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Why haven’t we upscaled our web design business?

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Over the years, we have steadily grown in terms of team members. Right now, at the time of writing this article, we are a digital agency with 10 staff. But I get asked every now and then questions like (or make statements like)

  • Why don’t you grow your agency?
  • Brands trust bigger agencies more
  • A bigger team, means you will earn more money
  • Why aren’t you in the centre of Manchester?
  • Small agencies can’t win big contracts
  • Why don’t you have multiple project managers?

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MadeByShape is 9 years old, so why have we decided not to have a team of 30?

More staff, doesn’t mean more profit.

I personally know friends who have upscaled their business to take on more staff, with the intention of taking on more work. But this didn’t work out for them, and then it became a problem. You have more staff, more wages, more stress, more pressure to get work in and feed mouths. I know 1 guy who had to put a 3 year strategy in place to go BACK to where he originally was. He had a team of 12, that went to 40 and then it took him 3 years to get back down to 12 organically. WOW.

Having more staff gives you the capabilities to take on more work, and produce more profit, but it’s not guaranteed. Many factors come in to play, for example; having more staff not only means more wages, it means expenses will go up. Having more staff doesn’t necessarily mean that work will be completed in a timely manner – client factors can still come in, and then do you need to hire extra project managers to manage your team and your increased number of clients?!

Team chemistry

This is SO important to us here at MadeByShape. Over the years we have taken time, we have employed the right candidate and heavily considered each decision. I wrote a separate article if you want to read more about how we recruit individuals.

When upscaling a business, there’s normally a few reasons that led to this decision

• You have recently won more contracts so need more team members to fulfil those orders

• You want to increase size with the intention to make more money/profit

• You have the intention of selling the business, so want to upscale

If you’re looking to increase the size of your team rapidly to aid one of the above, employing the right person is VERY hard. How do you recruit? Through recruitment companies? Straight from Uni? Through your social accounts? Whatever the way, mistakes will be made because decisions are made fast and you end up with a new team of people who have never worked together before. There needs to be a bedding in period and then there’s simple factors like personality. What if a new team member doesn’t like the guy who’s worked there for 5 years. The atmosphere changes and you have a whole new set of problems to deal with.

I have met a lot of businessmen and women over the years and everybody says recruitment is the hardest part of running a business. Somebody might be amazing technically, but if they don’t gel with other team members, it affects the business, it affects workflow, it affects results.

It’s not impossible, companies have successfully upscaled quickly – but a plan is needed and a strict onboarding strategy needs to be created and adhered to before committing.

Investors and External Connections

I’ve heard so many sad/bad stories about people getting external investment and then it all going wrong. Whether that be the original losing all shares in the business, the plan not working, the investment didn’t get the results they wanted etc etc. For us, it’s all about relationships and if we were to consider a growth spell – the investor would need to be personally connected to us.

Most of the bad stories are surrounded by unrealistic expectations and expecting instant results. We are in an industry that takes time to build of good reputation, projects that take time, and naturally expanding that. We aren’t particularly an agency who will cold call brands, or tout for work – we like to show people what we can offer, and use different techniques to put ourselves in a position that client WANT to work with us. An investor may have a different approach to this. So it’s important that if we did ever consider an Investor, they would have to be on board with this plan.

A small agency CAN manage big brands

For people to say that a small digital agency can’t attract big brands is ridiculous in my opinion. We have worked with the likes of Blackberry, Selfridges, NHS, L’Occitane etc. Times have changed, 10 years ago bigger brands probably were more cautious about using smaller agencies, unknown agencies. But smaller agencies are now gaining much more exposure through various techniques such as SEO, Awards, and PR. This puts them on the table, and in front of the eyes of decision makers much more often.

If a brand looks at an agency portfolio, the ethos, the experience, the location and the costs – they have a decision to make whether they want to work with that digital agency or not. The fact that we have worked with big brands previously poses the questions “Why wouldn’t other big brands trust us?” Maybe they decide not to go with us for cost reasons, maybe it’s because another agency has more experience in a certain industry, but it’s hardly ever because they have a bigger team than us. Yes, big agencies win big contracts like a re-build of an airport website, or a huge database job for the Gov because they have hundreds of developers and that’s needed to complete the job… but they aren’t the projects we are seeking out anyway.

