Marketing Firms Beware: 7 Signs a Fix is Needed in Order to Grow

Growing pains — defined as increasing the net employee count — seem to have common themes in the small marketing firms I work with. Real, internal growth (defined by additional body count, not more money or growth through merger or acquisition) is more manageable at something less than 30% year-over-year, since as humans we cannot seem to adapt that quickly. The frequent exceeding of this growth statistic may explain the unusually high failures in the same industry.

Mind Your Own Business ConferenceWe live in an environment that seems to worship growth. But growth is foolhardy without first fixing what you have. Unless growth is controlled, you’ll lose money faster, experience increased turnover, and suffer through quality control issues.
In essence, you’ll become what we call “self-sizing.” The weakest kids will get thrown off as the merry-go-round spins faster.

The formula for that seems to be five or six employees per principal or senior manager. That is, without serious ongoing attention to structural issues, a graphic design firm with one principal and two senior managers will self-size above 15 to 18 total employees.

How do you know if you need to fix things first before you do something foolhardy? Here are seven signs to watch for. If more than one apply, you might need to slow down, fix what you have, and then reconsider your options.

7 Signs You Need to Fix Your Firm First Before Growth Should Happen

  1. You are deadline driven instead of profit driven. In this scenario, every handoff, like in a relay race, is accompanied by some statement about when it’s due and very little that has to do with how many hours should be spent on it.
  2. Responsibility for keeping projects on budget is not centralized in one department *apart* from the account service people.
  3. You guess at your fixed monthly overhead, and it’s really quite a bit higher than your guess.
  4. Equipment leases are regrettably agreed to because cash is unavailable.
  5. Employees leave, complaining of the lack of structure and job descriptions. Worse yet, you rewrite history and blame it on them.
  6. Everybody does everything, but nobody is really responsible.
  7. There is no time to put things in writing.

Let’s just look at No.7 in greater depth. The last time you left on vacation, we can assume that you tied up all those loose ends and then addressed in writing what might come up while you were gone. You were motivated to do this because you didn’t want to be bothered.

How is it, then, that you rely on verbal directions instead of written ones after the vacation? Despite protestations to the contrary, it has little to do with insufficient time to write everything down. (We all know that this small investment up front saves considerable time later.)

It is rather because subconsciously you want to be needed. If you dole out information piecemeal, you are left indispensably in the loop. And still get mileage from complaining about all the interruptions. This is a sure sign of someone who is struggling with their role. And that happens most often in a firm growing without a plan.

Practice saying “no” to opportunities that wag the dog. It’s the most painful word any entrepreneur ever uttered. Growth is about your personal role and little else.


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