Building A Successful Community & Coaching Program With Rachel Jacobs

Stephen: Hey guys, welcome to another episode of the Digital Masters Podcast. Today we have on Rachel Jacobs and she's going to be showing us how she rapidly grew her community of e-commerce agencies to over 1500 groups and members. And we're going to talk about how she got her start and how she did that in just over a year.

So let's get into it. Hello, Rachel, thank you for being on the Digital Masters Podcast today.

Rachel: Hey, Stephen. Thanks for having me.

Stephen: Yeah, for sure. So you are a coach for e-commerce agencies and more specifically you help them scale without the overwhelm. I really want it to help other people that are interested in building communities understand where this could go and then reverse engineer from where you started.

So upfront, I wanted to just establish a couple of numbers with you, just so people can get a quick snapshot of where you are. How many people are you currently serving in your community?

Rachel: Right now, I am working directly with 42 agencies, which is probably too many for one person.

So I work with 42. I have worked as a fractional COO for just over 60 in two and a half years. I've consulted with just over 600 e-commerce agencies in the last two and a half years and built a network for a newsletter they've signed up for and subscribed to of just under 1500. Most of that newsletter and community stuff I have done in the last, probably this year and last year alone, was a concerted effort.

And then my network of e-commerce agencies is roughly around 2500, 3000, something like that, based on LinkedIn, but I would have to cross-reference that.

Stephen: I see. So when you say network, you're talking about people you're directly connected to on social media.

Rachel: On LinkedIn specifically.

Yeah. And then those people that are actually subscribed to the private newsletter that I have, there's 1500. So that would be more of an engaged audience.

Stephen: Yeah. Okay. Very cool. And then how many different programs do you have running for these 40ish people?

Rachel: Too many. I'm going through as a typical entrepreneur, you build these different solutions because you start to realize that there are different types of agencies you work with and you want to give to different audiences.

The top of the funnel is a round table. I think there are 300 to 500 agencies that have signed up for that in the last year and a half.

Stephen: And is that free?

Rachel: That's free and I can talk a little bit about that after.

So I have a round table and then below that, I have a combination of different services.

I have a solution, which is like the one-to-one kind of ad hoc coaching where people need a strategy call or an audit. And that's just a one-off thing, depending on availability.

I then run a cohort. It's a four-month cohort that I bring some other industry experts and agency owners into. There are about 20 agencies in that.

Then I have another mastermind that I have about 20 agencies in there, and in that mastermind are agencies that I work with one-on-one directly. And they're paired in specific groups, according to their particular requirements. And within that group, I have smaller groups for their teams underneath.

So I run a sales mastermind, a project, a client manager mastermind, and a senior leadership mastermind. So all in all, that group is about a hundred and something people, because I'm including their team members in there as well. That's pretty much it. There's some group stuff and then a lot of one-on-one stuff.

Stephen: Yeah. That's cool. I know you're doing good work because I know two people that are in your mastermind and they both rave about you. We can get into this a little bit later, but I'm guessing that you probably grow largely through word of mouth.

Rachel: Word of my big mouth, correct? I'm Irish. I kissed the Blarney stone four times. My parents took me there as a kid. So I guess I didn't have any other choice but to talk shit all the time. Word of mouth. It's interesting because, yes, I have grown through word of mouth, but not as much as I've grown through my own efforts.

Word of mouth is easier from a sales point of view, obviously, because the two guys that you know, Damiano and Tim -- with Damiano I'm the director of ops and with Tim, I'm a fractional COO -- I'm actually working with them almost daily and actively involved in their business.

So anytime they talk to people, as I'm sure you've seen on LinkedIn, they'll often post about some of the stuff that we've done together to thank me for some of the challenges we've overcome.

And when they go and tell other people, ”You have got to work with this girl,” it's an easy sale for me. It's really a choice for me, whether I have the capacity and whether or not I want to work with them.

But I would say probably 80 to 90% of my business has come through building these various funnels. If I'm honest, it's harder. It's harder to close those deals because you need to, yeah, they have to get used to my “crazy,” but once they get over all of that difficult stuff the process is then pretty easy because I know exactly who my target audience is.

