Thriving In A Challenging Economy With Nicky Billou

There is no doubt that we are heading towards more challenging times, so what are the practical areas you should focus on and how do you retain a ‘growth mindset’? 

I'm excited to be joined by Nicky Billou today to talk about how to not only survive in a recession but also thrive and grow your agency

Nicky Billou is an author of several best-selling business books, a podcaster, a speaker and the co-founder of eCircle Academy.

Time Stamp

[00:00] Intro

[01:45] How can a small business grow and thrive when times are more challenging?

[04:45] Don’t run your business today like you did last year!

[05:15] Think about how you can be a guest on other people’s podcasts to reach a much bigger audience than you normally reach

[07:20] What practical examples can you share as to what businesses should be doing when times are tough?

[10:35] How to grow to £1m whilst working 10-20 hours less per week

[16:20] Be a specialist, not a generalist

[17:18] Charge appropriately based on value, not time and materials

[17:53] Invest in your most important asset - YOU!

[21:06] Have a way to stand out in the marketplace - become a thought-leader

[24:57] A story of servicing human beings not businesses

[30:35] Nicky’s advice to his younger self


“The greatest successes in history have come from chaotic times.” - Brian Scudamore
“Mindset is what separates successful businesses from failing ones - esp in a recession.” - Rob Da Costa
“Your clients are not buying into your services they are buying their way out of a problem.” - Nicky Billou

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 Full Episode Transcription

As we move into more challenging times, what are some of the practical things that your business needs to pay attention to? What should you be focusing on? And how do you make sure that you maintain a growth mindset even when things around you're looking really challenging? Well, that's what we're talking about in today's episode of The Agency Accelerator. So let's dive in with my guest, Nicky Billou. I'm Rob Da Costa, and this is The Agency Accelerator podcast as someone who has stood in your shoes, having started, grown and sold my own agency and just how it feels in the ups and downs of agency life.

So this podcast aims to ease your journey just a little by sharing mine and my guest's experiences and advice as you navigate your way to growing a profitable, sustainable and enjoyable business. So welcome everybody to this week's episode of The Agency Accelerator. Now there is no doubt we are heading towards more challenging times, so I'm really excited to be joined by Nicky Billou today to talk about how to not only survive in a recession but also to thrive and grow your agency. And Nicky is the author of a number of best-selling business books, podcaster speaker, and the co-founder of Circle Academy.

So welcome to the show, Nicky. And thanks for joining us today. Thanks for having me. It's an honour to be here. Fantastic. Well, today, we just had our government budget in the UK, and we have also been officially announced as the UK is in a recession. So this is a very timely kind of episode for us to be talking about. So can you share it with us? Sort of any thoughts you have on how a small business can make sure it's not only recession ready but also can continue to grow and thrive when times are more challenging.

Absolutely. That's a great topic for us to jump right into. So look, here's one thing you gotta understand. I've had the privilege of getting to know some top entrepreneurs and befriending them. One fellow has become really good friends with the founder of the iconic Company 0003 800 got junk. And there are multi-billion dollar brands. And the founder's name is Brian Scudamore. And I had Brian on my podcast, and I asked him, Brian, what would you say to entrepreneurs today who are feeling a little bit nervous because of the lockdowns in the last almost three years and the inflation and crazy governments led by folks like where she will soon act?

Who's a Goldman Sachs alum? Not exactly the son of a greengrocer like the late, great Margaret Thatcher was, and his answer was really straightforward, he said. Entrepreneurs thrive during times of chaos. The greatest fortunes and the greatest successes in history have come from chaotic times. And if you're an entrepreneur right now, you could be living in your fear and letting your fear choke out your dream. Or you could take a look at it and say, "Wow, this is the greatest time for me to be alive and doing what I do in history."

All I've got to do is show up with a lot of clarity and certainty on how to help people and give them my certainty. You've got to believe that you can win. You've got to believe that victory is possible, and what should give you confidence is looking back on history. So the great depression of the 1930s spawned some of the largest businesses in history, like Marriott Hotel Corporation, created in the 30s, right, and the great recession of 2008 spawned some of the greatest companies in history as well.

