How to Clear the Obstacles that Prevent You from Growing and Scaling Your Business with Karl Sakas

  • Scaling Your Business - Karl Sakas

Starting an agency is easy. Growing and scaling your business is anything but. There are lots of obstacles and landmines, not to mention just trying to run the agency, which can get in the way.  My podcast guest Karl Sakas and I chatted about those obstacles and how to move around them.  

Some of the specifics we talked about included:

  • the number one question owners must answer in order to understand what type of agency they want to grow
  • ways to delegate work so you can focus on what you love about agency work
  • how agencies can manage their time, stating, “no one will defend your time but you”
  • how to figure out where you want to go and get people to help you so you can get there faster.

Karl Sakas served as the #2 man in a couple different digital agencies before he created the Marketing Agencies community at Inbound.org, which has over 1,000 agencies in 48 countries. As president of Sakas and Company, Karl advises agencies worldwide about strategy, operations, and leadership.He has recently published a book entitled, “The In Demand Marketing Agency: How to Use Public Speaking to Become an Agency of Choice.”

To listen – you can visit the Build A Better Agency site (https://agencymanagementinstitute.com/karl-sakas/) and grab either the itunes or Stitcher files or just listen to it from the web.  

If you’d rather just read the conversation, the transcript is below.

If you’re going to take the risk of running an agency, shouldn’t you get the benefits too? Welcome to Build a Better Agency, where we show you how to build an agency that can scale and grow with better clients, invest in employees, and best of all, more money to the bottom line. Bringing his 25 plus years of expertise as both an agency owner and agency consultant to you, please welcome your host, Drew McLellan.

Drew: Hey, everybody, Drew McLellan here, and I am stoked to be with you today. This podcast is really my way of extending the work that I do with over 200 small to mid-size agency owners every year. I help them mitigate the risks of owning an agency, while reaping as many of the rewards as possible. As an agency owner of over 20 years, I know all too well the risk reward equation, and I want to make sure that we all maximize the reward side. That’s why I am really excited today to have our guest with us.

Karl Sakas is with us today, and Karl helps marketing agencies grow without the usual growing pains. And that is a big promise that we are going to dig into. He has founded and runs an online community with over 600 agencies from over 47 countries. As president of Sakas & Company, Karl advises agencies worldwide about strategy, operations, and leadership. He’s also written over 100 articles on agency management. When he’s not helping clients, Karl serves as president elect for the triangle AMA and volunteers as a bartender in a 1930s railroad car which, Karl, we are going to dig into in a minute.

Karl: Awesome.

Drew: He lives in Raleigh, North Carolina, and he has recently published a book called “The In-Demand Marketing Agency: How to Use Public Speaking to Become an Agency of Choice.” I have been doing a lot of public speaking for much of my professional life, and I got to tell you when I read the book, there were still a lot of takeaways for me as a very seasoned speaker. Whether you are a new speaker or you’ve been doing it for years, I promise you, Karl’s book has nuggets of wisdom that will make you better at the craft. With that, Karl, welcome to the podcast.

Karl: Drew, it is great to be here.

Drew: Karl that is a…before we get into the big promise of growing without growing pains, let’s talk a little bit about this 1930s railroad car.

Karl: Sure.

Drew: Tell me about your bartending career.

Karl: The car is called the Dover Harbor. It is a Pullman car built in the 1930s, now owned by a non-profit based in Washington, D.C., and we go anywhere Amtrak goes and into Canada on VIA Rail as well. It’s like a 90-foot long 90-ton RV or rolling bed and breakfast hooked onto the end of an Amtrak train. There are six bedrooms.  It’s like something out of an old movie. The beds flip down from the ceiling. There’s a comfortable lounge with arm chairs, settees, which actually have lead weights in the legs to keep things from moving around. It’s very comfortable. More like mattress type seats rather than traditional seats. There’s also a rear vestibule in the back so you can wave at people along the way. There’s a tiny submarine sized kitchen which uses the original coal stove, the original ice box…

Drew: Wow.

Karl: …for preparing on board meals. We have amazing chefs, and all the crew members are volunteers.

Drew: You’re a volunteer because you love railroads, because…tell me how you got involved with this.

