Miles Burke

Thoughts on startups, small business, marketing & more.

Lombok, Indonesia

15 Lessons from 15 Years of Digital Agency Management

This week marks fifteen years of running my digital marketing agency. Back in the golden era of October 2002, I struck out on my own, setting up a little desk in a cluttered spare room of my home.

A few months later, I was paying rent for a small office, and had taken on my first employee. Fifteen years later, I am proud and humbled to say Bam Creative is still in business, and has weathered the many ups and downs over that time.

I started thinking of this milestone as an opportunity to reflect on my personal journey of managing a digital marketing agency.

As a result, I have put together these fifteen thoughts, in no particular order, which may be a help to anyone managing a digital agency, or indeed, any small to medium sized business.

Frequent change is the only constant

In just about every industry, change is now a constant. You either both accept that, and be open to changing your workflow, offerings, business model, etc or you should start to plan your exit.

The amount of changes we’ve enacted over the last 15 years is amazing; but we’ve had to, to stay relevant. Both technology and customer expectations frequently change; we either both adapt and ensure we are offering the right services, or we become a dinosaur business.

If your business is resistant to change, expect to become irrelevant eventually. It may not be an overnight disruption, but it will occur. Look at the lessons behind the change of circumstances of large companies such as Kodak, IBM or Blockbuster.

We either adapt and ensure we are offering the right services, or we become a dinosaur business.

Your team are the most important asset

Sure, I started the business, and initially took all those personal and financial risks, but that only gives me credit for so long. If it weren’t for the individuals in my talented team, both past and present, the business wouldn’t be where it is today.

Whilst it is very important to keep your customers in focus, your number one concern should be ensuring you have a happy, healthy and motivated team to drive the business forward.

Take time to show them gratitude, ask for their input on everything from workflows, to purchases, to recruitment and business direction. The more your team feel a sense of ownership, the harder they will work to ensure your business is a success.

If it weren’t for the individuals in my talented team, the business wouldn’t be where it is today.

Profit, not gross turnover, is what keeps you going

I’d rather have 10% profit in a million dollar business, than 0.5% profit of a $10,000,000 business (that’s $100k versus $50k, for the maths challenged). Turnover doesn’t allow you to hire your dream team, it doesn’t allow you to build assets for future proofing, or purchase the right equipment. Profit does.

It seems that people still consider profit a dirty word, yet without it, we wouldn’t be in business. Ensure you have built in a profit margin and do your utmost to always reach it. Profit matters, regardless of business size, and continue to reinvest it back to the business to foster growth.

Your customers should care that you make a profit. I know I want my suppliers to still be there for me in a few years; if they didn’t make a profit, it’s very likely I will lose those providers, and the relationships I have built.

It’s all about customer service

The difference between your business or product, and your competitors, often boils down in the customer’s eyes to customer service. The cost of your product fades into insignificance, if you provide great service.

Equally, if you provide garbage service, it doesn’t matter how cheap you make your product, you won’t retain the customers you have.

I, along with most people, remember the service I received from a supplier more vividly than the actual product, down the track. I would get great service than the cheapest product.

We’ve made plenty of service mistakes over the years. The best service you can provide, is to pipe up and admit you’ve done something wrong; customers are people too, and they appreciate the honesty and transparency.

"Strive not to be a success, but rather to be of value." Albert Einstein

“Strive not to be a success, but rather to be of value.” – Albert Einstein

Your business shouldn’t rely on you

To create a sustainable business which has a chance of continuity after you eventually exit, you need to focus on removing yourself from the early days. I am in the enviable position that I can take a few weeks off from work, and I know the business will continue to operate in my absence.

This is an enviable position to be in, for many business owners. Look at what you do, and what the business relies on you to be there for, and empower others to be able to do make these decisions or do those tasks.

Even if you have no desire to exit, your mental and physical health will be better for always be conscious of your businesses reliance on you.

See my article on the 6Q Blog, How to Delegate Effectively and Get More Done, for more thoughts of mine on delegation.

Look at what you do, and what the business relies on you to be there for, and empower others to be able to do make these decisions or do those tasks.

Cash flow, not profit, should be your focus

As I mentioned above, without profit, your business won’t survive. Something even more important is cash flow – without the ability to service ongoing costs, your business won’t even be open long enough to enjoy those profits.

Look for ways to minimise the gap between doing the work and getting the money. Don’t become complacent in chasing up debtors. Look for ways to maximise your bank balance, so you can sleep at night, knowing you can meet the next payroll.

If you have serial debtors, let them find another supplier. The cost of maintaining an overdraft or having your cash flow tied up in a couple of greedy customers negates their ongoing patronage.

Also see my article, Seven Tips to Make Debtors Pay, on this topic.

Train the future of your industry

There’s nothing more heart-warming than seeing fresh faced interns become seasoned professionals within your industry over the following years. Universities and education providers can only service one component of a young person’s education.

