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Making courageous decisions to scale and sell an agency (feat. Nikole Rose)

Jakub
Jakub "Kuba" Grajcar is the Content Marketing Manager at ZenPilot. His obsessions include interviewing smart people; productivity methods; project management; and playing bass in a progressive metal band.

I recently had the pleasure of welcoming Nikole Rose to the Agency Breakthrough podcast. Nikole is the Managing Partner at Gravity Global, a 500+ person digital agency with 14 offices globally.

Gravity Global is also the most awarded B2B agency in the world.

But Nikole’s journey to get there is an incredible one.

Along with her husband Mike, Nikole founded and ran Mojo Media Labs for over a decade before it was acquired by Gravity Global last year.

When I invited Nikole on the podcast, she mentioned having a list of at least four different "breakthrough moments" from that journey that were worth digging into.

And wow, did we ever get to hear an inspiring story.

Watch the full podcast episode here:


Or listen to it on your favorite podcast platform.

As Nikole reflected on the many twists and turns along the way, one phrase kept coming up over and over:

"Courageous decisions."

These were the scary choices that felt very uncomfortable at the time, but ultimately paved the way for massive breakthroughs.

Nikole explained:

"How we got to where we are today was a series of breakthroughs along the way. And how did we break through some of those things? The short answer to that is it was a bunch of what I call courageous decisions.

“Let me classify courageous: That means you're scared to death—but you do it anyway."

As I listened to Nikole recount some of these courageous decisions, I realized any agency can do this. Growth doesn't happen by sticking to your comfort zone. It happens by continually breaking through barriers and boundaries—even when it feels terrifying.

As you'll see, saying YES to the uncomfortable, scary thing often leads to incredible rewards.

So if you're looking to take your agency to new heights, Nikole's story is one to pay close attention to. Let's walk through some of those key moments.

The Backdrop: Mojo Media Labs

Nikole and her husband Mike Rose started Mojo Media Labs, running it together for about a decade before acquisition in 2022.

Their vision was to eventually exit the agency, picking May 13, 2023 (Mike's birthday and their son's high school graduation date) as their target.

Nikole explains:

"Mike came home really energized by meeting with entrepreneurs who said: ‘you need to pick your day, your year when it’s going to happen’. 

“Back in 2013 it looked a lot different than today, so when Mike suggested May 13, 2023, I said…

“‘Let's have a glass of wine.’ 

"I was the skeptic! But I loved that he put the vision out there and it’s amazing what happens when you do."

Against the odds, Mojo Media Labs was acquired by Gravity Global on May 13, 2022—precisely one year before their target date!

Nikole describes the significance of that moment:

"It was elation but also disbelief and exhaustion because the process is so difficult.

“It’s like ‘Oh thank goodness we made it to the finish line.’

“It’s been an incredible experience and now I’m in a new phase seeing things on a global scale.

“But the reality is we got here through a series of breakthroughs and courageous decisions along the way."

Naturally, I then proceeded to ask Nikole about these courageous decisions: what did she and Mike do to successfully exit the agency?

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Jumping All In On Inbound (Even When It Was Unproven)

One of the first courageous decisions was going all in on inbound marketing in 2012 by becoming a HubSpot partner.

This was very early days for HubSpot, well before they hit their stride and became a household name.

As Nikole recalls:

"That was a very courageous decision but we fell in love with HubSpot right away.

“It was like: ‘Wow, if you can put data, analytics and all that to marketing—how cool is that?’

“We bought into the vision… and when I say we jumped all in—we jumped all in.

It was: ‘Okay, what we were doing previously in our agency? We're not doing that anymore.’"

Having that conviction—despite Hubsopt and inbound being “just a little baby” at the time—was a turning point. Nikole credits it as being the "first game changer" for them.

Read: 9 Strategies to Make Your Agency More Profitable

But they didn't stop there. Next came another new methodology with even less track record: ABM.

Betting on a New Methodology: ABM

After succeeding with inbound, Nikole and Mike wanted to expand into other services. They discovered Terminus, a brand new ABM platform started by the former CMO of Marketo.

Even though ABM was still very much in its infancy, they again went all in:

"We heard about this little company called Terminus that was coming on the scene.

For those of you who don't know, Terminus was one of the first demand-based platforms, ABM platforms, that came onto the market.

And this guy named Sangram, who started as CMO of Marketo and then became founder of Terminus, was behind it."

Mike even jumped on a plane to meet Sangram in person and convince him to make Mojo Media Labs their very first agency partner for Terminus.

Nikole explained their thinking:

"It just seemed like a smarter way to go for B2B. It just made sense to us… We didn't think long and hard about it. We basically just said: ‘the future of B2B is ABM’."

While inbound and ABM are commonplace now, adopting either—let alone both—was incredibly risky for an agency at the time. Mojo Media Labs had the vision to see where marketing was heading and boldly reorient their services before hardly anyone else.

Making a Risky Acquisition (After a Failed One)

Several years after betting on ABM, Nikole and Mike decided they wanted to spur growth through acquisitions.

They made an initial acquisition of a small agency in Chicago…

…and to hear Nikole tell it, the story of that acquision did not play out well, to put it mildly.

But instead of being discouraged, they saw it as a learning opportunity. In fact, going public about this acquisition directly led to their next one, as Nikole explained:

"I had an agency owner who I knew pretty well contact me and proactively say:

“'I had no idea you were looking to acquire, would you be interested in my agency?'

“So it opened up the door to the next acquisition."

This next acquisition of Spin Web was scary, as it required Nikole and Mike to put themselves personally on the line financially. But it proved to be a pivotal move:

"That was a huge transformation for our agency. It brought on different skillsets that we didn't have.

“But also what was really interesting is that people who were at that agency were leaders at heart."

