Lessons from a decade of agency ownership

The challenges inherent to owning an agency, and the lessons Jenna learned from starting small and growing to land massive contracts.
Jenna Farrell
2 min
Starting an agency from scratch is a major achievement no matter how and when you take the plunge. I started my agency over 10 years ago, when me and my business partner had both recently arrived in a new country. Starting with no local networks was especially tough, and we literally knocked on businesses doors to get our name out there (a little tougher to do post-covid with the rise of hybrid work).

The early days were a grind, but over time we built a client list from small local businesses to large government agencies. Owning my own design agency was a dream come true, but I quickly learned that even when you land big accounts like our government contracts, it can still feel like treading water. Here's my story and some actionable takeaways to help fellow business owners navigate the rough waters of agency life.

1. Scoping Out the Right Work

Defining the scope of a project is the foundational step to ensuring project success. The biggest issue I faced was getting the scope of work right from the get-go. It sounds simple, but it's not. Especially in the early days when I hadn’t yet developed my sixth-sense for what clients would probably want out of a project – even if they didn’t ask for it.

Quick fix: Review past projects and their scopes to create a more accurate estimate for new clients. Look for patterns of underselling or overselling, and adjust your approach accordingly.

2. All Access Isn’t Always a Good Thing

With a growing number of clients and conflicting deadlines, we needed client collaboration to be seamless. With one trusted client we thought that inviting them to our internal tools could improve collaboration, and granted them access to internal tools like Jira, Figma, and even our team Slack. It sounded like a great idea until I opened Figma one day to see a flurry of client comments. Their contributions were unfocused and often contradicted each other, the sheer volume was so overwhelming I had an anxiety attack. I had to step back, and thankfully, a team member took the helm for the day.

Quick fix: Limit client access to platforms. Instead, set clear channels for feedback and maintain the reigns on how and where they can provide input.

3. Prioritise Your Mental Health

The stress of being both an owner-operator and juggling roles, like design and account management, can take its toll. Managing scope changes, client expectations, and actually doing the work was a mammoth task. Remember, no email marked “URGENT” is worth sacrificing your well-being.

Quick fix: Communicate with your team when you're overwhelmed. Regularly take breaks, get fresh air, and remember that your mental health always comes first.

4. The Communication Quagmire

Scrolling through endless email chains and Slack threads or digging up notes from old video meetings to find client requests was an exhausting daily routine. Often, the original scope of work would be lost in the shuffle.

Quick fix: Simplify! Instead of juggling numerous software tools, we shifted to a shared spreadsheet system. Clients could input their changes, we’d quote them, and they'd either approve or decline. This transparent, centralised method cleared up so much confusion and streamlined our workflow.

In my experience, running an agency was a challenge, but with the right processes in place, I was able to reduce the chaos to become more intentional with how we operated. This journey has not only made me a better business owner but also led to the birth of Scopey, designed to address these very pain points. 

If I could overcome these challenges, so can you. 

Remember, simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.