My Agency Journey 2021

The 4th of July happened. It came and went, like a noisy neighbor in an Airbnb. I spent the holiday at the park taking a nap and reading a book. I could use more days like that!

Note: This is a looooong-ass read, FYI. So maybe start it, take a nap and then come back to it. K?

I’ve taken to thinking more about my work and writing about it. Thus, I’ve taken greater inventory over what’s been going on in my business while also reading more from other folks on a similar-ish journey. It’s interesting to see how people think about what they do, especially in the services-based agency model. With that said, I will take a stab at writing my first Agency Journey entry for DigiSavvy (DS). H/t Peter Kang of Barrel.

Where We Were

Last year around this time, things were humming. We worked on two big projects—one for Reebok and one for a regional medical powerhouse, Huntington Hospital.

While things were moving forward and we gained momentum, we had a lot of stress in our active projects.

Our team was five at that time. I’m the owner/leader, and I had two developers, a production assistant, and a project manager for our Reebok project. I also retained the help of a few contractors to help with some work that we needed help with.

Reactive by default
We respond to requests for work from our clients, and their needs drive what we do and, subsequently, our timelines. In and of itself isn’t necessarily a bad thing. However, when you’re reactive, you operate at the whims of your clients, doing work on their timeline and not yours.

I’ll explain more about how we’ve flipped this script around and my thoughts about it in a later post.

Plodding Forward-ish
Much of our attention was focused on client work and not the work we needed to do for ourselves. We weren’t making plans for the future. I would direct the work I thought we needed to do because we should. But I wasn’t tying that work to goals—heck, I didn’t even have any goals. So we just did the work we needed to and thought about little else.

Project Drag
Our projects were moving, but there was a lot of friction. We were bowing to change requests and just doing them rather than sticking to processes we agreed to in our contracts.

The impact of scope creep is severely understated and something that I deeply underappreciated as we inched ever closer to our launch dates. The team was starting to get strained and stressed; I was also feeling the stress.

Still, we managed to launch our projects and deliver our commitments, and then some! It was clear. However, we were much worse for wear after all of it.

We didn’t do proper retrospectives on our projects as we were already hopping into maintenance mode on the things we launched and had to plan for new projects we just closed. As a result, we didn’t have time to catch our breath.

Bowing to stakeholders and their change requests affected our team; undue stress is added to everyone’s plate. I’m still not sure how we managed to launch, but we did; again, we felt the impact of it all.

I knew something needed to change.

Contractor Alignment
We also had serious issues with one of our contracted partners for the projects, which led to unforeseen issues and stress. I avoided drastic measures such as replacing them because I feared how much more time it would take to onboard a new partner to deliver what was required.

Our contract partner was clearly busy with work aside from ours (which is expected), and we never made sure to find out how their additional work or time off might affect their ability to deliver what we needed. Thus we failed to set expectations with our clients appropriately. We also failed to set expectations with our contact partners until it was too late. We just never got it right here.

We stayed the course with our partner, regardless, and we did so at our peril and our clients’ peril as well. It created friction later on resulting in us getting fired. It was a good thing, ultimately. Still, getting fired stings like a mofo.

2020 Was Freakin Hard…
Yeah, 2020 was a difficult year with the pandemic and everything happening globally, yet we managed (luckily) to remain quite busy. However, our lapses in managing our contractors and our client’s expectations heaped loads more stress onto myself and my team.

I knew that something needed to change—I was super close to burning out… again.

Lessons Learned

  • Contractor Alignment – It’s important to be transparent with your team and especially any contractors you work with. You need to understand their capability and capacity. Not only that, it’s important to have alignment on expectations from your end. If things don’t line up, don’t work with them. Be okay with moving on after exhausting avenues to set alignment fail. If you don’t, everything drags, and every stakeholder is affected by the fallout.
  • Scope Creep – You’d think I would know but, no, I didn’t pay it the respect it deserves. You can’t forget about it and you can’t let it run through your project unabated. It demands your attention and will change the momentum of everything, left unattended.
  • Failure is okay – As noted above, we were fired from one of our projects this past year, resulting in ~ $30k in lost revenue. The upside is a 100% reduction in stress. It’s always tough to be fired from anything. This project represents just the second time we’ve been removed/fired from a job. I’m surprised it didn’t happen sooner, honestly. Everyone has moved on and is in a better place now, which I’m happy with and I can close the book on this.
  • Make a plan – If nothing else, having a plan of the work to do and writing it out and meeting with your team about it helps ensure it stays in focus at a minimum.
  • Being proactive and taking back control – Still in progress but we’ve moved to being proactive with our existing clients and scheduling out work on a quarterly basis. We started a list of opportunities that would benefit each of our clients and maintain them in Notion. We’ve also decided to take on no more than five projects at any given time. I’d feel better with three projects honestly. I consider a project something that will take more than 20hrs to complete. That’s an arbitrary figure of course.