Stephen: Okay, cool. We'll swing back to that at the end, like how you really started to get this growing. But let's go back to the very beginning. Walk us through it. What was the original idea that prompted you to build this community?

Rachel: Initially I was COO of a leading Shopify Plus agency. I was in a community in London where I ran this agency and I was in an industry where nobody spoke to anyone.

So if we were pitching for the same business or you were losing business to your frenemies in the industry, nobody would tell you anything.

Like, how did, why did I lose it? Why did you win it? What did you bid? So you had no idea. So it was very isolating.

I ran that agency for a few years, scaled it significantly, pumped out a lot of revenue and structure and scale, just from an operational point of view.

When I left that agency I started to actually do due diligence and have a look in the industry to figure out what support was there for e-commerce agencies specifically, because there’s amazing support out there for agencies, just generic, lots of amazing support.

But with each conversation, you see that it’s really a niche of its own. And when you talk about agency growth and value-based pricing, there's a massive disconnect there because if you're selling a product and you're competing with other people and you're going to go in and say, “I'm going to charge you value-based pricing,”

It's, “Fuck off, no, because he's going to do it for 25% less.” So a lot of those strategies don't really align necessarily with e-commerce. So they have to be fine-tuned. So as soon as I started to research, I was like, I love what I did in the agency world, but I don't want to join another agency because I don't want to die at the age of 50.

So joining another agency is not going to work for me.

Stephen: Yeah, that's why I'm a coach too.

Rachel: Exactly. I say that, but I'm actively working hands-on day-to-day with three agencies right now. So I'm telling myself that I'm not in the day-to-day, but I really am.

So I had a look around and then I built this four-step program. I started off by doing one-to-one work with agencies and about a year into that I got to about 11. Bear in mind, the one-to-one work was a day a week. So I was effectively working 11 days a week. It's not scalable with different time zones and it was insane. I just couldn't scale it.

And then that was when COVID hit. So COVID hit. And I had agencies in the US, agencies in Europe, I'm from Ireland. So I had the European space, but I knew a lot of people here and started to build that reputation in the US through my network of partners. Then the US agencies said to me, “Can we have a call with some of the European agencies?” Because COVID hit them first.

So we were both in Europe and we were about a month ahead. So that’s why it was created, through demand, as these cases often are. I think it's just listening to your audience and figuring out what it is they needed to be facilitated.

So I created that round table just to bring those two people together. But, not two people. There were eight of us. That was April 2020. So not quite a year and a half later, now there's three, four, or 500 people that have signed up to join that community in the last year and a half. And it has basically created a network of agencies.

It's not a sponsored thing that I do. I have a tech partner that gets behind it and sponsors it. It's an opportunity... I just literally got off the call before this podcast. I just had my monthly round table, but it's just a network of agencies from all over the world.

It's knowledge sharing, learning, and it's very cathartic to say, “I've had a really shit couple of months. Has anybody else? Let's all have a big virtual zoom crash together and let's not feel as bad about ourselves.” So that’s it, through demand, and one thing led to the other, and the one-to-one stuff wasn't scalable. So I was connecting a lot of my agencies, so that kind of merged into sort of the hybrid one-to-one/group coaching.

And then I started working with the teams and then I created something for them and I just got carried away and just started creating groups. Like I was fucking father Christmas.

Stephen: Yeah. And that's a common theme that I'm hearing with community building is that the more intentional people are, the harder it seems to go. It usually seems to be that it comes from something that started off as, “Let me help these people, let me get them together.” And then that's how it grows from there. Cool.

So talk a little bit more about once you started to form those groups, how you were very intentional about how you grew it. Tell me about how you started to build those different funnels for the community.

Rachel: I was very intentional on a couple of things. In that initial group that I created, the round table, I was not thinking about that from a business point of view. I've been somebody throughout my entire life from a child to, well, I’m technically an adult, I'm just not very mature.

But across the last 30 years, I'd say I've always been somebody that's been the core person in groups. I've always brought people together and I've always done that. So for me, that made perfect sense.

One thing that I knew straight out. I was not looking at it as a business model at all. I wasn't looking to charge or make money from it or bring people in because at that stage I was really at capacity and didn't want to bring in more business.

