Agency Journey, Episode 1 (Y14M4)

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Intro to a New Series

I’m 14 years and 4 months into running Barrel, a digital agency that I started with Sei-Wook Kim back in 2006.

We’re a team of 30+ full-time employees and dozens of contractors all over the world. We work with a number of brands and organizations to build and optimize their websites and help them on their marketing efforts across email, social, and search. We’re on track to do about $7 million in revenue this year.

I’ve been publishing on my blog about various topics related to running Barrel since 2013. I want to take things a step further and start a regular series detailing the happenings of the agency on a monthly basis. My goal is to publish 12 of these posts a year. They’ll follow a similar structure each time so it’ll be relatively easy for me to write, key to making this a consistent habit.

Even in a small business like ours, there are countless happenings each week from new challenges, conflicts, wins, learnings, and inspirations. I know that I’ll thank myself in the future if I take the time right now to document some of these and reflect on the things going through my mind at the time.

I’ve benefitted immensely from reading and listening to founders and business operators share their stories, especially those that went beyond the usual high-level answers and went deeper into the nitty gritty details of their policies, strategies, and outcomes. I’d like to think of this series as a way to pay it forward and hope that other folks looking for ideas or inspiration can find a few nuggets in these posts.

A couple other notes:

  • I’m going to share as much as possible but also respect the privacy and confidentiality of our employees, clients, contractors, and other affiliated parties. I’ll try to be as open as I can about Barrel’s business performance and numbers to the extent my partners and I are comfortable.
  • I’ll be playing around with the structure and format of these series so it’ll probably take a handful of months before I find my groove.

The initial format will follow this structure:

  • Highlights: reflections on wins, new policies/approaches, learnings, and whatever else was worth remembering in the past month.
  • Top of Mind: 1-2 items that have been most pressing/important for me in the past month.
  • Shared with Partners: I regularly share quotes from books or interesting Twitter posts with my Barrel partners via messaging app mostly as motivation and as lessons to remember; thought I’d share some of them in this section.

Let’s dive in.

Highlights

New Business

We added six new clients in the past month. They include a fashion startup, a cannabis dispensary, a furniture startup, a baby foods brand, a plant business, and a femcare startup. Our new business win rate is right around 33% for the year, which means we’re winning 1 out of every 3 proposals we submit.

We’ve had a good run with new business since June, winning several deals and seeing a good number of opportunities fill the pipeline each week. This was after a slow start to the year, where we won 1 deal out of 27 proposals in the first 4 months of 2020. Things were looking dire right as COVID-19 hit but we kept on experimenting with pricing and service offerings. We embraced new approaches to doing our work including using Webflow for more websites (they can be done mostly by a designer, no need for a dev) and leveraging our Shopify base theme framework to lower web development costs. The flurry of wins in the past 3 months have been a validation of our efforts.

Improving the Barrel Team Experience

We had a busy past month of rolling out a number of new benefits/perks for our team. These were initiatives we had in the works for some time and felt that given the more robust financial footing the business has been on lately, we were in a position to prudently roll these out.

We held a virtual town hall to roll out our 401k matching plan and profit sharing program. After operating for 14+ years with a bare 401k plan, we felt that a 401k match (we’re initially offering 2% fully vested employer match) would be necessary for retaining and attracting talent. We also rolled out a profit sharing plan that I personally worked on for a few months. Each employee is issued shares every 3 months of employment and that number is multiplied by their level (e.g. junior to director) to give them their number. We put aside 2% of our gross profits each month into a profit share pool, and at the start of the following year, we disburse the profit share pool to the team proportionate to the shares each person has. We’re betting that our performance management is robust in ensuring that those with long tenures are high performers and that we’ve done a good job of elevating our best people into higher level roles.

The other major announcement was probably even more appreciated by the team than the 401k match and profit share. This summer, we instituted our first Summer Fridays, where we made our Fridays half days, giving people an early start to their weekend. It’s something we had shied away from in the past as we felt that “giving away” a half day in potential billable hours each week would hurt the business. In recent years, we’ve come to prize working smart and efficiently and don’t necessarily believe more time spent equates to better outcomes. In many cases, longer hours lead to diminishing returns and even costly mistakes. With this in mind, we felt that giving everyone a half day during the summer would actually boost productivity in the long run and also contribute to the team’s wellbeing and mental health.

