Alec Braun, co-founder and creative director at new live events agency Muster, shares his tips on managing a start-up
Hopefully you saw our previous blog on the lessons we’ve learnt from the first six weeks of launching a new agency. Well, the honeymoon period is over – we now know where the toilets are and have managed to secure a desk fan each. Good times.
But, what have we been up to since we last shared our thoughts? The below attempts to highlight a further six things we’ve learnt from the second six weeks at Muster, The&Partnership’s now not-so-new brand experience agency.
Phew, we’ve got some work in. One lesson we took from our previous agencies is you need to have people in place to deliver from the very get go – 12 weeks in and this is truer than ever. The very nature of what we do is so varied that the little black book of freelancers needs to be brimming with specialists who are ready to go and keen to jump on board:
Harvest the immediate network first. Your initial introductions and conversations around the building should mean you can now start pulling on the centralised resources. This will then leave you time to focus on seeking, pitching and winning business and while delegating roles where you can.
Rekindle those conversations with your favourite freelancers. Tell them what you’ve been up to, explain how things are going and keep them in the loop. Even if there is no immediate work you want them to choose you when there is so make them feel part of things now. Schmoozing clients is important but good freelancers need loving too.
Non-compete contracts apply to staff as well as clients so hold off going straight back to the previous agency if you’re on the hunt for full-time employees. Take your time here. Good people typically come with longer notice periods so start scouring agencies you admire for skill-sets you’re likely to want and, remember, the appeal of a start-up is a big one even if the jump can’t be immediate. It’s also really important to properly assess candidates - particularly for full-time positions. Don’t do one interview and then leap to a decision, set tasks for them to take away, orchestrate immersion days and really get to know prospective staff before employing them.
Stepping out of the third month is daunting. You can get complacent and or frustrated depending on how things are going. Big wins and focusing only on delivery means new biz takes a back seat which is super dangerous later. No work and you start wondering whether this was the right career choice, have you made a huge mistake, in fact, should you just pack it all in and open a pub? Fear not and persevere…
12 weeks in is the perfect time to get another point of view. Go to your network and get the most senior person you can to listen to your now well-practiced creds. Get them to be really honest - do they work? Are they getting your personality across? Do they actually deliver what you’re trying to stand for?
Don’t be concerned that change now can be uncomfortable and feel like you’re going back a step. It’s far better to tweak and change things in the first three months than overhaul completely at the end of a crappy first year.
Remember that considered strapline you spent yonks deciding on? Does it still ring true? Is it the best articulation of what your now established agency actually does? Again, you have the option to revise it now that you’re settled in and can refine your offer with 12 weeks of learning behind you.
Don’t show off but do show on. Remind people what you’re up to and get them talking about you again. You need to feature in every update however small across as many different agency conversations as possible. All that hard work done in the first six weeks needs to be viewed as the first step of many on the road to regular communication.
Admit it, you’re hacked off that some people didn’t even acknowledge receipt of your well-crafted LinkedIn message back in week two. Get over it. People are busy and you’ve ignored other’s pleas to reconnect in the past so, why shouldn’t they? Go back to the conversations and take a different approach. Update on what you’ve been doing and be proud. You don’t need to sell from the off – people like hearing what their network are up to especially when it’s delivered succinctly and with character.
Take peers through pitch documents whether successful or not. This will be a real eye-opener. Not only will you notice things you would’ve changed but other people’s reactions are invaluable for developing and making sure the next response exceeds all expectations.
Ask for help. RFI’s, RFP’s RFQ’s all come with similar requirements for information on staff, turnover and capabilities. Ask relevant people when they’ve had to supply the information previously and tweak theirs rather than starting from scratch. You’ll get the information you need more quickly and it means other teams will get visibility on the live opportunities you have coming in.
We spent a lot of the last blog banging on about doing stuff for free. While we’d still recommend offering to help, the first three months need to see you monetising effectively.
Remember, you may well pitch for free but event expertise is a skill that clients and colleagues need to understand comes at a cost. So, set your stall out from the off, be transparent and people will be far more likely to respond positively.
You’re unlikely to be on any retainers yet (or ever in live events!) so broach the requirement for remuneration with each of those people who ‘need some help’ individually. Interrogate their requirements beforehand and be realistic with your replies. Blow them out of the water with too large a cost now and they’ll never come back. Under-sell and you’ll be on the back-foot forever.
Don’t ever apologise. You’re not running a volunteer group. What we do is a vital part of the marketing mix. If done wrong it can have a disastrous effect on a brand’s perception and done right it can drive real, meaningful and positive behaviour change. LinkedIn is littered with memes highlighting the pitfalls of choosing cheap so tread carefully.
This may come as a bit of a shock but you’ll be settled in by now – nice desk, picture of a loved one, plant - it’s starting to feel like home. This is dangerous.
Get up, walk round, eat your breakfast where people hang out, visit the loo on a different floor every day. The more you’re seen around the building the more you’re reminding people that you are very much here to stay and are open for business. Go the whole hog and join the football team.
Leave the office. Gone are the days of being tied to one place. You have a phone so get some sunshine and go do some agency work from somewhere else. Meet people in the coffee shop you now know you like and continue to offer to travel to keep up the conversations.
Don’t eat lunch at your desk. Yes, it’s easy and you’ll want to check Facebook but that can be done on the way home. You’re not a martyr if ‘having to eat at your desk’ is actually an hour spent reading news websites. Go and see an exhibition, visit a gallery or see a supplier’s latest gadgets. You’ll get far more from the time spent way from your desk and it will really invigorate the afternoon’s work.
There might be a bit of ‘wow I’m actually getting to leave on time’ days in these second six weeks. Don’t worry – it doesn’t mean you’ve ballsed it all up.
Escape on time on the days when you’ve really gone over and above. It sets a great president for the team because, as we all know, two weeks before that first live event none of you will get much time at home.
But, don’t get too comfortable. If it’s seemingly quiet, make it busy. All that stuff you’ll kick yourself for wishing you’d done earlier can be done now. Research, competitor analysis, documentation development, pricing and the BOH stuff should be done before the inevitable mayhem ensues. And it will.
Finally, learn to recognise things that can make the agency more efficient. Acknowledge them now and action them without delay. E.g. do you keep clicking through multiple folders on a central drive just to get to that deck you’re currently working on? That takes too much time. Set up hyperlinks, learn shortcuts and lean on IT to streamline how you work. A minute of unnecessary foraging for things you need every day adds up to hours at the end of each month.
So there we have it. Three months is a big milestone. Pause. Take time to reflect and don’t be scared to continue changing things. Remember, you’re building something and in these first few months that ‘thing’ will need reappraising, tweaking and changing.
Starting a new agency is the easy bit, nurturing that agency through its early months is far more demanding.