Episode 359:

Now that we’ve discussed what systems and processes are, the tools we can use to implement them, and how to integrate them into team culture, let’s talk about what happens when we start to use these processes as we scale our agencies.

This week, Juliana Marulanda of ScaleTime shares her 20+ years of knowledge with creating systems and processes in agencies and how it frees up more time to do what we love. We discuss how to get your agency unstuck from bottlenecks in productivity, reduce day-to-day chaos, and, most importantly, how to stop leaving money on the table from disorganized management.

Featured by Forbes and Entrepreneur, Juliana helps uplevel businesses into lean, mean, profitable machines. On average, she and her team create ways to free up at least 30 hours per week for her clients so they can have successful agencies that run without them. Agency owners can find themselves saying, “I do what I want, how I want, whenever I want — now, that is freedom.”

A big thank you to our podcast’s presenting sponsor, White Label IQ. They’re an amazing resource for agencies who want to outsource their design, dev, or PPC work at wholesale prices. Check out their special offer (10 free hours!) for podcast listeners here.

Systems and Processes

What You Will Learn in This Episode:

  • How to free up more space in your business for creativity
  • How to create systems and processes that work whether you’re in the office, hybrid, or 100% remote
  • The clearing of the storm after you establish systems and processes in your agency
  • Where money is being left on the table without proper procedures in place
  • The trajectory of emotions agency owners experience as they change their day-to-day
  • How Juliana helps agencies wrap their heads around management, HR, and hiring challenges
  • The importance of creating culture in your agency and why that affects day-to-day operations
  • How to get unstuck if you’re stuck in a loop of unchecked chaos

“I knew systems and operations, so I said, ‘Okay, if I can train faster and hire better, then I can manage less.’ And that became my mantra for the next 20 years.” Juliana Marulanda Click To Tweet“The amount of grit was outstanding. It was grit without process. I think that was one of the things that most surprised me.” Juliana Marulanda Click To Tweet“One of the things that I learned early on as a manager is that now I really try to teach people if you have more systems and processes, we can delegate a lot of the management to the systems and processes.” Juliana Marulanda Click To Tweet“The key to creating a digital culture is creating enthusiasm and consistency. Because if you're going to do something, do it well. And be open to feedback.” Juliana Marulanda Click To Tweet“Think of creating process as a design project. You are designing how something is happening from start to end.” Juliana Marulanda Click To Tweet

Ways to contact Juliana Marulanda/Scaletime:

Resources:



Speaker 1:

If you’re going to take the risk of running an agency, shouldn’t you get the benefits too? Welcome to Agency Management Institute’s Build a Better Agency Podcast, presented by White Label IQ. Tune in every week for insights on how small to midsize agencies are surviving and thriving in today’s market. We’ll show you how to make more money and keep more of what you make. We want to help you build an agency that is sustainable, scalable, and if you want down the road, sellable. With 25+ years of experience as both an agency owner and agency consultant, please welcome your host, Drew McClellan.

Drew McLellan:

Hey, everybody. Drew McClellan here from Agency Management Institute. Thank you for coming back and listening every week. Super grateful for that. I’m super excited about this week’s guest. I think you are going to find her both fascinating and inspiring, but mostly, hopefully really practical and helpful. So, I’ll tell you about her in just a second, but in the meantime, I want to talk to you a little bit about the AE Bootcamp. I want to remind you that we have moved the AE Bootcamp to Denver. The conference center that we have held our workshops for years in Chicago is yet another COVID casualty. And so, they are closing down and going to repurpose that building. And so, we needed to find a new home.

And so, there’s a beautiful student union in downtown Denver that we are going to be using for our workshops. And so, they are coming to Denver. So, we have the advanced AE Bootcamp, September 15th and 16th, and we have the regular AE Bootcamp for entry level folks, zero to four years or so of experience, October 13th and 14th. Now this is the last time in 2022 that we’ll be offering either bootcamp. You’ll have to wait until ’23 if you don’t take advantage of these workshops. So, if it works out for you and your team members, we would love to have them join us in our new facility in Denver, either September 15th and 16th for the advanced or 13th, 14th for the regular AE Bootcamp.

So, let me tell you a little bit about our guest and the topic that we’re going to talk about today. So, Juliana Marulanda is an expert in operations, processes, and systems. I know those are all words to many of us that I think the perception is that systems and processes are constraining, that they don’t allow us to do our best work. When in reality, if you want to grow and scale your business, you have to have systems and process. And I think actually what agencies have found when they have implemented good systems and process thinking is that it actually frees you up to do more of what you’re best at, more creativity, better strategy, because you’re not spending time figuring out how to do the same thing you’ve always done.

