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6 Lessons Learned From Growing An Agency From 0 To £3m ARR

Antonio Wedral from NovosAntonio Wedral in Team

20th January, 2022

We’ve had such incredible growth since we properly launched the agency in 2019. Most of the time, people see the “good” side of growth – the growth in people, sales, awards. Rarely though, do we see the “difficult” side of growth, which is what I want to address in this post so it helps others building teams and businesses to set manageable expectations. 

For full transparency too, this was the first business Sam and I had created. We’ve dabbled with a few ideas prior to NOVOS, but this was our first real go at launching a company, so we’ve really had to just learn as we go.

Lesson #1: Take security & organisation seriously

Picture this: you’re a 3-month-old business, and the 2 business partners that have managed to secure a handful of great clients and contracts are still working full-time jobs as well. One morning, one of the co-founders (*cough yes me*) goes into Google Admin to make a change to a setting related to Google Drive. It’s a seemingly harmless change that did the job that was desired.

5 minutes later, you try to access your emails and you get the message “This Google Account does not exist”. So you try Drive, and you get the same message. Then,  panic sets in because your entire business is within Google Drive. The client work, the monetary contracts, the business’ own incorporation documents – the lot, just gone in an instant.

Long story short, after an hour of panic and trying everything we can, Google was able to reinstate the Google account. It was then that we started backing everything up regularly, making sure we had a plan B and ensuring all settings in Google Admin were how we wanted them, and changes couldn’t be made.

In general, when all you’re thinking about is sales, making money and how to grow the business, the last thing you think about is how to have a secure and backed-up business. Don’t make it the last thing, make it one of the first!

Lesson #2: Client fit is more important than money or brand

Every agency has a dream client list, which likely features some of the world’s biggest brands. However, as you scale, and more importantly to be able to scale in the first place, finding the right client fits are more important than anything else. 

It doesn’t matter how large the budget is or how big the brand is, you need to see if they fit your way of working and that, mutually, you could have a great relationship. 

In most cases, you’ll just know. The way the client has communicated with you throughout the sales process will give you a great indication. However, you’ll need to know who your target client is for this to work.

We have a really extensive document outlining exactly who our target and ideal client is and what they look like as a business, including job titles etc. This already allows us to qualify if a client could be a good fit just by following this. The next step is to see if culturally we work well together, keeping tabs throughout the pitch process and, where possible, having a “gelling session” where you meet some more of the stakeholders just before an agreement is signed. 

Short term, you may want as much business as possible and will take whatever you can, and we certainly did this in the early days. As you grow, you’ll realise that a client fit is far more important and will become confident in turning more business away than you actually convert.

Lesson #3: Manage your money

We’re bootstrapped and always have been. We made a decision early on not to seek any kind of investment and only grow the business as and when the growth in clients allowed us to. This meant that we had to be very good and careful at managing money because every investment we made was a risk as it was always our money.

 

One thing we did as a business was set up multiple different bank accounts for different purposes. For example:

  • A tax account
  • A VAT account
  • A costs account
  • A current account
  • In the early days, we even had a Profit account

What this allowed us to do, was move money to different places as needed each month. So, we were able to keep on top of things, and never lacked understanding of how much we truly had to be able to invest. 

The number of business owners I know and have met that get to January and say, “this month is tight, we’ve got the tax bill to pay” always amazes me. Or even “VAT is due this month so, I may pay a bit slower”. There are essentials that, as a company, you have to adhere to – paying taxes is one of them and will always happen. As a result, we always kept that separate and topped up the account as needed, so when it came to paying tax, it’s never an issue, and we’re on time. 

Over time, we don’t have as many accounts anymore, but we still separate what’s needed in what pot and move things around every month to make sure we have enough for everything. If there’s one thing you can do to secure your business and make it better, it’s to learn about money, how to manage it as a business and then do what works for you in the early days.

Lesson #4: Recruitment > everything

In the early days, I think we definitely took recruitment for granted. We thought if you publish a job ad, conduct a few interviews, choose someone, then bang, it’s done, and they’ll be perfect. 

In general, I always say the one thing I’m proudest of with NOVOS is how well we’ve recruited since the beginning. I’ll give a special shoutout here to James Congdon too, who’s helped us find the right talent over time. But it’s always something I think we take for granted, just how good we’ve been. 

