When I ran Headspace with Kevin, every December we would hold our "AGM". It was our fancy term for sitting in front of a fireplace with rum and eggnog in hand discussing good and bad of the last year and where we wanted to take things the next year.
We would talk about our revenue goals, hiring employees, what clients and projects we wanted to go after, the current sales pipeline, and generally how we were feeling about the business.
We also took notes so that after polishing off our bottle of rum we could remember what we discussed the next day. Sometimes it would devolve into writing and recording unintelligible jingles.
It's a really helpful exercise (the first part, that is), and if you aren't doing something like that currently, then I recommend starting now. Here are some questions you can ask yourself and/or your business partner:
- What was the state of the business a year ago?
- Where is it now? Is it better or worse?
- What happened in the last year that made an impact, for good or bad? What lessons did you learn?
- What challenges is your business facing that you need to overcome?
- Where do you want your agency to be this time next year? How will you achieve it?
- Are you still excited and passionate about what you're doing? If not, how can you get it back?
Running a business is like riding a bicycle; if you aren't driving it forward you'll eventually slow down and topple over. Whether you want to grow or simply sustain what you have, either way you can't stand still. Momentum is everything in a business.
Here are some ideas to get you started when thinking about how you can drive your agency forward in the new year:
1. Set 12-month financial goals
"Our plans miscarry because they have no aim. When a man does not know what harbor he is making for, no wind is the right wind."
There's no way to achieve what you want from your business unless you make a big-picture goal, and then figure out all the small goals you need to reach in between in order to reach the big one.
If you run an agency, the end of the year is a good time to review your annual revenue. How much did you gross? How much of that was net profit? What was your average monthly revenue? How can you cut unnecessary costs or maximize revenue to bump these numbers up next year?
At the end of the day, business is about making money. Sure, we are entrepreneurs for many more reasons than just money, but it's important to remove emotion when looking at the financial side of your business. There's no crying in baseball, I mean, accounting.
2. Introduce a new service
Your agency might be awesome at web design, but are you regularly turning down business when clients come to you for inbound marketing or video production or e-book design?
I'm not saying you should become a generalist and try be everything to everyone. However, if there's a particular service you can perform that meets a need in the market, there's nothing wrong with adding it into your list of services.
Your existing clients will be happier if they can turn to you for new jobs instead of needing to go out and find someone else. And you'll be happier because you can bring more revenue into your company instead of someone else's.
3. Hire new roles
As your agency grows, you as the owner need to drop more activities, delegate to people who can do it better or cheaper, and focus on your main job — which is driving the business forward.
Are operations and accounting taking time away from sales? Consider hiring a full or part-time operations manager to alleviate you.
If you're a designer or coder who also owns the business, you may need to hire more designers or developers to work on projects so you can be free to work on sales.
Hiring employees isn't a trivial decision, of course — you need to be sure you have enough work to not only pay the person's salary long-term, but actually profit from the employee.
Having a lot of employees isn't for everyone, but expanding your team is really the only way to scale a service-agency, if scaling is what you're after.
Since you have a limited amount of hours in the day, you eventually need more people on your team who will let you focus your efforts on what you're best at while also rounding out the skill-set of your agency and generating more revenue.
The end of the year is a good time to proactively think about your needs over the next 3-6 months.
4. Plan to attend conferences
Conferences are a great way to stay up-to-date on best practices so you can do better work for your clients.
It's easy to get so caught up with work throughout the year, so the end of December is a great time to look at all the conferences coming up and decide which ones are the best fit for your agency, putting the registration deadlines into your iCal so you don't forget.
You may want to attend conferences in your area of expertise, like web design, or marketing, or if sales is your primary goal, consider attending conferences that your target market is also attending.
In addition to simply attending conferences, consider whether you could sponsor a conference or even speak at one. Speaking is an excellent way to establish yourself as a thought-leader in your area of specialty, which in turn brings new leads to your door.
5. Invest in new tools
Quality software is incredibly important to a small agency. Software helps you automate repetitive tasks, letting you focus on the core service you offer.
The end of the year is an ideal time to look at your toolkit and decide whether or not your current tools are meeting your needs. If not, consider trialing some new software that could better meet your needs.
It could be for sales and management, such as CRM, invoicing, or proposal software (wink wink), or new design or development software.
For myself, in the new year I plan to (tearfully) migrate from using Adobe Fireworks for web design to using Sketch. I love Fireworks, but it's a dead product and it's time to move on.
What types of products are you using that could benefit from an upgrade?
