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10 Things I've Learned After 8 Years Running A Digital Strategy Agency

10 Things I've Learned After 8 Years Running A Digital Strategy Agency

Dustin Brackett
April 21, 2022

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I started my agency on January 30, 2014 out of a Starbucks near my house. I had proved to myself that I was a good marketer by successfully running the marketing for a company that was in an industry that I had no interest in. I figured that if I could market something I didn't like, I could actually be successful in marketing.

Now here we are over 8 years later and wow how things have changed. Looking back on where we came from and where we're at today, it simultaneously feels like 100 years ago and just yesterday.

Over the course of these last eight years I have adopted my best friend (and Chief Barking Officer at HIVE), Arrow, married the love of my life, bought a house, and welcomed my daughter to the family. Not to mention I have spent countless sleepless nights worried about something with my business, endless hours trying to figure out how to actually run a business, and only second guessed my decisions approximately one million times. Needless to say, there have been A LOT of lessons learned along the way that have allowed us to beat the statistics and make it through eight years in business.

It hasn't been an easy road by any means, but it has been a life changing one and one I'd do over and over again if I had the choice. Throughout my eight years as a business and agency owner, I have learned a lot — about business, about marketing, about HR, about accounting, about coding, about writing, about people, and especially about myself.

Through all of that, here are my ten biggest lessons that I've learned from running HIVE the last eight years:

1. If you don't adjust, you die.

I have talked about it before, but we started as a small social media agency (named Bee Social) back in 2014 with plans to support small businesses through organic social media. While that sounded like an amazing idea in 2014, in 2022 that just isn't the case. 

Social media has turned into a pay-to-play landscape and had we not taken steps to become the full service agency that we are today, we wouldn't have survived. 

Eight years ago, we had no plans to become an inbound marketing agency. We had no plans to develop super sophisticated and intricate websites. We had no plans to become a HubSpot Solutions Partner. But with the changes in the industry and demand that we saw from our client base and the market, we adjusted our plans and became a better agency than we ever thought we could be. We had to adjust in order to survive and thrive.

2. Not all money is good money.

This is a lesson I think every business learns at one time or another. When you're just starting out, anyone that has a checkbook and is willing to write your name on one of those checks is a good client — I mean you have to keep the lights on somehow, right?

Well, as we "grew up" we started to understand that not all dollars are equal and that taking the wrong dollars from the wrong clients can set you back in ways that you never thought possible. Whether it's personality fit, trying to conform to unreasonable expectations, adding services that are outside of your wheelhouse, or just simply working with people you don't like — it all comes out in the end. Through the last eight years I have learned that it's not just ok to say no to money, but it's completely necessary in some situations. 

They say you never go broke taking the money, but I think taking the wrong money will make you broke faster than not taking it at all.

3. Hire slow, fire fast.

I have done A LOT of hiring in my career — and I have hated every minute of it.

Hiring is an area that, as a business, you have to take a leap of faith. I have been in so many interviews that people say all the right things, but can't do the job in the end. Hiring is such a tough thing to get right and trying to get your hiring right when you're trying to hire as fast as you can is a recipe for disaster. We have made several hires over the years where our options were someone we kind of liked or no one and we made the decision that "kind of" was better than nothing. Well, that doesn't always work out.

Taking the time to find the right fits for your company is vital to your success. Even if it means taking longer than you'd like to find that right someone. 

At the same time, keeping the wrong people on your team for too long has a tendency to become toxic and can spoil your business from the inside out. What I've learned is that taking your time in the beginning to find the right person that everyone is bought into results in far fewer bad fits and far fewer heart aches later on. And when someone just isn't right — for the skills, for the position, for the culture, for the team — let them go and find the right person. It's better for everyone in the end.

4. Hire people smarter than you.

This is one piece of advice that I got really early on in my career, but my ego wouldn't let me live it until probably five years into running my business. How could I ever hire someone smarter than me at doing anything within MY business?

It took a long time to come to terms with the fact that if my business was going to grow and we were going to turn into the agency I knew we could be, I had to let go. I couldn't always be the best account manager, the best designer, the best writer, the best coder, the best salesman, the best strategist, the best advertiser. I had to find people that were smarter and better at those things than I am and I had to own the pieces of the business that I'm great at. 

Doing this has cost me a lot of money, but it's made me far more. Hire the people that are better than you and you'll go great places. Hire people that aren't as good as you and you'll stay where you are.

