Starting a new business is truly an adventure. You’re embarking on a journey through uncharted territories filled with incredible highs and inevitable lows - territories that can be difficult to navigate without a bit of guidance from those who have gone before you.
It’s been 10 years since my co-founder Tony and I began the adventure that is Yeti, a San Francisco based design and development agency that we began fresh out of college. Throughout those years we’ve dealt with our share of successes and failures, and we’ve learned more than we ever expected possible.
While we continue to learn on every step of this journey, we’ve definitely gathered some wisdom along the way. Here’s some of the advice that we wish we’d been given as fledgling agency founders.
Find a network of other agencies and small businesses
At Yeti one of our long time mantras has been “don’t reinvent the wheel”. In our 10 years of experience we’ve learned that nearly every single issue that we’ve faced while running our company has been encountered by many other people.
Over the years we’ve joined a variety of networking organizations that have allowed us to meet and learn from others who’ve dealt with the same growing pains and business woes that we inevitably found ourselves facing.
Looking back, one of our biggest mistakes as a young company was not joining these organizations much earlier. I honestly believe that, had we done more networking in the earlier years of Yeti, many of the issues we faced would have been much easier to deal with - and our business would likely be at least a couple of years ahead of where it is currently.
One of my biggest pieces of advice for any aspiring founder is to find your network of agencies and small businesses early - and utilize them often.
While your first foray into networking might include tech focused Meetups that provide you with the opportunity to meet people in the agency/freelancing/tech scene, my recommendation is to look into organizations and networks of business owners and entrepreneurs.
Though it took us far too long, we eventually found organizations like Entrepreneurs’ Organization (EO), Vistage, and Bureau of Digital. These organizations that bring together business and agency owners to share experiences, learn together, socialize, and help one another quickly became an incredibly valuable tool for our company.
Be Deliberate About the Clients You Work With
In your agency's early stages, you’ll likely be starting at square one. Without a significant portfolio of work your first clients might not provide you with the dream projects you imagined.
But, as you begin to build out your portfolio and references, opportunities for higher level projects will start rolling in - and this cycle will continue repeating itself as you continue to improve your portfolio, client roster, and network.
Once you’ve become an established agency, you’ll begin encountering potential projects that you know, for a variety of reasons, aren’t ideal for your team.Maybe the project requires a tech stack that’s not in your wheelhouse and would require an investment. Perhaps it's apparent that the client is going to be difficult to manage and there's going to be a lot of scope creep. Or maybe the client is promising a lot of ongoing work but the initial project’s profit will actually be a loss.
Taking on one of these projects in the moment, especially if you have a lack of work, will be extremely tempting but may be detrimental in the long run.
A bad project can really hurt the company’s morale, cause members of your team to leave, put you in a difficult financial position that forces you to make more tough decisions, or take up your team’s bandwidth to work on any other better projects that may come along.
Speaking from experience, being deliberate about the clients you work with - even if it means dealing with the occasional lull in work - is far more beneficial than remaining consistently busy with projects that aren’t ideal.
Be Prepared to Wear Multiple Hats
When we founded Yeti I believed that my days would be spent building products for clients and dealing with development related issues - boy, was I in for a surprise.
Don’t get me wrong - I do get to spend my time working on projects and development - but a significant amount of my time is also spent on keeping the business running smoothly. That can mean a whole range of things, from dealing with HR issues like hiring and benefits, to handling finances and budgeting. Recently, I even found myself taking on the role of designer for a few projects!
As the founder of a company you have to be prepared to wear multiple hats. Starting a business can be a trial by fire, and you’ll very quickly be thrown into figuring out multitudes of things you aren’t remotely familiar with, like setting up payroll, dealing with taxes, and navigating legal issues.
As your agency grows in size and scale, these areas will evolve and grow more complicated over time. While there will be times that you’d like to simply focus on completing client projects, learning how to context switch at a moment's notice will be a crucial skill to acquire.
Consider a Co-Founder
I can’t imagine running Yeti without a co-founder. While some business owners might prefer being a one-person-show, I believe that two heads truly are better than one.
You’ve probably heard the saying “it’s lonely at the top” - and it’s true. Having someone to talk through strategy with, make difficult decisions with, celebrate wins with, and sometimes just complain with has been a crucial part of keeping Yeti successful (and me sane).
Yeti’s co-founder Tony and I have complementary personalities, working styles, and strengths. Tony is a quick processor that can respond quickly while I need to take my time to do more slow analytical thinking. He’s sociable and can build initial rapport easily while I take some time to build a connection, but I feel I am more in touch with emotional intelligence.
These differences in our personalities have been endlessly beneficial in dealing with every aspect of running our business. Finding a co-founder who can cover some of your weaknesses and vice versa is an extra bonus and can also help ensure that your relationship remains healthy.
Starting a business certainly isn’t easy, but these tips should allow you to navigate your journey with a bit more ease. Good luck and, most importantly, enjoy the adventure!