Here’s How One Agency Went from Out of Business to the Inc. 5000

Tiffany Sauder on how she led Element Three from the brink of failure to the Inc. 5000 and $10 million in annual revenue.

John Bonini John Bonini on December 21, 2017 • 3 minute read

In 2009 Element Three was essentially out of business.

Their annual revenue was $412k, and they had lost $250k as a business that year.

While this was happening, Tiffany Sauder and her husband were expecting, and welcoming, their first child.

It was a tough year. Sauder questioned whether she had what it took to turn it around. Then her father gave her a piece of advice that helped change her perspective–it can be the end if you choose for it to be, or you can choose for it not to be.

Fast forward to 2017, and Element Three is doing just under $10 million in annual revenue, have over 70 employees, and have been named to the Inc. 5000 for four straight years. (Oh, they were also HubSpot’s Agency of the Year in 2012.)

Element Three’s story is not just one of starting up, but one about perseverance. It’s a story about finishing what you started.

As usual, I’ve included some of my favorite soundbites from our conversation below.

On almost going out of business in 2009

“We were out of business for all intents and purposes. I knew that. I know accounting enough to know that this was essentially insolvency.

Looking back, there were a lot of tears that year. Questioning whether I had what it took to turn this around.

It’s the belief from people, like your parents, mentors, and friends and family, the helps.

My dad reminded me over and over again that year that, ‘you can quit. It can be the end if you choose for it to be, or you can choose for it not to be. And you can keep showing up and re-solving and push the finish line further out.’

Eventually, it gets easier but you don’t necessarily recognize it’s getting easier because you stay in survival mode for so long.”

On going all in

“I knew that if I knew how to sell, then I’d be selling.

I hired, for $1k a month which was like paying someone $25k a month today, it was like every penny I had, to train me and teach me how to sell.

I said, ‘I can’t sell anything less than $100k contracts.’ I knew I wasn’t going to be able to dig outside of this hole fast enough if I’m selling $8k contracts 80 times. I’m not going to have the time to get the rotations in.

So I hired a guy and told him, ‘tell me everything you know. I’m going to turn into a robot. Whatever you tell me to do I’m going to go do it because if I had a better idea it would be working.’

I think when you’re willing to let down every last defense of your own ideas, that’s when you’re really open to learning and changing.”

On being good first

“The lesson from all of that [HubSpot Agency of the Year, Inc. 5000] is that it can’t be about chasing that stuff. That stuff happens after you’re good. It doesn’t happen on an upward slope.

For people who know the DISC profile, I’m a High I. I love attention, love feeling special, it sounds narcissistic but I just know those things give me energy.

In the early days, I’d go through our local business journal or look at Inc. 30 under 30 and think, ‘oh, if I could just be those people it’d be amazing.’

But when I was like, ‘screw it, I don’t really care. I’m just going to figure out how to make money with my business’, all that stuff started happening as a natural extension of growing a business.

I think in this Shark Tank, celebrity entrepreneur environment we live in, we skip the fundamentals, and I think that’s a huge injustice.”

About the author
John Bonini
John Bonini is Director of Marketing at Databox. He's passionate about building brands that tell great stories. Connect with him on Twitter @bonini84.
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