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What to do when you feel burned out as an agency owner

This SAGA Member Webinar is available only to individuals with active memberships. Login or join to gain access.
Webinar presented live on January 17, 2024

Most people end up feeling burned out at one point or another in their career. That’s especially true for the owners of agency businesses.

Managing clients and employees, needing to constantly generate revenue, and handling all of the daily challenges that arise can be very stressful.

When you feel like you have had enough, how can you reset without throwing in the towel or making reckless decisions to relieve the near-term pain?

In this webinar, Chip Griffin offers some practical tips on how to chart a new course that addresses the real problems.

Seeing light at the end of the tunnel won’t just improve how you feel, it will improve the results that your agency produces.

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

Hello and welcome to today’s Saga webinar. I’m Chip Griffin, the founder of SAGA, the Small Agency Growth Alliance. And today we’re going to talk about what to do when you’re feeling burned out as an agency owner. And I know this is something that is affecting many of you right now. Before we get into the actual substance of today’s webinar, I do want to cover the usual housekeeping items.

First, they do that I do at the top of each of these. First and foremost, the full webinar replay will be available on the SAGA website. If you’re here live, there will be a live Q&A session at the end of the prepared presentation. If you are watching this on replay, you won’t have the the Q&A portion, but you can email me at chip@smallagencygrowth.com with any questions that you may have as follow ups and I will try to answer them as quickly as possible. We also have a free SAGA community on Slack. That would be great for you to join and you can get feedback, not only from me, but from other agency owners as well. If you’re discussing this webinar on social media, I’d encourage you to use the hashtag agency leadership so that other folks can find what is being said easily.

And for any of the resources that I may mention today, as well as plenty of others, visit smallagencygrowth.com. It’s got a pretty good search function that will allow you to find just about anything that you’re looking for that relates to managing a small agency. Okay, so what are we going to talk about today?

We’ll talk about, why you are not alone in this in feeling potentially burned out or thinking that burnout might be around the corner for you. We’ll talk about what burnout really looks like and the root cause of that burnout because ultimately if you want to solve it, you need to get to that root cause and come up with a plan of action.

We’ll talk about how you put that plan of action in place so that you have a path forward. And finally, we’ll talk about steps you can take to get more control over your agency so that you are running your business instead of having your business run you. So, if you do have questions, feel free to submit them at any time using the Q&A function.

it should be at the bottom of your screen, depending on what application you’re using to watch this. And we’ll take all of those questions at the end. So, you are not alone. This is not something that is afflicting just you. The hard truth is that it is really difficult to be the owner of a small PR or marketing agency.

And there are many, many reasons for this. But I think that some of the things that you need to be thinking about so that you don’t feel like you’re struggling with this on your own and that nobody really understands it. The fact of the matter is that most small agencies have a whale client. And if you have at least one whale client, someone who’s 25 percent or more of your revenue, you are basically one client loss away from real serious stress in the business.

And that obviously spills over personally for you as well because most small agency owners are dependent upon the income that the agency generates for their own personal life. In addition, most small agencies don’t have enough resources so that they have a backup for everyone. So if you have an employee leave, an employee gets sick, takes vacation, often times that means all of that added stress falls on your shoulders as the owner to step in and solve those problems.

Which means you’re much more likely to feel burned out sooner rather than later. Most small agencies also don’t have the ability to take on extra work easily because you’re trying to keep your costs low. And so you are trying to limit the number of employees and contractors that you may have. And so when you bring on new business, which should be an exciting time, oftentimes you’re sitting there saying, how am I even going to get all of this work done?

The solution to all of these things ends up being that the agency owner themselves wears a lot of hats and has to be involved in everything on a day to day basis. And you wear many hats in part because, I mean, it doesn’t make sense to hire a CFO or something like that. You need to take on the financial aspects.

You need to be doing the business development. You need to oversee the client service at least at a high level. And we’ll talk more about that in a minute. But because you are doing all of these things, It increases the stress on you and makes you feel like you can’t actually take time away from the business or you can’t focus on the things in the business that you want to.