So, anyway, Juliana comes to us from Wall Street and then some other fascinating job roles before she decided to open her own consulting business and focus on agencies. She’s been doing that for quite a few years now and has helped… I think I’ll ask her, but I think it’s over 300 agencies, she’s worked with to help them put systems in processes in place. So, I think this is a huge topic for us and I think it’s one that you will be better off for after you’ve listened. So, get ready to take some notes, get ready to think a little differently about how you get things done inside your shop, and let’s jump into the conversation. Juliana, welcome to the podcast. Thanks for joining us.

Juliana Marulanda:

Oh, thanks. I appreciate being on the other side now.

Drew McLellan:

So tell everybody a little bit about your background and how you came to have this expertise in helping businesses scale.

Juliana Marulanda:

So I have been doing business operations for the last 20 years. I started off working on Wall Street, looking at operating models on the finance side, which is what really led me to believe that cash is quaint. From super high energy, I went into sports and entertainment operations.

Drew McLellan:

Sure, that’s a shift.

Juliana Marulanda:

That’s a shift. And I loved it because full of energy and we were always learning and there was something new. I was a brand new manager and they picked me up and basically put me in a new city because we were doing things like Super Bowl, USTA, Writer Cup. No idea what I was really doing, right? Not really a manager. And it was pick your team of 40 to 50 people per event in the span of two days, massive fields, and entertainment resources were all over the place and then go and operate about $1 million, right?

Drew McLellan:

Sounds stressful.

Juliana Marulanda:

It was stressful, right? It was insane. But because I didn’t know what I was doing at the time and I was super agreeing, but I knew systems, right? I knew systems, I knew operations, and I was like, “Okay, if I can train faster and hire better, then I can manage less.” And that became my mantra for the next 20 years. Hire better, train faster, and manage less. Fast forward in 2015 when I started the business, I was really looking for niche to work with, thinking through, “Okay, is anyone really doing operations consulting? Is this a thing that only belongs in corporate? Who actually needs this and how do we do this in what was becoming a very digital operational world?” Where you had hybrid teams, teams that were geographically independent.

It seemed like a new tool or a new app was popping up every other day. How do we really have a business where everything is super scattered? What I saw in the foreground that was happening and we’re talking about pre-pandemic, way pre-pandemic, was digital agency owners were really on this vanguard of being able to have a business that was digital, fully digital in terms of what they were doing, how they were doing it, how they were operating. And so, I wanted to figure out, “How do we really help to not only operationalize but scale in this digital environment?”

And 300 plus agencies later, here we are and I’ve been really helping this particular industry because I love the industry. We’re always on the vanguard. It’s technologically forward. It’s one of, I think, the most experimental industries that is out there, which really makes me excited about creating an impact with the digital agency space. That’s how basically I came to be.

Drew McLellan:

So when you say digital agency, though, really what you teach, whether an agency is still brick and mortar and meeting in an office or they’re scattered all over the world, your methodology works just the same, right?

Juliana Marulanda:

Absolutely right. My point of view is always that you treat your process as you would your product in the service space business. And the way that we think through client onboarding, project management, hiring, performance, KPIs, it’s going to be pretty agnostic to whether you’re in an office or not.

Drew McLellan:

Right, because you’re still using digital tools to manage it all.

Juliana Marulanda:

Absolutely. I think it just becomes so much more pertinent when you can’t go across the hall and ask a question. How do you create those interactions in a digital environment? And I think if you are in office space, it’s so much more efficient.

Drew McLellan:

Yeah. So, when you decided to focus your niche on agencies and you started working with your very first clients, what surprised you about how they work or the way they work or what doesn’t work?

Juliana Marulanda:

I think the thing that surprised me the most was how chaotic it was, right? Whether someone had 3 employees or 20 or 50, a lot of the times when I came in, which is why I’m like, “You can’t scale chaos,” it was very chaotic and there was just so much money being left on the table because the day to day wasn’t strategic, right? The week to week wasn’t strategic, the projects, the retainers, right?

Drew McLellan:

Not efficient.

Juliana Marulanda:

It wasn’t efficient, not profitable, and it was so reactive, and understandably, right? Most people are flying out of the seat of their pants or they’re winging it, but the amount of times that I heard, “We are winging it.” Surprising, I’m looking at seven-figure agencies, mid seven-figures, people bringing to eight figures without process. And I was just like, “Wow, this is amazing.” When we put process in place, the ability to scale so much faster and so much easier without the headache and people being able to actually have weekends and spend time with their children.

Drew McLellan:

Novel concepts, right?

Juliana Marulanda:

Novel concepts. And so, the amount of grit was outstanding. It was grit without process, I think, was one of the most outstanding things that surprised me.

Drew McLellan:

Yeah. So, our mantra is that most agency owners are accidental business owners. So, they don’t come into agency ownership with the corporate background that you did. Normally, they grew up in an agency and left for whatever reason or another, got fired, got laid off, whatever it is. And all of a sudden, they’re freelancing. And next thing they know they have 2 employees and then 10 employees. The business side of the business is not what they went to school for. It’s not what they experience is.

