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Nine Things I Learned in 25 Years, Running My Own Agency

Starting a business is not for the faint-hearted, yet 99.5% of all UK businesses are small to medium businesses started usually by one entrepreneur with their own cash. When you think about it, it’s incredible that risk-takers make up such a large part of the economy of the UK.

It’s also pretty sobering to look at the stats of success. Just over half of new businesses will fail within the first four years of business with only 3% reaching the fifth year. Gulp.

It’s a tough gig and one you need to weigh up first… or maybe just feel the fear and do it anyway!

Let’s be honest, if you were to focus on the stats too much you’d never start a business.

Be Smart was born twenty-five years ago, and in those years I’ve certainly seen highs and lows of running an agency. It’s exhilarating and scary but one thing’s for sure – I don’t know anyone in business who has it easy.

In the current climate, you could well argue that traditional 9-5 employment isn’t even a safe option – so why not do what you love instead?

So what have I learnt? Well, quite a lot. If you’re heading into the start-up phase of your business then take heed and read on to find out about my wins and losses. If you’re already in business then take comfort in knowing that you’re not alone.

Nine key areas from the past 25 years really stand out for me so here they are laid bare with a lesson for you to take away.



1.   Cash is king

I always remember when I started out with an enterprise loan from Walsall Training and Enterprise Council! At the time, the best piece of advice they gave me was “Cash is king!”.

Of course we all know how powerful and important cash is in life and personally, so it’s obviously going to be in business. ‘Cash flow’ is incredibly important in your business and for many it’s the reason they don’t last. In fact around 30% of small businesses are running at a loss and 82% fail simply due to lack of good cash flow. So even though they’re waiting for money to come in, they go under because they don’t get it quickly enough.

Having good credit lines allows you to give the best to your clients and take on more of them. Cash flow controls your entire business.

Smart Tip: Get good at understanding your cash flow or get someone in who can. It’s the blood and oxygen of your business. Make sure you state your terms on your invoices and follow up on late payments.



2.   Always under-promise and over-deliver.

I’ve always loved this mantra and we live by it. (You should too!) Over-promising and then letting your clients and those around you down is a road to failure. The last thing you want to do is lose trust and clients. What you need to do is wow them, impress them, and be supremely helpful for them.

Don’t set the expectations too low, but make sure you leave yourself something in the locker! Aim to set your client expectations at a level you can better so the client is constantly pleased and surprised.

Smart Tip: Deliver over and above your promises by setting the bar at an achievable level for your business and then delivering early, under budget, or over expectations.



3.   Be honest.

In business, honesty is integrity. Without it, you’ll lose trust and that can be catastrophic to your reputation. The best policy is to be honest and to be up front with your clients. Be honest about what you can do, be honest about how you’re doing, and if you screw it up – tell them!

It’s often said that you’re not judged by how well you do day-to-day but how you do when it goes wrong. Don’t cover it up, don’t hide from the issue – own up. We all make mistakes after all – it’s how we all learn!

Smart tip: Be honest and communicate clearly with your clients whether it’s good or bad. Integrity is important so strive for it every day.



4.   If something goes wrong be straight with the client.

And moving on from the above point, when it does go wrong, be straight! Tell them how it is and explain exactly what’s going on. Don’t treat them like a mushroom and keep them in the dark and then feed them more BS. We can all smell it a mile off!

When your client has all the facts and you’re being honest with them you can both work through it. If you’re adding smoke and mirrors to the situation then don’t be surprised when you don’t always fix the problems. You might also be surprised how effect this can be so be honest, own up, cut the crap and tell them like it is. Obviously do everything you can to fix any issues, too.

Smart tip: Drop the BS and be straight with your clients. People want honesty.



5.   Be prepared for inevitable team issues

If you’re going to run an agency then you’ll need good people around you. You’ll also grow good people and they will then start to look elsewhere if you don’t look after them. That’s not to say that you’ll keep them on forever though. You change, they change, and the business changes – that’s all part of the fun.

Be prepared for change in your team. I once had three of my team leave all at the same time! Two of them set up on their own. It happens, and you have to get past it. From these situations come great learnings and looking on the bright side, this can breathe new life with an influx of new talent to replace them. New people have new innovative ideas and enthusiasm, so see it as an opportunity.

Smart tip: People, business and life changes. Be prepared to change and adapt with it.



6.   Put contingencies in place

One of the key areas of a small business or agency is it can very often rely on the drive or work of one person. Without a contingency you’ll come unstuck. I was very fortunate that this didn’t happen to me in the year 2000.

I was diagnosed with a spinal cord tumour, which meant I was away from the business for a whole year. The business ran just fine whilst I was away although I was having regular management meetings with my team at home.

I was honest with clients and all of them were brilliant, offering advice, support and love  -which probably helped me get back to health and business faster.

As well as insurance you’ll need to know what would happen to the business if something bad happens. Planning means you won’t need to worry about it unless it happens.

Smart tip: Build a ‘what if’ plan. Don’t bury your head in the sand and say, “It won’t happen to me!”



7.   Take the time to form real relationships with clients

Look beyond the pitch, the work, the invoice, and see your clients as people and as true friends. Many of our clients have become great friends over the years and because of that we’ll go above and beyond for each other if the shit hits the fan (which is rare).

We all know the classic small business phrase, “people buy from people”, because it’s true. And some relationships last forever. Look at your clients as part of your team, your business, and your journey.

Smart tip: Your clients could be so much more than just clients if you let them. Find clients, make friends. Whoever said not to mix business with pleasure didn’t know how important it is to have fun!



8.   Dig deep to understand the client’s problem then solve it

When you’re running an agency it can be very tempting to create visually great offerings that simply don’t help the client at all. We’ve seen it all too often when an agency has failed a client with pretty pictures and fancy pitches that don’t have the right message.

There are many designers that create pretty pictures, but few who create design with substance! Look at your work from the audience’s point of view and understand what the challenge really is. Who are the customers and what do they need really?

Smart tip: Get yourself in their shoes and ask yourself what the real problem is… and then solve it in the best way you can!



9.   Be consistent in dealing with clients, suppliers and the team

“The way you do anything is the way you do everything!” Be consistent with the way you deal with the client, your suppliers, and your team. Help them all to understand and know what to expect.

Always do what you say you’ll do and if you can’t do it, let them know you can’t and why you can’t. Never let clients down on getting their initial design visuals or artwork ready for sign off.

Smart tip: Be consistent throughout your business from client to supplier to team members.



Bonus tip – do what you love!

It was Confucius that said “Choose a job you love and you’ll never have to work a day in your life”, so why not build an agency or a business around what you love? It all works so well when you do.

You’ll have so many challenges in business and running an agency is no different. Why not make it something so great that even in the darker days you’ll drive yourself through with the passion you have for it?

It’s been a fabulous experience over the past 25 years and I do hope you took something from me sharing my top tips with you.

If you’d like to discuss any of these ideas get in touch: philippa@besmartdesign.co.uk