3.3 Starting Your Own Agency


Seriously, wait. No matter how much you enjoy design, no matter how good a designer/developer you are, no matter how much you want to own your own agency, do not attempt it unless you are enthusiastic and passionate about business. If the idea of running a business is not your first or second love, don't waste your time; you will fail or you will quit (another kind of failure). Love the business or don't go into business for yourself.

Even if you are passionate about business, unless you've already earned a strong reputation and you have high peer-and-market visibility, your success is unlikely. As with the leap from agency work into freelance, before you pull the trigger on starting your agency make sure your reputation garners an ongoing influx of prospective clients and projects. If you're not regularly turning down projects due to limited workflow bandwidth, you should be cautious.


The fullness of the fundamentals of business operation is not within the scope of this treatise (and only a fool would try and learn them from a book!). These fundamentals should be learned in the course of your time spent working at an agency and tempered there or perhaps during your time as a freelance professional

If this prior experience did not prepare you sufficiently, you should go back and spend more time in that environment before your try and start your own agency. The likely alternative is failure, and rightly so.

Beyond the mere fundamentals learned at agencies and in freelance experience, however, are some issues that beg for the application of professional standards. Many of these were covered in the previous chapter on freelance practice, but there are others, still. It may be that your experience may not have exposed you to these things to sufficient degree. Primary among them is the thing that, your own qualities aside, will have the greatest impact on the success of your burgeoning enterprise: hiring.


There is much that could be written about good hiring practices, and I'm going to write quite a bit about it here. What follows is my best advice on hiring, gleaned from roughly 18 years of hiring experience. Paramount among this advice is the imperative for hiring smart. Literally.

1. Hire only those who are smarter than you

Now, smarter doesn't necessarily mean more skilled or more experienced. You may want to hire more skilled or experienced people (in fact, that's probably the smartest thing for you to do), but intelligence is the more important factor. Hire smart. If you are smarter than anyone working for you, you've made a mistake and your business has big problems.

Sure, it can be intimidating to hire someone who is smarter than yourself, but set intimidation (and all other irrelevant emotions) aside. Now, consider the converse: hiring someone dumber than yourself. By placing the intelligence ceiling at your specific level and working to cultivate a lower standard, you will have deliberately stunted and effectively limited the potential of your enterprise. Does this sound like the smart move to you?

By hiring down you will effectively make yourself the end-all-be-all of the agency and, more importantly, firmly establish that the agency will be nothing more than a brief weigh station for those who would otherwise help build the company into something better. No one of worth would willingly aspire to that environment. Those with any intelligence and potential fooled into being there will quickly leave, as well they should.

Everyone you hire should be smarter than you are. If your ego or insecurities demand that you be the smartest person in the company, you're too dumb to own or run a business.

Regarding leaders, followers, and teamwork

Think a moment about how an agency or design team works. As the creative director or business owner, your job is not necessarily to be the best producer or to do the job your subordinates do. Rather, it is to be the best leader and to put together the best team in order for everyone to achieve the best results. Square yourself with this important fact: being the boss doesn't mean being the best on the team.

Specifically, as a CD or owner your job is to do what is required to allow your team to excel easily. In fact, the best boss is the one who gets out of the way while ensuring his/her people have what they need to do their best work. In this appropriate context, there should be no cause for intimidation and no reason not to have the best people available working on your team. Teamwork; it's not just for football and silly motivational posters.

Hire smarter folks than yourself and give them license to excel.

But these people, being so formidable, may leave one day!

That's right! And more power to ‘em. On the other hand, they might want to stay in the excellent environment you've cultivated and help grow your company or department into something totally awesome. Powerfully-intelligent people get to write their own ticket and he is a childish fool who works or rages against this common-sense fact. Instead, find harmony with it.

As mentioned before, your role in your agency is not necessarily the same as those whom you hire and work with. As your people excel at their jobs, you should be doing the same thing (if you're not, your people will have cause to leave you). And if you've hired the best, most intelligent people, your enterprise will be powerful and will likely embody excellence. Good people like to be associated with excellence, especially excellence that they've had a hand in crafting. If you're the architect of that powerful environment, it means you're kind of a big deal.

The fact that excellent, intelligent people may one day move beyond you is a fact of life. Embrace the opportunity to work with them in the mean time and enjoy the fact that your efforts will work to build a network of powerful, merit-based connections in your industry. The alternative is that you mire yourself and those around you in mediocrity and build nothing.

