Building a creative agency is not a short-term effort. You may be able to get up and running fairly quickly, especially if you’ve got some great connections among other freelancers already. But getting enough work to keep all of you busy is only a first step.
Exactly how far you want to grow your agency is a question of your own goals. You may have modest ambitions, like building up enough business to be able to afford some great health insurance. You may have bigger plans, like being able to bring home six figures a year, beyond what you need to pay everyone working for you. No matter your goals, however, you’ll need to keep growing your business to meet them.
Focus on Your Audience, For Now
Just like as an individual freelancer, you’re going to have an easier time expanding your business if you are promoting one thing to a group of buyers who are interested in it. While you probably will be willing to take on projects outside your area of expertise, it’s important to identify what that area is and who the ideal audience is for it. Then you can put all of your energy into reaching that audience.
You want an audience large enough to have plenty of work to send your way, but not so large that you can’t easily reach most of the members of that group.
You’ll probably be looking at a wider niche than when you’re working on your own: rather than just creating a design for a website, you might handle developing functionality and writing content for the site, with the help of your team. But even if your focus has widened, take the time to write out exactly what sorts of projects you want to take on and that your agency specializes in. You want to be as clear as possible about your audience. You want an audience large enough to have plenty of work to send your way, but not so large that you can’t easily reach most of the members of that group.
When you know who you need to reach, it’s easier to find them. You can choose the right conferences to speak at, the right blog posts to write and the right marketing moves to make. And when you’re ready to expand, you can find logical extensions of your existing audience to reach out to, rather than starting over from scratch.
Continue Your Education
Odds are that you’re a top notch creative, or you wouldn’t have enough work to transition into running an agency. But that’s not a guarantee that you know the details of running a larger business. You don’t need to go back to school and get an MBA, but you do need to make sure that you’re continuing to to pick up new skills that will help you expand your agency. That can include learning about accounting, human resources, operations and much more — so make a point of regularly educating yourself.
Set up a budget just for your education. While you may find some free classes online or as promotions for a product, you’re going to be busy running your agency. It’s going to be worth the money to pay for a highly recommended book or class, rather than trying to hunt for the same information for free.
Make a point of spending your budget, too: if you keep having money and time left over that you meant to use to further your education, you’re doing it wrong. Businesses are evolving, as are the tools of every creative trade. You have to keep up.
And while an MBA may be overkill, the knowledge that goes into it isn’t. You can read the books that MBA students are expected to study, listen to lectures (for free!) from some of the best business professors in the world online and generally get an excellent business education without enrolling in a school. Of course, if you find that actually signing up for classes and going to your local college makes it easier to learn the material, that’s always an option as well.
Look for Advice and Mentorship
Unless you happen to have started a successful creative agency in the past, you probably are going to run into plenty of situations where you won’t be entirely sure what to do next. You’ll probably be able to do some research and figure it all out, but if you can find a few reliable sources of advice who can point you in the right direction, you’ll speed things up significantly.
Why reinvent the wheel if there are people out there who already know how to build bicycles
You don’t necessarily need a mentor who has done exactly the same thing you’re hoping to accomplish. Rather, you’ll need advice on a variety of topics, so just finding a successful business owner who can discuss their own experiences with issues like taxes can be very helpful. Add in some expert advisors (like an accountant), and figuring out solutions to problems as they come up will be a lot easier.
Building a business inside a vacuum just isn’t practical. Why reinvent the wheel if there are people out there who already know how to build bicycles? There are numerous organizations that will connect you to mentors, both in similar specialties and locally based. Some will even do so for free. Take advantage of that sort of opportunity.
You can also find a mentor on your own: it can be as simple as asking if a business owner you know would be willing to sit down for coffee with you once a month. Mentorship programs don’t need to be formal, as long as you’re getting useful advice and a chance to describe the particulars of your company.
Build Your Own Expertise
One of the greatest assets your agency has is you. You know your field inside and out, so make a point of telling people about your knowledge. It may feel a little like bragging, but it will pay off. Sharing your expertise can take many forms: take a look at the different creative agencies out there. Just about every agency’s founder has a blog these days, many speak regularly at conferences and some have even written books.
Just how you choose to share your expertise should depend on your own skills. If you aren’t comfortable speaking in public (although it’s worth asking who really is), you may be better off focusing your efforts elsewhere. The important thing is to choose a strategy and stick to it. You’re the voice of your agency and you have to make sure that prospective clients hear you.
Leave Some Room for Creativity
Just because you’re some sort of high and mighty agency director now doesn’t mean that you won’t want to work on something cool — perhaps too cool for a client to pay you for. Those sorts of creative side projects can work out very well for an agency.
Creative projects can have hidden benefits: just being able to use a project as a testbed for new tools or new people without running everything by a client can be valuable.
They’re a chance to show what you can really do if you and your team are given complete freedom. They’re a chance to try out new techniques that you haven’t perfected to the point where you’d want to offer them to clients. They’re even a chance to see how a new freelancer works with your team in a low-risk scenario. On top of all that, you can get to do something really amazing.
Make a point of building some padding into your budget and calendar so that you can regularly put together a creative project of your own. Some such projects may prove to be major money makers on their own, but even if you don’t have a monetization plan in place, go for it anyhow. Creative projects can have hidden benefits: just being able to use a project as a testbed for new tools or new people without running everything by a client can be valuable.
The real value for your creative project, however, may be in the marketing opportunities it provides you with. If you do something cool enough, you can get a lot of coverage without the level of work that it normally takes to promote your agency. Such a project may also be award-worthy (not to say that your usual work isn’t), which can bring you a secondary round of press. It isn’t free, considering that you’ll have to pay for the resources to complete this great creative work yourself, but it’s a lot cheaper than some other types of marketing.
But the most important reason to have a regularly scheduled creative project is to help pump you up for everything else you have to do. Especially if you find that, as the boss, you don’t get to work on creative projects as much as as a freelancer, having the freedom to go all out on one project every so often can make the boring bits easier to manage. The right creative projects will keep you sane.