At the start of the month, we briefly acknowledged Barrel’s 17th year of being in business. I posted something on LinkedIn and after work, poured myself a glass of white wine.
On one hand, it’s just another day, month, and year in the business – I like to think that we keep our heads down and continue working hard. On the other hand, every additional day, month, and year is a blessing and a privilege – what started as a fairly amateur operation by two clueless twentysomethings has become a real business that provides services for clients and helps team members earn a living.
I’m proud of how far we’ve come and also excited to keep the journey going.
About Agency Journey: This is a monthly series detailing the happenings at my agency Barrel, founded in 2006. You can find previous episodes here.
I wrote in April that we had engaged with an outbound lead generation form to see if we could increase the volume of leads. Things slowed down a tad bit in terms of volume, but overall, I’ve been pleased with the results. With about a week left in the quarter, we’ve had 87 responses to our cold emails over 3 months. Of those, we’ve taken 17 calls and submitted 1 proposal, which ended up being a backburnered project.
We’re about to spin up a drip campaign to continue nurturing some of these leads, especially the 17 we’ve taken calls with. While these leads have not led directly to new business opportunities yet, some have led to fruitful discussions with our tech solutions partners. For example, we were able to connect one lead to our contact at a subscription platform as they expressed interest in implementing a solution in the near future.
We will continue to invest in outbound lead gen. Even if it takes 3, 6, or even 12 months for a project to materialize, these leads can, in the shorter term become referral opportunities for others in our ecosystem including tech partners, other complementary service agencies, and our own Barrel Holdings agencies. The calls we take with these prospects are also opportunities to get extra reps in better positioning ourselves and testing different service offerings.
New Business Wins & A Major Launch
We continued to sign more deals this month, improving the outlook for the upcoming quarter. One is a design project for an all-natural pain relief supplement and another one is a couple of web projects for a growing restaurant group. We also signed a couple of sizable projects with existing clients, the first one a production project through our long-standing relationship with an advertising agency and the other a retainer to provide retention marketing services to a major account.
We also launched Craftsman.com, which comes seven months after we launched BlackandDecker.com. We’re excited to continue our partnership with Stanley Black & Decker as they navigate direct-to-consumer e-commerce and find ways to deepen relationships with customers while also providing value to retail partners.
Ecommerce Agency Summit in Toronto
I had a great time attending the Ecommerce Agency Summit in Toronto. I was invited by Rachel Jacobs, who organized the event and also runs an ecommerce agency mastermind group, to participate on a panel with fellow ecommerce agency operators. It was great to catch up with old friends, to get to know others better, and to meet new folks as well.
Belonging to the same Shopify ecosystem with familiarity of the dynamics of merchants, agencies, and solutions partners, the conversations with everyone felt easy and relatable.
While in Toronto, I also got to grab lunch with our Webflow Enterprise partner Juan Ravagli, who happened to live there. We talked primarily about how our Webflow dev shop BX Studio could be better positioned to collaborate with Webflow in selling and landing Enterprise accounts.
There are definitely parallels we see between Webflow Enterprise now and the earlier days of Shopify Plus. On the Barrel front, we didn’t take full advantage of the momentum behind Plus adoption and missed a lot of opportunities between 2017-2020. We’re hoping to take that lesson and do a better job of working with Webflow to help grow their Enterprise offering.
Top of Mind
Ongoing Commitment to Continuous Improvement
One year ago, I wrote about how I wanted to feel in twelve months. We were wrapping up a positive quarter after experiencing two of the worst quarters in company history. This was what I hoped then would be true today:
We’ve transformed Barrel into a lean and profitable business with strong margins and utilization metrics. Gone are the days of wild swings in profitability and revenue month-to-month. We operate with financial discipline and drive a culture of performance and accountability. Our clients value us for our consistency, our service, and our ability to deliver results. We’ve continued to develop our network of contractors and partners, allowing us to scale up for new work without necessarily increasing headcount. We’ve continued to develop our in-house team into strong leaders who excel in communicating with clients and collaborating on project teams.
