Julie Stoian, digital marketing consultant and tech coach at Create Your Laptop Life® and head coach and funnelbuilder at ClickFunnels talks about tools and training that can enable smaller company entrepreneurs in the online world to develop powerful, customized sales and marketing tools . . . without hiring expensive technical experts or big-budget marketing firms.
In this candid interview, former nationally-recognized social media blogger Julie Stoin discusses how divorce, a surprise pregnancy, a desire to impact the lives of more people, and business savvy inspired her to envision and invent what grew to be, in only a few years, a million-dollar-plus business. This initiative, Create Your Laptop Life, is a coaching program and course that has provided thousands of entrepreneurs with the needed skills and strategies to create, build, and grow profitable online businesses.
Julie also builds marketing funnels, writes, and coaches clients at Russell Brunson’s ClickFunnels (https://www.clickfunnels.com/), a company that provides entrepreneur/owners at smaller companies with a comprehensive online marketing, sales, and product delivery tool. Components of this fast and effective do-it-yourself, plug-and-play tool include a central dashboard, a drag and drop webpage editor, sales funnel templates with conversion functionality, smart and up-sale capable shopping carts, affiliate program software, and email and FaceBook marketing automation.
ROB: Welcome to the Marketing Agency Leadership Podcast. I’m your host, Rob Kischuk, and I am joined today by Julie Stoian. She’s a digital marketer and marketing coach with Create Your Laptop Life and ClickFunnels. She’s based in Connecticut. Welcome, Julie.
JULIE: Thank you so much for having me. This is amazing.
ROB: Fantastic to have you here. Why don’t you tell us us a little bit about your work with Create Your Laptop Life, with ClickFunnels, and what makes those involvements great?
JULIE: Awesome. I started my business several years ago. I started out as an agency owner, and funnily enough one of my clients came to me and wanted to launch a coaching program and course. I helped her do that, and, in the process, we became partners.
So Create Your Laptop Life was actually born out of my agency with a client. We started helping other people create service-based online businesses.
For a long time I had my agency as well as this brand, and eventually the brand took off to the point where I couldn’t hold both the agency and the brand at the same time. So I took over the brand in 2017 and became the sole owner of it and let go of my agency. Since then it’s really taken off. I’ve had the privilege of working with thousands of people who are building their online business.
In late 2017, Russell Brunson and I connected, and he invited me to work in his agency that’s inside of ClickFunnels, work with him directly building funnels, writing books, and coaching people in his coaching programs.
So I’ve been back in that world pretty heavily, and it’s amazing. Every day I get to work front and center with one of the greatest marketing/sales funnel minds of our day. I also get to teach people every day how to build and grow their online businesses and laptop lives. So I have a pretty nice setup, and I’m really grateful.
ROB: That’s a pretty fantastic journey. You mentioned running the agency, but then also spinning up this Laptop Life brand. Was there something that you started to learn maybe about yourself while you were running the agency that made your heart and mind wander a little bit more toward Laptop Life?
JULIE: That’s an interesting question. I think what happened to me was that I had some really good success in my agency; I had a couple clients who I made them a significant amount of money. This gave me some notoriety in the space.
It was very difficult for me to help people at scale in the agency—even though I really enjoyed the work. In fact, after shutting down my agency , I kind of missed it, which was one of the reasons why I was so excited to go work with Russell, because it got me back in the game there on a day-to-day basis.
But, I found the tricky part was that I could only help one client at a time, and there were so many people asking for help.
I also started to recognize that the clients who did the best in my agency were the ones that actually wanted to learn what we were doing and why we were doing it, because then they were better able to maintain their funnels and their marketing efforts, and they actually were far, far more successful.
That’s when I started to see that teaching people how to fish, not just making the fishing pole and catching the fish, was really advantageous to them and to me, and I could also do it at scale. So that’s why I made the decision I did.
ROB: That’s interesting. Have you found, by teaching them the intricacies of how to manage their funnels, maybe it sets aside a concern someone might have as a client where you set it up, and then maybe over time things don’t work as well, it deteriorates a little bit—you’ve equipped them now to go out and solve problems rather than maybe blame their agency for a funnel that doesn’t work as well over time. Is that one of the hopeful dynamics, that they can build their own success?
JULIE: Yeah, exactly. We all know there’s this big myth in the marketing world that a funnel, a specific campaign or Facebook ad, you set it up, it runs, you make money, and then you go to the beach.
The reality is—and we all know this—that sales funnels and ad campaigns are like children. They need tending to, they need optimization, they need to be refreshed, they get ad fatigue, and all this kind of stuff that changes.
