When creatives find their opportunities increasing, they often end up getting swept up into growth rather than building a firm with intentionality. Without a clear plan, the first step a busy creative makes will likely be to bring on additional production resources. At these early growth stages, all that matters is keeping up with the work. But every hire decreases overall output and efficiency. It takes time for new staff to come up to speed, and if you enter this path you’ll have new overhead, management, and administrative tasks to attend to—in addition to your creative output.
Of course, spikes in demand do not last forever, what goes up must come down. And when that slowdown occurs, now with one or two employees to take care of, you’ll have to scramble to find more work.
This trend continues until you, the accidental agency owner, start asking yourself why you’re spending more time running a business than doing creative work.
The Most Important Question in Planning Your Growth
As a creative, you need to give thought to the possibility of growth before it happens to you. Your consideration should be what your role will become, should you start to grow. That critical question really ought to drive everything else. Let’s assume that the answer to this question is yes, you do want to remain primarily involved in the creative process—that you don’t want to swap Photoshop for spreadsheets.
The Option Not to Grow
In this case, you should think long and hard about not hiring any staff. It’s not impossible to hire and also stay involved in creative work, but it’s a very challenging business model to pull off. But if you don’t hire then you’ll have to decide what to do with excess opportunity. The first and most obvious option is to simply say “no” to opportunities beyond your capacity. Admittedly, that’s a lot easier said than done. The combination of creative ambition and fear of not having more opportunities later can cause us to say “yes” when we really should be setting limits.
On the upside, however, growth that allows you to say “no” enables you to increase your rates and fees. The law of supply and demand works in your favor. If you have three or four projects in front of you and you can only take on one or two, you can simply quote higher fees and take only the best projects. In this way, you can grow the profitability of your practice without adding staff and increasing overhead.
Contractors are an Option But Not a Panacea
You can also temporarily increase your capacity by using contractors, which allows you to bring in some extra work, but not be saddled with permanent overhead. Of course, finding and working with contractors is its own skillset, with downsides such as inefficiency and using resources that don’t end up delivering the quality you need.
But let’s consider the alternative option of hiring and growing into a small firm, where you still remain engaged in creative work. This is the path creatives intend to follow when they start growing, but it does not happen without careful planning. And the most important part of planning is role definition.
Your first hire is still likely to be another creative to simply help with work volume. But after that—if you want to remain focused on creativity—you have to start adding resources to cover administrative, and new business functions. Finding someone to competently fill this role, who is not already engaged in their own entrepreneurial effort, is not easy. There will always be tension between a creative who owns their business, and any key employees they might hire to manage the business side of things. It’s a bit of an inversion from the typical business ownership structure. That’s why, when a creative looks to hire someone for essential business roles, it often ends up as a partnership, or at least with an equity component. But that doesn’t make the tensions go away—in fact, it can sometimes make things worse.
Imagine, years after such a partnership is formed, that your company gains dozens of employees. Your business partner will have done all the work of building up the business yet your role will have stayed essentially the same. You may have ownership, but your role will not have scaled in terms of function and responsibility like your business partner’s will have. This tends to be an unstainable model, where one party ends up either leaving or being bought out by the other.
Staying in the Creative Role Most Likely Means Staying Small
So if you want to grow, yet stay focused on creative work, you should probably plan on limiting your growth to no more than a handful of employees. Mostly other creatives, with one strong account manager.
But even filling the account role can be tricky. There is a huge difference between client-facing account people, and client-finding account people. Relying on one person to combine strong client support and also generate new business is not going to work. Individuals tend to lean one way or the other. But hiring two account people would be far too much overhead for a company with a total headcount of four to six employees.
Building a Multi-Faceted Team
Ideally, in this scenario, you are going to want to hire creatives that also have strong client-facing communications skills. You’re going to need to distribute the client service function across your team rather than depending on one person. Because of this distributed role, you’ll also need strong systems and processes to ensure that communication details don’t get lost. You’ll need to work out clear estimating, billing, and reporting systems to make sure your team doesn’t end up under-selling, or over-servicing clients—a real vulnerability when the producers also perform client service.
Role definition in a small firm presents many challenges, and your solutions will vary based on the strengths and weaknesses of your team. But one thing is certain, if you don’t work hard at organizing your growth around your goals, you will most certainly find that growth will overpower your goals.