We concluded our trial of Roam, a virtual office collaboration tool that’s meant to evoke a sense of place online while encouraging more casual “drop-in” conversations among team members. The interface looked sleek and the value proposition was promising, so we went for a 30-day trial with our team.
The 30 days came and went very quickly and we decided to send out a team survey to get a check on how people were feeling about the tool. The number one gripe was that its video quality was a step down from what we got with Zoom, and that alone was a dealbreaker for many. The video lagged a bit and the way they handled sound was also, for some, too distracting (e.g. keyboard sounds are more audible). The novelty of “seeing” people online in their respective office rooms or meeting in any of our virtual conference rooms seemed to fade away over time. The common complaint we heard was this: “if this isn’t meant to fully replace Slack and/or Zoom, then does it really make sense to add yet another tool?”
We did another poll in Slack just to make sure a simple Yes/No vote mapped to the mostly negative comments we received in the survey. Sure enough, an overwhelming majority of the team voted No. The trial ended, and we decided not to move forward.
Knowledge work on a distributed team – heck, even on-premise teams – consists these days of jumping around a staggering number of applications. Just thinking of our team: there’s email, Slack, and Zoom as a baseline, and depending on your role, there’s Figma, HubSpot, Quickbooks, Bill.com, Google Workspace apps, Microsoft Office Suite, JIRA, an IDE, Asana, Basecamp, Pitch, Adobe Creative Cloud tools, etc. This doesn’t even include the dozens of apps our clients use that we need to fully understand, customize, and support including Shopify, Klaviyo, Recharge, Google Analytics, etc. I’m just scratching the surface–there are dozens and dozens of additional apps that augment other apps, serve as middleware, or do very specialized things.
The point is, I can see why we should be very mindful of adding “yet another app”, especially one that we expect the broader team to use daily in order to get value out of it (vs. a highly specialized app that may be used occasionally to save time). And to take it a step further, I think it’s worthwhile for companies to periodically evaluate their software use, consolidate where things make sense, and also curate/cull ones that are repetitive or don’t add much value. Not only is this an opportunity to save on costs but it may lessen mental load on the team.
About Agency Journey: This is a monthly series detailing the happenings at my agency Barrel, founded in 2006. You can find previous episodes here.
Business Development Reset
Last month, I alluded to the need for big bold moves as we worked towards stronger results for the business. We made the difficult decision in early March to part ways with our Director of Business Development Dan Fleishaker.
Dan had been a big part of our top-line growth over the past 4+ years and took on a great deal of responsibility in qualifying and closing deals. He brought high energy and enthusiasm to new opportunities and freed up the Barrel partners to focus on other areas of the business.
Towards the end of last year, as we struggled to close deals and saw diminished quality in our inbound leads, we felt a strong need to evolve our business development activities. We decided to lean more into partnerships with our tech solutions partners (something I’ve mentioned in the last two episodes) and to also experiment with different types of outbound activities.
In order to accommodate the shift in our activities, we felt that we needed a structural change. The Director of Business Development role was too entrenched in processing and working through the existing stream of inbound leads. After exploring and trying different options, we ultimately felt that the right move was to eliminate the role and focus our attention on partnerships and outbound activities.
We’ve been relying on internal resources to fill the gaps from Dan’s departure. Lucas, our Chief Experience Officer, has been taking the lead on both the partnerships and the bulk of the initial conversations with prospects. Our CTO Wes, COO/President Sei-Wook, and I have also become more involved in business development conversations with prospects, and it’s allowed us to talk more deeply about ways we can improve our processes for qualifying and winning deals. Our Business Coordinator Riley Stone has been superb in supporting all aspects of the business development process including putting together proposal and pitch decks as well as the initial scoping docs.