Karl: I’ve always loved trains. I grew up with model trains, and my dad would take me to the train station in Virginia and we’d watch the trains go by, and more recently volunteered at a train museum when I lived in New Jersey and in the New York area. A friend had mentioned, “Hey, you should check this out. Check out the Dover Harbor Train Car,” noting that it’s a mix of trains, mix of travel history, and I also get to use my client service skills.

Drew: Well, I don’t know. Given that you help agencies grow without growing pains and help owners scale their businesses I don’t know how you have time to be a traveling bartender.

Karl: Usually I’ll do one to three trips a year. My latest trip was to New York, and before that, we did a charter to New Orleans and back.

Drew: It sounds awesome. I’m going to have to check it out online after we get off the call.

Karl: Absolutely. If you go to doverharbor.com, you can find out charter info.  And then we also have public trips where you can buy a ticket as part of a group.

Drew: Sounds like fun. When you’re not touring Manhattan on the rolling rails, you are working with agencies and helping them to grow.  And there are a lot of topics that you and I get to talk to agencies about every day. But certainly one of them that most agency owners are very focused on is, “How do I grow and scale my agency?” So let’s dig into that a little bit. Tell us a little bit about your background and how you came to be in a position where you could advise agencies on something like that.

Karl: I started in the marketing industry at an early age, starting as a web designer in high school in 1997 in the days of Netscape and Internet 3, Internet Explorer 3. And realized in retrospect I was a terrible web designer, but I enjoyed helping people solve marketing and business problems. Fast forward, I’ve run the business side of two digital agencies, and I noticed a challenge that a lot of agency owners struggle with. That is, they really will love marketing, or design, or development, or other aspects of the work, yet when they start an agency, they suddenly are in the over their head.

They’re now dealing with the challenges of running a business. They want to do marketing, but they are doing sales, and they’re doing client service, and they’re negotiating with vendors, and they’re dealing with the toilet overflowing because no one else is in charge of that. And so there’s a challenge where people have gotten into their work for a particular reason and things aren’t working out as they expected.

In my case, I am a fourth generation business owner, grew up in my family’s small business. One of my grandfathers was a business professor at Cornell for 47 years. I would hear his stories about consulting with companies, helping them make things run better. And so, ultimately for me, business just comes naturally, and as the second in command at the agencies, I was used to helping owners make things run more smoothly. In 2013, I decided to put all that together, that years of marketing experience, that experience as the head of the business side of the agencies, and that consulting experience, and launch what was then Agency Firebox is now Sakas & Company. Since then I’ve worked with clients on six continents.

Drew: Awesome. Clearly you know your way around an agency. You’ve been around for a while, even though 1997 doesn’t seem that long ago to somebody born in 1962. But let’s talk about today’s world versus the world that you entered when you started agency life. Is it harder or easier today, do you believe, to grow and scale your agency?

Karl: On one hand, clients appreciate marketing more. It’s not just buy a TV ad, or buy a newspaper ad, or buy something in the Yellow Pages. There are a lot more channels which creates opportunities for agencies. You mentioned 1962 when there were three TV networks. Marketing was challenging in some ways, but it wasn’t as noisy. When clients are trying to connect with potential clients, potential customers, there are so many options today.  And that’s where agencies come in to help clients figure out what is the best way to meet their business goals when there are millions of options.

Drew: When you think about scaling your business, what is the number one thing that an agency owner needs to wrap their head around if they’re going to scale their agency? What do they have to know in advance before they start this work?

Karl: I’m a fan of the idea of begin with the end in mind. Where do you want to go? As importantly, how do you want to get there? This is the number one question which is what kind of an agency do you want to grow? In my research, I’ve identified ultimately two ends of the continuum. If you’re an agency owner, you’re going to lean toward one way or the other. One option is high growth. If you’re looking to run a high growth agency, your goal is to grow as quickly as possible to maximize valuation so that you can sell your agency and get as good a deal as possible.

You may not be selling for a year, or 3 years, or 5 years, or 10 years, but ultimately if you’re leaning toward high growth, your goal is grow your agency typically to sell it. At the other end of the continuum is what I would call a lifestyle agency owner. A lifestyle agency owner’s number one priority is quality of life. Their goal is to make a nice salary, make profits in the business. Ultimately though, that work life balance or quality of life is the key focus. They’re not necessarily looking to sell their agency, although they might consider it if they get the right offer, but for them, their goal is to create work that they love, people they enjoy working with, client projects and retainers they enjoy doing rather than work crazy hours to sell their agency.