What’s gratifying is that I can say with certainty that all of these statements are true today, especially when compared with where we were last year. I feel so much better about our cost structure and team makeup, and I know that by continuing to land new accounts and grow topline revenue, we’re in position to expand our margins.
It took a great deal of focus and daily execution to make these statements come true. We paid a great deal of attention to how we were delivering for our clients. We also had to make some tough decisions along the way, especially with cutting personnel. One thing that’s become crystal clear to me throughout the past year is that we’d be nowhere if we didn’t fully commit to an ongoing cycle of continuous improvement.
There’s nothing magical or sophisticated about how we approach continuous improvement. The diagram above shows the simplicity of our approach. The key piece is consistent adherence to activities that enable reflection, discussion, and implementation of new processes and standard operating procedures (SOPs) that help us avoid the same mistakes on the next project while increasing overall quality. Do this repeatedly over a long enough period and you get compounding effects across the organization.
A similar cycle applies to other parts of the business including business development and talent acquisition. With each new business opportunity or hiring need, we can treat these as projects and run the same cycle of debriefing and process improvements. Check out Barrel partner Lucas Ballasy’s reflections on our business development process and some of the improvements they’ve spurred.
One area that we’re continuing to refine is our system of collecting feedback from client stakeholders. We’ve used Net Promoter Score (NPS) tools in the past as well as periodic check-ins between account lead and client lead. The problem for us has been low levels of participation as well as incomplete feedback due to speaking only with one client contact. We’ll be rolling out a more structured feedback survey for clients that enables participation from all stakeholders who were involved the project. We’ll also offer a small perk (like a gift card) to provide some extra motivation. The intent is to gather more data that can factor into our debriefs and process improvement discussions.
I’m proud of how far we’ve come as a team over the past year. The commitment to continuous improvement can be seen across the org from our junior folks to our team leads. The proof is in the clients we’ve been able to retain and expand our relationships with – over time, I believe our base of accounts will come to represent 70-80% of our billable work (right now, it’s right at 50%), which will give us greater financial predictability and stability.
Shared with Partners
“When you stand and overcome a significant setback, you’ll find an increasing inner confidence and self-assurance that has been created by conquering defeat. Absorbing and overcoming this kind of punishment engenders a sober, steely toughness that results in a hardened sense of independence and a personal belief that you can take on anything, survive and win.” (Bill Walsh, Steve Jamison, Craig Walsh, The Score Takes Care of Itself)
This quote resonates strongly when I look back on my career running Barrel. It’s hard to pinpoint which setback instilled a sense of confidence, but after enough of them, I did start to have that “hardened sense of independence and a personal belief” that we could take on anything.
“When we first thought of adding business lines to Blackstone, our idea wasn’t to enter just any area. We wanted to build businesses that were great in their own right but also made our whole firm smarter. We believed that the more we learned from different lines of business, the better we would become at everything. It was the one thing they taught at Harvard Business School: everything in business is connected. We would see opportunities and markets in unusual and different ways from our competitors. Our perspective would broaden and deepen. The more feeds we had running into the firm, the more we’d know, the smarter we’d be, and the better the people who’d want to work with us.” (Stephen A. Schwarzman, What It Takes)
I appreciate this quote because of Schwarzman’s confidence and belief in his firm’s ability to expand, execute, and connect the dots. Over the past few years, we’ve gone the opposite direction at Barrel, sunsetting services that we simply were struggling to integrate with our core web design and development services. We’ve been starting to layer on retention marketing (email, loyalty, subscription, and any other activities that help clients increase customer lifetime value and average order value), and this time around, the effort feels more intentional and deliberate – we’re absolutely trying to build a strong business line while at the same time broadening the perspective of our entire business.
“There are only two possible outcomes whenever you compare yourself to another, vanity or bitterness, and both are without value.” (Ethan Hawke, Rules for a Knight)
I love this quote – it reminds me of a thought exercise: “If I could, would I trade places with that person?” and 100% of the time, the answer is “no” because it’s impossible to fully know what the inner life of others may be. No matter the degree of outward success and influence, you just never know what someone’s life is truly like. Therefore, trying to compare using limited information and making assumptions is indeed an unproductive exercise.