How to Grow an Agency into a Sustainable Business ModelAh…the American dream.

We all want to work for ourselves, in some fashion.

If we work inside a corporation, we want to have autonomy and to make real change inside the organization.

If we set out to grow an agency, we do it to change an industry, create a new product, build a culture, or give back in a way we couldn’t while working for someone.

Of course, we’d also love work/life balance and the flexibility to come and go as we please.

But the ultimate American dream—the catalyst behind why immigrants come to this country and why we set out to build things—is to make a gazillion dollars while we build upward social mobility and the freedom to enjoy the fruits of our labors.

As it turns out, it’s not that easy.

Success Doesn’t Come Overnight

We tend to look at those who’ve had the kind of success we dream about and think, “If they can do it, so can I!”

Social media amplifies that—we watch other people’s success online and aspire to attain it ourselves.

What we don’t see, though, is one of two things:

  1. Either the person you greatly admire who has everything you want has rented those things, taken photos, and is telling a fake story online (this apparently happens more often than not and I was shocked when I discovered it); or
  2. They have spent years and years and years in the rollercoaster cycle of business growth. Some of that you never see. You only see the highlights—or the good. You never see them sitting at their desks at midnight, still trying to solve a major challenge. Nor do you see them lying in bed, staring at the ceiling, wondering how they’re going to make payroll at the end of the month.

Growing an agency is hard work.

It’s the hardest work you’ll ever do.

A lot of us start agencies because we’re really good at our trade and because we see value in doing things differently, but can’t affect change at our corporate jobs.

We think we’re going to work for ourselves and life will get significantly easier.

There won’t be anyone to report to, you can make all of the decisions, and if you don’t show up for a day or two, no one will be the wiser.

As it turns out, when you work for “yourself,” you have more people to report to than you did in any job.

You have employees, clients, partners, vendors, a board of advisors, donors, volunteers, members.

Everyone who touches your business is now your boss.

You don’t work for yourself.

And figuring out how to grow an agency is not an easy thing, unless you have some crack idea (Facebook) that catches on despite your lack of business acumen.

What we don’t realize is that, once you decide to grow an agency, you no longer have the luxury to be good at your trade.

You must become good at being a company grower.

How to Be a Great Company Grower

I had a business coach who used to say to me:

Do you want to be a kick-@ss communicator or a kick-@ss company grower?

I used to have that on a post-it note hanging above my computer. It’s a great reminder every day—and I encourage you to do the same.

Unless you are smart enough to have a business partner who can be the company grower while you tinker (Christopher S. Penn, I’m talking to you)…

…Or you have a crack idea that catches on despite your lack of business acumen…

Your agency growth has to be designed as a carefully calculated plan.

And, if you’re a typical entrepreneur, calculation, attention to detail, and planning are not in your vocabulary.

You’re great at the big picture, innovative ideas, and leading people toward the vision, but you’re terrible at process, procedures, managing, and standards.

I used to tell my team that if I wanted to work within the confines of a box, I would have stayed at the big agency.

Creating process and holding people accountable to the bigger picture is not easy.

It’s very uncomfortable and it tends to be outside of an entrepreneur’s capability, which makes it hard work.

Really hard work.

It’s significantly easier for you to fix a situation when a client is upset.

It’s easier for you to write a strategy brief than to spend time coaching your team.

Sure, it’s easier for you to find a new client to make up for the gap in our budget forecast.

So, then, why do you have staff?

Why are you growing an agency that is sustainable and not reliant on you?

Because easier doesn’t mean better.

Grow an Agency into a Force to Be Reckoned With

People want to be held accountable.

I have a client who says to me at least once a week:

Hold us accountable!

And I happily do because it’s the only way we get things done.

As you grow an agency you have to follow a carefully designed process.

You can start with interviewing prospective clients and employees and then onboarding them.

Then move to process for weekly meetings and reporting results.

Have process for staff meetings and one-to-one meetings and client meetings.

Don’t overprocess things because you still want to be flexible, nimble, and innovative, but do create structure for the people around you.

And then spend all of your time communicating the vision.

Why are you growing an agency?

It’s not to make a lot of money—that’s a by-product.

Figure out what gets you out of bed in the morning, the why behind what you’re doing, and communicate it.

Over and over and over again.

Be completely transparent about your financials so everyone has a stake in the game.

And, together, you’ll grow an agency into a force to be reckoned with…no matter how hard or uncomfortable it makes you.

The comfort will come as you continue on your journey of turning from a great communicator to a better company grower.

Gini Dietrich

Gini Dietrich is the founder, CEO, and author of Spin Sucks, host of the Spin Sucks podcast, and author of Spin Sucks (the book). She is the creator of the PESO Model and has crafted a certification for it in partnership with Syracuse University. She has run and grown an agency for the past 15 years. She is co-author of Marketing in the Round, co-host of Inside PR, and co-host of The Agency Leadership podcast.

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