Have your cake and eat it too — run your agency, keep your sanity

Chris teaches digital agency owners how to regain control, to prioritize and delegate tasks, and to get out of the trenches so that you can get back to doing your job: running the company.


Chris Free: Hey there, welcome to my DrupalCon 2020 session called Have your Cake and Eat it Too, Run Your Agency and Keep Your Sanity. This is a short talk for agency owners, business leaders, and the like. Given these times and coronavirus likely affecting your business, my business, this is a talk for you, things that you can do to maintain your sanity and hopefully help run your business a little bit better.

I know that as I was putting this talk together I realized this is the advice I need to be listening to myself. I need to hear these things, I need to apply them because right now is a really stressful time. To be honest, I've been having a tough time with the way coronavirus and other things happening in our world are impacting me and impacting my business. I hope that you will find some good advice in here, and I hope that I too will take some of these nuggets and begin reapplying them as I think I've slipped a little bit of late.

A little bit about me, I'm the CEO and partner at Chromatic. I have two wonderful business partners. We're equal shares and we've been running Chromatic together for many years now. I've been working in the web professionally for 14 years, but I've been building websites since high school back. I believe my first HTML site was on GeoCities and that was in 1998, and, oh man, I would love to take that up.

You should listen to me because I think about this a lot. I struggle with balancing work and life. I struggle with decoupling my own identity from that of the success of the business, and I've been working really hard to make that balance better. Chromatic has been, I would say, a successful company, been in business for well over a decade. In 2019 we had over $3 million in revenue, which had you told me when we started this thing that I would, at one point, have $3 million in revenue, I would have said, "Well, that's it, you're done. You've made it. All of the work you've poured in has obviously worked and great job, let's move on."

Unfortunately, that's not the case. I've really struggled with that and what is enough and I've really struggled with how do I make the business work for me and be something that, not only feeds my family but feeds my soul and makes me happy. Hopefully, today, we can talk a little bit about some of the things I've learned and that I'm trying, and just be really honest.

I have a bit of a secret. I mentioned on the last slide that I spent a lot of time thinking about this and in doing so, I spent a lot of time talking to other business leaders and building my network of other leaders, and hearing from them. One of the things that was really shocking to me in thinking about business and honing these relationships and getting to know other business owners is that those that I've looked up to for, some, a decade. I won't mention them by name, but they also struggle with these things, these business leaders, they struggle with payroll, they struggle with hiring. They struggle with finding good balance and they would tell you if you can befriend them like I have, or befriend others in your industry, that they have things that are on fire, things that are burning, things that they wish they had done, or things they wish they had changed.

Those agencies that I've looked up to for so many years, it was really nice to hear that they too have a bunch of the same problems and that I wasn't some kind of failure. I often, when I'm struggling, reach out to those folks and get that encouragement or that validation that, "Hey, we're in this together and having the same problems." That's the secret, everyone's struggling.

Let's get into my advice. Like I said, a lot of this is advice that I need to hear myself, and so I'm hoping I listen. It's going to be short and brief. I'm just going to hit you with a lot of things that I would like you to start thinking about or considering and that'll be it. I know you're busy.

Invest in you. Number one, your wellbeing is non-negotiable. This is something that I've struggled mightily with. I have put the business and the work and clients and everything that comes along with running a digital services agency before my own wellbeing. In the last couple of years, I've decided that that's not negotiable anymore. I really need to start thinking about my own wellbeing.

The rest of this slide will maybe touch on some of the things that I've been doing. I started saying no a lot more often. I might suggest if this is a new concept to you that you start with a couple of meetings, and hell one meeting and just say, "No, I'm not coming to that meeting," and you'd be amazed at what happens when you start saying no.

I started doing more of what I love and it doesn't matter what those things are, but what are they for you, that might be really helpful. If you sit down and think, what are the things that I love doing that maybe I'm lost track of or haven't done much of lately because the business is consuming, all-consuming, try to dial that back, get that balance back and do more of those things that you love.

Schedule time to do nothing. I blocked my Fridays and that has been such a great thing. I spend one point every morning, I go for a walk, weather permitting, and in doing nothing, I find that I spend a lot of time thinking about the business and strategy and I don't have the pings of Slack or some emails to check on or that dopamine hit that I can get by going to find a problem that I can fix.

Scheduling time to do nothing and sticking to it has been really helpful. I also started meditating and thinking a lot about mindfulness and listening to my own inner dialogue, and what were the types of things that I was thinking about or ruminating over or obsessing over and working on mindfulness and meditation, in particular, has had a big impact for me.

Your mileage may vary. Same with this last one, I think is the last one. Therapy and coaching. I started coaching or being coached a couple of years ago. I found that having a third party, someone I could talk to about everything that's happening in the business, things I'm struggling with, or things that are happening right now that are feeling really heavy and being able to talk to somebody who's not vested in the outcome has been really helpful.