One of the bigger shifts that’s emerged from the structural change is that we see every new client opportunity as more than a project. Our discussions revolve around which solutions partners to loop in, what other agency partners may be worth talking to, and how we can show value during the sales process before even thinking about submitting a proposal. This approach was harder to accomplish in our former structure because our built-up habits and processes were so focused on winning the project at hand. We over-indexed on requirements gathering and whipping up a proposal versus trying to first understand how winnable something was and what angles we could take to gain trust prior to submitting a proposal.
This is not to say that being project-focused prevented us from winning. We won our fair share of projects by dutifully scoping and submitting proposals. What we missed through this approach in the long run was to build an ecosystem of relationships that would nurture more opportunities in the future. For example, rather than rushing to propose and land a Shopify website project for ourselves, we could have benefitted by looping in tech solutions partners during the sales process and offering them the opportunity to engage more deeply with prospects as well as our team. This way, the solutions partner feels good that we’re putting forth their offerings while allowing them to provide assistance in a way that ensures customer success. The client gets the benefit of additional expertise beyond ours, and we get to be top of mind for the solutions partner in the event they want to loop an agency into an opportunity. Imagine this kind of interaction times a half dozen or so different tech solutions or agency partners throughout a sales process and you can see how enriching a qualified lead can be, whether or not you end up winning it. We opt in to participate in the ecosystem and therefore become visible to others.
We’re seeing our more intentional efforts pay off with an uptick in lead volume from different partners. It’s still very early in the game (basically just a 3-month sample at this point), but 6-9 months from now, I think we’ll look back and be very pleased that we made this a priority.
Attrition and Hiring
We lost a Senior Software Engineer and a Senior Project Manager this month. Since our headcount has decreased quite a bit in the past 18 months, every bit of attrition is noticeably felt. At this point, we’ve got a good process for covering immediate needs including getting some coverage from freelance resources or having project team members take on additional responsibilities. Of course, it’s never easy and there’s always the dread of having to inform our clients and also of making sure the quality of our delivery doesn’t suffer.
And then there’s the ramp up of recruiting activity to replace the departed team members. We’ve held off for a long time as we right-sized from making full-time hire replacements, but we’re now at a point where full-time hiring makes sense again. Our hiring managers have ramped up their activity in reviewing applicants and conducting interviews, but because it’s been a while since we’ve proactively recruited, we don’t have a well-oiled system in place. As a result, the hiring managers are spending more time than they should on the administrative aspects of recruiting like taking a first pass at applications to see if candidates followed instructions and going back and forth with them to schedule interviews. We’ll be looking to shore this up with an assistant in the coming weeks and perhaps even create a shared service with our other Barrel Holdings agencies.
A couple of years ago, we had a full-time in-house recruiter who did a great job of serving up highly qualified candidates. However, the cost was overkill for a firm of our size. If I recall correctly, even with an in-house recruiter, we still made hires using external recruiters for certain roles, basically paying for recruiting costs twice–the salary of the in-house recruiter and the commissions to the external recruiter. 2021 was a very competitive time for hiring, but shame on us for being okay with such extravagant spending back then.
This time around, we’ll be a lot more cost conscious in the hiring process. We’re also posting directly to LATAM countries to continue increasing our footprint in countries like Argentina and Brazil. We have high hopes for increasing our headcount in the region.
Wins & Losses and a Couple of Launches
March has been a mixed bag in terms of new business deals. We landed a handful of deals with clients that we’re excited about: an off-grid energy accessories brand, a gluten-free cookie brand, an office furniture brand, a beauty brand for rave enthusiasts, and a cultural center based in Hawaii. We also lost several deals including a couple of large ones – a premium bag brand and a high-end meal delivery company.
The overall trend has been smaller initial engagements and tighter budgets. We’ve seen an uptick in requests for moving headless websites back on to a more plain vanilla Shopify implementation. Headless was a fad in 2020 and 2021 where the idea of decoupling the front-end with the back-end for ecommerce websites promised for greater flexibility and site performance. Unfortunately, it also meant a greater cost of ownership for brands and lots of unnecessary complexity in managing what, in most cases, were simple websites. Headless may make sense for companies of a certain scale or back-end needs, but for the majority of merchants selling on Shopify, there wasn’t much to gain and a whole lot of costs to bear. These headless-back-to-“head on” implementations are not great in terms of budgets since brands are basically undoing their previous mistakes and see this less as a valuable investment and more as an annoying fix that should be done at lowest cost possible. However, we think there’s opportunity here to provide value at a low cost and then be a long-term partner in providing optimization and support services via retainers.
