What I Learned Building a Million Dollar Digital Agency
Five years ago I co-founded a digital agency called League Made, Inc. We started like every other digital agency by surviving on small clients here and there, scraping together any technology that worked, and putting in long hours while our friends clocked out at 5pm every day. Eventually, we landed larger and larger clients, hired more people, and developed a niche in luxury hospitality that came to earn us a healthy reputation and eventually profit.
We learned a lot during our six years in business. Below are some of the useful lessons I learned:
1. Nothing makes up for proper planning
Unexpected deadlines, integrations, sick team members, or unanticipated business changes can immediately throw off a project. Often these changes are unavoidable and cannot be known entirely beforehand. By proper planning I don’t mean predicting the future, I mean planning for what happens when things do go awry. Plan beforehand for how personnel, process, and business changes are handled. I’m not talking change requests, necessarily, but rather the internal processes that give the team confidence that small hiccups do not become major challenges. For example, we often have backup developers who follow a project from start to completion but who may never actually work on the project. They are similar to a theater understudy: The prepare, take notes, learn the schematics and architecture, and are ready to jump in immediately if a developer falls ill, leaves, or just needs backup. When they are not helping on the project in question, they’re continuing their own work on other projects.
2. Move with Obstacles
The easy response to any difficulty that comes up in a project is to blame others. It’s easy to throw third parties under the bus when integration is difficult, demand that every change be a change request, or deflect any issues to another team. I’ve actually seen junior developers appear excited when they have someone else to blame for an obstacle or change because they then have a reason to take it easy or explain any potential setbacks in the project. This is especially true when a client’s IT owns part of the solution (e.g., infrastructure setup and maintenance). When they drop the ball, you’re off the hook. How much better is it to maintain a benevolent working relationship by stepping up and helping or continuing to move the project forward, and potentially becoming the hero of the project? Don’t let obstacles be excuses, insist that they be opportunities to make an impression. Clients notice the initiative and junior team members need that encouragement.
3. Take responsibility
Sometimes things happen that are truly you (or your team’s) fault. A misunderstood email or Slack message, a difference of interpretation of an MSA’s small details, a small programming error, or even something as silly as sleeping in during an early meeting can result in major issues. When these issues happen, it’s best to own up to them immediately. Never lie, never invent an excuse, and never try to make it someone else’s problem. Being able to admit when I was wrong was one of the hardest lessons to learn, but it’s the first step in creating a culture of honesty internally and with clients.
4. Don’t take anything for granted
Nothing is done until you see it with your own eyes. Especially with developers, “done” can mean many things: done with the ticket, done in staging, done in production, QAed and deployed, just to name the most common. When in doubt, always ask for clarity.
5. Hard work pays off
Starting League was a difficult process in many ways. Nevermind the anxiety over quitting a cushy job at an advertising agency, there was the stress of setting up a business (e.g., incorporating, setting up taxes and accounting, finding office space), having to account for not only my life but those of our employees, being dependent on a long sales cycle, and putting in extra hours when friends are on vacation. After three years, though, we hit our stride and went from surviving contract-to-contract to being able to form many strategic client partnerships. There were four months in 2017 that I worked 12 hour days, six days a week. Those were also the months that provided for our entire 2018 budget, so it was well worth the effort.
6. The importance of a team
The most important lesson I learned was the crucial psychological function of teamwork. Even when it was just my co-founder and me, having someone to count on that I respected and trusted was the only thing that kept me from going back to corporate America (not that there’s anything wrong with that, it just wasn’t right for me at the time). Brainstorming, grinding extra hours, facing obstacles, and delivering ground-breaking, complicated, and surprising solutions is much easier with a team. It empowers you to focus on what you do best, which then helps your teammates do what they do best.
Starting my own company provided me with many opportunities and lessons, and I wouldn’t change it for any experience in an established or startup business. Some lessons can only be learned by starting something new.