So, you’re right, I think they’re just so used to working in the chaos that I suspect when you reduce the chaos with a client, they’re shocked at how chaotic it was. You notching up the flame when you have the frog and the boiling water, you just don’t notice. It’s just hotter and hotter and hotter, but you just keep moving because you have deadlines and clients to serve. And so, I’m sure people were like, “Oh, this feels weird to have stability.”

Juliana Marulanda:

So for clients, we actually track the emotional chart when people come to us and they start off here and then they get all happy and giddy and then they dip because they’re like, “Oh man, putting process in place is a lot of work.” right? And then they’re excited again because they’re like, “Oh, my God. It is working. The work that we did is working.” And then there’s this huge dip, where there’s almost this existential dread that happens because once you put operations and processes in place and you have the right people in place and you’ve actually codified what your standards are into performance metrics, things start to feel weird, because there’s moments where people have too much time on their hands and they’ve never had it before.

They don’t actually know what to do with themselves. Sometimes they feel guilty because they’re like, “Oh, my God. My team is working, but I’m not,” or they’re like, “What’s my next thing? What do I create?” So, there’s a vacuum that needs to be filled and it’s exciting to see that, right? I mean, it usually lasts three weeks because then they’re all onto the next project that they’re creating.

Drew McLellan:

We don’t sit still from our own right.

Juliana Marulanda:

No, but it happens statistically and it’s amazing because there is another way of doing things. And to your point, when people come in from the agency side, most agencies, even if they’re very successful are run still very chaotically. So, there’s not a lot of great modeling out there of how to run something with results for the clients, where we really still care about what our client results are, because there’s a lot of stuff out there that’s like, “Ah, just make a lot of profit,” but the results aren’t that great.

Drew McLellan:

Right. Yup.

Juliana Marulanda:

Right. So, it’s like, “How do we create great results for our clients, keep our culture and our sanity, and have the freedom of choice to do what it is that we want to do as owners?”

Drew McLellan:

Yeah, it’s interesting. I expected, you would say that there’s almost this… Not sadness, but wait, this doesn’t feel right. This is working without all the sweat and effort. I don’t know what to do with this. So, it’s interesting that you’ve tracked it and it’s actually statistically valid, because again, I think we get almost addicted to the adrenaline, even though we don’t really want it to be the way that it is, but we’re so used to having to rise up to the occasion that if you don’t have to do that, I’m sure it’s probably like an athlete right after a big game.

Well, I don’t have to work out. I don’t have to practice. We’re done for a couple months. I don’t know what that feels like. So, I’m not surprised. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I think you believe there are certain points in an agency where they tend to get stuck. So, first, let’s define what stuck is and then talk to us about what those moments are and why those moments.

Juliana Marulanda:

Okay. So, I think the first stuckness in an agency and I’ll talk about if you’re starting off as a solo entrepreneur, maybe you’ve got a couple of freelancers, right? The first moment is I think around 250K to 400K if you’re really efficient, but it’s usually around 250K.

Drew McLellan:

Of gross billings.

Juliana Marulanda:

Of gross billings. Yes. That’s usually going from being a solo to hiring full time people, because there’s only so much capacity you can take as an individual. So, I think that’s the first place. I think also, it’s a very comfortable place, because usually in that place you’re taking home most of the money and it’s great. You got a couple clients. I usually say there’s actually no need to go to a million, which is like an entrepreneurial carrier, right? Let’s cross the million dollar line right? Unless you’re doing it for something other than your take home, because between $250,000 and $1 million, your take home either stays the same or sometimes decreases because you’re investing.

Unless you’re doing it for reasons other than that, that’s a very comfortable spot to be in, because that’s the hiring spot. So, most people get stuck because there’s hiring. I think that there’s a lot of delegation mindset around things. I talk about delegation is not abdication, so you can’t just like say, “Hey, here’s a bunch of stuff.” Or even with all good intention, here’s a bunch of Loom videos because having documentation or training does not equal comprehension or quality. We still have to measure the quality. We still have to have some oversight until things stabilize.

And you feel comfortable that when things leave the metaphorical door to the client, it’s up to your standards, it’s up to your reputation, right? So that’s usually that bit. So, either people don’t want to delegate, they’re not delegating effectively, or they’re like, “Oh, my God. I’m now not taking any money buddy home. What’s going on?” So, there’s a couple of things.

Drew McLellan:

I’ve tripled my headaches, but not my income.

