40:3 Trapped in the business
I was trapped in my agency and utterly hated it. Several experiences became the catalyst for change. In this episode., I’d like to start a bit of a raw conversation and find out how you are doing. I’ll share a couple of experiences as an agency owner and how tough I found them. To discover the transformation stages we went through to turn things around, be sure to check out Episode 200.
Lee Matthew Jackson
How to sell a digital agency – click here
Welcome to the Agency Trailblazer Podcast. This is your host, Lee. On today’s show, I’d like to start a bit of a raw conversation and essentially find out you are doing.
Before I continue, let’s thank Cloudways for sponsoring yet another episode. They are my cloud hosting provider of choice. You can find out more information on trailblazer.fm/cloudways.
I’d like to share with you a few stories of where we were as an agency and how tough I found it. I’m going to share too, our route out of those times in order to help encourage you, especially those who find themselves trapped in similar circumstances. I’d like this to be the start of a conversation in order to help those who do feel trapped, maybe desperate, maybe miserable in their business, and help them to find the right path. I’ve got absolutely nothing to sell you, this isn’t me trying to create a problem that can then have a course to purchase at the end of it. I just want to know that I’ve helped point people in the right direction. That is the whole purpose of Agency Trailblazer, is to help you build a business that you love and want to keep. You’ll definitely get that idea as I share the stories today.
The outcome I’m looking for for you is that you will be able to take some action yourself, or maybe find the right course to fill a skill gap, or find the right consultant that you can connect with so they can guide you through your reset. Like I said, I ain’t got nothing to pitch you. Let’s get into story time.
To give you a little bit of background, many years ago, I was still bald then, I was a shareholder in an agency, and we would serve all manner of businesses. We had found a sweet spot in the events industry, doing a few brands, but we weren’t charging enough in that industry. And, we were also trying to spread ourselves ridiculously thin across multiple industries. We were serving pharmaceuticals, we were serving HR companies. I was going out and networking at networking events, trying to attract anybody and everybody to our services. The problem is our services were also everything. We would class ourselves as a full-service agency, offering web design, web development, app development, print design, print management, you name it. If it was at all remotely creative, we would find a way to do that thing that you need and we would never charge enough. That’s pretty much our history, many years ago, back in the early noughties.
In around 2007, 2008, we hit the recession along with many businesses. And we were finding, left, right and centre, that business was dropping off. Either clients were going bust, or they were just slashing budgets and things were no longer important for them to invest in. We were certainly in a very difficult place. We’d gone from a significant feast of working with multiple companies in multiple industries on multiple cool projects, and now we were in a position of not really understanding who we were, who we served, what our specialty was, or even how to generate income. We’d come to that famine. We’d come to the month at the end of the money and we weren’t really sure of the way forward. And a lot of that story, you can find out in episode number 200 along with the five stages of transformation that any business can go through. So I highly recommend you check out that episode, that’ll help you understand where you might be with your agency and what your next best steps might be to apply an extra 20%’s worth of change within your business.
First story from that background is, during all of that, we decided to build an app. This is in 2008 I think approximately, 2009. Android was new to the scene, we’d already had iPhone out there, and we tried to create a cross-platform app for a client. They wanted something for their event, we said we could do it and we worked our backsides off. That’s the entire team doing development, trying to find the right framework, trying to create this cross-compatible application that we would then submit to Apple and also upload to the Android store.
Now, this was super stressful because we also had to integrate this app with their existing website. So we were making calls to their database, and then pulling that information into an app. We had to consider things like online and offline performance, synchronisation. Essentially, we were learning absolutely everything you needed to learn, in as fast amount of time as we possibly could, in order to deliver this app within just a few short weeks. Long story short, we did eventually get that app signed off. Apple finally, after several versions, they were very strict back then, finally approved the app and let us on. The client signed off the app, and we were able to also add that to Android and they were able to test it.
Now we told ourselves, “Wow, didn’t we do well.” But for myself, I suddenly recognised something very wrong about this situation. Because this was something new, we’d decided to give them a ridiculously low price so that we could learn how to do it, do something awesome for them and then make loads of money being app developers, therefore I’d only charged them 500 pounds. When I looked back and recognised the amount of people that were involved, including myself as the part owner of this business, I’d personally put in three weeks of my own time, long, long 18 hour days, and I recognised that we had an app that was of great value to the client but not really something that we were going to be able to repurpose for other people. And certainly, this was not our strength. We had found it hard, we had not enjoyed the process. We’d done an amazing job, but it was not us. And I’ll be frank with you, I did actually burst into tears when I recognised what we had done.
The problem is, and that’s the title of this episode, the problem is we were trapped. We were trapped in a business that were serving all people anything, and we had a lot of employees. So my logic, as the owner of the business, was in order to turn around our fortunes, if we can just prove ourself with this one app then we’ll get the golden goose, and we’ll be able to get all of these other apps and we’ll be able to be an app development company. You can see there, from the logic, that we are in tough times, we’re struggling and me, with no real direction as the owner of the business, I’m just grabbing at anything. That’s where I was, we were trapped in the business therefore I was trapped making really bad decisions that, in the long run, would just exacerbate our position.
Another story from this journey is where we eventually found a really good retainer contract with a company. They were a huge company, they organised multiple projects around the world, they worked with massive organisations including government contracts, et cetera. And they needed us to do tonnes of website development for them, every single month. We negotiated a phenomenal contract where we were pulling in a minimum of 8000 pounds per month, just on that one contract. That was great for us, it was profitable, we were able to do a wonderful job for the client. And, we really felt like we’d made it, we were super happy.