The feedback on Summer Fridays was overwhelmingly positive and as summer wore on, the partners began exploring the possibility of having half day Fridays all year round. Why not? Especially as the days start to shorten and sunlight becomes scarce, wouldn’t it be great to have a few extra hours on Friday to go outside or do something relaxing before it got dark?

We were confident that with thorough planning and good communication with our clients, we could make this work. We convened another town hall to share the news. The team was ecstatic and perhaps the most expressive I had seen them on a Zoom call.

I strongly believe this is a step in the right direction. I can see a world in which we one day end up with a 4-day work week. With our team’s demographic shifting older (esp. as the two co-founders inch towards 40) and more and more team members starting or expanding their families, I’d love to see Barrel evolve to become more family-friendly and mindful of work-life balance.

To help put all of our initiatives into context of our overall aims for the company and team, I put together a diagram to show how the partners were thinking about what we call the “Barrel Team Experience”.

Barrel Team Experience framework

We find this a helpful way to look holistically at all the different policies and initiatives going on at Barrel. For example, we believe that our on-going efforts in diversity, equity, and inclusion will go a long way in strengthening Relationships with Team Members as well as Work Life Balance, the former in bringing diverse perspectives and experiences to the team culture and the latter in being a workplace where people can talk about issues and engage with various communities. We’ve rolled out new approaches to our hiring process and will be implementing a DEI analytics platform to help us monitor our progress. More to come on this in the coming months.

To help buttress this framework and to better navigate our remote-first transition, we reworked our Office Coordinator Allison’s role to become a Team Experience Coordinator (TXC) whose mandate is to ensure that all of our team members are set up properly in their remote situation to be productive and to drive many of the programs and initiatives that reinforce the Barrel Team Experience framework. Allison has done a marvelous job of taking over as emcee of our weekly team-wide Tuesday Meetup, where each person gives a shoutout for something/someone in the past week and also shares what they’re excited about for the next week. She’s also been coordinating our various internal workshops and events and brainstorming ways for the distributed team to bond. She rolled out Donut for Slack, a program that randomly matches team members to encourage one-on-one chats, helping people to get to know each other.

Feedback

A few weeks ago, we engaged Triad Consulting to run a workshop on giving and receiving feedback. The company’s founders are authors of the book Thanks for the Feedback: The Science and Art of Receiving Feedback Well. It was a 2-hour virtual workshop that was well-paced with a mix of high-level concepts on ways to think about feedback mixed with breakout rooms for our team members to share their thoughts and engage in a few exercises.

It’s too early to tell if the workshop will have lasting impact, but a key takeaway for me was that feedback, like any good habit, is best reinforced by having clear and frictionless channels where team members can productively give and receive them. As a team that’s sometimes plagued by backchannel feedback relayed via supervisors and often stripped of specific details, this means having more opportunities for team members to openly share feedback to each other in positive, forward-looking ways.

We rolled out a new debrief format this summer which we hope can serve as a forum for open dialogue and feedback exchange. Unlike in the past, these debriefs don’t just happen at the end of engagements or after failed/troubling situations but are more regular, occurring mid-project or periodically for on-going retainers. We ask each team member to fill out a brief form before the debrief meeting (typically 1 hour) and use the submissions to guide the discussion which is structured like this:

  • How are you feeling about the project?
  • Do you understand the goals of the project? // Do you feel we are accomplishing the goals?
  • What was the best moment in the project for you thus far?
  • What can help us do our jobs better?
  • Potential Flags (for in-progress projects/retainers)
  • Final thoughts

Reading through the 9 or so debrief sessions that have been documented and shared so far, the recurring theme for “what can help us do our jobs better” always seems to boil down to something related to communication, whether it’s checking in more, being more proactive in sharing status, or keeping so-and-so in the loop better.

Net Promoter Score (NPS)

In August, we rolled out Net Promoter Score surveys to our clients using a tool called Retently. Net Promoter Score is a simple survey on a scale of 1 to 10 (10 being extremely likely) that asks: how likely are you to recommend this company to a friend or colleague? The Net Promoter Score is calculated by taking the % of scores that have 10s and 9s (your “Promoters”) and subtracting it by the % of scores that scored from 0 to 6 (your “Detractors”).

After getting a 28% response rate (we sent to over 130 client contacts) thus far, we’re scoring in the high 60s, which is pretty decent. Looking up some companies online, some reports say Apple gets in the 60s, Starbucks & Costco in the 70s, and Amazon in the 50s.

