I grew my agency business to six figures in the first year. Here are my takeaways.*
*Before we begin, a few caveats:
- I run the agency, Green Room Creative, with my brother, and it’s very much a two person operation.
- The money isn’t really important here, but you’re more likely to click when you see “six figures” in the title. Just saying.
- I still can’t get over how good “Nights” off the Frank Ocean album is.
About a year ago, I found myself in the classic freelancer/contract worker conundrum: I was busy, but not busy enough, making decent money, but not making enough, and semi-engaged in my work, but looking for more. To compound my “problems”, I just bought a condo which meant that the month to month fluctuations in my income I had been able to stomach were causing more turbulence than usual. I had to make some changes and I didn’t have much time.
After some throwing around some ideas with my younger brother, we decided that instead of working independently on our own freelance endeavors, we should band together under the umbrella of an “agency” and offer our services to clients — whatever that might mean. With my experience in creative campaigns, social and analytics, and his skills focused in search marketing, it made sense to combine forces. So we talked about it. Then we thought about it. Then we sent out some emails. Then we talked about it some more. And that was about it for weeks.
After a few of months of fumbling around with very little to show for it, I accepted the reality that starting the agency we had envisioned was going to take Superhuman effort and dedication. I was down on myself and our prospects of making this work, but I kept looking for inspiration in different places. This was difficult because I’m usually a highly motivated person, but for whatever reason, I kept hitting a wall. Right around this time, I decided to open Grant Cardone’s “The 10x Rule” on my iPad and give it a read. For those who aren’t familiar with Cardone, he’s a real-estate-investor-turned-self-help-guru and is guilty of all the stereotypes that are going through your head at the moment. But in between all his braggadocio and excessive riffing, I discovered a gem. The “10x Rule” as he defines, is the realization that it takes 10 times the effort you think it will when trying to get something off the ground. If you aren’t prepared for that — more importantly if you aren’t ready to embrace that — then you are in the wrong business. Cardone’s style is honest (read: brash) and he takes no prisoners, but it struck a chord me with me and snapped me out of my uninspired state. Of course I wasn’t signing many new clients, I was sending out the bare minimum of emails per week. Of course I wasn’t bringing any prospective business, I was cooped up in my condo instead of attending events and meeting new people. How did I think we could start an agency by keeping the level of hustle and effort the same as before? Once I was done beating myself up for not being proactive, I began a journey which would change my entire world.
In the following months, my brother and I got busy. From getting incorporated, setting up a billing system to pitching new clients, we spent hours in coffee shops pouring over Google Docs, new business ideas and defining our services. Twenty hour days became the norm, and once it started, it didn’t end. That’s not an exaggeration — I worked twenty hours a day, seven days a week for months in a row. I strained my romantic relationship, got accused of being “money hungry” by my mother, and my friends stopped asking if I wanted to go out all together. But, we’re building a business here, right?
We stripped away any pride we had from past accomplishments and went after new business anywhere we might find it — Craigslist, Meetups, job boards, cold calls, and more. Soon, we started signing some smaller scale clients, and quickly demonstrated our worth by being able to deliver on the things that we said we would. This was my first lesson: if you actually do great work, and keep your word with people, you build relationships that will always benefit you much more than you initially realize. The only catch to this is: delivering great work takes more effort and hours than you originally planned for. It’s your decision on how you deal with this. I consistently ended up having to sacrifice proper meals and sleep in order to over-deliver for our clients. But if you’re looking to get something off the ground and prove your worth, I don’t really think you have a choice. If you want to afford yourself a certain lifestyle, then sacrifices early on in the process should be expected. Outwork everyone, over-deliver, and sacrifice.
