25 tips for building your own agency

Ian Lurie

These are the 25 tips I gave at my SearchFest presentation today. These are from the heart, based on my own personal screw-ups over a 16-year career (so far) running my own agency.

Running your own agency is like wrestling with a s–t-covered bear. You may get mauled and eaten. You may win. But at some point, you’re going to get smelly.

  1. Cash is king. Business 101, folks. Revenue is not cash flow. Income is not cash flow. Cash, in the bank, is what you need. I find the best business model is to make more money than you spend.
  2. You are not a software company. Don’t try to run your agency like one. Whether you’re one person or one hundred, you have to be set up to handle multiple projects, priorities and goals at once.
  3. You are serving clients. Clients often have these things called ‘questions’. They’ll want ‘answers’. Plan for interruptions, and be ready to respond fast. You need a sprint-and-pause workflow that will let you do that.
  4. Document everything. At Portent we have a sort of knowledge base called the Fat Free Guide. It’s an internal blog that holds what we learn about SEO, PPC, client care, time management, analytics and business in general. It also includes step-by-step how we introduce new clients to Portent, how we run a typical project, etc.. We update it often, and try to keep it somewhat organized.
  5. Reinforce learning. If someone comes to you with a question, and you know the answer is in your company’s knowledge base, ask them to go find the answer there. Don’t be a jerk about it. Just reinforce learning.
  6. Teach all the time. Every 2-3 weeks we have a 1-hour training at Portent. You must—must—do the same. But there’s more to it than that. I would argue that one of your biggest jobs should eventually be teaching your team. I’m not there yet. But I hope to be.
  7. Hire for brains, not skills. I’ve hired a lot of people. The ones who don’t make it are the ones who try to tell me they’re ‘experienced’. Hire people who are sharp. They’ll learn and grow with you.
  8. Hire for honesty. There is no place in business for liars. If you think there is, you can leave now.
  9. Hire the intellectually curious. You want folks who are enthused about learning.
  10. Hire for emphathy/emotional intelligence. Someday, you’ll have a week where, if you talk to one more client, you’re going to rip off your clothes, run out of the office and stagger gibbering down Main Street. Before that happens, you’ll want people who can talk to clients for you. That requires smart, curious, honest people who also know how to listen.
  11. Have a sense of mission. I don’t mean a mission statement. I mean that your business goal can’t just be ‘make more money’. Money’s great—it’s how we buy stuff. But it won’t keep you and your team motivated forever. I’m all about making people better communicators, and then teaching them to use that to improve their lives. What’s yours? Don’t worry if it seems corny. It is corny. It’s corny as hell. So’s wiping out polio because it hurts kids.
  12. Root for the home team. Don’t forget you need to market to your own team, too. They need to know why your company is better than the one down the street: Because of them.
  13. Delegate for efficiency, not for speed. It’s easy to hold onto tasks and projects because you know you can do it faster. While you can do it faster, you’re hurting your company’s efficiency. Your time is far too expensive. If you can successfully delegate and teach others on your team to perform the task instead, you’ve just invested in future efficiency. You can now focus on your core jobs.
  14. [The next two are adapted from a book by Patrick Lencoini – The Four Obsessions of an Extraordinary Executive It’s worth a read.] Build a good leadership team. I don’t mean you have to go out and hire an executive team. I’ve never seen that work well. You know what happens when you hire an executive team? They come in and fire your ass. They bring their own biases, feelings about how things ‘should’ be done, and a desire to impose their own beliefs about a ‘right’ way to do things. That’s not what you need. You’re building your own company. Instead, build your leadership team from the inside. Encourage the folks who show leadership potential. Challenge them, and coach them. If they leave, shake their hands and feel good that you helped their career. But more likely they’ll stay because they’re getting to learn a ton. Those people become your leaders.
  15. Foster organizational clarity. As soon as you hire 1 person, you’re going to end up with conflicts. You won’t agree on stuff. Companies live or die on their ability make decisions. That requires that everyone knows their job, who their boss is, and the sense of mission for the company. Those three things mean that: Decisions will be made and enforced; there’s accountability; there’s a fundamental belief that drives those decisions. This sounds really mushy, I know. I used to roll my eyes at it. Go ahead. Then do it anyway. Create an org chart with your first hire. Update it as necessary.
  16. Manage the tug of war. There’s always a necessary tension between people at your company. That’s fine, as long as it’s in the open. Your job is to keep everyone in-bounds, as far as conduct, clarity and intelligent decision-making.
  17. Don’t be the ‘cool’ parent. It’s really hard to be a boss. Sometimes you’re going to have to fire people, or criticize their work, or make an unpopular decisions. Then people look at you like you’re an asshole. Grow a spine.
  18. Don’t be a psycho. On the other hand, you’re not Simon, either. Praise when someone’s praiseworthy. Criticize calmly, if you can.
  19. Beware the stupidity ambush. Sometimes, there are days when everyone at the company, including you, will drink from the stupid fountain long and deep. You’ll totally lose it. It happens. Apologize and move on. (note – my leadership idol: Adama)
  20. Pick a toolset and use it. There are some remarkable SEO toolsets out there: SEOMOZ, Majestic, RavenTools. Pick one and use it. Get your whole team using it. It will save you huge amounts of time.
  21. Automate reporting. Reporting requires that you pull together tons of stuff. Traffic, rankings, link counts, etc.. It’s a pain in the ass. Automate it. Learn to use the import functions in Google Spreadsheets and/or Excel. Learn to use the APIs. If you use something like RavenTools you can automate your reports complete, and have ‘em e-mailed to you. That’s how you scale. Otherwise, you practically have to add a new person every freaking time you add a client.
  22. Be nimble. But not too nimble. Outsource what you can. But in my book, you can’t outsource your best creative, quality link building, onsite SEO and such. You can outsource basic copywriting, if you don’t care about the quality. Depends on whether you someday want to have serious, big clients, or you’re content working for the Dunder Mifflins of the world. Your work will follow you around. Do it on the cheap, that’ll follow you, too. Outsource accounting. Outsource office cleaning. Competitive link research? I don’t think so. Link bait creation? Only if you’re an idiot.
  23. Don’t fart in public. When a client rips you off (It’ll happen) you’re going to be really, really angry. Same goes for disagreements at the office. Be careful what you say on Facebook and Twitter.
  24. Encourage your team to argue with you. If someone disagrees with you, let them have their say. Don’t ever stifle folks. They’ll provide perspective you could otherwise lose. Of course make sure they know it’s your prerogative to disregard their advice. That’s life.
  25. Take it personally. Anyone who reads my blog knows this one: People will tell you business is nothing personal. Yeah, whatever. It’d damned well better be personal. Do you think Steve Jobs takes business personally? Bill Gates? Damn right they do.
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  1. These tips are applicable to more than just an Internet Marketing agency – really terrific stuff here. Number 19 is just what I needed to hear today.
    Anyone running any type of online business should print out this tip list and tack it up on the wall next to their computer right now.

