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 email@example.com.
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 did pretty well at school but performed abysmally in my History exam (and if I am being honest got the lowest grade possible). I remember getting my results and thinking “I wrote 8 pages; how could I deserve that grade?” But truth be told, I wrote 8 pages of rubbish that had little to do with the question! I made that rookie mistake of reading the question at the start of the exam and then focused the rest of my time writing my answer (on 8 pages!) yet never once rechecking the exam question to be sure I was writing 8 pages that drove towards answering the question. I suspect most kids are coached to not make this mistake (I wish I was) yet we continually make this mistake in business!
So the question you need to ask yourself every day at work: ‘Is what am I (and my team) doing driving towards delivering our vision and strategy?’ (‘the exam question’).
It’s so easy at work to get bogged down in the detail or side tracked on a ‘nice to do’ project, and it’s easy to get too focused on the URGENT (which doesn’t drive you forward and creates stress) rather than the IMPORTANT (which does drive you forward). (Read my blog on this subject here). I have been having this conversation a lot recently in my 1-2-1 coaching sessions so thought it worth writing about.
This is a CONTEXT (the why) / CONTENT (the what) question. Get clear on the context and the content becomes clear or in other words, get clear on your strategy and the tasks you need to focus on to deliver the strategy become very clear, other tasks need to be ditched, delegated or deferred because they are a distraction.
Part of focusing on delivering the strategy is being a good delegator and therefore ensuring everyone is working at the top of their game (since they are delegating down as much as possible). When we delegate effectively we can focus on the strategic aspects of our role. I always ask my clients “Are you working on stuff that only you can do and delegating the other tasks?” Often the answer is no because ‘It’s quicker to do it myself’or ‘they won’t do it as well as me’. This is not useful thinking and will definitely distract you from delivering the bigger picture and answering the exam question!
So ask yourself how often you stop at work and reread the exam question before diving head long into your day’s To-do list? The answer may well be ‘not enough’in which case, avoid getting the lowest grade and reread the question more frequently!
One of my rules of engagement when I start working with a client is that they are not allowed to say ‘I was too busy’ …… to do the actions they agreed at our previous session.
Yet this stock phrase is one that is frequently banded around organisations and becomes the reason bottlenecks appear and work isn’t delegated (after all ‘I’m too busy to show someone how to do it so it’s quicker to do it myself’). Sometimes I see staff who are so busy….telling everyone they are too busy!
I meet with some potential clients who are so busy delivering their business that they don’t come up for air. They know they need some help, they know they need to break the cycle yet in extreme cases they don’t engage with me because (you guessed it), they are too busy!
Clearly this is an issue and I am sure many will relate to this so there has to be a way to change. The starting point is to separate the urgent from the important. And don’t kid yourself; if you feel everything is urgent then in the end nothing is urgent. It’s about priorities.
One way to help identify priorities is to ensure you can see the bigger picture so that means having a vision for the business that translates into a 1 year plan and further down to 90-day priorities. Once these priorities are identified then they can be delegated appropriately. Businesses attention spans are typically no more than 90-days so every 90-days the next set of quarterly priorities need to be identified, actioned and communicated.
The third step to breaking this cycle is to ensure everyone is working at the top of their game not the bottom, so this means delegating as much as possible to elevate everyone’s role to focus on the things only they can do. If you don’t have anyone to delegate to then consider outsourcing or bringing in freelancers – or dropping the action altogether, if you can.
If everyone in the organisation is focused on the business priorities, delegating and elevating and communicating effectively then we should not hear those dreaded words “I’m too busy”.
Want some help with this, then please get in touch
Many people struggle to delegate because they believe other people won’t do the work as well as them, the want the job done the way they would do it and they want it done perfectly. This may well be true (that others won’t do it as well as them) but they are asking themselves the wrong question. It shouldn’t be ‘will they do it as well as me?’ but ‘ will they do it well enough?’ Those who don’t delegate become bottle necks, and if they are the owners of their businesses (like many clients I work with) then they stop their business growing – which is the exact opposite of their intent.
Many people brag about being a perfectionist – they think it shows the quality of their output and that they are better than your ‘average Joe’ but the truth is perfectionism is unhealthy; it stops us doing things, its focuses the attention on failure rather than success and it stops us delegating.
