A quick background: in autumn of 2011, I co-founded digital agency Kontra (Akcija in our local market). Prior to that, I’ve been doing freelance community management for two years, but my background is IT. My partner also had nothing to do with marketing. He studied finance management and was still a student in 2011! We’ve started with 4 clients and ended up working with clients like Walt Disney, Discovery Channel, Microsoft, and Renault, to name a few. We’ve learned a lot so far, but here are a couple of things I would like to point out.
It really helps if you know the industry
When my partner and I started our own agency, to be honest, we didn’t know much about the industry. Back then, we were based in Split, Croatia, and it took us some time to realize that everything in our country happens in Zagreb. We didn’t know much about the industry, either. I remember the first time somebody called us to make a pitch, I had to use Google to find out what pitch means. When we started going to conferences, we didn’t know anyone (except maybe a couple of people from Twitter). Many other agencies had a huge advantage over us because their CEOs knew the industry and other people from the industry.
We had to do something else. We relied heavily on digital marketing (that’s what we do anyway!). We started with the blog, followed by webinars and ebooks. We started giving talks at conferences and seminars. We had to do much more than any other agency to be on the same level as they were because they were based in Zagreb. Today, that content and all those activities really paid off, but it would be much easier for us if we had some experience working for other agencies
There’s a market for everyone
Even when we started, we were not among the cheapest agencies. But still, there were other agencies that charged much more. Of course, there were also many other agencies that charged much less. I always wondered how someone can charge so little. But after some time, I realized there’s a market for everyone. “Big” companies that hire “expensive” agencies needed a broader specter of services and knowledge, so they hired agencies that had everything necessary to do a job. On the other hand, many “small” companies needed only a small set of digital services and didn’t need huge campaigns, so they ended up hiring a “cheap” agency which spent 5-20 hours each month managing their campaigns.
We positioned ourselves in an upper section of the industry. This means we are not a good fit for most of the companies that can’t afford to hire us, but that’s fine. We don’t have problems when a potential client decides not to hire us and instead hire an agency that quoted 2 times less.
Only stupid people never change
We started as a social media agency. Social media marketing was the only thing we did. We didn’t do Google AdWords, we didn’t do websites… We thought the only proper way to build an agency is to go two inches wider and two miles deeper. In a big market that might be the truth (never tried to find out, but I’m sure there are agencies specialized in Twitter community management on for example the USA market), but in a small market like Croatia that is really hard. Our clients needed a broader spectrum of services. Social media marketing was not enough for them.
We realized that when we lost a big and important client who was really satisfied with our services but needed an agency that will create and maintain their new website. We used the same reply as always: “we don’t do websites, here are some recommendations for good development agencies”. That client ended up finding an agency that would do a website for them, but also a social media marketing and decided not to renew a contract with us.
The sad truth is that we had a team that could build a website for them (we had a team that worked on our startup and had some buffer), or, at least, we had some partner agencies to whom we could outsource some of our work.
We decided to change and slowly introduce other services, as well. It required some changes to our team, it required some additional learning, but it paid off.
Done is better than perfect
I can’t tell you how many times we thought something had to be perfect. We couldn’t be farther from the truth. Let’s be clear, we always try to create the best possible situation for our clients and we will continue doing that, but far too often we’ve caught ourselves spending too much time on very small (and really, not important) details.
This section deserves a blog post for itself. People management is something we didn’t put much focus on, especially in the beginning. We were too naive to believe we could change people and make them behave the same way we do. No, we couldn’t. A person who graduated and is older than 23 can’t be changed much. I’ve learned there are only two things important when hiring a person:
- their passion
- their ability to execute
If either one is missing, fire them as soon as possible and move on.
For more than 4 years, I have believed we didn’t need many rules and procedures. We wanted to hire people with passion who can execute and they will figure out everything on their own. Wrong! Not all people think alike and your employees will see things differently. For example, you hire a fantastic person and send them to some conference on a business trip. Do they know which papers they need to fill in and prepare? Probably not.
That’s where written procedures come in handy. We started writing down everything. You can’t believe how many procedures can be created and written down which will help your employees. I am not talking about “bad” rules here, which block people from doing the work; I am talking about rules which help employees not to think about paperwork, about internal procedures and about “the way we do things”. If they don’t think about that than more energy will be saved for boosting their creativity.
Not all growth is good. Growing too fast can be really dangerous if:
- you don’t hire people with passion and ability to execute
- you don’t have procedures in place
We grew from 2 to 12 employees (plus 6 external partners/employees who worked part-time for us) in 18 months. My partner has been focused on our startup FenixApps and I’ve been traveling a lot for conferences and client meetings. That was a huge problem for the team because they didn’t have the manager and procedures to rely on. We had to downsize and start building everything again. This time, we decided to grow slowly, we wrote many procedures (a set of documents we constantly update) and it really paid off. Today, with a team of 10, we manage to do more work and generate more revenue with a greater quality of work. And more importantly, we’ve laid a sound foundation for the future growth.