On the delivery side, we launched a couple of new websites for our clients recently. One is for Duke Farms, a 2,700-acre environmental center in Hillsborough, New Jersey and part of the Doris Duke Foundation. We continue to build and launch a handful of WordPress-based websites each year, and our team really enjoyed working with the Duke Farms team to showcase their beautiful location, their deep research resources on sustainability, and their popular Eagle Cam.
The other launch was for Pavise, the first brand of B.A.I. Biosciences, a new generation biotechnology company founded by scientist Sophie Bai. B.A.I. has over 20 patented technologies using first-to-market molecules in the cosmetic and dermatology space, including those used in Pavise products. Our sibling agency BX Studio worked on the B.A.I. Biosciences website.
ChatGPT Plus for Employees, Some Thoughts on AI
We announced to our team that we would subsidize a ChatGPT Plus account for anyone who wanted to have access to the AI tool. It’s clear that the tool presents some incredible opportunities to help knowledge workers be more productive. There needs to be further training and professional development for the team around writing prompts and showing concrete examples of where AI can be leveraged to save time, speed up progress, or get things off the ground. This is something we’ll explore in the coming months. Our devs are already playing with Copilot, Notion also has built in AI capabilities, and Adobe has some cool tools coming out–AI is and will be everywhere so it’ll be important for us as a team to embrace the possibilities, be curious, and play around.
I feel a bit hypocritical sharing this after my intro rant about having too many apps, but ChatGPT is less of a mandated software addition to our stack at this point and more of a “let’s encourage experimentation” gesture.
It’s anyone’s guess what AI’s long-term impact on knowledge work will be, especially on the economy at large. I tend to be on the side that it won’t eliminate jobs but instead force a shift where humans will need to incorporate the power of AI in their everyday work to remain relevant in the workforce. I can see certain types of roles being reduced with AI doing the heavy lifting, much like business process automations via software has replaced more manual jobs over the past couple decades. In terms of our industry specifically, I can see a swift adoption of AI technology to augment what we do in designing and building websites. Business models will have to adapt, probably trend downward in price and shortened timelines for execution work while strategy and creatively directed use of AI become more valued.
Top of Mind
Zooming Out and Acknowledging Progress
There’s a great deal of recency bias when it comes to gauging my overall sentiment about the business. It’s something I need to always be aware of and work through. For example, as of this writing, fresh on my mind are a handful of not-so-great things that transpired over the past 72 hours: a long-time client giving notice to end our relationship after nearly 7 years, emails notifying us that we lost out on a couple deals that took a great deal of our team’s effort, and the final day for two employees leaving the company, reminding me that we have two roles to urgently fill. Things don’t feel great when I focus on these things.
But this is where zooming out comes in handy, allowing me to take a step back and acknowledge the progress that’s been made. Intellectually, I know this practice is helpful, but the exercise is harder to do versus continuing to focus on what feels like the pressing problems of the business. I’ll take a moment here to review this first quarter of 2023 as a whole and acknowledge some of the progress we’ve made as a company:
- We recognized the downward trend of revenues and did a decent job of controlling costs. We learned from last year’s delayed decision-making and made cuts much sooner this time, allowing us to further right-size and be in better financial shape throughout the quarter. This was done through a combination of layoffs and cutting back on freelancer spend.
