There's a certain sort of audacity that comes along with being an entrepreneur of any kind. You're wading into a situation where statistics say the odds are already against you. In so doing, you're saying you believe in yourself enough to take risks few people will take, or want to take, in the hopes of seeing huge returns later.
There's even more audacity involved when you're talking about launching a digital marketing agency or consultancy. Our marketplace is crowded, trust in our industry isn't always that high, and accounts on the "right way" to do just about anything vary.
Of course, building an agency that lasts takes more than audacity. If you're going to be one of the lucky few who launches an agency capable of surviving, you're going to have to have, grow, or develop other qualities. Here are the twelve that matter the most.
Success Quality #1: The Ability to Delegate
"I wish I'd been able to learn how to let go, delegate, and keep myself out of the nitty gritty awhile ago," admits Steve Ryan, Founder and CEO of RyTech. "I've done it more recently and the results have been great. Letting go isn't easy when it's your brand, your business, and your reputation, but it's necessary in order to grow, develop, and evolve as a business."
Start in two places: the things you're bad at and the necessary-but-basic tasks that clutter up your day. This leaves you free to focus on your strengths, and on what's important.
Running a solo shop? Don't have people to delegate to? Look into inexpensive services and software that can do the job for you. Don't forget that delegation also extends to your personal life. If hiring a cleaning service will make you feel happier and more productive then it could be money well spent.
Success Quality #2: A Healthy Dose of Hustle
If you'd rather spend your days analyzing site data and writing content than talking to people, you're not alone. But if you want to run your own agency you're going to have to get comfortable with taking on an Account Executive's role.
"You are your own salesperson, doing your best to drum up business and convince people to sign on with you," says Carlo Barajas, Founder of Surface SEO, LLC. "During your client engagements, you must also be good at customer service and account management, because you will need to keep the client updated and happy throughout the contract."
All three of these functions are handled by Account Executives in larger organizations. If you hate this kind of work, earmark it as one of the first hires you'll be making. Just recognize you'll have to do it until you have enough money to make that hire.
Success Quality #3: Relationship Building
Hustle gets your foot in the door. Relationships keep you in the house.
"Create positive touch points to keep clients informed on the status of campaigns by building in regular reporting," says Tyler Roberts, Co-Founder of NOMOS Marketing. "Showing your clients what you're doing behind the scenes can go a long way towards making them feel comfortable about the progress of their campaigns."
He also suggests you don't stop there. "You have to find unique ways to surprise your clients, too."
Remember, clients are not saturated in SEO, social, and content the way we are. They've probably worked with quite a few agencies before they came to you. They're wary of getting burned again, don't always get the results they want despite anyone's best efforts, and are constantly afraid they're not getting value for their money.
If you can't build the relationship and earn their trust, they'll move on soon enough.
For more on this topic, see: 6 Ways to Improve Agency Communication with Clients.
Success Quality #4: The Ability to KISS
"You need the ability to simplify complicated concepts and to correlate marketing actions to business outcomes," notes Brian Cauble of Smart Traffic Consulting. "Being able to explain things clearly, without the jargon, and to set goals we can use for accountability is something many digital marketers struggle with."
He also warns marketers away from focusing on "vanity metrics" like page views or site visits. He urges them to focus on cost per lead and the value the client has acquired, instead.
After all, these are the only numbers your client really cares about. They probably should be the only numbers you worry about, too.
Success Quality #5: The Power to FCO
Joe Goldstein, Director of SEO at Contractor Calls, says "The ability to figure crap out is by far the most important skill for running an agency. There is no chance you'll know everything you need for your first year in business, and less chance you'll have time to learn it. Being able to figure it out anyway separates the winners from the losers."
It's not just about learning what you need to learn, either. Problem solving is a big part of providing value to any client. Sometimes that means coming up with unconventional solutions. These "lessons" translate into insights that aren't always easy to articulate or to label, but which nevertheless contribute to your long-term success.
"Your agency isn't generating enough leads for sustainable growth? You need to solve this," adds Jeremy Lawlor, co-founder of Active Business Growth. "Your agency has a high client turnover rate? You need to solve this. You accidentally charged a client's credit card twice? You need to solve this, too."
Or, as Rohit Bagaria wrote in an Entrepreneur article once:
"Entrepreneurship is like jumping off a cliff and figuring out how to build an airplane on the way down."
No pressure or anything.
Success Quality #6: Confidence, of the appearance of confidence
Audacity doesn't always equal confidence. It's more than possible to launch yourself into the fray only to end up with a solid case of impostor syndrome once some projects start landing on your desk.
