Growing A Self-Running Agency With Simon Isaac
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When you started your agency, you probably had some end goals in mind.
 
A lot of people dream about selling their agency, but the reality is that it's very difficult to sell a service-based business (and make a decent amount of money). So perhaps a better option is to focus on building an agency that is less dependent on you. i.e. a Self-Running Agency.

 
Now, you know I'm a big fan of this approach since I have my book called The Self Running Agency, and I also have my membership group, also called The Self-Running Agency Implementation Group and this is a strategy I help my clients deliver. So in today’s podcast, I am delighted to be joined by someone who is doing just this, Simon Isaac, MD and Owner of Capsule Marketing.

Time Stamp

[01:33] Introduction to Simon Isaac and Capsule Marketing and why he wants to build a Self-Running Agency

[02:22] Simon’s journey to starting and growing a marketing agency

[03:53] What were your hopes and plans in the first couple of years of running your agency

[05:16] Who were your first hires when you started hiring staff?

[07:06] Why did you decide you wanted to start removing yourself from the day-to-day running of Capsule?

[08:43] Simon’s passions and interests outside of Capsule (and why he wanted more time to pursue these)

[10:15] The typical entrepreneur: an ideas person but not a completer/finisher

[10:40] Simon outlines the key steps taken so far to start building a Self-Running Agency and not work 5-days a week in the agency.  The importance of hiring a great number 2 and an empowered team

[13:10] “It’s lonely at the top” - The importance of having external advisers (that you listen to!) who can act as our board and provide expert objective advice

[15:17] How and why did you put together a Senior Leadership Team

[16:00] Creating opportunities for growth for all the team

[17:22] Simon’s experience of moving from a corporate world to a creative world - and the many lessons to take from his past corporate life.

[18:20] Creativity is not stifled by implementing systems

[18:40] Simon’s future plans and how he is ensuring they are delivered

[20:30] The importance of letting go and trusting others

[20:57] What advice do you have for other agency owners who are still completely entrenched in delivering client work?

[22:10] What if you did delegate and it all went wrong?

[24:30] Don’t recruit ‘in your like’ but rather hire people who are better than you

[25:30] If you could go back in time and give your younger self one piece of advice, what would it be?

Quotations

“It’s so important to regularly stop working in your business, take a breath, get a high-level view to know what your need to focus on before you take the pause button off.” - Rob Da Costa
“Trust your people, invest in them and have high expectations of them.” - Simon Isaac
"Surround yourself with people who are better than you and don’t feel threatened by them" Simon Isaac

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 Full Episode Transcription

When anyone starts their own agency, they’ve probably got some end goals in mind. A lot of people dream about selling their agency for millions of pounds, but the reality is that it's very difficult to sell a service based business and make a lot of money. But that's a story for another episode. So one of the options people have is to build an agency that is less dependent on them. i.e. a Self-Running Agency. Now, you know I'm a big fan of that because I have my book called the Self Running Agency, and I also have my mastermind group, also called the Self Running Agency.

So I'm working with a lot of agency owners to help them extricate themselves and be less involved. And that's the topic of today's podcast. And I'm really excited to be joined by one of my clients who is well on his way to building his own self rating agency. So let's get on with the show. I'm Rob Da Costa, and this is The Agency Accelerator podcast. As someone who has stood in your shoes, having started grown and sold my own agency and just how it feels in the ups and downs of agency life.

So this podcast aims to ease your journey just a little by sharing mine and my guests experiences and advice as you navigate your way to growing a profitable, sustainable and enjoyable business. Hey, everybody. And welcome to today's Agency Accelerator podcast. Today I want to talk to you about one of my favourite topics, which is building a self running agency, I, an agency that is less dependent on you, the owner to bring this to life. I'm delighted to be joined by Simon Isaac, who is the founder and MD of marketing agency Capsule Full Service Marketing Agency based in Colchester in the UK. Now, Simon sort of nearly as old as me.

I think he's got over 30 years of marketing experience and his own capsule and run capsule for over 10 years, and he was involved in all aspects of client delivery and running the operations and business development. But he's slowly divesting himself of some of these responsibilities. One of the reasons for that is because outside of capital, Simon enjoys yoga. He owns a camper van. He's an EV advocate like me, and he is also a passionate photographer, and he's working on his exhibition and his book, which I'm sure we'll talk about.

