Welcome back to the final article in this four-part series, detailing the biggest mistakes I made as an agency owner – and how you can avoid doing the same.
This week, we’re going to discuss the final error I made as an agency owner, one that potentially cost me hundreds of thousands of pounds: not being in the right frame of mind when I was selling the business.
Even if you’re not currently thinking about selling your agency (or in the process of doing so), you’ll still find valuable lessons to be learned here.
After that, I am going to recap the four biggest mistakes I made as an agency owner, giving you an easy reference for this material in the future.
But I’m getting ahead of myself: first things first…
I remember it like it was yesterday. December 2002. As another year drew to a close, I was sitting in my office, reflecting on all that had happened over the preceding 12 months – and even further than that, right back to the beginning.
Since starting my agency in 1991, I had grown the business from a two-man show to an agency with over 25 staff, seven-figure revenues, and a healthy client book to boot. The dotcom crash had passed our UK-based business by, and we were well poised to succeed and grow moving forward.
The future was bright, but there was one problem: I didn’t really love the work anymore.
Sure, I still showed up every day, met with clients, worked on putting deals together, mentored my staff, made decisions, and “took care of business”…
But the passion that had driven me to set up my own agency in the first place had dwindled. I seemed to spend all day dealing with other people’s problems and that wasn’t why I set up my own business in the first place! So initial talks of moving to a new office space (one that could accommodate our expansion plans) were nothing but a headache. Losing a key client (responsible for ~30% of our revenue) didn’t help matters.
The fire was gone. And I didn’t know how I was going to get it back.
As I sat there in my office at the year’s end, I knew that something had to change. I wasn’t motivated to keep moving in the same direction I’d been heading in. My work-life balance had taken a hit, and I desperately needed a break.
It’s from this position that I decided to sell my agency. This wasn’t an impulsive move by any means (it’s not as if a buyer walked in off the street and made a great offer the next morning), but it all started here from this place of tiredness.
Looking back now, I know that I wasn’t in the right frame of mind to sell my business. I was looking for a way out, and that made me vulnerable. And potential buyers could sense that.
So in this first part of the story, the lesson is clear: when you’re selling your agency, don’t negotiate from a position of tiredness. You’ll end up getting a worse deal than you could. If you need to, consider bringing in some outside help – hire a specialist to assist with negotiations and broker a great deal. They often pay for themselves, especially if they’re skilled.
And the second part of the story? That’s the tale of what happened to me once the sale finally went through.
Almost overnight, I was free as a bird…
With no idea where I wanted to fly.
Amidst the hustle and bustle of selling the agency, I had failed to create a concrete plan of what I’d do once it was sold. I was so focused on selling the business (the process actually took about 9-months) that I spent no time answering the question ‘what next?’. I knew I didn’t want to retire (a. I was only 39 and b. I didn’t sell for nearly enough to enable me to retire)
It’s easy to feel lost when you lose something that’s been driving you for a long time. When I no longer had to show up at the office every day to put out fires and make big decisions, I was directionless for a time. But thankfully, this confusion didn’t last too long. To get clarity, I did one simple thing:
I sat down and remembered all the things I had wanted to do before running the agency had dominated my life, taken my time & energy, and drained the fight from me.
Some of the things were easy. I wanted to travel more. Spend more time with family. Contribute to charity more often. All the things I could do – but not things that would give me all the direction I was looking for.
I racked my brains further. As I reflected on those times when I had felt most engaged with my work… I realised that I loved helping people overcome obstacles and solve problems. Whether it was delivering great work to clients (the kind that they were delighted with) or mentoring a promising employee through a particular situation, I loved coaching (I just didn’t know that was what it was called at that time!)
So that’s what I decided to do. I would become a full-time business coach and work with other agency owners, helping them to avoid the traps I had fallen into in my business. I knew that – if nothing else – my fresh pair of eyes could give a much-needed perspective on a situation. My vision was clearer than it had been in a long time now that I knew what I wanted again.
It seems like a quick process when it’s written down like that, but in reality, it took me several months – close to a year, even – before I decided to get into coaching. Looking back, I realise that I could have avoided getting caught in limbo like this if I had just put a proper plan in place before selling the agency.
Taking the time to sit down with a coach/mentor or trusted advisor, and plan out my next moves – would have been a smart decision – but sadly, it wasn’t one I even considered or was aware was even an option!