Many times we remain in client service far longer than we ought to. I think this is probably one of the things that most agency owners are trying to figure out how to do. How to get out of client service on a day to day basis. And we’ll talk about some specific strategies around that. And we’ll talk about some of the things that may be standing in your way and how to knock them down.

Frankly, one of the reasons that owners feel burned out as well is because we deprioritize our own compensation. Many small agency owners simply take draws out of whatever’s left over in the bank accounts. Some may set fixed salaries or compensation for themselves, but as soon as you hit a rough patch, you cut your own pay, rather than reducing costs by laying off staff, because that’s an uncomfortable thing to do.

And because of all of these things, we’re not focusing on our own satisfaction as a business owner. We’re not taking care of our needs first. And one of the things that I’ll talk about today is how important it is for you to make sure that the agency is accomplishing your goals and that you are not putting yourself in service to the business to get what other people, clients, employees, contractors, vendors, what they want from your business.

You need to prioritize yourself, because if you don’t, that is how you end up on the path to burnout more quickly than just about anything else. So let’s talk about what burnout actually looks like and some of the things that I hear from agency owners when they tell me that they think they might be burned out or might be on the verge of it.

The first thing I often hear is, I’m working too hard. I’m doing too many hours. I just, I can’t stand the amount of time that I’m spending on this business. I’m working 60, 70, 80 hours a week and it just is frustrating to me because I don’t have time for the other things that I want to do. And so if you’re feeling that way, that could be a sign of burnout.

A lot of folks are telling me that they just don’t have time to work on the business because they’re so busy working in the business. And part of this is something that is beaten into our heads by business books, right? Every small business book that you read will tell you that as an owner, you need to work on your business and not in it.

The reality is, as a small agency owner, you need to be doing a little bit of both. I think it’s a little bit foolish to think that you can be completely out of the day to day operation of the business and still have it be successful. You do need to be involved to some degree, but you also need to be spending time on thinking about how you grow the business.

Some of the strategic things, the business development, the partnerships, and all of those kinds of things that you can do. to take your agency to that next level. So if you feel like you’re not having that time available to you, that could be a sign of burnout. If you feel like you just can’t hire enough people, that you can’t find good talent, and this is something that I’ve heard a lot of in recent years, it’s getting, even though most agencies are now able to hire remotely, and many of you, if not most of you, may be remote only agencies, or at least hybrid agencies, so that means, theoretically, there’s a larger labor market.

cool to shop in. It’s been a very pro employee labor market in recent years. And so I know that most of the agencies I talked to are still having a difficult time finding full time employees, finding freelancers and contractors. And so as long as we remain in that situation, it can be a frustrating thing for an owner and can lead to that feeling of burnout.

Of course, the classic sign of burnout is that you just can’t take time off or you feel like you can’t take time off. So if you’re not getting The long weekends, the vacations in the summertime, the ski weekends in the winter, whatever it is that motivates you, that makes you feel good. If you’re not able to take that time off, you’re going to start feeling burned out.

Because you’re sitting there saying, I’m basically just working 52 weeks out of the year, and I don’t feel like I’m getting ahead. One of the other causes of burnout is an owner feeling like they’re not making as much as they should from the business. And so if you feel like you are being underpaid, undercompensated for the work that you’re doing, that you’re taking on more risk and stress than you would like for the amount of money that’s going into your own personal bank account, that can lead to that feeling of burnout.

And I think the biggest sign of burnout is the number of agency owners who come to me and they tell me, I don’t know if I want to continue doing this. And so they ask, can I sell my business? Can I transition the business to an employee? What, what could I be doing next in order to give up what I am doing today, and I would tell you if you’re feeling any of these things, that’s a sign that you’re either already burned out or well on the way to it.

And so you need to be coming up with a path forward that will allow you to address those core issues that exist so that you start feeling better about the business that you own.

So let’s talk about some of those root causes, because they may or may not be what you actually think they are. I think the very first thing is that most burnout, at its root, when you dig right into it, when I’m having conversations with agency owners, and I’m asking the questions, following up on some of the things that I heard or that I shared on the last slide, it all comes down to fear.

