Welcome back to the final article in this series. Last time, we covered some of the most common problems you encounter when scaling your agency from “small” (5 or fewer employees) to “boutique” (10-15 employees), and how you can avoid them. If you missed that instalment, you can check it out here.
This week, we’re going to look at the next stage in the process – moving from “boutique” to “medium” (10-15 employees to 25-30 employees). Just like the last stage, there are certain challenges that routinely crop up as you start to add more employees into the mix. Let’s examine those issues in more detail.
Scaling your agency from 15 employees to 25-30 employees is not as simple as stacking more and more people on top of existing infrastructure. As we discussed last week, a dysfunctional foundation will collapse when it’s put under too much stress. Similarly, if your agency doesn’t run well when it’s small, it’s unlikely that things will improve as you get bigger.
However, the single biggest issue that holds back agencies looking to make the leap from boutique to medium-sized isn’t infrastructure. If you focused on putting the right systems & processes in place earlier on in the process, you should find that most of your systems scale up readily to accommodate new employees. Sure, there may be some hiccups, but overall, intelligent design and selection of your internal processes will serve you well.
Anything you neglected to reinforce earlier on (e.g. IT systems, finances, communication) may come back to bite you here, so make sure to take the time to strengthen these systems now, before they can cause real problems.
Neglected system upgrades notwithstanding, the principal obstacle you must overcome at this stage relates to skills.
When scaling your business from solo to small, you had to grapple with making your first hire. Here, you had to make good choices and bring on employees that possessed the skills your agency needed.
As you continued to scale your business from small to boutique, your attention shifted away from people and onto systems. Making good hires was still important, but you also had to ensure that your infrastructure was robust enough to sustain your growing operations.
And now that you’re looking to scale from boutique to medium, your focus returns to people. But it’s quite possible that the skills you need at this stage in the journey are different from those you needed earlier on.
Many agencies are top-heavy when they start out. If you have multiple owners, it’s likely that you’re all doing a substantial amount of work. When you take on a few employees, the work starts to get more dispersed and your time frees up. The top-heaviness of the agency decreases as more and more lower-level employees join the ranks. However, this leads to a growing gap between top management (i.e. you and the other owners) and junior staff.
This gap can cause problems, particularly as you endeavour to scale your business further. Making strategic business decisions and focusing on the future of your agency requires the space to do so – breathing room from the everyday hustle and bustle of managing operations. Without being able to safely delegate your duties, it can be hard to get this time to work on the future. And this can be compounded by the fact that your key clients all expect YOU to be working on their account!
If you’re not careful, you can be caught in between roles: not stuck in the business, but not free to work on the business either.
The solution to this problem is twofold:
Let’s look at these two areas in more detail.
Simply put – if your skills/expertise are integral in delivering great client work, you won’t have the time you need to focus on scaling the business effectively.
There’s nothing wrong with having an input into the work, or being in a position to guide your team. But if your valuable time is spent doing work that someone else could be doing, you need to consider introducing more senior experienced staff into the organisation.
The best way to determine if this is an issue in your agency is to look at your current employees. Consider the following:
With reference to questions like these, it should soon become apparent if you have issues in this area.
If you’re still required to oversee day-to-day operations and closely manage employees, your time is still being used up IN the business, so who is working ON the business?
The lines between your competing delivery, managerial and leadership roles blur as your agency scales. It can be hard to grow the business effectively when you have so many demands on your time.
When scaling your agency from 15 employees to 25+, you’ll probably find that there’s an awkward transition period. The demands on a handful of vital core staff (e.g. yourself, or some key employees) increase dramatically, which can then lead to decreased performance, slower delivery, and even burnout.
The solution is to identify these issues before they can cause real problems. You know you need to invest in people, but what does that look like?
Whatever the case may be, you have to invest in people at this stage in your journey. The systems you put in place previously (when growing from small to boutique) should serve you well, but remember to proactively improve matters in this area too.
This is the final article in this “Scaling Your Agency” series. When moving from ~15 employees to 25+, it’s rarely systems that hold you back. There’s little difference (conceptually speaking) between the infrastructure required to run an agency of either size. Payroll, communication, IT, finance… unless you’ve seriously neglected one of these areas, it’s unlikely to be your primary stumbling block.
Instead, the obstacle you must overcome at this stage relates to skills. Whether you restructure your business, hire new employees or train up existing staff, you have to ensure your agency possesses the skills required for growth.
As you continue to scale, you need more time to work on the business, not just in the business. If you’re trapped in a functional role all day, you won’t have the time or energy to make smart strategic decisions. For the good of your agency, you have to step back from day-to-day operations (in both a functional and managerial capacity). Take care of this, and your journey towards building a bigger, more profitable agency will be a whole lot easier.
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.
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).
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:
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!
Here is an article written by me and published last week in the Brighton & Hove Independent newspaper.
Many creative business owners start out as freelancers and then get (too) busy. They reach a cross roads where they have to decide whether they remain a one-man band or grow into a business. If they decide to remain as a freelancer then the can pick and choose the ideal client / type of work and create a ‘lifestyle’ business. However, if they decide they want to grow their business then the game changes; their priorities and how they spend their time, will change considerably.
Here are 5 tips on growing a creative business:
There are many tasks a new business owner needs to focus on so it’s vital to get organised and work out your priorities. If you want to avoid getting quickly burnt out then follow the 5 tips above, as a starting point to growing your business.