Like most small business origin stories, Birdcage’s started when I decided to leave my safe, full-time role in a marketing agency to brave the world of entrepreneurship.
When I launched Birdcage in 2015, I had left a lucrative career in Sydney as Advertising Account Manager working for global brands like Oral-B, Herbal Essences, Clearasil and other household names.
The thing was, I loved advertising, but I hated my job.
I was always destined to work in marketing and advertising. Since the age of eight, I’ve been starting businesses and dreaming up marketing campaigns. So, I was a natural fit for the marketing and advertising industry. But I hated being an employee in a company I didn’t align with.
I hated that we prioritised big, faceless brands because of their big budgets. I hated the pressure to keep clients locked into expensive retainers. And, I hated the closed-door tactics we used to make brands feel like what we did was more magic than marketing.
So, when I moved to regional Queensland to allow my husband to follow his career dreams, I started work at a local agency. But I was devastated to find that, once again, I just didn’t fit.
So, here I was. Just 25 years old, living 2,000kms away from home and miserable. I cried every day.
The catalyst for change
One day in 2015, the news arrived: “you’re pregnant! Oh, and you have Type 1 Diabetes: a genetic, incurable auto-immune disease that is very dangerous to you and your unborn child. Good luck with that…”
So, not only was I in a strange place, working a job that left me unfulfilled, but I was now also staring down the barrel of TWO life-altering situations – one, joyous and one devastating. So, of course, I did what any sane person would do; I started my own business; Birdcage was born.
I should have known from the start, that Birdcage’s business story would be massive highs springing from massive lows – it’s how we started, after all. It was a “now or never” situation as I saw I had close to nine months to build the foundations of marketing service that would serve small businesses the way I knew small businesses needed to be helped. Having launched several eCommerce brands during my uni days, I knew small business owners’ helplessness, confusion and fear when reaching out for help – especially from marketing agencies.
I saw this as my chance to follow my passion for small business by fixing a broken marketing industry.
The doubts set in
The trouble was, while I knew marketing agencies were doing it wrong, I had never seen a marketing agency do it right. So, starting was hard.
Every piece of advice I had about growing a successful marketing agency was always “don’t tell clients your secrets, or they’ll try to do it themselves” and “you can make money, or you can help – you can’t do both”. So even though I knew I wanted to do better, I had doubts about whether I could build a sustainable business by doing things right.
I was also struggling to see how a young-ish mother-to-be living in regional QLD with just her in the “agency” would make any impact – who would take me seriously? I would Photoshop my photo into other people’s corporate-looking offices; I went by my full name, ‘Madeline’, to sound more professional and created multiple email addresses for imaginary employees. All to make prospective clients think I was legit, so they would trust me and let me help them.
But over time and against my imposter syndrome, Birdcage expanded. Small businesses were seeing results from working with us, and I was slowly able to hire ‘real’ employees. I setup a more professional home office in a shipping container in my front yard, and then eventually in a separate dwelling where we grew up to 8 team members.
Digital marketing continued to change
Over the next four years, we supported some wonderful brands and achieved results we were proud of for our clients. But, if there’s one consistency with digital marketing, it’s that it never stays the same. By 2019, digital marketing platforms were extremely competitive, and we couldn’t get by with our ultra-low-cost approach to campaigns which meant we had to start charging clients more.
As digital marketing further evolved, social media monetisation, increased privacy laws, and a global pandemic transformed the digital space into a black hole for small businesses. Even the smallest business now needed a full-funnel, omnichannel marketing strategy to reach customers. This meant, that the days of offering single-platform, low-cost campaigns for small businesses and expecting sustainable results were behind us.
We dug into our years of marketing experience to develop the Birds-Eye Growth Formula. A proven, full-funnel digital marketing method for scaling brands online. We made all our packages “all-inclusive” and honed our skills in Website CRO, Meta Ads, Pinterest Ads, Google Ads, Email Marketing, Content Creation, and Organic Social Media Marketing. Everything small businesses need for success.
We started planning a brand’s digital marketing from a “birds-eye” perspective and running campaigns across all their platforms, including building (or rebuilding) their website. This meant small businesses were no longer juggling five freelancers, agencies, or platforms and the revenue results proved we were on the right track. In 2021, Birdcage scaled to $1mil+ in revenue, and we became a team of 14 working from our newly purchased 200 square meter warehouse space.