Barrel NPS snapshot on Retently

A snapshot of Barrel’s NPS score after 28% of our client contacts responded.

Besides having an easy-to-understand KPI, the NPS score is a simple and effective way for us to monitor client satisfaction. We have Retently set up to send the survey once a month to our clients. They’re free to ignore it but we believe that this can be an easy channel for them to quickly signal any issues or deficiencies in our service. Already, we’ve been able to take quick action on a few passive (7s or 8s) and detractor scores and have meaningful conversations, leading to real feedback from our clients on our performance.

Kudos to Sei-Wook for rolling out both the improved debrief format and the NPS system.

Top of Mind

Recruiting and Org Structure

I believe more strongly than ever that hiring the right people and investing in their success is the key to growing the business. Over the past month, I’ve spent more time thinking about the org structure of Barrel as it is today and how it can evolve as we think about scaling the team not just in pure headcount but in our ability to offer deeper and more valuable services to our clients. I use Pingboard to create different versions of the org chart to use as a visual guide to help me see how reporting lines and group structures might look like.

Barrel org chart exercise in Pingboard.

My conversations with partners and team leads have centered around a few different factors when it comes to org structure and hiring. They include:

  • How the org structure will accommodate the career growth of existing team members and who we see as up-and-coming future leaders within the org.
  • Where we’re lacking in terms of certain qualities/skills and at what level/salary we should think about bringing in someone to fill our needs. This topic usually leads to discussions around role creation, job descriptions, and recruiting.
  • How we can continue to leverage contractors and what types of skills and experience we need internally to support the growth of our contractor network. For example, as our web developer contractor network has expanded, we need someone to drive the initial thinking around architecting solutions and provide oversight on code quality throughout the life of a project. This has led to the creation of a Tech Lead role that we’re currently recruiting for.
  • What new departments or department leads we need to plan for in the future if we are to continue growing as an org.

The last point is one that’s especially been on my mind. Two years ago, new business and account management were largely reactive efforts by me and Sei-Wook. We would divvy up inbound opportunities and each do whatever it took to win new clients. Account management was pretty much about fighting fires when things didn’t go right; we expected our Producers to handle most everything once a project got under way. Where we often missed was in building longer term relationships and having proactive conversations with clients about their business challenges and ways we could continue to add value. We did this with a handful of clients but many went neglected and understandably stopped working with us.

Since then, we’ve invested in bringing on an Account Director and Account Strategist and building out processes to streamline our inbound new business efforts and growing existing accountings. We’ve put these functions under Client Services, which I personally oversee. The results have been great as we’ve grown in each of the past 2 years. Big props to our Account Director Dan who has injected energy and positivity to our business development efforts. He’s done a great job of tightening up our sales process and winning new work. What initially began as a hybrid role of business development and account management has begun to shift more towards business development for Dan, which he’s shown a clear knack for.

Where we see the opportunity is in splitting out business development from Client Services and making Client Services focused solely on account management and strategy for existing clients. As of this past week, I started looking for a Director of Client Services. I’m hoping that we can bring in someone who can focus on account growth full-time and bring experience and know-how that exceeds anything I could have done on my own. It’ll be a time-consuming and challenging process to identify the right candidate, but I’m pretty excited to bring someone in who can help us level up.

Far removed from the period of uncertainty right around April when COVID-19 put a freeze in our hiring plans, we’ve gone into full-on hiring mode with numerous vacancies across the agency. Sei-Wook and I used our weekly 90-minute meeting to map out our recruiting processes and to identify holes we needed to fill in order to make the system more robust and scalable. I’ve been especially inspired by the tight documentation publicly shared by Otis, an alternative asset trading platform, which does a great job of transparently setting expectations for candidates on interview process, salary, and culture.

Mapping the recruiting process at Barrel using Mural.

Mapping the recruiting process at Barrel using Mural.

Our most immediate hole is to get a more formal process in place for job requisitions, giving our hiring managers a more streamlined and organized way to kickstart the creation of an open role and get active recruitment going. This also touches on the need to get our applicant tracking system (ATS) in place, which means setting up Greenhouse, which we currently pay for but haven’t rolled out yet. And looking ahead, we identified the need to hire a recruiting coordinator or talent acquisition manager to really own, refine, and continually evolve the recruiting process at Barrel.