  2. Yeah, “drinking from the fountain of stupidity” will be my phrase of the week 🙂
    Lately I hear the outsource advices quite a lot. I really need to think more about the potential value of my time and outsource everything that other people can do instead of me, or even when they can do it better than me.

  3. You raise some excellent points about hiring people and I wonder just how recruitment companies would be ever able deliver real talent especially when all they (and a lot of business) seem to focus on is what’s written in the box, “experience” or “who know”.

  4. Your opening line reminded me of a particularly sage piece of advice that I was once given…
    “When you give a bear a jetpack, all you wind up with is mauled skydivers.”

  5. Great blog post! This is fairly all-inclusive. Of course, you know that!
    I especially like #4 because I find that, while learning, education, and trying to remain as informed as possible about SEO, link building, PPC, website design and development, etc., I find that people in the company are actively learning, but that we need to find a way to share the information with each other.
    I tried to incorporate a Wednesday learning lunch, where everyone shares the top 2 or 3 things they learned over the past week, but that only lasted one week and I let the work we get paid for take priority.
    Everyone resonates to certain things and that others do not and seem to learn particular skills that others find difficult. I really love the willingness of my staff to seek and absorb the latest and greatest, but if the knowledge stays in the head of one person, it dose not help the organization or clients as much as it could if it were shared.

  6. I started reading this until I got to point 3. Drop the smartarse tone if you want to keep readers.

  7. Great presentation at Searchfest last week, Ian. I really enjoyed your presentation and perspective. And I’ve used the sh*# covered bear reference about a dozen times so far.

  8. Love this! “Don’t be a psycho. On the other hand, you’re not Simon, either. Praise when someone’s praiseworthy. Criticize calmly, if you can.”

  9. Slam dunk of a post Ian. Have you considered using marketing automation software like Infusionsoft at Portent? While we already had automation setup in terms of reporting, intelligence alerts and even a couple of dashboards, we found that we needed to have better processes and automation on the post-sale client education and ‘wow-ing’ process.

  10. @Dev we actually are putting marketing automation in place, as I write this. Should be up and running with our new site in early May.

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