When I noticed the cracks
I’d always prided myself on my openness as a boss and founder. I would share a lot of what we knew with clients and, of course, my team. I loved sharing knowledge and our signature processes, as I was proud of what we had created. Unfortunately, a few bad experiences with ex-employees and ex-clients saw us hit shaky ground and, I learnt my lesson to keep our methods strictly on a “need-to-know” basis.
Of course, during this time the digital landscape and customer expectations continued to evolve and results were taking more time and costing clients more money.
I had started this agency to go against the traditional agency structure and prioritise small businesses over those with huge budgets, yet here we were, charging clients up to $25k per month and keeping our methods closely guarded. Even though Birdcage was on track for a $3mil year in 2022, here I was feeling those similar feels to when I first started my career; something just wasn’t right.
Small businesses could no longer keep up with our fees and the clients who could afford them were high maintenance, demanded more time than I spent on my own business and were just not aligned with who we were. We had all the outward signs of a successful agency, but inside we were miserable.
I felt lost. I didn’t know how we could get back on track with our original mission and possibly go back to supporting small businesses in an affordable way but also generate results. I resisted the change; I wanted to play in the “comfort zone” even though things there were messy. But eventually, I was left with no choice.
We burnt Birdcage to the ground
In April 2022, we burnt Birdcage Marketing to the ground. We lost our second biggest client without warning in questionable circumstances, but it was the catalyst we needed to further shed 70% of our client base. And with almost $700k in yearly wages and a $200k office and studio space renovation in progress, the flames sure burnt higher.
In all honesty, there were many nights I thought I would be coming to work the next day to throw in the towel completely.
Even though I knew that the agency in its current state wasn’t what I wanted, after everything I had gone through in the past 6-months, I had lost confidence in my decision-making.
I had hired staff that I thought were trustworthy who turned out not to be. I had onboarded clients who I thought would let us help them when they just wanted someone to blame. I had shared too many insider secrets and let opportunists show who they really were. I had stayed silent on too many things that were pushing against my boundaries.
But with the help of my Chief of Operations and wider team, I could refocus on why we were here in the first place – which gave us the final push we needed.
We opened the vault
With nothing left to lose we decided to just put it all out there. Slowly at first; taking on just a handful of small business owners and working with them, 1-on-1 to take them through our methods.
We watched as they started implementing the strategies we laid out for them in their businesses. We listened as they told us what they didn’t quite understand, or what we could improve. We coached them the same way we would train a new junior with all our secrets.
And eventually, we celebrated as these brands achieved great results (sometimes better) than we could have achieved if we did their marketing for them.
Birdcage Academy is born
In July 2022, we officially opened our vault and created Birdcage Academy to expose marketing agency secrets and show small businesses HOW we do what we do so they can implement their own marketing campaigns inside their business. It was the total opposite of everything we had done before and the opposite of what a marketing agency “should” do, but we knew it was the right move forward for us and small businesses worldwide. It sits under the Birdcage banner and alongside Birdcage Marketing and Birdcage Studios.
Our initial experiment became “The Birdcage Mentorship”; a blended, collaborative approach that gives small brands access to our knowledge at a fraction of the price of a traditional agency. This package is the first of its kind (that we know of), and it requires us to think differently every day. But it gets results.
We also launched our low-cost training App: The Birdcage Marketing Vault, which gives away everything we know for just $47 per month. And even though I was so nervous about putting this out into the world, brands are flooding our DMs sharing a breakthrough they’ve had or a win they achieved because of it.
Birdcage Studios is almost ready
We are about to open Birdcage Studios to the public and offer a space for co-working, content creation, podcast recording and in-person events that regional Queensland has never before experienced – and there are more locations in the pipeline.
Best of all, we’ve proven the traditional agency structure wrong – that you can build a hugely successful agency whilst prioritising small businesses, so we’re finally fixing digital marketing for small businesses.
Every day is filled with challenges as we carve out a new space for Birdcage, somewhere between done-for-you marketing agency and marketing training facility. But what’s clear is that whilst we stand by our values and our mission, we will attract the right small business owners and their staff and together, we can build small businesses all over the world.
If you’re a small business owner or have a marketing function in your role in a small business, we invite you to connect with us. Whether it’s through Birdcage Academy, Birdcage Marketing or Birdcage Studios, we want you to join us as we help small businesses to run the world.