What Does A Self-Running Agency Actually Look Like?

In today’s episode of the podcast, we explore what a self-running agency means. It doesn't have to be a pipe dream to build an agency that is less dependent on YOU. So I am going to dig into the foundational components to build an agency that is less dependent on you.

Time Stamp

[01:05] We all aspire to build an agency that is less dependent on us yet most never achieve it

[01:30] The typical journey of an agency owner in their first 5 years

[03:48] 5 areas to building a scalable agency

[04:08] 1. Having a GROWTH mindset rather than a FREELANCE mindset

[05:46] 2. The importance of having a clear plan for your agency

[07:48] 3. Hire the best/most expensive people you can afford who can take work off your plate

[08:58] 4. Put a robust client management process in place so all clients have a consistent experience when working with your agency

[09:36] 5. Robust documented and scalable systems are crucial to creating a platform for growth

[12:10] These 5 strategies create a solid foundation for growth and enable you to step away without fear of things falling apart!

[12:47] Join me on my FREE LIVE Masterclass: How to be the CEO of your agency 


"If you don’t have a clear plan you will go around in circles taking 1-step forwards and 1 back.” - Rob Da Costa
“If you want to scale your agency you need to document all those core processes that are intuitive to you and in your head!” - Rob Da Costa

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 Full Episode Transcription

You've heard me talk many times about the concept of building your own self-running agency. Indeed, I've got a book by the same name, and also my group coaching programme is called the Self-Running Agency. So in today's podcast, I want to break this down and explore what exactly an agency that is less dependent on the owner-founder (i.e. a self-running agency). What does that look like? Now, I want to just remind you that it doesn't have to be a pipe dream. It is completely possible to create your own self-running agency. So in today's podcast, I'm going to dig into the foundational components to build an agency that is less dependent on you. So, let's dig in and let's get going.

I'm Rob Da Costa, and this is The Agency Accelerator podcast as someone who has stood in your shoes, having started to grow and sold my 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.

I'm a big believer that we should all be focused on building a scalable agency that is not solely dependent on us. And I'm sure that you're nodding your head as you listen to this, but you probably also have been bashing your set that same head against a brick wall in terms of actually making this happen. So I want to dig into exactly what you need to focus on. But let's start by talking about the typical journey of an agency owner in its first five years. 

So, you probably had a reason why you started your agency, some kind of catalyst that every entrepreneur has that inspires you to start running your own business. It may be that you're unhappy in your current role. Maybe your role is going nowhere. It may be you had an idea. Whatever it is, there'll be a reason why you started your agency. And in the first year, maybe, you're just going to be running that agency on your own, acting as a freelancer, kind of proving the concept. And then over time, as you get busier, you need to get some additional resources so you might start outsourcing work to freelancers or you might hire a virtual assistant, but whatever you do, you need to create more capacity. But you're still really intrinsically involved in every single client account. And then, you might start hiring more staff. And what typically happens at this stage is that we don't have a tonne of money. The types of people we're hiring are either very part-time, they're freelancers or they are in-house team members. Then, they're probably fairly junior. And that results in a big gap existing between you and your capability and then the capability of the rest of your team. And of course, as a result of that, you feel you have to be involved in every client account. And indeed, every client wants you on their account because they see the business as you. 

So, we need to change that over time. And one of the things that we need to start doing is we need to start hiring more people to bridge that gap. So, you might hire some more senior people. Now, of course, you've got the pressure of earning enough money to feed all these people and you are often at the back of the queue when it comes to being paid. And all of this leads to lots of stress in your agency and you being stuck on the Client Service Hamster Wheel of Doom because, as I said, every client wants you on their account.

And, of course, something has to change at this point to start changing that. And that's kind of what we're talking about today. And that is building an agency that is less dependent on you so that every decision doesn't still sit on your shoulders, and every client account doesn't need your attention 24/7. 

So, I'm painting a fairly bleak picture here. But again, I hope you're nodding your head because that was certainly my experience of running my agency and how my agency evolved over the first five years. And it's certainly the experience of many of the hundreds of agencies that I've worked with over the past 15/16 years.

