we heard about Webflow, which is another content management system or almost like a live builder, and man, I built my first site in Webflow and I was like, this is definitely the future. It’s easy to use. Of course it has a learning curve, but ultimately you can build essentially whatever you want in regards to your website, have your own custom CSS in there, and the designs and things we’ve been able to create with Webflow have been really, really dope.
ROB: Right on. If somebody has a WordPress website, they’ll probably stick with WordPress for the time being, although any given revision to a WordPress site can certainly be an entire rebuild. But if someone’s starting today, how would you help them consider the decision of whether to go with WordPress or whether to go with Webflow?
JOHN: That’s a great question. If they’re an existing business – let’s say they’ve been using WordPress for 5 or 6 years and they just want to do a refresh or redesign their site. They already have historical data or historical SEO attributes to that website, so I probably wouldn’t recommend completely changing over to Webflow unless the site was new and they didn’t get a ton of traffic. If they’re doing over 10,000, 50,000, 100,000 hits per month, we’d probably stay with WordPress and scale out that website in regards to building out a new design.
If the business doesn’t get a ton of traffic and they’re not really worried about pulling all that traffic to the new site, I would absolutely recommend Webflow. One thing I like about Webflow is a lot is the transition in regards to using the platform is easier. You can build out sites how you want.
You don’t necessarily need a ton of plug-ins, which is one of the issues I have with WordPress; you need plug-ins for a lot of the attributes you need to add to a website. It also takes a lot of constant upkeep. Every month you have to make sure the plug-ins are up to date. You also have to make sure WordPress, the framework, is up to date, and you’re open to malware and malicious attacks from people because the CMS is so popular.
The good point about that is there’s a ton of resources on WordPress and information out there. Thousands of plug-ins, thousands of resources, developers, designers. It’s an open source platform that has a lot of people linked to it.
With Webflow, it’s a little bit newer, so it’s smaller. But the level to entry isn’t as steep as say WordPress, and it doesn’t need that constant upkeep. You can build out your site, you can set up Zapier to set up web hooks between different websites and platforms, and you’re pretty much good to go.
ROB: Wow, it sounds like you’re deep on the Zapier stuff. That’s a whole other unlock there.
JOHN: Oh man, it’s like a cheat code, dude. [laughs]
ROB: [laughs] Tell us about that a little bit for folks who aren’t as familiar with Zapier and what sort of directions you can take that toolkit.
JOHN: I’ll give you a precursor. The first thing is I’m a big proponent of standard operating procedures or setting up systems within the business so I can delegate to either staff, team members, or create automation. That way no one has to do it and it just gets done automatically. I’m a big proponent of that. I work from home. I have five team members on our team, and I love to have the freedom to be able to focus on big picture.
With that said, Zapier is a great way to connect different platforms easily through a platform seamlessly. I’ll explain that. For example, when you visit our agency website and you fill out the contact form, that form automatically pushes to Slack. As soon as the form gets filled out, I get a notification that someone’s filled it out on Slack with their information. That keeps me up to date.
Secondly, we set up a Zapier so that it integrates with MailChimp. So as soon as someone fills out that form, they get an automatic email response saying, “Hey, thank you for your interest. Would you mind filling out this free form?” Once they fill out that form, then they get another automatic email push that says, “Hey, great, go ahead and book a time here,” and then we’ve connected Colony. All Zapier does is just connects different apps to each other. You can connect Facebook to Gmail, you can connect Facebook Forms to Google Sheets – the possibilities are endless. I think you can do up to 10 for free and then you can pay for different Zaps.
ROB: Very nice. Thinking about WordPress versus Webflow, you get the site designed, you get it developed, you hand it over to the client – is either one of those more conducive to clients being able to manage things themselves? Or is it just the case that clients, even if you give them all the tools, aren’t going to manage things themselves to make minor changes in the future?
JOHN: It really depends on the client because they’re both very user-friendly, especially on the client side, for the most part. It’s easy to add blogs. It’s easy to update pages once either you’re using a third party platform like Oxygen or Divi or Elementor, the page builders. It’s pretty easy to use once you get over that initial learning curve. Both WordPress and Webflow have a client-facing side so that they can make updates. So that part is pretty easy.
