The high cost of pinching pennies at a startup with January Digital’s Vic Drabicky

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When payroll is coming directly out of your bank account, every penny is precious. For entrepreneur Vic Drabicky that laser focus on costs, held back growth for January Digital, until he started to see the real cost of his fiscal frugality. 

In Vic's money story you will learn:

  • Why Vic's conservative approach lead him to losing a big client

  • What he did to turn things around

  • Why it's so important to invest in the right leadership

In Vic’s money lesson you will learn:

  • "Pinching pennies is fine, but you better pinch the right ones"

  • Why it's important, when looking at investments, to see which ones yield the highest return

In Vic's everyday money tip you will learn:

  • What the "plan your work, work your plan" strategy is

In My Take you will learn:

  • Doing one thing at a time can help to prevent from becoming overwhelmed

  • Sometimes there is no perfect answer but be prepared to pivot when your views change

Check out Vic's website

January Digital

Follow Vic!


Transcription

Vic Drabicky:
... a lot of panic and, holy cow, what are we going to do? I got a whole lot more gray hairs and a whole lot less sleep as we navigated through that.

Bobbi Rebell:
You're listening to Financial Grownup with me, certified financial planner, Bobbi Rebell. Author of How to Be a Financial Grownup. And you know what? Being a grownup is really hard, especially when it comes to money. But it's okay. We're going to get there together. I'm going to bring you one money story from a financial grownup, one lesson, and then my take on how you can make it your own. We got this.

Bobbi Rebell:
Happy January, everyone. In this case, January Digital. The marketing agency was named in honor of the month that celebrates new beginnings for so many of us, including its founder, Vic Drabicky. Love his story, and you will too. Such inspiration for the new year.

Bobbi Rebell:
Welcome, everyone. New listeners, so glad you're here. Welcome back to our regulars. Episodes are short so you can stack them back to back for however much time you have to spend with us. And if you like what we're doing, tell a friend and DM us your feedback. I am @bobbirebell1 on Instagram, bobbirebell on Twitter, and you can email us at hello@financialgrownup.com.

Bobbi Rebell:
All right. Get ready to say hello to our guest, Vic Drabicky. He and his company, January Digital, have worked with amazing brands. Think Fenty by Rihanna, Diane von Furstenberg, Oscar de la Renta, Vineyard Vines, and Kendra Scott. But January Digital's first year was rocky because they didn't invest enough in themselves. Big lessons here, and Vic's tip at the end about how companies and people can get attention on social media without hiring a big company like January Digital is pure gold.

Bobbi Rebell:
Listen to this man. Here is January Digital's Vic Drabicky.

Bobbi Rebell:
Hey, Vic Drabicky. You're a financial grownup. Welcome to the podcast.

Vic Drabicky:
Thank you very much. Thanks for having me.

Bobbi Rebell:
Congratulations on the success of your digital marketing company, January Digital. By the way this is airing of course in January, so it's perfect timing. Tell us quickly about the name.

Vic Drabicky:
Yeah. So we are a full frontal digital agency. What that means is brands, primarily luxury brands and beauty brands, come to us and say, "Look I've got this money and I need to advertise my brand digitally. I don't know how to do it. Can you do it for me?" And that's everything from working with folks like Vogue and influencers all the way down to the tactical paid search and SEO and sort of the nerdy parts of digital marketing as well. So kind of top to bottom.

Bobbi Rebell:
Where did the name January Digital come from? I mean, digital makes sense. But why January?

Vic Drabicky:
January 1st, if you're poor you're going to be rich. If you're fat your going to be thin. You can do absolutely anything in January. So that theme of renewal and rebirth was really important for me, and important for us in the way that we approach things for our company. It's different than the traditional way too, so that's how it kind of fits together.

Bobbi Rebell:
And also a perfect transition to your money story that you brought, because it has to do with the birth of the company. Which of course you were ambitious, but you were also very conservative to the point where it came to bite you. Tell us your money story, Vic.

