What if you built a business only based on relationships? No social media growth hacks. No algorithms to worry about. No content strategy.
What if you only focused on building relationships and serving others?
That’s what Brandi Bernoskie and her website agency, Alchemy & Aim, have done. In their words, “Alchemy & Aim is a website agency focused on serving social impact brands, non-profits, and purpose-driven thought leaders”.
Last week, I had the opportunity to chat with Brandi for 30 minutes and deep dive into how Alchemy & Aim started, how it’s grown, and why it exists.
Note: These answers from Brandi are cleaned up from the interview, so they’re not exact quotes per se. They’re cleaned up so you can read it easily!
I had a job doing earth science education for NASA via a nonprofit based in Arlington, Virginia. That was when I left grad school. That was like the job that I got, but I was still a blogger, so I was blogging. I taught myself to code through blogging and made a lot of connections that way.
So that kind of was like happening quietly on the side of working this job, and I kept up with improving and improving my development skills. To the point where I realized I could leave the job. I didn't see it as starting my own business. I just thought I was going freelance.
I was starting to get known in my circle of like blogger friends as someone who could code websites, 'cause I was coding my own site. Then essentially friends started asking me for help, and I remember there was a designer who was based in Brazil who said, “Hey, I've noticed that you code your own site, would you be interested in helping me code some themes?” And so I said, “yes, I was.” Why not?
When I say I charged next to nothing, I truly charged next to nothing. I would put hours and hours of work and maybe make $200 if I was lucky per theme.
But it really gave me a lot of the experience I needed and the foundation I needed to be able to say, yeah, I do code, I code websites. That's something like to own. This the new skillset I was developing in a different way. It was a very organic thing. It was friends asking me for help and it was just letting people know what I did, and that led to work really unexpectedly.
I actually thought I needed to quit being a freelance developer. I was working a lot, I had some great clients, but I was a little overloaded with work, and I thought maybe I had to just totally shift the work I was doing.
And I was very fortunate to find a really great business coach at the time who showed me that I could hire people. It didn't even occur to me that I could hire people to help me, but I was really lucky. She taught me the basics of hiring people, what to look for. I hired a business assistant at the time and two other developers to help.
There was definitely a moment where I shifted and I realized I could not be a developer anymore and I had to step into the role as business owner. But it didn't happen overnight. Even when I hired my first people, I was still developing, they were developing, there were like three of us developing at once.
And it's just grown in time and my understanding of what this can be as a business and how it can really help people. That's been what's driven the growth of the company is the impact that we can have with our clients and then the impact that they can have with their clients.
We're 20 people now; 21 if you include me. It's really just been driven very organically by our clients, their needs and how we can help people.
Word of mouth and referrals have always been the cornerstone of this business, and they will continue to be the cornerstone. What was originally friends, obviously making referrals has become strategic business collaborators making referrals. Now we get referrals for projects from copywriters, designers, fractional CMOs that I know.
I'm in networking groups and in business masterminds where I get work as well. I've broadened the network and I'm always looking for really good people because the reality of it is that we don't do everything . A fractional CMO may refer a client to us, and I may refer a client eventually to that fractional CMO as well.It has been this very collaborative loop that's been the foundation of it all.
In addition to that, we do go after RFPs when someone puts out a request for proposal when we find a great organization that we wanna work with. I love working with nonprofits.
We're always looking for those opportunities in other ways as well. That's definitely been one of the ways we've broadened, but for me, I am a relationships person and I won't ever change the fact that the cornerstone of my business is having great referral partners that we can refer to and who can refer to us.
It's a lot of fun to grow all of our businesses together.
I would take the same approach because I did heavily rely on the people that I had met blogging to really help me grow my business. The first year in business, I wanna say I made about, maybe about $50,000 or $60,000, which, for a first year, I started mid-April, that's not bad for a first year at all.
I definitely had a month where I did not make enough money to even pay my rent, but that's why you have to have savings going into that. The second year I was in business, I wanna say that's the year that I made about $150,000. That was again, really just working with clients and delivering on a really fantastic experience for them.
In addition to having the referral partners that I had, I had designers that would send me some work or I would meet new designers who started collaborating with me. It was about the clients also referring people that they knew to me as well. That was really fruitful.
I would do it the same way again because when you're working with someone who is referring you, obviously, they're conferring their trust in you to the person that they're passing along to you.
It just makes that sales process so much simpler. You don't have to work as hard in the sales process because there's that mutual connection who says, “this person's great from a client perspective”, and “you're great from a developer perspective. You do great websites.” There's a good foundation for really building a really fantastic relationship and building a great project together.
Once we hit a million dollars a year in revenue, I haven't been as focused on how do I get to $2 million, how do I get to $3 million?
That's less important to me than how do we really serve our clients? Who are we working with? Are we partnering with the right people? It's been more about the refinement of the business 'cause I don't need it to get bigger. I wanna have a real quality of life for my team.
