Thrive president Matt Bowman tends to shy away from the limelight, but recently he sat down with Andrew Warner from Mixergy to talk about how Thrive Internet Marketing Agency was born and where he envisions it going.
Bowman started Thrive in 2005 with the idea that he would make some money building websites. Today, the agency has grown to almost 200 employees with the expectation of adding another 100 staff members in the course of 2021. Thrive has been recognized for its excellent work and ability to grow. Yet again in 2020, Thrive was named to the Inc. 5000 List of Fastest-Growing Companies in America for the fourth consecutive year.
Read on for the full story of how Bowman has nurtured Thrive’s growth over the past 15 years, taking it from a one-man operation to one of the fastest-growing companies in the United States, while tackling a few life-changing decisions along the way.
Thanks for having me on today. The reason I started my agency was that it was a low barrier to entry. I had happened to do a project where I built a website, and I just really loved it. The power of the internet is it connects people to products, people to people. And so, yeah, I would say there wasn’t a whole lot of a business plan put together.
It was more of a ‘Hey, this is fun! And somebody might pay me to build them a website.’ And that’s about as far as I went when I first got started.
All right, we’re going to find out how he did it. But first, Matt, you were working for a nonprofit and a summer program. What were you doing at this nonprofit?
I was a team leader of eight young people, and we were working and living in this area of Dallas that has a lot of poverty and homelessness. We were basically a part of this community development program, and it was a summer program that they wanted to turn into a year-round program.
They said, ‘Hey, we need to give this thing a name and build a website.’ And some people, including me, said, ‘That sounds like a great idea. I have no clue how to build websites, but I’ll figure that out for you.’
And so that’s how it got started. I called a good friend of mine in the theater and asked him to come to Dallas and help me do it. And he did. And we spent several late nights in the computer lab. The organization is called Cornerstone – it’s a church and a community development center in South Dallas. It’s trying to make an impact in that neighborhood. I was hired to be the leader of this team of young people that were working there in the summer, like interns. It was technically paid, but it was maybe a dollar an hour or something like that.
Why were you doing it? Was it because of the money? Was it because of the experience in leadership?
Well, I’m a Christian and want to be a service to my community and the world around me. As a part of my beliefs and my faith, I had actually spent a year in Germany – two semesters, technically – doing the same thing. And when I came back from Germany, I got this job in Dallas.
I thought I was going to be someone in full-time ministry. That was the direction that I thought I was going in. Then this intersection of business came along, and the team at Cornerstone applied for a grant for me to have a salary, and the grant fell through.
They said, ‘Hey, we know you need to earn a living, and so if you need to go get a job or whatever, we understand.’ I said I’m going to try my hand at building websites. And my supervisor at the time, Pastor Chris, said he’ll be my first paying customer.
So that’s how we got started.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about where Mixergy is going. I am not comfortable not knowing the vision. Maybe I should be the way that you were when you were getting started. What do you think?
I have learned from great friends and leaders in business that having a vision and having a plan allows you to be proactive, allows you to work toward a goal instead of being reactive. But when you’re a small business, I think you’re still defining where your markets are and what you do or what you truly enjoy.
In that sense, having specific plans can be detrimental. Like, when I first started, I thought I was going to do most of my business with video, but I just wasn’t getting video projects. And man, all that video equipment was expensive, and I didn’t have the money to buy all this stuff and these lights and cameras and mics.
And I enjoyed the website-building side and it was cheaper. And so, not having a specific plan allowed me the flexibility to explore and adapt over time. Now I have almost 200 employees and, back then, I thought it would never be bigger than just me and my wife.
You have to adapt to evolve. That’s what every day is as a business owner – you have problems that arise, and you have to adapt to solve them. So adaptability is an important characteristic.
What did you do differently, then, once you knew that you had all this responsibility?
