In this new article series, I’m going to discuss some of the most common problems you may encounter if you aspire to scale your agency – and how you can avoid them. Think of this series like a roadmap: it will detail the routes available to you, but ultimately, which road you decide to travel is up to you.
Before we start, it’s important to note that having a small/lifestyle business isn’t a bad thing – if that’s your goal. Some people are content running small agencies (i.e. 5 or fewer employees). Some people are content to work entirely by themselves. And with the right strategy, you can build a highly profitable small business (even without employees) that affords you plenty of free time and the chance to do work you enjoy.
Running a small business can be liberating in some ways. You can charge more competitive prices than your competitors, who have larger overheads. You can create more personal connections with clients and have a direct hand in delivering work to them. There’s also less pressure when you’re only responsible for a handful of employees or just yourself.
However, depending on your ambitions, you may wish for something more. You might have a vision of an agency that is number 1 in your niche. You might hope to eventually “cash out” and retire young (a hard feat to accomplish when you’re responsible for servicing clients every week).
Many agencies start out with just 1-3 people (the owner(s), and maybe an employee or two). Few businesses stay this size – over time, they scale up and become full-fledged operations, capable of creating waves in their space.
The process of scaling up your agency is not always an easy one. There are several pitfalls you need to avoid on your path to a bigger business. Depending on how far along you are on this journey, the dangers will differ. Let’s take a look at these problems in more detail.
Stage 1: Solo to Small
When you start as a one-man band, there are certain things you take for granted. No one knows you better than you know yourself. You seldom need to explain what you’re doing to yourself – the answer is already in your head. While this is obvious (and very convenient), it can be a hindrance once you have to take on your first employee or two.
The process of going from zero employees to one or more can be tough to adapt to if you’re not prepared for it. Almost overnight, you go from being able to just do things to having to explain little details to someone else (the stuff you know, but take for granted as common knowledge). That could include your preferred methods of communication, typical working processes, favoured tools/systems, or anything of that sort.
Typically, the first hire you’ll make as a solopreneur looking to expand will either be another functional person (i.e. someone who you can directly delegate work to), or an admin employee (who can handle everything that doesn’t relate to servicing clients). You shouldn’t just hire these people for their skillset – you also need to look out for adaptability and can easily be flexible enough to work in a small agency and do what needs to be done!
The growing pains you’ll experience when moving from self-employment to co-existence with someone is a huge psychological leap – you’re moving from a 1-man band and making the decision to become a ‘real’ business – that’s how it felt to me!
Let’s take a look at an actionable process you can apply to your business today if you’re looking to make one of your first hires (or just a great hire in general).
Making Your First Great Hire: The Process
I’ve heard many horror stories in my time as a business coach. I work with a range of small and large agencies. Regardless of how far along these businesses are in their scaling journeys, the owners usually have stories to tell about the mistakes they made when hiring their first employees. And from listening to all these different stories, I’ve learned there’s a general process you can follow to avoid these mistakes:
- Figure out what kind of employee you need? An admin, client facing; a senior or junior member of staff. What will enable you to focus on the things that only you can do?
- Figure out if you need this employee full-time, or if a part-timer/freelancer would do. This will help you to avoid spending money unnecessarily – always a bonus when your business is in these early stages.
- Select candidates not only for their skills but also for their adaptability and cultural fit into your agency. You’ll need flexible people at this early stage as you’re still learning how to work with others, developing your processes, etc.
- Manage your new employee’s expectations from the start. If you’re only taking them on for a month-long trial period, tell them. This will make reversing your hiring decision much easier later on if things don’t work out.
- Invest time in setting them and you up for success. Hiring is the start not the end of the journey: put a good induction in place and meet with them regularly, to give and receive feedback, especially in the early days.
- Make sure that you’re flexible in your approach to the work. While you’ll undoubtedly have preferences as to your preferred systems and methods of working, it’s possible your new hire will have valuable experience you can learn from. Don’t compromise your business for them, but don’t be afraid to adapt your processes if something better comes along.
- Have a probation period that upon completion you decide whether your hire is working out well, or if you need a change. Making good hires is an inexact science, even with experience. The key here is to avoid the sunk cost fallacy – don’t feel as if you have to keep going with them because you’ve already kept them on for x length of time. That’s akin to throwing good money after bad… and that is not a good way to run a business.
That’s the abridged version of the experiences I have seen with many successful agency owners over the past 12 years. While the specifics of their situations differed, the overwhelming majority of them followed a process much like this when taking their agency from “solo to small”.
While part 1 of this article was geared towards one-man bands looking to make their first hire or two, the fundamentals of making great hires are the same no matter how big your agency is. Hiring typically gets a little easier as you scale – you have a better grasp of the kinds of employees you need, attract better candidates, and have stronger systems in place for making the right decisions. When you’re starting out, you lack these resources. That’s why it’s so important to have a robust process in place for making hiring decisions.
Starting that journey of growth may begin with hiring a freelancer but don’t be fooled into believing you can build your business using freelancers. I can guarantee you that it will not work. A freelancer may help with growth in the early days, and they are great for plugging a capacity gap or bringing in skills you do not need or want permanently in your agency, but they are not a long term strategy for growing your agency. (If you want to know more about why I believe this then get in touch).
P.S. In the next article in this series, I’ll discuss what it takes to go from “small” (5 or fewer employees) to “not-so-small” (10-15 employees approx). Stay tuned!