In this episode, we talk about the transition Jeremy Jackson had to make to take his agency, Shift Lab, to the next level. From being a creative with an agency, to being an agency owner first, he recounts the additional discipline he had to apply to create a more successful business model. We dive into some of the more critical metrics, the changes he started paying attention to, and the results it had on his agency. About Jeremy: As the founder of Shift Lab, Jeremy focuses on projects that couple excellent design and technology, resulting in beautifully-designed digital products for clients as wide-ranging as Google, Comcast, Microsoft, and BreastCancer.org. Jeremy has worked in product development, UX, graphic design, and development for the web since the mid-’90s and was previously Director of Technology at Method. In his spare time, he’s allegedly a magnet enthusiast… Points of interest… There’s more information regarding each point in our blog notes below. Making the move to agency owner 1:57 Agency growing pains 4:18 Scaling your agency 6:00 Advice for novice agency owners 10:36 Your Take-Away 12:56
At some point, creatives who go out on their own to run an agency may find themselves struggling to break through a growth ceiling. Therefore, it’s important to know the optimum point at which you need to pivot your approach to your burgeoning business.
If only it were that clear cut… it rarely is, especially for novice business owners. Oftentimes, you need to just take the first step that motivates your move and see where it leads you.
Jeremy’s initial motivation was, simply, trying to “make great things with smart people.” Isn’t that the optimum way to make a living – a chance to do things your way with talented people? Again, if only it were that easy.
“There are growing pains that come along with it. I think it boils down to like really figuring out who you are and is, is that scalable? Is there even a market for it?”
The reason Shift Lab is still going strong after almost a decade is Jeremy’s “left brain, right brain approach” that he and his team bring to digital product development. This holistic approach resonates with clients and therefore has value.
As with most things, timing is everything. For example, had Jeremy started Shift Lab earlier in his career, he may not have had the necessary experience in this arsenal. His time as Director of Technology at Method led him to work with a wide range of well-read, well-connected, and well-traveled peers. This, in turn, led to collaborating with top tier designers.
Working with people at this exceptional level gave Jeremy the insight and feedback needed for him to realize there was an appetite for the way he approached projects.
So, you’re a creative person who starts running a business. Now what?! This is a common scenario for a lot of new agency owners – and, more often than not, you’re forced to grow your business acumen on the fly. In other words, in the first two-to-three years of running your agency, it’s common to make major mistakes.
For example, Jeremy found himself knee-deep in project work at the wrong times – purely due to his love of it.
“It was under the guise of staying billable and creating revenue. And as a result, some other things fell by the wayside. So I think our growth in the beginning totally could have been faster – had I been minding the business a little bit better and really figuring out what my value was.”
The reality check came when the responsibilities and the cash needs of the business were increasing. Jeremy then realized he needed to ensure what he’d been doing thus far was a repeatable business model.
You need to see a clear method to the madness, so you can focus your business growth in a sustainable way.
It may sound obvious, but – when you’re doing something you love – it can be very hard to let go of the creative process. It’s even harder to realize that it’s scuppering your scalability. Unsurprisingly, when I asked Jeremy to regale the point at which he realized his fledgling agency wasn’t going to scale under its initial model, he had this to say…
“Over the years, the burnout kind of mounted, and the responsibilities just increased over time – I didn’t really do anything to the best of my ability. That’s when I realized it was time to look at the growth model and the team a little bit differently and figure out ways to offload some of those responsibilities.”
Micromanaging or being hands-on is a huge time drain, and therefore unsustainable. Give the reins some slack, however, and it will soon become clear who in your growing team is best equipped to take over that particular facet of your business.
Once you’ve shifted your mindset from “must do everything” to “what can I delegate”, the next step is thinking strategically about how your business and your service model works at scale. More often than not, that involves all kinds of existential musings, including…
Bottom line is, in order to scale, you need to really focus on the services you offer. In Shift Lab‘s infancy, Jeremy was more focussed on project-based work, as opposed to retainer/maintenance work. If you stick with projects, it can result in either too much or too little work throughout the year. When you’re running a business, there needs to be a steady, predictable source of cash flow. You do the math!
Anyone who’s running an agency will tell you it’s exceptionally hard. Therefore, you must make sure it’s worth it for you. The easiest way to arrive at that answer is by asking yourself the following: what do you want both creatively and personally from your business?
“Even though I’ve stepped back from delivery a little bit and embraced the business side a little bit more, my job still is to provide the best possible service to our clients and to get better at it every day.”
In addition to being of service to your clients and your team, while running your company transparently, you also need to examine previous projects to see what types of work performed best. At the end of every week, run those reports, analyze them, and have the necessary conversations around what you think they may indicate.
These insights will lead you to be a bit more proactive in how you plan projects or do estimates, going forward. This proactivity will extend to recruiting, so you’ll know when to make a hire before you’re at a critical point.
Simply put: delegate, delegate, delegate! Preferably before it’s too late…