So that’s the second lesson you can take from my story. If you’re thinking about succession planning then make sure you know what your next steps are going to be. Think a little further ahead than lying on a beach somewhere and ask yourself:
If you’re struggling to answer these questions by yourself, don’t hesitate to reach out to someone else for guidance. Personally, I know it would have made my transition much easier, and I’ve helped many agency owners answer similar questions in the past. The quality of your answers to these powerful questions will determine your future: don’t take them lightly.
When I began writing these articles, I envisioned they would be much different to how they are now. So I suppose the first lesson we can reflect on is that our visions change over time, based on how the real world interacts with them.
As for the worst mistakes I made as an agency owner? They went like this:
When I was running the business, I didn’t have a clear vision of where I wanted it to go. While I had a general sense of its direction, I had no idea of the milestones I’d need to hit each week, month, quarter and year to make that dream a reality.
If this sounds like you, then get clear! Figure out what kind of business you want to build, and start building it. Chunk that end goal down into small milestones you can hit along the way, so you’ll know when you’re on track (and when you’re off).
The second mistake I made was being in constant fire-fighting mode instead of taking a strategic approach to the business. I loved being the key man in my agency, solving problems left and right… but this held us back, as I frequently didn’t have time to make the big moves that would have the biggest impact on the agency.
If this sounds like you, then you need to focus on building a great team. Once you’ve found talented professionals that do great work, you’ll feel comfortable handing off responsibility to them. Secondly, you need to get clear on your vision (sound familiar?) – once you’re accountable to a bigger goal, you’ll find you don’t have time to waste on the small stuff. Bigger problems will demand your attention.
The third mistake I made as an agency owner was trying to go it alone, instead of just learning from the experiences of others. After quickly scaling the agency to around 10 employees, I hit a sticking point. The decisions I was faced with got bigger and more complex, and I (being as stubborn as I was) ploughed ahead. Little did I know that this “trial and error” approach to difficult decisions was not the right move.
Instead, I should have looked outside for guidance: a coach, a mentor, people in my network, seminars or even books. These were all viable sources of knowledge… but I didn’t use them as much as I should have. Don’t do what I did – learn from the experiences of others where you can. Personal experience is valuable in decision-making, but you don’t have to go it alone.
The fourth mistake I made as an agency owner was selling my business from a place of exhaustion. Completely burnt out, I was eager to get the deal done. And once I was out, I lacked a clear plan of action. What did I want to do? Who did I want to be?
I could have avoided both of these situations if I had been more strategic. I could have hired a skilled negotiator to assist with brokering a better deal for my agency. I could have taken the time to work with a coach to clarify my vision for life after the sale. But I didn’t do either of these things. While everything still worked out fine, I know things could have worked out better. So if you’re selling your agency, learn from my mistakes – call on the strength and experience of others if you need to. You won’t regret it.
The purpose of this article series is to help you avoid the mistakes I made as an agency owner. I can’t go back in time and change what happened (and even if I could, would I want to?), but there’s still time for you. The lessons of the past shape our future. They shape the actions we take, the moves we make… and the words I write to you today. It’s up to you whether these lessons help or hinder you.
I hope you’ve gotten something from these articles. And remember: I’m always happy to help other agency owners through whatever they’re dealing with. Odds are I’ve encountered your situation before in my coaching practice. So if you’re currently struggling with something in your business, don’t hesitate to reach out. You can email me anytime at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Welcome back to the third article in this four-part series, detailing the biggest mistakes I made as an agency owner – and how you can avoid doing the same.
This week, we’re going to discuss something you’ve probably experienced before. It’s a costly error I made early on in my agency career: taking the trial and error route instead of learning from the experience of others.
Thankfully, my business lived to tell the tale (despite some poor choices along the way), but I know my path to 25 staff, seven figures in revenue and an eventual sale would have been much smoother if I had just taken a smarter approach.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s go back to the start of the story, and see why this lesson matters.
I started my agency back in 1993. Having already spent a number of years in industry, I had youthful confidence on my side that running my own agency would work. In a few short years we were able to grow the business to 10 employees (with a decent client base to boot).
Guiding the business in these early days was exciting. Every decision brought with it the opportunity to learn something new. And when our agency was still small, I could afford to go with my gut and make the choice I felt was best: worst-case scenario, I learned a valuable lesson moving forward and avoided making that same mistake in the future.
