Here it is.. another “what we learned” blog post!
Yes, a bit self-indulgent, but I love reading these things and learn so much out of seeing the mistakes other people have made that I thought it could be useful to share ours.
Sadly, as you will see in this list, I’m not always a fast study. But it’s ok, it gives me something to write about...
No false modesty though. It’s been a great year considering where we started, and we are very lucky and grateful for where we are at this point.
As many people will know the start of the year was rather tumultuous and insanely stressful with my business partner and I deciding to go separate ways. I was always “all-in” on BB, whatever that meant, and growing an agency was something I wanted to do for a long time so there was only one way to go. I didn’t anticipate losing the few clients I had at the time in the next two months, nor the fact that it took me a solid 6 months to get the stress out of my body after getting it out of my immediate consciousness, but hey, here we are reminiscing about it.
So, what have I actually learned that may be valuable for someone else on a business journey? In no particular order….
- You can’t butter a shit sandwich
- First things first - Why leads trump brand for our clients.
- Stress and anxiety can take time to deal with.
- Hire before you can afford it if you want to grow.
- Have a really tight plan for your content and messaging.
- You have to be in the room.
- Process is king.
Yes, they are rather random learning’s.
But that is what happens when you spin a million plates in business and life.
So on with it!
Is there anyone out there comfortable saying no, or giving tough love to clients?
I’m certainly not. But it is a trap and something I had to learn the hard way this year.
A certain client taught me this very directly earlier this year.
Paying for our advice, we gave it to her double barrel. By that, I mean we were very direct with feedback on what they did and didn’t do well in terms of their branding and marketing efforts.
After delivery of the report, I felt a bit bad, as I knew it was their baby, and I know first hand how invested I am in my own stuff, and on top of it I really liked the client personally. So, in a subsequent meeting, yours truly started to backpedal to make the client “feel better” in a poor attempt to smooth the blow.
Like some kind of teenager who wants everyone to be their friend, I ended up obfuscating about the advice I originally gave.
Rather brilliantly the client turned to me mid-back pedalling and said “Mike, it’s a shit sandwich. Stop trying to butter it”
What can you say to that?!?...I just nodded.. Yes, yes it is, and you are paying us to tell you what’s a shit sandwich, and what’s fairy bread, and here I was saying all it needed was some butter.
This was a huge lesson of calling a spade a spade and having the courage to tell clients something they really need (and sticking to it) rather than what they might want to hear. What’s funny is that few people would ever accuse me of not having an opinion, but I certainly feel a lot better about sticking to my guns now.
And the client? She is basically my hero who I couldn’t get along with any better. She went and fixed the issues, and then some, and is doing a great job ( you know who you are:-)).
We started this year as a branding and marketing agency. Note, BRANDING.
Having grown a brand with a long term content strategy that opens just about any door from scratch I really thought others would buy into why brand is important.
So we focused a lot on talking about brand, long term investment, and ultimately growing a reputation. That doesn’t happen overnight. It requires investment and time. But it works or you wouldn’t be reading this.
The thing with brand though is that it requires time and investment and it’s where I had a blind spot.
I’ve learned that people would often nod along, liking the sound of it, but when push came to shove what they really wanted were leads today, and not brand tomorrow. This is not the case with everyone, especially firms with a b2b model, but it is still the prevailing approach. People want leads first, brand second.
And I totally get this.
Having built something from scratch, with two kids and time passing by I really relate to why quick leads are critical.
What I probably didn’t understand is that my previous experience in investing in brand first is not shared by many people and it is definitely a hard road that requires some faith. Ultimately in legal and professional services, people want results as soon as possible. So trying to only sell a brand first approach was perhaps a bit naive. I should have realised that getting wins off the bat in the form of fast leads was a necessity which would give us the time to do what needed to be done with content to grow the brand.
To grow a successful business and ultimately scale it you need to attract work from multiple sources. Having all your eggs in one basket (referrals for instance) makes life very difficult if you want to grow because you can never be sure about your pipeline. Beyond this, it’s also hugely risky to only have one source of work.
Learning this lesson fast this year has meant we have now put leads and brand on an even footing with what has become a truly omni channel service offering.
We changed our strategy to cover both aspects so our clients could see over a period of time where they need to invest. We put lead generation and business development into all plans, so are now able to give clients exactly what they want (instead of what we thought they wanted!). Obviously, this makes our marketing plans and strategies much bigger beasts, but far more valuable.
Beyond our strongly held view on the power of brand a key reason we didn’t do it at the start was that it was not our expertise, and we have a hard and fast rule that if we haven’t done it first, we are not going to test it on a client.
So we could either hire, or partner-up, and we chose the latter forging a partnership with Web3. Together we now offer a truly integrated service with what is a combined team of 18 (and growing). From web site builds to branding, client acquisition to BD strategy and everything in between. We do the brand, strategy, BD and content, and we work together with web3 on search and advertising based lead acquisition and website building. Being able to offer a complete solution so people don’t need to go to multiple agencies makes a huge difference. What I love so much is that our legal market expertise and their technical and business skills are a great match, and most importantly, we’ve been getting some amazing results for clients in the last few months and have some great case studies we’ll be dropping early next year!