Well, I think one of the crucial things we did was ask the question, “How can we get more leads?” And then we started investigating. I’m a big believer in thinking differently and really sitting in the seat of my potential customer. I enjoy looking back at myself and my company and asking what would make me want to buy something from that business.
Myself and my first employee, Aaron, talked a lot about cold calling and emailing. We can do all these sort of outbound tactics, but does that work for us? Do we enjoy buying from people and companies who do that to us? And the answer is no. So maybe that’s not what we should focus on. We need to focus on inbound.
Inbound marketing focused on being visible when someone Googles “web design company, Dallas, Texas,” and so that’s what we started investing in and started trying to figure out. We dived into learning about this thing called SEO or how can we rank it and drive more leads.
Now we were the experts. And that’s really how the agency expanded from just web design and being a project-based business. After experiencing the ups and downs of income, and then focusing on producing on recurring revenue streams, we discovered how to win by adding new marketing services.
What was working for you with search engine optimization back then?
Back then, keyword usage and optimization tactics were a lot less sophisticated than nowadays. We’ve never really bought links as that is in the realm of black-hat tactics.
I’ve never really gotten into that. Mostly I thought about why someone was buying the service. And at that time I was doing a lot of face-to-face meetings. I knew that if I could get a face-to-face meeting with someone, I had a really good chance at building trust with them, and they would buy from us.
So, I decided to just focus on my hometown of Arlington, which is about 400,000 people. So, for keywords, it was first “web design Arlington,” and we ranked number one after some time for that and we were seeing leads come in. So then we tried to do the same for Fort Worth, which is a larger city. And after some success, we followed the same steps and did some email marketing. We then focused on ranking for Dallas, and after some success it opened my eyes to what’s possible with SEO. I realized I could turn my website into a lead generation engine and stop focusing so much on referral leads and outbound leads.
That’s what Thrive Agency does now, right? Figuring out how to get customers for your customers? You’ll do content writing, SEO and email marketing for them, right?
That’s all right. We do SEO, pay-per-click, social media, content writing, email marketing, link building and web design and development. So we’ve created a broad suite of services that are all based online. We don’t do radio or TV, so we’re focused on the digital channel.
Every client comes to us at a different place. So we analyze where they are and then we help them with our services and help them move forward with their business growth goals. And, of course, rank higher, drive better ads and get more leads. And another segment of what we do is eCommerce.
Do you focus on driving traffic or sales on Amazon and other platforms?
We do all of the marketplaces, but then we also do optimization of their domain. So if they have a men’s sporting goods.com, or whatever, we help them on their domain as well.
If someone’s listening to us right now and thinks, “I would like to do better marketing for my company next year,” what’s the minimum that they could come to you with? What’s the minimum ad spend?
So, there’s two things you need to think about when you consider working with an agency. One is the amount that you’re going to spend with the agency which is like their fee that they keep. And then the other would be your spend with Google through the Google Ads platform or Facebook through Facebook Ads or Amazon Advertising.
And so, from the client side, those two numbers add together to a total, but at Thrive, we don’t take money from the ad spend. We base our fee on the percentage of ad spend. That money goes straight to those ad providers.
We’re sometimes working with companies that are around a million dollars in revenue, and that’s small. And then we have companies that are at 50 or a 100 million, and every now and then we have some companies that are over a 100 million.
But you’ll even work with somebody who does only $2,000 a month in ad spend, right?
We will on some of the platforms, so that’s on Facebook and Google Ads. Most of our clients that hire us to do SEO – that’s a fee of about $2,000 a month. And so, we spend time optimizing writing content, building links, helping them rank higher organically. Most of our clients come to us because they want to have one agency that can handle all of it!
We’d love to continue to grow into assisting multi-location businesses – so, a business with 30 or 40 locations across the United States.
They want help in each of their locations, but they’re looking for an agency that’s big enough, that has over a hundred employees or so, that they can handle their size.
Were you always a remote-based company?