To this day, they retained almost 100% of the team from that acquisition years later.

Read: Strategic Growth and Acquisition With Dean Dutro

Even when an acquisition fails, Nikole's advice is not to be discouraged. See it as tuition and keep pursuing deals where the gut feel is right:

"When things go bad—that's your path to learning. You try, you fall on your face, you learn something, you get up, you do better."

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Implementing "Scary" Culture Rituals

Beyond major business decisions, Nikole and Mike also made courageous moves when it came to their culture.

They implemented two rituals in particular that were scary, but game-changing.

One was open book management—sharing full financial transparency with the entire team and getting their input on key decisions.

As Nikole explained:

"That was courageous because we all know as agency owners, sometimes the numbers don't look that great.

“I was like: ‘Oh my gosh, is everyone gonna just run if we have a few bad months?’"

But the opposite happened. Employees felt more empowered to help problem solve issues once they understood the full picture.

Watch: How to Build a Resilient and Empowered Company Culture with Mark Abbott

The second ritual was Results Only Work Environment (ROWE)—allowing team members full autonomy over when and where they worked as long as they met objectives.

Nikole admitted:

"As agency owners that's kind of scary right? It's like, how do I hold people accountable?"

But again, it was worth the risk. Their team responded with greater ownership, engagement, and performance.

As Nikole reflected:

"From a culture perspective we put it out there in terms of taking risks—and that paid off."

Investing in Their Own Sales and Marketing

Nikole shared another courageous decision was investing in having dedicated sales and marketing staff focused solely on revenue generation vs. client work.

She explained their thinking:

"We decided that it is unacceptable that we don't do our own [sales and marketing] because we're too busy servicing clients."

They hired 3 full-time team members to sell and market Mojo Media Labs' services. It was an expense, but proved invaluable:

"That really helped us from a revenue perspective and consistency and growth, which then made us even more interesting for someone who was looking to acquire."

Watch: The Most Trusted Voice Wins: The Story Behind They Ask, You Answer (feat. Marcus Sheridan)

Seeking Help to Fix Their "Chaotic" Operations

As Mojo Media Labs continued to rapidly scale, operations started to fall behind. As Nikole tells it:

"I finally just said: ‘Enough's enough. We are doing something about this one way or the other. 

“‘We're gonna make big changes and we're going to hire someone who's going to help us do that.’”

That someone was your friendly neighborhood agency ops specialists at ZenPilot 👋

See our full Gravity Global case study here.

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Despite already having a project management system in place, Nikole and Mike knew they needed outside expertise to overhaul their processes:

The results? Nikole credits those operational changes for making her team love work again:

"The team loves our process. I threatened the other day I was gonna take ClickUp away for a week and they were like: ‘nooo!’"

As much as we all want to figure things out on our own, sometimes seeking outside help is the fastest path to a breakthrough.

Staying Open to Being Acquired (Even When Not Looking)

The culmination of all these courageous decisions was Mojo Media Labs' acquisition by Gravity Global last year.

But Nikole and Mike weren't out looking for acquirers. Serendipitously, they got connected to someone intriguing, decided to pursue the conversation, and it ultimately led to an amazing outcome.

As Nikole reflects:

"We kind of put ourselves out on the marketplace really ahead of time. We weren't proactively looking [to exit]—and it was a blessing. We were just open-minded to the possibilities."

That initial connection came about randomly. But everything that happened up until that point—the risk-taking, the innovation, the culture, the growth—made Mojo Media Labs irresistible when the opportunity presented itself.

Nikole emphasized they wanted the acquisition to be a win for their clients, their team, and themselves.

Because they had built the agency thoughtfully all along the way, they were able to achieve that shared success.

Key Takeaways from Nikole's Journey

There are so many gold nuggets from Nikole's story that I know I'll be reflecting on for a long time. Here are a few of the biggest takeaways on making courageous decisions to drive breakthroughs:

  • Take risks before you're ready. Some of Mojo's biggest advances came from adopting new strategies like inbound and ABM very early on. When something is “proven” it’s already too late—be an early adopter.
  • See failures as tuition. If something doesn't work out as expected, don't beat yourself up. Extract the lessons so you can improve.
  • Listen to your gut. When evaluating big decisions like an acquisition, don't ignore any red flags even if everything looks good on paper.
  • Invest in your culture. Don't underestimate the business benefits of building team culture, trust and autonomy.
  • Get uncomfortable. Continually push yourself and your agency outside the comfort zone. Discomfort leads to growth.
  • Bring in help. Trying to solve big challenges like operational issues yourself can limit how far you get. Seek outside experts.
  • Explore accidental opportunities. Say yes to unexpected conversations—you never know what might come out of them!

Nikole said it best:

"Living outside the comfort zone and taking risks and not having all your ducks in a row before you take the next leap is just part of the journey."

Her story proves that the bigger the risk, the bigger the reward. All it takes is the courage to leap.

Don’t forget to check out the full episode here.

Be Like Nikole: Fix Chaotic Operations At Your Agency

If you got to the bottom of this article, you probably also care about scaling your agency, making it as profitable and valuable as possible.

A key piece of that, just like in Nikole’s story, is making sure your operations and project management are ready to handle your agency’s growth.

Moreover, if you ever wish to sell, you’ll need to be keenly aware of your agency’s key metrics like utilization rate, earnings per FTE, as well as efficiency metrics like your % of work delivered on time vs. past the deadline.

We can help with all of that.

Book a call with ZenPilot to find out if you could make your agency run like a well-oiled machine by implementing repeatable processes, workload visibility, and a single source of truth based on ClickUp or Teamwork.com.

Turn Chaos Into Clarity.
We're your agency operations pilot.

You can build a happier, more productive, more profitable team with ClickUp. We'll show you how.

And as always, thanks for reading!

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