Fear that you’re not going to be able to make payroll. Fear that a client might go away and so I have to over service them to keep them happy. Fear that I’m not going to be able to sustain this business for long enough to fund my retirement. All of these different elements of fear come in, and I think the more that we get into these root causes, we’re going to see just how prevalent fear is as the feeling that lies behind it.

And so, why is there this fear? And I think the first one is what I’ve talked about previously. You’re not prioritizing your own needs. You need to sit down and figure out what it is that you want from the business. And we’ll talk about the specific things that you need to itemize there. In order to address that because not prioritizing your own needs is a good way to be frustrated with your own business.

But it’s also this fear that our team isn’t going to be able to do the job as well as we can or as quickly as we can. And so that exhibits itself in a lack of trust in our team. And if we’re not trusting our team, we’re not delegating enough work from our own plate. And so that means that we are in. The nitty gritty, the day to day, the client service.

We are the primary client contact. We are on the phone every week with those clients on the regular weekly calls. We’re doing too much of that as an agency owner. And we’re getting sucked into these things that we want to get away from. And so those are the kinds of things that you need to address in order to address burnout.

We also need to remember that the fear of not having enough revenue for the business to meet payroll, to fund our own needs, That can lead to some bad decisions as well. And so, not attracting the right clients can be a real cause of burnout. If we’re just bringing in clients because their checks will clear, and not because they are the ones we can produce great results for, and treat us and our employees with respect, and are generating a sufficient profit margin for the work that we’re doing.

If we’re not attracting those people, that’s going to fuel the burnout. Because if we’ve got a client that we haven’t priced correctly, It means that we’re going to have to step in probably as an owner and do more work than we want to just because we can’t afford to pay another employee or another contractor to help get the work done.

If it’s a client that we’re not able to get results for reliably as an owner, we’re going to feel the need to step in and try to fix that and try to make sure that they remain happy because we want to keep them around as a client. If we’re bringing on people who can write the checks but they treat, they’re abusive to our teams, that means it’s going to be harder to retain staff.

It’s going to be more frustrating for us as owners when we’re interacting with those clients. So ideal clients really make a huge difference in how you are able to avoid burnout. And so you really need to focus on both attracting the right clients and pricing that work correctly because those are things that will really put you on a path to burnout if you are not doing it correctly.

And finally, the other thing that will help or that is a root cause of burnout is not really having a safety net. And that safety net is your personal finances, your business finances, but it’s giving you that room. So within the business, if you have, say, three months worth of operating expenses, that gives you runway.

So if that whale client we talked about earlier leaves, your stress level will be less because you know that you have some runway to make good decisions and you don’t have to make snap decisions. to cut your pay or layoff staff or all of those things in that very moment that you get that phone call.

And so that alleviates some of that fear of what will happen. And it allows you that breathing room to make more strategic decisions for your business. So when you think about it, these are often the root causes of burnout. There are certainly others, and you really need to dig into your own particular situation and understand where is that feeling of burnout coming from?

And what are the things going on in your business specifically that are impacting that burnout. Because now, that’s where you start to find your path forward. That’s how you start to see the light at the end of the tunnel. And I think that that’s probably the thing that you need to focus on first when you’ve got that feeling of burnout.

You need to find those things that are going to make you feel like all hope is not lost. That you are not really interested in giving up your business. There are things that you can do short and long term. So let’s focus. First on some of those short term things that you can do to combat burnout. And the first thing is probably counterintuitive, because if you’re burned out, it’s probably because you feel like you’re drinking out of a fire hose.

But I would tell you the first thing you ought to try to do when you start to feel burned out is take a break. And that might be half a day, or a day, or a long weekend. But just disconnect from the business for just a little bit longer than you think you can tolerate. So if you think you can’t be out for an afternoon, Take a full day.

If you think you can’t be away for a weekend, take four days. Take just a little bit more than you think you can because I think, first of all, you’ll be surprised. I think the business will continue to operate much more successfully than you think it will when you take off time. And the second thing is, it just gives you that time to decompress so that now you can come and take a fresh look at the steps you want to take from there in order to start addressing this burnout.

