Agency Journey Episode 30 (Y16M9)

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“What I am suggesting is that a dose of gratitude be injected into the process, because everything is not “bad.” We all have a long list of things to be grateful for. Never say, “It can’t get any worse,” because it can get a lot worse. I love H. Ross Perot’s definition of an entrepreneur: “Someone who is grateful for the progress that has been made and simultaneously dissatisfied with the rate they are making it.”” (Keith J. Cunningham, The Road Less Stupid)

I’ve continued to find motivation to write these updates because every time I finish one, the prevailing sentiment is one of gratitude. That, after all these years, I get to continue running my own business, to learn new things, to meet new people, and to be a part of a talented team – it’s all very rewarding and joyful.

I’m also perpetually dissatisfied with where we are, believe there’s so much room to improve, and impatient about my own shortcomings. It’s the side of me that keeps pushing to embrace discomfort, try new approaches, and keep growing. It’s the tension between gratitude and growth (the positive spin on “ambition”) that gives me both contentment and the energy to do more. As we work through some challenging moments in the business this year, I’ll need large doses of both to stay even-keeled while bringing intensity to the work.

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


Some New Business Wins But Behind Pace

We landed three new clients this month. One is a non-profit farm that grows fresh food specifically for donation to local communities in need, one is a new beauty brand, and one is actually a former client in the travel accessory space that’s come back after 4 years. We also have a handful of fairly significant opportunities that we bid on in the past week as well as a half dozen or so smaller project leads.

The pace at which we’re winning new work is not quite where we need it to be, especially since the recent wins are on the smaller side in terms of contract value. If none of the larger opportunities hit–which, to be realistic, is always a possibility–then we’ll be further off the pace of where we want to be in terms of revenue booked by this point in the year.

We’re looking at the levers that impact our new business growth – the number of qualified leads, the average size of our projects (or the value of an account if it’s one where a client engages us for multiple projects), and our win rate. I think we have much work to strengthen each of these areas. The two we’re most focused on is growing the number of qualified leads and improving our win rate. More to come in the following months on what activities we’ve undertaken to make progress in these areas.

Continuing to Strengthen Partnerships

One activity that we believe will eventually lead to more qualified leads is around partnerships, especially with tech solutions partners like Shopify, Klaviyo, Recharge, and Rebuy. Our Chief Experience Officer Lucas Ballasy has been leading the charge on finding ways to connect in meaningful ways with folks at these companies. This means getting to know people in-person at conferences, bringing them into conversations with our clients and prospects, and sharing insights and success stories where we’ve leveraged their solutions for our clients.

Partnerships activity - our CXO Lucas

Left, our CXO Lucas Ballasy was able to meet up with BX Studio CEO Jacob Sussman for a Barrel Holdings hike in LA. Middle, a Barrel happy hour with local team members and friends/partners in the area. Right, our Strategist James Wright came in from Portugal to join Lucas for Klaviyo’s Partner and Developer Day.

February was a busy month for Lucas. Here are a few highlights of his activities:

  • Went out to Los Angeles for the LA eCommerce Summit and hosted a happy hour where he invited local Barrel team members as well as folks from a few different tech solutions providers.
  • Was also able to set up an important call between Shopify and one of our major clients to discuss deeper collaboration opportunities.
  • Convinced a client who was skeptical about Recharge to reconsider and select it for their subscriptions solution.
  • Came into New York City for Klaviyo’s Partner & Developer Day to connect with folks at Klaviyo and the Klaviyo-Shopify ecosystem. Our Strategist James Wright came in from Lisbon, Portugal for the event as well.

We don’t expect much opportunities to come our way in the short-term, but we believe that investing in the relationships with people at these companies, becoming more expert and outstanding at implementing these solutions, and finding win-win scenarios with both tech solutions partners and our existing clients gives us a good pathway to being considered for opportunities, or at the least, building up some goodwill with a network of connected people.

DTC Patterns Podcast

DTC Patterns is our e-commerce research project that gathers insights on customer journey experiences through real purchases. We’ve published over 200 posts on our website, and it’s been a great way for our team to continually be exposed to what consumers go through when shopping online. As a supplement to our written posts, we decided to launch a podcast that highlights the brands we bought from and the patterns we observed. Our Marketing Coordinator Mimi Nguyen and Design Director Christine Carforo are the co-hosts. The format is a simple 5-minute Q&A where Mimi asks Christine about a particular brand.

DTC Patterns Podcast

A screenshot from the DTC Patterns page on Apple Podcasts, my preferred way of listening to podcasts. It’s very cool to see a Barrel podcast come to life!