2. Hire only exceptional people.

You cannot populate your staff with less-than-exceptional people and hope to succeed. Just because someone knows how to use Fireworks or how to write HTML or CSS does not mean that they're valuable. Hire only those who are exceptional in some specific way. Your own situation and aims will determine just what sort of exceptional quality is appropriate.

(2a) Regarding recent graduates:

Those who are just beginning to try and enter the workforce in entry-level positions must still be exceptional in some way(s) or they're not worthy of your attention. A lack of work experience is no excuse for a lack of significant expertise or some other extraordinary quality. If someone spends their time in school learning merely what is taught or developing nothing more than the academically-expected skills, they're a waste of your time. Ignore them in favor of those who have developed some unusual expertise and enthusiasms beyond those of their academic peers.

3. Hire only exceptionally moral people

No advice is as important as this. Inviting someone of questionable or unknown morals into your enterprise is about the dumbest thing you could do. All the skill and enthusiasm in the world cannot compensate for moral ambiguity or deficiency in someone you work with. And this must be important to you, too; else all of the advice presented here is wasted on you. Don't get this one wrong.

4. Hire only disciplined, responsible people.

Sloppy, slovenly people can create nothing but a sloppy, slovenly agency. Furthermore, your agency is not a children's daycare center; everyone you work with must be able to do their job without your day-to-day management. Your staff members must be practiced at managing their own time, their own projects (to the degree you define as appropriate for your agency), at staying on task, at collaborating with others, and generally at delivering work on time according to pre-defined schedules (hint: a deadline is not a mere suggestion). This sort of performance requires discipline and responsibility. Your interview process must work to establish a candidate's habits as concerned with these qualities.

5. Hire only exceptionally enthusiastic people with “self-starter” minds

You need curious, enthusiastic, meddlesome, insatiably-tinkering people working with you. If you opt for people who behave like mere production artists or who fancy themselves 9 to 5 code monkeys, it will be only a matter of time before your agency fails. The right sort of people are always wanting to build something new, something innovative…and yes, may eventually leave you to go on to greater success, but this is a good thing! The alternative will do your agency no good while they're with you.

6. Hire only healthy, active people.

You already know this—every human being does and has for millennia: flaws of health and fitness are clear indications of other character flaws (most related to irresponsibility). Those flaws will be manifest in a person's quality of work and the quality of their contribution to your business. A strong agency cannot be built upon irresponsible, deluded, or weak people.

7. Hire only family-focused people (if they're married).

Someone who neglects their spouse and/or children is someone who has screwed-up priorities. Avoid them. These kinds of people have no place in an environment that requires responsibility. Of course, this means that your agency must be family-friendly to begin with and you must set that tone by your own behavior and/or your clear policies. If your potential hire describes staying at work until 8 or 9pm on a regular basis and then playing video games until all hours of the night/morning, you're talking to a troubled, immoral, untrustworthy, or sick person. Pass. By the same token, if you require your people to be at the office for late hours and/or extra days each week, you're doing something wrong and hiring isn't your problem.


If you're doing it right, your agency represents and maintains some specific values that you hold as inviolate. When hiring, don't make the mistake of hiring to fill a position with the idea that you will then teach those values to your new employee. Core values are things that cannot be taught by an employer!

The only proper way to hire is to find those individuals who already possess the values you require. Hiring is an affirmation; an agreement based on the qualities represented by the one selling his/her value. Make sure you agree to affirm and endorse only those individuals who already possess what you require when it comes to values. Skills can be taught. Knowledge can be taught. Values are acquired years before one is of employable age. As the employer, it is not your job to teach values, but to rely upon and endorse them.

Hiring represents the logical response to the positive necessities of successful business. Make it your habit to respond in keeping with these qualities. And remember that hiring someone means that you're taking on more responsibility; something you should never treat lightly.

Responsibilities of Running Your Agency

The one thing that is ever present in the ongoing management of your agency is the crushing burden of responsibility upon your shoulders. Many of these responsibilities were covered in the previous section on freelance. Having hired someone, though, brings with it a host of new ones and adds dimension to those previously covered.