And when we think about burnout, it mostly comes down to what you’re doing personally. If you change what you were doing personally, you will have more of an impact on burnout, in the short term at least, than anything else. We’ll talk about some of the longer term things that involve the rest of your team.

But short term, it comes down to what you’re doing and how much of it you’re doing. So I would tell you, if you’re not tracking your time already, you should track your time for at least a few weeks. Generate a good solid list of the activities that you’re engaged in as an agency owner and the amount of time that you’re spending on them.

And once you’ve built out this list of all the things that you’re doing and the amount of time that you’re spending on them, start labeling. Start marking those things that only you can do versus those things that you could delegate. Now it doesn’t mean you will delegate all of those things, but just start there because there are, there’s a relatively small number of things that only you can do.

They’re important, and they’re things that need to be on the list, but be realistic about it. If you’re the only one, mark it that way. If you could delegate it, mark it that way. Now, for all those things that you could delegate, if you had the resource available or whatever, then go ahead and start using what I, you know, not what I call, but what a lot of people call traffic light ratings.

Red, yellow, green. And mark each one of these kinds of tasks as red. In other words, I don’t want to do this at all. Get it away from me. Yellow. Meh. Yeah, I could go either way or green. I actually enjoy doing this. And what you put down is not going to be the same as everybody else. That’s why I’m not just giving you a list of here are the tasks that you should get off your plate as an agency owner.

It’s a question I get asked a lot. What shouldn’t I be doing? What should I be doing? How much time should I spend on this or that? The reality is it’s very personal to you and your situation. And so you need to look at it and say, okay, maybe I actually enjoy doing certain portions of client services.

Maybe I actually enjoy looking at the financials. I don’t know. Maybe you do. We’re all different. And so, if you’re able to mark these things down as red, yellow, or green based on what you would prefer, you now start to have a list in front of you of what you could delegate, and those things that are red are the things that you want to try to figure out how to get off of your plate first.

And I would tell you, as you’re looking at that, in addition to prioritizing the things that you can delegate and that are reds that you don’t want to do, You should also look at the amount of time each one of those takes. Because one of the things that we often do is we think of things that we dislike the most as taking longer than they do.

And we think about those things that we enjoy doing as taking less time than they do. So by tracking our time, we’re able to sit there and say, Okay, I absolutely hate doing, I don’t know, I’ll pick invoices. But if any of you are spending a ton of time on invoices, that’s a problem in and of itself. But let’s just, for the sake of argument, say, I hate doing invoices, I spend 10 hours a month doing invoices, want to get rid of it.

Well, great. So, if that’s something that you’re targeting, you’re now able to relieve yourself of 10 hours worth of time. But if I say, well, you know, I really hate mailing the invoices, maybe that only takes 15 minutes a month. So if you get that off of your plate, you really haven’t relieved nearly as much pain, right?

So look at the things that you can delegate, look at the ones that you’ve marked in red, and then look at the ones that take the most time. Those are the ones you should try to figure out how to get off of your plate sooner rather than later, because that’s where you start to feel the real relief. And when you feel that real relief, it does two things.

First of all, it’s the psychological benefit of being able to see and feel progress. But the second thing is, it does is it opens up time for you to be spending on other things that could help grow the business more effectively. That could help position the business so that you’re not as prone to feeling burnout.

So think about all of these things, wrap them all into your thought process, because your own time is the first and most important thing to do to get this feeling and sense of burnout under control. Of course, it’s not the only thing, because that’s just how you get started with it. In order to take full control of your agency, you need to be much more thoughtful and strategic about what you’re doing.

And so what you need to start by doing is set clear goals for what you want out of your agency. And so I would tell you to define your role in a couple of ways, or your goals, rather, in a couple of ways. Start with how much you want to work. And how much is not just the number of hours, it’s also the flexibility.

So, you could say, I want to work no more than 40 hours a week. I want to have the flexibility to pick my kids up after school to go to their sporting events. I want to have the flexibility to take ski weekends in the winter and beach weekends in the summer. Heck, you could say, I want the flexibility to take the month of July off every year and go to Europe or wherever.

