Beware the ‘Fear of Thirteen’

The following blog is made up of the best bits of editorial, articles and blogs that I’ve come across in my 38 years of working life, 30 of which I spent as my own boss at a very successful Creative Agency.

I thank all those that have inspired me to make (and write!) my own observations on these subjects. I now want to switch my focus to helping the next generation find the success that I did, and hopefully avoid a few of the pitfalls I didn’t!

Twelve is a beautiful number. I can see everyone. I understand all their strengths and weaknesses. I know what they’re working on and when it needs to be done. Ultimately, I can tell whether they’re doing a good job or a bad job.

My turnover is in excess of £500k, and I’m seeing a very decent profit as a return. The business is stable, predictable and life is good. Now the question lingering over me is: Do I twist or stick? Do I go for growth or consolidate?

This isn’t the only question that will confront you. More will circle in your head until you come to a definite decision: what will happen if one of our biggest clients goes or key staff leave? What happens if a competitor comes up on my blindside and starts winning all the new business pitches?

Many owner-run agencies get stuck at around twelve team members. This is a pivotal moment in the life of the company, and one where you need to make a big decision: whether to go for it or manage decline.

The truth is that neither option is correct. Both are valid strategies and your decision will depend on which you personally want to pursue. Let’s take a look at the options:

Path one: Go for it.

Be prepared for a rocky time. Be prepared to cross the desert, to be disillusioned, to sleep less and to endure the change from being a ‘manager’ to an owner. These are two very different places to be.

Growing the business needs structure, process, procedures and discipline. It needs senior staff and it needs a clear chain of command.

You need a watertight strategy, and a solid company culture which you have designed (you’ll get one anyway, and if you’re not in control of it - beware!)

You need to have a clear vision and solid values.

You need to have the next tier of managers ready. Who will replace you? What is your exit strategy?

You need to read, observe and take in what the best businesses do. You need to think like a PLC.

But there’s one key thing to remember above anything else…

You need to let go to grow!

I know - this is a lot to take in. Incorporating all of these strategies and ideas can feel overwhelming, and this is why so many agencies don’t even start the process of growth.

BUT - what happens when you’ve finished crossing this desert?

The agency is now in the Premier League. It’s profitable, it’s predictable and it’s stable - but on a much greater level than before. Now, you can start to look at the agency as an investment vehicle for your lifestyle and your exit strategy.

Path two: Managing decline

This is by no means an unreasonable option to choose. You keep your overheads low, you continue to maintain the client relationships yourself, and you may even do a lot of the work yourself too.

However, there’s no exit plan. The business is you, and because of this it’s really not saleable. You may have a family member who’ll take it on at a stretch, and there may even be a team member who’d be capable of taking it over - but how will they afford to buy you out?

At best this is a lifestyle business, not a pension plan.

So the choice is yours! Cross the desert or sit in the comfy chair - whichever works best for you.

GrowthJonathan Leafe