So with all that going on, no wonder Simon wants to build a self running agency. So welcome to the show, Simon, and let's start off by having you tell us a little bit about your journey to starting and growing your own agency. So I've been running an agency for something like 15 years now. Capsule has been in existence for 11. Before that, I was empty of an agency in central London. I was invited to join that agency by an associate of mine, and I recently left a corporate job.

So I was head of marketing for quite large brewery and restaurant group and decided one day I think I was 35. Actually, I decided that I had enough working for other people and wanted to work for myself. So I actually went and did some freelance work for about two years, and I was living in Brighton at the time, and I met somebody who ran an organic skincare company, and they were looking to reposition pivot. The brands create new products, so I decided to go and work with them for a while, amongst other things.

And so here I am today, running an agency is a big job, but I still enjoy it. And I think a lot of our listeners will relate to that journey. And it's actually similar to my journey when I started my agency where we, for whatever reasons, decided to start on our own. For me, it was kind of arrogant, naive youth. I think they thought I could do it better and what was out there. But, started off freelancing and then go to a certain point where you have to make that decision.

Do you want to hire someone? And then before you know it, you've got a whole bunch of staff, a whole bunch of responsibilities. Whole bunch of clients. Look at you for all the solutions and a whole bunch of headaches. So what if you cast your mind back to those early days? I mean, what were your hopes and plans? You know, in the first year or two of running your agency, I've been the first thing I'd say is I actually didn't plan to form an agency and have employees.

I thought I'd work as a consultant for the rest of my life because, at the age of about 35 you're thinking, actually getting quite old now and I'm obviously good at what I do. I could be a consultant and just go in and work for various people when and what I felt like it. But as I sort of got more into agency life and work as an MD. An agency, I discovered I really enjoyed the sort of people aspect of it.

And I've actually got a background in people development as well. So before I worked in marketing, I worked in leadership development for the same organisation, and I sort of missed that a bit and seeing people grow and develop and evolve. So it's just a natural progression. And then obviously starting my own agency after running somebody else's for a period of time. That was a big step. And, I thought, Wow, how am I going to do this? But I sort of fell into it.

And everything just fell into place. Very hard work obviously took a good number of years to make any profit. And again, I think people relate to that. And what roles were the first roles that you hired for when you started? Just when you decided that you were going to be a consultant? But you're going to grow the agency. What were the first people you hired? Well, originally, I worked with three other partners in the business, and we were predominantly Web Development Agency. So we had our own CMS platform, which was built from scratch.

We had a creative director. He was a graphic designer,  web developer, another guy who was sort of focused on print. So why was the guy that came in to bring the qualified marketing experience, I suppose, but highest, in terms of.  Well, at that time, I think digital marketing was just sort of coming to the fore. We were still having conversations with clients and prospects who didn't feel like they needed a website back then. You know, imagine having that conversation with someone today.

You just wouldn't happen. So we were starting to employ digital marketers because we could see the growth opportunity within that part of business. When I tell people that when I ran my agency, there was no web, there was no Internet, you know, we printed our press releases on many sheets of paper and run them through the franking machine. And then people say, what's the franking machine? And then I realised that I'm old and grey says the world has changed a lot, and it's funny. Now, I think when you talk about marketing to people, sometimes you have to say No, I'm not just about digital marketing.

I'm talking about kind of the more bricks and mortar, traditional marketing like PR and graphic design and web design and all that stuff as well. So fast forward, what, 10 or 15 years? And you're here where you are now. And you and I have been working together. I mean, full disclosure. Simon is one of my clients. You and I have been working together for the last couple of years. Why did you decide you wanted to start removing yourself from the day to day and following through with this concept of building a self running agency. 

Well, I suppose the big one is age. You get to a point in your life and you think. I'd like to see some changes. I think the pandemic had a big impact on that as well. But I'm quite entrepreneurial as a person, and I don't like to do just one thing. I'm not a complete to finish. I'm one of these people that loves coming up with an idea. Loves winning a client, handing it over to somebody else, all of these things.