Facebook and Twitter came alive during that time, and lots of other companies did, too. There are people that aren't ready. There are people that are trying to do things the way they've always been done. But if you want to be successful, you've got to tell yourself I need to figure out how to be successful today. And if you're doing business today the way you did business in 2019, yeah, you're in trouble. But if you do business today the way smart people are doing business today, you're gonna win.

One of the things that makes a lot of sense right now is for people to get involved in podcasting me from podcast guesting. In the last five months, I've generated over six figures in business from having a podcast. I generated well over seven figures in business over the years. So everybody listening to this podcast should be thinking about how they can be a guest on a podcast and not just a guest to talk about what they do but be a guest to build relationships with that host.

Because business is all about relationships. 

And one reason I'm glad to be here is that you and I are building a relationship right now, right and secondly, also to reach a greater audience, an audience you wouldn't otherwise reach. And then you've got to be thinking not about you and your business but about your potential clients and their problems. What is business? After all, business is about solving acute problems for wonderful people, for amazing profits, problems, and people's profit. If you're focused on yourself and what's going on in your world and your business, you're toast.

Start focusing on them. There are a lot of people that are scared out there, and they need to know that there's someone who cares and someone ready to do what needs to be done for them. Yeah, so much good stuff that drives me crazy when I look at a lot of websites where they wrote a blog post a few years ago, saying, "Is your website full of WE?" And it was a good title for a blog post because so many websites talk about it. We do this and we do that.

And I always say, "No one cares until you've demonstrated to your reader that you can help them." So we must lead with our client's pain and the transformation we can take them through when we solve their problems. And I think another point I wanted to pick up around what separates a successful business from an unsuccessful one in a challenging time is the mindset. Because, of course, if you start thinking, "Oh my God, my clients are going to disappear, I can't possibly charge them more money because times are tough."

Then we start behaving like that. And then, of course, we create our own reality. It's true. Your clients will pick up on your fear, and one of the best things you can do for them is to show them that you're not afraid, but that you're excited that you believe this is a time of opportunity because it is so. Can you give us one? Can you give us any other practical examples? So you talked about guesting on podcasts, which is a brilliant strategy when I'm always telling my audience to do.

But can you give us other practical examples of what businesses should do to make sure they thrive when times are a bit tougher? Absolutely. In addition to guessing on a podcast, you can start your own podcast and bring people on your show, their prospective clients for you. I mean, that's a wonderful way to build relationships with them, too. It's one of the things that we teach our clients to do, but this is a time when you really need to focus on your messaging.

You can't have a Mayo message. And I know your audience, our marketing agencies, right? And so this ought to be music to their ears. But you can't just do this for your clients. You gotta do it for yourself. Your message can't be a mail message. People ask you what you do, and what you say is, "Well, I run a marketing agency good for you," but you know what? They don't care. They want to know what that means for them now if instead of saying, "All right when a marketing agency you said I work with retail chains that are smaller than ten stores, and I helped them pull in their ideal clients and twice the rate that they've ever done before."

I'm telling you, that's powerful, right? That's got a lot of people thinking to themselves. Okay, you know what? I'm not gonna retail chain. How do you do that? Right. And that's where the conversation can open up. So no more mail messaging. Do you know what I'm saying? Like I'll tell you my message. I used to tell people," Well, success, Coach, I help you get success." What? Yes, and I was excited about that, but nobody else was. I went to see a mentor, and my mentor said, "Yeah, that sucks when you change that," like, " Okay, what should I say instead?

So he looked into my business and said, "Well, you're really good at working with service-based entrepreneurs, right?" "Oh, yeah." "You said you're really good at helping them make more money. That's your stick, right? Do you love it?" "Yeah. I love getting paid." He said, "Okay, great. Here's what you're gonna say. I helped service-based entrepreneurs add 1 to 2 zeros to their annual income ball and were content with 20 hours lost per week. Now, if you're a service-based entrepreneur, you're going to go. How do you do that? Right? And that's what you want."

