By: Summer Lamson

Date: July 13, 2016

I once heard an agency owner refer to years in business as an agency as being like dog years; five years being really like thirty. That always makes me laugh, because it feels so true. Ask any agency owner what they’ve learned over the last five years they’ve run their agency, and I guarantee they could dictate a 100 page novel in one happy-hour setting. Running a business is difficult, emotional work for any entrepreneur, and in the digital space where everything is endlessly changing, the challenges and hard lessons are a constant way of life.

With that said, Tore and I wanted to share the five biggest insights we’ve had since we’ve been in business.

1.0 A Values-Based Culture Can Be Profitable.

Our initial reasoning for starting this company was that we wanted to start the company we wanted to work for. One that we felt proud of, and were happy to go to work to every day. One that we felt we were actually making a difference in our client’s lives, that we had the flexibility to solve their unique challenges with unique solutions.

That vision – building a better agency – drives every single business decision we make. It’s taken awhile, but we’ve seen it pay off. By having happy employees that feel like their personal lives matter to us, it empowers them to want to pass that goodwill on to the clients they serve. Happy employees + happy clients = recurring revenue and a sustainable business model. It’s as simple as that.


2.0 Agencies That Play Nice Together Are The Way of The Future.

Before we started Subtext, we learned from past agency experiences that trying to be all things to all clients was not only irresponsible on behalf of the client (no agency can be an expert at everything), but trying to keep up with the knowledge and staff required to do so could put you out of business.

From this insight, we invested early on in building key partnerships with other agencies that provided complementary service offerings. We often advise our clients on whom to work with that we feel will strengthen our overall team.

We also created an internal culture of treating these relationships as if they were employees of our own company; just as critical to our success as our internal team is. This has provided better service and outcomes for our clients, and has created mutually beneficial revenue streams for us and our partners.

These partnerships have also made us smarter. We’ve learned from each other’s expertise and have passed that knowledge on to our other clients.

Working with other like-minded subject-area experts also has the additional benefit of being able to ask favors. There have been a number of times when we have jumped in to help our partners on an issue for their clients and vice-a-versa. It’s always nice to have someone have your back.

3.0 Running a Business with a Partner is Only as Hard as You Make It.

One of the benefits we’ve found of being an agency owner is the wealth of mentorship and support that’s provided to us from other agency owners. We’ve had the opportunity to talk, share and sometimes commiserate with many different owners, some who are sole proprietors and some of whom have partners.

“Often we’ve heard that 50/50 partnerships don’t work and will inevitably fail, which is a sad notion to consider given that we’re a 50/50 partnership. But in our experience the last five years, having a partner has been much more of a blessing than a curse.”

It’s less lonely when you have a partner; you have someone to share the worries and excitement of being an entrepreneur with. You get to bring your different experiences and expertise to the table that can allow you to focus on the things you are good at instead of struggling day-to-day with the things that don’t come natural to you.

Inevitably there are times that you and your partner will disagree, and this is where things either strengthen or fall apart.

Tore and I have always put the best outcome that supports our mission before our own personal egos. In order to do that, we strive to maintain a mutual respect and understanding of each other’s point of view. We may argue passionately with each other, but once a decision has been made we stick by it. Most importantly, we never hold grudges for decisions that were made that ended negatively—things happen and we are all wrong sometimes. Learn from it and move on.

4.0 Active Communication is Great Customer Experience.

If I had to guess what number of our client relationships that went south were due to a lack of transparency and communication, it would be 100%.

It’s frustrating to watch what should be a great relationship turn negative due to miscommunication, but it has happened and it was our fault when it did.

Our clients are paying us to solve problems for them, and if we don’t communicate actively about what we’re doing and why we’re doing it, they are naturally going to be concerned that we don’t have their back. At Subtext, we have learned from our past mistakes and have since made communication and transparency a critical part of our customer experience. This commitment stems from one of our core values of ‘family’.

What are our core values, you ask?

  1. Our team and our clients are our family
  2. We must have each other’s back at all times
  3. We value and protect each other’s work/life balance
  4. We constantly work smarter so we can all play and rest often

As an agency, it’s important to remember that our clients are fellow humans trying to get through the day so they can go home and enjoy their families. If we can go the extra mile to reduce some of that stress by simply communicating actively and openly, then why wouldn’t we?

5.0 Collaboration With Clients Make For Better Outcomes.

Back in the earliest days of Subtext we followed the traditional agency process of the ‘surprise reveal’ with our clients. This almost always resulted in our frustration with the client, created a million change requests from the client and lead to the inevitable scope creep that neither we nor the client felt responsible to pay for.

Fortunately, we quickly realized this was a terrible approach. Our current process allows for active, ongoing collaboration and feedback from our clients. This partnership is key to creating alignment with our clients and has led to the strongest possible outcomes.

Not every client believes, as we do, in open communication and collaboration. We have become better at vetting potential clients for their fit, sometimes turning down or losing projects. We ask better questions and educate our potential clients much earlier to ensure they understand the time investment needed to work with us.

Ultimately, working with our clients this way allows for more creativity, flexibility and better outcomes.

So what will the next five years give us?

No idea, but here’s a prediction.

Brand marketing teams will continue to grow in their digital acumen, becoming more comfortable with the ideas of iteration, beta, and prototyping as a part of the digital process. This will require us to be religiously transparent.

There are no secrets worth hiding, so continuing to show our works in progress will help us create better results, better communication and better relationships between us and our clients.

Five years from now we hope our entire process, from start to finish (even scoping), is completely transparent to our clients.

We hope our clients feel free to set up shop at one of our open desks and invite us to work in their space.

Ultimately, we hope to continue on the path we set out on from the beginning, of building an agency focused on creating a happy and healthy life for those who work here and positive, valuable relationships with the clients we serve and the customers they connect with.

Thanks for reading and please drop us a line, Tweet or Facebook us, if any of this strikes a chord with you. We’d love to hear from you.