How One Freelancer Became a Profitable Founder in Just 12 Months
Elena Hansen, the founder and creative director of Los Angeles–based social media marketing agency Swim Social, is one of the most business-savvy women we’ve ever had the opportunity to meet. She prides herself on being detail oriented, is motivated by bringing joy to others, and over the last 12 months, has built a self-sustaining business with more than 35 clients, 11 employees, and zero outside investment. Scroll through to learn how this budding media mogul does business.
MYDOMAINE: Where did you get the idea for Swim Social, and how is your first year going?
ELENA HANSEN: I have always been really attracted to social media marketing because I feel like it’s the best way for a brand to tell you its story and to connect with its customers in a really organic way. I went to school for new media strategy and communications and learned how to turn Facebook and Twitter into business tools.
MD: Tell us about your first client.
EH: I started my career in a sales and marketing role for a fashion company but always felt compelled by what was happening in social marketing, so I started freelancing, and my first client was Alfred Coffee. They were only open for about three months and had about 1500 followers. I met with Josh, the owner, one day and pitched him on the idea of investing in social media marketing as his main mode of marketing. So we collaborated on the vision, and I basically wanted to tell the story of fashion and coffee especially because of where he’s situated on Melrose Place. I did photography over the years, so I just started shooting and having my friends come over and shoot, and then we invited influencers, and pretty quickly we transformed this quiet sleepy street into the street it is today. By the end of the year, we got about 30K or 40K followers from that single location.
MD: How did you go from one freelancing gig to founding Swim Social?
EH: Because of the success story with Alfred, I landed a job with a resort company. Between Alfred and the resort company, I was given a lot of freedom to think about the creative strategy. After getting about 14 clients of my own, I started the agency and pitched the resort company on hiring me as an agency, and Swim Social was born. Through referrals, we’ve built the business to about 35 clients. By the beginning of 2016, we had grown to a team of 10.
MD: Transitioning from a freelancer to the head of an agency is impressive. How did you convince the resort company to hire you as an agency?
EH: I think it’s all about adding value in any situation. For the hotels, it was pitching them on the idea of it was just me, and now it’s a team behind you. I’m always trying to prove the value of the team. For a lot of companies, they think hiring an outside team for social media marketing can come across as inauthentic, but there is a lot you can do with a team in terms of the bandwidth you can offer, the diversity of ideas, and the execution.
MD: Did you have a mentor shepherding you through the founding process?
EH: I haven’t had mentorship or anyone really teaching me the ropes. Because it’s such a new business model and a new form of business, there aren’t a bunch of people older than me who have more experience or could guide us through how to structure the company and what services to offer. It’s really the building phase, and I’m trying to grow as slowly as possible compared to how quickly we could grow. So much of what we do is determinant on the quality of the product, and I can’t sacrifice that. So it’s all about taking the proper steps as slowly as I can and teaching myself along the way.
MD: Your quality of product is outstanding. Everything is so beautifully curated and original. How did you come up with your secret formula for product?
EH: My approach was really what made sense to me. What would allow me to wrap my mind around the brand, and then also if they were to hand me the account tomorrow and say Start posting, how would I get there? Everything we do is so strategic. We apply the same formula to every client’s business, and I really developed this formulaic approach for the potential scaling of the business because there needed to be an onboarding process and a system in place so that we could do this over and over again.
The formula is really about storytelling and tapping into the unique story of each business. Within that, each story is very customized to what each particular business needs and wants to portray.
MD: How do you go from your first introduction of the brand to first post?
EH: There are about two weeks of time where we deep dive into the brand before we even get hired. In order to put something in front of them, I have to know the original vision that the business had for the brand. It’s a lot of questions and research.
MD: When you want to get to know a brand, what do you ask about the business?
EH: I ask them who their ideal customer is, other brands that they like on social media and why, and I ask them what their original story is and why they started.
MD: How did you pick your team members and set the tone for a strong work culture?
EH: The majority of the girls I found through social media, whether that was from Instagram or LinkedIn. It’s a combination of us reaching out to talent that I’ve found and some people coming to us and being the right fit. I’m very detail oriented.
MD: What have you learned in the last year?
EH: Don’t ride the highs and the lows of the business. So many exciting things happen and then you can get a piece of criticism back all in one day that brings you up or brings you down. I’m learning how to stay neutral.
MD: Do you have a most rewarding accomplishment so far?
EH: Our end-of-the-year team Christmas party, because it was a time I really acknowledged how far the company had come and what it had accomplished in one year. Everyone went around the circle and said one thing that they were grateful for, and everyone said the positive impact that Swim Social had had on their lives. That was incredibly rewarding. That’s one of the things that motivates me most—having a positive impact on people’s lives.
MD: Do you have any advice for an entrepreneur just starting out?
EH: No opportunity is too small. I approached every opportunity like it was a game changer for me and for the business. This will help you build a strong reputation. Everyone thinks of the big opportunities when they start a business, but it’s really about killing it on a small scale. You never know who you’re going to meet through different opportunities, so it’s always important to give your all.
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