Juliana Marulanda:

Exactly. And you’re like, “Why am I doing this?” Which is why I tell people, if you’re going to do it, have a reason. Either you’re trying to create bigger impact, whether that’s for clients, for your industry, for the employees that you’re helping out. There’s got to be something that motivates you to have that headache. Then the next point and I know a lot of people will talk about the million dollar plateau, but I actually believe it’s like 1.3. I’ve seen so many people get stuck at around 1.3 because they’ve crossed the million. They’ve done what it takes to cross the million, but then they can’t get above that million. They know how to sustain it, but not right. So, usually, in that place, you have a couple of key employees and you’ve delegated your execution.

So, whatever your production is, whether you’re a media agency, you’ve got a couple of media managers or if your social media or PR, you have people doing the work. The quality is good, but now two things happen. You have to actually scale your sales if you want to get above that. That is a fun trip, scaling your sales. And then also in order for you to get completely out, usually at that point, you’re also delegating strategy. Most people haven’t learned how to delegate strategy or account management. So, the founders are stuck still very much in the high level conversations with clients and are still the single point of failure, which I’m sure your audience has heard this many times. If anyone’s out sick, if anything happens, if there’s a fire, it’s the owner who’s still going in.

Drew McLellan:

Well, and oftentimes the owner is doing work that they’re typically visionaries and they’re doing the super detailed work. And so, part of them being the single point of failure is they’re not that great at it. They’re great at the strategic conversations, but the taking the notes and bringing the work back and getting it through the system, that is not usually their gift, right?

Juliana Marulanda:

Absolutely. And usually at that point too, with the nitty gritty stuff, you still need some level of quality control and that’s not happening. What you’re seeing at that level too is that you’re still doing acquisition because the retention isn’t paid enough attention. So, your churn is still happening faster than your acquisition. At that level, most owners haven’t spent the time to strategically look at the customer journey to increase the lifetime value.

Drew McLellan:

Yeah, right, and to map out all the places where this could go wrong. Yeah.

Juliana Marulanda:

Exactly. Right. So, we’re not looking at all of the processes. We’re just getting the work out. So, that’s what happens there. At the three point mark, I would say it’s similar to the 1.3, but usually at that $3 million mark, people have revisited their technology and they’ve made their technology better. They’re like, “Okay, we’ve really got to make our tech better.”

Drew McLellan:

The tool that got us to three is not going to get us past three.

Juliana Marulanda:

Right, that’s usually happening around that realm, which is great. Dealing with technology, not process, is usually what happens. Breaking the 7 to 10 is now we’re thinking through from a true visionary, which means I’ve delegated decision making strategy and I’ve put enough process in place that I can trust the processes even as my team churn and to think deeply about your team and the team makeup and who is really ensuring that the quality work continues and the business is growing, not just maintained without you. There’s commonalities as we see these plateaus.

Drew McLellan:

Yeah. So, a couple things out of that I want to talk about. Number one is I think a lot of agency owners struggle with managing people. They probably have never been trained to manage people. They don’t know how to do it very well. They may not like it. The whole HR thing, I think, sometimes can be onerous to them. And two, process and systems and agencies are follow words, right? We’re creative people. We like to just create.

So, I want to take a quick break, but when I come back, I want to talk a little bit about the agency owner’s role in HR and managing the people side of it. And then the second side is, how does an agency owner embrace system and process when we really started the agency because we love the work and we love the strategy and we love those big high level conversations? So let’s put a pin in both of those. Let’s take a quick break and then come on right back.

Hey, sorry to interrupt, but I wanted to make sure that you are thinking about how to connect with your clients by figuring out what they love and maybe a few things that they’re not so crazy about with your agency. So, at AMI, one of the things we offer, our client satisfaction surveys. We do both quantitative and qualitative. So, an online survey, but also interviews with some of your key clients. And then we come back to you with trends, recommendations, what they love, what they don’t love, lots of insights around how you can create an even tighter relationship with your clients.

So, if you have interest in that, you can go under the How We Help tab on the AMI website and very bottom choice on the How We Help tab is the client satisfaction surveys. You can read more about it, but whether you have us do it or you do it yourself or you hire somebody else, it is really critical that you be talking to your clients about what they love and what they wish was different or better. So, do not miss the opportunity to tighten your relationship with your client, whether we help you or not. All right. All right. Let’s get back to the show.

All right. We are back and we are talking operations and systems and getting unstuck with Juliana. She owns a business called ScaleTime, which we’ll talk about towards the end of the show. But before the break, I was saying, I think for a lot of agency owners, this is challenging because part of growth means more bodies and more bodies for many agency owners translates to more headaches. So, talk a little bit about how you help agency owners wrap their hands and head around managing people and the whole HR side of the business, which right now, especially with the hiring challenges that agencies are facing today is a particularly difficult challenge.

Juliana Marulanda:

Absolutely. So, I think one of the things that I learned early on as an early manager that now I really try to teach people is that if you have more systems and processes, we can delegate a lot of the management to the systems and processes. I have a client who says, “Common sense is not common practice.”

Drew McLellan:

True.

