Lessons from 7 Years of Building a Marketing Agency

The past seven years of building Intergrowth (formerly Junto) have been a blur.

We’ve bootstrapped our way from two co-founders rubbing elbows in a 100-square-foot room to forty people spread across 17 U.S. states and nine countries.

I celebrated my 30th birthday a few weeks back.  With that came a time of reflecting on the journey so far.

I’ve learned a lot in that time. Here, I’m sharing my biggest takeaways from the first seven years of building Intergrowth to help other agency owners.

I’ll group these into a few specific buckets for ease of scrolling. All of these come from someone who has spent most of the past decade working at, consulting for, and running professional service firms. However, much of this advice will be applicable to other business sectors:

  1. Agency Management Advice
  2. Agency Finance
  3. Client Relationships
  4. Agency Sales
  5. Work/Life Balance and Overall Happiness

Agency Management Advice

1. Fire the wrong people fast

Get the wrong people off of the bus to avoid suffering for them and hurting team morale.

I know from personal experience that getting fired sucks. It’s demoralizing in the short term and financially terrifying. That being said, firing the wrong person is the right move in the long term.

If someone is in the wrong role or isn’t the right long-term fit for your company, you’re doing everyone a disservice by keeping them on the team. Jim Collins dives deeper into this in Good to Great with his concept of “getting the wrong people off the bus”. I recommend reading the whole book, but you can also find the excerpt here.

If you’re doing your job as a manager, the person you’re debating firing already knows they’re coming up short of expectations. Keeping them on your team in a role they’re underperforming in prevents them from finding a role they’ll thrive in. Fire them or consider transitioning them to another role in your company you see them thriving in.

  • An underperformer will drag down the rest of the team by lowering expectations of what is expected of hires on the team. If one person maintains their job while delivering C+ quality work, why should anyone else on the team deliver A+ work?
  • If you’re a U.S. business, you’re paying state-specific unemployment insurance to help people transition to their next role in cases like this. Give a generous severance, a letter of recommendation, and thank them for everything they’ve done to help your company grow.

One tip: when you catch yourself regularly complaining to your partner/friends about a hire, it’s likely time to let that individual go.

2. Hiring the right person for the right job

Hiring the right person can make or break your company. I’ve written in the past about the 3 traits we look for in all hires: humble, hungry, and emotionally intelligent.

This will give you a strong sense of whether they’re the right hire for your team when paired with a technical interview to vet for hard skills. This is the backbone of our hiring process.

The second part of the equation focuses on job placement fit.

Hiring the right person for the wrong job can be just as problematic as hiring the wrong person for the right job. I’ve elaborated on our process to find job placement fit here. The abridged version is to focus on

  1. Ask about their ideal start date at the beginning of the interview process
  2. Pricing transparency in salary ranges for both sides eliminates time waste for everyone
  3. Ask about their ideal day-to-day responsibilities before telling them about the role.

3. Trust your gut, while searching for validation of your gut instincts

Whether concerned that a potential hire will be a bad fit, or something else, pay close attention to your emotions. When you see a red flag, isolate what is causing the concern and do everything possible to validate or invalidate that concern with hard data.

You’ll find your gut is usually onto something.

4. Create a process for everything you do

Break that process the moment that it gets in the way of results.

The caveat to this statement is that process docs will quickly become outdated or get lost in the noise as you scale up your quantity of process docs. Build a framework that helps with categorizing process docs so the whole team can easily search for process docs they know exist and explore process docs by category that they don’t know exist.

We use Notion for our “knowledge base” that organizes our process docs. You can see a quick overview of how we’ve structured ours here:

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5. Trust, but verify

“Trust, but verify” should be one of your guiding management principles when evaluating someone’s fulfillment of work.

I caught one of our first hires lying about completing an assignment for one of their clients. The issue ended up extending far beyond the single assignment.

I recommend verifying frequently in the first 3-6 months of hiring a new employee, contractor, or service provider. Verify less frequently as you gain more and more trust from the individual/service.

6. Recognize the pros and cons of “superstars” and “rock stars”

Kim Scott introduces this concept in one of my favorite business books, Radical Candor. TL;DR superstars will grow in their role, but will constantly require new challenges to deliver their best work and stay on your team. Rock Stars are great at owning specific responsibilities and maintaining those responsibilities over and over again.

Both are essential for business success, and many people will fluctuate between those two buckets throughout their career. With each hiring round, have a clear picture of which you need the next hire to be

7. Genuinely care about your team

Invest in your team in terms of salary and training. Push them to grow personally and professionally every day, and help them along that path.

Learn about their interests outside of work. They’ll make life much more enjoyable and will go above and beyond to help the company grow. 15Five, mixed with weekly/biweekly check-in meetings, has been a huge help for me in keeping a pulse on our team.

8. Happy birthday

Write down each employee/contractor’s birthday in your calendar. Wish them a happy birthday every year. Use it as an opportunity to let them know how much you appreciate them.