You want people to be ready to engage in discussion with you. So more than ever, in tough times, your message has got to be sharp and on point. And if it's not, then make it sharpened on point. You're a marketing agency for crying out the lab. Do you know what that was like for all businesses? There is a busman's holiday, and there are so many people who get this wrong. So many marketing agencies don't do for themselves what they do for their clients, so they are too focused on the bits and bites of what they do rather than the benefit to the client.

So, you know, back in the 80s, we always talked about features, advantages and benefits, and this is the same conversation we need to lead. You know, the benefits of what you do because, if you like, If I said I'm a coach, no one cares. That's not what I would ever say. So let's mention the thing about adding a zero or two. I know in the sort of pre-episode notes I got from you, you talk about how to grow from 500,623 to a million in your business while only working 10 to 20 hours per week.

So that's working 10 to 20 hours less per week. Yes. All right, that's a good point. So that does sound a bit like the Holy Grail. So do you want to talk us through that? Well, sure. I'll give you a high-level overview of it because if we had an hour and a half, we could go deeper into each segment of it. But like I said, first and foremost, you've got to believe that you can do it right. You've got to have that mindset of victory and you have to focus on them and not you.

That's step number one. Folks that focus on themselves go into this weird fear-based space, and your clients will pick up on it. They'll just pick up on it. And they're not going to want to do business with you. They're gonna like you, but something's gonna feel off to them. So put all your focus on them and think about their problem. What is it that they need? How can I solve the problem? So that's step number one. Step number two. Make sure your message is super, super tight.

And if it's not super tight, either tighten it or if you need help in tightening, hire someone to help you because you don't want to be going forward with a bad message. Step number three is you need to be in the business of solving problems, not selling services. Now you might listen to that and go what? Yeah, your clients are not buying their way into something. They're buying their way out of something. They are not buying their way into your programme. They're buying their way out of their problem, right?

And so if you understand that and have all of your conversations and messaging be around, how you help solve those problems, then you can charge appropriately, and you won't be thinking. I need to charge less because the market's bad times are tough. No, you should never charge based on. The market's bad times are tough. You should be charging based on my clients. Got a problem? I'm going to solve their problem. It's worth this much to solve that problem. That's how you need to charge. And let me give you an example of a fellow who was a coach who did it wrong and then ended up doing it right. Okay.

This gentleman was 57 at the time that we met him. He had been a senior vice president of a manufacturing concern in Canada, and anyways, he left and he decided to become an executive coach. And he was quite successful as the senior vice president. He was making well over a quarter million a year. But as a coach, he wasn't nearly as successful as he was in his corporate job. He was making 7000, 8000 and a good month, you know? So quite a bit lower than he was used to making it.

So when he came to us, he was like, "Oh, my God, I need to make more money." And I said, "Okay, great. So let's take a look at how you were doing this. So what do you do," he said. "Well, I do success coaching", and I'm like, "Oh, my God. He sounds just like I used to sound right." That's the first thing. "Okay, who do you help? Any entrepreneur." And I'm like, "What? No, that's not gonna work. You can't just help any entrepreneur. You need to narrow your focus."

It took us a while to convince him this was a good idea. Finally, we helped him land lawyers or solicitors and, as you would call them in Britain. Right? Who owned their own firm? So not a partner in a large firm but a single kind of proprietor, a sole proprietor who had at least a million dollars in billing. And we're really interested in scaling and growing, like wanting to grow it to, like 5, 10 million or more. So his message went from success coaching to I work with owner-operated law firms that are between one and 2003 million who are looking to scale thousands of messages.