So, there are five areas that I want to dig into that are super important that you pay attention to if you want to build a scalable agency, that is both profitable and not entirely dependent on you. 

It all starts by having a growth mindset rather than a freelancer mindset. So none of what I'm going to talk about works if you haven't got the right mindset around your agency. Now, the freelance and mindset say everything's on me. I'm the most important person. I need to be involved in everything because I don't trust anybody else. And a growth mindset recognises that you will quickly become the bottleneck, and you need to find a way of getting out of the way so that other people can take responsibility for work. And you can trust them that it will be done to a good enough level. 

Now, everything else the other four strategies I'm going to mention will support that mindset. But if you don't have it to start with, then you are not going to be successful. So, I really want you to challenge yourself here. What's going on in your head when a client asks somebody to do something? Do you think, “Oh, it’s quicker to do it myself. I don't want to delegate it because I don't think they'll do it as well as I” or “Indeed, no one will ever do anything as well as me, so I'm just going to hang on to it”? If you've got your fingers in all pies and you want to keep control, then you're going to have this eternal freelance mindset, and that is going to stop you from growing. It doesn't matter how many systems and processes you put in place.

Now, if you want to learn more about this entrepreneurial growth mindset, then go back and listen to Episode 95 of the podcast, where we dig into this in a lot more detail so you can learn more about exactly what that means and what you need to do rather than me spending a tonne of time in this episode. So, go back and listen to Episode 95 and you can learn more about this entrepreneurial mindset. So, that's the overarching kind of strategy that starts this whole process. 

And the next strategy you need to put in place is to have a clear plan because at the end of the day, if you don't know where you're headed, then at best you might go forward and you might be profitable, but you're never going to know if you're reaching your destination. You're never really going to have those milestones to check off, and you're probably going to end up going around in circles and having that sense of taking one step forward and one step back. I always likened a business plan to planning out a car journey or a journey of any kind. If you don't know where the destination is on that journey, then how can you plan your journey? I know that sounds silly, but also once we've got an idea of our destination, then we need to look at a map and plan the route, we need to plan where we're going to stay overnight, we need to book the hotel, we need to make sure that we are stopping to fuel the car and also fuel ourselves, and all those other things. 

Now, of course, if you got a sense of the destination, but don't have a plan; well, you might get to the destination in the end, but it's going to be more painful. It will undoubtedly take you longer, and you're going to have a bunch of hiccups along the way, like running out of fuel and having nowhere to stay overnight because you didn't book anywhere, so you have to stay in the car, and that's what a business looks like without a detailed plan. So, it's not just about understanding the destination, but it's about breaking that down and actually looking at the component parts along the way to reaching that destination. 

So, my advice is always to have a one-year plan. Break that one year down into quarters. Break the quarters down into months. And then, take the monthly plan and put that into your diary. Now, look out for episode 135. So, two weeks from today because we're going to be digging into the concept of a 90-day sprint and why 90 days is the right length to focus on in detail. So, that's episode 135 coming your way in a couple of weeks' time. But anyway, that's the second strategy. 

So, number one has a growth mindset. And then, number two is having a clear road map so you and your team, if you've got one, have got a clear sense of where you're headed and how exactly you are going to get to that destination. 

So, the next thing you need to do is start building a team. And as I alluded to in the introduction, often what happens is that we hire cheaper people, more junior people because, of course, that's all we can afford. So, my advice to you is to start hiring the most expensive people you can afford and get really clear on their roles and your role. It's amazing. I do a lot of work with agencies where we are developing roles and responsibilities. And the first thing I always tell the owner is that you have to write yours as well so that not only do you understand what you should be doing and you're focused on your superpowers, but your team understands what you're doing as well so that we're not treading on each other's toes or identifying big gaps where things are falling through the cracks.

So, we want to put a team in place. And in line with that plan, we want to build an organisation chart that shows when we're going to hire, what the metric is to start that hire, and who exactly we are going to hire. And my advice to you is always to hire the best people you can possibly afford, who are going to be able to take work off your plate. 