Ultimately most people tend to fall somewhere in the middle. Maybe they’re looking to sell but don’t want to do 100 hours a week, or they want work life balance. but again they’re open to selling. People tend to lean more one with the other, and the reason this is important is that this impacts almost every decision you’re going to make when it comes to your agency strategy and a lot of day to day things. For instance, it impacts who you’re going to hire on your team.  How you’re going to structure your marketing and sales for the agency itself.  The types of clients you’re going to work with and a number of other things. Ultimately, you need to figure out, do you lean toward high growth or lifestyle, and then go from there.

Drew: One of the things I hear from a lot of agency owners is that…and it’s the old E-Myth paradigm, they were great at baking the donuts. But then all of a sudden they own the donut shop, and now they don’t get to bake the donuts anymore. Now they’re sweeping up the back, and they’re counting the money, and they’re hiring the clerks that sell the donuts, but they don’t get to bake the donuts anymore. If someone wants the option of I want high growth because I want to sell it someday, do they still get to bake the donuts or do they have to abandon that part of the work that they love?

Karl: They may not be able to spend 100% of their time on baking donuts, but when I work with clients who are frustrated dealing with things they don’t like, I do look at, “Well, what do you want to do?” One of the things that’s most common is people enjoy doing client strategy work. That is, they can come in, create a plan for the client, and then their team can make it happen. But frequently agency owners don’t want to be sucked into the day to day client service. I met with an agency owner yesterday who’s run her agency for about 20 years, and she and her business partner split client service. They’ve got other people on the team, but the other people on the team are doing design, they’re doing development, they’re doing strategy work, and she still is doing strategy.

One of the things we were talking about is what can she do to delegate that so she is not the primary contact for most of clients. In that case, say if your goal is doing client strategy, figuring out the fun part of what your clients do and then you turn it over to your team to execute, well that’s totally doable. You do need to have someone else handling account management and project management, but then that makes it a lot more fun because your account manager is handling day to day client concerns. Your project manager is keeping things on track, and then they let you know, “Hey, it’s time to do a strategy meeting. Let’s get that scheduled.” And they’re the ones scheduling the back and forth about the meeting.

You just get to show up and do a great job, and then your team makes it all happen.

Drew: Interestingly I know a lot of agency owners that that’s sort of the role they play.  That they’re the chief strategist if you will. But one of the challenges they have is, “How do I translate that skill through the rest of my team, so that I don’t have to be the one who’s doing…?” So it’s interesting. Some people want to do that and on the flip side of it are there other agency owners that, they’re really good at it, and it’s not that they don’t like to do it, but they don’t want to be the only one who’s capable of it in their shop.

Karl: And that’s risky because if it’s the point where the client sees either one of the partners is the strategy expert, or it could be a strategist who’s an employee, they don’t want to talk to anyone else. This can be good at times. I worked with a client that one of their contacts, one of their clients. They’d gone through a bunch of contacts, and part of the reason that the agency had been around so long was that the agency’s account manager who is doing the strategy knew more about the client than any of her contacts.

Drew: Absolutely.

Karl: Not the client. It’s great for attention, but of course if she, the account manager, chose to leave that would create a problem.

Drew: Absolutely. Realistically, how realistic is it for most agencies to, do you believe, to follow the high growth model, build an asset that has value without having to stay in some sort of employment servitude for a while or whatever, and actually sell the asset and step away?

Karl: It’s all going to depend on the agency and it also depends on what your dollar goal is. For instance, I worked with a client to help ultimately to double their profit margin, get their operations sorted out, figure out how to raise their prices, and take better care of their clients and advised her as she received an acquisition offer. Although she had improved things a lot, the acquisition offer was still less than she wanted. This was still a multi-six figure offer. But from her perspective, she wanted more. And so her decision ultimately was to decline the offer.  And we’re now regrouping to identify what can she do over the next three years to get two to three times as much money as they had offered before? So again, some of it comes down to what you want. If you want millions of dollars, and your agency is not performing at that level to get that kind of valuation, it’s going to take a while.

