Agency Journey Episode 10 (Y15M1)

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We’ve been gradually increasing our headcount as of late to keep up with growing accounts and new projects. We’ve also been hiring for non-billable roles to support with different business functions. These are all important investments as we look to scale the agency. However, a lesson for me to keep in mind is that headcount does not necessarily equate to success.

I recommend this short 10-min podcast featuring Greg Alexander, the author of The Boutique, where he talks about how founders mistakenly equate headcount with success. Headcount is usually the first thing people talk about when describing their agency business and the quickest way to impress others. To bring up revenue or revenue per employee as casually as headcount doesn’t seem to be widely accepted behavior. I personally don’t mind sharing revenue in conversations, but I understand some folks are fairly guarded about this.

Our leadership team has talked often about “scaling up” Barrel but we haven’t quite aligned on what that means. Some headcount growth is inevitable, but the focus needs to be on metrics like revenue, profit, and the size of client accounts. More on this in the coming months.

About Agency Journey: This is a monthly series detailing the happenings of my agency Barrel, founded in 2006. You can find previous episodes here.


Celebrating 15 Years

June 1st was the 15th anniversary of Barrel’s founding. It’s been a really long time and yet, I feel like we’re just getting warmed up. I’m reminded of the platitude about running your own race, and I firmly believe it. We’ve been slow–sometimes painfully so–in figuring things out, making the right decisions, and building momentum. But we’re still in the race, and as long as we keep it going, there’s a chance we can make it very far.

When I think about the conversations we’re having, the decisions we’re making, and the level of work we’re putting out, it’s very encouraging to see how far we’ve come even in the last 6 months. And I know that 6 months from today, we’ll feel much the same way. Compound that over the next 15 years, and there are so many wonderful possibilities ahead.

barrel vision deck

A few slides from a team-wide presentation that outlined our vision, mission, core values, and the next 5 years.

To commemorate the milestone, we had a team-wide meeting where I walked our entire team through a presentation on Barrel’s new vision, mission, core values, and our 5 year plan. This was a presentation that was nearly two months in the making with countless revisions, but all very gratifying to see fall into place. That I’ve continued to reference it even after the presentation has been a good sign.

Barrel 15

To commemorate Barrel’s 15 years of being in business, we launched a microsite featuring 1 project from every year.

We also launched a microsite showcasing a project from each year since our founding in 2006. It was fun to dive back into our archives and curate the clients and projects that meant so much to our development as a company.

barrel 15 toast

A virtual toast with some 15-year-old whiskey (Whistling Pig Rye for Wes & Lucas and Barrell Craft Spirits Bourbon for me & Sei-Wook).

Lastly, I sent the partners each a bottle of 15-year-old whiskey that we toasted virtually. It was low-key but very nice.

New Talent Acquisition Manager

Last month, I wrote about how talent acquisition could be much stronger at Barrel and how bringing on great people would be the key to Barrel’s long-term success. We welcomed James Bean as Talent Acquisition Manager to our team. James has a wealth of experience working as a recruiter for a number of companies including various agencies.

It’s only been a week since he started but we’ve already started to feel the quickening pace of our hiring process with James supporting our hiring managers and making their lives easier. I ended the week wondering how in the world we went all these years without having someone focusing on talent acquisition. It’s as if we kept one hand tied behind our backs the entire time while wondering why hiring was so hard. Incredibly excited to see the long-term impact James has on strengthening our talent pipeline.

Top of Mind

No More Fighting Fires

One behavior that’s been tough for me to unlearn has been the tendency to react quickly and get involved in problem situations, especially those around our work for clients. Whenever I hear about issues we’re having with delivery or communications, there’s a part of me that wants to jump right in and “make things right.”

These days, I’m far away enough from the day-to-day work that by the time word gets to me, different members of our team have been working to identify and correct the issues. But I’d be lying if I said I didn’t feel any sharp pangs of stress and a pull to get more deeply involved. It’s the conditioned behavior of being in reactive mode for over a decade, where my existence often felt like fighting one fire after another. Not having to deal with this directly and being able to trust others has been a transition.

For the most part, I am so grateful and happy that we’ve come to a point where I don’t have to fight the fires daily. However, there’s also been a mix of guilt (e.g. should I be sitting back while others resolve this?) and some second-guessing (e.g. not sure I agree with how they resolved that). To keep me focused on making the right choices and continuing to trust the team, I’ve had to revisit the purpose and ideal impact of my role on several occasions, breaking them down into these behaviors:

  • Provide on-going encouragement and support to our team
  • Continually define and communicate our vision and desired outcomes
  • Hold team leaders accountable to their respective outcomes
  • Model our core values (the 4C’s of Collaboration, Community, Creativity, and Candor) through consistent actions
  • Listen actively to our team and our clients to strengthen relationships and identify opportunities to improve

With these behaviors, my day-to-day activities are firmly at odds with fighting fires. While there will undoubtedly be major crises that will require my full attention and involvement from time to time, my focus really boils down to this: be as helpful in setting the others up for success and point them in the right direction that benefits the entire organization and our customers.

Agency Business Model

I’m not going to write much here, but I will share a work-in-progress diagram:

Agency business model

A work-in-progress diagram to help me better visualize the key components of the agency business.

I’ve tinkered with several different versions with all kinds of labels and shapes. My goal is to arrive at a visualization that feels simple and clear enough to use as a tool to align on priorities with our leadership team and to educate our team members on how we think about the business.

My next step is to get feedback and input from different team members in order to uncover blindspots and to refine the diagram to a point it makes sense to most people.

Shared with Partners

“Taking care of your people does not mean protecting them from the consequences of their own behavior. That’s the path to irresponsibility. What it does mean is giving them every available tool and advantage to achieve their aims in life, beyond the specifics of the job.” (L. David Marquet and Stephen R. Covey, Turn the Ship Around!)

Great management in a nutshell.

“What it is that distinguishes the most successful firms (or practices) from ordinary firms in the same market? My experience suggests that it has little to do with creative strategies or unique management systems. Nor is it a matter of IQ or professional talent. The partners I meet in the most successful firms are not consistently smarter or more talented than their counterparts at other firms. What is noticeably different at the best firms is a characteristic variously described as energy, drive, enthusiasm, motivation, morale, determination, dedication, and commitment.” (David H. Maister, Managing the Professional Service Firm)

I love this quote as a reminder to keep bringing positivity and a growth mindset to work. I’ve also started to believe that high energy is contagious and assembling a team of positive, high-energy individuals can really help create a sense of forward movement.

“Thinking in a concentrated manner to define desired outcomes is something few people feel they have to do. But in truth, outcome thinking is one of the most effective means available for making wishes reality.” (David Allen, Getting Things Done)

I’m struck by how little time I spend proactively thinking about outcomes. This is a muscle that I need to keep building both in my Barrel work and in my personal life.

“Even when you are small, though, and your resources most constrained, finding the right people is the most important thing you can do.” (Stephen A. Schwarzman, What It Takes)

Amen. This feels truer with each passing day. I’m glad we’ve been able to invest in our hiring efforts with a Talent Acquisition Manager. This is just the start.

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