“Striving for excellence motivates you; striving for perfection is demoralizing.” Harriet Braiker
We often equate being a perfectionist as a good thing. Yet perfectionists rarely complete task, or don’t ever start tasks – for fear of not being able to do it perfectly. Perfectionism often causes procrastination. Perfectionists are terrified of making a mistake, and consequently find themselves stressed, anxious, and desperately focused on not failing. They maintain unrealistic expectations of themselves and of others and consequently, don’t delegate.
Doing something ‘good enough’ (….for the client to be happy….to represent the brand well) is what we should strive for instead. This level of excellence focuses our attention on what’s right and working well, rather than what’s not working – and this keeps our attention on the positives and how things could be even better. Excellence is limitless and progressive, since you can always reach for greater and greater excellence. Whereas perfection can never be achieved.
Here are my 4 tips on breaking perfectionist tendencies
I run workshops on delegation and being a great leader and this is a topic that is discussed with more detail on strategies to overcome it.
So the next time you think ‘I can’t delegate because they won’t do it as well as me’ or ‘ I don’t want to tackle this because I don’t think I can do it perfectly’, ask yourself ‘will they/I do it well enough?’
If you wear ‘being a perfectionist’ as a badge of honour then you are setting yourself up to fail. By definition the perfectionist cannot succeed so it’s quite a self destructive mantra / character trait to have. In fact it is often referred to as “the highest form of self-abuse” because perfection simply doesn’t exist. More importantly, perfection is rarely necessary in day-to-day working and living (unless you are a brain surgeon). Don’t get me wrong, perfectionists are frequently high achievers but the price they pay for success can be unhappiness and dissatisfaction.
Perfectionists are also make for difficult managers, focusing on the minute detail (especially if there is a small error) and therefore easily missing or forgetting the bigger picture. They are unreasonably demanding micromanagers who irritate employees by obsessing over nonessential details. Because everything is important, they are terrible at prioritising, perhaps the most important task of a manager.
Being a perfectionist manager also stops them from delegating because of course, no one will do it as well as them. But, as I point out to clients, they are asking the wrong question. Rather than considering “will they do it as well as me” they should ask “will they do it well enough?”, and if the answer is “yes” then they should delegate.
Procrastination is often a symptom of perfectionism. Perfectionists fear that they won’t be able to complete a task perfectly so they put it off as long as possible. Perfectionists worry that failure will result in criticism or ridicule either from internal voices or external authorities and peers. The higher the fear of failure and ridicule, the more perfectionists procrastinate.
Procrastination is not laziness. It’s more a misguided sense of activity based on a low tolerance for frustration and failure. For example, when you delay completing a task that seems like it will take a really long time, only to realise that it took less time to do it than to think about it repeatedly. That’s why one of my best time management tips is to make your to-do list and do the hardest thing first.
Procrastination is easy to spot: Are you doing what you want to be doing or are supposed to be doing, or are you surfing the web/reading Facebook posts/filing papers/doing laundry/running errands? If you answered yes to the latter, then you are procrastinating.
Get a clear sense of the purpose in everything you do. Then it will be easier to know which things deserve that extra time to get things “just right,” and which things don’t.
Get clear about your minimum standards – and once you find an answer that meets those minimum standards, choose it. Stop searching for more options.
Create your daily/weekly lists and do the hardest thing first
When you get stuck and find yourself procrastinating, JFWDI (and if you want to know what that means, drop me a line!)
I run workshops on delegation and being a great leader and this is a topic that is discussed with more detail on strategies to overcome it.
So take your ‘perfectionist’ badge off and replace it with on that says you are a realist and a do-er.
If like me, you are a one-man band or small business, then it’s an ongoing juggling act to deliver the business, find new business and do all the admin to keep the business running. How do we achieve this? Well you might be super organised and get all that done within reasonable working hours or more likely, you squeeze in the admin in evenings or weekends, or when you absolutely have to get it done (how many people “don’t have time” to do their invoicing then wonder why they have cash flow issues!).
Even if you are super organised, is it best use of your time to be doing all your own admin? After all wouldn’t you be better placed using your time to focus on delivering your work and finding new work? Michael Gerber makes this very point in his book, The E-myth, which explain why it’s crucial for people who run their own business to have processes in place so that they can outsource those tasks that they don’t have the skills, time (or inclination) to do.