What I like to tell people, especially agency owners, is it’s a good idea to set up SOPs, or standard operating procedures, for your clients in regards to the handoff. If you’re a web design agency, there’s one of two things you can do. You can either manage and host that website for the client, and then they pay a fee every month, or you say, “Hey, here’s a repository of my trainings on how to use the platform, how to jump in, how to add blogs. Your team can use this.”
Because sometimes you’ll build a project and give it to their staff. They might have a marketing team or a content marketing team that can create that content; they just need to know how to use the backend. So, you want to have that in your back pocket so that way when a client is like, “Yeah, we don’t really want you to manage it. We just want you to build it out and then hand it off to us,” you already have that repository of operating procedures that you can give them.
ROB: That all makes sense. John, if we rewind a few years, how did you come to start 5Four Digital? What’s the origin story here?
JOHN: For me, I was at an agency. I worked there for about 4 years. I moved up in the ranks and became marketing director. It was an automotive dealership agency, so we dealt primarily with a lot of the car manufacturers – Audi, Land Rover, Ford – at the dealership level. We would do the marketing at the dealership level. Being in that position taught me a lot because I was able to use SEO, SEM, PPC, all these different services under the digital marketing moniker. It helped me develop my skillset.
Once I did that, I got to the point where I wanted to work on different types of projects. I got kind of burnt out from the automotive side. I wanted to work with maybe SMBs, tech startups, and that type of thing. That’s when I left and I started my own company, 5Four Digital.
I was focused on more so on the product as opposed to how it looked. I didn’t need to have a fancy office or anything. Honestly, when I started, I didn’t really have much money. I was on the ramen diet, and I was saving money because I had segued from a full-time position to doing this on my own. The biggest thing for me was to really focus and allocate my resources towards providing a great product to the client. I didn’t have an office. I was working from home, and I started to build my team remotely.
When other agency owners were like, “You need an office, you need this, you need that,” I was like, instead of paying $2,500, $3,000, $3,500 – because I am in South Florida – for an office, I can take those resources and I can pay a developer, I can pay a project manager to help scale this business without having to have that burden of a physical location.
ROB: So, you were completely ready for the shutdowns this year. Did very much change for you as a business, either with how your team worked, or maybe with some of your clients when some of the COVID-19 shutdowns started to come through?
JOHN: I do want to say that a lot of people are going through a lot currently. People are being furloughed, fired from their jobs. It’s just a lot. The transition for us prior to COVID and to now hasn’t really changed much because we were already running remotely. All the platforms and things that we were using were already conducive to that environment. A lot of our team and our staff work through Asana, our task management system, and that’s what we work by. This is when something’s due, and team members can work at night, in the day, they can take the day off and take their kids to the park.
For me, ultimately you work when you’re comfortable because I feel like that’s when people work the best, and then we follow the structure of the due date within the task management system.
ROB: That makes sense. When I look at your LinkedIn profile, some people are all-in on one thing and some people have a whole portfolio of interesting things they’re involved in. What can you share about some of the other projects or businesses that you’re involved in that keep your attention and you feel are worth pursuing?
JOHN: For me it’s about building an agency that not only works well for our clients, but for us internally also. I always recommend those that have the skillset to build an agency because (1) you can help build and develop clients, and then (2) you can build your own products or your own projects that siphon through your agency ecosystem. For us, when we have an idea and we want to build something internally, we’re just taking that project or that idea and running it through our client cycle.
For example, I have a business called BlackIllustrations.com, which we launched in April, which is a platform that allows folks to download illustrations for their websites, for their projects, featuring people of color. Because I didn’t see the market have a lot of that, and as a website builder, there just wasn’t a lot of diversity in the illustrations. Now, I’ve seen some beautiful illustrations, and we’ve leveraged a lot of them online, but I just didn’t see that and I saw that opportunity.
When that happened, I put together the process, I told the team, “Hey, this is what we’re going to start building out,” and then it’s essentially just walking them through that client lifecycle. It’s almost like taking the ideas that we have and pushing them through this conveyor belt of the business and then being able to make another business that has its own separate income as an entity.
