Login or Join

Close this search box.

ALP 11: Going from being a small team to an agency

In the final episode of 2018, Chip Griffin and Gini Dietrich discuss what it takes to move from being a solopreneur or small team to becoming an actual agency.

They cover some of the mindset challenges, the process work needed, and other advice on overcoming the hurdle of becoming a “real” business.

Automated Transcript

The following is a computer-generated transcript. Please listen to the audio to confirm accuracy.

CHIP 0:00
Hello and welcome to another episode of the agency leadership Podcast. I am one of your hosts, Chip Griffin.

GINI 0:06
I am the other host, Gini Dietrich

CHIP 0:09
thought we’d mix up the opening there a little bit, just because you got to have a little bit of variety in your a right. And you know that that way, we sort of see if people are paying attention right off the bat. And, you know, for the fall asleep engine. So there you go. That’s good. You know, as long as you and I are paying attention that probably will improve the quality of the podcast. So what else will improve the quality of the podcast? Well, that’s telling you what the topic is. And today we’re going to talk about scaling or really, in particular, how do you take your what I would call your mini agency, your freelance agency on steroids, your nucleus agency, what however, you want to phrase it and turn it into a real agency business? Is that Is that a fair way of describing the topic?

GINI 0:54
I would say so.

CHIP 0:56
So it’s, you know, I think in future shows, will talk about other aspects of scaling. And, you know, going from maybe a small agency to mid agency. But for now, I think if we can focus in on, you know, what advice do we have? And t his is a topic again, that that came out of the spin sucks community a spin sucks, can

GINI 1:14
they think? And so,

CHIP 1:19
Gini, since it came out of community, once again, I’m going to let you have the first word and anything else you want to say about the original question.

GINI 1:26
Yeah, I think I mean, I think I have a little additional knowledge because it was from Catherine Mason , who’s a client of ours, and I talked to her this morning, so I have some extra context, but she’s going from you, I think it’s four employees, including herself to, you know, adding probably doubling size next year. And on my counsel, she she read, Built to Sell, which, by the way, is something that everybody should read, especially in the business that we’re in, because it talks about how to create passive income and create process out of our intellectual property and do it in a way that will provide you some generational money if you decide that you want to sell your business later. And it doesn’t require you to go with the business, which I love that that whole idea. So if you’re not, if you’re not read it, I highly, highly, highly recommend it. But that’s she had just finished it and was really trying to figure out, you know, how do I create process and structures so that a, I can build something that’s beyond me, and my expertise and my thought leadership and be that will allow me to create additional revenue streams I saw, I think that’s the genesis of her question is, what does that look like? And how do you Where do you start,

CHIP 2:45
right? And I think, you know, one of the, I saw this phrase somewhere recently, which said, you know, the owners goal should be to be needed, but not necessarily. Yes. And I think that’s a, I don’t know, who came up with this. My apologies for, you know, forgetting it’s, you know, it’s probably john wall again, you know, from

my seat stealing from marketing over coffee,

GINI 3:09
black mango, you can tell chip, it was Yes. Marketing.

CHIP 3:13
Exactly. Yeah. So, that’s, you know, that was very helpful. Look, if you’re listening, and, you know, where I come up with half of the things I say, feel free to let me know. But I read and listen to a lot of things. And my apologies for not being able to quote accurately In any case, the point is, is, is key. Because as we turn something into a real business, it’s important to have all of those systems and processes in place. So that I mean, frankly, at a very basic level, if you as the owner, want to, you know, take a two week holiday, you can take a two week holiday, right. And, and so often when we’re just starting a business in those early stages, you know, that’s very difficult to do. I mean, I remember with, with my first agency a couple of years in small groups, and I went overseas, this was before, you know, Wi Fi, and I’ll add and, and I went to Ireland for 10 days. And I was in in a panic and was so excited to get back to Logan Airport. So I could use the payphone there to call into my voicemail and see, you know, what, what hell it happened over the last 10 days, fortunately, you know, people can be much better connected now. So, it’s, it’s a little bit less of an issue. But, you know, you still want to be able to, to step away. And and I think a big piece of that is thinking about the business itself, and how do you operationalize what you’re doing such that it’s not just all in your head,