9. Build a culture of sharing mistakes

Build an environment that embraces mistakes as an acceptable part of the job, under the condition that mistakes are followed up with a:

  • Short-term remedy
  • Apology and explanation to anyone impacted by the mistake, and
  • Plan for how the entire team can prevent the same type of mistake in the future.

When mistakes are removed as a threat to someone’s livelihood, the team will become more comfortable with sharing their own mistakes, more likely to share feedback that helps others to grow, and more open to feedback that others share with them.

Agency Finance

1. Build your burn rate

If you’re bootstrapping your business, pay yourself frugally on the onset until you’ve built up a 4-6 month burn rate. It will protect the business in the event of a difficult quarter and will make you more comfortable with living on the bare minimum, should you need to again in the near future.

I wrote more about practicing poverty when I was going through this phase in 2017. Anything less, and a few bad months of sales + unpaid invoices could put you out of business.

2. Cash flow

Cash flow kills businesses every day. Monitor yours regularly.

Work with your accountant to build a dumbed-down dashboard that you can reference at any time to project financial health in future months to give yourself an educated guess on future profitability.

3. Pay your employees first

Build your personal savings to account for any months where you expect to be tight on cash flow. I recommend building up 6 months of expenses in your savings account.

4. Pay invoices right away

Pay contractors and other invoices the day you receive them for as long as you’re agency is small enough to do so. You’ll understand the importance of this on the first occasion that a client is late to pay your invoice or tries to escape paying an invoice.

5. Spend money on a great tax accountant

A great tax accountant will save you a fortune in taxes. Hire someone who knows what they’re doing.

6. Personal profit over personal revenue

Your personal income matters far less than your personal profit after you’ve covered all monthly expenses. Pay yourself an intern’s salary. Leverage business expenses whenever possible.

Depending on your personal situation and business structure, it might be beneficial to further lower your salary and pay a larger portion of your income via dividends/draws. If you haven’t already, talk to your tax accountant about this.

Client Relationships

1. Treat clients like family, but set boundaries

Find small things you can do to make life better for them. This could come in the form of doing complimentary work to help them grow faster, introducing them to new tools that will make life easier for them, or sharing fun stories on calls to make their work day more enjoyable.

Bend over backward to help them, but set boundaries in the relationship.

  1. If you’re running a professional service firm, time needs to be correlated to money. Monitor how much time and resources go into helping each client. With clients that you see low profit margins for, set the precedent that you’ll have to bill for some of these extra initiatives. In my experience, it’s rare that clients will balk at you for saying you need to charge more to do extra work. Time is your product as an agency. Sometimes it’s in your best long-term interest to give away your product for free to great clients. However, being too generous with giving away your time will put you out of business.
  2. Set an agency-wide policy for client communication. What is the maximum time a client should have to wait before receiving an email response? Is your team able to join client Slack channels? How do you respond to a client asking for your personal phone number so they can call you whenever they have work questions? Train your team on how to respond to these questions. I recommend building out a client management playbook that outlines how to respond to each of these questions (and why it’s important to respond in this manner). Fill the playbook with sample email templates that the team can reference when crafting responses via email; put them on the spot with answering those questions in 1:1 meetings with their manager.

2. Always let clients know about free work

One mistake I’ve made countless times is doing free work for clients and never mentioning that work to them. While results may have improved, the client had no idea it was because of us going above and beyond what we promised to help them grow faster.

Coach your team to convey everything you do for the client outside of the signed agreement. Your agency is covering the cost of that work. Make sure the client knows — it will help them to appreciate your collaboration even more.

3. Don’t put up with shitty clients

Don’t tolerate clients who speak down to you or your employees. Fire toxic clients before they demoralize your team.

In the sales process, keep an eye out for red flags that a prospect could be a toxic client so you can turn down the project.

4. Clients pay for results, but expect deliverables

Clients pay for results, but look at deliverables as validation that what they’re paying for is the thing driving results. Build a formal process for reviewing results together on a regular basis and sharing deliverables with clients.

5. Meet deadlines

I wrote more about this on LinkedIn. Missing client deadline expectations for email responses or deliverables is the fastest way to diminish the trust that clients have in you.

Meeting deadlines is the baseline expectation for professionalism in any workplace. Missing deadlines that clients are expecting will quickly sour any relationship.

Agency Sales

1. Stop “upselling.” Focus on helping

Regularly look for ways to help clients achieve their goals. Only push clients to invest in these opportunities if you believe they will help the client.

2. Regularly turn down projects that are a bad fit for you

Don’t take on work outside of your expertise.

Refer those prospects to other agencies/freelancers that you trust. You’ll build long-term relationships with those agencies and potential referrals from the prospect for the types of projects you’re uniquely suited to take on.

3. Approach sales in the way a doctor would approach a patient

A doctor asks questions, diagnoses issues, and recommends a solution, whether it results in more work for their practice or referring you to a specialist. Consider taking the same approach in your sales process.

