The first critical hurdle in agency growth: Letting go to pass £1 million

11th July 2023 – by Paul Muggeridge-Breene, Thrive CEO

Hitting the first £1 million of income is a huge achievement for every agency. The journey to this point is likely to have been exhausting and exhilarating in equal measure, and the lessons learned will stand the agency in good stead for the next stages of growth.

But there’s a critical hurdle to be cleared before those stages can be achieved. It’s the first of four critical hurdles on the way to £5 million income outlined in my earlier article. In short, these are points when the challenges thrown up by growth are so significant that they block further progress.

This first hurdle is all about letting go, and is one of the hardest to clear. Many agencies fail to clear it, either flatlining at this income level or, even worse, dropping backwards.

The challenge

The issue at the £1 million mark is that the founder can no longer manage everything on their own. While the agency will almost certainly have a team of 10-20 at this stage, many founders will still be trying to stay across all of the detail.

Unfortunately, this just can’t work any more. There’s too much work, too many things to be across, and too many demands on their time and energy.

Even if managers have been recruited, properly delegating responsibilities can be incredibly hard. The founder has been involved in absolutely everything up to this point and – obviously – believes that nobody can do things as well as they can! The tendency is to continue trying to micromanage across the board.

This is largely human nature – especially for entrepreneurial types. But it means key tasks will be missed and focus will be spread too thinly, with nothing being done particularly well. Managers may well decide to leave rather than continue to be ineffectively micromanaged.

Overall, existing client work will inevitably suffer – as will the growth plan. New work may continue to be won, but it’s likely to be offset by the loss of existing clients as service and quality suffers. Net result, a standstill.

The solution

To clear this hurdle, the founder needs to work really hard on understanding what letting go looks like, and how to do it. This may sound simple, but it really isn’t. It’s significant work, and not everyone will be able to accept the need to do it – which is the first and hardest step.

Once they’ve done that, the rest is relatively straightforward. The founder’s plan of action should look something like this:

  • Learn what good delegation really involves. Don’t assume you already know – put yourself through some effective delegation training, or at least read a range of the latest research and commit to putting what you’ve learned into action. You need to know how to delegate tasks and responsibilities – both ongoing and one-off – in a way that really allows you to trust that the work will be done
  • Create a high-level overview of everything you currently do, with approximate time allocations to each, for an average week
  • Explore who else could do each of the tasks – either a current member of the team, or somebody else. Take some time to work this through. What are the blockers that come up?
  • Build some “ideal world” future scenarios for what you would and wouldn’t be doing – one for the next month, one for the next year and one for when your agency is twice as big
  • Determine the additional people required to make each of the scenarios work. What types of people would be needed? What skills would they have?
  • Update your “next month” scenario based on your current financial situation. You may decide to just delegate within your existing team, or you may feel comfortable recruiting additional people to take on some of your tasks and responsibilities
  • Create a detailed plan of action to transition to the “next month” scenario, and a high-level plan to transition to the “next year” and “twice as big” scenarios
  • Implement the plans, adjusting along the way as required

If you do recruit new people – particularly new managers – be sure to delegate properly and really trust them to do the work!

Above all, it’s really important to stay aware of the fact that letting go is hard, and to watch out for any unhelpful behaviours as you put your plans into action. Holding yourself to account – or making yourself accountable to somebody else – is really important to minimise any backsliding, and to ensure you clear this first critical hurdle.

Good luck!

Paul Muggeridge-Breene is CEO of Thrive, a former agency MD, former international journalist and a member of the British Psychological Society. Please get in touch if you’d like to discuss how Thrive can help you.