Drew: Yep. Even the agencies that lean more towards the lifestyle, and again that doesn’t mean it’s a hobby, it’s still a viable business. But to your point, they’re not building an asset necessarily to sell, or they’re okay if they don’t sell it. One of the things at AMI we talk a lot about is getting your money out of your agency while you still own the asset, and in essence making your wealth while you’re still employed by your own agency, moving that money into something other than the agency. Because you and I both know agency owners who’ve left too much money in their agency, and when times get slow, they make bad decisions and they burn through that money pretty quickly. So getting the money out, investing other places, building up their wealth, and then they have the freedom to decide, “Do I want to build something to sell, or do I want to just let this thing wind down when I’m ready to wind down?”

Karl: It’s a parallel in some ways for parents, the question of do you save for retirement, or do you save for your kids’ college? Well, there are scholarships, but there are no scholarships for retirement. That frequently comes up. I think about the idea, I wrote an article about “Put on Your Own Oxygen Mask First.” If you don’t take care of yourself, it might be a bit much to say no one else will because typically as I’m working with agencies, people do care about each other. But when you’re the boss, oftentimes you don’t have someone to speak with. I think that’s an important value as you’ve seen with your networks where people have others they can talk to rather than feeling alone.

Drew: Yep, absolutely. Okay, so growing and scaling your agency to sell it sounds dandy, it’s hard to argue that that would not be something that everyone would go, “Yep, I want…” at least in theory without looking at how much work it is. “At least in theory, I want to do that.” In terms of growing and scaling your agency so that it is an asset to sell, what gets in the way of agencies growing and scaling their business?

Karl: Two things. One is focusing too much on single gorilla clients. If you’re getting more than 20% of your revenue from one client, you have what I call a client concentration problem. I’ve worked with clients who’ve had higher percentages than 20, and ultimately it comes down to if you’re that dependent on one client, they could choose to fire you, and suddenly all the revenue goes away which means you’re likely having to layoff team members unless you’re going to risk going out of business. When they’re big clients like that, you’re also at their mercy from a client service perspective. They know that they’re your biggest client or one of your biggest clients. Ultimately when it comes to valuation, if you’ve got these enormous clients, the acquirer is going to discount the offer because they know that, you know what? That person could leave. They could easily leave.

In fact, I was helping a client that was working to identify acquisition targets, and was walking through helping him find other agencies to acquire, and part of the outreach process once we had NDAs was looking at the client distribution. One of them there was a client that was about 40% of their business. Yeah, that was contributing to profits nicely, but that’s a risk. Speaking of profits, typically it varies, but I found big clients often are an agency’s longest term clients.  There may be the client that you had early on, and you’ve had since then. Typically, those clients aren’t as profitable because they’re grandfathered at an older rate, and you tend to over deliver. The things that you did in your first couple years probably aren’t the client service decisions you’re going to make 5, 10 years later. But it’s hard to change that with an existing client. And so ultimately those big clients hurt valuation, so that’s a challenge.

Another is how indispensable are you? If you are indispensable as the agency owner, it’s going to hurt valuation, it’s going to make it harder to sell your agency. It’s also going to make it harder when scaling your business, in general, if you’re not looking to sell. One of my clients describes the idea of…he wants to create things so that he is needed, but not necessary.

Drew: What does that look like, does he think? Or you think?

Karl: One of the things is around delegation, letting people handle what they’re best at.  Finding people to handle, from a delegation perspective, bringing people in to get things off your plate, and being clear about what the boundaries are. Leadership expert, Michael Hyatt, talks about five levels of delegation. At the lowest levels, it’s, “Go do some research and come back,” and then at higher levels it’s, “Do it and tell me about it,” and then at the very highest level it’s, “Do it and I don’t need to know about it.” Ultimately if people from a delegation perspective are at that lower level, where people are consulting you at every turn, it’s going to make it harder to sell the agency because the acquirer’s thinking, “They are necessary rather than needed.”

Drew: Okay, so what’s one thing that agency owners need to know? Let’s say they say, “You know what? Right now I am indispensable. I am the answer guy or gal. Everybody comes to me when there’s a problem.  There’s always a shadow in my doorway, and what I hear oftentimes is there’s no one inside my shop that I believe I can delegate to the point that I am not indispensable.” How do you fix that in an agency? If you’re in that spot right now?