Having hired smart, skilled people, responsibility demands that you model the uncompromising standards and behaviors you want them to maintain. Your company's culture should be a professional culture, so that you rightly provide an environment that cultivates professional development among those who work there.

Everything you require and desire for your agency starts with you. As mentioned earlier, your job as the owner is to facilitate success by providing your team with the things they need to do their jobs well. This starts with paying them on time and ends with the responsibility and corresponding trust you invest in your people. Here are a few important matters of responsibility to keep in mind when running your agency.

You get paid last.

As an employer your gravest responsibility is to pay your staff on time every time, without fail…and no matter what, you are the last one to be served at payroll time. Even if it means you go without a few times or your payday is but a fraction of what it should be, everyone gets paid fully before you get a dime. There can be no exception to this standard.

What you do affects everyone.

As the agency owner, everything is your responsibility and your professional responsibilities now affect everyone in the agency. Your every mandate; to operate legally, to bring in the projects, to maintain a safe work environment, to pay the bills, to maintain a professional atmosphere, to maintain professional relationships with clients, to cultivate and protect the agency's reputation, to make wise business choices, to maintain positive cash flow…everything you're responsible for now impacts everyone you employ—and by extension, their families and households. Behave accordingly. If that scares the hell out of you, good. This ain't games we're playing.

You decide what projects your agency takes on and what clients your people will work with.

Internal issues aside, nothing impacts your agency so much as its projects and clients. Knowing that you are an expert at this function is one of the best reasons for starting your own agency. Your agency, therefore, requires your expertise in this capacity.

Agencies that have volume expectations for sales staff are, by definition, unprofessional since both the requirement for and the results of sales staff activities are based in compromise. The vast majority of projects executed by healthy agencies come from incoming inquiries based on word-of-mouth or otherwise on the agency's reputation. An agency that has to reach out indiscriminately for its projects is demonstrating a symptom of compromised integrity and the result of low-quality work. It is worth reiterating that if you don't already have a healthy and ongoing influx of project inquiries you have no business starting an agency in the first place.

Model the standards and behaviors you expect in your agency.

Modeling these standards and behaviors should be a comprehensive endeavor, as it applies to all aspects of design professionalism. These standards and behaviors should include those for design process and quality, day-to-day punctuality, interpersonal dealings, phone/email/face-to-fact communications, business operations, and day-to-day business dealings.

One of the best ways to both model excellence and cultivate the professional skills of your staff is to be forthcoming and candid about your day-to-day business dealings; especially those with potential clients. Share the relevant details of your discussions with potential clients and the factors that weigh on your corresponding decisions. It's likely that your staff members are curious about these things and (hopefully) eager to learn more about them.

Give your designers and developers responsibility and set the bar high.

Professionalism requires that people take responsibility for their projects. More specifically, each project requires that one person have ultimate responsibility on each side. On your side, this person must be the primary designer assigned to it. If you facilitate shared responsibility among staff or if you remove it from the designer and take it on yourself, you are cultivating a culture of irresponsibility. That is something specific to unprofessional environments.

Never insulate your designers from their clients.

Professionals work directly with their clients and require first-hand knowledge. What's more, in order for your designers to be allowed to do their best work, their clients must invest in them significant trust. This cannot happen if they are not allowed to develop a mutual rapport; something that requires direct contact from the start.

Don't segregate your agency's departments (IA, UX, design, development, content writers, etc.).

Design professionalism requires a broad understanding of disciplines and all of your agency's departments are interrelated and mutually-dependent. Arbitrary segregation of project work or departmental phases ensures that your staff will neither develop nor appreciate an understanding of these factors. Require that everyone involved in a project work together and cross pollinate in the course of their projects.

Standards Compliant

As an agency owner or potential owner, you either have standards or you don't. You're either serious about building a healthy business or you're not. You're either uncompromising in making responsible business choices or you're not. How you come down on these issues is a matter of grave importance for you, your clients, and those you work with. And never forget that the staff you hire forms a very clear window into your character and the character of your agency. Quite literally; you are known by the company you keep.

One last caveat: work to ensure that your business operations meet every legal stricture and requirement. If you're unfamiliar with the local, state, or federal requirements, do what is required to become familiar with them before you start your business. Like everything else in your business, it's your responsibility. Taxes and other financial mechanisms can be particularly detailed and confusing. Hiring a good accountant is money well spent, and you should do so no matter the size of your enterprise.