- The CEO/business coaching that I’ve been getting via CEO Coaching International has been phenomenal and has helped me (and in turn, Barrel as a whole) get a much stronger handle on the business and our priorities. My coach Gerry has been wonderful although every session with him feels like an intense workout where I’m getting my butt kicked. One gap I still need to do a better job of closing is in forecasting and setting goals – there’s still a strong sense of overly optimistic thinking that’s not quite backed by measurable activities, which can lead to unrealistic targets that end in disappointment. If I’m honest with myself, I’ve run Barrel this way for most of its existence, so it’s a long ingrained habit that I’ll need to break.
- We continue to deliver for our existing clients, receiving praise and extensions to our recurring revenue work. We also had a client come back from a 6-month break to sign up for a retainer that may last through the end of the year, which is great.
- We gave raises and promotions to our top performing team members and also rolled out a new system for performance management (bimonthly feedback requests vs. an annual performance review). We also announced an additional bonus program for the team on top of our profit share program based on exceeding our annual goals – this latter point means I really need to nail down more realistic goal-setting as CEO.
- We added two new software engineers to the team. They’ve brought new energy and fresh perspective, which gives me hope that even amid attrition, we can use that as an opportunity to infuse fresh talent into our team.
- In a very short period of time, we’ve made inroads in our partnership efforts with Shopify and also refined the way we present ourselves in new business situations. Lucas has done a great job spearheading and experimenting things here. The knowledge we’ve gained around how leads materialize and how they get passed around in the Shopify ecosystem has been an important development for us.
- We launched a new monthly newsletter for “friends & advisors” of Barrel to keep people in the know about what’s happening at Barrel, to thank those who brought us new opportunities, and to ask for help. The list is mainly comprised of complementary agencies (no direct competitors), former clients, solo consultants working with brands, and various solutions partners.
It’s been a good quarter. I have much to be grateful for, and just by writing these out, I feel a shift in my outlook towards greater positivity.
Shared with Partners
“Before you go into any meeting with a client (or prospective client), figure out the two or three things you want the client to absolutely believe about you by the end of the meeting. Then, figure out, in advance, precisely how you are going to demonstrate that you are those things. Don’t tell them, show them. Don’t “wing” it. If the client is to be convinced of something, you need to be very prepared to demonstrate it convincingly.” (David H. Maister, Charles H. Green, Robert M. Galford, The Trusted Advisor)
This is a powerful reminder for us as we continue to evolve our agency overview deck and refine how we talk about ourselves to prospects.
“A common mistake entails creating a structure to accommodate people you like or don’t want to lose. When creating a structure to function efficiently, you must take the long view. Sometimes this means eliminating or changing seats that are no longer relevant.” (Gino Wickman, Traction)
This is a message taken to heart when making some tough personnel decisions. I value loyalty and relationships and will default to trying to make things work, but at some point, it’s better for everyone involved to face reality and embrace a bold new direction that may exclude certain people.
““The culture of a company is the behavior of its leaders. Leaders get the behavior they exhibit and tolerate. You change the culture of a company by changing the behavior of its leaders. You measure the change in culture by measuring the change in the personal behavior of its leaders and the performance of the business.”” (Larry Bossidy, Ram Charan, Charles Burck, Execution)
This is worth inscribing somewhere and displaying on my desk every day. It’s a reminder to be a kind, professional, and disciplined person day in and day out. It’s hard, and I fail at it sometimes, but it’s what sets the tone for the company’s culture.
“A great way to think about what your principles are is to complete this sentence: “I would give others totally free rein to do this as long as they . . .” As long as they what? What policies, stated or unstated, will apply to your group’s activities? “As long as they stayed within budget”? “satisfied the client”? “ensured a healthy team”? “promoted a positive image”?” (David Allen, Getting Things Done)
This is a very effective way to cut to the core of what’s important to you. I think in our case, we’d give others totally free rein as long as they 1) delivered on our commitments to our clients, 2) was mindful of impact on our business, and 3) ensured a respectful and collaborative relationship between our team members and our clients.
Super insightful Peter.
– The short form, but concise thought process, and output is super refreshing as a reader
– I love the narrative, especially going into both challenges and positives of the business