As of the 1st of October, SESOME agency turned three! Reaching this milestone has prompted me to reflect on the most salient lessons I’ve learnt since that fateful day in 2013…
Almost exactly three years ago, I did two (potentially) stupid things simultaneously!
1. Set up my own business (that could be a number of future blog posts alone!)
2. Made that business an agency, having never worked in an agency before
After 14 years working client side, running international teams, managing an in-house team, internal suppliers and multiple agencies around the world, I thought it was time to do something of my own. And, wow, time has really flown.
I’ll admit; my first thought was “How hard could it be?” Fuelled by this cavalier attitude, I approached my then-employers and convinced them to become my first client! I took some of my previous team with me, had secured one client, and then landed a much larger client through a personal contact. Meanwhile, in the background I was furiously sorting the legals, accountants, registrations, logistics and an inhuman amount of insurance.
The last three years have showed me, every day that I am still learning, and it is scary!
With the ego-left-at-the-door, and with some self reflection, here are some of the things I wish I had known back then.
My 17 lessons I have learnt
1. It is not easy. And, it is an emotional rollercoaster!
This may sound obvious as a point to start with. But, I grossly underestimated it.
2. You need to learn to say NO!
Don’t try to be all things to all people! Know what you’re good at, and focus on that. It isn’t always a bad idea to turn down business. Everyone wants a niche/boutique agency, but they want you to be able to do everything! Try and work with partners that will compliment your service, and accept your limitations as well as your potential.
Chasing every piece of business sounds like a good idea, but it is frequently not! I received leads of leads through our website asking for prices and a proposal. I learnt the hard way not to send a reply to those who can’t afford the time to speak on the phone and explain their need. If they can’t invest in hiring, they will be a dangerous client.
3. Your team can make or break your business
You can’t do it alone. Unless you want to a one-man consultancy, and that is a challenge in itself.
The people who you hire will make or break your agency. If you can’t pay your way to the best talent, you need to find and nurture them.
Some people just want a job. You need to find people who buy into and enhance your own vision. If you have a ’toxic’ employee you need to get rid of them. They are a distraction. They can bring down a team and even break a client relationship. And, when you are small, each client is essential to survival and growth.
4. There is never-ending paperwork
It is not just the quantity of things you don’t know and have to learn, it is the relentlessness of it.
If it is not giving an answer to a question, it is discussing new business, doing a VAT return, doing a proposal, updating Trello boards, HR topics, contracts, book-keeping, invoices – the list is literally endless.
5. Change is not a project, it’s essential
Learn the start-up mentality. Do things today. Don’t allow things to be put off until tomorrow.
6. Sometimes you have to make tough decisions and have tough conversations
These can be with clients, your team, your shareholders or your suppliers. It all feels very personal, but you need to try and not make it so. The phrase, ’treat it like it’s your own money’, suddenly becomes so true.
7. Your family (and dependants) they need to be involved
If you are leaving the safety of corporate employment, you are losing the security of a regular pay-check, and putting in a lot more hours. They need be your personal cheerleaders, and understand that your commitments have changed.
8. The sense of achievement when it works is immense
What else can I say. It’s that rollercoaster again. It feels so worth it when things go well.
9. In order to attract more business, you need a talking point
You need to put everything into producing some slick case studies that define who you are and what you do.
10. Having a clear vision is essential
Communicate it with the internal team, and with your clients. If you want people to work with you for the long term, they need to know where it is all going.
11. Keeping a tight control on your cost base will really pay off
If you don’t, the best ideas in the world will break you! Never underestimate how much equipment will cost, perhaps even consider leasing it. Use soft-payment or even encourage bring-your-own with contributions. Do stay on top of your VAT and HMRC payments as they are not forgiving, and be careful with long contracts like rental!
12. Pricing your service is difficult
Market forces teach us about supply and demand, but choosing your price and explaining it is much harder. When SESOME started, we bought revenue to get going, and one of our first headline customers almost broke us in the first year – I had to sack them. Nobody talks about agencies sacking clients publicly, but it can happen!
Agency and Consultancy services are hard to price. Cost-plus or value-led are the two basic approaches. It shouldn’t be about how long something takes, that is experience, and if too cheap, you can’t afford to service it. So, if a client only wants cheap, then it is a race to the bottom. Conversely, if you overcharge, will catch up with you. We price for long term relationships and good ROI.
13. It’s all about referrals
I truly believe in business karma. Always do the best job you can. Do go beyond the call of duty, and will come back to you in a good way.
14. Love your clients
Foster a culture within the team, that you actively love and respect your clients. When deadlines are tight, if your objectives are aligned, you will get through.
15. First impressions really count
No matter how hard things get, how tired you are, or how close to not being able to afford the rent you are, you need to show confidence. Perception becomes reality – believe, and it can work.
16. Don’t sweat the small stuff
Perspective. Easy to say, harder to achieve. I use a two by two grid of importance and urgency – if not urgent or important, bin it!
17. It’s one hell of an emotional rollercoaster
The highs are much higher when you own a business, and the lows, well, they are really low. When running your own company (especially an agency), you have to learn to work on shorter times or certainties.
And, above all else, you must celebrate every win!