Juliana Marulanda:

I know, right? I’m like, “That is great. I’m still like that.” She’s like, “Go for it.” The last thing that most owners want to be is HR. We’re like, “Oh, my God. I did not come in here to deal with the drama of people.” And as an owner, you’re 100% responsible for everything that your business does is my philosophy. So, how do we hold those accountable in our business to what we need? I think that if you take a reflective look at, “What are your standards? What are your standards for communication? What are your standards for client quality, client work? How many touchpoints you’re having?”, then you can start to create processes around that and performance metrics that measure the processes and measure the work.

Because if we can create higher visibility into what people are doing when they’re doing it and how they’re doing it, then we don’t have to manage as much. There’s less chaos, there’s less drama. And I’m not saying that there isn’t a place for people to have… I mean, one of my very best friends and colleagues teaches HR. So, there’s definitely a place for that, but I think so much of the management can be created systematically. So, one of the things that I will tell people is, “Okay, what are your touch points for communication with your team?” It depends on how big your team is.

If your team is very small and you’ve got like a small production team, you are the touchpoint of that team. If you have team leads, then they have touchpoints with the team and then you have touchpoints with your team leads. Depending on how your org chart is structured, whether it’s hierarchical or whether it’s in pods, what are the touchpoints on a daily, weekly, monthly, quarterly, yearly basis? What does feedback look like to the team? Because the worst day that could happen to an employee and it was like the great resignation. There’s something happening right now.

Drew McLellan:

There’s something after the great resignation?

Juliana Marulanda:

No, there is, because Q4 of 2021, it was like completely an employee market. Now, it’s an employer’s market, but people are still leaving. You’re trying to keep up with the trends of how to hire and who to hire and what. So, what does feedback look like? Because employees actually value recognition, positive as well as, “What do they need to do to stay on top of the game?” If you don’t tell them and then you fire them, that’s very surprising at least. You’re also not going to get the most out of developing people. So, how do we create a cadence for management and touch points with the team?

Drew McLellan:

And I’ve never, by the way, talked to an agency employee who said, “You know what? We hear from the agency owner too much. I wish they would stop communicating with us.” I have never heard that.

Juliana Marulanda:

Yes, exactly. Usually, it’s like, “I don’t know what we’re doing,” or “They’re messing up my priorities.” [inaudible 00:27:56] is kicking in. So, developing that cadence of touchpoint and then you’ve got informal touchpoints, formal touchpoints. What are we creating as part of management so that you manage less? How are you creating a culture? Because culture is either created by design or by default.

Drew McLellan:

Right, there always is one, right?

Juliana Marulanda:

There’s always going to be a culture. So, are you thinking through strategically? Even if you have a completely 100% remote team, how are your people interacting so that people care about the work? If they’re so disconnected, they stop caring.

Drew McLellan:

Right. Which is I think where a lot of agency owners feel like they’re at now, that their employees aren’t invested in the work, aren’t invested in the agency, are willing to jump for $5,000 to another job. So, I think right now, this is a very topical conversation, because I think a lot of agency owners are frustrated that they can’t help their people care. But to your point, they also don’t communicate in a way that gives people connections.

And I think for a lot of agencies, they were brick and mortar and now they’re either hybrid or completely virtual. If I get asked one question every day, it’s, “How do I create culture when we’re not physically together? How do I create connection so that they are invested in the work, in the clients, in the agency?” So, I think this is a very hot topic right now.

Juliana Marulanda:

Yeah. I’ll put two things out there just really quick and then I’ll go back to the cadence. Creating things that you would do in a brick and mortar, but digitally, right? Do you have a book club? Are there many meetings where people can geek out? I know Slack is a very controversial topic, whether people love it or hate it, but I think Slack used effectively is a great tool if we create standards around like usage that are not interrupting you every day. There’s things that will go and attached to Slack and create… Especially I’m going to say bigger organizations, if you’ve got 20 people spread across the country or the world, it’ll say like, “Oh, okay, it’ll team you up with a different person to have lunch with, virtual lunch every week.”

So, I think there’s one called Donut. There’s a couple of Slack things and calendar things out there that you can use very inexpensively. The key to creating a digital culture’s consistency, creating enthusiasm and consistency. Because if you’re going to do something, do it well and being open to feedback. Having an open channel where people can anonymously submit feedback, so that owners and leadership can respond to it effectively and in a timely fashion. So, that people don’t feel like, “Oh, crap. I’m going to get dinged for this or whatnot.”

Drew McLellan:

I sent this into the ether and maybe they’ll answer it in a month.

