The difference between a 30 and a 150-person agency
It’s always fascinating to hear from other owners about how they operate and what works (or not) for them on different stages, how was it with a team of 2, 10, 100, or more people on board, and what’s the difference between them.
I had a wonderful chat with Shane Pearlman at WordCamp Berlin in 2019. I realized that my company was not designed to work with enterprise clients, and it was crucial in terms of further healthy growth and taking the right direction both in business and life. My question was something like, “What’s the difference between a 30 and 150 people agency?” The answer was life-changing, and I’m always hungry for more stories from behind the scenes.
The difference 120 makes
So what is the difference between a 30 and a 150-person agency?
The difference is 120 people obviously!
But honestly, I believe it depends on who you ask, and it’s a long, long list of interesting stuff. How I approach it personally is to ask myself what I want from life and if my business in its current shape will support me on this path — if not, what can I do to pivot in the right direction? (To pivot the business, not everything else.)
If you follow tech news headlines, it’s all about rapid growth, growing the team, getting more ambitious jobs, getting bigger clients, working for enterprise clients, all the tutorials on how to get more of X, more of Y.
What personal costs are you willing to pay?
What I’ve learned from other owners is that some of them were much happier when they were running 20-40 person companies, and they became miserable after growing to 150 or more people. Another thing I heard was that from an owner’s perspective it was way better financially to run a stable 30-person agency that is easy to manage than scaling up to 150 or so. With size come more risks, less freedom, more politics, difficult clients, a slower pace, change resistance, hiring people to take care of other people, and the list goes on.
Rapid growth has its own price, so if you want to do it fast, you need to sacrifice a lot in terms of work-life balance, financial results, etc.
One agency owner’s story
Back in 2019, my agency was a team of 10 people, and we were entering a space where we could easily start working with big enterprises. Our idea of the future was to scale up and grow. Of course it was.
Thanks to the conversations I had with other owners at WordCamp Europe, I got a behind-the-scenes look into “competitors” companies. First of all, working with enterprise companies means playing their game with their rules: a lot of legal compliance, politics, strict terms of payment, and very, very long decision-making processes.
The value of honest conversations with peers and mentors
On a more personal level, what I learned from others was that they were the happiest and got the best money out of their business when their agencies were smaller with fewer people there just to manage other people.
I had an honest and difficult conversation with my business partners about what we want from our lives, why we actually do business on our own, how long we are willing to wait for the results, etc. So for us, the number one priority was to be independent, to be able to choose what we do, with whom, and how. It was more important to feel safe and happy than to earn more money.
Big is beautiful — and so is small
That is why we decided that working for enterprises is not for us. We also decided that we will keep our company small and focus on delivering a great experience for our clients. We want to build great relationships with them, so they can’t imagine working with anyone else, and if it works we will be able to define our terms of cooperation.
Of course, there were a lot of financial projections involved so we got the numbers for both scenarios: growing fast, working with bigger clients, or keeping the business calm and small.
We did it our way — and you can too
Fast forward to today: We put a lot of effort into this idea of running a kind of slow business, a smaller team, delivering the highest possible quality, and building long-term relations with our clients. We were able to put ourselves in a position where we don’t need to search for new jobs, we have the luxury of choosing what we want to do and with whom. Over the past three years, we grew our team twofold — from 10 to 20 people — but financially we grew fourfold.
It’s still not easy! Service businesses are difficult, generally speaking, but for me, the best things were possible mostly because of my honest conversations with different owners.
We didn’t go alone — and neither should you
From my perspective, if you are not a part of a community like Post Status, or if you haven’t had the good fortune of unexpected conversations at a WordCamp, you may assume everyone wants, chooses, and loves maximum growth. Not so! If you’re considering major growth as a goal, talk to others who have been through it, and ask them about the costs and downsides.