It’s all well and good going with your gut when you’re leading a small team. But I found that as the agency got larger, the situations facing me were getting more and more complicated. I couldn’t readily apply my previous experience in industry to what lay before me. Hiring my first few employees worked out great, but adding further members to our team was a challenge. I ended up making some errors in judgement, taking on staff that weren’t right for the company. Not delegating enough (sound familiar?). Not focusing on the right things to move the Agency forward. This resulted in a much bumpier road to growth that it needed to be,
My old approach – based on trial and error and going with my gut – was no longer appropriate for the kinds of decisions I was making. With employees and clients depending on me to make smart moves, I needed guidance. I needed someone to advise me on these critical matters. I needed training and support so I could learn to manage my staff better (rather than just winging it).
As you can probably guess, I kicked that particular can down the road for a long time. I didn’t think I had the money to spare for training or coaching. I thought we could figure it out ourselves if we gave it enough time (and tbh, coaching wasn’t that well known in the early 2000s).
While it was possible we could figure it out by ourselves, the reality was that it was costing us more money in missed opportunities than we saved by skimping out in this area.
But I digress. Let’s refocus here and get back to what matters.
When it comes down to it, I’m creating this article series with one main goal in mind:
To help you avoid making the kinds of mistakes that I and so many other business owners have made in the past. The kinds of mistakes that cost you time, money and valuable opportunities. The kinds of mistakes that hurt your business badly without giving anything of value in return.
Simply by reading materials like this, you’re already further ahead than I was back when I was mired in my “trial and error” approach to business. By learning from the experiences of others, we can discover what works & what doesn’t work faster than we could on our own.
I’m not disparaging the value of trial and error and listening to your gut instincts, in helping you make better decisions. In fact, I believe that experience is a crucial part of effective decision-making – but it should be combined with learning from other people’s experience too – especially those who have ‘been there and done it.’
Taking a trial and error approach to making an important decision is like desperately tearing into a haystack with your bare hands in search of the needle inside. Learning from the experience of others, on the other hand, is like using a powerful electromagnet to pull that needle to you, saving a boatload of time and energy in the process.
So you’re sold on the value of learning from others… but for whatever reason, you’re not in a position to seek out a formal coach at this time. If that’s you, don’t fret. You can benefit tremendously from the experiences of others in many different ways, including:
There’s a time and place for learning through your own experience. I’ve seen this in my coaching practice: while clients often rely on me for advice, the final decision rests with them, but they value the fact that I have ‘walked in their shoes’. Experience is vital in making better choices, and simple “trial and error” is one way to accumulate this experience.
However, relying on your gut – to the detriment of learning from the experiences of others – is a fools’ game. Learning from others could take the form of reading their content, listening to their interviews, investing in their training or simply talking to them. No matter how you do it, getting outside perspective is valuable.
Don’t make the mistake I and so many other business owners have made in the past. Learning from the experiences of others will allow you to shortcut your learning curve, and this will enable you to build your business faster and easier than ever before.
In the next article, we’ll talk about the fourth (and final) mistake I made as an agency owner, and recap everything we’ve covered in this series. Stay tuned!
I have had the pleasure last week of spending time with students and entrepreneurs in their late teens/early twenties (guest lecturing at the University of Brighton and supporting a client as a potential investor in a new business). What struck me was how much energy and enthusiasm they had and how they are yet to become jaded by knock backs and the politics of the working environment. They all want to change the world and I suspect some of them just might!
I like to think that I am up to speed with most new ideas, marketing channels and technologies but meeting these young adults made me feel old! (ok I am only in my early 50s but….) because their business ideas are making use of newer technologies and distribution channels – some that I am not that familiar with – and also because of their boundless energy!
It got me thinking about how and whether industry is really focused on recruiting these young adults into their business, identifying and meeting their specific needs and giving them the bandwidth to spread their wings. Given that recruitment and retention still remains at the top of most business’ agenda, you would hope so. You would also hope that this entrepreneurial thinking is not stifled by process and systems. What this generation lacks in experience they make up for in ideas and enthusiasm.
Generation Z is the connected generation and their business ideas seem to really exploit this approach. Social media isn’t a relatively new idea to them (like it is to me) but something they were born with and a natural part of their lives. So social media is also an intrinsic part of their business ideas and how to engage with their target audiences.
If the students I met at the University of Brighton are anything to go by, Britain will continue its reputation as a nation of entrepreneurs but how will business utilise this resource?
BizCrowd is an online networking forum for small business powered by RBS. I have just had a Q&A published on there about tips on starting your own business.