Firebrand has reached its first birthday. Today we are a team of five with a roster of six hot tech startups. We’re now a ‘boutique’ and have survived year one! That alone feels like a milestone. I could write a wistful post about our journey but that feels like an indulgence. We’re still early stage after all. Instead, I thought I’d share some lessons about starting a marketing agency.
Eight lessons to make your startup agency a success
1. Client work – We’ve focused on doing excellent work together for our clients – above all else that has been critical. Everything which takes away from client work inhibits the mission. It’s important not to ignore the operational needs of the business, but to recognize that client work is the work.
2. Target – an early decision was to focus on a specific client profile and to meet their needs fully. For us, that is B2B tech startups, mainly deep tech companies. This has helped us shape our proposition, discover and sharpen our strengths and avoid distraction. There are plenty of things we could do – but our focus makes us a better choice for our niche.
3. Investment – is a constant demand, often coming in step-change amounts not small increments. Simply put, hiring someone costs money and you are unlikely to fill their time on day one. So there are often imbalances of workload and resource given the small scale of the business. The consequence as the founder is to ensure you are not reliant on the agency for living expenses at least for 6-9 months. You can adjust investment rate but that impacts growth, extending the timeframe. I can’t speak about year two – I suspect the same trade-off dynamic.
4. Support – it’s very easy today to set up an agency. The legal, accounting, HR, payroll, IT services and property management can all be outsourced, on demand and scale with the business. This know-how and the associated fixed cost used to be a huge barrier to people setting up shop. Today – it’s trivial.
5. People – the process which has taken a disproportionate amount of time is finding the right people. Perhaps it’s a personal weakness, but recruitment feels so broken. The job posting sites are cheap but lowest common denominator. You are panning for gold in a river of misdirected resumes. Recruitment agencies, even freelance recruiters, are way out of reach for a new agency given lump-sum payments. References are a godsend. So expect to tap your network for the latter, and be ready to wade through resumes. I carefully review every applicant and personally reply to each one. That probably doesn’t scale – but I feel lucky to have the team we’ve put together as a result.
6. Location – we worked remotely for all of year one. Now we have a spectacular office in downtown SF. Working remotely is fantastic – efficient, cost-effective and flexible. Having our own central space is right for us now – collaborative, culture-building and energizing. We’re going to combine both to take advantage of each mode. It’s worth thinking what works for your team – our clients didn’t really care, some are remote themselves.
7. Network – I want to thank you for your support. Whether that’s social love, a staff recommendation or sending us leads, it’s been fabulous. I’ve been humbled by all the support, advice, messages and visits. I’m a big believer in ‘goodwill karma’ so hope we’ve managed to reciprocate in some way. The lesson is what goes around comes around – so if you’re thinking of setting up a firm, start working on your network.
8. Practice – On a personal level, I have enjoyed getting back in touch with implementing campaigns. It’s easy to get distanced from that in a larger firm since you are running a complex business. But marketing strategy and good client counsel comes from the bottom up as much as top down. You learn a lot by doing it – which has been a professional pleasure this year. For those that follow, you can prepare by brushing up on your practical skills – at the beginning, you are the team.
Morgan McLintic is the founder of Firebrand. With over 25 years’ experience in the tech sector, he advises clients about their marketing and PR strategy. Prior to Firebrand, he was the founder of digital communications agency, LEWIS in the US, growing it to 250 staff and $35m revenue.