Vic Drabicky:
Yeah, absolutely. Everybody that knows me knows I tend to be fiscally conservative. I mean, some would say cheap. I think very calculated. But what happened is we were very lucky early on and our company grew really fast. We went from something like nine people to 32 or 33 over the course of just a couple months. Which was phenomenal and great, but I still had the mindset of, okay, let me make sure that I conserve the profit that we have. Because I started the company with no venture capital, not even a loan. So it was right out of my bank account, which was relatively small.

Bobbi Rebell:
So you were paying these people, I mean, you had to hit payroll every month on your bank account.

Vic Drabicky:
Exactly right.

Bobbi Rebell:
I'd be pretty careful with that money then.

Vic Drabicky:
Well, right, and that's what you would think, right? This is my money. If I pay these people too much or hire too much, I don't get paid. And then, well, you know, that affects my family and my rent and my kids and all of those sorts of things. And so I took this really conservative approach, even when we were growing really quickly. And what that led me to was hiring folks who tended to be probably a little bit younger and a little bit cheaper. And I was probably a little bit arrogant, thinking, you know what, I've done enough of this; I can figure it out. I can teach them all how to do this and I can be a great leader.

Vic Drabicky:
But when ended up happening in the end is I underinvested in leadership. And because of that, the people that were on my staff all of a sudden, the 30-something people were looking towards me and some of them weren't that happy. And some of them weren't great hires. And that led to our work product being a little meh at times. And then clients felt that. And the year following that extensive growth is where we actually saw the hardest quarter ever, where we had clients and people leave at a rate that we've never seen ever in the history of our company.

Bobbi Rebell:
So you actually lost a big client. What was that discussion like when they pulled the plug?

Vic Drabicky:
Well, a lot of panic and, holy cow, what are we going to do? And by that time I was lucky enough to have added a couple people to my executive team around me who were accepting of my panic. But also did a great job of sitting down and going, okay, listen, we have been conservative for this long so we have a little bit to fall back on. And I have a great board member from the financial field who helped make sure we secured rainy day funding and things like that just in case something happened.

Vic Drabicky:
So by that point we were okay and we could get through. I got a whole lot more gray hairs and a whole lot less sleep as we navigated through that. But with the help of those guys, we were able to get through it. We were able to stop and say, okay, clearly identify what the problem was: not enough leadership, not enough skill. Let's put together a plan and put together a calculated risk on where we're going to invest against those. And we know that if we're right, that this sort of downturn ... we're only going to really feel the hurt from this for the next quarter or quarter and a half. So if we have this right, then this is a short-term thing when you compare it to the life of a company.

Vic Drabicky:
So for us, we were able to make those decisions. We were able to hold on and stick together. And I'll say that since then, our company has grown at a rate much faster than it originally had, and we've invested in right leadership. And so now our retention rates both for employees and clients are at all-time highs. Our profit margin has steadily increased quarter over quarter over quarter for a year and a half straight. So that investment that we ended up making at that time in leadership, which corrected our original mistake, has really paid off for us.

Bobbi Rebell:
So what is your takeaway that you would offer to the listeners so that they could apply this to their businesses, but also to their lives when it comes to investing? Because we do want to be careful with our money.

Vic Drabicky:
Absolutely. So for me it's ... the saying that we've coined is, pinching pennies is fine, but you better pinch the right ones. The idea is is that a lot of people look at finances and expenses on a sheet and say: where can I make sure my costs stay in line? But what people rarely do is look at it and go: what investment yields me the highest return?

Vic Drabicky:
And the reason I think most people do that is the first one is easy. You put it on a spreadsheet and you go, oh, my people cost me $10, my office costs me 2 ... unless you're in New York then it costs 8 ... and people look at this and that's a very easy thing to move around. But understanding what the profit you're going to get from that investment is much harder and much more nebulous.