When the clients are more understanding of that whole context, they’re much, much less likely to just blame the agency or blame the provider for not doing it right, when they realize this actually takes a lot of work. You need to keep refreshing your campaigns.
ROB: If someone’s sitting there today with a dwindling funnel, what are some of the first principles—and this may be a good lead-in to what you teach in your course—what should people start thinking about that would lead them in a direction of success, where they would want to learn more and be able to manage this themselves? What are the first couple of steps for reevaluation?
JULIE: If a funnel isn’t working, you have to really start at the top and figure out where that first leak is.
I do this oftentimes with benchmarks. First I look at the ad. Is the click-through rate dropping? Is the relevancy score going down? Is the cost per lead going up? Whatever metrics are that you’re looking at. If you notice that the ad isn’t performing, it makes absolutely no sense to try to go fix your funnel—because people aren’t getting to your funnel because of the ad. The ad is what’s poorly performing.
On the other hand, if you go and realize the ad is performing and it is doing well, then you look at the conversion rate on the first step of the funnel. You keep doing that and you keep looking at each benchmark statistic, and eventually you’ll see where the hole is—based on the benchmark of the stat. Then that’s what you tackle first.
Very typically I’ll either see ads that have fatigued, audiences that are already used up and they’re bored, conversion rates on Step 1 of the funnels, or sometimes it has to do with, they are getting into the funnel, but they’re not buying any of the upsells because the upsells aren’t a good part of the offer. So that’s how I tackle a funnel that’s broken.
ROB: That makes a ton of sense intuitively. I think a lot of times, when people hire an agency for this sort of need, it’s because they can’t get outside their own heads to see it so holistically, to think about that funnel, to think about where the leaks are.
Stepping back just a little bit, some people may be curious when they’re listening when you say that you’re working in an internal agency with ClickFunnels. How would you think about an internal agency, and how is that different from when you ran your own, shall we say, external agency?
JULIE: For most very, very, very small businesses, like one- to two-person businesses, you are the CMO. You’re everything. You wear every single hat.
Once your company starts to grow, a lot of people will take some of their marketing in-house and some out-house. That’s what I’m doing in my brand right now. In-house I have a funnel builder that’s an employee, who stays on my team, and she does a lot of things. But I did hire an agency to run my ads. I was running my own ads and not having the time and the bandwidth because of my work at ClickFunnels, so I hired an external agency to do the ads.
Eventually when you get so big that you’re the size of like ClickFunnels and you’re bringing in $100 million, you really need a full in-house marketing agency. It’s not really its own entity, but it functions just like an agency, but the only client is ClickFunnels.
We have a copywriter, we have an ads team for YouTube, for Facebook, we have a couple designers, a couple developers, product development specialists, curriculum people like me who actually create the info products, things like that. We work as an agency and we service ClickFunnels as our sole client.
ROB: Really interesting. I think there’s a nice little lesson that’s hidden in there. When you talk about growth, the growth isn’t necessarily defined—I think it’s easy to get defined by how many people are on your team.
When you make that decision to hire an agency or to work with somebody fractional or remote or to take a process that’s really well-defined and maybe even outsource it, it takes away from that ego number of “How many people are on your team?”. But growth isn’t necessarily defined by that. Do you think about it in terms of revenue, profitability, or even freedom, free time, and more personal factors?
JULIE: That’s an interesting question. If I look at my business, right now my business is not anywhere near the size of ClickFunnels. My business is making about $2 million a year, so I would consider it a very small, small business.
My decision of how to build my team really boiled down to a combination of skill and time. My time was maxed out. That’s one of the first reasons why you hire. But then secondly, also, skill. I’ll give you an example: I hired an agency that specializes in video and content creation, and they manage all of the content creation for my Instagram and Facebook.
It made sense to hire outside of my business because that type of skill has a very distinct beginning and ending in its boundaries and how it plays out. Same with Facebook ads. It was very easy to hire an outside agency.
But when it came to building my funnels, building my sales pages, doing social media, all that kind of stuff, it’s so integral to the day-to-day working of my business that that role became an in-house role. Same with my customer relationships and customer support and all that kind of stuff. It can’t be separate for me, because the beginnings and the endings of that role are very murky.
So that’s how I made the decision whether to hire. I actually have two agencies that I contract out, and then I have two full-time employees in my business, and then a couple of extra virtual assistants and things like that here and there.
