The Time-Travelling Agency Owner – Lessons From the Past to Change Your Future (Part 1)

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The 2000’s haven’t panned out like Back To The Future promised they would.

I cashed out of my agency in 2003. Once the last document was signed and the money was on the way to my account, I remember feeling immensely relieved – and, to be honest, a little lost. I had been so focused on getting the deal done that I hadn’t taken the time to think about how far I’d come or what was next.

Over the prior decade, I had scaled the business from nothing to 25+ staff and a seven-figure valuation… but what had I learned?

While it feels like it was only yesterday, there’s no getting around the fact that 2003 was 16(!) years ago. In between then and now, I’ve had the chance to reflect on my experience as an agency owner: the good, the bad, the confusing, and the downright terrible.

It tends to be the negatives that stick out in your memory the most because those are the things you learn the most from. When I think back to running my agency for 11 years, certain things jump out more than others. Sure, I remember the big wins, the celebrations after a hugely successful project, the new hire that was a perfect fit…

But the mistakes sting just a little more. Wrong decisions, bad hires, losing important accounts. Long days. Sleepless nights. Arguments. Heartache and Stress!

Don’t get me wrong: there were highs. Plenty of them. But highlight reels, while fun viewing for the victor, don’t teach us as much as a good post-mortem analysis.

From the ashes of failure comes valuable lessons. And what good is a lesson left unshared?

That’s one of the key reasons I ended up retraining to be a coach (but that’s a story for another day).

In my work with over 250 agencies over the past 12 years, I’ve seen a lot of business owners making the same mistakes I made.

I do my best to advise them, lead them back onto the right path, help them to avoid suffering like I suffered back them. If you’ve been burned once, why let someone else get burned too?

But not everyone is interested in being shown how to avoid the fire – they need to feel the heat for themselves.

In my coaching practice, I often observe that agencies don’t understand the value of learning from the experience but just continue to do the same things (usually because they are run ragged servicing demanding clients) and hope for a different outcome. Predictably, this doesn’t tend to work out too well for them.

If you need to get burned before you learn, your agency is in for a rough ride. But if you’re interested in avoiding unnecessary pain, building a better business, and actually enjoying the process, then read on.

In this article series, I’m going to lay out the four worst mistakes I made as an agency owner (mistakes I see countless agencies making even today), and what you can do to avoid suffering the same fate.

I can’t go back now and change anything – sadly, we haven’t quite worked out time travel yet. But if I can help other business owners avoid these same pitfalls, they won’t need a time machine. And that’s good enough for me.  

The only value in an idea is how it helps you. The greatest business plan ever written is worthless without hard work & execution behind it. So please take the information you find in this series and use it to make your systems, your business and your life better. In the end… that’s all that matters.

Now, let’s get started.

Mistake #1 – No Vision

Hands down, the biggest thing that held me back from growing my agency as fast as I wanted whilst feeling in control, was not being clear enough on where the business was going.

It wasn’t that I had no idea what I wanted – it’s just that no one ever told me how crucial it was to have a exact destination in mind when you’re setting out to grow your agency.

Maybe you started out as a solopreneur or a freelancer – just one person servicing your clients.

Maybe you were a “proper” agency right from the start, with multiple owners, a few key talents, and a couple of admin staff for good measure.

I’ve had clients from both camps. Worked with bigger businesses, pushing 100+ staff, with client bases to match…

And in my work with businesses of all shapes and sizes, I learned something very interesting:

Most of them had, at one time or another, felt lost on their journey.

Sometimes they made it through on their own (with a lot of time, effort and pain!). Other times, they came to an experienced coach like me for guidance.

It goes without saying that I helped them get back on track using a powerful, yet simple set of tools (read on for more info).

When you first start out, you’ll take clients wherever you can get them. 5, 10, 20, 30 – you take on new business left and right without taking the time to consider whether they’re really a good fit for your agency. And this strategy is fine until you hit a sticking point.

The sticking point varies, depending on your business…

But one day, you wake up and realise that you’ve got 5, 10, 20 or 30 demanding voices to answer to, with no clear escape route in sight.

If you’ve been here, you know how this feels. You started your agency with the best of intentions, hoping to build a business that worked for you (and not the other way around). But before you knew it, you were working just as hard as you ever did – it’s like having a job all over again, but with more stress, worry and risk than it’s worth.

This happens when you don’t set out your plans in advance. When your growth strategy is client acquisition at all costs, no plan is needed – you just keep pitching, keep winning new business… and deal with the fallout later.

That fallout comes when you don’t pay attention to building the critical infrastructure you need to support these clients. The staff, the systems & processes, the valuable core offering, the marketing plan – they all matter, but we forget this when we head off on our journey without a map to guide us.

However, if you’ve got an actual vision for your agency, things are different. When you know where you want to be a year from now (and what you need to do to get there), making strategic decisions is a lot easier.

But when you’re stuck in the trenches, a year can seem like a long time. That’s why I like to sit down with my coaching clients towards the end of their financial year and hash out the details of their vision and plan for the following year.

We get crystal-clear on their goals, the KPI’s we’ll use to assess their progress, and take full stock of the situation they’re in (using a variety of planning tools e.g. SWOT analysis, and more).

But a yearly plan on its own isn’t very useful, so we don’t stop there. Once we’ve gotten clear on their big-picture vision for the next 12 months, we go one step further and determine their quarterly plan.

Here, we create a plan that puts them on track to accomplish their yearly goals, by breaking it down into quarters and allowing for seasonal fluctuations in revenue or anything else that’s strategically relevant.

We repeat this quarterly planning process four times a year, constantly assessing and adjusting as needed.

We don’t stop there. To really make sure we deliver the annual vision, we take our quarterly plan and use it to create a monthly plan.

I find that a month is the shortest period of time most top-level managers should think in. Further down the agency, you’ll want to implement daily and weekly plans to stay on track, but visionaries need to think bigger.  

The monthly plan is just as it sounds – we take the quarterly goals, determine what they can realistically be done in the next month, and set it out for achievement.

This three-level planning process seems simple. If you already do it, you probably think it’s obvious… but you would be astounded if you knew how many agency owners don’t have a solid, well-formed vision of where they’re going.

And the ones that do? At least 80% of them don’t have concrete quarterly and monthly plans (with built-in KPI’s to assess progress) that hold them accountable.

Without a vision, you can’t see the road ahead.

If you don’t know where you’re going, you won’t know if what you’re doing is helping your business… or if it’s strangling it.

Take the time to sit down and figure out where you want your business to be a year from now. Be realistic, but don’t be afraid to think bigger – we can often do more than we expect when we actually work for it.

Don’t stop there. Go further. Take your one-year vision and figure out what you need to do this quarter in order to get there. Then drill down one level deeper and figure out what needs to happen this month to get your business from here to there.

Without a vision, we flounder. We don’t know which option to choose, so we choose whatever’s easiest, or whatever pays us the most money right now… but this approach costs us in the long-term.

Get strategic, and your business will reap the benefits in the weeks, months and years to come.

In our next article, we’re going to deal with the second mistake I made as an agency owner – a crucial one you need to avoid: bailing out the boat instead of plugging the leak. Stay tuned!

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