BlackIllustrations.com launched in April; we’ve already had 40,000+ downloads, over about half a million visitors to the website. I’m really proud of that, and a lot of that comes down to creating those procedures and then running it through that cycle.
ROB: That makes a ton of sense. With those different projects, you can imagine that some of them are going to thrive, some of them are going to perhaps not thrive. Some of them over time you might need to put to rest. I wonder maybe if even there’s some projects that you have brought through the process, they lived a good life, and then you put them on pause. How do you think about the lifecycle and lifespan of these internal projects?
JOHN: Essentially, for me it’s really about learning as much as I can from the process. In one example, as an entrepreneur, you know we have a ton of failures. I’m not going to act like everything I touch turns to gold.
I had one project in particular – it was a Kickstarter campaign. I was trying to raise funds for an app. This was 5 years ago, 6 years ago maybe. I went through the entire process of hiring a videographer, getting footage, walking through the process of creating this crowdfunding campaign, and it was a lot of fun doing it and experiencing it. Ultimately, we flopped because we didn’t get to 100% of the goal. I think we got to around 60%.
At first, I was like, man, I’m a failure. I didn’t do the right thing. But, ultimately, I learned a lot through that process. I learned how to start a crowdfunding campaign, how to create engaging video that converts folks, and how to leverage an audience.
So, I like to look at it as an experience as opposed to a failure, and I’m able to use those resources and those things that I came up with and allocate them later on in the next project.
ROB: Each project is its own success, even if the project itself doesn’t succeed. In that case, how fortunate to assess demand for an app. It’s an inexpensive experiment to launch a crowdfunding campaign versus building the dang app and then hoping somebody likes it.
ROB: Very good. John, you mentioned some lessons you learned there. When you look back over the history of 5Four Digital so far, what are some other lessons you’ve learned along the way and things you might consider doing differently if you were starting from zero?
JOHN: I would look at delegating faster than I did prior. I think in the beginning, especially the first year, first couple years, I was trying to do everything and do it all myself. When I started the agency, we were doing SEO, SEM, Facebook ads, social media, web design, web development. It was a complete agency, full service. Which is great, especially if you have a good amount of employees, but it was just me. So I’m working with clients and one client is doing SEO, one client is doing PPC, one client is doing web design, and it’s just a lot of work, especially changing your mind and doing the different things and turning off that creative and turning on the analytical side. It was just a lot.
I started to get burnt out. One of the things I wish I did was niche down to a specific set of services. Not even niching down to a specific client set, but only offering a few core services. That would’ve helped me really streamline my process and be like, “This is the process we go through every time we take on a client” as opposed to doing all these different services myself, especially as a small agency or even a freelancer. It was just a lot. So, I wish that was one thing that I did: focus on a few core services.
Secondly, I wish I would’ve started to make my operating procedures in the initial or in the beginning. Really start to think about, “These are the core services we have. These are the things we want to offer.” But I think it just took me time to get acclimated to providing a high-quality service to clients and then documenting that process.
Then the third piece is hiring faster, hiring either a part-timer or an independent contractor in the beginning to help facilitate some of these things instead of trying to do it all myself and taking hours and hours in the wee morning trying to do it.
ROB: How did you go about finding some of those fractional or independent contractors that you could trust to do the work in a way that’s going to keep your clients happy? Did that involve the clients at all in the conversation of shifting who was doing the work?
JOHN: Great question. For me, finding great people – and again, this is a process as well – comes down to not even necessarily their full skillset. A lot of times you’ll try to find the perfect candidate in regards to their skills. I try to find a good quality designer, for example, but I also want them to be able to fit into our team dynamic. The fact that they’re fun, engaging. The fact that they get their work done, but they’re able to balance that and know that it’s an open work environment where they’ll be able to have fun and enjoy cultivating their creativity.
So, for me, it’s really finding someone that’s a good fit for the team as opposed to just focusing on skillset.
ROB: I hear a recurring passion for process. Is that something that has come naturally for you, but you didn’t initially apply it to the business? Or has it been something you’ve discovered in some way as you’ve built the agency?