We are proud of being a small agency, and we tell each new client that we have 10 staff. We also explain how we manage projects. It starts with myself, I project manage, I deal with the client, discuss direction, manage my team of designers and developers. But the client also has direct access to that particular design and developer working on the job. This gives transparency and a trust factor immediately so that the client understands if they have an issue, they can speak directly to the person working on that project. Not every digital agency works in this way.

Workflow and process is important in any project, not just with big brands. We work in a certain way for startup businesses… and that doesn’t change with big brands. Everything is worked on in stages, and sign offs happen at key moments in the project. It’s important to stick to this and not get phased by a big name, more decision makers, a bigger budget etc.

Work smarter, not harder

This is a big topic at the moment on social sites like LinkedIn and Facebook, but I don’t understand why people are making a fuss of it in 2019… and didn’t consider it 5, 6, 7+ years ago.

I admit, when I first started in the industry – I said yes to every project. I worked 24/7 and burnt out (without knowing what that was), I just powered through. It wasn’t just me that did it, every startup entrepreneur has done it, and will continue to do it. I said yes to every web design enquiry for various reasons…

• I wanted to impress people and show what I could do

• I wanted to expose my name further afield

• If I did a good job, they’d recommend me for more work

• It was financially beneficial

However, there’s a point in time where this needs to change. Whether that be 6 months or 6 years, your business gets to a point where you don’t have to say yes to every enquiry. Right now, we say no to enquiries for various reasons and it works. But working smarter, is not just about the amount of work you have on. It’s a combination of things in my opinion.

If you’re stressed and your work isn’t functional – then take a break, whether that be a walk, eating, going to the gym – whatever it is, that hour away from your desk can make your day more productive.

Plan your schedule in advance. I have a simple structure that has massively helped workflow. Reply to important emails as soon as I wake up, and filter out all the rubbish. Then reply to other emails when I arrive at work at 8:30am. This means that by 9am I can concentrate on other tasks.

Split your day. Working on the same thing every day, every month will become boring and you will lose interest, so your output won’t be as good – or at least, it won’t be consistent. If you’re a developer, you might think – but I build websites every day, how can I split my day? My advice would be balance projects out with your project manager, if you know you’re working on a big, technical eCommerce site – balance that out with a small restaurant website that is more creative. It keeps you interested in both projects and keeps your brain ticking.

Traffic. Nobody likes it. Make sure to plan meetings around busy periods, don’t waste time being stuck in traffic. And don’t sit in traffic to and from work… what’s the point?! Change your working hours to suit you, so it’s more productive.

Book holidays. It sounds simple but I know a lot of people who don’t book holidays then just use them all up at once at the end of the year. If you plan holidays in the diary, you have something to look forward too and it eases your mind when being away from your desk and socially being with other people.

Why is this all relevant to scaling up your business? Because if I had 40+ staff, I would be more stressed, I would have more work to do – it would mean that my lifestyle/worklife balance wouldn’t be as I want it to be.

Managing people, managing clients

Right now, it works. I am the person who goes to pitches, meet new clients and deals with the business side of MadeByShape. I also manage projects once they are underway. I like this because I am a Co-Founder, the client gets to meet me, and I will be with them the whole way through the process. I’m not just a salesman that they never see again.

In terms of workload, it works. I only accept a certain amount of work per month that is manageable. After this, I let clients know that there will be a wait to fit it in the diary. Being honest is the best way in my opinion, if a client knows they have to wait – they can make a decision to wait or go elsewhere.

From a personal point of view, the size of our team is manageable. I am able to keep on top of every team member and what they are working on, and what the expectations are. This is very important because I’m not always in the studio to physically see what they are doing day-to-day.

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I used to work at big agencies

I’d also like to add that here at MadeByShape we currently work with big agencies as their digital arm, and I also used to work at big agencies in the UK. Some are very successful, the business model works for them – but it doesn’t work for me. In this article I’m not saying people shouldn’t scale up, I’m just explaining why we haven’t. Our workflow is very productive at the moment, our team is happy, we are a small family of experienced designers and developers who offer a great service to clients all over the world. Why change it if it works?

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We’ve had offers

People have wanted to purchase MadeByShape, but it’s not our business strategy to sell. This is what we enjoy doing, this is what we’re good at. I understand some people are in this industry for financial reasons, for business reasons, to upscale and sell – then do something new. But for us, this is a way of life and we love it. To be able to run a successful business in an industry you love, is very rewarding. And to make good money, whilst enjoying working is even better.

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