GINI 4:35
right. And I mean, you don’t want to, I don’t like necessarily like this term recipe, but because you don’t want to create something that’s cookie cutter that works for every organization, because, of course, you’re going to customize programs based on goals, and all those kinds of things. But I do think there are things that your agency does in on the back end, that should be products are created, you should create a recipe around and those could be creating reports, it could, you know, client reports, it could be setting up automation for, for those reports, or for data that you collect, or, you know, even using different types of software and how to do it. And I leave until you some of the things that we’ve quote, unquote, done systems and processes around is anything that’s repetitive, we have video tutorials on so that, you know, if we bring on an intern, they know exactly how we use co schedule to do our editorial calendar and set up our social schedule, our social media, they know exactly because, and it follows the same exact process so that externally, nobody sees a difference in what’s happening. And it doesn’t require one of us to continue to have those conversations every time and we do, you know, interns every quarter. So that would be a lot of conversations, you know, how we use different tools, how we,

even how we’re editing videos, in movie and things like that. So it’s just, it really gives you an opportunity to automate a lot of those things without you having to be doing, you know, teaching all the time and onboarding consistently, but they can come on and have those videos available. So they can watch them over and over again, as they get into the habit versus Okay, here’s everything, go for it, you know, sink or swim. It really provides a great way to be able to do that,

CHIP 6:26
right? I agree. And, you know, I’m personally a huge fan of checklists, I wrote an article about this not that long ago. I mean, there is a reason why pilots use checklists before they take off. It’s because when you do something all the time, it’s very easy to start slacking off carbon corners, say, Oh, you know, but I know what I’m doing here. And, and the reason you have a checklist is no matter how experienced you are, you may forget things. And so I have a checklist for publishing this podcast, for example, because it’s the same steps every week. Now, a couple weeks ago, I managed to follow all the proper steps unfortunately, use the wrong audio. So So anyone really paying attention for about 20 minutes, we had a duplicate episode up with just a whole different name. So it’s important to pay attention to the details, folks,

GINI 7:17
I didn’t eat That’s amazing. You know, for

CHIP 7:19
Fortune, I caught it before any, any listener did. It was one of those things, you know, after I posted, I’m just like, something was gnawing at me. And, and, and so finally, I went back and I looked, I’m like, oh, oh, look, Episode, whatever it is, eight and seven are exactly the same. I don’t think that’s likely. But you know, it just happens, right? Because, you know, you’re just, you’re thinking about so many different things. And it all feels new, and, you know, whatever. So, so having those checklists, it’s useful, frankly, for existing employees. But it’s really useful as you scale up and it’s useful to make sure that you have your way of doing right exactly right. So that so that when people you know, hire Armand Dietrich, or they are hire Griffin strategy for the higher whomever, you know, there is a way that we do it. And it’s, it’s probably not exactly the same way as somebody else. But, you know, just like, when you go to a restaurant, they follow that same recipe, you know, it’s the same sort of thing. You know, if someone refers business to you, they can be comfortable that you’re going to follow the same basic recipe, right, tweaked for that individual’s personal tastes, needs and all that. But so really, really helpful to have those in place.

GINI 8:28
Yeah, and it’s, I mean, it really today is so much easier to be able to do that we, I just use loom which ELO Am I think the web URL is used loom, but it hasn’t a browser extension. And so I can just click the browser extension, it goes immediately to my camera, and I can I can screen share, I can do me on video, whatever it happens to be, normally, I just do a screen share, and I show the process. So you as you’re doing it, you just create that video, and then you have it at any time anybody needs it, or, you know, you’re delegating, or whatever happens, are you bringing somebody new on or whatever happens to be, then you have that video, just send them the link. And voila,

