Agency Start-Up in a Recession

Starting an agency any time is difficult; succeeding today is even more challenging. Tips for success from a venture capitalist
by Todd Knutson

I stumbled upon a post by Paul Graham, venture capitalist, titled "How Not to Die". It's the notes from a talk he gave at a dinner for the leaders of companies his firm had invested in. As someone who has been intimately involved in four start-ups, I find his comments right on the mark, and highly applicable to any agency or marketing services company trying to get started today, as well as any agency fighting for survival in the recession.

When we haven't heard from, or about, a startup for a couple months, that's a bad sign. If we send them an email asking what's up, and they don't reply, that's a really bad sign. So far that is a 100% accurate predictor of death.

Do you or your founders have an advisory board? Investors? Who do you report your progress to? One of the benefits of having your own company is being the boss; however, the biggest drawback is not having someone to report to. The act of reporting to someone is accountability, and accountability spurs the activities that drive results. If you don't have someone to report to and don't have investors, create an advisory board, join Vistage or some other group that will act in that role.

Another approach is to schedule regular lunches or dinners with business associates. Perhaps you have 3-4 people you know who will agree to each meet with you once a month for the next year. Report your progress to them as a group, or to create a faster pace, meet one-on-one on a specific day of the 1st, 2nd, etc. week of every month. Consider each meeting a board meeting and drive activity during the week to meet specific objectives of the meeting.

Paul also suggests staying in touch with other startups. Find others in your city or town and meet with them monthly. Business challenges are shared challenges, regardless of the industry. You will learn as much or more from someone outside your industry as you will from someone in it.

His last two points really hit home.

The underlying cause [of failure] is usually that they've become demoralized.

How many agencies are suffering from low morale as a result of the recession, overdue accounts receivable, or lack of new business? Whether you're in a start-up or mature agency the leader's role today is to lead their troops successfully through the challenges of the current environment.

Founders are more motivated by the fear of looking bad than by the hope of getting millions of dollars.

All you've got is your reputation. Put yourself out there and say to the world that you're going to be successful. Keep evolving your services until you land a few clients who are true believers. Provide superb customer service. Most importantly,

Don't give up.

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