The following are a few reflections building a new business over the past year. These reflections are primarily from my point-of-view and do not necessarily reflect the views of my partners: Any shortcomings in these reflections should be attributed to me; any stellar insight was likely a contribution by my partners. If you’re interested in the perspective of the entire team, check out the podcast episode below.
About a year ago I helped co-found a paid advertising agency, Till Agency, with two friends of mine, Jesse Morquecho and Ryan Akins. It has been the fastest-growing service-based business that I have ever helped build. Over this last year, we have brought on dozens of clients, doubled the size of our team, and expanded our services.
This is not the first business any of us have built, and each of us is running at least one other business alongside Till. While it might be easy to write off any success we’ve had as natural since we’ve all built and run successful businesses in the past, that wouldn’t be a fair judgment.
Yes, past business experience does help, but it doesn’t guarantee success. All three of us have built businesses in the past that either didn’t go as well as we’d hoped, failed, or didn’t get off the ground. Those less-than-stellar experiences have been just as helpful in building Till as our more positive experiences.
Another quick note before we dive in: This is not a proclamation of success. We had a great year, but we are still very much starting up. This is simply a reflection on what went well this past year, which we hope is helpful to you.
7 Reasons Till Grew Quickly
This post will focus on the elements that have contributed to our initial success. We have learned plenty from mistakes over the past year, but we’ll save that for another post.
1. Relationships Make a Difference.
When we started Till, we reached out to most of our networks to let people know. This is one area where having built relationships through other businesses in the past really helped us kickstart this business.
We were very cognizant of the “if you build it, they will come” trap that many new businesses fall into. As soon as we had any sort of results to share with people, we reached out to everyone we knew to share about what we were doing.
While we didn’t ask for business explicitly, we did…
- Tell people about our new business: Explained what we were doing, who we were doing it for, and introduced the partners.
- Shared about the results we were getting: This can be tricky when starting a new business, but you need less than you think to get started. We shared positive results from our one and only client and leaned heavily on our experience running ads for our own businesses.
- Asked for referrals: We gently mentioned that we would be grateful for any referrals if they knew of anyone interested in running Facebook ads.
This simple exercise resulted in quite a few referrals and further inquiries from many of the people we emailed.
2. There’s a lot of “excess” that doesn’t really matter, so we did our best to apply Pareto’s Principle (the 80/20 rule).
People will tell you that you must have certain things in place before launching a business…
Have you built the perfect website?
Do you have a presence on social media?
Have you started an email list?
Each of those things is important, but they’re not necessary for starting a business. We know this because we launched Till with a simple landing page, no social media accounts, and zero email list or paid advertising.
Anytime we had an idea, we critically examined whether or not it would get us closer to where we wanted to go. Basically, was something that would result in additional clients or improved results for current clients? If so, we gave it a shot; if not, we passed.
We also didn’t go investing in a dozen tools that we thought we might need in the future. Instead, we bought tools as we needed them.
This approach allowed us to stay lean so we could make quick moves as things changed. And things do change, especially during the first year of business. For instance, the type of client we’re working on didn’t exactly match the type of client we thought we’d be serving. Since we didn’t invest a ton of time and money into our current website, we have the flexibility of making the appropriate adjustments without feeling stretched.
3. Choose Partners with similar values and complementing personalities and strengths.
Partnerships are challenging. Dave Ramsey says partnerships are “the only ship that won’t sail.”
We all have been part of previous partnerships before so we’re aware of the challenges partnerships present. This was helpful as we crafted our operating agreement—more on that in a minute.
There were a few specific things that made us willing to enter into a partnership despite those challenges:
We generally believe and value the same things about life and business. All three of us share a similar worldview and are in similar seasons of life. Each of us runs another business with a spouse and has a young kid at home.
We each have similar visions for what we wanted Till to become. This was an important conversation prior to signing on together. We each wanted Till to be more than the product and service that we delivered. You can learn a little more about this on the Till website.
Each of us has different, yet complementary strengths and personalities. While all three of us really enjoy paid advertising, we enjoy different aspects of it and have different strengths when it comes to creating and implementing campaigns. We dive into this a bit more in the podcast episode associated with this post.