CHIP 9:08
I think the video is an excellent suggestion. Because it you know, it allows you to, instead of, you know, having something that says, click on this box here, you know, people actually see where is that box and, you know, with web apps today, you know, some of them got pretty fancy. And so, it may not be intuitive if you’re reading and text were to click, whereas if you’re watching a video, you know, you can figure it out, at least until they decide to change their interface up, right. But it and and I think a lot of people overlook the, the, the utility of video because they think it’s too difficult to do. But oh my god, there there are so many tools out there that make it easy peasy. And you have to keep in mind, you know, whether you’re doing it for internal external video doesn’t have to be absolutely perfect, right? I mean, know, if you’re, you know, maybe NBC or CNN or something like that, well, okay, great, you know, you the bars as much higher. But for most businesses, if the audio is clear, and the video shows what you need to see your golden and there’s so many tools that let you do that you really should incorporate that into both your internal and external communications.

GINI 10:14
I also think there’s a I mean, this is a total sidebar, but so I use loom I think there’s a gmail plugin for video as well. And Wisteria has one called soapbox, it is a it’s a freemium product. So you get a certain amount, and then you have to pay for it. But you can check out loom and the Gmail plugin as well, which I don’t know the name of, I just learned about it. But it’s really, really, really easy. Really,

CHIP 10:40
yeah, and there are other things too, I mean, I’ve used camp Asia for a long time that that’s not cheap. But it’s, it does a really nice job. I think that’s what Chris Penn uses for a lot of his videos as well. So, you know, there’s any number of tools out there, and it’s really just, you know, finding the one that works for you. But the, you know, as far as building your agency into a business, that the key is just to just sort of take that information that’s maybe in your head or, you know, your partner’s had or whatever, and, and get it down so that everybody can be on the same page, because, you know, the first piece of growing your business’s is nailing the client service angle.

GINI 11:20
Right. Right. And, and I would say, even on that aspect, you know, there are certain ways that we do things from a client’s service perspective. And I, I expect every single person in my organization to treat claims the exact same way that that I would, and so we’ve created process around that, too.

CHIP 11:38
Yeah, and a lot of it is, you know, setting sort of what the standards are, you know, one of the things I’ve done all my businesses set, okay, you know, here is the expectation for how fast you respond to a client, right? Yep. So, you know, what are the guidelines and, you know, sit and same thing for prospects or what have you, you know, that there should be, you know, basic standards that you operate under, and basically approaches I mean, in the old days, when, you know, we used to get a lot of incoming phone calls, you know, there was a lot of thought given to, how do you answer the phone, and, you know, what, you know, what are the words that you say, so, that that’s, you know, a repetitive process as well, less important today, because most of us aren’t getting unsolicited phone calls from anyone other than sales reps. But, you know, nevertheless, it’s, you know, having all of these things nail down so that you have that consistency will make a huge difference to your success.

GINI 12:28
Yeah, and thinking I mean, I love the Catherine’s thinking about it now, versus, you know, and she has 10 or 15 employees, because it’s going to be far easier now than it is later. You know, one of the things that we’ve done, we did really early on is we implemented a support, this is on this side of support, email address. And, you know, in the beginning, it’s still came to me, but as we’ve scaled, it’s allowed us to put Zendesk in. And then, you know, create rules, so that the support email goes to whomever on the team at should go to. And if we were, if we had implemented that, this year, instead of five years ago, it would have been much hairier, and much more cumbersome, and probably even expensive, because we would have had some had to have somebody come in and actually implement it, where we just boom, done, you know, install it, and it was done. So, you know, thinking about that future stuff is as well, you know, if, if we, while we may not need a support email address right now, we could very well needed three years from now, five years from now. So let’s implement that structure now and get people used to it so that we can implement it at a higher level later.

