Scaling an Agency

I have a confession to make.

I’m unemployable.

After running my own company for years, taking the responsibility and the risks and reaping the rewards, I’ll never be a good employee again.

I wasn’t a good employee when I was employed so today I’m certain I’d make whomever hired me absolutely miserable.

But that isn’t to say creating an agency has been easy.

It’s not.

It’s one of the hardest things I’ve ever done—and just when you get good at something, the business changes or, you know, something like a global pandemic happens, and you have to learn something new.

Or completely change your business model. 

But it also is the best employment for me—and it could be for you, as well.

As we figure out what the next 18-24 months could look like, becoming your own boss might be an option for you.

Some of you because you’ve been furloughed or laid off or because the business has scaled down or because the company has completely gone out of business.

Whatever the reason, let’s talk about what it takes to be an entrepreneur and scale a business. 

Time (Unfortunately) Cannot Be Scaled

There are some strategies and realities of starting and scaling an agency.

Many people start businesses because they are really good at their craft.

Often, they have a different way of doing things and they want to be in control of delivering better service, better results, better creative, or something else that’s just better.

So they go out on their own—starting by freelancing and selling their services.

But there’s a hard limit to how much you can grow on your own.

After all, time cannot be duplicated (trust me, I’ve tried!).

At a certain point you need to hire people to help you—either as employees or contractors—and that often means you’re suddenly an agency—or another type of business—that can solve more and bigger problems for more customers. 

That’s a key difference between scaling an organization that can exist and thrive without your direct day-to-day involvement, and a lifestyle business that is a great job you create for yourself and maybe a handful of other people.

Scaling an Agency Without Time

There isn’t anything wrong with either.

I talk to lots and lots of agency owners who say they don’t want to have more than five employees.

Ever. And you can’t blame them! People are hard.

But you do have to decide if you’re scaling an agency or if you want a lifestyle business that allows you to, well, have a life. 

The reason is because there are different skills you need to scale a business.

You need to be able to manage money, be a self-starter, be able to network and take risks, be excellent at sales, communicate effectively, have high emotional intelligence, lead and develop people—the list of skills goes on and on. 

Depending on the type of business you’re running, and the different skills of your existing team or partners, you’ll need to work on and hone different abilities.

Most of them can be learned and improved over time, and you’ll need them all!

You can check out our blog post on the 10 Key Traits of a Successful Entrepreneur for more information on the skills you need.

Your Past Experience Doesn’t Need to Dictate the Future

When I started my agency, I had come from a toxic environment.

The agency wasn’t toxic, but the person who ran our profit center was.

She would send emails and actually print out memos to put on our desks that were, let’s say, mean at best.

That was a time in my life that we would work 10 hours a day on client stuff—and be 100 percent billable—and then spend another six or seven hours a day on new business.

I once drove home at 2 a.m. and was so exhausted, I got pulled over for drunk driving.

Once the cop realized how tired I was, and that I hadn’t been drinking, he escorted me safely home.

The next morning, I walked into the office to find one of those memos sitting on my desk.

To say it was crushing is putting it mildly.

But, because it was all I knew, I thought that is how you communicate bad news.

When I started my agency and was “leading” people, I did the same.

It never occurred to me that the reason those memos made me feel so crappy is because it was a terrible way to communicate.

It wasn’t until a managing supervisor I had hired pulled me into my office, closed the door, and said, “These email bombs you throw into people’s inboxes in the middle of the night are not OK.” that I realized I had it all wrong.

I immediately asked friends for recommendations on books to read—and the best one I found was “Crucial Conversations.”

I absorbed that book and immediately changed my ways.

To this day, any bad news or hard conversation happens in person or on Zoom chat (because, you know, can’t really see people in person right now).

But those conversations never, ever happen in writing. 

Scaling an Agency Like an Entrepreneur

To scale a business, you’ll need the skills of an entrepreneur, but if you’re looking to grow a business around your communications expertise, you’ll also need some know-how and abilities that are specific to growing an agency. 

Growing an agency means you:

  • Take on more work than you could do alone.
  • Have team members you trust to fulfill their obligations to high standards.
  • Offer solutions to big problems, and clients trust you can make them work. 
  • Step out of the day-to-day and let your team do what they do.
  • Spend more of your own time developing your people and your pipeline. 

And doing all of that in an increasingly competitive environment means you need to be able to adapt and innovate so your agency stays current.

Staying Current and Competitive

Some of the ways you should keep in mind to do that are:

  • Keep as up-to-date as you can with technology, tools, and trends. You need to have the latest information about the newest tools and how to use them effectively. 
  • Invest in talent retention. You can’t grow if you have to retrain key staff every two years. Find great people, develop them, and make it worth their while to stay with you. 
  • Prioritize your own inbound marketing. This is overlooked by a surprising number of companies. They create amazing marketing plans for their clients, but rely on word-of-mouth for new business. This is NOT sustainable. 
  • Create a scalable infrastructure. You need to have systems, documentation, answers to questions, procedures, and policies. It sounds boring, but there needs to be a source of information outside of YOU if you’re going to get anything done in a day other than answer questions. 
  • And embrace failure! This is a hard one for a lot of people. It sucks to fail. It feels bad. But if it never happens, it means you’re not trying enough new things, or taking enough risks. If you’re not failing from time-to-time, I’d guess you’re not growing, either.

It doesn’t matter where you are in the growth of your agency—thinking about going out on your own, in the middle of it, or you’ve been around for years—it’s always a good time to work on your own professional development.

Hire a Coach

I have a great friend and client who always says, “Why would I try this on my own when you’ve already made the mistakes and will end up saving me money?”

Amen, sister. 

If you need help scaling your agency, hire some help!

Every great professional on earth—from athletes to business leaders—have worked with coaches.

If you want to excel at your agency’s growth, be willing to be coachable, motivated, and secure in the fact that we all need some help.

And now it’s your turn. Where are you in the growth of your agency? What’s worked…and what hasn’t?

The comments are yours…or you can join our agency owner channel in the free Spin Sucks community.

Photo by Beatriz Pérez Moya on Unsplash

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.

View all posts by Gini Dietrich