Where We Are Today

Professional Growth
Someone I knew recommended I signup and go through an immersive training program through an organization called Louder Than Ten (LTT) for Digital Ops and PM. A couple of years ago, I spoke with their CEO, Rachel Gertz, but never pulled the trigger, content to adhere to my Fuck Around and Find Out method to running a service-based business. To my past self: Shakes an angry finger...

By October 2020, I committed to joining the program myself after mulling over whether I would do it or have my production manager go through it. And I’m glad I made the change. (I’ve recently completed this program and highly recommend it!)

In my opinion, for someone running a boutique (read: smol) service agency, it’s important to grasp the concepts yourself first before having anyone else on your team go through it. Your team can change quickly, people move on, and the monetary investment was, for me, rather significant (but worth it).

I got a lot out of the coursework and the discussions as I asked vexing questions in real-time and received actionable feedback. Also, the LTT Community is chock-full of smarties.

I’m working with my team and getting them paired up with programs that will help them grow into their roles.

Team Growth
This is still a work in progress. We’re working in a few team meeting exercises (team-building) to help open the team up and get everyone better acquainted with one another.

My team has changed over time, but the overarching theme was that my team was a team of individuals instead of a cohesive unit that supports each other. I’m still working on improving that dynamic. Again, some of it is in the form of team-building exercises. Some of it is teaching concepts back to the team on how we work and can support one another. Again, this is in progress but something I hope to improve over time.

Keeping an Eye on Profits and Client Profitability
Service-based work is a challenge even for more seasoned and process-guided organizations. All of this knowledge and all these strategies are great. However, what good are they if they don’t help us boost not only revenue but they have to help us grow profits, too.

I learned to evaluate client profitability and our run rate (using our financial data to predict profitability, set future targets, and adjust our pricing accordingly).

We stopped billing hourly, and we are now billing in days or intervals, based on how much work we’re doing. I’m still pondering a full shift to a value-based pricing model.

More Changes

  • Changed how we did documentation. While it was noted that processes were important, I really zoomed-in on how LTT uses Notion for documentation and as an unintended consequence got really cozy with using it and brought it to our team to manage our in-house docs and processes. Previously, it was held in Google Docs. We made a point of writing up more processes and documentation since moving to Notion.
  • In progress – switching an agile team. We’ll be doing some sort of hybrid approach to how we manage our projects. I definitely want us working in cycles/sprints going forward and we are evaluating tools to help us there.
  • Scope/Research Projects by default – I was loose with whether or not we did these types of projects. Now, they’re the standard mode of interaction.
  • Began setting quarterlly goals (OKRs/KPIs) – I always had an idea of things to work on but setting out goals has been crazy helpful to setting the team in alignment. We set a lot of vanity goals here, most of which we hit. We’re going to be more intentional about setting goals that boost the actual business profits, however.
  • Changed how we bid projects (in progress) – It’s more of a collaboratively team effort. Nothing new in terms of concept but new to us in practice.
  • Package Certain Services – We have a lot of marketing automation work we do. Those services are easy to setup and easy to package and sell. Doing so has led to more sales of shorter term, quick turnaround, projects.
  • Implemented Company Changelogs – I wrote about the company changelog recently and how it’s helped me and our team to celebrate small wins.

What I Want to See Going Forward

It’s easy to get into should-ing myself. A lot of these things should have been implemented sooner. I’ll say I’m happy these things got implemented at all! Progress is progress. Right?

Continue forward momentum
I plan to carry forward the momentum from this year and report back on what has happened since. I’m doing it as much for myself as I am for my colleagues in a similar line of work.

Increased revenue and profits
Primarily, I want my agency to be sustainable, but I also want to reward my team for their effort and trust; I would also love to get my team together for an in-person meetup. We’re not quite there yet, but I think we will be within a couple of years.

Additional Teammates
I want to add one or two more folks to the team. I would like to have an ops/biz admin person in place so my project manager can focus on PMing our projects. My ops/production mgr is leaving DS in a couple of weeks. He’s been with me for over a year now; I’ll miss him. Having him onboard showed me how important it is to adequately staff the role of an admin/ops person on the team.

Continue to learn
The LTT class reinforced the importance of formalized training and education. It’s important to do the work and continue growing that brain muscle and learning more. You can get pretty far on your own, but learning from other smart people in a class setting really is awesome.

Alright, I’m done! I’ll see you with another one of these in a year.