ROB: Makes sense. It sounds like you have some good thoughts around when to plug people into each of those roles. I like that thought around having a finite start and end to the engagement that helps you say, “This is definitely something that I should hire someone who’s really good at this to do.”
If we go farther back in your journey, was there a point in time when you had a normal-ish job? And what made you decide, at some point, to start an agency and stay on the more entrepreneurial path?
JULIE: My story is pretty dramatic. I got married very young and had three babies very fast. I was a stay-at-home mom for about a decade. In that time, all I really focused on was, I became a blogger and a writer—mainly as an outlet, just because I was home all day.
Eventually I had to learn the technology of building a website in order to make my blog run, and I started to get the hang of that. So I built this freelance writing/web design business in my years as a stay-at-home mom, making a couple grand a month.
In 2014 my husband and I decided to get divorced. It was really a dramatic moment for me. I had spent my entire life depending on somebody else for my finances. Even though my business was making $2,000 a month, that was not nearly enough to live in Connecticut.
ROB: That’s not a lot with three kids.
JULIE: No, not at all. Five weeks into the divorce proceedings, I discovered I was pregnant. I then had this additional crisis of, “Now I need health insurance. How am I going to get a job if someone can tell I’m pregnant? No one’s going to hire me.” It was a very dramatic season of my life.
What I decided to do—I did have to get a temporary job. I got a job at a college doing marketing and social media. I moonlighted my freelance business at night. That’s when I discovered Russell Brunson. I realized the reason I was having such an income ceiling difficulty was because I was selling my skills. Like, “Hey, I’m a writer,” “Hey, I’m a designer.”
Instead, I realized that I needed to start selling what people wanted, which was customers and clients. So I transitioned into marketing and started to learn about funnels. I combined my writing skills and became a copywriter. I took my design skills and started building funnels, and I was really good at it.
I quickly built my business and became a little agency. That’s how I started. My first hire was a copywriter. Then I hired a designer. I was doing all the funnel builds, all the strategy, all the ads. That was all stuff that was self-taught and learned through courses.
I think in 2015 I had made $70,000, and then, in 2016, I made $325,000. So it scaled really fast. That’s when I also started dabbling in courses as well.
For all of 2016 and half of 2017, I had two businesses. I had a course business and an agency business. Then I let go of it in the spring of 2017 and built my business.
I turned on funnels for myself because what was happening was, in my agency, I was building these funnels, and then people were like, “I just made $100 grand,” “I just made a million dollars.” I was like, hold on a second. Maybe instead of charging somebody $7,000 to build their funnel, maybe I could build a funnel for myself or even build an affiliate funnel and make more. It was this moment of, “What am I doing?”
So I built a funnel for myself, and that’s how my business went from, in 2016, making $325,000 to, in 2017, making $1.2 million. It was crazy. I was like, “Well, I think this is what I’m going to do now.” [laughs]
ROB: It sounds like you’re then creeping up on Inc. 5000 territory. Is that something that’s on your goal list?
JULIE: That’s hilarious—I am so not from any sort of corporate business background. I wouldn’t even begin to know how you even qualify for the Inc. 5000.
Honestly, my biggest thing was, when I ended 2017, I couldn’t believe how much we had made. In 2018, I was starting to work with ClickFunnels and my concern, obviously, was if I go jump into the ClickFunnels lake, what’s going to happen to my business?
I became obsessed with outsourcing and automation and figuring out do I keep this business and this brand running even though, as the CEO of this business, I’m going to be spending all my days playing with Russell Brunson. I knew it was an awesome lake to go play in because he’s amazing at what he does, so to me it was a no-brainer. If he says, “Hey, you want a seat on a rocket ship?”, I’m not going to ask “Which seat?” I’m just going to get on.
But of course I didn’t want to lose my business, so I had been focused very much on hiring agencies and employees and workers.
I just got my Profit & Loss for the first half of this year, and I’m at a million for half the year. So I will hit $2 million this year. If that puts me in Inc. 5000 category, then I’m excited. [laughs]
ROB: Inc. 5000 is $2 million. If you close out this year with $2 million in revenue, I think you’ll be in a good spot on the list. We’ll look for you. That’s the floor, $2 million in revenue in a year. That’s amazing.
JULIE: Oh, I didn’t know. See, you learn something new. [laughs]
ROB: One thing you said that you did and I think many people struggle with—so many marketers, particularly in the agency world, do really good work for other people and they struggle to find—I don’t know if it’s the time, the clarity, or what it is—to do good marketing for themselves.
What do you think it is that makes this such a struggle for the cobbler’s children to have no shoes in the marketing world?
