No one plans for a pandemic. Hell, we had just hit ‘Send’ on invites for our epic one-year anniversary bash when the virus started sweeping through Seattle. And now that we’re here, it’s scary as hell. Surely there are more crazy times ahead. Perhaps even crazier. But despite it all, some of you out there are determined to press on and start your own shop. Good. Running a creative agency these days requires just that kind of semi-delusional moxie.
While our fledgling shop certainly screwed up some stuff in our first 16 months, and we’ve obviously only just entered the global recession woods, here are a few rules we’ve followed that have helped us feel a little less fucked than we’d surely be otherwise. Also, some newbie mistakes we made that you shouldn’t.
DON’T BUY THE TRUCK
Our co-founder Michael Boychuk’s parents run a general store in rural Vermont. Their accountant does the books for most of the town’s contractors. She’s seen countless plumbers, carpenters and landscapers lose their businesses because they felt compelled to legitimize themselves with a fancy new pickup. When business slows, their truck payments don’t, and they’re quickly underwater. Her advice to all clients: “DON’T BUY THE TRUCK!” It’s been our mantra. As tempting as it’s been to legitimize ourselves with a slicker, bigger office, we’ve spent our first year and a half in a subleased 1,200-square-foot, un-insulated, kinda leaky, one-bathroom space. We like it. We love the neighborhood. And we love the fact that now, as we’re forced to work remotely for the foreseeable future, we’re not hemorrhaging rent money. Or a truck payment.
In our first year, we got some good assignments, we didn’t buy the truck, and we listened to people who know far more about accounting than we do. Most important, we fought the urge to yank big chunks of money out of the business to reward ourselves for whatever success we’d lucked into. Instead, we listened to more conservative voices (our spouses), and left the majority of our profits untouched. While the future is a massive unknown, that money pad has given our employees (and ourselves) some peace of mind that even a dramatic, overnight slowdown doesn’t have to mean cuts to a team we can’t imagine being without.
Like a lot of small scalable agencies, we rely on freelancers to fill out teams to fit each project. We get the right person for the job, even if they live elsewhere. People jump in only when they’re needed. And we don’t outgrow our aforementioned hovel.
While it’s beyond tempting to surround ourselves with brilliant, hilarious folks we’d kill to spend every day with (CULTURE!!!!!), it’s better to only bring on full-time team members for roles that you’re absolutely sure can’t be adequately pulled off by freelancers (e.g., account management). Freelancing also gives both sides a chance to test the fit before any commitments are made. We’ve certainly had some painfully expensive freelance “whiffs” along the way, but they prevented even more brutal full-time whiffs. Hiring hyper-cautiously means when the next downturn does happen, you’re already effectively pre-downsized.
INVEST EVERY DROP OF DOWNTIME
The two biggest mistakes we made in our first year: thinking that being busy meant we didn’t need to pursue new business aggressively and relentlessly; and thinking that doing good work for big clients would create its own PR. While we were hardly drunk with downtime, we should’ve been carving out spare minutes to meet potential new clients and become less invisible. Heck, we only JUST replaced the website that we built ourselves, pre-launch, that featured zero new work. Dumb. But we’re learning.
FUCK SPEC WORK
If you’re still giving away your team’s hard-earned expertise, you are your agency’s own worst enemy. You’re also likely handing money out to freelancers and production companies that should be going toward that much-needed pad. We’ve been dropped from multiple pitches that we had a decent shot at winning (at least we’d like to think so) because we’d prefer our first act as a client’s agency partner not be self-screwing compromise. Respect your business.
WORK ON YOUR WORK MARRIAGES
If you and your partner(s) don’t figure out how to work through disagreements without getting nasty during non-pandemic times, you’re guaranteed to struggle through a Zoom-based long-distance relationship. In our first year-ish as partners, we had our fair share of spirited misalignments. But we worked hard to keep things non-toxic. We called each other out respectfully. We played couples therapists to ourselves. We wrote partnership vows. Sure, it feels good to win an argument. But that high is fleeting. Your partnerships can’t be.
This insane unpredictability is going to linger well past its welcome. The best shot you can give yourself is to stay disciplined, make slow choices and believe in your success. And don’t buy the damn truck. See you on the other side.