I want quality of life for my clients. I want quality of life for myself too. The people I work with, whether they're clients or team members or collaborators, we all understand that family comes first. Certainly, anyone who's got children, they come first, absolutely. We're building around humanity more so than just exponential growth for business sake.
One of the biggest mindset shifts that happened early on for me, and this was maybe about year three of my business was this shift of understanding that you could sell or you could serve. I get on you know what I'll call a sales call with people and I am just looking for how can we help them.
Sometimes that is working with us and me putting a proposal together (and you don't undervalue the work when you put out a proposal), but you recognize that if you are really just sitting with someone and helping them decide what is the next best step for them, it's not always working with you and that's okay.
Sometimes it's not working with us. I've had clients who are just getting started in their business and my first goal for them is to go out and make some money.
You don't need a website to start making money. You can work your network, you can put it out there on LinkedIn, you can tell people about what you're doing and you can start getting clients that way.
When you do that, you'll then have a better understanding of who you wanna work with and what we actually need to build for your website. It's gonna be a better investment at that point. That's really what I'm looking at with people is what really needs to happen. Very often, that does result in a proposal, but because I'm approaching it from a, “let's figure out what you really need and how we can work together” mindset, I can help ensure this is going to be impactful work to whoever we’re working with.
When you invest money with us, I wanna make sure that you’re going to see a return, that there is going to be impact in your business because of it, and that leads to sales. The goal in a call isn't to sell, per se. It's to serve people and to make sure they are getting what they need.
I'm an introvert who loves talking with people in one-on-one settings, so I'm not ever afraid to get on a sales call. All I have to do is position myself as an expert, which I know I am, and help them figure out what they need and then show them what it could be to work together, and that's all.
I don't have to push any harder than that. They can make decisions. They're adults, I'm here to guide them if they need guidance.
It is definitely systematic.
I would say it's a very grounded, systematic. I am always looking at the bigger picture of what we need most and where the impact is going to be and who we really wanna work with. I won't ever jeopardize values for growth or, like I said, quality of life for growth.
At this point, how can we refine, if we refine in the right ways, that opens up space for the next level to appear to us. It is hold the big vision, be true to our values, be true to who we are, make sure we work with the right people.
That just leads to bigger and bigger projects with long, ongoing relationships with clients over the years. I've been in the business for 10 and a half years and I've had clients for 10 years.
I love that. It's fun when there's money coming in just because you've built a fantastic relationship with people and they know they can always turn to you. We don't do social media really. We have a little bit of a presence, but for me, the growth always comes when you look at how do you refine, how do you serve better? And you start finding ways to create more space to open up new opportunities for everyone involved.
I've already started to see the impact of that. We see it with our clients with what they're doing in the world. We work with some really brilliant people who are already having impact, in organizations, in society as a whole. For me to see those ripples now is fabulous.
We see it in our team members' lives, what they're able to do, and how they're able to care for their families and be present with their families when they need to be. That's impact for me. I'm not saying I'm gonna win a Nobel Peace Prize or anything like that for this sort of thing, but it's all of those little milestones along the way that make it so worth it.
I'm not looking for one giant big impact, like the book I write or something like that. I love just little things. When you take a business owner who clearly has maybe a little website shame, and you watch them transform into someone who is confident and ready to get their product out there in the world and is able to then go out and work with people and offer that thing, and that's a real treat to see.
A break from the interview!
Here are my key takeaways after my conversation with Brandi and reflecting on it:
It’s easy to just say “I want to grow a business to $2 million in revenue”. It’s way different to actually implement a strategy that will get you to $2 million.
When Brandi said “How do you serve better?” that felt like a core principle to growth for every business and was such a good reminder. Building a business isn’t just about the revenue number. It’s about how we impact the people we can help.
By asking the question, “How do you serve better?” it brings it right back to how you impact people and growth will naturally follow that.
It’s super easy once you have an idea for a business to go straight to building a website and getting into a mode of “if you build it, they will come”.
Brandi’s advice of “You don't need a website to start making money. You can work your network, you can put it out there on LinkedIn, you can tell people about what you're doing and you can start getting clients that way.” is pure gold.
Whether you’re starting an agency that can scale or a scalable startup, you don’t need a website to start. Build relationships and serve people to start. If you don’t have those people directly in your network, ask for introductions or find ways into those communities.
I love how Brandi is so relationship driven and I’ve seen this in action working with her in different ways the past few years. Brandi and her team at Alchemy & Aim truly mean it when they say they are relationship driven.
I’ve seen Brandi go above and beyond for early stage founders who do have that “website shame” as she put it. With Brandi investing in people that way, there might not be an immediate ROI for her or even for the people she’s working with in that moment, but there most likely will be a ROI at some point. Especially when you know what your “genius zone” is as Brandi put it in a different part of this interview.