It was one of my motivations when I founded the Australian Web Industry Association all those years ago – this is a platform to educate the existing, and future members of the industry.

Without the opportunity to get work experience under their belts, people will never crack this, or many other, industries. Take time to create some form of internship program, or at least an informal work experience process.

Sure, it takes time to show these people the ropes, however I see it as an investment in the future of my industry.

Automate what you can

If I spend every day repeating the same tasks, I am not feeling fulfilled. Many people, such as your employees, also don’t enjoy weeks of constant repetitive tasks. Always be looking for things that you can automate, and free up your team to better utilise their time.

Encourage everyone around you to do the same. A small investment in extra time spent now, can pay off in big time savings in the future.

Automation isn’t necessarily about replacing humans. I see it as a great opportunity to free people up to think more creatively, and utilise their most precious finite commodity – time – on better tasks and activities.

Have a life as well as a business

This one has been a challenge for me personally over the years. It is easy to get caught up in work, and forget there is more to life. Take time to decompress away from work on the weekend, spend time on leave each year, and value your personal relationships.

It is why I have non-digital hobbies like motorcycle riding, amateur radio and others; these give me a great reason to stop looking at computer screens for a while.

I’ve known many successful yet deeply unhappy people over the years – I would rather have an average income and enjoy my life, than have an obscene bank balance and suffer from deep loneliness.

Never stop learning

I feel a little fraudulent writing this list, as I don’t feel I know it all. The older I get, and the more experience I have, the more I realise how little I actually know.

That is one of the main reasons I always have side projects like growth.email – it’s not that I expect them to become unicorns, it is because they give me opportunities to learn more.

Don’t get so caught up in your business that you forget to continuously learn. If your brain isn’t taking in new information, it’s rotting. The threat of becoming unskilled is a very real issue for many.

See my article, 4 Scribbles That Explain Your Professional Future for more thoughts on this topic.

The older I get, and the more experience I have, the more I realise how little I actually know.

Include the wider community as a stakeholder

Every business has a number of stakeholder segments – there are your customers, your shareholders, your employees. One group I feel should always be considered a stakeholder is the wider community.

It needn’t be a huge burden on your finances. You could formalise some form of volunteering program, or give back to charities by donating your products or services, or indeed have a financial donation program.

I’m encouraged by the amount of charitable organisations my business has been able to help over the last decade and a half. This gives me a real sense of purpose in business.

See the Bam Creative blog post, Bam in the Community, for some of the examples on how the business gives back.

Empower not micromanage

Particularly in the early days of Bam Creative, I struggled with delegating tasks and responsibilities and allowing others to flourish. I still catch myself thinking ‘I can do this better, maybe I’ll spend this weekend on it’.

You need to empower your team to make decisions, including the inevitable mistakes, in order to grow your business. If I never let go of any roles in those early days, I would still be overworked and by myself.

Whilst some days, you may feel freelancing is an enviable option, having a team to support you is even better.

Don’t take it personally

This is the one thing that possibly challenges me the most on this list. It is very difficult for me to not take a resignation or a client leaving us, as purely business and not personally.

I often feel that these hurdles are personal in nature, when 99% of the time, these situation actually aren’t. I do, however, feel the old adage ‘It’s just business’, was first said by an employee, not a business owner.

Whenever you feel that you are getting emotional over something in the business, stop and collect yourself. Ask yourself, is this actually personal, or is it just the result of a business decision? Nine times out of ten, you’ll find it is actually the latter.

Create the job you love

Cast your mind back to when you started your current business. What did personal success and happiness look like to you back then? Now look at your current position – have you kept true to your word, or become a slave to the business?

Over the last decade or so, my dream job has changed a number of times. As a result, I have done my best to mould my role to fit what excites me. If you are quietly suffering terminal boredom, it will become quickly apparent to others no matter how hard you try to hide it; and your negativity will become infectious.

Take time to assess your role regularly, and ensure you include a component of your role that excites you. In the beginning, it was one of the reasons you decided to start a business.

Cast your mind back to when you started your current business. What did personal success and happiness look like to you back then?

Summary

Starting and leading any business can be, at times, tough work. It can often take a personal, emotional and physical toll and often you won’t have anyone to discuss it with. I still have moments where I ask myself ‘What the hell was I thinking in 2002?’ however I am pleased I made the decision to be the master of my own destiny.

Starting and managing a business isn’t for everyone – many people are better off being an employee, or a solo entrepreneur. This shouldn’t be considered a failure or a shortcoming. There’s only a small percentage of us that have some insane personality trait that wants to create a business with all the challenges it contains.

If you are one of these folk, I hope that there was at least one point in the above list that resonates with you. I wish you continued business and personal success!

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3 Comments

  1. Justin Davies

    Well done on a terrific 15 years of contribution to the industry!!

  2. Thank you so much, Justin, appreciate it.

  3. Great list. Taking “it” personally is also a great, and constant challenge for me.

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