Quite a few people of late have asked me what it’s like to branch out on your own and run a search agency. To me it’s very similar to playing several games of chess concurrently. You need to keep a constant eye on all things from finance and marketing to production, R&D and HR. The ever changing nature of search adds a level of complexity to it all that’s really quite challenging.
Now I have made a hell of a lot of mistakes along the way. Some people I backed way too much for too long and others I probably failed by not communicating effectively enough with them. Most of the mistakes I learned from (I hope!) and, as a result, tried things differently the next time the situation cropped up. I am a big believer that the right decision is a series of small decisions rather than one massive one as you learn things along the way that change your perspective.
With the current growth in our industry there has never been a better time to branch out and start your own thing in my opinion and I thought I’d share a few lessons I learned along the way.
1. Lead by example
Search marketing is an ever changing industry and to me you need to be on the coal face of search to run a search agency successfully. It’s very easy to sit in your ivory tower and make decisions from afar but if you aren’t at the coal face you easily lose perspective about your client needs and expectations. You’ll need to carry on being an SEO and managing key clients to retain your perspective of what you actually DO.
2. Make R&D everyone’s responsibility
This is a lesson I learned the hard way but you can’t create bottlenecks within the R&D team as there is simply way too much ground to cover on a monthly basis. If you create bottlenecks you will only ever scratch the surface. Decentralizing it empowers more people to have a say and you can cover far more ground far quicker than you ever thought.
Test ideas and things that work go into the training cycle and things that don’t get binned. You’re in search marketing not medical research, no one is going to die if you try something that doesn’t work.
3. Give credit where it’s due
In my experience this is one of the easiest things to get right but also one of the easiest things to get horribly wrong. Luckily I’ve worked with some horrible bosses who showed me how not to be but also worked with one that had an attitude that make people around him want to run through walls to get things done. Be the Sun, not the North Wind.
4. Build common reward into everyone’s core
An agency is only every going to be as strong as its people and keeping them motivated is hugely important. In our case we have a profit share incentive scheme which allows everyone to get multiple bonuses per year. That way everyone is incentivised to deliver their most creative work and this improves client satisfaction which then aids retention which kicks out as profit which is shared. It’s simple but it works very well. The reward scheme may not be monetary but you need to find something that incentivises to get the best out of your people.
5. Be consistent
This is an area that’s probably the most difficult to balance. Some people you get on well with and some people get on your last nerve. Consistency though is key to ensuring a good team environment and at the end of the day work is not a popularity contest.
6. Make the tough decisions
I know its massively cliché but it’s easy to see people at work as a family and sometimes you need to make the tough decisions whether that is a formal warning or a general discussion about poor performance. I often refer back to point 5 on this and try to be as consistent as possible but at the end of the day some people don’t cut it and for the overall health of the team you need to make those decisions. Delaying them is allowing a cancer to spread within the team because if you’re unhappy chances are they are too.
7. Measure, measure and measure some more
The old adage of “you can’t manage what you can’t measure” rings very true for me. Sometimes it’s very difficult to translate a gut feel to a measurement but you need a yardstick to measure effective performance. Goal setting is key in this area as activity really doesn’t equal results and getting that concept through can be difficult at times but very, very important. Tying this measurement back into their quarterly personal reviews sets the standard of what’s expected and communicates that well in my opinion.
8. Set internal goals higher than what your clients expect
A key to client satisfaction is goal setting however just achieving those goals leads your accounts vulnerable to competitors. Over achieving goals goes a long way to improving client retention and to me that’s crucial. We tend to set our goals far higher than what the client expects and while that makes our life tougher it means if we are slightly down for whatever reason we are still exceeding client expectation.
9. Challenge everyone (including yourself) constantly
It’s very easy to get complacent especially when you have built up a track record. Constantly review and set new goals that get your team into the mindset of constant change and improvements. If you are exceeding client goals then work on strategies that are going to win awards, push the envelope to where you feel the next big step is going to come from.
10. Brief, Brief and Brief some more
This is an area that constantly comes up in my review. The old adage of “Garbage in Garbage out” rings true and if you are reviewing something that didn’t quite turn out as expected you need to start with the strength of the brief and if you could have done any better with it. Its often easy to say that the fault lies elsewhere however a lot of the time it comes with a mismatch between your expectation and your communication of those expectations.
As I said in the beginning though I have made heaps of mistakes along the way and it’s through these that I have the opportunity to do better. I don’t profess to know it all, far from it, but I thought I’d share what I’ve learned so far if you manage a team or are thinking about branching out and doing something new.