Karl: I worked with a client recently who had that problem, and the way he perceived it initially was I want to go to Jamaica. I want to take two weeks off and I just want to go on vacation, and sit on the beach, and have fun. And he said, “But I feel like I can’t do that because not an hour goes by without someone asking me what to do or how to do it,” between clients and team members, but in particular he’s focused on the team members. And I did an audit, and I focused on why was he getting interrupted, who’s interrupting him, and how often. And for each of those, should they have interrupted him? Because sometimes when he was getting interrupted made sense.

What I found was this, it was his own fault. He had trained his team members to go to him because it turned out, as I found in doing interviews with his team members, he was always second guessing their decisions. And not only second guessing, if they made a decision that he didn’t like, he would publicly roll it back. For instance, if someone had promised something to a client and he then later decided we aren’t going to do that, the account manager had to follow up and say, “Actually we can’t do that,” which ultimately undermined the client relationship. This was a thing of his own making.

Here’s how I helped him solve that. First, I looked at what are the areas where he feels comfortable with people making their own decisions? One of them, for instance, from a client perspective, if the decision was under a certain dollar amount, they were all clear to make a decision on that themselves. If it was above that dollar amount, then they needed to consult with him. That alone reduced the number of decisions and interruptions he had because people were now making those smaller decisions themselves. And then in addition to giving them boundaries about things they could decide, the flipside is what are the things he did want to get consulted? For instance, no one would be…he didn’t want anyone signing contracts on behalf of the agency, which made sense in his particular circumstance.

Ultimately it came down to defining where are the employees free to decide, and then where are the areas that he needs to be consulted. Ultimately, he has been able to go on vacation since then, so it’s worked out.

Drew: Well, and the real rub becomes in not making the decision but keeping your mouth shut when they actually do what you’ve asked them to do.  And not second guessing even if you don’t totally agree with their decision.

Karl: That was the bonus part of that. In the areas where he said, “You can make a decision,” he agreed and told the employees that he was going to back them up. Said, “I am not going to reverse your decision.” If he disagreed, he could still let them know and let them know how he wanted them to do it in the future if it was different, but he would not go back and claw back that public decision.

Drew: Interesting. That would be a difficult pill for many agency owners to swallow as you know. I think a lot of the indispensability is of our own creation, because that’s how we did it back in the day when the agency had two, or three, or four people. And as we’ve added more people, the habits just grow, and all of a sudden now you have an agency of 20 or 30 people, and you can’t possibly be everything to everybody anymore, but you’re sort of stuck.

Karl: A lot of that comes down to where do you want to go? It’s almost a cliché around what got you here, won’t get you there. In the very same week, in fact it was back to back days, I had a coaching call with one client where we were talking about some things he could delegate, and he acknowledged he just didn’t feel comfortable delegating those. He was delegating a lot of things, but there are certain things that he didn’t want to let go of.

I had a call the next day with a client where I had recommended she hire a virtual assistant to handle some things. She had resisted delegation before, and gotten to the point where she realized, “Okay, I’ve finally got to do it.  Let me cross my fingers and take a deep breath and let me try it.” She tried it on something that was not mission critical. In our call, she was just raving about how helpful it was. In particular, this was about creating slides for an upcoming presentation she was giving at a webinar for a leading trade association. It’s a huge opportunity, and she knew what she wanted in the presentation.  She was going to present the presentation, but she did not personally need to do photo selection, or slide assembly, or things like that.

She was so excited, and these were things when we originally talked about it, she was thinking, “Oh, I don’t know if they’re going to do a good enough job.” In that case, not only did they do a good enough job, it was even better than she expected. Some of it comes down to a decision about how important is it that it happens your way versus happening and you’re not having to touch every step of it.

Drew: Absolutely. What are some of the stumbling blocks? As an agency works towards scaling and growing, and so the agency owner is trying to become less indispensable, and some of the other things that you mentioned, what are some of the common places where agencies get stuck or stumble in that growth process?

Karl: A bigger area is around time and time management. As you’re working on growing and scaling your business, ultimately there’s no end to what you could do. Time management is less about what you do and more about what you do next. That comes down to prioritization. I created a free tool on my website called the Time Bucket Template. The idea is that there are 11 categories where you can spend your time at a high level. Those high level things are project management, client strategy, long term agency strategy, recruiting, things like that. The tool, it’s a spreadsheet, lets you look at where are you spending your time now. Where do you want to be spending your time in comparison, and then what are the biggest gaps? What are the places where you need to spend significantly more time, and what are the places where you need to spend significantly less time?