JULIE: That’s such a good question. I’ve struggled about this. The thing is that an agency business is completely different than most other types of businesses.
In most other types of businesses, whether it’s a physical product business, an info product business, a course business, you’re building a culture. You’re building a brand. Whether you’re Nike or Pepsi or Create Your Laptop Life or whatever it happens to be, you’re building this sense of place and sense of movement.
When you’re an agency, you’re building that for other people. It’s very difficult as an agency. Number one, as an agency, we’re not going to build a movement around our agency; it doesn’t make sense, because the very nature, the very anatomy of an agency is to go into another business and elevate its brand, its movement, its products, its services.
It’s like a chameleon. The agency get a health company and it immediately starts to adapt to that type of movement to push out marketing campaigns that are going to help build that health company. Then they go over here and maybe they’re in a real estate company or whatever, and they’re always having to morph and change to elevate the brand that they’re serving. They’re rainmakers.
When it comes down to building your own funnels, all the tactics that you use for a supplement company or a retail company or whatever don’t really work on an agency. Nobody hires an agency because they have a great movement. They hire an agency because they know how to run traffic, they know how to make sales, that kind of stuff. It’s very difficult.
The second reason why it’s so difficult is because, oftentimes, in a funnel, you have set packages. I always use this analogy—this is one of the reasons why I created a course called Proposal Secrets. I created it because I recognized that this idea of packages and retainers was completely crippling my agency.
At the end of the day, all of my clients didn’t want some package. It was like asking them to shop off the rack at TJ Maxx. What they wanted was a completely custom, unique, amazing, sexy solution to their business, because everybody thinks they’re unique. It was very, very difficult for me to quote/estimate, on the fly be able to tell them how much it was going to cost—never mind trying to do that in a funnel. That wouldn’t work.
So I had to create this custom proposal process whereby I would get paid for the enormous amount of time that it would take me to create this custom outfit for them, and then also make sure that they would actually buy it once I sold it to them.
I basically grew my agency on one ridiculously simple, very not exciting funnel, which I call the Business Intensive Funnel whereby I only sold one thing, and that one thing was that I sold that they would sit with me for, several hours while I built them a very custom, unique marketing strategy plan.
Then from there, I would issue a full proposal—usually a lot more expensive than most people could get away with selling because I had spent the time with them to qualify the buyer, to ignite their imagination and do all this kind of stuff, and they were willing to buy.
That’s how I ran my agency. I never used the tactics that I used with other companies on myself because they didn’t really work for the type of business I was running.
ROB: I think you sort of answered the question that started to come to my mind, which was: what were you getting them to agree to at the end of the funnel? What you were selling them was essentially a marketing plan that they should be happy with, no matter whether or not they use you for anything else. Is that the promise?
JULIE: Yeah, exactly. The idea was that I would sit with them, and a lot of these people would come to me—for example, I had a marriage therapist who was a therapist in the real world but wanted to bring his business online. Didn’t want to be geographically limited.
I worked with him to build a marketing plan, and the bottom line was that he got the plan, and whether he wanted me to implement the plan as a done-for-you service provider or not didn’t really matter. The plan would work no matter what.
The reality is that I never had one person, after going through that process with them, say “no” to me doing it. That was one of the things that I started to learn and started to optimize, because I realized this is the key here.
Discovery calls, especially for agencies—and I’m sure anyone listening who runs an agency knows, discovery calls are so hard because they go on too long. People want a ballpark estimate. You’re stuck trying to estimate this on the fly, you don’t have enough information, and quite honestly, you’re afraid that if you send off a proposal, they’re just simply going to pick up that proposal, shop around, find the cheapest one, and bada bing, bada boom, you lose.
You’re penalized for being first in the proposal process. I was like, “This is not going to work for me.” That’s why I switched everything around.
ROB: I’ve had some people say something along the lines of, if you’re responding to an RFP, you’ve already lost. How do you feel about that?
JULIE: A thousand percent. The other thing that positioned me to be able to charge what I charge—because my average invoice towards the end of my agency was around $25,000 to $30,000—was that I was positioning myself more like a consultant than an agency in that if you’re coming to me for help, you’re basically handing me the keys to your kingdom and saying, “You be in charge.”
Realistically, what most businesses don’t understand is that the CMO should really be in charge of the CEO. In my opinion, from a marketer’s perspective, if your business is not making the kinds of sales that you want to make, it’s because you haven’t given marketing a “top dog” enough role in your company.
