Last January, we started this creative agency with one client and a handful of connections. We set out to be lean, flexible and to implement a plan of steady incremental growth. Within a month we were up to 5 clients, and as of right now, 9 months in, we’ve had the opportunity to work with over 30 local, national and international businesses. It’s been amazing. It’s been absolutely terrifying. And we’ve learned an incredible amount about what we never want to do again.
Despite our initial intent to “be lean, flexible and to implement a plan of steady incremental growth,” at the heart of every mistake we’ve made was a ravenous desire to grow and grow fast. We didn’t start this just to be another boutique ad agency. We want to be the best and biggest Dayton agency that offers total solutions to advertising, branding and online marketing needs. When you’re hungry and ambitious your eyes can be bigger than your common business sense. After some recent let downs and failures we decided to reassess and refocus. We’ve discovered the 9 month mark is a great time to do so because it still gives you 3 months to finish your first year as strong as possible. After several long meetings, we’re feeling better than ever with some really interesting projects just getting started. Having solidified our strategy going into the future we now offer you 5 mistakes to avoid when starting your own advertising / marketing / interactive / web solutions / whatever agency.
1. Jumping At Every Opportunity
We honestly could not believe some of the opportunities we were given in our first few months. And in many cases we really shouldn’t have been given them. Huge requests for proposal started walking in our door for much larger projects than any of us anticipated landing at that stage.
Writing proposals takes a long time. The bigger the proposal the more research it takes. In some cases it was taking us several weeks to hash out all of the details needed to generate accurate information and pricing that reflected the scope of the work desired for a single proposal. Some were massive projects that felt like we were the best agency for the job, like the JJHuddle.com website. There were others that just felt, well… like a waste of time.
When deciding which proposals you want to invest huge amounts of time in it’s best to use your instincts to determine if you really are the best fit for the work proposed. I remember two cases specifically that I’m quite sure we weren’t well suited to perform the work. However, we still spent tons of precious time formulating how we could try and fulfill the needs of the project regardless of where we might fall short. It was a valuable learning process to be used for the future in how to best write these huge honking documents. But if you’re still getting your feet under you, as we still are, it is best to skip the long shot RFPs that eat up time and rarely pay off.
2. Our Brand Began To Fall Out Of Focus
Around 6 months ago we partnered up with a local reputation management and SEO company called Pure Web Results. It was true partnership in that we have a stake in Pure Webs and Pure Webs has a stake in us. In reality we are now one in the same. However, no one else would ever know that without some investigation. It was a great business move as we have doubled our available services and we are backed by the clout the Pure Web Results brand carries with it. Brand-wise it’s become something of a disaster though. We went from being a simple, easy-to-get creative brand to something much more complicated, and we’ve struggled ever since to rectify it. Does Catapult absorb Pure Web Results? Does it stay separate? Does it become a hub of a larger Catapult wheel? Are we now Catapult Web Results & Creative? Ugh… that’s pretty bad.
What we did do was basically ignore the problem and now the Catapult brand has suffered as we try to roll out an expanded services menu and series of packages that seem disconnected from our original brand. We’re now getting ready to launch our second website in 9 months which will hopefully bring everything together in a way that makes sense to potential clients whether they’re strictly looking for advertising campaigns or whether they want to be at the top of Google. It will hopefully now be clear why it’s all Catapult Creative. Considering we launched our first site right around the time of pairing up with Pure Web Results it would have been best to have examined and implemented a solution way back then. In any case, we certainly should’t have ignored it for so long.
3. We Stopped Focusing On Building A Professional Network
One of our original goals when we started Catapult was to partner up with agencies that are better at certain things than we are with the hope they would use us for the things we’re great at. Instead our mouths were soured from a couple bad experiences early on and we decided to try and do it all ourselves. This left us over extended and in over our heads in a few circumstances. It also meant that those precious contacts and networking opportunities weren’t being stitched together.
Outside of our relationship Pure Web Results and another with local copywriter Dragonfly Editorial, we just stopped trying to find local allies. Instead we chose to bring in new hires and freelancers to fulfill project needs in house. What partnerships with other agencies brings to the table, however, is something that an employee or freelancer has little incentive to. That is to bring new work to you. Even if it’s something you’re capable of doing in house, sending someone else a lead who does it better than you will put you on their radar, who in turn will find a reason to send work to you. Because of working with Dragonfly Editorial we’ve begun to build a network of new clients and references in the Washington D.C. area we otherwise would have never had access to. It’s been a great reminder as to why we thought it was so important to build that network of agencies in the first place.
4. We Did Work Without A Contract
You know how it goes. You get a reference from a friend or client and they seem really cool, you love the brand and you want to do great work for them. They’re really excited and start sending over files to get started… yet they never seem to send that signed contract. They say, “oh yeah, I forgot, I’ll get it to you next week.” You say “Ok, they’re really nice and they couldn’t possibly screw us over because of our mutual friends,” so lets keep working cause this project is a lot of fun. We’re here to say never ever ever ever work without a contract in place. That is if you care about getting paid anyway.
Over the past 9 months we did 4 projects without a contract in place and every single time we got burned in the end. Some for portions of amounts owed, others for much more significant sums.It’s always going to be pretty lean your first few years and if you’re like us you don’t want to call a lawyer every time a client that owes you money stops returning phone calls. So always have signed documentation before starting work. This is not only to protect you legally but to ensure the client knows exactly what they’re signing up for and the scope of work they’re paying for. There’s nothing worse than a client refusing payment because they want a whole bunch of additional services for free at the end of the project.
5. We Stopped Having Fun
I just got back from a vacation I took with my family to the North Carolina coast. It was amazing, and much needed, but my life is almost like a vacation anyway because I get to do something I really love daily. There wasn’t a lot of love the month of August, however, which happened to be our slowest month on record. The stress was accumulating, there was disappointment after disappointment and our fingernails were down to the quick. We knew we would pull through but we were also watching our bank account vanish quickly. Instead of letting the worry eat away at us we should have broken out the Nintendo 64 and a six pack and started trying to relax, keeping our atmosphere light and making sure the work we were doing was the best work we could possibly do.
If you’re in the creative industry and you’re not having fun then you’re doing it wrong. For a month there we were doing it really wrong. This industry, maybe more than any other, is like whatever newest badass roller coaster they’ve launched at Cedar Point. The ups are a total rush and the lows can leave your stomach in your throat. But one thing’s for certain there’s always another massive hill around the corner. As long as you’re doing great work clients will find you and those clients will recommend you. September finds us back on the up and with everything lined up for October it could be our biggest month yet. It’s a crazy ride, and if you have a family to support it can be all the crazier. But keeping the ride in perspective keeps it fun.