Because when you’re in day to day reactive firefighting mode, it’s easy to get distracted. You’re focusing on the thing that’s at the top of your inbox, or the text that you just received from one of your team members. That doesn’t mean it’s the most important thing you should do though.  There’s the idea of the urgent versus important axis. Doing the Time Bucket Template lets you identify where should you spend your time and how can you close the gaps.

For instance, I worked with a client in Canada who was getting buried in admin work as his agency was growing. Things that it made sense for him to do a couple years before, but it didn’t make sense now. And so based on that, based on the results of doing the Time Bucket tool, I helped him identify what are the things that he could delegate. For instance, turned out his bookkeeper, there were a lot of things that she could take on that he had not been delegating. So that suddenly saved him a bunch of time. He can get his project manager more involved in the invoice process, the invoice prep, rather than him having to review every line item.

Ultimately, we’re able to identify ways to reduce his admin time. An area we want to spend more time, one of them is on team management.  Whereas his team had been growing, he was spending less and less time with each person, to the point that people were asking for feedback, and he felt like he just wasn’t available anymore. One of the solutions there was to schedule in one on ones so that he was having regular standing meetings, rather than someone needing to request a meeting to get time, or having a meeting that he then was always putting off. That automatically, by having those standing one on ones and by honoring them, one of his coaching commitments that week was to block out one on ones with his team members for the next three months so that they were on the calendar and they wouldn’t get scheduled over. That made it possible.

Another thing was around wanting to spend more time in marketing. Agencies often struggle with the shoemaker’s kids’ problem. Their client’s marketing is great, but their own marketing is terrible. I imagine you’re seeing that a lot yourself.

Drew: Absolutely right.

Karl: And one of the things was, he really enjoyed blogging, but it had been a while since he had posted anything.  And I walked him through creating what I call heads down time on his calendar. These are blocks of two to three hours on a schedule.  Some clients will do a couple of them a week.  Some will do three or four a week. And the idea is that during that heads down time, he puts away his phone, closes his email, and his team knows or they can see on the calendar, do not interrupt him unless it’s an emergency.

For clients who have assistants, usually the deal is they talk to the assistant and find out he or she will screen things before relaying them. It works really well. People are amazed by it. They’re finally getting things done. That heads down time helped solve some of the marketing gap. All of it came down to, he was uncomfortable with how things were going, but he wasn’t sure where to focus. Looking at those time buckets helped, and then we were able to dig into what specific changes to spend more or less time in a systematic way.

Drew: Yeah. I think in the work that I do at with the agency owners, I see a lot of the same things. I think a lot of agency owners take on a lot of tasks that they, at some point in the agency’s evolution, convince themselves they were the only ones you could do. And approving invoices and things like that is a great example.  That really they can put a system or a process in place that they can have confidence in, and then get that off of their plate and do more of what you call heads down time. That’s a technique that I teach in our AE boot camps too.

I think we’re such slaves to that email dinging at us and that cell phone text messaging that when I tell account service folks, “One of things I want you do when you go back to your office is I want you to turn off your email notifications so that you can manually get email.” Some of them have to put their head between their knees. They are so uncomfortable with the idea, but you know what? The reality is for all of us in the agency business, our attention is so fragmented that if we don’t find ways, and this is true for everybody from the owner all the way down. If we don’t find ways to bucket or batch that time to get big chunks of work done and to be able to think, then we end up just being somebody who’s ticking things off a to do list, but we’re not really thinking on behalf of either our agency or our clients.

Drew: No one will defend your time but you.

Karl: Absolutely. I agree.

Drew: Okay, so those are a couple things that sort of get in the way of scaling your business. Anything else that is a stumbling block that agency owners should watch out for that you can think of?

Karl: I think certainly a lot of it will vary by agency. Ultimately though, I think a lot of it is focus on the things you like doing, and identify ways to delegate the things you don’t want to do, or things that just aren’t a good match. For instance, my accountant prepares my annual tax return. I could learn how to do all of the taxes, but you know what? For $400, it’s worth it for her to do it once a year, and I don’t have to worry about it.