That's now since evolved into actual therapy, I see a therapist every couple of weeks and it's been really helpful. It's also been unbelievable to peel back the layers of my own story and what makes me tick and all of that. Invest in you, invest in the things that will make you, your wellbeing flourish. I think you will find that it brings a lot more clarity and that it will have great impact on your business and its success.

Oh, here's the last one. Real-time off. I took a sabbatical last year. I took six weeks away from the business, turned off Slack, turned off email, had no contact with virtually anybody and it was one of the best things I ever did. Now, your business may not be able to support this quite yet, or you may not have such supportive staff around you or business partners like I do, but I really suggest that you find a way to take some real time off, and taking time off or planning that three-week vacation, something like that will force you to do the things that mean you can get away from the work.

If that's teaching someone how to run payroll or what have you, all those things that you're a linchpin for now, probably. If you really want to take time off and commit to that, you're going to have to unload those things, and I think that would be really good. I have found it to be really good. Invest in you.

Next, invest in your team. Take the time, as I just said, to train people to do the things that you are a linchpin for or that eat up your time. Take that time to train them and watch them flourish. Same, along those lines, level everyone on your team up as much as you can. By leveling them up and bringing them to a level that you can begin trusting them with more and more responsibilities or things, will allow you to focus on you and focus on your own wellbeing and take that time off.

It's the right thing to do to grow people on your team and help them grow in their career. Conduct meaningful one-on-ones I think as much as you can, and Chromatic is a small company of 17 people now, I think it's really important to have one-on- ones with your folks and it helps take a pulse on your people. It shows investment in them, and it has been one of the best things that we've stuck to all these years.

Going back to when we were five people and now up to 17, every single employee gets a chance every couple of weeks to chat with someone in leadership and ownership about what's happening at work or what's happening at home. It has made the business much better. It has helped me have a better pulse on what is happening, which helps me sleep at night and helps me keep my sanity.

Handbook and documentation. If you keep finding that you have to come in and save the day or explain how to do something or you're getting bogged down with administrative tasks, or whatever, start a handbook or improve your existing handbook. Document, document, document. In doing so, you will free yourself up to be working on the things you should be working on, which we'll get to.

The little things. I'll talk more later about culture, but the little things really matter and I think they can really add up both for your team and for yourself. Maybe that's just dropping somebody a line and saying, "Hey, I see you. I think you're doing great work," sending a small gift, things like that. I found that they can go a really long way, and be authentic, and do the things that are authentic to you and who you are. I have found these things to be invaluable.

Next big section is understand your job. One of the things I struggled with mightily over the last few years, as the company has grown, and my business partner's jobs have evolved from being doers for the business to folks whose primary responsibility is to work on the business, I've really struggled with letting go of working for the business.

We started the company and we were doing all of the work. Letting that go, or letting the dopamine hit of solving the client's problem or responding to an email, getting that checkbox is addictive and I still struggle with it.

Understand your job, let's get into that. This is framing up what I'm going to talk about. Work on the business, not for the business. If you're in leadership position, if you have a company of any size, you need to be focusing on the business for it to survive. If you're not, you're going to be worried about what's around the corner. You should be designing strategy and its execution, not closing tickets, or writing code, or designing things.

Maybe that's a small portion of what you want to do, maybe that's what you're passionate about, but your job as a leader or an owner is to be designing that strategy so that the company exists in six months or in six years. You need to be thinking about how you execute against that decision.

I think it's really important as it pertains to understanding your job that you're listening, learning from clients, industry indicators, peers, et cetera. These things are really important. Probably chief among your job or chief among the responsibilities in your job is setting the vision for the company. Where are you going, and how are you going to get there? Letting everyone at the company know where you're headed.

By doing so, by having that vision, people will start executing against it. People will start thinking about that North Star in ways that you have maybe hadn't even thought of. It puts some more wind in those sails and it's a really good thing.

I believe as an agency owner or leader, part of your job is setting the culture. For creative agencies or digital agencies, I think culture is one of the most important things for retention, and for recruitment, and for networking, referrals. Your culture is inevitably what sells you.

I don't think it's just what's in your portfolio, or just your pricing. Your culture, I think is really important as part of that calculus, so understand your job. By doing so, and focusing on those things, you should, if you've done a lot of the other things I've mentioned, be able to relax a bit. At least I've found that when I'm focusing on the strategy, and I'm understanding what we're doing, and where we're going, and seeing what's working, I'm a lot less stressed.

Design to delegate. Delegate, delegate delegate. Delegate everything that takes away from your job. That's like we just talked about. If that's running payroll, or following up on receipts, or whatever, find someone to do that work. Your job is much more important than that. That's not to say that that is unimportant job at the company, but as the owner, you need to be focusing on the strategy.

Question yourself why haven't you done this already. After you relent and give some of those things away, you will wonder why didn't I do more of this sooner? Grow your team for trust. I have found that over the years, I've had a really hard time trusting what I would call important or linchpin activities to others. As soon as I started to hire for trust, and build trust with individuals, and show them why things are so important, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera, I was able to take my hands off the wheel a little bit more.