We have a rigorous recruitment process here. A job description is written up by the relevant team members and then is heavily edited and proofed by the leadership team to cover everything we need. We’re transparent about pay, as it leads to more applications and we’re also transparent about benefits.

We’ll place ads on all online boards, James will also headhunt for us, and we share across social platforms. 

Once we get applications in, these are all carefully reviewed. Successful applicants make it to the initial screening interview, which is an informal chat about their experience and desires moving forward to see if they would be a cultural fit. If an applicant gets past this stage, then the next stage is task-based to see how well someone can do an example task everyone at NOVOS will have done in the past. Finally, if needed, there is a third stage. This is another chat, but with a couple of others from a different team, which is again a cultural-fit test.

This really helps to make sure we hire the right people but equally, the people feel like they’ve joined the right company for them. Far too often, I’ve seen companies fall down because they rushed recruitment, and it just isn’t a good fit either way.

We’ve not been perfect too, we’ve had our fair share of team members who just weren’t the right fit for NOVOS, but you need this to happen to know what you are looking for. Nail your recruitment process early, and you’ll nail the rest thereafter.

Lesson #5: Culture is collective, not individual

This leads me nicely to this lesson. Culture is often talked about as something “you need to get right” or “find the right person” for. The reason we make cultural fit such a large aspect of the recruitment process isn’t based on the level of “are they the right fit for culture?” but rather, on a wider team level of “will they be able to add to the culture at NOVOS and enhance the rest of the team?”

Culture is ultimately a collection of people and the development of these people as a group. What we always thought culture could be at NOVOS in the early days, has been tweaked with every person that has joined the agency. But, what has stayed consistent is the general beliefs, values and work ethic of everyone. 

Every person has something new to add to enhance the culture of the agency and they all share similar traits that allow them to work well with the team and make the agency even better. 

Don’t focus too much on “this is what you want the culture to be like”. Understand what values are important to you, stick to them and accept that everyone will bring their own personality to your business which will only enhance your culture and efficiency further.

Lesson #6: You will need to adapt your own role

Finally, this one is crucial to be aware of. No matter what your role is in the company (a founder or a senior), you will have to adapt to the business over time as much as you can.

What I do now, is very different to what I did 3 years ago when we launched. My role is very different, and this isn’t new – it’s changed probably every 6 months or so. 

You need to identify your strengths and weaknesses as the business around you grows. You’ll really understand what you also like and don’t like – focus more on what you like. What you don’t like, either delegate or split these roles with another member of the leadership team if you have one.

My role has gone from doing content strategies for clients and running the business simultaneously every day, to now more of an Operations role where I oversee all the core functions of the business day-to-day and make sure that NOVOS is a great place to work and is delivering to a high standard. I’ve also understood my core strengths and weaknesses and am able to work on these in sprints.

My Co-founder Sam and I recently did this where we outlined what our roles are now and need to be to take the business to the next level. We identified each other’s strengths and weaknesses and built the roles out from there, which has worked really well for us since.

Be open to change and also be aware – just because you’re a founder, doesn’t mean you can be a CEO or a COO. If you can have the awareness to know what you can and can’t do right now and keep adapting your role from there, you’ll constantly improve yourself alongside the growth of the business.


 

To conclude, lessons are learned every day. From people problems to client problems to money problems – there is always something, and that’s the beauty of business, a day is never the same, and there are a lot of opportunities to grow. 

If you’re open to making mistakes and see that as opportunities, the business will thrive, and so will you.

I’d like to give a massive thank you to everyone at NOVOS, from my co-founder Sam to Dan and Olivia, our leadership team and the rest of the agency for helping us build a fantastic company. Everyone’s played a huge part in working through the cracks and growing pains, and it’s what makes us such a fantastic team.

Antonio Wedral from Novos
Article by Antonio Wedral
Antonio is the co-founder and COO of NOVOS. Before setting up NOVOS, Antonio led the digital growth at luxury men’s publication Gentleman’s Journal where he brought value from declining print sales to huge online subscription revenue growth. Antonio’s also worked agency-side on multiple award-winning campaigns.

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