6. Build a product
I'll be the first to admit that building a product isn't easy when you run an agency, but if you eventually evolve into a software company, or simply want to bring in some residual income, building a product might be the right move.
The best place to start is to figure out what you can build that solves your market's biggest pain. Building yet another content management system is likely not the way to go.
The answer might be right in front of you. For example, there could be a service you provide now that is time consuming to perform. If you can find a way to automate it, you might just be sitting on a gold mine.
Either way, building a product is a big decision and will take years to crystallize, so think about whether this is really the way you want to take your business.
7. Pick a passion project
If building software isn't the right move, pick a passion project, something that lets you release pent up creative energy.
It might be a personal project just to promote yourself, a pro-bono project that helps a non-profit organization, or it may be a donated project to a well-known organization that lets you flex your muscles and show off what you can do without budget constraints.
Passion projects are great because they keep you excited about your craft, let you learn new techniques, and can build your reputation if they get noticed by your peers, which leads us to...
9. Submit work for awards
The merit of awards are debateable. The actor who wins the best actress award at the Oscars may owe more to politics than the quality of her performance (cough, Sandra Bullock), but you can bet she's going to be reading a lot more scripts after the show.
In a similar way, winning an industry award may not make up your core marketing strategy, but it can help you get recognized and give you something to brag about.
Be objective about it — if you created a really amazing piece of work, submit it to award shows. If you doubt that any work you created in the last year is award-worthy then don't waste the money on submission fees.
Winning, or even being nominated for an industry award, can give you a good reason to contact the press, which leads us to...
8. Get some press
Getting press is a great way to generate some new business in the new year. Too often small business owners are so caught up in day-to-day that we don't keep up with ongoing PR activities.
Even if you aren't a PR professional, you can still get coverage. Just make sure you have an engaging story to tell or value to offer media outlets besides just self-promotion.
Here are three great ways to generate some press when you run an agency:
Launch an interesting project or service
If you follow any of the ideas above, you may have released your passion project for a non-profit, or offer a new service that's unique or remarkable in some ways. Let your contacts in the media know!
If it's interesting to people, and especially if there's a human element, it may be something a journalist will write about. The key is to make sure it's not just blatant self-promotion that no one will care about.
Win a contract with a big client
Never underestimate the power of a household name.
Let's say you won a small project for a big, well-known brand. It may not be lucrative or even impressive work. You might be designing a new bathroom sign reminding local employees of McDonalds to wash their hands. But you're still working with McDonalds and sometimes the local press cares just because of the name.
Don't believe me? Headspace once got local press coverage for designing a website loosely connected to the United Nations. It was a small, fairly basic site, and it didn't have a huge budget, but it got picked up because Headspace is working with the UN.
Offer your expert opinion
Often, journalists covering tech news need to find an expert to weigh on a recent development. For example, if they are covering the latest Apple announcement, they might search for app developers they can interview about it. If you've already built a relationship with a handful of journalists, you'll be top-of-mind when they need you.
The new year is a good time to start putting together your press kit, stoking your relationships with journalists, and thinking about what stories you can offer to them.
10. Pitch a dream client
It's easy to be reactive when you run an agency. People come to you for projects, you close new contracts, perform the work, and move on.
The new year is a time to reflect on the clients you want to work with. What company can you offer huge value to who may not know you exist?
Make up your dream list, start reaching out to your contacts for introductions, and create a compelling pitch deck in case you manage to get a foot in the door.
11. Invest in your culture
In any agency, your people are your product. If they aren't happy, they leave, simple as that. Too many companies think the basics are enough — decent pay, 2 weeks vacation, free coffee, and a ping pong table.
That's all well and good, but the key to truly motivating your people is to create a culture they feel proud to be a part of. It involves providing fulfilling projects, trusting them to do the work, listening to their ideas, and creating an open environment built on respect.
That all sounds very obvious, but I personally have worked at agencies in the past where this type of environment would have kept me and my colleagues around a lot longer. It can be tough for the owner of a company to accurately assess how people doing because employees are not inclined to tell you when they aren't happy. You need to be perceptive and look at the signs.
Do you retain employees for a long time, more than just 1-2 years? Are new graduates banging down your door to work at your agency? Are clients complimenting you on your team? Do your people seem happy? Take some time to think about how you can improve your culture in the new year.
Happy New Year from me and the Proposify team! We've got some exciting new stuff planned for the new year that we think you'll love, and we hope you'll be a part of our journey in 2015.
What are your new year's goals for your business? Let me know in the comments below. See you next year :)