Cutting Ties with Four Legacies

While running your firm looks a lot like the reverse peeling of an onion, building layer after layer, at some point you need to quit building on the past and start constructing an entirely new firm. That process of cutting ties with the past is essential … and terrifying. It’s what happens when a child moves out, a bird gets kicked out of a nest or a student pilot takes off on that first solo flight. It’s probably more likely that you’d associate moments of terror with starting your firm, but it actually requires far more courage to move beyond that initial founding.

photo from Shutterstock

I want to discuss four areas where — if you don’t cut ties with the past — you’ll never really thrive.

That First Big Client

You need to lose some clients. I don’t even know what your specific client base looks like, but I can still comfortably predict that you need to lose some clients.

Mind Your Own Business ConferenceI’m not talking about those little ankle-biters that we all recognize as a poor fit. No, I’m talking about that one significant client you’ve had nearly from the beginning. The one that enabled you to buy equipment, hire people and secure the space for both.

They took a chance on you, and you feel indebted to them for that. They also suffered through those early growing pains when you promised them the moon and then quickly realized that you were going to have to get smart fast or you’d look stupid trying to fulfill the promise.

Why are they holding you back? I can think of three reasons that usually apply.

First, they’ve been there long enough that you’re doing work for them under a cost structure that doesn’t really make sense. Your employees are making more. You’re making more. Costs in general are higher. But what they pay hasn’t really kept pace with all that. And new clients — even smaller new clients — are paying quite a bit more.

You tell yourself that it’s so easy to service them that they shouldn’t have to pay the new rates, but in truth that’s only justification for maintaining the status quo. You know their resistance to increases and so you choose to not press the issue.

Even if they’re paying the same hourly rates, they may not be meeting the minimum monthly fee that enables you to both make money and dig into their situation deeply enough to make a difference. Either way, it’s time to move on. Find a new client to replace them and then pair them with a solution that’s a better fit.

Second, they’re holding you back because they’re keeping you fat, happy, and satisfied instead of hungry for new business. You keep telling yourself that it’s got to be cheaper to keep the clients you have than to find new ones. But that only works if the clients you have are the right kind of clients, and this one’s not.

Third, this legacy client is holding you back because they demand a specific role for you personally that keeps you too involved in their account. No matter how many times you’ve tried to hand them off to another account or project manager, they still keep contacting you. (And of course you keep enabling that behavior.) Again, it’s time to find a client that doesn’t have those same expectations for your role. Your best use is to hire the key people, maintain the culture, find new work, and keep a finger on the financial pulse of things. Mucking around in client relationships is holding you back (assuming you’re running a firm larger than a few people).

That First Early Employee

The truth is that employees are hired for different reasons at different points on the growth curve of your firm. Early on, you’ll typically look for utility players who are good enough at wearing many different hats. That’s what the business needs, and even though the idea of focused effort is appealing, it’s not realistic in a smaller firm. So hiring decisions are heavily swayed by someone’s attitude and teachability. You may even be looking for a blank slate who can be taught to do things the way you want them done.

Eventually you’ll wind up with an employee in this category who has been with you longer than anyone else, has the keys to the kingdom, is overpaid (because you aren’t sure how to get out of the spiral of yearly raises), and still “good enough” to do most things. You can spot them because they quickly introduce themselves to new employees as the “critical first employee” who can make things happen if that’s needed. They offer themselves as a conduit to the principal, filtering requests and speaking on their behalf. Essentially they’re a “complaint sink” to the office like a “heat sink” is to a circuit board, attracting all things negative.

It’s sad, really, because in some ways it’s not this person’s fault. Their significance was learned from doing lots of things as a utility player. But slowly task after task is taken away and given to more of a vertical expert in that area of responsibility. To the early employee, that translates into a loss of significance and the void is not acceptable for long. So the quest for significance takes another form: how close a relationship they can have with the principal.

It’s time to step back and carefully consider what the business needs, and then graciously make it happen, even if that means finding another place for that employee who has, indeed, been loyal and hard working.

That First Crowded Office

If you have less than 250 ft2 per employee (in addition to at least 500 ft2 of common area), your space has what I term “emotional crowding” issues. If you have less than 200 ft2 per employee (in addition to at least 200 ft2 of common area), your space has real physical crowding issues!

What will a new space do for you?

First, it’ll give you some news to talk about. In fact, I’ve seen moving announcements become an agency’s most effective marketing tool.

Second, moving into new space can symbolize change and growth, all considered positive by your prospects, clients, and employees.

Third, having a new facility is a good reason to invite prospects and clients to visit. Give them a great agency tour and they’ll get a better sense of your culture and be able to make a more personal connection with your firm.

Sometimes moving out of that early facility is just what it takes to move to the next level. And not just for your prospects and clients, but for you, too.

That First Role of Yours

What should you be doing in your firm? However you answer that, being the point person for a client relationship has to be way down the list. The problem, though, is that you originally used your small size as a firm to sell that aspect (“You’ll be working with me.”) as if somehow that’s a benefit when it’s really not, to you or them.

First, the entrepreneurial outlook that enabled you to do a good job starting a firm has little to do with the outlook required to manage a client relationship. Some principals are extroverts (that’s a requirement for excellent account management) and some are not (in which case they struggle). Furthermore, managing client relationships requires a certain patience and attention to detail sorely lacking in most principals.

Second, the increasing demands on your time, as the firm grows, make you less accessible than a client needs you to be. That can actually work in your favor, though, because they may get to the point where they welcome another solution, as long as that solution brings more ready access for them.

Third, managing client relationships inevitably keeps you from doing the things that your firm so desperately needs from you long-term, like new business.

All this to say sometimes older client relationships that have unusual expectations of you personally can be like a tether, holding a hot air balloon to the ground.


When you’ve gotten comfortable in one room, the last thing you may want to do is leave that setup to explore a passageway somewhere else without any certainty that it’ll be better, and maybe not even as good. You see the door and you’re tempted to see what’s on the other side, but you’re not ready. I’m here to say that usually (that’s the risk, isn’t it) you’ll find all sorts of better places for your business and then you’ll wonder at your initial reticence to move on.

Consider being more entrepreneurial now, even when you aren’t in a start-up phase.

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