Small but Scaling? Tackle These Four Points for Pain-Free Growth
When your agency is growing faster than planned, it can feel like the best kind of problem to have. Perhaps you’ve hit your stride in an underserviced niche, or maybe you’ve pulled off some big projects that led to top-quality referrals. Either way, you’re clearly doing something right.
This realization in itself is enormously validating and motivating. And not only does this mean that you’re seeing more money coming in. High-growth agencies often enjoy unique culture benefits. Some candidates will want to join the agency precisely to be a part of your strong upwards momentum, as it’s exactly the kind of environment that they enjoy best.
New but rapidly scaling agencies frequently offer more space for individual input and expression, which (understandably) is a huge draw for creatives. It is energizing and motivating to see everyone mucking in to move mountains. These sorts of agencies can be a haven for people who thrive when given more autonomy over their work, and when they feel freer to be themselves. They want to work hard, play hard, and bring their whole selves to the table.
High Growth, High Risk?
But there is a fine balance to be struck between winging it without any structure and putting a restrictive amount of process in place. A maverick culture might turn sour when it feels like you’re forever fighting fires that could have been prevented. The challenge is to maintain and retain the positives of a highly motivated, creatively rich and unrestricted environment, without relying on people to get the job done no matter how.
You can skirt along with low-process, ad hoc, reactive ways of working as a small agency. It’s easy to troubleshoot and find quick fixes when you’re all sitting in the same room, you’re all in one WhatsApp group, and you all go as a troupe to the bar for happy hour. But the bigger you get, the more complex things will become. The dream team might grow into a nightmare when nobody knows who is working on what, for how much of their time, and whether they are at capacity.
With a larger team also comes the possibility of taking on bigger projects, or more projects – but this too demands a different way of working than what you might be used to. Larger projects and bigger budgets require more planning and documentation. These sorts of projects may involve more input from the client too, on a longer-term basis, meaning that you will need to find a way of managing the increased needs for client communication.
Hiring a delivery or operations lead to build out processes and put some supporting structure in place can help. But even if you do expand your team to include a delivery manager, they are not a band-aid who can fix everything on their own. They also need tools to do their job well, and they need to prioritize the specific pain points that are impacting your growing agency.
Whether you have the resources to hire a specific role focused on the operational side of your agency, or whether you as the agency leader are having to tackle these issues yourself, here are four common growing pains that your agency may face as it scales.
Getting staffing levels right
When you’re growing quickly, it’s tempting to hire as many people as possible so that you can keep up with the new business that you are taking on. But, though it goes without saying that it’s exciting to bring new people into the team, it is important to make sure that you are really understanding the additional resource needs before you bring on new people.
Having a clear view of your existing resource utilization is essential to making informed decisions on expanding your team. But, in order to get this oversight, you need to make sure that your team is accurately tracking the time they are spending on tasks. Tracked time entries can reveal where your people are spending their time, how much of their time is spent on client-facing work, whether one particular role or skillset is overburdened or under-utilized, and many other vital insights.
This information will help guide you to more informed decisions about when to start advertising for new candidates, and when to sit tight with the number of employees that you already have.
If you don’t currently track time and want to learn more about why, as a growing agency, you absolutely should, check out our article on the subject here.
Keeping communication clear
As your agency grows, communication becomes more complicated. With a smaller team, it’s common for everyone to be involved in every project or decision. Perhaps you have a daily stand-up meeting that everyone joins, which is easy enough when you are only seven or eight people. But as you scale up, this will inevitably change.
You need to put the infrastructure in place that allows people to collaborate easily and access the relevant information from their colleagues, without this becoming a drain on people’s time. Scheduling more meetings is not the solution to this problem, and neither is sending an excessive amount of emails!
More and more people are used to using collaborative workspaces where they can work with their colleagues in real-time. Indeed, it’s probably fair to say that having a collaborative online workspace goes beyond being a “nice-to-have” at this point. Most decent project management platforms allow you to comment on tasks and tag colleagues, which notifies them that their attention is needed. It makes it far less likely that something will slip off the radar.
Developing processes that can handle the increased workload
Whether you’re seeing more projects from clients who have stuck around for a while, or if the new business is coming in through referrals, rapid growth means handling more work! You need to either build up your existing systems to handle the demands or adopt something that can. How well will your existing workflow stand up to tracking several simultaneous projects, deadlines, budgets?
If your agency currently lives in spreadsheets, you might want to start looking at something more dedicated and sophisticated. Spreadsheets might be perfectly workable while you’re still small, but they are incredibly manual. The bigger you grow, the more complex your spreadsheets will get, and the longer it will take to update them (not to mention the fact that more complexity means a higher chance of errors being made).
It simply isn’t a good use of time when there are project and portfolio management tools out there, built specifically to make the task of managing multiple simultaneous projects simpler.
Remember that implementing any new software takes time, as people have to learn how to use the system, and any existing data needs to be migrated across. For this reason, you should absolutely adopt a system that will withstand the stress test before work starts getting out of hand.
Maintaining a competitive edge
As you grow, you’ll likely find yourself competing with different organizations – people who have been in the space longer than you have. You may be more agile than they are, and you might have more energy and determination. But you may be angling for the large projects and big-name clients that are their bread and butter, and they will have processes that are tried and tested.
To stay resilient, you will have to remain competitive. And to achieve this, you will need to work smart and keep a sharp eye on the numbers. However, as you may not have the resources to hire a CFO just yet, you will have to find a way to keep your financial data accessible and accurate without having to dedicate hours of your time to it.
To make things more straightforward, manage your agency’s projects through a system that unites project financial data (project budgets, rate cards, and retainer fees, for instance) and allows you to pull reports based on this data. Forecast’s advanced analytics feature AvA is a great example of a tool that can make tracking agency finances simple. It allows you to build custom reporting dashboards for at-a-glance insights into your agency’s financial health, whenever you need it.
Scaling on Up
This period of growth will undoubtedly be an exciting time for your agency. But growth requires change, and no change happens without hitting some snags along the way. Our four examples are just a few issues that you might face; your organization is unique, and inevitably you will have to conquer challenges that are unpredictable and particular to your circumstances. At times your might feel like you’re up against the world, but when you come out the other side you will have learned some incredible business lessons that only experience can teach.
If you want to hear some first-hand experiences of agency leaders who busted the growing pains and went on to thrive through growth, join our webinar on Thursday 31st March 2022 at 4 pm GMT (12pm EST) (after the webinar date, you can still access the recording).
Ultimately, every agency got started somewhere, and every mid to large-sized agency has been through the pains that come with scaling up. They all figured out a secret formula that made growth work for them.
The same can be true for you and your agency. Maybe you were five people to start; perhaps you’ll be fifty people by this time next year. If you are conscious of the issues that growth can bring, and if you tackle them proactively by making your processes scalable, you put your agency in the best position to grow and become stronger than ever.