Unproductive Thoughts of an Agency Owner

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This is a cautionary list intended to highlight the pointlessness and wastefulness of pursuing certain types of thoughts. They come from deep personal experience.

As an agency owner for over 16 years, I’ve let these thoughts occupy my mind one too many times. Luckily, through introspection, coaching, and practice, I’ve been able to develop enough self-awareness to spot these thoughts and quickly dismiss them whenever they pop up. Life is a lot more pleasant and productive when you can live free of these thoughts.

These thoughts generally emanate from envy, from comparing myself to someone else in a similar and relatable situation and feeling “beat” or “outdone” in pursuit of “success” (more on this later). In my situation, it was usually envy of other agency owners and what I took to be their success in building a better business, having more prestigious clients, and making more money.

I’ve identified four common types of unproductive thoughts. I’ll dive into each, share some examples, and also explain why these are ultimately unreasonable thoughts to have in the first place.

1. “They must be killing it”

This genre of thinking usually came when I observed social media posts (mainly Twitter or LinkedIn) of agency owners boasting about their growing team size, awards, new clients, and Inc. 5000 Fastest Growing Companies listings. The unexpressed part of this thought is “they must be killing it…and we’re not” which means this whole line of thinking is an exercise in self-pity.

In my worst moments, I let such thinking lead me to view my own business in the most negative light–that we didn’t have talented people, that we didn’t have credible clients, and that we couldn’t do anything right. These downward spirals were very unproductive and undermined my ability to be an effective leader.

What helped me change perspective was getting to know other agency owners, seeing them as people who have their own strengths and weaknesses, and realizing that beyond their sexy social media posts, they too had their ups and downs with the business. Some may be further along on certain aspects of their business than I was, but I didn’t need to see myself as a complete failure or a lesser person.

The funny thing is, as we’ve ramped up our own marketing efforts for Barrel over the past few years, I’ve had agency owner friends comment that they felt “Barrel must be killing it” based on our social posts. Truth was, we had some nice wins and accomplishments, but business was up and down, and we struggled at times. We curate our content to share what makes us look best, so it’s no wonder that people felt this way about us. It’s also no wonder I used to assume the same about others. But these days, I’m happy for anyone that publicizes their successes while also telling myself that I don’t know how anyone is really doing so it’s useless to assume anything.

2. “They’re successful because they had this going for them”

Related to the “they must be killing it” thought is one where I’ve tried in the past to come up with a narrative for why someone was successful (and why my business was, relatively, not).

  • “They’re successful because they got onto this platform earlier and got all the best leads.”
  • “They’re successful because one of their startups got really big and is their largest client.”
  • “They’re successful because they hired this person who brought with them relationships with really high caliber clients.”
  • “They’re successful because their founder is related to a partner at a VC fund and gets all the portfolio hookups.”

Trying to explain someone else’s success is a clear waste of time. Trying to reduce their success to sound like it was due to luck or some external factors sounds like jealousy and a way to justify one’s own beliefs for not being successful.

Over the years, I’ve grappled with the word “success” and have come to understand it as a very personal and specific definition. We tend to gauge success by measure of money – revenue, profits, valuation – but I don’t think that always captures everything. Success could be about growing quickly in a short amount of time to position for an exit. It could be about slow and steady growth over a long period of time. It could be about working with certain types of clients on certain types of projects. It could be about cultivating certain types of teams or reaching a certain level of scale. The measure of success can vary from agency owner to agency owner. After I began to understand this and to cultivate my own definition of success in running an agency business, I started caring less and less about trying to explain the success of others. It had no bearing on my own pursuit of success.

3. “If it worked for them, it’ll work for us”

I was especially prone in my earlier days as an agency owner to blindly copy and imitate what other agencies did without thinking too deeply about whether or not these ideas were appropriate for us. What drove me was seeing their “success” – typically larger headcount and bigger-name clients – and a desire to one day have just as many people with a flashy client roster.

I had no limits to the things I copied and imitated without fully understanding the pieces. They included things like pricing, team structure, benefits, roles, sales process, types of meetings, software, etc. The upside was that we tried a lot of different things and these experiences gave me insights – albeit usually painful – of what worked and what didn’t. My team, I could tell, was annoyed or confused by the eagerness to keep evolving process and layering new types of changes to the business.

A big part of this behavior was due to my lack of self-confidence in running an agency mixed with laziness and impatience. I didn’t have the discipline to carefully think through things before rolling them out with the team, and I was also unwilling to let things play out and improve over time. At the first sign of trouble, I was quick to roll changes back or abandon them silently, hoping nobody would realize.

These days, I’m not immune from wanting to imitate good ideas when I see them. But luckily, we’ve established more rigor internally to stress test new ideas and to have room for healthy debate on proposed changes before they come alive. Having more people in leadership roles and also having greater confidence in our existing systems and structures has made me less willing to mess with what’s working. Also, any ideas without proper vetting and planning is most likely to get shot down by our team leads before they impact the wider team.

Also, I’ve come to be more skeptical about how other agencies talk about their processes and the things that seem to work so well for them. What might work for one agency business may not always be the right thing for us – we may have different circumstances, resources, collaboration styles, and a number of other factors that make a seemingly good idea for one agency an ineffective one for another. I’m more likely these days to observe an interesting idea and to ask myself: “How would this need to evolve or be tweaked to work well for us?” I default to the notion that it’s very rare for anything to transfer seamlessly from one business to another.

4. “If we only had this, we would be successful”

Another sign of impatience and laziness that I’ve spotted in myself over the years is the tendency to believe that some magical “unlock” will unleash a new level of success for the agency. This usually manifests in the form of “if we only had…” and it’s not too different than the explanations for why other agencies are successful (and we’re not) that I shared above. Here are some examples:

  • “If we only had a Fortune 100 client, we would be successful.”
  • “If we only had a better creative team, we would be successful.”
  • “If we only had a deeper bench of engineers, we would be successful.”
  • “If we only had more senior project managers, we would be successful.”
  • “If we only had better QA, we would be successful.”
  • “If we only had a robust leadership team, we would be successful.”
  • “If we only had more detailed documentation, we would be successful.”

Whatever the form of success we’re after, I’m certain that it would take more than just one of these things to get there. Building a strong culture or a robust cash flow machine takes all kinds of pieces coming together. It requires a series of good decisions, tight strategy, smooth processes refined over time, capable people hired, trained, and retained with great effort, and endless reps with prospects and clients to iron out a services offering. It took me a while to fully grasp this because it meant accepting the fact that building something worthwhile is a ton of work with no silver bullet. Unlocking any of the examples above means seeing a wall of new doors that need further unlocking. It never stops.

Vision Erases Unproductive Thoughts

A key takeaway from identifying the unproductive thoughts above is that they all come from lacking a proper vision. For a long while, I rarely took the time to ask myself what I ultimately wanted from building a business and what I envisioned as an ultimate outcome. It was always a vague idea around making more money, having a bigger team, and working with some brand name clients. This was why I was so easily influenced by and reactive to what other agencies were doing because I looked to those that I felt were already “successful” to be a model for what I wanted as well.

It was only when I was able to define what I wanted for myself and the business that I realized I had no use for comparing myself against others and trying to see where I stacked up. Instead, the thoughts became more focused on how to close the gap between where we are today and the vision. These thoughts are more productive in the sense that they are action-oriented and lead to real changes. There’s no self-pity, no justifications or excuses, and no narratives on what could be.

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