And that brings me unto strategy number four, which is to put a robust client management process in place so that your team members can give your clients consistent experience and the overall client management isn't entirely sitting on your shoulders.

So, this is going to look like the client onboarding process, the first 90 days of working with a client, how we communicate our plans, and what structures we use for our planning, how we communicate with our clients on an ongoing basis, and how frequently we have formal communications with our clients (such as monthly meetings and quarterly review meetings), and so on. So, that's the client management process. 

But talking of processes in a more broad sense, one of the fundamental things that separate a growing agency from an internal freelancer agency is robust, documented and scalable systems.

Now, that might send a shiver down your spine because a lot of entrepreneurial owners are not detailed people, and they don't like the idea of this because they think it inhibits creativity and all the rest of it. But to be quite honest, the opposite is entirely true. If you want to scale your agency, you need to start documenting every single type of process that happens in your agency. So, standard operating procedures for how you communicate with clients, all of the client management stuff, but managing team members using IT and everything else. So, you want to start documenting it. 

Basically, you want to get those intuitive behaviours that you have out of your head and documented into a procedure that someone else can follow because that ensures that whoever’s implementing that procedure will be consistent; therefore, your agency will be consistent. And that means that you can scale your agency. 

I think of this from another perspective. I'm a new employee in your agency, and I'm trying to find my way around things. Imagine if there are standard operating procedures for all sorts of things that I would have to do and how that makes my job so much easier because I can just look at these procedures as a reference guide and as a training guide to help me get my feet under the table as quickly as possible.

Now, I use this in my agency for my team. And what I tend to do is I tend to shoot a video showing someone how to do something because I think people generally find visual learning easier, and it's quick for me to do it as well. And I'm not writing hundreds of pages. I supplement it with notes, but predominantly I'm using a video as a way of training people. So, that's a good tip for you. 

And use something like Loom (loom.com), which you can use for free or you can buy a paid version if not expensive. I'm not sponsored by Loom; although, I should be because I'm a big fan of theirs. So, that is the fifth strategy, which is to document all of your processes and create standard operating procedures so that your clients and your team members all get a consistent experience. So, you want to think about your SOPs externally in terms of client management and sales marketing, but also internally around how you manage your team members, how you onboard them, how you do appraisals, feedback, and all that rest of the team meetings. So that it doesn't matter what team you're in or it doesn't matter what employee you are, you're going to get a consistent experience.

And these five strategies together create a really good foundation for growth and one that will enable you to step away but still be confident that the client or the team member is going to get a consistent experience because everyone is following the steps that I’ve talked about. 

So, there you go. Those are the five components of building your own self-running agency. Now, I know I make it sound really easy when in reality, it can be challenging, especially to find the time to do all of this stuff, because you are stuck on the client service hamster Wheel of Doom, and you're probably working long hours.

So to help you with this, I'm running a live master class over the next couple of weeks, entitled, ‘How to be the CEO of your Agency Rather Than a Lowly Paid Employee’. I've been working on this content for quite some time. And without bragging too much, is one of the best live training that I've ever put together. So, in this 60-minute masterclass, we're going to dig into everything I've discussed today in a tonne more detail and, of course, a whole bunch more. And I'm going to give you a super valuable workbook at the end to support you to implement what you learn during the master class.

So, if you want to start building your own self-running agency, then please make sure you save your seat. So, simply head over to dacostacoaching.co.uk/CEO/masterclass. And then, pick your preferred time and date. Now, as I said, it's live. So, you will be able to ask any burning questions that you have. And obviously, you will walk away with some great ideas, a really valuable workbook and some 1-to-1 interaction with me as well. So, I really hope you will join me, and I look forward to seeing you there. 

Okay, another bite-sized episode with five actionable ideas. As ever, I hope you found today's episode useful, and you genuinely have some thoughts about things that you are going to do differently when you are sitting at your desk. And, of course, if you did enjoy the episode, then please consider leaving a review and please share this episode with your colleagues. 

But other than that, I hope you have a fantastic rest of the week and I'll see you next Thursday for the next episode of The Agency Accelerator podcast.

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