JOHN: It’s definitely something I’ve discovered while building the agency. There’s a book by Michael E. Gerber called The E-Myth, another book by Tim Ferriss called The 4-Hour Workweek – those are two great reads – that talk about building a process so that you can delegate. For me, ultimately, in the agency right now I’m pretty much the project manager. I’m the one that talks to the client, that organizes the projects, that puts in my two cents and my recommendations and helps the team navigate through the buyer journey or the customer journey.
I love being in that role because I’m able to pull out of the day to day and focus more so on big picture. I’m able to convey my ideas to the team, and we’re able to implement together on what works best.
ROB: I can definitely understand that, and there’s probably some future date where you’re thinking about that second project manager role that takes that over. That’s probably a whole new round of hire. John, you mentioned in your previous agency experience that you had done some work with auto dealers. For people who don’t know, that can be a whole segment. A lot of agencies that do auto kind of only do auto. It sounds like you’re not doing much of that anymore.
One concern I have heard from people who are heavy into that space is some different constraints to the budgets of some of the different dealerships and what they want, and sometimes even the technology. What is your experience with that then, and was there any consideration of that when you decided not to focus on that as much with 5Four?
JOHN: Can you repeat the last part of the question? It cut out for a sec.
ROB: Oh, sure. How much of that distinction of the constraints of automotive clients drove your decision to focus less on that when you started 5Four?
JOHN: Oh man, there’s a lot of red tape you have to deal with. Just getting a webpage up or going through a brand discovery session, there’s so many people that it has to go through that by the time you get the thing live, it’s already dated. [laughs] It was really hard to move and grow the design and the marketing side of it because we had so many constraints in regards to the industry.
But nowadays, especially working more so with startups or Series A companies, they have a lot more freedom to move around and upward. If there’s new technology that comes out that we want to implement, you don’t have to go through three C-level executives to get it done. You can just talk to a couple people, tell them, “Hey, this is how it works,” do a small test – if it works, great. Scale it up. It’s a totally different dynamic.
ROB: I’ve also heard a number of complaints about the technology that is even able to serve the auto dealer industry. Is that true, number one? And if so, why do you think it is? I’ve heard often there’s a completely different marketing stack for that particular customer.
JOHN: I will say in the last probably 2 to 3 years, there’s been a lot of companies doing cutting-edge stuff in the automotive industry. Of course, outside of that you have Tesla, which is doing phenomenal things. But there are platforms, especially like for example Dealer.com, which is an automotive digital marketing company – they crush it, man. They do a lot of these different things – it’s almost like Google, but in the automotive industry. They have all these different solutions and resources. So, I will say in the last few years there’s been a dynamic shift.
Of course, you have startups coming out like Carvana that are doing a really great job of showcasing and making the process easier for the customer. I think the automotive industry has taken a while to understand it, but a lot of people don’t necessarily want to go into the dealership. They don’t want to go through that long process. They’re trying to accommodate this fast shifting economy.
ROB: I understand that. It’s nice that there is some future that is not really, really dated marketing stacks for that industry. John, when you look ahead a little bit, what are you excited about that’s coming up either for 5Four Digital in particular or for marketing more generally?
JOHN: Man, I’m a tech guy, so I love being a part of this process and being in this industry. Some of the biggest things I see coming down the pipeline are one-click or headless ecommerce. A lot of folks have been talking about it. It’s an ecommerce experience where you literally push one button and you’re able to purchase, similar to what Amazon has and a lot of these sites that are coming out, but it actually works across the entire internet. That’s something I’ve been hearing a lot of buzz about.
In regards to the education side of digital, I’m really excited about it. As we move or shift into this new world dynamic, a lot of people are realizing that traditional college degrees might not necessarily be the best bet for us all. There are just so many options. I have my Bachelor’s, but there’s just so many different opportunities now. You have all of these educators, people like myself and yourself, who are great and skilled and adept that can create courses and teach other people our processes and the things we’re doing.
So, I’m really excited for the digital education frontier, I guess we could call it. But I think a lot of people are going to start segueing or moving towards that because it’s super affordable. You can buy $500, $1,000, $50 bucks for these courses and learn these tangible skills that can pay you well into the six figures. So, I’m ultimately excited for that.
ROB: Do you have some of your current projects or future projects in that online education space?
