What I love about my work is meeting so many bright and passionate people. From Brighton to Beijing, New York to Bristol, I am regularly sitting down with inspired and inspiring agency owners.
Their lives don’t run any more smoothly than the average person – we all have our challenges to confront, in business and in life, and every one of them is on a different journey with the company they have grown. But the stories they share, good and bad, are the stuff of life. And their invariable response to the challenges that come their way have something in common.
It’s a simple but powerful thing. When it comes to the business, they know to celebrate the big moments: when they win awards, receive five-star client feedback or when the team pull together and nail a pitch.
The flip side of this tendency is even more important: they don’t dwell on the bad times. They don’t stagnate or hide away and pray for things to be ok. When something difficult comes up they own the problem and find the most effective way through it.
Extra lives remaining – zero
Recently I was chatting with a new client – the founder of an independent business. She had been through some tough times with it and I asked her what made her carry on when some around her were telling her to quit.
In response she pointed to a sign behind me, set on the wall by one of the company’s meeting rooms. It said: “Extra lives remaining – zero”.
“It’s my way to remind myself and my team that this life we lead isn’t a dress rehearsal,” she said. “There are no second chances: we only get one go at it.”
She added: “Me and my team are going to celebrate like rock stars when we do anything extraordinary, because that’s why we all get out of bed every day – to do extraordinary things for great people and great causes. The last thing we will do is give up or back away from something we all love doing.”
It’s a determination I see again and again from the very best. Successful independent agency owners confront challenges when they land. Sales may be down or costs up; a marketing campaign may not have worked; staff may not be performing. Whatever the issue, the best don’t go looking for someone to blame or make excuses. Instead they accept the problem for what it is and roll up their sleeves. They own it, right from the off. If a situation has got to a crunch point, the thinking goes, it’s their responsibility and it’s for them to find an answer.
No blame game
There is something else about this mindset that matters, and that’s the environment and culture that goes with it.
If the founder is taking on a problem head-on, without finger-pointing, that’s something that feeds through the business.
It’s potentially very different to a corporate set-up, where a director might well have different accountabilities and need to get permission from someone up the chain when a situation emerges. They might need to account for themselves, too, and trigger a round of blamestorming and paper pushing. That can be demoralising, needless to say.
But for the successful founder of an independent that kind of approach is alien – and a world away. There is no dwelling on the back story to the problem (though lessons will be learnt), but rather a focus on overcoming it.
Living for now
Plenty of the business boardrooms I advise are led by founders who have no interest in exiting.
The founder is too busy living for the moment – for the problems that need an answer, for the opportunities that are waiting to be landed – to worry much about a would-be sale.
That’s not to say that they don’t have a feel for the world around them: for the big consultancies and groups that are willing to pay handsomely for the opportunity to bolt on some agency expertise.
But it’s the day to day that excites and drives them. It’s the pleasure of being able to do just what they do, and solve problems and celebrate alongside some smart and passionate people. For some, you just can’t put a price on that lived opportunity. It’s what they do and who they are.
Extra lives remaining – zero. From time to time we all need to be reminded of that.
by Andy Maher
Partner at Waypoint Partners