5. Don't chase the buzz words (pun totally intended).

Just thinking back to all of the clichés, buzz words, trends, and crazy ideas that have come out over the last eight years is mind boggling. 

"Email is dead."
"SEO is going away."
"Snapchat is going to take over social media."

How about the one-page website disaster? Or the infatuation that marketers had with QR codes six years ago (before COVID made them applicable again)? Or...uh...remember Vine? 

So many trends, ideas, and buzz words have come and gone. We have made our mark and continued to grow because we have been continuously learning and not just jumping on every bandwagon that comes out. Not all advice is good advice. Not all tools or new technologies are going to last. Being smart about what we pursue and where we hitch our wagon has been key to our growth and development as an agency.

6. Your team is more important than your clients.

This one may raise some eyebrows. If I have any clients reading this right now, let me explain. 

While clients and revenue from those clients are the life blood of any organization, the most important people to your organization are your employees. They are the ones building your widget, servicing your clients, coming up with your next innovative idea, developing your new offering, and solving yours and your clients' problems. 

Not too long ago I was forced to make a decision between keeping a client that we worked really hard to close and keeping my team happy. There was a chance that I could have lost one of my most important employees because of this client. 

The answer was simple. I will always choose my team over anyone or anything. The people that I work with day in and day out are who make our agency who it is. They are the ones that make me successful. They are the ones that make our clients successful. There is no client in the world that is worth losing one of my people for.

I am a firm believer that in order to have a successful company, you have to be willing to put your people first, even before your clients.

7. No sacred cows.

I am famous around HIVE for telling people that "there are no sacred cows". What I mean by that is that regardless of why we do something, who came up with the idea, how much work we've put into an idea, or how much we've spent on an idea, no ideas are above reproach. Egos have to be left at the door  — that goes for everyone, including myself.

I think a lot of businesses live very comfortably in the status quo. No one questions why you do what you do or the way you do it and things run fine. But, they are probably not running as well as they possibly could.

Going back to my point about hiring people smarter than yourself — what is the point in having a stellar team if you put them in a box. I encourage every single person on our team — from the intern to the Director — to think for themselves. If you have an idea that is better than the way that we do things, let it be known. No one should be taking offense to an idea that improves the business. 

8. Eat your own dog food.

Everyone knows the story of the cobbler's kids that had no shoes because their dad was so busy making shoes for everyone else. That is a very common issue that marketing agencies fall into. They are so busy pouring everything they have into their client's campaigns that they never even think to run campaigns for themselves. They're easy to spot too. They're the agencies that you go to their website and think, "THIS is your website?" or you go to their social profiles and see they haven't posted since 2020. Or you check out their blog and they've published one post in the last six months.

I really believe that one of the biggest decisions we made that spurred our growth over the last eight years was to eat our own dog food. Our theory was, why would a client want to buy our services if we won't take them for free. 

An agency that doesn't do their own marketing is either at (or over) capacity or just isn't very good. If you're good at what you do, why wouldn't you do it for yourself?

9. Transparency matters.

Over the first six years in the agency, I kept everything very close to my chest. My team didn't know how much revenue we made, what my new plans were until I announced them, or who we were hiring until they were on payroll.

Well, that is dumb.

The last two years we have become much more transparent with the team and have allowed our team to see more of the inner workings of the agency and what goes into it. I have leaned into the team for decisions on service offerings, pricing, hiring, benefits, and so much more. We have become an EOS agency and the transparency that it has given us as an agency has been amazing for not only our growth, but our culture. We all know where we're at and we all own our responsibilities within the agency to reach our goals.

10. The details make all the difference.

It can be really easy to get caught up in the big picture — after all, most business owners are visionaries with their heads in the clouds. But, I have learned that the things that really make the biggest impact are the details.

Whether it's taking a few more minutes on a proposal to call out something specific about a prospect, sending out a thank you card for a referral, making that one extra edit to a website to make it really special, or even just taking the time to acknowledge an employee that did a great job — the details matter way more than you think they do.

My Director of Client Success and Operations is amazing at not only paying attention to the details, but making sure that I don't miss them as well. Without the details, the picture will always be fuzzy.

These last eight years have been a whirlwind, but each and every day I am so proud of what we've have built and where we're headed. We have some big milestones coming up this year and in following years and I can't wait to share them with the world.

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