JOHN: Yeah, we have a few resources. My biggest thing is providing value, value, value, value up front so that way you can position yourself as a thought leader, you can gain the trust of the people, they actually take your advice and leverage it and use it, and then creating more high-level, detailed courses for those people that are really trying to dive in heavily.
We have a couple courses. We have a Web Design Studio Accelerator, which is for people that want to start their own web design accelerator, and then I have other job templates and SOP courses that people can leverage to learn and apply these skills.
ROB: Solid. The SOP courses seem like something you can even also show to your team for training.
JOHN: Oh yeah, that’s what we do. We probably have 100+ videos for our team. We have one business – it’s called IllustratorHub.com; the whole business runs on an SOP. I don’t do anything with the business. It’s automatically updated. Our team manages it, and it’s just a great platform and a great example of creating these operating procedures in your business so that way you can thrive.
ROB: Wow, that’s excellent. Looping back to one thing you mentioned earlier – and I think I let it go a little bit too quickly; you mentioned beyond Webflow and WordPress – we dug into those differences there – but you also mentioned that you do work on the Shopify platform. If you look at their stock, they’re not quite Zoom, but they’re pretty close. This seems to have been a fairly banner year for that approachable “get an ecommerce store online” platform. What have you seen in terms of either how clients are investing differently in Shopify now or people who are putting stores online that hadn’t quite gotten around to it yet?
JOHN: I’m glad you brought up the Shopify stock, man, because it makes me feel like I’m Warren Buffett out here. [laughs] I bought 20 shares when it was like $60 bucks because I believed in the company and I saw what they were doing. With Shopify, I think, like you said, this year is their year. So many people are home. They want to start a business. They want something that’s easy, that they can leverage, that they can create a high quality product.
And that’s what Shopify does. You look at some of the top stores, you have Kylie Jenner’s Cosmetics, you have Allbirds, I think Warby Parker at one point was on Shopify. You have all these major brands running through this platform. It just goes to show you that it’s made for commerce.
People that are starting out like, “I want to sell some t-shirts” can open up a Shopify store, they can integrate it with Teelaunch, and then they can have these high-quality print on demand products with their own logo, their own brand on it. It’s really low cost out of the gate. You can test and you can create this MVP, or minimum viable product, as Eric Ries would say, the writer of The Lean Startup, and ultimately you can really build your own brand for less than $1,000 bucks.
ROB: Is Teelaunch a Shopify plug-in, or how does it work?
JOHN: Yes, it’s a Shopify app. They have hundreds of products – teacups, t-shirts. They even have air fresheners. It’s ridiculous. [laughs]
ROB: CafePress used to sort of let you do this, but you were listing stuff on their site. This is your own brand store. You can have your custom underpants, whatever you want.
JOHN: Exactly. And they fulfill on your behalf, so if someone goes on your website and your shirt is $24.99, they go and buy that shirt – the app is integrated, so as soon as they make that purchase, it pushes to Teelaunch, they charge you the $12, $10 for the shirt and then the shipping, and then you take the rest for your profit. Then they ship it on your behalf to the customer, so you don’t even have to touch the inventory.
ROB: Very, very cool. John, when people want to find you and when they want to find 5Four Digital, where should they go to look you up?
JOHN: They can find me at JohnDSaunders.co. That’s where all of my resources and guides are. Also, I’m on Facebook and Instagram @JohnDSaunders, and that’s pretty much where I’m at.
ROB: Excellent. What’s the “D” for in John D. Saunders?
ROB: Excellent. Perfect.
JOHN: I have that because there’s a famous ESPN newscaster who passed away a few years ago and his name is John Saunders. So, I had to put that “D” in there to add a little difference.
ROB: Yep, I know that name. I remember that sportscaster. John D. Saunders of 5Four Digital, thank you for coming on the Marketing Agency Leadership Podcast.
JOHN: Rob, thank you for having me, man. I’m happy to be here.
ROB: Thank you much. Be well. Bye.
JOHN: You too.
ROB: Thank you for listening. The Marketing Agency Leadership Podcast is presented by Converge. Converge helps digital marketing agencies and brands automate their reporting so they can be more profitable, accurate, and responsive. To learn more about how Converge can automate your marketing reporting, email firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit us on the web at convergehq.com.