And the second thing is I did not want to turn it into a feeding frenzy for people who wanted to target e-commerce agencies. Because in my industry, you have the agency and you have the technology partners. Anywhere there’s a lot of agencies, the tech partners come in and it’s like feeding time at the zoo.

So I knew for sure that I have to make it a gated community. I would then decide which people I let in and who actually had access and were able to join. So that was something I was very clear about upfront.

I put it on the Eventbrite page, if you're not an e-commerce agency, you're not in. Initially, I opened it up only to e-commerce agency owners. And then as time went on I started to talk more with the agency owners and they said, “Can I bring my director of this or my lead project manager, or they have to attend because I can't make it, or it would be super useful for them.”

A couple of mistakes I think I made initially. I didn't record them because I wanted to create this private area, anybody can say whatever the fuck they want and it's fine. And then after about six or eight months of doing that, I realized that a lot of people couldn't attend, but there was so much value to be had.

So I started recording it and everybody that was on the sign-up list but wasn't able to attend, then I sent the recording to them.

Stephen: Yeah. And you're just doing this on Zoom,

Rachel: Just on Zoom. Yeah. Eventbrite page, all free Zoom. I think I have a paid Zoom account. I'm not sure. But the Eventbrite page is free, promoted all through LinkedIn.

And then I just use Zoom and just record it and then pop it into YouTube.

Stephen: So pretty simple. But when you said earlier that you have specific funnels that you've built out, try to outline just one of them. Where do you first generate awareness? Is it just on LinkedIn through a post and you push that through LinkedIn?

Rachel: Yeah. So a couple of things I did. When I say I invested, it wasn't expensive at all. I made a decision last year to hire a VA to build out my network on LinkedIn. That was a conscious decision I made.

There's a girl from the Philippines who was working with one of my agencies, making a few hundred, $500 a month. It really is peanuts. She was working with one of my agencies making introductions and connections for him on LinkedIn. He told me about this girl and I was, ‘Send her my way and let me just give it a whirl.’

Let me just test this out and figure it out. If it can work for me, then it can work for other agencies, and maybe some of my agencies need to be doing this. So then I gave her a very specific list or outline of a profile of what my ideal agency looked like in terms of the size, the location, the platform, what type of person, the agencies I wanted to connect with.

And she just started connecting with people. We tested out a few different models. We tested ones where there was a message. There was a private message. You send them a message after two or three days. You sent them a message immediately. It was a video message. It was a voice message. We tested a few of these.

And then on the back of that use that eventually refined it where I sent them a message a couple of days after, and then as my message I invited them to this round table and then to sign up for the newsletter. And that one was the one that seemed to resonate pretty quickly.

So I actually started this year without an email list, without a newsletter, without any subscription, without anything at all. And then earlier this year I was actually recording and then publicly sharing the round table sessions that I do, as opposed to keeping them private and just sharing with the signup list.

And the combination of those things, building my LinkedIn list, making the recordings public, I then landed a sponsor. A tech partner that I've known for a while came back to me and said, ‘We really want to sponsor these and put our names behind it.’

As for my newsletter list group, where are we now? Nine, just into nine months, basically in eight months, it's grown to about 1500 agencies.

Stephen: Yeah. That's amazing. Cool. Are there any other specific marketing efforts that you're doing now or that you're thinking about, or is that still the primary one that you're using?

Rachel: The problem for me is the fact that it's so effective I'm scared to do too much more. Because I'm the only person in the industry who does what I do, who specializes in e-commerce, it puts me in a pretty good position.

But to my detriment, I really love to help people and work with people, which is why I work 80 to 100 hours a week. Because even though I speak to people they can't always afford to bring anybody in. Or they're not ready. But I'm always, ‘Fuck it. I'll jump on a strategy call with you. And let's just figure out what the problem is and let me try to help you.’ We can have a monthly call. We're just checking in with each other.

Now if I was a smart business person, I would be putting money behind every single thing that I did. And I would work a fraction of the time, but I'm an entrepreneur through default. I set this up because there was a need. I wasn't doing it for the money. I've never been money minded.

I just genuinely like to help people. So it means that you're building those channels organically. I will say I'm not a social media person. I know technically LinkedIn is social media, but I don't really want to admit that to myself.