But actually, I think as I've got older, I realised that there's this whole team of people that I've employed in the background who are so capable and actually quite excited about what they're doing as well. I want to give them an opportunity to shine and to actually run a business as well. So I suppose it's feel like a bit of a philanthropist as well. I've created something and worked very hard to create it as well. And you know, what's the legacy of that going to be?

And I think you know the legacy of any good business is the people that are running it and the people that are working in it? For sure. I mean, I always say the thing I'm most proud about the 11 years of running my agency was what those people have gone on to do with their careers. And, that's something I'm very proud of. I think it's also worth stating that you have some fairly significant interests outside of work. And so the idea of building a self-funding agency that isn't dependent on you five days a week enables you to pursue those other interests.

Is that fair to say? Definitely. And I think the biggest part of my life outside of Capsule at the moment is my visual artwork. And I'm a visual artist that's been exhibiting since 2000 and 12. I've had exhibitions across Europe in the US and it's sort of extended beyond photography as well. Now, I have an exhibition launching at the end of April this year have over 50 pieces of artwork in that, some of them on reclaimed aircraft panels and wings printed directly to that, as well and it's going to be in a gallery in London across three floors.

So you can imagine. And the work that goes into doing that, any of the people listening who have had to organise events will know exactly what that looks like. And I'm also publishing a book as well. Tthat is suppose it's again coming back to my entrepreneurial spirit. It's something I'm hugely passionate about. I think a lot of people for four years. And if people are watching this on YouTube, you can see the background of Simon, which is in his art studio, not in his office.

But I think a lot of people relate to what you said about, being an entrepreneur in terms of being an ideas person and good at closing the deal, but not necessarily a good, detailed person, not a great completely finisher. I definitely like that as well. And having a significant interest like you have with your art means that you either burning the candle at both ends or you start putting the systems and structures in place to build a business that is less dependent on you.

So talk us through some of the key steps that you've taken so far to be able to not work five days a week in the agency. I think the biggest step-change is having a team of people that you can trust. And somebody who you know is a good number two for you, a person that you know, that if you want to take time off, things will just happen. And I suppose that's the biggest thing is getting those people in place and then, as part of that, is actually creating a defined structure for the business as well.

That's not going to be dependent on you. You don't have to be the person that signs everything off. And I think that is something that's really difficult for a lot of business owners, particularly in our world as well, because you enter becoming this figurehead that the clients want to speak to. And there is if you've got the right people in place and the people that you trust people, the client's trust, then you don't have to be that go to person because it becomes quite tiring at the time.

And I think that's essentially what it's about having the right people in place and having the right systems and processes in place as well to deliver it. And I think one of the challenges a lot of people have is that as they grow their agency in the sort of first 3 to 5 years, they hire the people that they can afford, which is often not a strong number two. And what happens is that that becomes a big gap between the agency owner and the rest of the agency.

And of course, that means that the client wants the agency lead on their account. And you know that the agency owner can't always delegate because things don't get done well enough. So what you really focused on is filling that gap through either. Promoting internal people are bringing in external people that are really strong in operations and in running teams and all that kind of stuff that fed to say definitely and I think it's, having that tier of management having that tear and teams that within the business is crucial even when it's a small business, because it's almost like you have to have that in place, ready to scale up if you like.

Because as you win more clients, unless you get more business and if you've got that in place and you know you need to bring another team member in, it's not all on you. And I think the other thing as well is having this really strong bank of external advisors and people who can sit on, I suppose, almost like an executive board. I can advise you as a business, and I think that's been a big game changer for me and having people like yourself. Rob, we have Kim who works with us as well.

Having those people there, knowing that you can have confidential conversations that you can, you've got something you can turn to and bounce something off. As a business owner, that's like it's gold, because it can be. It can be quite lonely, they say. There's a horrible phrase. It's lonely at the top. Essentially it is and you need those people around you because there's only so many things you can discuss with your partner and before they get bored the same thing day and there.

I mean, I've written about that so many times because it's so true. And not only do you need someone that you know has got your back and got your best interests at heart, but also someone who's going to ask you the difficult questions. Who's going to hold you to account and your partner or your friends. Can't really do that because they've got your best interests at heart. But they don't have that kind of business aspect to the relationship as well. I think you're right and for every fantastic decision we're making business, is probably like five bad ones behind it or wrong decisions behind it.

