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6 big lessons in 6 years at the helm of Chaptr

A few weeks ago LinkedIn kindly reminded me (and everyone else) that I’ve been the MD at Chaptr for 6 years now.

I received a few likes on this announcement and even fewer of the old templated ‘Congrats on your anniversary’ messages in my inbox. One person even took the time to write me a kind message applauding my achievements – this was nice, if not a little unexpected.

Anyway, it got me thinking about the years I’ve spent growing an agency and the lessons I’ve learnt along the way and, in our bid to produce more ‘authentic’ content this year to reduce our bounce rate, I decided to write a blog about it.

Sure, there are plenty more than 6 lessons I could write about but, apparently, people on social media are more likely to click a title with a number in it (strange bunch aren’t we?) and using 6 multiple times in the title is my feeble attempt at utilising the literary device, sibilance.

We’re not a leading agency (yet) but we have gone from zero to pretty good, with 5 full-time employees and clients across the globe in just 6 years – so hopefully I’m not talking complete nonsense.

Note, this post may be full of contradictions and obscure aphorisms, sorry, it’s honest at least!

Right, before you fall asleep at your desk, let’s get to it:

Lesson 1: Get friendly with your finances

And when I say friendly I mean ‘Netflix and chill’ kind of friendly.

In the early days, it was all about revenue and winning the next deal for us and, to be honest, it still is now because it invariably feels like you’re in survival mode from one month to the next when you’re playing the agency game.

But I vividly remember the day that, following an unexpected expensive month, I decided to review every single expense on our bank statement on a long train journey from Southampton to Brighton, only to find that we had a few hundred quid going out each month for services we didn’t actually use; one payment was a fraudulent direct debit which we had never signed up to and had been running for 3 years! Luckily the bank did us a solid and refunded the full amount on that one.

Trust me when I say that all the little things add up.

In the last 12 months, I have taken this a step further and we now have budgets for pretty much everything and I know what we’re forecasted to make each quarter, what our costs will be and how much profit we should expect. I also share these numbers with everyone at Chaptr to keep us all focused on the targets.

So unless you’re lucky enough to employ a CFO, it’s time to start making some spreadsheets to figure out what you need to achieve in order to turn a decent profit.

Put a strong coffee on for this one, you’re going to need it.

Lesson 2: Culture, Culture, Culture

The irony of this lesson is that just saying the word culture over and over doesn’t actually mean anything.

I tried that for a while, ‘we have a great culture’ – turns out we didn’t, I just thought we did.

You have to make it mean something. Which is what I decided to do, you can read more about that here

Most of my time these days is spent thinking of ways to support my team to help them to be more successful and to make Chaptr a better place to work.

Which means creating a set of values and behaviours that represent what your brand stands for and that your team actually believe in.

If you want people to care about your company then you have to care about them, more.

Lesson 3: Check your ego

You’re not the Wolf of Wall Street and you’re not in an episode of Suits (admittedly, the latter would be cool).

So if you walk around like you’re the most important person in the room you’ll never build an honest and open relationship with your team.

You need to flip that perspective – each one of your team members is the most important person in the room.

So start treating them like it.

It took me a few years to ask my team members what they actually wanted, and how I could improve. It’s one of the single most important things I’ve done as the MD at Chaptr. The insight I gained from this was pure gold.

If you want to see real results, start working for your team. It’s better to be a leader than a manager.

Don’t confuse confidence with arrogance.

Lesson 4: Don’t get too comfortable

If you’re hiring smart ambitious people to work for you (and you should be) they will want to know that they are on the path to better things and that there are opportunities for them to progress through your business.

So you need to keep taking risks and keep growing so you can provide those opportunities.

How close you want to fly to the sun will depend entirely on your attitude to risk, Icarus.

Unfortunately, I can’t tell you when the right time to take a risk is but I’ve always taken a considered approach to risk in the past and I always talk with at least 3 people I trust before I ‘go for it’ because you can never get enough good advice. Every risk we have taken so far has paid off.

But don’t be reckless, people’s livelihoods are at stake.

Quite the conundrum, eh?

Lesson 5: Stick to your guns

Once we decided to turn a client down.

They were based in the US, had approved our proposal and wanted to amend our Terms of Business… but we couldn’t afford the legal support to make changes and I started drowning in contractual legalise and the contrasting nuances between US and UK law.

We really wanted to work with them but the risk of accepting a contract we didn’t understand was too great and wasn’t worth the sales revenue we’d generate from the deal.

So feeling tired and deflated, in the nicest possible way, we said no.

A few weeks later the client came back to us and said that, after much consideration, they still want to work with us and were willing to accept our terms. They told us that they respected our decision and reasons not to work with them and that this made them trust us and that it said a lot about our approach to business – they wanted to work with us even more!

Wow. That was a big moment for us.

After a successful project, this client flew us to Boston, US, to celebrate their Christmas party with them.

They then went on to become our most important client in 2019 as we became their full-time creative partners.

I’m not saying you should say no to every client, but you should stick to your values and always be honest with the decisions you make.

We’ve even started turning down business from clients with businesses which are inconsistent with our values, it requires courage to turn down a sale but it can be quite empowering too.

Remember why you started doing what you’re doing in the first place.

Lesson 6: Find ways to cover your costs

I know, this sounds blindingly obvious, right?

When you grow and scale an agency or any service business, your costs scale each month… and, for the best part, they remain a constant.

New business, isn’t a constant. Some months you’ll win loads of new business and some months you won’t. But your fixed costs really don’t care. They’ll still be there waiting for you, looming as the month-end nears closer…

So you need a strategy to attack those costs each month and, yep, that means finding ways to provide value to your clients so that they’ll want to keep paying you for your services on a regular basis.

We recently started offering SEO and guess what? 90% of our clients want it and they want to work with us and not find another agency to do it for them.

What are your competitors offering that makes sense for you to offer?

Closing Thoughts

I could go on but, hopefully, this will give you something to think about and will help you as you grow your agency or small business. Don’t be intimidated by people with big titles, they are just people. Be kind, listen, believe in what you are selling, be polite, make the effort and meet with people face-to-face whenever you can.

If you want to spin the yarn or talk more about growing a business, you can catch me on LinkedIn. I often spout off about things with posts about culture and such – you’ve been warned.

Thanks for reading.