What I’ve learned from building an agency – aka, how to take risks and kick ass.
In April of last year, we achieved a notable milestone. Although Divining Point had operated as a consultancy for about 3 years, in 2017 we completed our first year as an agency. Now in 2018, with one more year under our belt, I’m reminded of the blog post I shared last April about the lessons I’ve learned from being in business. In it, I discussed the emotional turmoil that occurs when breaking out of your comfort zone to start your own business.
Entrepreneurs experience challenges, self-doubt, and fear (yes, fear) that is unique to being an independent business owner. There is no glamor in sleepless nights. The stress ruins your health – and sometimes your relationships. In many cases, entrepreneurs are cloistered alone without a support group to calm their nerves or offer guidance. When doubts arise we turn to Google and YouTube rather than ask a real person for help.
Despite our loner behaviors, entrepreneurs need peers, and we need to share wisdom – if for no other reason than to validate our own thoughts. Although sequels rarely achieve the same level of success as the original, in the spirit of sharing it seems fitting for me to offer more insights on what I’ve learned from my journey so far.
Stay Focused On Your Vision
Your business is your baby. It grows. It stumbles. It comes down with the flu. At the end of the day, you are responsible for what happens to your company. There are external factors that inhibit your success, and there are forces outside of your control that threatens to take the whole thing down. However, ultimately as a business owner you are responsible for guiding the company through these challenges. In order to be successful, you must stay focused on your vision.
Your company will have bad days, bad weeks, and even bad months. Don’t let it become a bad year. You started your business for a reason. If you haven’t mapped out what the next year, three years, or even five years looks like, do it now. That vision of company growth will keep your head on straight when things turn upside down. With a plan mapped out you will have the motivation to succeed even when you feel like a failure.
Define Your Market
One of the oddest things I’ve witnessed are companies that try to be everything to everybody all of the time. It’s a practice that appears to be driven by A) a fear of missing revenue opportunities and/or B) a lack of confidence that your expertise will generate enough revenue opportunities. In reality, companies probably think they can do anything, so why not do everything?
I won’t question another company’s talents, because, hey, we think we’re pretty good, too. But I’m reminded of the Law of Contraction: A company becomes stronger as it narrows its focus. This is especially true for services companies that are scaling or who seek to define themselves as a leader in the field. Concentrate your efforts on those things you do best, or those companies you serve the greatest and watch how your business will grow.
Last year our company made a conscious decision to work with companies who deal in the intangible business of service. Regardless of whether they sell a product or not, we work with companies who offer a high level of service, have an expensive product or solution, have a long sales cycle, or all of the above. In this model, the multiple layers of brand building, demand generation, lead gen, and digital marketing are an ideal fit for our marketing agency. This wasn’t an easy decision, and we didn’t discover this overnight. But we’re a much better company now that we’ve identified this strength.
Build A Core Team
A business owner may be the face (or beard) of the company, but your team is the arms, legs and body that move the business forward. Without a team you are either a consultant or you are fully dependent on contractors.
Consultants and contractors do amazing work, so there is no criticism there. In fact, contractors are vital for filling in the capability gaps of every business. Yet, in my opinion, a core team provides immeasurable benefits to both the company and your clients.
If a company provides a unique service that requires a cohesive process to deliver value, you must have core team members who are happily in alignment and solely dedicated to getting the job done. This means choosing the right employees who are a cultural fit for your business and who believe in both your mission and your process. When your team is working in unison towards serving your clients, your company is able to deliver on the promises you make to your customers.
I can’t say enough good things about the value of your team. In most cases, the success of your business and the great work it does are all the products of the people you hire. Carefully select your core team members, empower them to do their jobs, lift them up when they do well, and then get out of the way. You’ll be surprised at the results. In the words of Steve Jobs:
It doesn’t make sense to hire smart people and tell them what to do; we hire smart people so they can tell us what to do.
Build An Ecosystem
Similar to building a team, your ecosystem is all the partners and vendors within your network that support your company’s activities. They are the lifeblood of referrals and the safety net that can stabilize your company during tough times. These partners can bring you into co-promotional and subcontracting opportunities that can turn into some of your best engagements. In general, your ecosystem can feed you big breaks that you wouldn’t have discovered on your own.
Every good partnership is built on positive reciprocity. Just as these partners help you, you must help them – and for good reason.
Your best partnerships may be with companies who sell a product or service that is distinctly different than yours. In this case, you can refer your clients to them if/when a customer needs their help.
Other times, your best partnerships may be with companies who do the same work you do, but perhaps on a different level or with a different specialization. In this case, you may be over capacity or you may not specialize in a certain capability. When this happens, you can refer a prospect or client to a partner who can ensure they get the help they need.
In both cases, it’s a win-win-win: your client gets help, your partner delivers value to your client, and you’ve done a good job bringing the two together. These kinds of acts almost always pay for themselves. Consider it good business karma.
Explore Your Options
This seems fairly obvious, right? As they say, you should always have a Plan B. But exploring your options means more than just having a failsafe should your business go south. It’s my advice that all business owners should reverse engineer the desirable outcomes that are a part of their business vision.
If you have a clear vision for your company, and if you understand the series of “if this then that” steps needed to achieve your vision, you’ll be able to respond quicker and more confidently to the inevitable obstacles that appear along the way.
Tying all of the above topics together, here’s an example of exploring your options:
You have a key client that requires a highly specialized service as a part of their overall strategy with you.
Your only technician to provide this service is a contractor who isn’t in alignment with your company’s vision and has a spotty record of working well with you.
In order to secure your relationship with your key client and ensure they get the full value of their engagement with you, you part ways with your contractor and call in a trusted partner to temporarily fill in the gaps while you hire a core team member to take over servicing the client.
Are there risks with the above scenario? Definitely. But having a Plan B, Plan C, Plan D, and so on, can mitigate the dangers associated with sudden instability. You can apply this methodology all across your business to help stabilize it in times of crisis.