If I knew then what I know now ... I would not have broken everything
If I knew then what I know now is a series of bylines from small agency executives about the lessons they learned in building their shops.
Starting an agency when you’re young and inexperienced provides a sort of blissful ignorance—with no standard practices cemented in your mind, all you can do is carve a path that feels natural. In the best-case scenario, the path itself may become your selling point; you may hear from clients that something feels different; that, while certainly not perfect, you feel more like a partner and less like a vendor.
As you grow, though, so will those clients, and so will their reactions to that difference. When we started Hungry in 2014, everything was small: our team was small, our projects were small, our budgets were small. Our founding premise was that we would finish everything we started, even if it killed us, and it nearly did. But it was easy to recover then; there were just a few of us and the losses were (like the budgets) minor. As long as we could keep a few lights on and get the products out the door, we were still in business. We functioned and felt like a startup, and startups liked that.
Bigger clients did not. That scrappy nimbleness, that difference we emoted worked well in the conference room but it didn’t work well on paper. Eventually, and in some cases too late, I reached a deeply unpopular conclusion: accept tradition where it will protect you. Do not be different for the sake of it; do not always move fast; do not break everything. Human resources, handbooks, policies, lawyers, NDAs, MSAs, SOWs—all of them have persisted for eons for a reason. You’ll learn why if your scaling outpaces your acceptance of that fact, and in a service-focused business, where your people are your product, that will happen.
The slow pace of this realization was a byproduct of two factors: inexperience, admittedly, but in many ways, aspects of the startup culture out of which we and our clients were growing. The smaller and more inexperienced the client, the more the urgency and scope outweighed the fine print, and just the same, the more the short-term losses were expected to be accepted in exchange for hypothetical future gains. More challenging still, on the talent side--particularly talent coming out of startups--was that some of the highest corporate standards were seen as an affront to personal liberty: the need to use a company laptop, reasonable limits on freelance work, even a standard start time. There are environments where this flexibility works; in an agency, where all work is collaborative, it has its limits.
Even in the unpredictable, uncomfortable transition period, we made exceptions and they came back to haunt us. For the first time, we were turning down work, and more painfully, we learned to let team members—some of whom we’d miss--go. Suddenly, a change that sounded unquestionable on paper was not so easy to adopt. But the upside was almost immediate, and took an unexpected shape: we realized just how much of a drain being scrappy and nimble was on time, money, and emotion. Embracing more time-tested standards allowed us to shift all of that time, money, and emotion directly into our output and amplify it.
In short order, our work was better, more creative, and, most importantly, more consistent. Our clients and our team, while still both imperfectly and perfectly human, were finally aligned on where our focus should be. Our tactical strengths showed more brightly when not dimmed by the non-tactical, mundane matters distracting us from them. As painful as the transition had been at certain points, I wish it had happened earlier.
The biggest surprise? Our founding focus on finishing nearly everything we started — that vision born originally out of a scrappy, nimble, different way of working — was finally coming to fruition. All we had had to do was grow up a bit.
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