Those are the kinds of things that you should be setting as your goals for how much you want to work, because that’s a reward that you get from the business. And you need to remember that as an agency owner, you have two roles in your business, and you need to receive compensation for both. The first is, you are the operator of that business.

And as the operator, the CEO, the president, whatever title you give yourself. You need to be compensated for the actual work that you’re doing day to day in the business. But you also need to be compensated for the risk that you are taking as an entrepreneur. That’s the owner piece of the compensation.

And so, you, I have a couple of resources on the SAGA website that talk about how to calculate your, or how to think about your compensation in these two different buckets. But these goals here are taking into account the fact that you are the owner of the business. You’re not an employee. If you start feeling like purely an employee of your own business, then something is wrong.

And so taking control means that you set these goals for how much you want to work, how you want to work, and then next, what kind of work do you want to be doing? Are you a creative type who wants to be doing at least some level of client service? It could be at the strategic level in PR, it could be some of the design work if you’re running a design firm.

Many of us have these things that we enjoy doing and we don’t have to fully give them up. We just need to figure out how to compartmentalize them enough that we’re still getting the joy out of doing that work, but we’re also able to set aside time for all of the other things that we want to do, and we’re not being sucked into just doing client service on a day to day basis.

And I’m not sitting here, by the way, and telling you that you need to love every minute of your business, because I think that’s probably an unrealistic goal. It is a business. There are frustrations. It is a job. There are frustrations. So, you need to get satisfaction out of the business. You need to get what you want from the business.

But it’s not always sunshine and roses. But if you know the kind of work that you actually want to be doing on a day to day basis. Maybe I love doing business development, so I want to set aside as much time as possible to do that. Great. Define that in your goals, so that you’re driving your overall business decisions to take you there.

And then finally, with your goals, you need to specify the financial piece. You need to be clear about what is the minimum you need to be making from this business, and then above and beyond that, how much do you want to be making? And obviously, most of us will say, well, we’d like to make as much as we can.

But, but be realistic here, right? So understand what you’re, what’s your core number. It’s the number that you just cannot let your business go below in order for you to meet your basic financial needs, you know, whether that’s, you know, just your day to day living or funding your kids education or whatever it is.

So make sure that you know that minimum number, but then say, okay, here’s where I’d like to strive for. And here’s why I want to strive for it. Right? So it’s not just some pie in the sky. I want to be a billionaire, but really it’s a very clear methodical idea of how much you would like to be able to earn at that upper level, because that then helps you again to think about how you structure your business and what kind of clients you’re bringing on and how large you get.

Because one of the things that I usually do with my clients is I will sit there and say, and ask them for this information and we’ll talk about it. And we’ll say, okay, well, if you want to be earning 250, 000 a year, here’s how you get there, right? Here’s how much of that would be profit. Here’s how much of that would be salary compensation in order to get there.

Here’s likely where you need to be from a revenue standpoint, and a number of clients standpoint, and an average client size standpoint. Right, but it all stems from what you want to get out of the business. Too often, and one of the main contributors to burnout is that we simply say, Okay, well let’s just start bringing on clients and let’s figure out what I can do for myself after that.

And if you’re working in that reverse direction, it’s going to be very difficult to achieve what you want from the business. Because you’re now making decisions that don’t necessarily directly impact what it does for you as the owner. So be clear about these goals. So now you’ve got these goals. You’ve done the time tracking that we talked about.

So now let’s write down a formal job description. For if you were hiring someone to do your job, the job you’re doing today, the exact same job, what would that job description entail? And so be very clear about the things that you are doing and write down that job description. So now you know, this is, this is the status quo.

This is where we are today. But then, take into consideration these goals that we’ve talked about, that you’ve considered, that you’ve written down. Now write down that job description for what you want it to be somewhere in the future. Could be 6, 12, 18 months. Could be more, right? If it’s truly an ideal job description, it might take longer to get there.

But write down what that job description would be for your role within the business. So now you’ve got two different job descriptions. And so we know this is point A, and then we’re trying to get to point B. Now we can start mapping out the steps it will take to adjust your job description, what you’re actually doing to meet that new job description that you’re creating.

