In honor of S4’s 10th anniversary, we caught up with Chris L. and Chris O. to talk a little about what they’ve learned during their decade in digital marketing.
When you own a business, you're always dealing with competing forces. The highs can be very high, but that means the lows can also be very low. It’s something you have to get used to and toughen up your skin.
And the less you know, the better you think things are going...which can free you up to be more creative in how you approach problem solving.
When Lahey and I were getting beers and starting a company, we talked about the cool work, but not whether we would be good managers. Growing a team is more about the people you select. Part of being a good mananger is understanding that people are more important than the tech.
It can be hard to learn to let go of the work, especially when you know exactly what you want and can’t always communicate it to people. Sometimes you think you are communicating, but...you’re not. It’s hard to truly grow and learn to delegate. It can be a challenge and unfair to them if you are judging them by what you would do and not necessarily on what they think they should do.
Morale is hard to build, easy to lose. It can be especially hard to repair after losing an important employee or if there has been a situation where emotions get heated. Studies show employees need to feel what they are doing is important and that their issues are being heard. People might be able to get more money elsewhere, but they will stay at a place they like. At the end of the day, a good company culture saves you money and allows you to be more efficient as an organization.
We all have reasons of our own to explain why we do what we do. But having a well defined culture is a way for us all to share a collective reason and experience here at S4. When everyone is in alignment, the team just works better and the final work product is superior.
If you aren’t careful, all of your friends can be completely replaced by business associates. Spending all that time together can blur the lines. It can get to the point where you have to fire someone and end up getting kicked off your fantasy football league. I learned I needed to make a point to nurture friendships that didn’t have a connection to the business.
What’s good for a friendship isn’t always what’s good for the company. I have definitely lost some friendships when people didn’t understand that. I feel a good team member is someone who you can connect with off hours, but who understands that when it’s time to work there’s no room for anything else.
Running a business is by the numbers. In the past, we made decisions that didn’t always take the bottom line into consideration.
I respectfully disagree. It’s not always all about numbers. You can boil it down to numbers, but if you over optimize based on current metrics you can miss out on long-term opportunities. I think it’s called local maxima theory. You’re trying to maximize to your current situation, so you might be too cautious and miss a big opportunity.
The flip side is you have to pay now in time and effort for those future opportunities. If you fail to protect your profit margin in your day-to-day transactions, you’ll never be able to go after big-picture items that require increased risk, buffers of capital, and time investment away from client work. Having a data-centric mindset related to your business activities ensures you can grow, adapt, and invest in the future. It also, in my opinion, is about protecting your team. For me, one of the most fulfilling aspects of owning a business is knowing that I’m funding my team’s lives. Paying for the houses, cars, and anything else they need. Making sure I understand how to protect the people who make up our team goes into a lot of the decisions I make.
Aside from your employees, it’s important to build relationships in the community, both financial and creative, to sound ideas off of. I will also say it’s incredibly challenging to run a business and be an involved family member, parent, husband, and homeowner. Sometimes, it’s not easy for others to understand the pressures you deal with as a result of your business and it’s activities.
You can’t go 100% all the time. You’ll burn out. While you can’t completely check out of your business, you have to be able to give yourself time, so you can come back energized and filled with new ideas. It can be hard to tell yourself it's okay to take a short time off. If you can’t come back, you need to look deeper at whether you are the right person to lead the company. We have two owners, so it’s easier to balance the need for time away.
A few years ago, we went from 5 to 15 people in about 12 months. We started seeing issues with attitude or work. If you hire people who have problems with skillsets or personalities, it can leave lasting scars on the employees who do stick around. It’s hard, but sometimes it’s better to let someone go if they are causing an issue for the team. If you don’t, systems start failing and you don’t have time to build new systems in time to deal with the problem. It’s not fun, and it can cause stress for the team and problems for clients.
For me, the hardest part of growing so quickly was realizing that we were too large and having to scale the team back down. It was a hit to the ego to make the decision to part ways with team members who weren’t the best fit for the whole company. However, now that we have a really solid core group of people, the feeling in the office is exponentially better and more positive that it has been at any time in the history of our company.
This is sort of a counterpoint to the idea that fast growth can be a problem. Sometimes it seems like you can have a few bad employees, projects that go bad, and unhappy clients as long as work is coming in. You have enough slack to rise to the challenge. Whenever everyone is busy, it’s easy to just spend money to address problems instead of thinking about the best long-term solution.
I have personally spent a lot of time developing software that gives us an intimate, real-time understanding how of we’re performing numbers-wise. This has given me and the rest of the leadership team the ability to see problems much sooner than we could before. It helps us make adjustments to ward off issues before they are noticed by the rest of the team. The difference in the way we approach conflicts is so dramatically different now than it used to be. This has allowed us to know exactly how we perform down to a project and team member level. This knowledge has been crucial to us because it shed some light on projects and clients we thought were some of our best. Being able to identify these situations — and know when to turn down clients who won’t be a good fit — has helped improve team morale and is another way we protect our people from projects that aren’t good for the company.
The long-term damage from a bad customer experience is far worse than the short-term gain of sticking to your guns. At the end of the day, most small businesses exist in a limited pool of potential clients. Many clients are from Jacksonville, so if we upset them it can hurt. Clients rarely want to give second chances to an agency they had a bad experience with.
I try to focus on the work — creating a great product and doing the best we can for our clients. The reputation will take care of itself. People are always going to think whatever they want to think anyway. I’ve heard stories from clients who have heard from others that we are arrogant. And my response was, “Is that a bad thing?” At the end of the day, we’re confident we can do amazing work. We’re not always going to make every single client happy, but we certainly will do what’s right for their business. This is actually a distinct difference between Station Four and a traditional agency. We’re not account focused. Our mission is not to make our clients as happy as they can be at the expense of their customer or the success of our relationship. Our job is to create the best solution and to craft that solution in a way that honors a multitude of real-world scenarios such as timelines, budgets, and end-user considerations. If we stay focused on that, and do the best work we can, we won’t need to worry about our reputation.
I’m saving this one for what we still have to learn. One of the greatest things about our industry is that it never stands still. In our field, there’s always another, more nuanced way to solve a problem. Our team also has a lot of energy. Having diverse opinions and directions always helps you evolve your own way of thinking. With our team, I like to instill a healthy appreciation for the unknown and encourage them to not let fear guide our thoughts. I think when I feel there’s nothing left to learn or when we keep solving the same problem the same way, that will be the day I move on to something else. Fortunately, I think we have many years to go!
Aimee Payne is S4’s Marketing Manager and official wordsmith. With a background in copywriting and market research, she’s fanatical about clear communication that is targeted toward the audience’s needs. When she’s not writing for our clients, she’s at home writing novels between watching true crime documentaries.