For the first year of BB we spoke a lot about working better and living better. I particularly wrote a lot about being healthier and treating yourself better and the lessons I learned through my martial arts journey. These are all 100% true still, however from December 18 until probably June much of those learnings were put under the microscope (or blowtorch!!).
There was a lot going on at home, at work, and in my head, which meant that I really had to put my learning to the test.
On reflection, it changed the way I see anxiety and depression and shifted my view on the conditions people need to make positive change. In a nutshell:
The big lesson? Just telling myself it is ok is not enough.
My actions had to map to it for my mind to believe it, and then I had to have enough time to get back to a level where I didn’t think the world was going to end if something small happened.
I guess I’ve always been a “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” hard arse, but there are times when it is harder to do it than other times. I’m not saying my view has changed that much, but there are times when it’s bloody tough and you just have to survive. The flip side of that though is that if you are in a relatively good position, there’s nothing stopping you making changes.
Here’s a little business secret.
When growing, you can’t always afford more staff. However, sometimes you have to hire before the money comes. That is called “investment” or, “why Mike lost so much hair this year”.
I have always said with BB that I didn’t want to make the same mistakes I felt I made in my previous recruitment business. Yes, we made good money, but ultimately I was self-employed the vast majority of the time. By that I mean, I owned a business, but it was dependent on me to bring in the money. That is being self-employed, not having a business or really owning an asset. This time, I’m building something big, and that means investment and ploughing it all back in.
So what did it look like in practice? While I had no clients who wanted video I hired a videographer for when I knew they would. While I had no branding clients I hired a new graphic designer for when we had more work. While I had only 4 ongoing clients I hired a project manager for when we had 10.
See the pattern here?
To grow a business, you sometimes have to have the courage to believe the work will come.
Put a different way, you have to go after certain work, but to do it, you need a team that can deliver.
There is also the opposite way to do it. You could tell people and say you do it anyway, then hire people. That is a classic approach and it seems to work a lot of the time but frankly not an approach I am interested in at all. This gig is stressful enough, imagine selling something you can’t do!
Whatever route you choose, sometimes you have to roll that dice and make it work. There is nothing much more to say except you step up and take the risk or not.
Ultimately, we now have lots of new clients we make video for, the graphic designer is busy and we have much better frameworks and processes, thanks to our project manager.
I can also buy myself some hair next year ;)
This is a new understanding that is helping us give more depth to what we have been making for both ourselves and our clients.
In the past, we worked to a broad idea of making more and better content more consistently that was focused on brand building. More contact points, more trust.
Now, we scope out 6-12 months of content that is all integrated in a way that clients not only get the consistency, but they build well thought out assets with targeted, consistent messages that they can reuse and repurpose.
That might be 16 videos we make into a complete series that we then release over time. Client gets 16 weeks of video, 16 weeks of blog content, and then they have 32 pieces of content they can divvy up into very specific lead generators or saleable e-products.
The point is to work back from the bigger integrated asset, break that down, and make that work to give you consistency.
Being a big-picture guy I absolutely LOVE doing this for clients to make everything work together.
The extra layer we can now plan for and execute on makes it that much more valuable.
So for 2020, have a think about creating a structure around your content and branding.
If you’re going to invest time or money into it anyway, you might as well make something that is worth more than its individual parts.
We love being a part of events that are designed to support lawyers and firms and take the profession forward. If that means co-sponsoring events with the likes of Legally Yours or Criminal Law Mums, for our brand, that is exactly what we are going to do.
Recently, a client asked me why I rarely spriuked our services or made a pitch at the events.
I made the point that I was just happy for our brand to be involved, for people to get to know us, and what our values are and that was worth far more than a mistimed pitch.
I really dislike events that are all sales and for me it is far more important that we are on the same page, we share the same values and goals than whether I’ve made a perfect pitch for your business. That can mean our process takes a bit longer, but so what? I want BB to be a business where I get to work with people I want to see succeed so we can be a part of that journey.
You can’t have that goal and always sell.
Ultimately, having the opportunity to be in the room is everything.
Finally to the really hard one for me...Developing clear and concise process both internally with how we work, and externally with how we deliver our services. To say that process is not my strong suit is a bit of an understatement.
I’ve always listened to business owners talk project management and process with a huge amount of scepticism. Surely it isn’t that important, I’ve survived relatively well with limited process so far.
Well, I was wrong.
Implementing a new project management system, hiring someone to look after client delivery and coordinate project management, and listening to my team on what they needed to make their job better has been a very positive change.
Sure, I am still struggling to use the tools. But managing my business based on how I work was never going to fly. I’m a “throw everything into one big pot” type of worker, which probably scares the hell out of most people but works for me. It certainly is no way to work with a team though.
What makes me really excited about getting our internal and external processes right is that it means I can actually not think about every single little thing. I can focus on where I bring value and be confident that the team have the tools to work in a way that is ultimately better for our clients.
So that’s it. There are many other things that I’ve learned this year but in the end, these are the big 7 that made a huge impact. No doubt 2020 will bring many more!