CHIP 13:37
Absolutely. I mean, that, that being proactive and thinking ahead is, is really critical. And, you know, let’s face it, most of us haven’t done that most of us end up creating these things when when something goes wrong, right. So the, you know, we implement a process because something blew up right now, we posted something for a client that wasn’t approved, we, you know, we screwed up and, and, and broke someone’s WordPress installation. You know, I mean, most employee handbooks, the policies come about because you had a bad situation with employee Oh, we need to add a section for this, right. And, and it’s if you think about them ahead of time, you will save yourself a tremendous amount of heartburn. Tremendous. And, and, and, and that’s, I think the, you know, what I sort of touched on there, too, is, don’t just think about this. As far as setting up processes from a client service standpoint, think about them from your overall business. So how do you do billing? Yep. Right. I mean, that’s an area that a lot of agencies fall down on, because in the early stages, you know, the, it’s okay, oh, you know, I gotta deal with invoices this weekend, or, you know, whatever. And you really need to have a process and say, okay, you know, we’re going to send all invoices out on x day. And here’s the process we go through. And here’s how we make sure that we’ve, you know, cross our T’s dot at her eyes, we didn’t, you know, because a lot of times, particularly for doing project work, or, you know, hourly billing or anything where it’s an inconsistent amount, from month to month, it can be really easy to screw it up and not build the right amount. And usually that’s in favor of the client. Usually the mistakes that agencies make her billing too little, not too much, right. And, and so that puts you in a bad place down the road. So make sure that your billing in a timely fashion. And keep in mind, you know, if you invoice two days late, you’re going to get paid two days

GINI 15:26
late. Absolutely.

CHIP 15:27
So just be consistent with that, you know, think about it, I talked about employee handbooks, think about it, as soon as you start hiring employees, employee number one, you should have at least a rudimentary employee handbook in place, because it will, it will provide you with all sorts of tools that you can use down the road to deal with particular situations. And, and so, you know, think about all of the different aspects of your business, and just make sure that you’ve got the clearly defined process and it can start simple and then you, you know, expand over time as your business becomes more complex, for

GINI 16:02
sure. When I start, yes, and I would even treat it like you do crisis planning, assuming that everybody has experience with that, but it’s the scenario planning, right? It’s the, okay, we know, these things are going to happen, we know these things might happen. And these things might never happen. But we should probably be prepared for them. So same kind of thing. Like, we know, we have to have process for these things. We know we’ll eventually have to have process for these things. And maybe, maybe not, but let’s put that on that list as well. So that then you can start to plan and prioritize what you need to create now versus later. And maybe never

CHIP 16:41
Right. I mean, a simple guideline to think of is that the processes and paperwork are designed to prevent problems or deal with them when they happen. Yes, right. And, you know, if you think about it, in those terms, you know, processes and paperwork no longer become bureaucracy and busy work, and you no wasted time, but really, it’s an investment in the future. It’s an investment in in a better future, or at least a less bad future. And so, you know, those are the tools that you want to be thinking about, frankly, pretty early on and, and you’re going to miss things that there will be things that come up that that that aren’t covered by whatever processes you’ve already thought of. So be it, you know, it least if you’ve if you’ve done the legwork on a number of areas, you will reduce the problems that you have.

GINI 17:32
Yeah, totally agree. Um,

and I also as you as you add, even if its full time contractors, or part time contractors, but even as you add colleagues, have them write down a list of things that they do every day, because those are the kinds of things that a you can create process around and be eventually automate or use robots to do for you.

CHIP 17:57
Right. Well, and the other thing is, you know, years ago with my company, custom scoop, I, most of the company’s technical knowledge in the early days existed solely in my brain, right? And so, you know, if something went wrong, I was the one who fixed it. Okay, well, that’s fantastic. Yeah. But, you know, then what happens if I get hit by a bus?

GINI 18:23
Well, we like to say, what happens if you win the lottery now, sure, bus

