Ten lessons I’ve learned from ten years in business (Part 1 of 2).
Birthdays are often a time for reflection and celebrating our tenth birthday at WebBox has been no exception.
In many ways, the past decade has whizzed by, but so much has happened along the way that it’s been a great opportunity to look back at the milestones, and at everything, I’ve learned while growing a busy web and digital marketing agency.
Back in 2008, when I was still a computer management student at Glamorgan University, I already knew that I wanted to work for myself when I graduated.
I knew it wouldn’t be easy, but I could see how quickly the explosion of the web was revolutionising the way organisations connected with their audiences online. I couldn’t shake the idea of starting a business, so I decided to start the hard work while I was still studying, putting in around 30 hours per week on top of my university work.
I started by offering my services to a few local charities, building websites on their behalf in order to gain experience. I then placed a single advert for web design services on eBay, sat back and waited. I wasn’t sure what would come of it – if anything – so I was pleased when a business got in touch asking if I could develop an e-commerce site for them.
I knew I had all the necessary skills so I threw myself headlong into the project, which wasn’t without its challenges. After a few weeks of hard work and pulling all-nighters, I delivered a site the client was delighted with.
I built the business from there, taking on work while still studying, applying the skills I was learning in lectures to live projects.
I did my research and found that while there were plenty of web agencies out there, there was a real lack of customer service and commitment to excellence across the still burgeoning industry.
When I graduated, there was no question of going to work for an agency. I knew I wanted to create the agency I’d spotted a gap for; one that combined technical know-how with attention to detail and put the client and communication at the heart of everything.
So that’s what I did.
People said I was crazy to set up just after the credit crunch had hit, and eight years after the notorious dot-com bubble had burst. But I was confident that there was a place for the agency I wanted to build. So I got stuck in, started networking hard and worked long hours to deliver for clients who had placed their faith in me. Those first few years are a bit of blur, but what I remember most is the exhilaration of building something I believed in.
Fast forward to 2010 and I had secured enough work to take on our first employee. In 2011 we became a limited company, and in 2012 we moved to larger premises in Cardiff. A year later we picked up our first FTSE 100 client, and in 2014 we were awarded Google Partner status.
I’m proud to say that we have delivered hundreds of successful projects over the last ten years and that we still work with the first ever client we started working with way back in 2008.
It’s been a rollercoaster journey, and so rewarding in so many ways. But it hasn’t been without its lessons.
As we’ve grown as a business, I’ve learned so much that continue to shape the decisions I make and how we work with clients today.
There are things I did back in the early days I would do very differently today. There are also plenty of times I’ve been relieved that I listened to my inner voice.
It’s a privilege to use this milestone to share the ten biggest lessons I’ve learned on this journey.
And I’m going to start with that instinct thing;
1. Listening to your gut feeling pays dividends
As the founder of a digital agency, I know all too well how much data and analytics bring to the business table.
But there’s also a lot to be said about the wealth of information you can glean through good old-fashioned gut feeling.
Learning how to listen to my gut instinct is something I continually work on and I now think of intuition as big data for the body; the result of my internal algorithms processing millions of data points that surround me every day.
More than 40% of CEOs say they make decisions based on intuition, despite being able to access endless supplies of cold, hard data.
Becoming much more attuned to my gut instinct helps me to make better decisions, every day.
Ignore it at your peril.
2. Focus on your strengths and USPs
Early on in the WebBox journey, I knew our technical offer wasn’t unique. There are thousands of web developers and digital marketing strategists out there.
But I was clear about HOW I wanted to offer our services, and what was different about that.
For me, it was all about service and attention to detail, putting the client at the heart of everything we do.
We used this point of differentiation as a central part of our brand, and to shape conversations, from day one.
I know we’re not the only agency doing what we do. But I also know we do it differently, what makes us special and how much our clients appreciate us for it.
Focusing on that is really important as we continue to grow.
Also from a leadership point of view, I’ve learned to stick to what I’m good at and allow others to lead on the areas that they specialise in.
3. People buy people
It’s a cliché because it really is true. People aren’t just buying a service from you; they want to know they can trust you and depend on you to bring their project in on time and on budget.
They also want to know you’ll be there to help find the best solutions when things hit the fan – which they can do from time to time, despite your best-laid plans.
I’ve made a point of being visible to all of our clients from the first meeting to project completion – or on an ongoing basis for digital marketing clients.
If you send in your big guns to win work and then hand over the project to a less experienced team member, before disappearing altogether, don’t be surprised when the client feels less than loved.
Also, being available out of hours is a good way of showing clients that you care.
Having said that, when scaling a business, it’s important that you’re not the sole figurehead – it’s just not sustainable and prevents you from growing your client base and developing your people.
I’ve found that if you put your team and their development at the heart of your business, you’ll reap the benefits.
I’ve always tried to build a team of people smarter than me and give them real ownership over their areas of the business. Remembering to remain visible and accessible to clients as we’ve grown has been equally as important.
4. Experience trumps theoretical knowledge when hiring
In a service industry, people really are your greatest asset – or liability when you get it wrong. A bad hire can have a big impact on a team, which is why I believe in the mantra that attitude is as important as skill.
I’m also much more interested in experience, and what this tells me about their ability to adapt and learn new skills. A good candidate on paper won’t always be the best candidate for servicing your hard-won clients, and for me, the character is as important as credentials.
5. Service matters
You hear a lot in business about cash being king. But for me, service is emperor. You need happy clients who come back to you time and again to keep the business afloat.
I’ve learned that the quality of the service we provide matters above all else. Keeping this at the heart of our business has shaped who we hire, how we work with clients and what work we look to bring in.
Straying too far from the focus on service means it’s easy for the whole house of cards to come falling down with it.
Stay tuned next week for part two of this blog series on lessons I’ve learned in business over the last decade…