Vic Drabicky:
So instead, if you're able to take that spreadsheet and still have it ... add an extra column in the end that goes, okay if I spend these $10 on these people, I'm going to make 20. If I spend this $8 on technology, I'm going to make 22. Okay, that might actually be the better one. So as long as you have that end goal next to it, it allows you to ensure you're pinching the right pennies.

Bobbi Rebell:
But if you're being honest with yourself, Vic, looking back, do you think that as a startup entrepreneur, self-funding, which is huge, could you have, even now looking back, really stomached hiring expensive people? It's hard to really do, right?

Vic Drabicky:
Yeah. It's extremely hard to do. You know, I think one of the things that's great about not having funding is you don't owe anybody any growth. And so when you don't owe anybody growth, you don't have to take on a deal that maybe your people don't like or maybe you don't like just to hit your growth goals. You can take on things that are really true to the mission of what you want, or what you want to accomplish. And so if that mission of what you want to accomplish is a really good one, then not having that funding allows you to stay true to that and you'll still eventually succeed.

Vic Drabicky:
So there's that side. But on the other side of it, again, having the risk of my bank account being zero if things went bad is an awfully hefty risk. So I still haven't figured out exactly if I would have changed it or not, but I'm very happy to be where we are now.

Bobbi Rebell:
Fair enough. All right. Let's talk about your everyday money tip. Because this is something that is relatable to so many people but yet we don't do. Go for it.

Vic Drabicky:
Yeah. Plan your work, work your plan. Finances more than almost any other part of your business, I think, is something that you have to have a plan around. You absolutely have to sit down, write out what you want to accomplish, write out what it takes, write out what the costs are, all the cost centers, all of those sorts of things. You have to do that. Once you have that plan down, then you work against that.

Vic Drabicky:
Inevitably, what you'll find out is that your plan on day one is slightly outdated on day two, and is really outdated by day 365. But what happens is if you have that plan and you're constantly working against it and you tweak, versus having no plan and trying to resolve everything as it comes out, you're going to be significantly more successful. This works both at home and in the office.

Vic Drabicky:
In the office we have something that we run. We always have our plan for the entire year, then we have our forecast which shows what our trend is, and we have our actuals. And we always keep the plan steady; we never touch it. January 1st it's set in stone. We don't touch it. The forecast we adjust, and obviously the actuals we put in each month.

Vic Drabicky:
But I actually do the same thing at home. I'm very lucky to have married a very talented woman who owns an interior design firm. The great thing about that is she's extremely talented; the bad thing about that means our house is under construction every day for the entire year. It's sort of running on the fly, but what we do is at the beginning of the year we sit down and go, here are all the projects we want to get done for this year. Let's write them down then we can start prioritizing against them, and then we can start figuring out which ones we actually can accomplish, which ones we can't.

Bobbi Rebell:
Let's talk a little bit more about January Digital and the work that you do there. Explain to me, what is the challenge? Because it's kind of a moving target, digital marketing. And you work with some brands that have ... some are newer brands, some are older brands. Like you work with David's Bridal; that's got to be challenging. You work with Kendra Scott, one of my favorite jewelry lines. Tell me more.

Vic Drabicky:
Yeah, so I mean, it definitely is. Our primary focus is on retail, luxury, and beauty. So most of our clients fit within that. Not all of them. David's Bridal being a good example of one that, you know, from the outside you might look at it and go, okay, that's an interesting brand but it doesn't sound near as sexy as working with Tory Burch or J.Crew or-

Bobbi Rebell:
Exactly. So how do you do that? Right.

Vic Drabicky:
What I think is great about what we've been able to do is that we are very good at making sure what we want to accomplish with our clients aligns very well with what they want us to accomplish for them. That sounds very simplistic, but I think a lot of times clients look at agencies and think of them as this mysterious entity over there that they're going to kick work to, and every year they're just going to [inaudible 00:11:16] to make sure that their fees go down. And we're very clear going in to people saying, no, that's not what we want. And we as an agency are going to invest in you. We're going to put people in your offices to make sure we know you and your brand and everything you want to accomplish.