And the first thing I would say is, as you’re mapping this out, establish what your non negotiables are. Figure out those things that you just, that has to be true sooner rather than later. Because there are probably things on that future job description that are nice to haves, but some of them are must haves.

Be clear about those must haves. Those are the kinds of things that you will be able to focus most on to have the most improved satisfaction, the least feeling of burnout going forward. Because you are now being clear about what you want and how you’re going to get there. Because now with those non negotiables, with that job description, you can start mapping out what does this look like?

How do we get there? Do we have to have different kinds of clients? Do we need to change our pricing structure? Do I need additional resources on the team? If so, what kind of resources would make the biggest difference to me first? And I think that’s a key piece of it, is trying to figure out how you make those impacts.

Because often times when I’m talking to an owner who is in that burnout situation, they’ll tell me, well, geez, I need to hire a project manager, I need to hire an admin just to take control of my inbox because I’m just overwhelmed. And the reality is that when we go through these exercises that I’ve just talked about, Setting those goals, looking at your time, mapping all of these things out.

Often times what you need to hire, whether it’s on a contract basis or on a full time basis, may be very different than what you thought going in. Most of us overestimate the benefit that we would get from hiring someone to manage projects, run operations, be an admin for us. A lot of times it’s some other function.

Often times it’s client service, frankly. If you can bring in someone who can take over a lot of your client service responsibilities, that’s much more likely to make a difference than some of these more admin or operational roles. But you won’t know that until you’ve gone through this exercise to understand what you want from the business, the changes you want to make, and how you’re actually spending your time today.

The final thing I would tell you is that if you want to avoid burnout in the future, in addition to taking all of these other steps, you need to keep an eye out for those first early warning signs of burnout. Because if you’re coming to me and you’re saying, I’m not sure I want to do this anymore, I’m not going to say it’s too late, but it’s too late to solve it easily.

If you are able to sense those feelings of burnout in the future and see that the symptoms beginning to emerge, well now if you address them early on in the process, you’re much more likely to be able to solve them with a lot less change in your business, and the less change that it requires, the faster it can be done.

So, keep an eye out for it, because now if you, if you, if you’re sitting here watching this webinar, chances are you’ve either felt burnout or feeling burnout, or are afraid you might. If any of those things are true, then you know what those early warning indications are, because you can look back at your own experience, and you can look back at how you got to where you are today.

So, think about those things and flag them. So that you can address problems before they become major problems. So, with that, we’ll kind of wrap it all up in a bow here. We’ll move on to Q&A here in a moment. But the, the key things to be thinking about here are, first of all, you need to remember, you are not alone.

There are plenty of agency owners who are in this feeling of burnout right now, and frankly have been there for long periods of time. I’ve felt burnout myself. I’m sure just about every agency owner you talk to will say, Sure, I’ve felt burned out at one point or another. Once you recognize the burnout, you need to figure out what those root causes are for you because they’re going to be different for you than for any other business, for any other owner.

And so once you’ve identified those root causes, whether it’s resourcing or pricing or your own time or whatever it is, you can now begin to take those immediate steps to address it, usually by addressing the tasks that are on your plate. But then build out that longer term plan so that you are building an agency that you are indeed happy to own.

And that’s a key tenet of everything I do here at SAGA, that you should be building to own. You should create a business that you’re actually happy to be the owner of. Because if you do that, you’ll be much less likely to feel burnout, you’ll be much more likely to achieve satisfaction out of the business, and you’re much more likely to achieve the goals that you’ve set in terms of the amount of time that you want to spend, including flexibility, the kind of work that you want to be doing, and the amount of compensation that you’re trying to receive.

So, hopefully all of these things will give you some ideas for how to begin to address the burnout. Once you’ve addressed some of those, or identified some of those root causes, the SAGA website has lots of additional resources that will help you out there.

Again, the SAGA community on Slack is a great resource for that as well. And if you have questions as you’re going along, certainly if you’re here live, we’ll be taking questions from you. directly here in just a moment. But if you’re watching this on replay, this is where we’ll be wrapping up. But you can email me chip@small.agencygrowth.com and I’d be happy to try to answer any questions that you may have.

So with that again, thank you for watching. If you are on replay.

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