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Gauge Interactive founders Daniel Augustine and Mark Lubbers sit side by side in a conference room on a sunny October morning. A large window behind them frames a courtyard where hundreds of bamboo trees, undisturbed by wind, stand as still as statues.

The scene couldn’t differ more from the one two weeks earlier, when Hurricane Matthew forced the Gauge team — and just about everyone else in Savannah, GA — to evacuate.

But today, aside from a few stray branches littering the sidewalk, Savannah is downright serene. So, too, are Augustine and Lubbers.

After graduating from Savannah College of Art and Design, Augustine and Lubbers launched Gauge in October 2007. Then the bottom fell out of the stock market. Cash-strapped but ambitious, the duo worked night gigs — Lubbers waited tables at a Paula Deen-owned restaurant, Augustine gave horse-drawn carriage tours — while running Gauge out of Augustine’s garage in their off hours.

Over the next decade, they grew Gauge from a 2-man web design and development operation into a 20-employee e-commerce agency serving clients like Atelier Swarovski and MOSCOT. Not too shabby for an agency tucked away in the quiet end of a southern college town.

Making things light

“Adding power makes you faster on the straights,” English design engineer and Lotus Cars founder Colin Chapman famously said. “Subtracting weight makes you faster everywhere.”

Lubbers and Augustine have embedded that philosophy into the DNA of Gauge. It informs both how they work and the tools they use. They’re a Magento Enterprise Partner and a Shopify Plus Partner, and they often suggest MailChimp for email marketing. “We look for simple solutions our clients can use without adding a lot of digital overhead,” Lubbers says.

“What I appreciate about MailChimp is their Vince Lombardi approach,” Augustine chimes in. “Vince basically said, ‘Screw throwing the ball between your legs and doing backflips. Pass, block, tackle. Pass, block, tackle.’”

If Lombardi had been talking about email marketing in 2016, he might have said, “Automate, analyze, optimize.” Automation is fundamental to the success of any email marketing program, especially for e-commerce companies with limited resources.

“If most of our clients doubled the size of their digital team, they would still be understaffed,” Augustine says. “It’s a matter of mindshare and headcount. They don’t have enough people to operate the levers.”

That’s why Gauge doesn’t recommend byzantine enterprise email service providers to its clients. They add weight, not subtract it. “Our clients don’t need added levels of complexity. They need something simple and effective.”

To put it another way, Gauge’s clients need a platform that passes, blocks, and tackles.

DJ Henley, Mark Lubbers, Robert Floyd, and Daniel Augustine at Gauge Interactive offices in Savannah, GA

Revving the engine

For a lot of small or mid-sized agencies, the launch of a website is followed by the popping of champagne corks. But for Gauge, it’s just the beginning. “Launch day is really day zero,” Augustine says. “You’ve built your Ferrari. Guess what? Now it’s on the track and it’s time to race it.”

The fuel for the race is a comprehensive online marketing plan that includes pay-per-click advertising, social media marketing, SEO, and, crucially, automated email. “You have to have an effective email strategy in place to compete in the world of e-commerce,” Lubbers says. “If you don’t, you just can’t. It’s table stakes.”

Email is also the one piece of the digital marketing mix that yields immediate results. “An email goes out, and sales come in,” Augustine says. “It’s a lot different from passively waiting through AdWords, pay-per-click, banner ads, or even sharing your content in social media. It’s the one thing where you push a button and money comes out of it.”

So is email the ATM of digital marketing? Not so fast.

A successful email campaign requires writing and designing multiple, highly personalized emails for various audiences. It’s a multi-step process that takes a lot of strategic planning, production, and implementation. But automation eliminates the 3rd step, allowing more time for the critical step that follows it: analysis and improvement of the campaign.

Executed properly, an automated email campaign will glide along on its own power, generating sales and customer insights. And those insights are then used to improve the campaign and generate even more sales. When operating at peak performance, an automated email marketing campaign is a positive feedback loop that produces ever-growing profits.

No “easy” button

Sounds easy, right?

Not quite. Especially for many of Gauge’s clients, which are bootstrapped businesses just like them.

“Except for the large, multibillion-dollar brands, many of the people we work with sort of fell into these professions,” Augustine says. “They come from diverse backgrounds. They likely didn’t study marketing in college. So our role as guides is to put a process in place to allow them to be successful.”

5 tips for ambitious young agencies

Despite launching Gauge just as the economy was beginning to crash in 2007, Daniel Augustine and Mark Lubbers have managed to grow it from a 2-man digital shop to a 20-person team in less than 10 years. Here’s their advice to small agencies who’d like to travel a similar path.

1. Don’t think like a startup.
“We never had a startup mentality,” Lubbers says. “In that sense, we’re really aligned with MailChimp on a business and philosophy level.” Instead of looking for investors, Lubbers advises other agencies to focus on consistently providing value. “That means understanding how to make money through a great product and great service.”

2. Recognize the value of simplicity.
Augustine and Lubbers have learned that complex enterprise software tools aren’t right for their mid- and small-sized clients. “A tool that does everything, but that your client has no idea how to use, is useless,” Augustine says. “Take MailChimp — they understand that email is supposed to be simple. It doesn’t have to have every bell and whistle. It just needs to be reliable. It needs to just work.”

3. Understand what you’re selling.
You may technically sell creative services, e-commerce solutions, strategic branding, or websites. But at the end of the day, you’re really selling something else entirely. “Trust is what we sell,” Lubbers says. “We exist to do great work and build trust. Clients come to us for the trust.”

4. Find a way to prove your value. 
Gauge started out making WordPress websites for homebuilders. But the agency gravitated toward e-commerce because it allowed them to really prove value to their clients. “There is never a question of the value you are generating with e-commerce,” Augustine says. “It is easy to track dollars in and dollars out. When we were building WordPress sites, it was more ephemeral.”

5. Be a better mousetrap builder.
Another reason Lubbers and Augustine entered the e-commerce market was because they saw opportunity for innovators. “There has been kind of an e-commerce explosion, and it is very much an open market,” Augustine says. “If you have a better mousetrap, clients will come to you. That’s why it works for us. We like building better mousetraps.”