Now, I mentioned, at the start of the call, my hands are still firmly on the wheel and I have a lot of work to do, but if you grow your team for trust and you find great people that you can trust with your business, you will be able to do all those things that I talked about a minute ago as being your job.

Teach those people how to fish like you fish. If you're somebody like me, who really struggled with, again, taking my hands off the wheel, by taking the time to document or train someone in the ways that I want to move through sales or how we write code, or what's our design process, and letting them run with it and make it better, it's been a breakthrough.

Next is create a support network of peers. Now, this might be one of the most important ones, and I mentioned earlier in the call how I've fell backwards into this, but we're in this together. You'd be surprised how many other leaders are not only willing but eager to talk about what's going on in their lives and what's going on with their business. I've found, particularly in the Drupal community, that people are really willing to be supportive and open even with direct competitors. It's really something. I think it may come from that open-source spirit.

There's some events that I would recommend. The Digital Bureau or the Bureau of Digital, they have some great events, Owner Camp, Owner Summit. These are places for like-minded individuals, people who have the exact same problems that you have to gather. I assume once coronavirus passes, they will be getting back together physically but I know they're running virtual events. I have found these to be invaluable, not only for the content at the conferences but the network and the support. The peers that I've met and grown relationships with over the years, totally invaluable.

Ask for help. This may be within your team or this network that I'm talking about, but be vulnerable and ask for help. These things will help you let go, let people know what you're struggling with or where you need help. In doing so, people will help. They really will.

Listen, listen to what's happening with your peers or your colleagues and it will help you understand what's happening in the marketplace and hopefully help you sleep a bit better at night. This one is probably the hardest for me. Stop saving the day. Saving the day trains bad behavior for your people. As much as it might make you feel good in the moment, it means you're not doing your job.

By saving the day over and over, your people, your team may learn as I believe over the years some of my staff learned and now are unlearning that you're just going to come save the day or come change it anyway, so why should I put in all the time to do it, or why should I go that extra mile. That could be really frustrating.

I have also found failure is a useful tool. I'm not saying let your business fail. What I'm saying is allow your people to fall down two times and help them get up on the third time. These might be small things or they may be a little bit bigger things and your mileage may vary, but by letting your folks fall down, they will learn. You can use those opportunities to teach them, "I would have done things a little bit differently." Like I said, this is not about letting your business fail or letting a big deal fall through or something like that.

What I'm talking about is let your people problem-solve. Ultimately, you didn't solve people to just write code or design webpages, or whatever your industry is, you hopefully hired problem solvers. Let them do that.

Also, when you're saving the day constantly, your focus is divided. Which means you're not doing the work you should be doing. I talked a lot about what I think you should do or what might help you sleep a little bit better at night. Plan for the future, but I'd asked what do you want? My therapist asked me what I wanted a few weeks ago, and I had a really hard time articulating. All I could really think about as pertains to the business was well just to stay in business, grow. Maybe make more money and keep my employees happy, help them make more money. It doesn't really square what do I actually want this company to be.

When I started peeling that back, I found maybe I wasn't running or I wasn't building the company that I really wanted. Maybe I wasn't even doing some of the things that I found interesting anymore. I started thinking maybe I wanted more freedom. Maybe freedom to work on other things. I definitely want less stress. I would love to work on some passion projects.

Really what struck me when I started to figure this out was that I spent so much time putting Chromatic and my business, our business, in a box. A box that was defined by others. When I started thinking about what do I want this company to be? What's my vision for this, and not what some other company has achieved or how big they are, the projects they win and start thinking about, "Well, what do I want?" I found a lot more clarity and it was pretty freeing.

Your answers to some of these questions as you start to think about this, they should be your guide for the next few months or even years. I would definitely recommend, take some time, plan some time to do nothing where you'll probably shake some of these things, loosen your mind, and start kicking them around and thinking.

It might change the trajectory of your company or you might be right on the right path, but you'll have a bit more clarity on that, and I think that will be great. Enjoy the ride. Here is a quote I found from Forbes. Basically, surviving in a small business is really tough. About 80% of businesses survive the first year but beyond that, the number falls off a cliff. Reaching the 5 and 10-year marks is really, really hard.

If you're in your first year, keep ahead. If you're in your third or fifth year, great work. If you're 5 to 10, keep it up, and if you're profitable, all the better. It's tough. Running a small business is really hard.

Here's some books that I found in the last six months to a year that I found really useful. Particularly Keep Going and Anything You Want. These were great books that in a time when I was trying to figure all this out and really struggling, they helped me find my way, and you might find them useful as well.

That is all I have for you today. Thank you for listening and if you're interested in growing your network or if you need somebody to bounce some ideas of off, I'd happy to be that person for you. As I said, growing a network has been one of the best things for me so I'm hoping to that. You can find me on Twitter @chrisfree. I look forward to hearing from you soon.


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