It’s been cool to see this project come to life. Mimi and Christine did a great job figuring out a tight structure, and I admit it’s pretty sweet to see the DTC Patterns Podcast graphic pop up on my Apple Podcast feed. We’ve published 2 episodes so far with another one coming very soon. Check it out on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or Google Podcasts and leave us a 5-star rating =)

Top of Mind

Taking Off the Blinders Necessitates Bold Moves

In just a few sessions with my new CEO coach, I’ve come to realize that I’ve been running the business with too much optimism and half-baked assumptions versus hard numbers-backed actions. Organic growth has bailed us out in most situations, but softening budgets and demand coupled with intense competition has cast doubt on whether or not we can count on last minute deals to smooth out cash flow and extend our runway. We have to be reality hounds with a nose for precise results – if we don’t think we can make certain revenue targets, we need to be smart about cutting costs.

Part of the work I’m doing with my coach is forecasting the split between our primary sources of revenue between existing accounts and new accounts.. I’m using a revenue bridge model (grab a copy of my Google Sheets template) along with historical data from our CRM to figure out how many deals, proposals, and leads we’ll need to hit our targets. I’ve also pulled in our actual pipeline data along with a list of every existing client to see what hypothetical projects and retainers might come for the rest of the year.

Diving into this level of detail has been illuminating because it clarifies the gaps that exist between where we want to be and where we are today. In our current model, the average project size and time to sign them make it nearly impossible to hit our goals. The volume of deals (and in turn, the number of proposals and leads required to yield the deals) isn’t realistic, and it would require us to hire more people to handle them, which would in turn eat into our target profits. We either have to lower our revenue goal for the year or find ways to drastically change levers like pricing, average project size, and win rate.

All of this has led me to believe that we are in need of some bold moves to “reset” aspects of our business. Nothing is sacred  – our positioning, our brand, personnel, team structure. Everything is under review. We won’t make rash decisions that impact our clients negatively in any way, but we’re willing to make some major moves that will change the way we conduct business.

Shared with Partners

“I knew if I blamed other people, I lost the power to change a situation. Blaming does nothing to shift a power balance. A rule I’ve adhered to for a long time is this: if I ever complain twice about something, I either must act or shut up. The time had come for me to apply this rule to my present situation with lululemon.” (Chip Wilson, Little Black Stretchy Pants)

We never tire of quotes that have to do with pointing the finger inward, coming up with solutions, and taking action.

“There’s another form of insincerity that is even more damaging to a purpose or a project, and that’s internal insincerity. It’s the insincerity with yourself about what you’re doing throughout the day. When I look at my activities on any given day, I want to employ radical self-honesty: “Am I just inventing things to do to avoid or put off the necessary required actions?” When I’m radically honest with myself, I will acknowledge that the straight line from A (where I am) to B (the result I intend) is made up of necessary required actions. Am I doing those? Or am I inventing other tasks that somehow provide me with a sense of accomplishment?” (Dusan Djukich , Straight-Line Leadership)

This is a great quote because it’s forced us to ask ourselves if we’re spending our time on the right things. In our case, new business is of paramount concern, so it would follow that a bulk of our time is spent on new business activities.

“The company that will go to special trouble and expense to take care of the needs of a regular customer caught in an unexpected jam may show lower profits on the particular transaction, but far greater profits over the years.” (Philip A. Fisher, Common Stocks and Uncommon Profits and Other Writings)

There’s definitely truth to going above and beyond for a regular/loyal customer because the short-term cost will be offset by the long-term retention gains. Not only is the customer continuing to spend (and maybe even increase spend) but they help to avoid additional customer acquisition costs needed to replace their lost revenue.

“In 1962, Barbara Tuchman published The Guns of August, an account of the first ninety days of World War I. It’s the best book on management—and, especially, mismanagement—I’ve ever read. The most basic conclusion I drew from her book was that, if you adopt a reasonable strategy, as opposed to waiting for an optimum strategy, and stick with it, you’ll probably succeed. Tenacity is as important as brilliance. The Germans and French both had brilliant general staffs, but neither side had the tenacity to stick with their prewar plans. As a result, the first ninety days of war ended in four years of bloody stalemate.” (Joe Coulombe, Becoming Trader Joe)

The partnerships approach I mentioned above is one such strategy that will take time to see success. One piece I didn’t mention above but is on the table is potentially hiring someone from a tech solutions partner as a partnerships manager on our team. Other agencies in our space have had great success doing this, and it’s something we ought to seriously consider.

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