By Mylene Pollock and Lenora Rand It’s hard to believe that just five years ago we were sitting in a coffee shop talking about leaving the traditional agency world to do the work we were most passionate about, the work we found most gratifying - the way we wanted to be doing it.
Ian Schneider for Unspalsh
It seemed big and blue-sky-ish, and even a little scary. But then we just decided why not? So we took the leap. Now, as our 5-year anniversary approaches, we’re looking back and thinking about the lessons we’ve learned. The things we hoped for and anticipated, like being creatively led would be differentiating, and the things we didn’t, hello - two-year global pandemic. There were things we got right from the very beginning, and other lessons it took us some trial and error to learn. And in case you, like us, are crazy enough to want to start your own company, we thought we’d share the five biggest lessons we’ve learned in the last five years.
Maybe they’ll help you skip some of the “doing it the hard way.”
1. Learn As You Go. When we decided to launch SmallGood, we were nowhere near 100% sure about what we were doing. We had our industry experience and a big passion for brands that were creating a positive impact. And we had a sense that those kinds of brands could benefit from creative thinkers and makers like us. But that's about it.
But we went ahead and started. But we started small.
We started with small clients and small projects so we could figure out what our offering was in real-time. Because we weren’t overwhelmed by massive projects, we were able to devote our energy to really defining what we did and how we did it. This allowed us to figure out which processes worked well and which needed refining before we jumped into bigger projects for bigger brands.
“Learn as you go,” became our mantra. And it’s one we’d recommend to others. To start, just start. Dive in - but make sure you dive into the swimming pool before you tackle the ocean. Starting small gave us the security we needed to swim instead of drowning.
Angela Pantazis for Unsplash
2. Perfect is the enemy of good.
Something else we learned was that if you aren’t careful, you can waste a ridiculous amount of time waiting…and striving…for perfection.
We made a website as we were starting SmallGood. It was definitely not perfect. We barely knew what our business was, let alone how to market it. But here’s the secret about websites, and most things, really - you can change them. So we kept it simple and (you guessed it - small), just enough to tell our story and establish credibility. As we learned more, we added to the website. When we changed our minds, we changed up the pages.
Even though the website wasn’t perfect, it was something much more valuable - it was THERE. It was findable, searchable, a stake in the ground, and, amazingly, it helped us get business.
Lesson learned? Don’t be afraid to do things that you know aren’t perfect. Don’t be afraid to try things you don’t think you’re the best at. Moderately good, with a willingness to learn and improve, is fine - and unlike its impossible cousin perfect, it’s always a good place to begin. As you learn more, change it and make what is good even better.
It’s okay to just do your best, even when your best isn’t perfect. Yet.
3. Ask for help. Here’s something we wish we’d known earlier - you don’t have to know everything. Your job is to be an expert in your particular wheelhouse and the service you provide. Are you an inventor? You don’t need to become a marketing expert. A musician? Why waste time trying to become an accountant?
When we were two creatives learning the ropes of running a business, we took a class that helped us define our value proposition. When we were struggling with time management, we found Avaza to help us stay organized and on track. When we wanted to take our estimates and proposals up to the next level, we worked with a consultant that showed us how to get there. Inviting these outside voices in brought fresh perspective and expertise that made us smarter, faster, more flexible, and ultimately, made our business work better for us and for our clients.
So be honest about what you know - and what you don't and then hire experts. Hire a great lawyer, a brilliant accountant, an insurance pro. You don’t have to be astounding at everything or do 100% of the work all by yourself.
Listening to clients is THE most important thing you can do. Start with them. Ask questions. Know their pain points. And know their hopes and dreams. Listen actively - if you don’t understand immediately, ask more questions. Don’t stop until you really get it.
Because once you get it, you can customize your offering or the process for what that client really needs. And a client who feels heard, and sees that attention reflected in the work you do, is a much happier client. They trust you more when you say, “Trust me on this one.” And the end result - the work we do together - is usually a lot better too.
Listening is something we’ve practiced not only with clients but with those experts we mentioned earlier that we’ve hired along the way. And you can also listen to other people in other places and learn a lot.
Kyle Smith for Unsplash We listen to Google Ads for example - versus just going forward only with our own assumptions or hunches. That’s how we first learned that “women-led” was a quality that potential clients were interested in. It’s also often how we’ve learned what our client’s target audiences are seeking.
And we listen to what customers "tell us" about the creative content we make. By listening to analytics reports sometimes we discover the email, post, or animation we adored pretty much bombed, but instead of just ignoring that, we try to listen hard, and read between the lines of what the data is telling us, so we can adapt and do better the next time.
We have two ears and one tongue so that we would listen more and talk less.
The philosopher Diogenes shared this thought a long, long time ago. These past five years have definitely taught us the wisdom of those words.
5. Be who you are, and be honest about it.
We’re not a big corporate agency. We don’t have a fancy office building, and we’re really not the blouse-and-blazer type. We laugh a lot in meetings. We’re excellent at branding and narratives and maybe even a little more - but we’re not excellent at TikTok (though we can hire an expert for that!). And we love to work on brands with purpose that are having a positive impact on the world. We prioritize them every single time.
Being clear and specific about who you are can be intimidating. It feels risky to focus instead of staying wide-open and ready to appeal to everyone. But knowing what you are passionate about, what your strengths and weaknesses are, and how you use them to add value to clients is a superpower. It makes you trustworthy. It keeps you engaged and inspired. It helps filter out the clients and projects that aren’t the right fit before you go too far down the road to partnership.
It saves you, and everyone else, precious time.
In our first year, one of our clients - McCormick Foundation, which was a big one for our young agency, needed some significant help with fundraising. During an introductory meeting, we were asked how good we were at fundraising. At that time this was a weak spot for us, so even though we had brought in some team members who knew more than us - we were still not experts. But we were honest about that. Interestingly, the client later told us that our honesty was a big part of why they decided to work with us.
It was a clear confirmation of that famous advice from Oscar Wilde:
Be yourself, everyone else is taken.
Be who you are, unapologetically, and give your clients the courtesy of knowing exactly who you are from the beginning. It’ll make things better and easier for everybody - especially you.
So perhaps you’re having coffee with a friend and thinking about what you’d rather be doing. And wondering if you should do it. If you can REALLY do it.
We’re here five years after we were there to say: Yes, yes you can.
And no, you won’t be alone.
The pandemic has created a surge in start-ups. More businesses are being launched now than at any time in the past ten years. But as you dive in, maybe you’ll learn from what we did right and what we eventually got right. If so, we hope you’ll share back what you’ve learned at your five-year mark. We’d love to hear from you. Perhaps over a cup of coffee?
Annie Spratt for Unsplash.