Juliana Marulanda:

Yes. So, having some level of anonymous feedback inbox, something that [inaudible 00:31:10] who’s my HR colleague, she always talks about, I think, is super important. So, I’m going to go back to the cadence. So, having that cadence for not just what are on your to-do list, but actual informal feedback versus formal feedback is super important to manage. Yes, it does take up time. But if we talk about the cost of replacing good talent, it’s one to two times their salary, it’s a well worth investment to be able to have these touchpoints to manage the humans that are running your business. So, that’s one thing. And then the second piece to that is performance metrics. How are we holding people accountable and then how are you seeing this?

Because how many times owners and leadership of agents who’s like, I hate these questions, “What are you doing? When is it going to get done?” So, my belief is that status updates really need to be put into your project management. That is not performance. Performance are really talking about, “How do we quantify people’s work and having those metrics flow upward so that people are accountable to them?” They’re going up the chain, whether that’s to the owner individually, to the team lead. So, that way, we can see the smoke before there’s a fire. Before a client cancels a 10 to 20K retainer, we want to be able to see, “Oh, crap, something is wrong here. Let me go and figure this out and really be able to not only protect our profits, but also develop our people.”

Drew McLellan:

Yes, yes, yes, yes. I think a lot of times when agency owners get stuck, whether it’s at your 1.3 or wherever it may be, I think it’s easy to point to something outside of the organization and say, “Well, we’re stuck because we have a guerilla client. We’re stuck because we lost this client. We’re stuck because we have a lot of turnover in account service.” So I think a lot of times agency owners feel helpless or powerless to manage and get unstuck. I have this visual of almost like a crowbar that you have to stick something into something and pop it. Something has to change. So, if an agency calls you and they’re stuck, typically, what are the first couple things that they can or should do to try and unstick themselves?

Juliana Marulanda:

How do you unstick yourself?

Drew McLellan:

That’s right.

Juliana Marulanda:

Well, one of the major things that we do is we have an operational diagnostic. And so, I want to see where you are stuck, because a lot of the times where you think you’re stuck versus operationally, it could be different. They’re like, “Oh, man, our people just don’t know how to time manage,” or is it that you don’t have the right people in place? Are the people not in the right roles? Is leadership not delegating? Is it really a time management issue or is it other things? So, we want to get an accurate view of where exactly the stuckness is happening or the bottleneck. So, that we can unclog it, unstick it, crow bar you out of it.

And so, the first thing that all of our clients do is this five to seven-minute diagnostic. We look at about 50 operational gaps. Because oftentimes, it’s in a process somewhere that it is happening and I’m like, “Okay, can we figure out where it is?” So, assessing, I think, is the first point, because without the clarity, we can’t take any action.

Drew McLellan:

Yeah. I think you’re right. I think they feel stuck, but they don’t know how to self-diagnose or again, there’s so many outside influences in an agency. It’s easy to think that it’s other things happening to you as opposed to something you are or aren’t doing that sets you up to be in that position.

Juliana Marulanda:

Yeah. Sometimes it’s just, again, not having the knowledge. If you’re constantly being called into meetings, I call this almost like the smartest person in the room syndrome. So many agency owners, even if they have account execs or account managers, when there’s a high level strategic conversation, they’re still being called in. I’m like, “Have you delegated your strategy yet?” They’re like, “Well, what do you mean?” Oftentimes, most owners have several strategies that they’re constantly updating with new information and algorithm changes. But they have a couple of strategies that they know are proven processes that are working at this given time, given the industry that they’re working with the type of client and how upstream or downstream they are.

So, I’m like, “Okay, have you documented that strategy that you can pass it on so you’re not still being asked to strategize? And then are we training people on strategy on a consistent basis as things devolved on a quarterly basis as you’re updating things, either in your head or wherever they’re being updated?” The answer’s usually no. There’s something around documentation’s not necessarily development. We can document, which I think is extremely important. Don’t get me wrong, but things change. I mean, I’m sure you get this all the time. Clients were like, “Do you have documentation?” Yes, we do.

Drew McLellan:

When was the last time you updated it?

Juliana Marulanda:

When was the last time anyone used it? Are people using it consistently? So, I think that training and development is such a huge portion and such a missed opportunity to make sure that as an owner, you’re not getting stuck back into the weeds.

Drew McLellan:

Yeah. I think the whole idea of that sense of ongoing training, agencies move at such a speed that there’s things that they think of as luxuries that they don’t consistently do. I think internal process training and internal process updating and things like that are two examples of these are things that we know we should do, but we don’t because we don’t have the time.

Juliana Marulanda:

Yes, but then we freak out if we lose a client. So, that’s like the antidote to retention. And one of the things that you had mentioned, I think, before was how do we get creatives… Because it’s usually one of the things that is super unsexy. Most people are not trained to do process, and it just sounds so boring.

Drew McLellan:

Well, it sounds like the opposite of creativity. I think agencies, regardless of what kind of agency they are, whatever their version of creativity is, they think that’s their secret sauce. So, I believe many agencies misunderstand what process can do for them and they think it is a constraint rather than actually allowing them more time to be creative.