And then I looked at his pricing, and his pricing was based on what he thought he should charge because other coaches charged that it worked out to $400 per month. And I was like, 'Wait a minute, What? $400 a month? This is ridiculous." And I said, "You need to have a programme that's a year-long." And I said, "You should charge 50,2000." He blanched. "I can't charge 212,2000", I said. "Okay, let's start with 218,2000 and charge 262,123." That's just over $212 a month. But I said, "You charge in advance, and you collect in advance because he was doing it monthly."

China is within four months. He was doing 21,22 months within six months. He was doing 40,000 months consistently, then he grew up to 60, and he thought it was too much work. So I'm gonna drop back down to 40. And he was able to get clear on his niche, and he was able to get really clear on what the appropriate way to charge was. So charge all up front and at a much higher price 0.5 times the price point he was charging. Yeah, that's a wonderful thing. Before I let you carry on with the next point after that third point, I think that niche conversation is really important at the moment because I think when times get tough, people think the answer is to become more of a journalist because I believe they can capture more of a market.

And I say no, the absolute opposite is true. Dig deep into your niche and be seen as that specialist because you can find your audience much easier, and your clients can find you. But also you can charge a premium because you're seen as the expert, not the generalist. And I think the point about charging that you were talking about is something that I beat the drum about all the time, which is taking a value selling approach or value pricing approach, not time and materials or hourly rates.

Or, as you said, what I think I can charge because that's what I see other people charging. That should never be the way you price. It should always be. What's the difference? Am I making it for my client, and how much is it worth to them? So I'm kind of completely with you that you mentioned three points so far. So get in the mindset, focusing on the client and getting your messaging tight. Solving problems, not self-service, is what are the next points in this journey to reducing your hours by 10 to 13 a week and moving your revenue up?

Well, I think it's important as part of this, as I said, to be charging appropriately based on values as we discussed and not on time and materials or hourly rate or any of that stuff because when you start doing that, you're able to work less right. And if you do that, you're gonna be generating a tonne more money as well. So it's important to really emphasise that for folks. The other thing you need to do if you're in a service-based business is to make sure that you are investing in your most important assets -- what is your most important asset?

Well, your most important asset is you, are you? You know, if you're not investing in yourself in becoming better, then how can you go to your clients and ask them to do the same to invest in themselves to invest in the type of thing that helps them grow their business? So this is the first thing I'd say to you: Do you have a coach? Do you have a peer group that you're a part of? Do you attend conferences? Are you doing courses? Are you purchasing?

Excuse me, the books and reading them. If the answer to that is no, then you know you need to change that. Many years ago, I used to be a personal fitness trainer, and one of my clients was the legendary Robin Sharma, the author of the legendary book "The Monk Who Sold his Ferrari." And Robin and I. We work out, and we talk, you know, and I just love listening to this man speak about success. And so one day, I asked him, I said, "Robin, how can I double my income next year?"

He said, "Oh, that's simple, Nicky. All you gotta do is triple your investment in personal and professional development." I'm like, What? Yeah, Tripoli investment. Because you're the most important asset in your business, make yourself better. Hire the coaches, join a peer group, and attend the conferences by the courses. I'm like, "Okay, I did that. It worked for me." And this is the thing that I would share with all of your listeners as well is, Are you working with folks that are helping you become better? If the answer to that question is no, then wouldn't now be the right time to start doing that?

Because there's a big distinction between spending and investing, a lot of people in service-based businesses confuse the two. They go. I can't spend that much on a coach. While you're not spending anything on a coach, you're investing in a coach to get yourself a result, right? You spend money on a vacation to Mallorca. That money is not coming back. You invest money in coaching and peer groups because you expect that money to come back to you. Multiple multiplying. Excuse me, a good shot, and I think some of the times the response you might get back is I get that.

But I don't have time. I'm too busy servicing my clients and underselling myself, and I don't have time to invest. That's exactly why you should invest in yourself because you're confusing the problem with the solution. The problem is, you don't have time because you're charging yourself, and you're working yourself to burn out. The solution is to learn how to do it better and differently. You know you got to make the time. Yeah, I like the point of differentiating between what is an expense and what is an investment.