Vic Drabicky:
And what that does is that really aligns both of us not as two separate entities but as one team trying to accomplish things. And whenever you have that as your base, it doesn't matter if you're selling dresses or jewelry. When you have that at your core, your opportunity to succeed is significantly higher. And that's what we've seen. And that's why our client retention rate is north of 90 percent versus the industry average, which is below 70 percent.

Bobbi Rebell:
So if you were starting out as an entrepreneur in general, not someone that is a digital marketing agency, but if you're just trying to get attention online, get your brand noticed, do you have any tips for people that aren't at the level where they can hire an agency?

Vic Drabicky:
I still think one of the more underused techniques is to use LinkedIn to advertise your business. You can go in and very quickly advertise against prospects that you want to talk to. You can very quickly advertise against audiences, those sorts of things. And if you have truly valuable content that you want to share, it's a really cheap, easy way to go in and start being very ... test the waters to see how your message is resonating.

Vic Drabicky:
For those that are not in a service industry but maybe you're selling a product, maybe you're a jeweler, or whatever it might be. What I always tell people is start small and then iterate really quickly. There are sort of the basics of digital marketing that always start with Google search, then you can move on to Facebook. But just do one piece at a time.

Vic Drabicky:
If you can do one piece at a time and figure out how to do it well, what happens is it becomes very predictable. And so now all of a sudden every morning when you wake up, you know Google's going to make you $10 and Facebook is going to make you 2. Okay so if your goal for the day was only to make $15, you don't have to worry about those 12. You only have to worry about selling the last 3. And that simplifies [inaudible 00:13:07] problems down and allows you to focus on the areas that you need to solve versus the ones that are consistent and will deliver every day.

Bobbi Rebell:
Such valuable advice. Thank you so much. Okay, now that you have a website, tell us where we can go and where we can follow January Digital and you on social.

Vic Drabicky:
Sure. januarydigital.com is the website. Please don't judge us too much; while we think it looks great, we still have a lot of work to do. And then, quite honestly, we do a ton on LinkedIn. I try to post relatively regularly on LinkedIn. Our company does as well. We include content that everyone from our newest employees who are just out of school all the way up to people who have been here six, seven years, we allow them to post content quite a bit that we find valuable. And we share it all pretty openly too, so ... Those are the areas that I think we're probably most active. Obviously we're still on Facebook and things like that too. But that's probably the best area to get to us.

Bobbi Rebell:
Thank you, Vic. This was great.

Vic Drabicky:
Absolutely. I appreciate you having me. And congratulations on all your success as well.

Bobbi Rebell:
All right, my friends. Let's get right to it. Financial grownup tip number one. Focus. I get overwhelmed by all the things I want to learn, and Vic makes a great point about learning about new things but maybe focus on one thing at a time. I'm going to take that advice myself.

Bobbi Rebell:
Financial grownup tip number two. There is no right answer when you're starting a new venture, personal or business. So be prepared to pivot. Vic knows, looking back, that he aimed too low in his hiring. But also admits that his reason for doing so made sense at the time. And he still sees why they made sense, even in retrospect. So in life and in business, part of being a financial grownup is accepting that sometimes there is no perfect answer. Let's say Vic had stretched and had hired more expensive and more experienced people from the get-go; that also had risks. He did what he thought was best at the time and then when it wasn't, he course-corrected.

Bobbi Rebell:
All right. Thanks everyone for joining us. If you like the podcast and enjoy it, don't forget to subscribe. And we really appreciate ratings and reviews on Apple Podcasts or anywhere. All feedback is good. And big thanks to January Digital's Vic Drabicky for helping us all get one step closer to being financial grownups.

Bobbi Rebell:
Financial Grownup with Bobbi Rebell is edited and produced by Steve Stewart and is a BRK Media production.