As 2015 winds down for ST!R, we’re taking stock of events that occurred this year, why they happened, how we reacted and what we learned along the way. In 2014, we were rolling along with a mix of large and small clients, but not as diverse or particularly safe a mix to which we probably should have aspired. The large accounts helped ST!R grow, but took a tremendous amount of our attention and energy.
Our clients still got love, but resources were tight. We run a lean operation, and everyone had to pull heavy loads to keep projects running smoothly and to remain responsive to each client’s needs. Admittedly, we got a bit out of balance, and it caught up with us.
In 2015, what often occurs at boutique agencies happened: a big client went away. Not just for us, I found out later, but for many agencies that relied on them to make payroll, rent and more. We were given 48 hours notice to turn over our files for every active project — 37 in our case, plus many more archived files.
At dinner with two other agency owners a few weeks ago, I shared how the loss of this particular client had shaken my faith in my approach to business development and client management. One CEO, whom I’ve admired for a long time, told me how this same kind of experience forced her to re-evaluate and reinvent her agency — resulting in a much stronger organization.
She also encouraged me to keep going, even though it was tough. That discussion made me realize I wasn’t alone and, while new to me, this situation was hardly unique. So for you entrepreneurs who may not have the privilege of sharing the ups-and-downs with peers who have “been there, done that,” here are six lessons I learned from the highs and lows of 2015 at ST!R:
- Keep your team lean. In 2014, I added more staff in response to the addition of my new client. I provided staffers with additional benefits and gave myself a healthy salary so I could put away money for personal goals. I also socked money away for the business. As a result, when the big client left I could cut my salary in half and survive. I had to lay off two good people, which was difficult because I felt that I’d let them down, and I also asked my remaining staff to wait on raises. Thankfully, my team believes in me and what we’re doing at ST!R, and they’re confident that the best days are still in front of us.
- Get — and stay — financially healthy. No matter how well things are going now, ensure your credit is good and you have a line of credit to fall back on, just in case. Socking that money away last year paid off, and we are ending 2015 in the black, with no debt and an untapped line of credit. Growth is a blessing but, if not managed properly, can cause your business to fail.
- Always be in “biz dev” mode. To a certain point, I had relied on word of mouth for new business, and we were focused so much on the big client that I didn’t network to cultivate new relationships and new business as much as I should have. When that client went away, I scrambled to ramp up my networking, which will never happen again. Invest in the future of your business by networking. It takes time, but the return is well worth it. I’ve trusted my team to manage ST!R’s day-to-day operations while I made business development and networking my priority. And it’s paying off — ST!R has been asked to submit proposals for a variety of projects now under consideration and we have a robust pipeline as we enter 2016.
- Focus on what makes you great and why you’re the best at what you do. Sometimes it’s tempting to say you have experience in a particular industry when you don’t. You may have worked in areas over and around it, but potential clients can tell with a couple of good, probing questions whether or not you’re the right fit. Instead of trying to be all things to all people, focus on your passions and your very best skills.
- Get all the experience you can pay for. At ST!R, I hire only seasoned professionals for my team. I may have had to pay more to bring them on, but they have deep, broad skills in a multitude of industries. I can put the right people on the right client team without hesitation, and the client is comfortable because the team lead speaks their language. That builds trust, which in turn builds repeat business.
- Continue to invest in marketing your own company. I have always been surprised at companies that cut their marketing team when things get tough — how will anyone know why they should buy from the company? How will the company name stay in front of prospects? How can you downshift on corporate communications when the tough times are when your voice needs to be loudest?
However, at one point this year, I looked at my P&L and considered not taking advantage of an opportunity to market ST!R at an event guaranteed to provide quality leads. “I can’t afford it,” I first thought, then marveled that I was considering exactly what I’d recommended AGAINST my whole career! When times get tough is when you need to step up your marketing. So I made the investment and have prospective client meetings on the books as a result.
As 2016 approaches, ST!R is riding out the rapids and moving into smoother waters. We have a more solid company — and a greater understanding of our strengths. We’ve learned to be more creative for ourselves, which only makes us more creative for our clients. And I’ve bonded more closely with my friends, my team and my clients. Together they are family, cheerleaders, truth-tellers and friends for ST!R and me. As I look back on 2015, I am grateful for these lessons and look forward to what 2016 has in store.
What are you thinking about as 2015 draws to a close? Have you climbed high or sunk low? What did you learn that made a difference in your business this year? Tell us by replying to @stir-stories on Twitter, or through LinkedIn in the “comments” section of this blog.
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