Drew: Yeah. I think many agency owners feel like they have to be involved in everything, and the reality is if you want to scale beyond…I’m curious your number, but in my world, it’s probably 6, 8, 10 employees, you can’t possibly do it all anymore.

Karl: I think that’s about the range, and that’s also a similar range when agencies need to switch if they want to grow. Need to switch from a functional team approach to an account management approach.  Functional where you have a designer who’s also doing client service or a strategist who’s also doing project management of their work and others work. When you’re smaller than 8 to 12 people, you’ve got to have those combined roles because you can’t afford to have a dedicated strategy person, a dedicated design only person, a dedicated account or project manager.

So that’s a challenge, but as you grow, if you want to grow beyond that, you’re going to shift from that functional approach to having people specialize. Specialize in either a subject matter expertise area, design, development, strategy, writing, so on. Having account managers who are focused on keeping the clients happy and up selling them more work, and project managers who keep projects and retainers running smoothly. If you aren’t going to make that change, you’re not going to grow.

Drew: I’m curious and I’ve got a formula for this, but I’m curious, if an agency owner is building their agency to sell, so they recognize that they should not be indispensable to the day to day operations of the agency, how would you prescribe they spend their time? In what big buckets on behalf of the agency should they invest their effort and focus?

Karl: In fact, this is a recent topic from the INBOUND Conference, speaking on “Scale to Win: How to Grow Your Agency without Breaking.” If your goal is growth, and ultimately selling, you need to focus your time on strategic things that are going to grow or build your agency.  So, that may include things like sales, bringing in new clients, but also include things I would define more loosely as business development. Things to raise your agency’s profile in the community. So things like public speaking, things like identifying other agencies to partner with from a referral perspective.

A lot of my clients have referral programs where they refer clients back and forth with other agencies, so if something either isn’t a match for them or maybe they’re at capacity they can’t take it, they’ll refer the business back and forth. Making those partnerships is more important. The idea is that having an hour for lunch with a potential referral partner, if your goal is to grow, that’s a way better return on investment than spending an hour replying to emails.

Drew: Okay. Awesome. As I warned you before we started recording, one of my pet peeves is when any speaker, or book, or anybody talks all about theory but doesn’t get down to tangible action items. And so I want to end every podcast with, “Here are two or three things, agency owners, you can go do if you want,” whatever the topic is. So in our case, in the conversation we’ve been having, and I think you’ve already given them lots of tangible things, but I want to kind of tie it up with a bow for folks. If folks want to grow and scale their agency with the vision of building an asset to sell, what are two or three things they should be doing right now to get themselves on that right path?

Karl: I love concrete things. As a former project manager, it’s hard to get away from that. I also grew up as the oldest of five kids. My parents were both career army officers.

Drew: Oh yeah. You’re used to orders.

Karl: Yes. Dad went to West Point, and ultimately if anything, now it was like Sound of Music with whistle signals and uniforms and such. But certainly a focus on what is going to get the best result. I would focus on two things. This comes down to time management.  And although time management is not the end all, be all thing to save things, if you don’t spend your time well, you’re not going to be getting the right things done. My focus would be two things, one, strategically do the Time Bucket tool. I can share a link for that so you can share that with people…

Drew: Great. We’ll put it in the show notes. Yep, that will be great. (You can also get it here)

Karl: Awesome. Free tool, and figure out where should you spend your time. Again, if you’re focusing on growth and scaling your business, focus on things that are going to build agency, so business development, long term strategy, I would also include recruiting. The sooner you get good people on your team, the sooner you don’t have to do those things yourself. Recruiting is important. So do that to identify strategically where should you spend your time. And if you’re more lifestyle oriented, it maybe more about day to day keeping things running smoothly, but again focusing on long term things in the Time Bucket.

The second thing, and this gets more tactical with your time, but that’s ultimately where the rubber meets the road, do what I call a calendar review. And that is look at your calendar, and identify what are the things you can drop, delegate, or defer? Those labels come from the getting things done methodology. I don’t follow that completely, but the idea of drop, delegate, defer makes a lot of sense. What I found is when I walk clients through that exercise, they can typically find between 2 and 10 hours a week, in time savings which…

Drew: Is huge.

