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  • Kris Sugatan tried influencing and Airbnb hosting before finding her niche as an Upwork virtual assistant.
  • She now runs her own agency and a team of 75 employees who work remotely around the world. 
  • Her income is reinvested on both the talent front and in creating the agency’s own ecommerce brands. 

Kris Sugatan launched digital marketing and ecommerce growth agency Sugatan Agency with only $300 in her pocket. She had no connections in the digital marketing industry, no college degree, and had spent the last seven years waitressing. In 2020, her agency reached $2.95 million in annual revenue.

Rather than simply enjoy the fruits of her labor, Sugatan reinvests her income back into her business – her secret to rapid success.

“My take-home until we incorporated into a C-Corp in September was averaging $112,000, which was mostly put aside in savings for the business,” Sugatan said.

The founder, CEO, and digital nomad – having grown her company from Los Angeles, Antigua, Mexico City, and elsewhere – tried on a few different hats on her path to entrepreneurship, including being an influencer and dabbling in Airbnb, none of which felt like a fit, she said.

Her true reinvention began while freelancing on Upwork as a virtual assistant to solopreneurs for $18 an hour. Six months later, she was making $60 an hour and was able to hire a full-time assistant. Fast forward three more months, and Sugatan was commanding $120 per hour, which allowed her to hire her first team members who helped create Sugatan Agency.

"I've used the same principle to scale the amount of people so that the business is productive on its own at literally all hours without me," she said. "I surround myself with strong executors driven by high performance and day-to-day achievement."

In May 2018, the year before Sugatan Agency was founded, Sugatan's average monthly income as a freelancer was $6,597. But soon after she incorporated Sugatan, LLC, growth began to ramp up quickly, with monthly revenue reaching $74,263 in May 2019. Today, the agency is averaging around $250,000 per month, she said.

Her team expanded rapidly as well, from 15 people to her current employee count of about 75.

"Every single person on the team is remote, ranging from different countries within the US to as far as Middle East countries," Sugatan said.

Tackling every part of ecommerce marketing

Sugatan, who's currently based in Oaxaca but has been traveling for work this year between Los Angeles, New York City, Maine, and Mexico City, said her business model is based on revenue-share from the total revenue the agency generates for its clients. While the company operates with very few clients - no more than a dozen at a time - her team offers services that support the ecosystem of digital marketing.

"While the general consensus is that agencies who do many things don't actually specialize in anything, we're one of the few agencies who specialize in four different ways to drive quality traffic to an ecommerce site and have learned how to pull each of those levers effectively to drive profit to the business," she said.

The agency's primary methods of scaling ecommerce businesses include Facebook ads, conversion rate optimization, email marketing, and influencer marketing. Sugatan is also currently experimenting with ads on YouTube, Snapchat, and TikTok with an in-house creative team that's trained to create conversion-driven videos and graphics.

Investing in hiring and original brands

While the founder's income today is a far cry from her waitressing days, she doesn't fritter it away. She puts it toward two primary areas: on the talent front, by hiring high-level specialists, and by creating the agency's own ecommerce brands.

"We started two of our internal brands this year in the beauty niche, each costing around $30,000 seed investment to start," Sugatan said. One of these brands, she added, had to be put on hold because of supply-chain logistics during COVID-19, while the second one is starting to break even in investment.

"We incorporated our formula for identifying high-income/high-growth/high-margin products to partner with when we qualify prospects, and that's what helped us to identify the products we decided to produce ourselves," she said.

Meanwhile, she's focused on hiring experienced operators to simplify the complexity in hiring and managing people effectively.

She begins with basing the first interview's questions around culture fit. If the candidate passes the first interview, the agency then gives them a two- to three-hour "test" based on a real-life toughest problem that someone in the position they're applying for has had to solve.

"We make them record their answers to walk us through their problem-solving process and way of thinking," she said. "We gauge the quality of their thinking. Lastly, we give them a secondary test that gauges their skill level in that position."

Later parts of the process involve taking multiple personality tests, and if they get hired, a 30-day test after onboarding.

"We strictly follow how they're doing the initial tasks and scrutinize almost every decision they make, down to when they decided to complete the task," Sugatan said.

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