As the months progressed, I worked on developing better systems to deal with pacing the workload. I was learning on the move — whether it was creating new business pitches, communicating with clients, and staying on top of all the paperwork that comes with running a business. Through all this, I had to work on honing my focus and blocking out all the noise and minutiae that interrupts our daily lives. You know what I’m talking about — the aimless group threads with people competing to get off the best GIFs, the hour-long “where should we go for dinner?” conversations, the Netflix binge sessions, and so on. I started with an obvious one — cutting back on social media. As a marketer, I had to be active on social strategies for my clients, but I needed to minimize its function in my own life. I turned off notifications on most of my networks, because seeing who liked a picture was now the furthest thing from business critical. During those “free” moments I had to myself, instead of mindlessly scrolling my timeline, I forced myself to pick up a book or read the NYTimes’ DealBook. I soaked up the game that Seth Godin and James Altucher were giving out on their podcasts and dove into Quora and Mahesh-VC to strengthen my understanding about topics that confused me. These activities weren’t making me smarter, but rather were keeping my mind engaged on the things that were the most important for me to get my goal(s) off the ground.
I would really emphasize this to everyone out there looking to get something off the ground — cut out the noise! Stop worrying about what your “friends” are doing, who’s traveling where, or what overpriced Nikes are dropping when (and that’s coming from a sneakerhead). It just doesn’t matter. We’ve all heard adages about how time is the most important resource, and once you’re able to quantify your time and charge clients for it, you start to understand how valuable it really is. And if even if you don’t have clients you can charge for it, how will they take you seriously if you don’t put a price on it for yourself? Stop hiding behind the facade of “being busy”, and start owning your time. That’s a major key.
A few months in, one of our biggest clients (in terms of billings) referred us to a firm interested in our services. Knowing the vertical and having proven ourselves in this space, my brother and I were seeing dollar signs before we even sat down to pitch. After stumbling through our presentation, contradicting each other when asked about our fees (always make sure to have this locked in) and inspiring zero confidence in a potential client, we walked away knowing we just took a major loss. After a night of fitful “sleep,” I woke up with my mentor’s favorite saying humming around in my mind: “fail to learn.” Fail to learn? I remember the first time I heard it, I was repulsed by it. I didn’t want to believe it was true. My younger self wanted to believe something more vibrant on the lines of “failure is not an option,” but as I racked up many more losses than victories in my endeavors, I was forced to reconsider. The fact is, you learn way more from your failures than your successes, because it makes you analyze, reflect and walk away with new ideas for your initial approach. As Nipsey Hussle puts it, “Every single loss in your life is your lesson,” and when I started to contextualize my failures under that framework, I understood what my mentor was getting at the whole time. Far too often, I see people’s fear of failing paralyze them from even taking the first step. Your first step doesn’t always have to be in the right direction (and many times, it won’t be), but as long as you are moving, you are doing something right. Your successes might feel great momentarily, and they will inspire you, but they won’t sit with you and force you to improve like your failures will. Though we never closed that client that came as a referral, we took what we learned and signed one of the most exciting food-industry startups in NYC as a client a few weeks later. Yes, we failed, but we didn’t fail to learn.
I am typing this from a hotel that sits on the edge of the Atlantic Ocean in the Azores, with a view I didn’t think existed. I’m the only person with a laptop and two smartphones laid out on his pool chair, but I’m not complaining. The process of establishing GRC has been stressful, mixed with heartbreaks and moments of joy, but it’s given my work-life new definition and purpose. I catch criticism from my friends and family for only having one gear, and that one day I’ll burn out from trying to sustain this pace. Maybe that will happen, but I can’t see any reason for moving slowly when you’re passionate about something. My body and mind just don’t work that way. I’m not saying everyone has to function that way, but you have to find your pace and be consistent in how you move. The modest successes of GRC have allowed my brother and I to create more experiences with our family, start new business ventures, and most importantly, find a design for how we want to live the rest of our lives.
The purpose of writing this was to share my most high impact takeaways, and hopefully motivate some of you take that first step, regardless whether it’s the right one or not. If you’ve read this far, I want to sincerely thank you, and welcome you to email at email@example.com to schedule a 30 min consultation (free, of course) to talk about your business, big ideas or roadblocks. I’d love to hear from you.