OPINION: Ten things to consider before starting your own agency

Justin Hind
By Justin Hind | 5 April 2013

Fancy starting your own agency? Imagining the freedom to start the day with a surf and calling the shots? Justin Hind and Dominique Hind started with Collective in 2010 and now employ 25 staff, working for clients including Cisco, Bonds, Lenovo, McWilliam’s Wines, CFS and Canon. CEO Justin Hind shares the top 10 things he’s learnt about starting an agency.

1. Are you ready to take a leap of faith?
It’s daunting turning your back on a great career with big international brands, and a great monthly salary, on the belief you can create a business without any real clue whether it’s going to be successful. You need to take a leap of faith and be confident you can create something out of nothing.

2. Choose who you work with
Before we started I’d lay awake at night wondering where the clients and revenue would come from, and I still have sleepless nights wondering how we’re going to fill the new floor we’ve just leased. But, the ability to win business has been slightly easier than expected. We’ve only worked with clients we want to work with; we’ve stood up for our principles; and are very clear in how we operate, while creating value for our clients and for us at the same time.

3. Act like a fully-fledged business from day one
We started looking for finance and accounting systems ourselves; we put money into the next account executive instead of an office manager; we set up our own Macs. All big mistakes. We braced ourselves and invested in lawyers, IT support, a finance manager, an office manager and external accountants. A lot of start-ups think they can’t afford these support structures, but we soon realised you can’t afford not to have them. The agencies managed like a proper business from the outset are flourishing; the others fall by the wayside or are still working out a small terrace, wondering how to pay the bills.

4. Hire the best people you can and invest in their careers
We’ve attracted some great people from the big networks, possibly because we offered them something different in our culture. We judge them on their output, not their input, and let people rise to the natural level they’re confident at. We looked for people with good hearts and good minds that were rising, or future, stars and invested in them.

5. Take the best tricks from the agency networks
Start with what you know works. We took the good things from every great international agency we’ve worked for and combined them to create a new way of working. We rejected the bad bits: the politics, the processes that don’t work, the egos, and the hierarchy.

6. Decide how big you want to be
Our goal is to grow to 40 people max. At that size we can maintain our culture and have the senior partners hands-on with every client. We don’t want to get to the stage where the people clients meet in a pitch are only ever seen at the annual account review. We also want to run a profitable business, rather than chasing endless growth.

7. Be prepared to work 24/7
Ever thought, ‘I’ll start an agency, and six months in I’ll have some clients, life will be easy, I’ll choose my own work hours, I’ll go for a surf in the morning?’ Well, that’s never going to happen. Cancel all holidays for the next few years (or be prepared to work through them) and be get ready to put in the hours. Our workday usually starts at 4.30am and finishes at 7.30pm.

8. Your reputation is on the line
When it’s your money, your ideas and your reputation on the line – you work 10 times harder than you ever would in some international holding group. You wear the company and its name as a badge of pride and its success defines you. You don’t want to turn to your friends in 12 months and admit, ‘I was a failure’. And you don’t want to produce work you’re not happy with, the ad industry is pretty cynical and bitchy, and they’ll start tearing you apart for shit work.

9. Aim to be debt-free
We started with enough cash to carry the business for the first year if we needed to. We also made it a principle to never go into debt and have been debt-free from day one. Luckily, our founding clients were great payers; paying within 14 days of us invoicing them. Set strict terms but prepare for the worst. And retain 100% ownership if you can. Using other people’s money means it ends up being their business while you do all the work.

10. Start the business for the right reason
Many go into a new business with the intention of building it up and selling it for a short-term cash windfall, which is the wrong reason to start a business. If you do sell, it needs to be at the right time for the right price. Avoid accepting the majority payment in stock – the only thing that matters is cash in the bank. It comes down to cultural fit, if you like them, and they respect you as a business leader and are fair and open to logic, it’s a good deal. But, if they are controlling, want to change your business, interfere with your clients, start tying other groups together and force you to work together, then that’s the wrong deal. You could even rue the day you ever thought starting a business was a good idea.

Justin Hind
CEO and Co-Founder
With Collective

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