So, as you say, we often get that confused. Any other words of wisdom around achieving this growth and perhaps for a lot of people reducing their working hours? Well, you know, I think you also need to really make sure that you have a way to stand out in the marketplace. It's good to have a clear message. But it's also got to be a clear message that delivers a particular result for people. You know, we call that thought leader marketing. What's thought-leader marketing? Thought leader marketing is when the marketplace knows you as being the go-to person for what you do. I'll give you an example.

Back in the 80s, there were two American businessmen who both started computer companies. They both grew their companies quite rapidly, and by the late 90s. Both these companies were doing close to about 80 years in revenue. Sorry, not 80 years in revenue. One of those companies was led by a fellow who had established himself as an authority and a thought leader in the marketplace, And that company ended up becoming the most valuable company in the world. Apple. And Who's the founder of Apple? Steve Jobs? Steve Jobs.

Everyone knows this right now. The other company did not become the most valuable company in the world. It grew over tenfold, and its revenues. But that company was Dell Computer. Do you know who the CEO of Dell Computer was? I probably did, too. But I can't think of who Michael Dell is now. Michael Dell, right? And I mean, the company is named after him, and you still, it's difficult for people to remember. Steve Jobs built a position of thought leadership for himself. People knew why Steve Jobs did what he did, right?

Michael Dell didn't. Michael Dell was all about the bits and bytes and the selling of the computers, and these are great, you know, and I used to own a Dell Computers. Great computer. It worked really well, but I switched from Dell to Mac, and I'm thrilled with my Mac, and I'm thrilled to own a Mac. Why? Because owning a Mac is about me being like a hip, the cool individual who's doing stuff that is the leading bleeding edge, especially as a podcaster, I wouldn't see myself the same way buying a Dell computer.

And I could buy a Dell computer. That's almost as good as my Mac for about a third of the price, you know? So that's what you got to understand. If you haven't thought about positioning yourself as a thought leader, you should. And honestly, that's a big part of what we teach our clients to do is how to be seen as the Steve Jobs of their space and use that to take themselves. And I was talking to this level. I was talking with a client yesterday about the importance of partnerships for small businesses, especially because it's such a small way of reaching a bigger audience.

And, you know, I think a lot of people think about partnerships as new business partnerships, so someone's going to refer me to send business, but actually, the marketing partnerships are probably even more important because they will lead to those new business partnerships. And there are some simple things to do, like podcasting and guest podcasting and all that stuff. But partnership should be on everyone's strategy, right as part of what they do. And building their profile, as you say, is so important because people buy from businesses humans buy from businesses they don't buy from. You know, sorry, humans buy from humans. They don't buy from businesses that, like Dell, are faceless.

That's what I'm trying to say. So have you got any other words of wisdom before we wrap this episode up? Anything else I can tell you? A little story. Inspirational story. So several years ago, there was a woman who came to us who had been the country director for Canada for one of the world's largest and oldest personal developments. She was a real go-getter, and she wanted to grow the business, so she brought on a man to help her run the company, whom she thought was very talented, and this was kind of like Steve Jobs back in the day when he brought John Sculley to help him run Apple.

And just like Steve and John. At first, the two of these folks really got along. But just like Steve and John, after about a year, their visions of the future diverged. And just like Steve and John, she was kicked out of her own company. How can you get kicked out of your own company? But it happened, and this woman was bereft. She was lost until she was introduced to us. And, well, she was a lovely human being. And, you know, my fiance and I, we worked together, and we really loved her.

And we poured into her, and we really worked with her to help her see who her ideal client could be and what her message ought to be. And she figured all that out. She did really well. In her first month, she made 10,000 in profit. In the second month, she did 12,000. In the third month, she did 18,000, but in her fourth month as a solopreneur, she did $62,200, and that was amazing. It was incredible. Now she's from Ottawa, and I'm from Toronto. That's a five-hour drive, and my oldest son plays football.