Most prospects will come to you with a rough sense of a problem/opportunity for their business. What most prospects want is a seasoned professional to diagnose the root cause of their problem and help them find the right solution to solve that problem.

Many prospects come to us saying they need SEO. When probed, we’ll often uncover that:

    1. SEO isn’t the best way to solve their problem, and/or
    2. We’re not the right team to help them

Instead of selling a service that won’t solve their problems, we guide them toward the right solution. This might be encouraging them to take the DIY approach or connecting them with another agency that specializes in a different service.

Tricking a business into working with us when we’re not the right solution would likely lead to a pissed-off customer that churns 6 months later. I’d rather be helpful and focus on the long term. To date, we’ve brought on one client from cold outreach. Every other client came to us via referrals or through finding us online through helpful content we’ve shared.

Several of those referrals have come from prospects we’ve guided away from working with us.

Work/Life Balance and Overall Happiness

1. Find a hobby that allows you to escape from work

As an owner, you’re always on call. Find ways to clear your head and step away for a few hours at a time. I recommend a hobby that requires extreme concentration. It will force you to focus on being present in the moment and prevent you from thinking about your business

2. Set clear work-life boundaries for your team.

As an owner, you’re always on call. Your team should not be. A few things, in particular, to be mindful of:

  1. In the early stages, you’ll likely work 60+ hour weeks. Make it clear to your team that you don’t expect them to work the same hours as you. Many people will face burnout when working longer workweeks for too many weeks in a row.
  2. If you work with an “unlimited PTO” policy, understand this often comes with social pressures to take less vacation than the 2-week standard in the U.S. (or 6-week standard in Sweden). We’ve combatted this for years. What I’ve found most effective is:
    • Looking at your team’s vacation days once a quarter and jokingly guilting them to take more vacation time if they haven’t been taking enough time off
    • Being extremely transparent about your own vacation time. I have 19 days of vacation scheduled for 2023. All employees on our team receive a calendar notice for those days that I’m offline.
  3. Don’t send emails to your team (or clients) on weekends. Many people will periodically check their work email on the weekend to ensure that there isn’t an emergency they need to tend to. Send a Saturday email, and many will be tempted to respond by Sunday. Just because you’re working doesn’t mean everyone else should be. If needed, snooze the emails using Gmail’s snooze function until Monday morning.

3. The fine line between confidence and ego

Recognize the difference between confidence in yourself and your team, and ego.

Confidence is belief in yourself within a narrow scope based on previous success or previous failure, mixed with the projection of that belief to achieve a business outcome or help someone else grow (winning a new client, convincing a client to take a specific action, lending credibility to your expertise during a speaking engagement, sharing a case study with a colleague to help them level up their services, etc.).

Ego is projecting confidence to a party that doesn’t achieve a business outcome (ex. talking to another agency owner about your newest client that raised their Series C round, discussing how little time you need to spend helping a high-paying client grow, etc.).

Ego has the potential to cloud judgment, make you more likely to oversee your own shortcomings, and be less open to feedback that may help you to grow.

4. Great agreements make great friends

Whether working with a business partner or signing an agreement with clients, assume anything that can go wrong will go wrong. Outline what happens if one party wants out, one party doesn’t meet expectations, and more.

Proactively “declaw” all parties from being able to screw over any of the other parties while you’re all on good terms. Gray areas in agreements will lead to the largest issues during tense times.

5. Get out of the habit that thinking 9-5 is when you should be working

It’s an arbitrary time window that we’ve gotten comfortable with referring to as a normal work day.

Build a schedule that matches your lifestyle and productivity cycles, with the understanding that you’ll regularly break that schedule during calm and busy times. Encourage your team to do the same, as long as they’re not working in a role where they need to be on call during specific times.

Some people will need to work under a set time schedule to be available to work with clients during business hours. However, most people don’t need to be working during these hours. Encourage your team to build a schedule that works for them and encourage them to work under that schedule.

Dan Pink dives into this concept and how to think about productivity cycles in WHEN: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing. I encourage all new hires to read this.

6. Don’t take yourself too seriously.

Running a business will eat you alive if you let it. There will always be one more email to send; one more sales call to take; one more issue to solve.

There will be times when you need to be 100% focused on the business. However, if you’re in it for the long haul, you’re going to be miserable if you let the business control you.

  • Focus on compartmentalization of issues — give them dedicated time blocks to solve and put them to the back of your mind. Recognize most of the day-to-day issues you encounter won’t impact you a year, or even a month from now. Don’t let them occupy your mind when you’re done with work
  • Schedule time off for yourself. Bring your laptop so you can still “check in” — it will give you peace of mind that you can solve any urgent issues that come up
  • Cut yourself some slack. You’ll make a million mistakes, some more costly than others. Learn from those mistakes, write them down, and eventually write a blog article about those mistakes you made in hopes that it saves a few of your peers from making those mistakes as well.

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