Juliana Marulanda:

Absolutely. On the constraint part, if you can create structure for yourself and for your team on a proactive level, it creates so much freedom on a day-to-day basis and time for your team to be creative, to think of new strategies, to do research, to stay on the vanguard, to be competitive, because now you have the time to actually develop that competitive edge as opposed to be reactive to everything. And then the second piece that I really try to talk to my more creative agency owners and I believe everything that people do. If you’re innovating, you’re creating, right?

Drew McLellan:

For sure.

Juliana Marulanda:

Is to think of creating process as a design project. You are designing how something is happening from start to end. If you really take on your processes being your product and you’re designing what your product is, you get to productize things which makes you more efficient, more profitable. It’s great for everyone. I borrow a lot from user experience. If you think about the UX pyramid, at the bottom, we want to make things really functional.

Think about it also in versions. Version one of our process, just get it really functional. Soup to nuts, how is this thing… Using a whiteboard or a digital visual tool, I’m really big on Whimsical. It’s a free tool. You can draw for a lot of our creatives that we like to draw and draw it out. What does it look like when a client comes in? What is the timeline? Who’s on deck to do what? What are the assets that you need?

Drew McLellan:

Right. So, you don’t have to create them on the fly, right?

Juliana Marulanda:

Exactly. Right. We could talk about, “What is an intake process then?”, getting your credentials, your assets, your logo, your branding, depending on what type of it is you are, but just thinking through those buckets. What decisions need to be made? Who’s making those decisions and what’s the next step? And oftentimes when we start to see this and you’re like, “Oh, crap, I’m making all of the decisions,” we can start removing ourselves from some of those and start delegating. It makes it easier to, A, start delegating, B, see what you need, which a lot of agency owners have a very healthy sense of paranoia. I think you can start to trust the process and then you can train on it.

So, if you may or may not necessarily trust the people who are coming in because they’re new, now you can point to, “What do you have in the process? How do you elevate it? What are the pieces that you need to create?” And it doesn’t have to be 100% templatized because I often find people who are on the more creative side, they’re like, “Ah, I don’t want to lose that essence of the client communication.” I’m like, “Okay, 80/20 rule. 80% of it is going to be completely templatized because you’re repeating yourself 20 million times a day anyway, and then add that 20% of customization given your brand.”

Drew McLellan:

Right, right, or given who the client is or given the circumstance of how you met or whatever. Yeah.

Juliana Marulanda:

Or whatever, right?

Drew McLellan:

Yeah, right.

Juliana Marulanda:

Or given the fact that you have several account managers, right? You don’t want them to completely going off the rails. You have that percentage to customize, but now 80% of it, you’re not reinventing the wheel.

Drew McLellan:

And you’re delivering something consistent every time. I think one of the fears for a lot of agency owners as they get bigger is that they lose visibility into what everybody’s doing and how it’s being done. And so, again, this is a way for you to make sure that the agency shows up the way you want it to show up. Again, whether it’s an internal work process or an HR thing or client or employee onboarding, you get to put your stamp on it and know that every time, whether you’re there or not, it looks and sounds and feels like the agency you want it to sound and feel like.

Juliana Marulanda:

Absolutely. And to your point on visibility, you want to make sure that as you’re designing this process, you’re figuring out where things are living. If it’s your sales process, is it living in your CRM? You have a CRM. If we’re talking about processes for client fulfillment, is it living in your project manager consistently? Can you go into your project manager and see what’s happening accurately at any given moment? So, your ability to create design for what you want your business to look like and stand for so that you can go in it at any point in time and see what’s going on. Continuous training allows you to develop and build that competitive edge over time.

Drew McLellan:

Yeah. As I’m thinking about the whole last hour of our conversation, it seems to me that the underlying messages, if you want your agency to show up the way you want it to as it grows beyond your capacity to have your hands in everything, systems and processes are actually the only way to make sure that your mark stays on your agency and that it does show up the way you want it to and work the way you wanted to, because otherwise, you were leaving it up to human decisions and rotating people. And so, the less you systemize, the further away your agency gets from how you want it to be, right?

Juliana Marulanda:

Absolutely. I know you talk a lot about like selling your agency. And then when it comes to a point where if you have your stamp on your agency and you have the systems, the process, and the performance visibility, either if you’re turning it into a cash asset, you want to start something else and you’re going really from being an operator to an owner, taking what you need to do your next thing, awesome. But if you’re going to sell it, then it’s aligned not only for a higher multiple, but also for the right buyer.

Drew McLellan:

Well, and they can step in and repeat your success when there are systems and processes in place, right?

Juliana Marulanda:

Absolutely.