However, over time as that 2007 recession started to hit, the client started to push us. They started to ask for more, but for us to not change the price. Initially, we responded a little bit out of fear saying, “Yeah. Yeah, no problem. We can just do that little bit extra here or there and look after you.” So we started to take on more work but not really charge for it. We were conscious this was a great deal and we didn’t want to lose it. Also, looking at that contract in hindsight, I recognise we were doing an awful lot of work that we shouldn’t been doing. They weren’t our specialism, they were taking our eye off where we should have been as a business. But regardless, it was cash coming in, this was eight grand. I had staff to pay, we need to service this contract. We always had a motto that paid work was way more important, that’s invoiceable work, was way more important than speculating on new business. That’s a terrible, terrible idea because you do need to make sure you’re looking after your marketing pipeline. That’s how feast and famine works.
Anyway, we started to say yes to these few extras, and then the finance chap started to have conversations with us and question every single line item on our invoice. And before long, I think it was a period of about six months, we were finding that we were changing less and less, every single month, but we were still doing as much if not more work. We had really lost our confidence. We desperately needed the money coming in from this contract, and because of that fear, because of that lack of direction, because of that feeling of being trapped, because of the position we had placed ourselves in as the owners of this business, we found ourselves bending over backwards, and giving and giving.
Until the point where it was actually no longer feasible to look after this client, and we actually had to say, “Sorry, no. We are done.” Which didn’t really help the client, the client certainly didn’t help themselves and they had to move onto somebody else. But it almost destroyed us, and certainly destroyed our confidence in ourselves. Having gotten a great contract with a client that we thought respected us, et cetera, over time they’d eroded that and we had allowed our lack of confidence and the poor decisions that we had made over the last few years become the catalyst for that horrible situation we found ourselves in.
So that’s two stories, and if you’ve seen any of my talks at events, you’ll have probably have heard a bit of both of those key stories. Now, there is something throughout those that is common. That commonality is the word trapped. When you are trapped in your business, you will make really poor decisions. We found ourselves paying many members of staff, we had two physical office locations in two expensive cities in the UK. We had lot of responsibilities. We had to pay ourselves as directors, we needed to pay the mortgage. We were trapped. Because we didn’t have that identity, we didn’t have that specialism, we didn’t have that clear path as a business, we didn’t have a marketing strategy. All we had was the month-to-month grind of finding whatever scraps we could and hoping we could get enough of those scraps in to make ends meet at the end of that month. We were essentially trapped.
Let’s not even talk about the mounting commitments of bills that we were having to try and pay. We were in a situation at one point where we were having to ask for extra time to pay certain bills. This was not a good situation to be in. The thing is is, as the situation got worse, our decision making got worse and we just doubled down into this horrible pit where we couldn’t really see any future.
The purpose of these two stories is to help you analyse where you’re at and I hope either two things happen. Number one, I hope you look at where I was and go, “Holy moly Lee, that was insane. I’m glad I’m not there, I’m actually having a great time.” And if that’s you, freaking awesome. However, if it’s not you and you recognise just some of these situations, or some of these feelings or some of these practises in your agency, I would love for us to have a conversation. Let’s do that on trailblazer.fm/318, that’s episode 318.
I had an agency that I hated, that I was trapped in, that was draining me, that was awful. We eventually turned things around. Again, listen to episode 200 of that turnaround journey, the agency reset roadmap to help you no matter where you’re at. Yes, we did eventually turn things around, things got better. Agency Trailblazer started because I was there and found a way out. And I recognise that there are countless people around the world right now, who are trapped in their business in some way. And if that’s you, I haven’t got anything to sell you. Sure, I’ve got bits and bobs here or there, that you could maybe invest some money in. If you’ve got a use for it, go for it. That’s great, that helps put food on the table, that helps this podcast keep going.
But, what I’m interested in doing is having a real conversation with you via the comments in the Facebook group, trailblazer.fm/group, to see how we can help you. That’s helping you by connecting you with the right people, or sharing the right stories, or sharing some of our existing freely available content that might help you. Or, even connecting you with the right sorts of teachers. We’re surrounded by so many awesome people. You’ve got Brent from You Gurus, you’ve got Troy Dean and the team over at WP Elevation. You’ve got Nicole Osborne who does Wonder Stars, who is a consultant specifically for agency owners. No matter where you are on the journey, we have friends that can help you, we can connect you with those people.
So let’s have a conversation, trailblazer.fm/318. Where are you in your journey? Do you recognise some of these situations in your company? If you did and you overcame them, please head on over to the comments and share what it was and how you got out of it. If you want to contact me personally, you’d rather this not be public, please email firstname.lastname@example.org. I can’t promise I’ll reply straight away, we get quite a lot of email here. But, do email me direct, I will respond personally and provide you with some thoughts, whatever that may be.
I absolutely want to help you, you are freaking awesome. As per last week’s episode, life is precious. That’s 317, please listen to that, we had a tragedy in our family just a week and a half ago, and it really underlines the importance of living our best lives whilst we can. Please, if you are trapped, reach out. Let’s support you, let’s point you in the right direction where we can, let’s pass you onto the right people where you can. We love you, you are freaking awesome. If we don’t see you in the comments, if we don’t see you in email, if we don’t see you in the Facebook group, then why don’t we see you in next week’s episode.