And if you've got people who are not afraid to tell you that something is not a good idea or you've made the wrong decision, that's important for you. To realise yourself is probably more important and to be able to stand up and say that was not a good idea. But if you've got those people who will tell you as well  and you listen to them, that's the other thing. Listening is crucial in all of this. I think it's that's what helped.

That's what's helped create the business I've got today, and to sort of make it a bit of a game changer for me. Another thing that you've done is you've put an SLT or a senior leadership team in place. So tell us about that and how it works and what impact that's having. So I think the when you look at the different models of how businesses are created and how leaders exit businesses, it's almost like you sort of you build up this portfolio of directors that essentially you will make you redundant in the end or sort of make it that you've actually got nothing to do.

And I think having an SLT in terms of direct strategically directing the business is a linchpin for what we've created today in capsule. So bringing in a combination of external, I suppose, non exact directors, combining that with a leadership team that are actually running the business as well. So, like myself and our operations director. And then I think the other great thing that the SLT does is actually brings it creates this level of aspiration for the people that work in the business as well, to actually move into a more senior role because everyone has development.

He's everyone's on a journey of development, I think, and growth, including myself and that will never end. And for me, creating that structure where people can see a clear path of growth and opportunity and development for themselves as part of my plan create the self running agency. The SLT gets together once a month, and I think it forces all of you to well, for everybody to do some prep work for it. But it also forces you to sort of put the pause button on the day to day craziness and just stop and take a breath and say, Hey, guys, are we investing our energy in the right way?

And we're all on the same page. We are all clear about our priorities for the next month and then everyone can go back and get on with their work and know that, we're all heading in the same direction and we have a bigger picture vision that we are focused on implementing in that SLT. I mean, what's been quite interesting for me is if I go back 25 years, I sat on SLT in the large organisation I worked in and it's really strange because it's not like I've forgotten all of those things. After all, if things come back to me very quickly, but moving into a creative world from a corporate world, I sort of left a lot of that stuff behind because you focused on the working directly with the client and delivering on projects.

And you're doing creative work than to sort of go back to this whole building. These systems, and building this structure is not alien to me. But, for me, it's something that has made the business what it is today and allowed me to do what I want to do. That some people feel like those two things are oil and water, like creative work that is stifled by systems. And of course, that's not true. Or, if you put the right structures and systems in place, they aid creative work.

They don't get in the way of it. But of course, if you put the wrong ones in place and they do become bureaucratic and they are all in water so tell us a bit about your plans. Like, where are you in this journey and where do you want to be by whatever the end game. Looks like I'm not just over the next year or so. Obviously continue to grow the SLT. So I've got I have a plan with the terms of the people that are working in the business, very much see my role as aiding their development to allow me to sort of have this freedom to go away and focus on my career as a visual artist.

But for that to happen, I have to be there to support them now, over the next 12 months. All the senior people in the business have access to an external mentor so that they can have conversations. And the mentors are there, and they are hand-picked based on the development needs of each of those people. So I suppose in a year that I want to be more focused on my art. A business will continue to run itself. I mean, the things that have changed just in the last year?

I used to have a to-do list of about 30 or 40 items I'd work on each day. That's like five or six items now. And encouraging people to be more pragmatic, more autonomous in terms of what they're doing has been one of probably one of the biggest challenges for us. But once people know that you trust them to make mistakes as well as get things right, they do flourish and they fly. So I suppose my focus is about keeping the development and growth of these people to create the agency of the future. 

I think as an entrepreneur, it can be an an anathema to us to let go and relinquish control And believe that other people can do things as well or better than us. Because we all think we're you know, I think a lot of entrepreneurs controlling and they're very alpha type character, so they believe they're right. And so we have to learn to change that behaviour because I always say, what got you to where you got in the first few years becomes the thing that gets in your way to growth further down the line.

So what advice would you have for an agency owner who might be listening to this? They might have three or four staff. They may be listening to this and thinking what Simon has done is amazing. I wish I could get there. What advice would you have to them if there is today completely entrenched in their client work? Still, and the operations, what advice would you give them? I think the big piece of advice is trust your people and I suppose it's have high expectations of them.