None of this is to suggest that this is the definitive criteria for making partnerships work, but we have found those three elements to be helpful as we’ve navigated this first year of business.
4. Have tough conversations that bring support and challenge.
Communicating effectively is a crucial component in making a partnership (and business) work. We had conversations for at least a month prior to forming this business to discern whether we might be able to make Till work, and we all agreed on certain benchmarks that we wanted to see within the first year.
On an ongoing basis, we all feel comfortable speaking up when something’s on our mind (apparently Jesse feels I’m especially good at that ? —you’ll have to listen to the podcast to catch more on that). Our disagreements are almost always productive as they lead to even better ideas than the ones we initially develop.
We’ve worked hard to build a team culture where we can bring things up and sort out differences.
5. Build a Team Before You Need One
We never let things get to a point where we were so busy our time was maxed out. This ended up being really important because we got busy quick. Had we not brought on various team members, there would have likely been delays in client work along the way.
In addition to preventing bottlenecks in client work, bringing on additional team members let us focus on growth activities. We would have never had time, for instance, to document systems and procedures (see below for more on that) without building a team.
‘Davey & Krista’ ended up being a helpful resource in building our team at Till. One member of our team interviewed for a position at Davey & Krista, but I flagged her as a better fit for the work we were doing at Till. And we were able to bring on a talented designer through an introduction via one of our designers at ‘Davey & Krista.’
Just to be clear: We’re not suggesting that it’s wise to hire people before your business is ready to support those people.
6. “Do Things that Don’t Scale.”
“Do things that don’t scale” is advice that Y-Combinator co-founder Paul Graham gives to start-ups that he works with. He pushes back against the common misperception that start-ups either “take off or don’t.” Instead, he compares it to the “cranks that car engines had before they got electric starters. Once the engine was going, it would keep going, but there was a separate and laborious process to get it going.”
(If you have the time, you should definitely read that article. I like to think that we’ve applied many of the ideas outlined in his article on the subject; however, there are, for sure, some things we would have done well to heed).
We haven’t been shy in sharing about the Till Agency and reaching out to people individually to see if we might be able to serve them, which helped us secure our first ten or so clients. Since then, we haven’t had to rely as much on individual outreach since we’re getting client referrals.
Something else we’ve done is to go above-and-beyond for clients in ways we know we likely won’t be able to at scale. This might be completing a client request that isn’t included in the scope of the project or doing a little something extra because we have the opportunity to do so. As a result, we’ve had some happy clients who have recommended us to others.
It can be a bit of a balancing act doing extra work for clients when it comes to managing expectations, and some clients don’t notice the extra work we do for them, which can be frustrating. But all-in-all, we found this to be an important part of building Till over the last year.
7. Build Systems and Document Procedures From the Beginning
I really can’t take much credit on this front—at least initially. Ryan and Jesse did a great job of making sure that we stayed organized and recorded procedures from the beginning. But I’ve since jumped on board with this effort, and I now really enjoy organizing meeting notes and refining systems within apps like ClickUp.
We don’t let these kinds of things hold us up from actually moving forward. Typically we create a template after we’ve done something manually a few times. This way we know exactly what belongs in that template instead of having to guess.
These procedures and systems made it a lot easier to train new team members, too. Instead of having to build systems around our team, they were able to jump-in to the framework we already created.
This Has Also Been Important…
The team lives across three different states and in two different time zones. This can be helpful for clients who live across the world; however, it means we need to be extra diligent about communication and culture so that our relationships can continue to flourish.
We make it a point to have a leadership meeting each week in addition to our weekly client meetings where we can discuss the team, new initiatives and goals, and address any concerns. Each meeting starts by discussing any team issues—it’s intentional time to bring up anything we’re seeing or feeling. (It sounds kind of woo-woo, but I don’t think it is.)
Even when it was just the three of us we came up with traditions and made it a point to get together in person. Our first team retreat included an escape room, not-cheap scotch, steak dinners, and lively games of Settlers of Catan. Things like this can feel impractical or silly—especially if you don’t yet have a team—but it’s often what contributes to the environment or culture that allows a business to flourish. (Here I am sounding all woo-woo again. Dangit.)