No, initially we weren’t, and then we had one of my key employees move to another state and we decided it was time to think about remote.
And what’s the bigger purpose of running a digital agency? I have read the case studies and seen the people you have helped through Thrive. What’s the big thing that’s bigger than what I can see?
My wife and I thought we were going to be in full-time ministry, both of us. We thought that was the calling, and we would give our lives to serving others and serving God. What I realized is that God needs business people too, and he can use business people. I had some unique skills and a unique background growing up in an entrepreneurial family. And I love helping business owners because I relate to them. So for me, it’s several things. One, I have a heart for my client, and I want them to be impacted in a positive way so that they can impact their communities and their employees, and they can provide for their families.
And number two is my team. When I started out, it was just me and my wife, and it was important for me to grow my business so that I could provide and have a living wage. But now it’s so much bigger than that. And my ministry today is to my employees. I spend most of my day thinking about how I can help. I have a lot of conversations, and I pray with my team members if they ask for support, and I help them with personal advice.
The third thing is giving back. My wife and I, from day one, have given tithes of our income, which is a 10 percent we give back. Now we give 10 percent of our company profits back to the organizations that we support. And, like I said, we thought we were going to be in full-time ministry roles. So what we learned is that some doors were closed, but then this door opened to have this business.
My wife and I heard a story about a gentleman, Robert Gilmour LeTourneau or R.G. LeTourneau, who I’d love for any of your listeners to research. He was a businessman who lived through the World War II era. LeTourneau owned factories that manufactured earthmoving equipment for LeTourneau Machines, and 70 percent of the earthmoving equipment and vehicles used throughout the war were supplied by his factories. He was a devout Christian first and then a businessman who submitted his business and his life to God.
He was very successful. He and his wife made the decision to do what they call a reverse tithe, where they live off of 10 percent of their income, and they’d give away 90 percent of their income. My wife and I were really motivated by that! We thought it was amazing that someone can use their skills in business and then make a positive impact in the world!
So we set a goal to do something similar. The amount that we make as a family, we would also give that equal amount away. And last year we reached it, we actually surpassed it. So we gave almost 200 percent of what we made last year as a family away.
What a testament to Thrive being a successful company that has steadily grown over the years! In the past, what did you think you were going to have to do in order to get the growth you enjoy today?
Well, initially, we wanted to grow the business to five times our then-size, and to do so in four years. So we had set up this big, hairy, audacious goal – a concept that was daunting. At the core of growth is the ability to trust other people. You need to trust that other people will take care of your baby. Letting go of everything you control can be hard for a lot of entrepreneurs and and continues to be sometimes hard for me. I’ve learned to adapt and sort of just live my life in general, but there are things that I still like to control. But I can’t be the person that makes every important decision in the business.
Now, I have to have some good people around me that can make some of these decisions.
Let’s close out with this. What kind of work do you do today? Could you give me an example of something that you could do for someone who’s listening to us?
Yeah. We work with clients that primarily want to grow, but they’re feeling stuck. Maybe they’re working with an agency now, and they’re not happy with the results or the transparency, or they feel like the team is not providing very good service. We work with clients who are committed to growing their business and looking for a partner in success, and they’re looking to use digital marketing to achieve that success.
They’re looking to be found in Google and found on social media and to have an excellent website that would impress their visitor and build trust and be enough to actually get them to fill out a form or pick up the phone or push a “buy now” button to complete a transaction. And so, we want to be the agency of choice. We’re the one that’s actually going to help them transform their business and transform the lives of their employees and their communities. We want to put our clients in a position to impact others through giving back.
Thrive is a full-service internet marketing agency with a long, successful track record of helping businesses of any size across many industries and we consider our clients our partners in success. We focus on building relationships and delivering results. We also emphasize giving back to the community and helping others as much as we can.
Partner with Thrive and our experts will customise a comprehensive marketing strategy to meet your needs and align with your growth goals. Call us now to find out how we can help you grow.