He's right back in a centre back, and he had a tournament in Ottawa, and she had a son his age. He was 12 at the time, so I called her up, and I said, "Hey, how would you and your son like to come and watch one of the football matches?" And she said, "That sounds great. Grab some lunch after." So, we all did that. It was a good time, and Sons Team won the tournament, which is always nice. And we had some food, and then we drove home, and she and her son drove home.

A few weeks later, we had one of our branded thought leader immersion workshops. These are immersive workshops where we teach the folks we work with how to add that 1 to 2 zeros and become a thought leader and all that good stuff. We come to the point of the programme where we talk to the new folks about how they can continue to work with us, right? The famous upset. So the way that we do. The upside is I actually asked our existing clients to share some of their wins and their experiences and why they think people should join.

So we have some prerecorded ones, and there are some people who speak. So I just said, "Who would like to share?" And before I could pick anybody, she leaps on stage and goes to me. I'm like, "Very good." And she's just a high-energy, charismatic person. As soon as she got on stage, within a minute, she started to cry, and I mean ball, just tears. And I just looked at her, and I panicked inside. I'm like, "What's wrong? Why is she crying? Oh my God!" And so you know.

But I maintained a calm exterior. She turns around and looks at me, and she says, "Nicky." In between her songs and her tears, "You didn't know this, but when you and your little son came to visit me and my little son and that inimitable way little boys do say, 'Mommy, who are we gonna go? Me?'" And she said, "Oh, we're going to meet Nicky Billou and her son." And she said all of a sudden, my sweet boy got very quiet and said, "Oh, are we going to meet the man?"

"Mommy, who saved our family?". And I was like, "What?" And then she keeps talking, and she says, "You didn't know this, but when I came to see you, the bank was about to foreclose on our mortgage, and my husband and I were fighting every day like cats and dogs in front of our kids. It looked like we were going to break up. You literally helped us save our family. The money problems were over, and we stopped fighting." And I started to cry then, and we both hugged and, you know, everybody was like, so moved and taken by this.

But here's what I got. I had no idea she was dealing with this because she hadn't told me, Right? You never know what the person you're in front of is dealing with. And if all you're thinking about is business, shame on you. Because that's a human being, right? And you should be thinking, "How can I serve this human being for me?" I ask God to please send me more good people like her who need my help, and here's the beauty of it. Normally, at that point, we hand out our registration forms and some people sign up and some people don't.

And some people need a conversation and persuasion. On that day, everyone signed up. There was no persuasion. Required was such a powerful moment where people just saw human beings' heart connection happening there. And that's what made them decide what they want to do. This last piece of wisdom I wanted to give you is to, Let your heart shine. Yeah, isn't that why we do what we do? You know, we coaches do what we do because we want to make an impact in the world and on people, and that's a great example of absolutely achieving that.

So thank you for sharing that. My pleasure. Just before we wrap things up, Nicky and I just want to ask you the question that I ask all my guesses, which is, if you could go back in time and give your younger self just starting out in business a piece of advice? What would it be? Start sooner, talk to more people and never be afraid of asking for the business. Yeah, good. Good advice. And if people want to find out more about you and your business, where would they go?

Well, I've got a podcast called the Thought Leader Revolution. Check that out. And I've got a website called the circle academy dot com. Got all kinds of free resources there. And if their business owner wants to have a conversation about some of the topics we talked about today or maybe they were stuck a little bit. Or maybe they're feeling a little fearful, and they just want somebody to give them some belief they could borrow for a while. I've got a link to jump on a call with me.

It's the circle academy dot com forward slash appointment. We've got a bit of a screening tool. They're a form we asked you to fill out just to make sure you're a serious business owner. But as long as all that checks out, please look forward to having a call with you. Great. Well, we'll share all those links in the show notes, and I just want to say a big thank you for joining us today and sharing your wisdom. Thanks. Thanks again. And we'll talk to you soon. Thank you for having me.

It was a pleasure and an honour. Yeah.

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