Scaling: lessons from a business owner who’s been there
At a glance
Here’s a snapshot of the advice from our interviewees:
- Not all growth is created equal – be strategic when it comes to taking on new clients and projects.
- Nothing else matters as much as your people.
- Stop rushing and start moving with purposeful urgency.
- Lean on your cash flow by all means – but only to a point. Then it’s time to consider other options.
We all know hindsight is 20/20. The key is to take the lessons learned and apply them going forward. And a willingness to listen can go a long way.
Hopes and dreams – but not much strategy
“In the early days our mantra was just grow, grow, grow,” says Cooper Jitts, founder and Managing Director of digital marketing agency TALK Agency.
“The rule of the thumb was a minimum of 100 cold calls per day which we did every day for the first two years. It was relentless. I focused on selling during the day and doing work for clients at night. In the second year we got a couple of staff on board, and by year three we were building our reputation and client base through referrals and good quality online marketing,” says Cooper of the hustle of those early years.
“I’d love to say we had some polished five- or 10-year plan, but the truth is we didn’t. It was all about growing at any cost.”
As an approach to scaling, Cooper admits it wasn’t a very considered strategy.
“I didn’t understand then that not all growth is created equal! It sounds like a cliche, but it’s true: sometimes you have to say no and, in doing so, you protect your team and resources. It’s about crystallising what you’re trying to do and charting a sustainable path forward, as opposed to throwing staff and money at every client and project and hoping it sticks,” he explains.
“At the time, the team was growing so fast, sometimes they didn’t know which way was up. In hindsight, I can see I was in over my head as a business owner. I wasn’t instilling a culture of calm and meaning in the business – I was trading on sizzle and hopes and dreams.”
A toll taken and a turning point
A few years ago, one of Cooper’s team leaders approached him with concerns.
“Fortunately, the beauty of our relationship is such that my team leaders can say anything to me and I will truly listen, and vice versa. One of our great strengths is our very open, transparent communication – if there are issues you can’t see in yourself, you can be humble enough to know others might be able to identify them for you.”
All the same, it wasn’t an easy message to hear: the agency was trying to do too much and lacked a singular direction. If that continued, it would likely become a toxic work environment.
“I was initially really taken aback,” Cooper says. “But I could see that they were right.”
The relentless pursuit of growth was taking a toll. It was time to make a change.
For the past two years, Cooper has focussed on a more sustainable approach, taking on the right clients and projects – not ones with unrealistic expectations that would prove a drain on the team and its resources.
And, while mindful of how many businesses have suffered due to the pandemic, Cooper recognises it has given him a much needed opportunity to pause and take stock.
“If there was a silver lining to it, it’s that we’ve had a period of calm to reassess and focus on some deep work.”
Fancy coffee beans don’t matter as much as you think
“When I started out I was really focused on getting an office, and having a good company car, a cool phone and a PA. I had a preconceived idea of what success would look like,” says Cooper.
“Now I know that most of what you think matters, often doesn’t matter at all.”
He drives the same 2010 Hyundai he’s had for years, and recognises it makes no difference to the business’s growth or success.
“The same can apply at a lot of points on the business growth journey. As I started to onboard staff, I was caught up with how I could afford salary increases every 90 days and making sure we had the best coffee machine ever,” Cooper says.
“What I learned is that those things are not necessarily the most important things. Instead, dedicating time to my staff, making a detailed plan of how they could move forward with upskilling and training, and investing in and working with them was far more important than fancy coffee beans.”
Cooper shares another example of how the imagined signifiers of success don’t always matter the way you think they will.
“Just before COVID we moved from a very small office into a large, funky warehouse which cost a lot more. Shortly after, we were all working from home.”
TALK now has a working-from-home policy that allows more flexibility. And a survey of the staff showed that while a physical work space was still valuable to them, that value was based on being together, sharing ideas, and hanging out – not on how cool the office space was.
“Everything comes back to your people,” says Cooper. “Over the past two years, we’ve really articulated what we are, our values and culture, where we want to go and what steps we’re taking to get there.”
A sense of bubbling chaos has been replaced with a rigorously implemented culture based on what Cooper calls a ‘high-performance family’. And instead of a frantic and hurried pursuit of growth, Cooper encourages a more considered and strategic sense of urgency.
“Let’s not put off until tomorrow what we can achieve today, but also know there’s only so much we can achieve today. It’s about finding a balance between not shortchanging a task, but also not unnecessarily overinvesting in it.”
Flying high? A word to the wise from someone who’s been there
Cooper funded his agency’s growth with cash flow. Would he do it the same way again?
“We flew uncomfortably close to the sun,” he says. “I’d suggest for any business that is starting or scaling, that if you can see meaningful growth or ROI in an investment, if you can see it being profitable in the long term, then it would be a much better option to look at external funding than to fly as close to the sun as we did – that just breeds so much stress! It’s just about making sure you’re using funding for meaningful purposes and progress.”
Meaning – he wouldn’t upgrade that 2010 Hyundai without seeing an ROI-based purpose in doing so.
For TALK Agency, flying high looks decidedly more comfortable these days. Steady growth is the name of the game, with both the local and international offices set to expand in coming months. And the coffee’s not too bad either.
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