I don't have Facebook. I don't have Instagram. I don't use any of those platforms because I just can't be arsed.

I am interested potentially in testing TikTok because I know how effective that is. Facebook? I don't give a fuck. Instagram? I really don't care.

But from a business point of view, I'm interested to see if TikTok would possibly make sense for me because I'm a strong personality. And I do have probably over a hundred videos that I've recorded, some shorter, some longer, but lots of tips.

And any time I speak to any agencies or any people on LinkedIn, they always say to me, ‘You need to post more video content. We love it.’

Stephen: I know you'd be successful there, honestly, and there's already a lot of e-commerce agencies there.

Rachel: I see that.

Stephen: So yeah, I encourage you to do it. I gave a master class. You should join it. It's pretty cool.

Rachel: That's true. TikTok. [laughter]

Stephen: Cool. So what I usually do here at the end is I just have a couple of extra questions here to ask you, just rapid fire. You can just say underrated or overrated, or if you've got some additional thought, go ahead and say it.

So your favorite platform in terms of running your community?

Rachel: LinkedIn.

Stephen: Interesting. So nothing else to support it? Do you have a slack channel? Anything else?

Rachel: I have too many slack channels. Just in the call we had earlier, everybody was, ‘Oh, do we have a slack channel for this round table?’

And I'm like, ‘No, I asked you a year ago if you wanted it and everybody said no more slack channels.’ And so I didn't. And ultimately for me, if I'm looking to build a funnel and people... it's, ‘Oh, you want to join a slack channel? Okay, then there's a charge for that. There's going to be a charge. If you want that level of service, then you're going to have to look at the work that I do outside of just this group.’

So no, the answer is no. When I deliberately created a LinkedIn group, there was not much interaction there.

So for right now I just have the round table on email. We join once a month and I connect on LinkedIn.

Stephen: Cool. That's good to know. Keep it simple. What do you think of slack, underrated, overrated?

Rachel: I think, is it overrated? No, it's definitely not overrated. Is it underrated? I'm not sure.

Stephen: Properly rated?

Rachel:  I think so. I think it's a solid bit of kit when used appropriately, but you can get a bit carried away. I get carried away with the gifs. I can't help myself.

Stephen: Cool. Hourly versus retainer?

Rachel: Retainer. Always, all day, every day. I built my business off of building a retainer on all those free conversation fees. I am a retainer first person.

Stephen: Yeah, I think it's the wave of the future.

Rachel:  For sure.

Stephen: Yeah. Getting people results. Charging a retainer versus getting into that commodity level stuff where you're just trying to beat people on price. That's a race to the bottom, really.

Rachel: For sure.

Stephen: LinkedIn.

Rachel: It's amazing. Underrated? I don't know. I love LinkedIn. I think it's amazing. It's the only platform that I use for everything.

Stephen: Yeah. That's interesting. I like that question because you get a wide variety of answers. I think in particular, LinkedIn for e-commerce agencies is a really cool place because there's a lack of that. You see lots of marketing stuff, you see lots of sales stuff. But when you see people like Tim posting on LinkedIn, it really stands out.

Rachel: Yeah. And to be fair, there's a lot of horseshit on LinkedIn, like this LinkedIn story stuff. I absolutely hate it. If you want to do that, go on to Instagram. A lot of people complain, ‘This is not Facebook. This is LinkedIn.’ I think that you have to be careful that you're not posting stuff that is just not appropriate.

I go to LinkedIn for business reasons. That's where I get most of my news and most of my information. Most people read newspapers and stuff in the morning. The first thing I do every morning is LinkedIn. I'll go in there and see what's popping.

Stephen: Yeah, for sure. Cool. So if people want to learn more about what you do, where's the best place to find you?

Rachel: You can find me on LinkedIn. What a surprise! If we were taking shots for every time I said LinkedIn would be absolutely hammered. LinkedIn, Rachel Jacobs. My website is e-commerce partnerships. So one of those two you'll find me.

Stephen: Very cool. I really appreciate you coming on here and sharing your knowledge around building community.

And I look forward to seeing you next week. I think it's next week where I do a presentation for you.

Rachel: Exactly. Very exciting.

Stephen: See ya.

Reach out to Rachel:

Stephen G. Pope
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