CHIP 18:27
but but, but I literally created a document called hit by a bus

GINI 18:31
by bus. And,

CHIP 18:33
and it laid out all of the different because look, stuff happens, right? Right, right. You know, someone quits someone, someone does something, and you have to fire me have no choice. If, if that information goes away, what do you do? So anyone, and this is very common in the early days of an agency, that you’ve got one person who knows how to do something, right? As you get bigger, you tend to be you know, there tends to be more knowledge sharing, just by happenstance, everything else. But when you’re small, you’ve usually got the one expert in this, or the one person who knows this client. And so you need to make sure that you’re, you know, you’re taking down what, you know, what processes are they going through, particularly if it’s customized for an individual client, again, you know, going into the sort of the custom scoop example, we had folks who were producing Daily News briefings for clients, something that many agencies do for their clients, well, each of those tends to be tailored for the individual recipient, right. So, you know, you need to make sure that your whoever’s working on it has put that process pen to paper and says, okay, every morning, this is what I look at this, these are my sources, you know, whether I’m using just my monitoring service, but then, you know, perhaps doing some manual searches, or, you know, whatever it is that you’re doing, here’s what I do, here’s how much I generally find, you know, whatever guidelines they can give, so that if, for some reason they were super second couldn’t come in the next day, someone else can just take a look at that document, put together something that’s, you know, pretty good, you know, they’re not going to be exactly the same as someone who does it every day. But, you know, they need to be good enough. And then they will improve over time if they act to actually take it on, but don’t let any knowledge reside only in one person’s head.

GINI 20:17
And I would also add to that really think about, you know, I mean, going back to your hit by a bus document, does somebody have access to your bank account? Yes, you know, if, I mean, God forbid, something like that were to happen, you know, how, how does how does somebody access that get the information they need, and and truly dole out the finances appropriately.

CHIP 20:39
But, and this is a touchy subject, right? And so I glad you brought it up, because agency owners and most business owners, in my experience, are super reluctant to let anyone have access to the bank account of themselves, right, oftentimes, including their spouse. Yeah, for various reasons, right. And, but, but you need to make sure that you are not the only ones with the keys to the kingdom. Yes. Right. Because, I mean, think about it this way. And, you know, again, you’re dealing with bad situations. But I mean, let’s say that you are in a car accident and you’re laid up in the hospital, you would like someone to be able to transfer money to you, actually, you can pay your own bills, right? So think about it purely selfishly, don’t worry about it. Just think about it, those terms, and you’ll be much more willing to give up some control.

GINI 21:29
And it can be an ex outsource bookkeeper, it doesn’t have to be, you know, your account executive, it can be somebody like that,

CHIP 21:35
correct? Yeah. And you have to make sure, obviously, that you know, it even if you don’t like looking at numbers that you’re looking at the numbers. Yeah, because anytime someone else has control, you are incurring a risk, right? I mean, there are, Yes, you are. And, and, and you can always spot it. I mean, I, I had a good friend years ago, who ended up, it turned out he was embezzling money from business, I, I had no suspicion of him whatsoever was not my business. But, you know, nevertheless, it caught me by surprise, I know, caught his boss by surprise. So, you know, look, these things happen. And so you need to, to make sure that you have safeguards in and, you know, probably will have a show at some point, talking about finances generally, because I think there’s a lot of things to talk about in that regard. But, you know, important to think about, you know, sort of all those what ifs, and, you know, if this happens, what do we do? And it will help you think about which processes you need to put in place.

GINI 22:31
Yep, and then prioritize them. So, you don’t get overwhelmed. Yes, it may take you a year. And that’s okay.

CHIP 22:38
Absolutely. I mean, and, you know, you’re not going out at a time, don’t, don’t, don’t try to some people like to, say, boil the ocean, you know, there’s, there’s, there’s no reason why you have to address everything all at once, you know, sort of take it, give it a good thing can say, Okay, here, the thing is most likely to go right. And you may juggle it over time, you may have a list of 20 things. And, you know, item number 25 all of a sudden pop up because, you know, we’re feeling a little squeamish about him, and, you know, this employee over here, and, you know, maybe they’re looking at another job opportunity, maybe, maybe I need to focus on what they do, and get the processes there, or whatever I mean, so, you know, make sure that you’re flexible in your planning process as well.

GINI 23:18
Yeah, and I think you’ll find as well that once you, once this is in your brain, you’ll just automatically start doing videos or writing down process or creating checklists or, you know, however you want to handle it, you’ll automatically start doing that, and it’ll just become habits. So, get it in your brain and start building the habit now, and it’ll become lots easier.

