What Do You Mean I'm Off-Brand? I'm the Founder

It's No Longer About You, and Other Tips for Founders of Growing Agencies

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Lately there has been an undercurrent of anxiety at my agency. Like a nasty little telephone game, people have been coming into my office saying things like, "The social team would like you to delete your tweet;" "The social team says our Twitter account got hacked;" or lately, "The social team would like you to get your own Twitter account." Basically, I'm off-brand. How did this happen? I founded this agency; it's named after me. I thought I was the brand.

Ten years ago, I hung out my shingle to execute search-engine marketing. I was good at it, passionate, networked, and excited to work 70-hour work weeks for the unforeseeable future. In my crummy little office above a massage parlor (that kind), I offered water in mugs to an increasingly growing roster of blue-chip clients. Ten years later, there are 50 of us in a 12,000 square-foot skyscraper office with panoramic views and an entire room devoted to wires and bewildering, hot machinery. I have hired a CEO, and there are people doing things I'm incapable of doing that are no longer closely related to a Google search result (though we're still doing that).

At some point, agencies and growing businesses may move beyond the founder, and enormous pressures and foresight are needed in order to transition from what made the agency to what will transform the agency. It's no longer about you, but about the livelihood of your staff, their families and those of all your clients. That's a big responsibility, and your ego -- and at times personal feelings -- may have to take a back seat. Here are some important things to know:

1. Some of your favorite people may not be doing a good job. Your ragtag band of dreamers from the early days were probably self-sufficient, multi-talented go-getters. And they may chafe against, or flounder in, a more structured environment with collaborators, project managers and fiscal accountability. Some of them will quit, some may have to be let go, and almost all will need help in adapting to this new organization. Don't overlook the fact that this might describe you as well.

2. Your role is going to change. When you move from 1 person to 10, then to 100, you can't have the same job that you originally did. You need to back off and focus on what you do better than anyone else in the agency -- and what the agency also needs. People who start agencies often love the consulting, the freedom or the creative process. People who run agencies usually have to be cheerleading managers and salespeople. If you want the company to prosper, you need to do a lot of soul-searching -- preferably before you grow -- about what you are going to be content doing.

3. Your values are everything. By clearly defining the mission, vision and values of the company, hiring against them, and cycling all major decisions against them, you should be able to ensure that what made the company great will withstand your growth.

4. Establish compromises. There will be situations where you run into conflict. A common example in my agency is pricing and staffing for the "legacy clients." My contention, other than sentiment, is that the legacy clients have immeasurable benefits to reputation, values and referrals. My agency's contention is that some legacy clients are unprofitable and my helicopter-parenting makes staff leery to work on them. We're both right. You and your growing agency will have to find a balance between your personal (intuitive, brilliant, masterful) feelings and what's best for the agency.

5. You may become an outsider. Just as you hired people closely aligned to you, so will your top staff. Sure, people follow visions and missions and want to work in an agency with certain cultures, benefits or clients, but people also come and stay based on their boss. That means that the newer people may not care much for, or about, you. Realistically, you want them to care more about your top leadership than they do about you, but emotionally it can be hard. The day may even come when some of these new staff start saying that you, the founder, are off-brand in your tweets.

As you grow, you need to hire people to run your agency, and that could even be a CEO. But you can't just flip a switch. Give the transition time, and be very clear about roles and timing. Clients who were used to working with you closely probably still appreciate that. Staff, including yourself, may be confused about who's in charge. And as you grow, you the person will at times need to take a back seat to you the brand -- whether the agency is named after you or not.

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