The things that people can achieve when you give them free just is incredible. I think one of the biggest issues for the business owners, particularly smaller business owners, is putting your trust in your team and thinking that they can't get it right or I'll always get it right. That's what I would do and invest in them, invest in their development, invest in your trust of them, and then you will see things change. That's that's exactly how I've done it.

Let me just be awkward and Devil's Advocate for a moment and say so on again might be listeners and going well, Simon actually did that. And they proved me right that I shouldn't delegate because they screwed it up and I had to jump in and rescue the situation. I mean, we've probably all been there in that situation. So if someone, again is that small agency, they've tried to delegate, but they've had to kind of launch themselves back into rescue a situation. What would you say to them?

Well again, it's trusting them to resolve things that aren't right. I think a lot of business owners and I've worked with them as well. And business people feel like they need to. They some people set people up to fail and there so they can ride in on their white charger and put things right. It's never a great way to lead. And I think that, sit down with people and say, this hasn't gone to plan. How are we going to resolve it?

Next time they'll have the answers. If somebody's  made a mistake, If somebody has not got something right, they'll know why they got it wrong. And they'll know what they want. They're not going to do next time. So you know it's giving those people space to get it wrong, because it will happen and actually knowing that that's going to happen as well, and then getting them to resolve it. I think my advice would be hire the best people you can absolutely afford because you can't make someone you can't trust to do something.

If they don't have the skills to do it, you've got to like you said earlier. You've got to up skill them and give them training. So I would say hire the best you can afford and then don't think, don't tolerate poor performance for too long. Do something about it. So if you've genuinely got the wrong person in your business, then do something about it. But I think your advice on letting people make mistakes within a controlled environment and learning and let people do it their way is also good advice that too many people don't follow.

Business owners generally are there big. They're in that position because they generally got good instincts and they get things. They can see opportunities. Think about people like that as well. And you know when a person is good and you know when the person is right for your business. We all make mistakes on that one, but ultimately, surround yourself with the best people. You can surround yourself with people who are more skilled than you. Surround yourself with people who are cleverer than you, and you know all the things that you can't do.

Then that's how businesses flourish,  and I've seen business people over the years not hiring people because they might have a bigger skill set than them, and they don't want to feel threatened. But I've never thought like that. The people have to be people that have skills. Enough in many ways, a better at some things than me. I think one of the mistakes people make is they often recruiting. They're like, so they recruit people they feel comfortable with.

But sometimes we need to recruit people that we are challenged by and like you say no more than us and maybe pushing the boundaries a bit, which we find uncomfortable. But that's how you grow. That's how you move forward. So I think that's all a good advice. My last question before we wrap today's episode up is if you could go back in time and give younger Simon just starting out in business. A piece of advice. What would it be? I have no limits for what you want to achieve.

Lots of people there failed by the education system. They give up and for me, that doesn't mean anything because some of the best people I employ have been in that position. I have myself  and whatever I've wanted to do, I've always gone and worked hard to get it. And nothing has stopped me doing that. And I've always, got what I wanted. But I've always pivoted, and my career has been quite zigzag. I've moved across different things. Try things. Don't be afraid to do them, but always go after the goal and don't make it money.

Make it happiness. And you know something that you're really passionate about and the money will follow. Absolutely. You take the words out of my mouth. That's good piece of advice. And, I guess when we're younger, we're influenced by lots of people who are putting limits on those our parents or our teachers or whoever it is you're saying. You can't do that. That's too risky. But you know, we did it anyway. And we're still here to tell the tale. 

So people wanted to find out a bit more about you. Maybe your exhibition and also obviously capsule marketing as well. Where would they go? So the best way is to go to simon.izea.co.uk and you'll be able to find all three of my websites, their capsule marketing my current project. David, come home. Which is all about an astronaut who's been living on another planet in the future. And my general photography website, Warning shop. So we'll include that link in the show notes and just want to say a big thank you for joining us today and sharing your story and hopefully inspiring some people to make some changes and do a few things differently so they too can start building their own self running agency. Pleasure.

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