Drew McLellan:

Yeah, this has been fascinating. I knew that we would strike a spot and then just go. I probably have another four hours of questions, but we’ll have you come back to the show and we’ll cover those. But this has been really helpful. Again, I think couple takeaways for me. One, process and systems are not outside of our skillset to do. Two, if we want to grow our business and most importantly grow our profitability and our ability to scale and someday potentially sell our agency, they’re essential. And three, they actually free us up to do our best work.

So, all good reasons, I think, to think about systems and processes. So, if folks want to learn more about your work and how you have helped over 300 agencies get over this hump, because clearly, you have done this over and over again, how can they learn more about you, about your work, follow you, connect with you?

Juliana Marulanda:

Yeah, absolutely. Because growing an agency is really grueling to scale and I don’t believe that it has to be that way. So, we definitely have several resources. I think one of the easiest things to do is to sign up for our newsletter, because we give mental models, actionable quick tips. We really like to, in our newsletter, make sure that people can take small actions that create a big impact and you can sign up at scaletime.co/podcast/BABA. We’ll have that there for you to go in, as well as we have our five-minute diagnostic.

Drew McLellan:

That’d be great.

Juliana Marulanda:

Basically, you can go through 50 operational gaps in five to seven minutes. We’ve streamlined it. Afterwards, we send you fancy results in infographic so that you have a heat map of exactly where you’re doing really awesome and where you have some opportunity. So, definitely do that. We’ll put it on the same page. If you resonated with what I talked about or points of view and you want to jump on a call, I’ll put that information as well in scaletime.co, that’s C-O, /podcast/BABA.

Drew McLellan:

Awesome. This has been great. Thank you so much.

Juliana Marulanda:

Oh, thank you, Drew. This was awesome. I hope people can take some actionable steps to grow their agency with a little bit more sanity.

Drew McLellan:

Yeah. Sanity and more profit, that’s a beautiful combination, right?

Juliana Marulanda:

Sanity and profit. Yes.

Drew McLellan:

Yeah, that should be everybody’s goal.

Juliana Marulanda:

Yes.

Drew McLellan:

All right, guys. This wraps up another episode. So, lots of actionable items in this week’s podcast. So, as you know, I love it that you listen. I love it that we’re connected to one another. But what I really love is when you take something from the podcast and you actually put it to work inside your shop. So, I think that Juliana gave you tons of ideas of how to think about scaling your business, thinking about how you can put systems and processes in place. She also has some great tools, so make sure you head over to that URL she gave us. It’ll be in the show notes. So, if you’re on a golf course or you are on a treadmill and you can’t write it down, just come to Agency Management Institute website and you can see it right in the show notes, but take action.

So, many of you are frustrated that you’re stuck, and 1.3 million, she’s about right. For us, as you know, we talk about AGI versus gross billings. But for many of you, the minute you cross over that $1 million threshold, which probably does mean you’re at about 1.3 in terms of gross billings, you are feeling like you can’t get to the next level. And so, this is an episode I think that reminds you and maybe the most important thing is decide, right? Maybe you don’t want to get any bigger. Maybe you don’t need to operationalize. Maybe you don’t need to create process and systems because you want to stay small. You like having your hands in all the clients and you like doing all the work, that’s fine. You own the joint. You get to decide.

But if you do want to grow the business, if you do want to scale, if you want to get out of the day-to-day so that you’re not the main point of contact for a client and you want to really spend more time working on the business rather than in the business, you can’t do it and expect the same level of quality from your people if you don’t give them an environment where they can replicate over and over the good work that you have done when you started the agency. So, systemized and process don’t have to be bad words in our world. That can actually give you, as we said, both sanity and profit, which is a lovely combination.

So, listen again if you need to, but take some action and unstick yourself. Get out of your own way and give yourself an opportunity to grow the business, okay? Before I let you go, couple things. One, again, as always, a huge thank you to our friends at White Label IQ. As you know, they are the presenting sponsor of this podcast, have been for the last several years. Super grateful to them not only for sponsoring the podcast, which of course I’m grateful for, but also even more so what I’m grateful for is how they help AMI agencies with White Label design, dev, and PPC. They are the backend for many agencies of those services and people love working with them. They’re lovely, lovely people who are smart and help you grow your business and scale your business, speaking of.

So, many thanks to them. And as always, I would be remiss if I didn’t say thanks for listening. So, I know how crazy busy you are and I know it’s hard to shoehorn one more thing into the day. So, the fact that we get to hang out together every week, I think, is a huge privilege and an honor, and I appreciate it very much. I will never take that for granted. So, with that, I will let you go. I’ll be back next week with another guest. And in the meantime, you can reach me at [email protected] if you need to track me down. Otherwise, I’ll see you next week.

That’s all for this episode of AMI’s Build a Better Agency Podcast. Be sure to visit agencymanagementinstitute.com to learn more about our workshops, online courses, and other ways we serve small to mid-sized agencies. Don’t forget to subscribe today. So, you don’t miss an episode.