Starting an agency (or firm)? Here are 10 must-know tips for success

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This post was written by a Teamwork blog guest contributor, Clodagh Higgins.

After working with and interviewing hundreds of agency owners on my podcast Agency Life, one thing seems to ring true for all—the journey to starting an agency is often wide and varied. And while that path is different for everyone, their backstories are unanimously fascinating. Most agency owners I’ve spoken to had never run a business before starting their agency, but they had a deep passion for helping other businesses grow.

Typically, up-and-coming agency owners can figure things out without a clear plan by pitching to connections within their existing network and growing through word of mouth recommendations. It can be easy to get their agency team off the ground through friends and colleagues, however, when they get to about 6-8 employees, things become tricky. At that point, the agency owner becomes outnumbered and suddenly they’re focusing more on the business itself rather than doing what they loved in the first place—helping clients succeed.

Starting an agency and transitioning from doing the work to steering the ship can be tricky, so we’ve put together 10 must-know tips to help anyone who’s interested in building an agency or firm. Let’s dive in!

1. Read Traction and sign up for Instant Agency Tools 

This book by Gino Wickman and the processes within are the backbone of hundreds of successful agencies around the world. It gives you the framework you need for each aspect of your business, and when combined with Instant Agency Tools (a free product by Teamwork!) you’ll be setting your agency up for success by having clear goals, structure for your meetings, and key performance indicators for every member on your team.

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2. Create a vision and 3 year plan

Creating a vision for your agency can seem like a daunting task. However, with a little bit of thought and planning, you can develop a clear and concise vision that will guide you in the future. I’ve worked with many agency owners who never shared the story with their team about why they started their business in the first place, and when they do, they find that their team becomes more engaged with them and their work going forward.

By sharing the story about where you came from and where you are going, what goals you want to achieve and by when, it gives your team a sense of purpose and security.

Think about what kind of agency you want to create. What will be its core values and mission? How will it differ from other agencies in your industry? Keep in mind that your vision should be inspiring and aspirational–something that gets you and your team excited about the future.

3. Create your processes and procedures

Having everything in your head about how you do what you do for your clients works well in the beginning. However, when you add people to your team they need to learn the way you work through onboarding, videos, and documentation.

First, take a look at the processes and procedures you already have in place. Are there any areas that could be improved? Once you've identified areas for improvement, it's time to start brainstorming.

Think about how you want things to flow, and what steps need to be taken in order to make that happen. It's also important to consider your team and clients when creating processes and procedures. After all, they're the ones who will be using them!

Once you have a good understanding of what you want and how it should work, it's time to start putting it into action. The goal is to create a series of training videos and documentation in an agency playbook or checklist so that when people join your team they can walk through their training themselves and have a good understanding of how to do the work and what is expected of them.

Teamwork Templates help to improve processes, provide a clear timeline, deliver reports on time, make better use of budget, and get more done–give it a try!

4. Decide your role in the agency 

Build an accountability chart (this is different from an organizational chart as it does not focus on the titles). Give your entire agency clarity on who does what and their unique roles and responsibilities. In the beginning, you’ll be wearing many hats, but that will change over time. You can learn more about your role in the agency by reading Traction by Gino Wickman (see point 1!).

5. Have a recruitment strategy

Usually by the time you need to hire a new employee in your agency, it is too late. You may end up hiring out of necessity, rushing the process, ignoring red flags, and speeding the person through onboarding, putting them under immense pressure to perform. Burning out your team or overloading them with work can lead to them leaving your agency—which isn’t great for anyone! The way to avoid this hamster wheel of doom is to “build a bench.” Make it part of your weekly activities to approach people on LinkedIn who you think would be a good fit for the agency and find out if they are happy working where they are. The best people are typically already working, but they might wish to move in the future. Create a landing page on your website saying you are always hiring. For more on how to create a recruitment strategy check out this video!

Teamwork's Resource management solution makes it easier to manage your recruitment, hiring, and onboarding. It allows you to create a seamlessly synced workflow for a more efficient, transparent, hiring process from beginning to end.

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6. Customer testimonials and social proof 

When prospects hear how good you are from previous clients, it can help tip them over the edge in terms of whether or not they choose to work with you. As you get your agency started, you might not have a lot of clients or haven’t worked with them for a long time. That’s OK! Start small. Perhaps they’ve said something complimentary about you on the phone or over a Zoom call—-ask them to repeat what they’ve said and record this sound bite, or get them to send you a voice message if they’re not comfortable on camera. 

You can also create a social media post with their photo or video and the quote transposed on the image. By starting with these short testimonials, you can build on them in the future when you have more clients and have been working with them for longer. Get a person on your team to interview them, asking them to tell the story of what problem you solved for them and record it. Then, over time you’ll have a library of case studies to share with prospects and on social media.

7. Select your niche

This does not have to be one industry or geography, in fact, it’s better that it is not too narrow unless there are an abundance of companies you can work with and very little competition. Think about the industries you’re passionate about or that you have knowledge about—who are the people you love working with? If you have been working for a while and have a few contracts under your belt, this could be a chance to review your best work and analyze what their similarities are and create your own unique niche.

8. You’re not alone

Many agency owners are happy to help each other by offering advice so you don’t have to make the same mistakes they made. Join networking groups, masterminds, reach out to agency owners you admire and ask if you can meet them for a coffee or lunch, if they don’t live nearby you can meet via Zoom. If you go to networking events consider creating and keeping a digital contact card. You will have all the necessary information about your agency.

9. Take some time off for yourself

We have long let go of the hustle culture of working endlessly long hours and getting to the point of burnout. It’s really important to lead by example and walk the walk within your agency. Build a culture where taking breaks, long weekends, holidays, and vacations are encouraged.

First, remember that having a work-life balance is important for your mental and physical wellbeing. Work smarter, not harder by setting realistic goals for yourself and your team. Take clarity breaks during the week to give you time to think about things creatively and make time for fun activities and hobbies outside of work.

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10. Plan a couple of exit strategy scenarios

Beginning your agency with the end in mind is a great place to start. Many agency owners who haven’t thought about life after their agency can get distracted when a larger agency or company approaches them to buy them, wasting time and energy which can lead nowhere. Would you like to be bought out, continue working full time or part-time? Write down the options but remember, this is just for you! That way, if or when you get approached you’ll know what you want.

After over 14 years working in the agency world, I can tell you it’s one of the most interesting, dynamic, fast-moving spaces that’s full of eccentric, fun people. It can be challenging to crack into the industry, however with the right knowledge and planning, you can set yourself up for success. 

With the events that have unfolded in the past couple of years (ie. a global pandemic!), there is a huge opportunity for people working in digital sales and marketing to help companies get online and improve their results, which means there couldn’t be a better time to start an agency.

If you liked this post, you may want to check out our State of Productivity Report, where you can learn more about how agencies across a number of industries are staying productive and managing client work. Check it out!

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