CHIP 23:39
Absolutely, it really does. I mean, anything is better as, as it becomes a habit. But in this particular case, you know, focusing on what I would consider a little bit more of the drudgery side of the business, frankly, if you can make drudgery, a habit, you know, you’ll, you’ll get there a lot faster. I mean, it’s, you know, it’s like anything else, you know, the things that you don’t want to do do those first in the day, you know, take take 20 minutes and work on process in the morning before you’ve got distracted, and you can give yourself a good excuse for not working on it.

GINI 24:12
Client fires today.

CHIP 24:14
We all do it. We all do it. Yeah. I mean, you know, I, every morning I put together my list of 10 things. And when I’m being a good boy, I deal with the things that are quick. And I I liked the least first, but when I’m not being a good boy, I’ll get to that around three o’clock

after I record that podcast. So Jenny, that’s, that’s what I’m going to get to that item there. And then, you know, I mean, everything can come up. And at the end of it, I’m like, Oh, geez, I don’t I’ll put that after tomorrow. Right? Don’t do that with these process things. Because it will save you heartburn, but it also save you time and make you money. And, and the the last area that I would that we haven’t touched on yet that needs process, business development.

I mean, agency owners have this almost mystical belief in just building relationships, whatever that means. And talking to people, we need a process, right, you need to actually lay it out, you need to know who it is, you’re talking to, what you’re talking about, follow up schedules, you know, whatever it is, but, you know, particularly if you’re, if you’re interested in scaling your business, start putting processes very early on around how you’re doing business development, because part of it will keep you accountable to yourself, but part of it will help you identify, okay, you know, let’s not just let’s not talk to chip, just when we feel like it, let’s let’s actually have a rhythm here, you know, based on based on this conversation, what’s my next step? And it may be that they’re not going to be a client for 18 months or 24 months. But, you know, think about, you know, how do you keep those contacts going and target very specifically to that individual. Because, you know, if you if you just expect that you’re just going to talk to people in business, this is going to fall out of the sky, that’ll work for the first couple of employees, perhaps, but after that, you can’t scale a business without a business develop process, you cannot. So process around everything. Process process process process.

GINI 26:15
Yes, yes, yes. And yes. And I will repeat that if you’ve not read Built to Sell, I highly recommend it because it definitely helps you think this through.

CHIP 26:26
And with that, hopefully, we’ve given folks a lot to think about, we’ve certainly given them a lot of resources to look at and, and work on their own processes, and both from a thought process as well as from an actual implementation process. So pleased after you’re done listening to this, start writing down some of the processes that you don’t have that you need. Think about those things and that’s a that’s a good homework assignment for our listeners. homework assignment. Yes, yes. So And on that note, I guess that will bring to an end yet another episode of the agency leadership podcast cast. We appreciate all of you being with us, and listening right through to the sweet end at the bitter end, the Sweden and so I am your host, Chip Griffin,

GINI 27:10
and I am Gini Dietrich

CHIP 27:12
and it depends

New Episodes by Email

Get the latest Agency Leadership Podcast episodes delivered straight to your inbox!

MORE OPTIONS:   Apple Podcasts    |    Google Podcasts    |    Stitcher    |    Spotify    |    RSS

Like this episode? Share it!

The Hosts

Chip Griffin is the founder of the Small Agency Growth Alliance (SAGA) where he helps PR & marketing agency owners build the businesses that they want to own. He brings more than two decades of experience as an agency executive and entrepreneur to share the wisdom of his success and lessons of his failures. Follow him on Twitter at @ChipGriffin.


Gini Dietrich is the founder and CEO of Arment Dietrich, an integrated marketing communications firm. She is the author of Spin Sucks, the lead blogger at Spin Sucks, and the host of Spin Sucks the podcast. She also is co-author of Marketing in the Round and co-host of Inside PR. Follow her on Twitter at @GiniDietrich.

Recent Episodes

Never miss an article, episode, or event

Subscribe to the weekly SAGA Newsletter

Subscription Form