Karl: When you multiply it over every week, 2 to 10 hours a week, that’s 100 to 500 hours a year. Imagine what you could get done, either strategically to build your agency, or to go home earlier rather than…

Drew: Or hang out on that beach in Jamaica.

Karl: Exactly. The time has to come from somewhere. Do the calendar review of what can you drop, delegate, or refer, and it may make sense to recruit one of your team members to walk you through that. Basically you have to say, “Here’s the calendar,” and they’re like, “Well, why are you having that meeting?” or, “Does that have to happen here?” “Does that have to happen there?” “Could someone else handle that?” Because it’s hard to do a calendar review on your own calendar.

Drew: Sure. You need someone to challenge you a little bit.

Karl: Exactly. When I give my time management talk, I share a hypothetical calendar. The hypothetical calendar is for someone who’s a total control freak, and people will be like, “Oh, crazy that they’re doing all this or that.” The point though is it’s easier to look at someone else’s calendar than your own. It may make sense to get help to do a calendar review.

Drew: Okay, awesome. Last thoughts, anything that you want to…a parting thought you want to leave with agency owners and leaders who are listening to the podcast around this whole notion of growing and scaling?

Karl: It is unlikely to happen by accident. You could cross your fingers, and maybe it will happen, but I don’t think that’s a good way to live life or run a business, surely not about important things. And so around the being intentional, choose where you want to go, and figure out how you’re going to get there, and get people to help you get there faster. And that’s way more likely to work out than crossing your fingers and hoping it’ll work.

Drew: Absolutely, and an addendum to that, it’s not something you decide when you’re 62. This takes a long time to build and prepare to get ready to be in that final stage. So you need to be thinking about it much earlier than you think you’re going to retire, or sell, or whatever it is you want to do, correct?

Karl: Oh, yeah. Thinking of the client who got the acquisition offer, and it wasn’t as much as she wanted. At this point she’s in her early 40s. She has plenty of time. If she were right about to retire, and this wasn’t the offer she needed, she would be in big trouble. She has that extra runway.

Drew: Well, because if she was in her 60s and she was mentally, and physically, and emotionally done, she may have taken that offer simply because it was the only offer on the table.

Karl: Right. Which is understandable but you want choices.

Drew: Absolutely. For a lot of agency owners at the end of the road, if they haven’t thought about this stuff in advance, there is no offer at the table. Now they have no choices. Yeah, awesome. Karl, as I knew it would be, this was awesome. Thank you so much for your time. I know you’re crazy busy. So I appreciate you spending some time with us, and give everybody some ways that they can reach out to you and find you.

Karl: Absolutely. My name’s Karl Sakas, K-A-R-L S-A-K-A-S. My business is Sakas & Company. Website there is Sakas, S-A-K-A-S, S in Sam, A-N-D Company.com (http://sakasandcompany.com/) I’m based in Raleigh, North Carolina, worked with clients all over the U.S. and all over the world in a variety of ways. Helping people with operations, strategy, and leadership, help them grow without the usual growing pains. I have a lot of free resources on my website, over 100 articles on agency management, all sorts of topics. I also have a free e-book that people can get if they sign up for my email newsletter. The e-book is called “Don’t Just Make the Logo Bigger: Taking Clients from Painful to Profitable.” Get some good feedback about that. People mention, I’ve printed it out, I’ve shared copies with everyone on my team. That kind of thing can make a big difference.

To get a copy of that, sign up for my newsletter, if you go to Sakasandcompany.com, there is a newsletter sign up, you’ll get an immediate copy via PDF, and then updates twice a month.

Drew: Awesome. Well, thank you very much for your time and sharing your expertise on growing and scaling your business. I know that everybody probably was taking frantic notes and hopefully they will follow your good counsel and build bigger, stronger agencies.

Karl: Great to be here. Thanks, Drew.

Drew: You bet. Thank you.

That’s all for this episode of Build a Better Agency. Be sure to visit agencymanagementinstitute.com to learn more about our workshops and other ways we serve small to mid-sized agencies. While you’re there, sign up for our e-newsletter, grab our free e-book, and check out the blog. Growing a bigger, better agency that makes more money, attracts bigger clients, and doesn’t consume your life, is possible here on Build a Better Agency.