If you've worked at an agency that experienced rapid growth, you know how taxing it can be on every part of the shop. It's a great problem to have, but one that requires foresight and planning to avoid the common pitfalls that can make growth more painful than pleasant. In this post, we'll examine some key areas that experience stress during rapid growth and share some ideas on what to do to avoid negative impacts.
People are the lifeblood of every agency and have a huge impact on the quality, quantity and culture of the shop. Periods of hyper growth can put all of those factors at risk. If you've never experienced a time when there was so much work on your plate (and your team's) that you were literally begging HR to hire ANYONE - consider yourself lucky. It's that kind of desperation that causes poor hiring decisions within agencies. The greater the workload, the lower the standards fall for new employees. It's during these periods when your best options are activating the networks of your employees. Whatever you need to pay for a "referral fee" will be well worth it to bring in qualified people who your trusted employees have worked with before and can vouch for. If you can't fill your openings that way, it's best to default to freelance employees or implement "Trial Periods" with new people to make sure you can quickly end the relationship with the agency if they don't work out within the first 90 days. Then pressure-test those people to make sure you have enough data to know whether they can actually do what you need them to do or not within the first two months. It's not the ideal way to grow your staff, but hyper growth requires unconventional solutions.
As the agency staff grows, it's normal that some employees will see the influx of new people as a blessing (and a chance to get their work/life balance back) while others will see them as a potential threat to their jobs. It's important to over-communicate with everyone during this time to ensure that everyone knows how much opportunity is arising within the agency. Employees who may have never managed anyone before will be given the chance to do so. Teams will have new capabilities thanks to the addition of new members. A growing agency is the best place for an employee to be.
Hyper growth also puts significant strain on the processes of the agency. New employees bring with them knowledge of and predisposition towards the processes of the agencies they've worked for. To prevent them from infusing potentially disruptive practices into your process you have to get them trained on your own process ASAP. Finding the time to train them when you're already resource-constrained can be really challenging though. Plan ahead by creating training videos of your processes before you experience hyper growth, so the new employees can learn at their own pace and wherever they learn best.
At Advantage, we've built an entire library of training videos that enable employees to learn all about the Project Management, Accounting and Media features of the AQUA agency management system. "Agencies love the Education Library." says Ellen Coulter, President at Advantage Software. "They love the fact that they can watch the videos over and over again, that the videos are so in-depth and step-by-step and that we're constantly adding to the Library every month. It has become the gold standard for employee training and saves agencies literally thousands of dollars a year in training costs alone."
Another part of the process you have to keep a keen eye on is your current client roster. As new clients come in, employees tend to get really excited about working on a new category, new product, etc. and it's easy to start treating existing clients like yesterday's leftovers. Every client wants to be with a healthy, growing agency, but they don't expect (and most won't put up with) a degradation of talent or service on their account. Expecting them to understand by playing the "I know we're late, but we're onboarding a new client and things have just been crazy" card doesn't work. You'll end up losing as many clients as you gain. Keep everyone focused on the work at hand by using sprints in your workflow. Keep everyone informed of the new client opportunities and the growth potential that they represent for everyone's career, but keep the pressure and their mental focus on the work at hand.
It's also common during these periods that employees have to take on additional responsibilities across multiple accounts until the open roles on those accounts are filled. That's where task-based assignments and highly visual tools like kanban boards can be invaluable. Time-strapped employees need the scheduling help that tasks provide and the ability to know where everything is at a glance, which kanban boards provide. As you can tell, having the right tools is also a critical part of successfully managing periods of hyper growth.
We recently wrote a post on how to reduce your operating costs which contains useful information for agencies that are experiencing periods of rapid growth as well. In that post, we talk about the perils of unprofitable deliverables. As agencies add clients, it's not unusual for those new accounts to request deliverables or capabilities that the agency isn't experienced with. That's when you have to address the question of whether to Buy, Borrow or Build in order to deliver on those requirements. How you choose to do so will define the profitability of your new accounts for years to come.
It's also the case that as the agency's finances grow, your ability to watch your cash and know how quickly expenses are stacking up to billings can start to slip. Once billings climb above $5M or so, things become exponentially more difficult to keep a handle on without the right accounting system. Make sure you're prepared with an agency management system that provides robust reporting, tracking and integration between competencies so you don't get overwhelmed. The right system should enable you to automate many of your accounting features so you're able to use your time planning and guiding the agency's financial future instead of copying and pasting data from one system to another.
To successfully manage hyper growth, you can't be planning for the business you are today; you have to be planning for the business you want to be in six months. That includes thinking about things like:
- Office Space: is your current office large enough to handle the size you'll be in six months? Moving is a massive undertaking and can take months of planning and up to a year to actually accomplish.
- IT Infrastructure: do you have the right tools for your employees to enable them to handle the volume of work that's coming? Cobbled-together systems that work adequately for smaller agencies simply implode when put to the test of growth. Make sure you've got scaleable systems in place.
- Resource Planning: the worst time to be searching for resources is when you needed them yesterday. Make sure you have the drop on your resource needs by using technology to plan ahead.
Growth is critical for the health of every agency. Hopefully you can implement many of the suggestions above to make sure that no matter how quickly the agency grows, it'll stay healthy and remain a great place to work.
If you'd like to learn more about an agency management system that can help you tackle rapid growth successfully, click below to schedule a free online demo of the AQUA agency management system. After all, the best way to be prepared is to know what your options are.