So when you come to hire me, I become top dog. You’re coming because I’m an expert. It got easier to act like that—the more money I made people and the more expertise I got. At first, I couldn’t. I really started as a true implementer and transitioned out of that as I got better and better.
It was very easy to say, “This is how I work, this is the process I take you through.” And people were actually, at this point, now waiting in line to work with me, instead of me having to chase them down.
ROB: That’s a great ladder of building value. I think a place where many people struggle is getting trapped in the place of executing and executing on something that’s very commodity.
Dealing with that crisis of confidence, knowing they may be selling a little bit ahead of their capabilities, but they can figure it out, without selling too much and without underselling themselves—to keep that cycle going (and you’ve shown it yourself) can get you to a place of delivering a lot of value with a high degree of confidence. Still, it sounds like you’re learning and growing quite a bit.
JULIE: Yeah, absolutely. I never, ever want to stop learning and growing. That’s the fastest way to become irrelevant in this business, if you think you’ve figured it all out. It changes as fast as it arrives.
ROB: As you look forward to the next year or two, what do you think is going to change strategically for you around funnels or marketing in general? What are you tracking and thinking about, even if you don’t have all the answers? Or if you do.
JULIE: Oh, boy. These futuristic questions, I never know how to answer. [laughs] Obviously, automation is just getting more and more and more prominent. We’re seeing tons of messenger bot stuff going on right now in marketing. I think it’s really trendy; I also think it’s here to stay.
I think one of the things that people miss about automation, and something that I care a lot about in my business, is that the point of automation in general, whether it’s bots or segmentation and that kind of stuff, isn’t to remove you from your customer more. The idea of automation is to actually free up more of your time to be able to engage with your customer.
That’s the point of automation. I can spend more time with my clients, with my students, because I have a bot or a segmentation sequence or whatever filtering out some of those beginning questions so that I don’t have to do that. That actually frees me to be more involved with my customer, not less.
We see that in the fact that, at the end of the day, the businesses that stand out are the ones that are responsive, that are customer-service oriented, that care about their customer more than they care about their product. I think that’s going to continue even with the increase in all the automation that we’re seeing.
ROB: Automation is interesting—I’m sure you get a lot of the emails that I get all the time, where someone is promising to go out and get a bunch of leads and sell to a bunch of people on your behalf, and they send you an email that you would never want any potential customer to receive. It’s just amazing.
I think to paraphrase a little bit, automation is great for the things that—you almost want to bring it to bear where you want reliability of a known process, and probably that’s also where you’re bringing in some of your virtual assistants. Not to do a marketing plan for someone.
ROB: You’re not saying, “Hey, I can take this marketing plan to Philippines, and they’ll do an adequate job and that’s my brand promise.”
JULIE: Right. [laughs]
ROB: That reduces, realistically, what you’re able to charge a client and what value you’re going to deliver them.
JULIE: Yes, for sure. I may even side on less automation. There’s still a lot about my business that is manual because I have a reputation for having very good customer service. That’s one of the things that matters to me. So I still have a pretty heavily manual customer service on-boarding/off-boarding process— that’s important to me.
ROB: And somewhere in the middle you probably have a playbook, right? You’re not giving everyone the same funnel, but people are going to use a funnel because it’s a known tool that makes sense. It’s not one size fits all, but you’re not reinventing the wheel every time either. I think that probably helps you scale as well.
JULIE: Absolutely. At the end of the day, in that whole process I talk about where I’m getting paid to write these proposals and these marketing plans, I’m customizing what I already know works. I’m not building a house from scratch every time.
It definitely feels like an experience, though, that I’m building from scratch every time because they don’t know all the templates and tools and assets that I’ve used. So to them, it’s a very custom experience, even if I’m grabbing my trusty webinar funnel template that I already have tried a million times and know converts.
ROB: Right. You know all the right tools, or at least a subset of the right tools for a webinar depending on their needs. That makes a ton of sense.
Julie, when someone wants to get in touch with you, how should they find you?
JULIE: You can go check out all my stuff over at juliestoian.com.
I also have a class that’s specifically for agencies called Proposal Secrets. You can go to that at proposalsecrets.co, and you can learn about how I ran my agency and how I really banished scope creep, doubled my prices, and got paid for writing custom proposals.
ROB: That’s fantastic. We will get those links in the show notes as well for convenient reference for our listeners. Thank you, Julie, for your time. Great to meet and talk with you, and thank you so much for sharing your experience and your learnings with the audience.
JULIE: Thank you for having me.
ROB: Take care.
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.