Growing your confidence in your ability to deliver is absolutely critical, says Jack Petry, a business coach and growth strategist. "At least 80% of your success is due to what's going on between your two ears. To thrive, you must revere yourself and your skillset."
Full disclosure: revere seems like a pretty high standard to me.
At least 90% of the time I've spent on some of my most successful projects has been spent talking myself around to the idea that I wouldn't screw it up somehow. As in yes, I've literally spent 9 hours stressing over some project, only to find it took me a single hour to actually do the dadgum work.
Trust may be as good as it gets.
And when you can't manage trust, fake it till you make it works pretty good. Still, you've gotta have something in the confidence department to say "yes" at all, especially if you're getting offered bigger opportunities than you've seized in the past.
One thing that helps me? Realizing I'm not the only one who feels this way. Some of the most brilliant, talented, and interesting marketers I've spoken to—folks whose expertise is well-known throughout every corner of our industry—have admitted that they feel impostor syndrome too.
Want to learn more about building confidence in your own abilities? Check out: Social Selling, Pricing, and Coming to Grips With Imposter Syndrome, an interview with Ashley Beaudoin of Untap Social.
Success Quality #7: Logic
"Everyone involved needs to have the ability to keep emotions from clouding the decision-making process," says Stephan Noack, who owns AdGeeks.
He also emphasizes the ability to keep a cool head when clients are panicking. "Clients will often jump the gun on a newly created campaign, requesting that it be turned off well before the campaign has had a chance to optimize."
Someone who reacts emotionally might feel pressured to do so immediately, might agonize over what they did wrong, and might be afraid to gently push back.
Someone who reacts logically will reach for the data, Noack points out. Data can help you make your case to your clients. It can help you keep making good decisions on their behalf.
You just need the clear head that helps you take advantage of it.
Success Quality #8: Empathy
Sorry, Mr. Spock. You've gotta consult your right brain, too.
"You need the ability to see things clearly from the client's perspective," says David Pagotto of SIXGUN. He points out that this is the skill that keeps your agency client-focused.
If your agency isn't client-focused, you're in trouble, because clients are the only reason why they're there.
By exercising empathy, you can anticipate needs and concerns before they arise, which allows you to build processes and policies to prevent problems...a nice alternative to responding to fire after fire as they ignite.
Success Quality #9: Organization
"There are a lot of elements that have to come together in order to make your agency a success, and you need to be able to properly strategize, plan, and execute in order to meet your goals," notes Arielle Kimbarovsky, a solo consultant.
These zillions of moving parts are probably why many of the marketers I know are still up working at midnight on a Saturday. But there's more to it than knocking out tasks.
"Staying organized is also how you keep track of the success of your teams, clients, and overall business growth. You'll always have creative, technical folks itching to start digital agencies, but if they're too chaotic to see the future, they won't succeed," Kimbarovsky adds.
Success Quality #10: Process Development
You've probably heard that it's often more important to work on the business than it is to work in the business. That's what process development is all about.
"The process is the key to running an agency," says Oliver Mamet, Director and Owner of Sandbox. "You need to exercise discipline and self-reflection every couple of months or so, taking the time to better the process."
Process is where the problem solving happens. How you communicate with clients is a process. Onboarding is a process. You can develop processes for managing your teams. If you don't have any active problems to solve, you can anticipate problems that might arise, developing processes to handle those. Or you can simply improve things that could be better.
If you aren't taking the time to really sit down and create these, you've put together a job, not an agency. A stressful job, at that.
Success Quality #11: Assertiveness
"You need it to negotiate prices and rates," says Katarzyna Iwanich, Co-Founder of Insightland.org. "You should be able to settle on the contract, and all aspects of it should feel right for you. The inability to be assertive sometimes creates nightmares for agencies."
She also notes that this is a skill you need to avoid taking on clients you shouldn't do business with in the first place.
Failing to do that can create some real disasters. Couple those disasters with clients who want to low-ball you and then tell you how to do your job, and you're setting yourself up for burnout and your agency up for failure.
Success Quality #12: Tenacity
This quality came up so many times among the various marketers that weighed in that I couldn't pick just one person to attribute it to. Nothing anybody said about it was profound, exactly. It just kept coming up in passing, a sort of rueful nod to something you can't exactly cultivate. You're either pushing through, or you aren't.
Stuff goes wrong. Your agency might not grow as fast as you want it to. Cash flow issues will keep you up at night. If you aren't stubborn as all get-out you're going to end up throwing in the towel.
The good news? This tenacity thing might just carry you through even if you've got significant weaknesses in every other quality, earning you the time to grow and improve while allowing you to continue doing this thing you love.
"Perseverantia omnia vincit deo volente." Perseverance conquers all, God willing.