There’s a lot of work to be done in so many areas of recruiting, and as we rally around the belief that bringing in great people will help take us to the next level, I expect to spend more and more time and energy on these activities.

New Business Leads

We’ve averaged around 11 new inbound leads per week in 2020. About 17% of them are qualified and make it to the proposal stage. While the volume has been good and we been winning deals, it’s the feeling of “good times” that gets me the most worried. It’s too easy to grow complacent and stick to what we’ve been doing, which means I need to lean in to my paranoia and be more aggressive about ways to increase the quantity as well as improve the quality of our leads.

One way is to continue investing in our content marketing efforts. These include blog posts on topics of interest to our clients (mainly ecomm & marketing), social media posts, and email newsletters. We’ve started to experiment with single screenshot “cards” in lieu of long blog posts that capture tips and perspectives that we hope our clients and target prospects will find useful. Here’s one on gifting that we published recently.

Our newsletters have done well in keeping our subscribers (1,500+ subscribers) in the loop about our most recent work as well as sharing interesting articles related to ecomm and marketing in the wellness space. Big props to the team for keeping up with these and consistently sticking to an editorial calendar.

My thinking on content marketing is that it’s a long-term, brand-building play. I don’t expect a blog post or newsletter to drive volume in sales. But my belief is that continually publishing content that’s helpful to our clients and prospective clients will help position us as experts in the areas that matter, namely ecommerce, user experience design, and marketing. The act of creating content also has side benefits as well including helping our team better organize and articulate their thinking on these topics and giving us artifacts to reference internally when training new hires or giving each other a refresher.

In the coming months, I’d like to pair our content marketing with a more concerted outbound sales effort. We’ve worked with a few different consultants in the past with limited success, but I’m willing to keep trying. This will entail some sort of list building and targeting of key people at brands that are likely to see us as a potential agency partner. I think our portfolio and range of services is as strong as they’ve ever been, which leads me to believe that we can be more successful this time around. My dream scenario would be to have a healthy mix of inbound and outbound leads that allows us to be highly selective and strategic in the types of brands and projects we take on. I plan on spending time interviewing some sales consultants in the coming weeks to explore options.

The last piece in generating more leads is marketing via sponsorships and ad placements. We recently sponsored our first podcast, Think Like an Owner, which features investors and operators of small companies. We also sponsored an email of Not Boring, a popular newsletter that features thought-provoking long-form articles on tech and business. We hope to find more opportunities to get the Barrel name in front of more people, namely founders, investors, and marketers. This is top of the funnel marketing bets that may not pay off immediately but will, hopefully, be valuable to us in the long run.

As we head into the last quarter of 2020, continuing to tweak and optimize our marketing and sales engine in order to get better new business leads will occupy my mind when I’m not focused on recruiting.

Shared with Partners

“People commonly ruin their work When they are near success. Proceed at the end as at the beginning And your work won’t be ruined.” (Lao-Tzu, Burton Watson, Stephen Addiss, and Stanley Lombardo, Tao Te Ching)

I shared the above in light of certain wins and near completion of projects as a reminder that we can’t get complacent or overconfident.

“The neglected leadership role is that of the designer of the ship. No one has a more sweeping influence on the ship than the designer. What good does it do for the captain to say, “Turn starboard thirty degrees,” when the designer has built a rudder that will turn only to port, or that takes six hours to turn to starboard? It’s fruitless to be the leader in an organization that is poorly designed.” (Peter M. Senge, The Fifth Discipline)

I thought this quote nicely emphasized our need to spend more time on the org’s structure, vision, and business model vs. trying to troubleshoot and optimize within existing conditions.

“How does the body move with dexterity? The traditional answer is that motor control is imposed on the body “top down” by a brain that has all the answers about how to move. These answers are encoded in “motor programs” that specify what needs to be done by every muscle and joint to accomplish a specific task. Bernstein showed this top-down model could not fully account for dexterous movement, which always involves novel elements for which the brain couldn’t possibly have any prior programs.” (Todd Hargrove, Playing With Movement)

As a close-knit leadership team, we surface a lot of the team’s challenges to each other. Over the years, we’ve fought the instinct to automatically jump in and “fix” the problem for the team. This quote is a great reminder that a dexterous body is one that doesn’t solely rely on top-down instruction.

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