I finally figured this out for myself last year and decided to look for some business admin assistance. After a few conversations with some virtual assistants, I enlisted the services of manfriday. James from manfriday, manages my diary (booking, confirming, rescheduling meetings), books my train tickets, types up my client notes and generally gets me more organised. After 6 months support I feel that there are 2 key benefits from outsourcing this work:
The great thing about this is that you can spend as little as £50 a month up to £1,000 a month – depending on the level of support needed and your budget.
I don’t want this post to sound like an ad for manfriday or the use of virtual assistants, it’s just that after I started using one, it was a no brainer and I wondered why it had taken me so long to start! Also for those one-man bands or small businesses who aspire to grow, this is a vital step – otherwise you easily can get stuck in the cycle of having too much to do but not having enough fee earning time to grow the business.
So instead of sweating the small stuff and working long hours (have a read of my whitepaper on winning back time) doing tedious tasks you don’t enjoy doing, why not break the cycle and find the support from elsewhere.
A common problem for many of my owner / manager clients is prioritising their limited time when they have so many things to do. One such client is Leo from Roar Accounting. I worked with Leo for about 2 years and we made great strides in growing the business and helping with that ever-elusive work/life balance.
Roar was going through some rapid growth and the consequence of this could have been that ‘life goes out the window’ and Leo works long hours to ensure the clients receive the best service. However, before this took hold we tackled it head-on. Leo agreed to work with her marketing and admin staff to drill down and work out what she could delegate by looking at the workflow of client enquiries and other tasks.
We are visual beings so coloured post it notes certainly is a good way to ‘see’ what we have to do and move things around to get the priorities right. They have a lot going on!
No one does it as well as me!
Its easy to fall into the same old trap of ‘its quicker to do it myself’ when things get busier and we feel we ‘haven’t got time’ to delegate or show someone else how to do something. This is when one of my favourite expressions comes into play ‘SLOW DOWN TO SPEED UP’.
If a management team just dedicates itself to servicing it’s clients without spending enough time in a ‘strategy space’ (and read strategy as where is the money coming from tomorrow?) then they will suffer the classic peak-trough-peak-trough scenario which is not good for business or your health!
Having been there before, fortunately this time Leo and the team (with my guidance) have recognised this and are freeing enough of Leo’s time up to continue to develop future plans and future business.
If this story rings true for you, i would love to hear your own experience so please get in touch.
How often are you so busy delivering your client work that other crucial parts of running your business (or team) don’t get done? Never was it truer that we ‘reap what we sow’ and in the end this behaviour will bite you in the backside and you will either drop a ball or suffer from the feast to famine swings that affect many small businesses and small business owners.
It’s simple really, if you are so busy ‘doing the business’ that you can’t (won’t) take time out to work ‘on your business’, then who is steering your ship to avoid that iceberg that is up ahead? If I had to identify the top 5 issues that small businesses suffer from, this would be near or at the top of that list. If I could remove this phrase from our business vocabulary, I would!
So if you are busy and want to keep it that way then you need to have an eye on the future, at all times, no matter how busy you are today.
The secret is to allocate sufficient time every month to work on the future of your business and where the money will come from tomorrow (this is your ‘business strategy’), and see this time as important as a client meeting. The golden rule is: stick to this time each week/month and if you have to move it because of a client conflict then you move it elsewhere. YOU DON’T JUST NOT DO IT!
Of course one of the reasons people don’t work on the future of their business is because they don’t know what to do – it all seems rather scary, so they content themselves with just concentrating on the now and delivering today’s client work. Net result? That feeling your business is taking one step forward and one back, or that your business has no direction and you feel a little lost and demotivated. Sound familiar?
In order to be confident about the things you should do when you have strategy time in your diary, you need a clear business vision, clear strategy and measurable action plans. Then you simply need to refer to your action plans when in strategy time, and identify the next key priorities that build towards delivering your vision. Sound simple? Probably not, so in you want to know more or want some help then please get in touch.
So next time you hear yourself saying “I’m too busy” remember what the consequences will be for your business in the medium term.
Want to learn more about time management? Then download my whitepaper on the topic.