Anthony Del Monte is the CEO and founder of Squeaky Wheel Media, a Web design and development agency based in NYC.
Most entrepreneurs can pinpoint the exact moment when they decided to stop working on their potential business plan and to start working on their actual business. Chances are, many of those moments came after the ever-present (but often-ignored) question: “What next”?
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For me, this moment was years ago, when the second plane flew over my head on September 11th. I cannot describe that feeling, and this isn’t the forum to try, but I remember needing an answer to “What next?” more than ever before. I was overwhelmed by the immediate desire to stop making excuses and to finally start the agency I had been dreaming up for years.
For you, that moment was hopefully less horrific, but equally as galvanizing — maybe you were laid off, down-sized or frustrated. Or maybe it was in your DNA like so many serial entrepreneurs in this country — from the ones openly-traded on the exchange, to the bodega owner making his or her own history.
Whatever it is that made you make the jump was likely profound, but it’s important to realize that once you’re in the water, you have to keep moving. “What next” is a great mantra to make sure you don’t sink.
For myself, and most likely you as well, I find that I can’t shake this mantra. I’ve come to realize that it isn’t going anywhere – starting my agency wasn’t the answer to this question, it was just the start of many more.
The reality is that the “What next?” is the driver of our business; it is the voice in my head telling me that I have to make my mark. It is the thought that propels me to understand that this industry is constantly evolving and that being ahead of this curve will allow me to keep my business thriving. It isn’t the little engine that could, it is the tracks, fuel and everything else necessary to get that tiny blue bastard up the hill.
Since I am not alone in this challenging time for us little guys, I have put together five tenets that I force myself to remember every time the “What next?” pops back up:
1. Produce the best work
At my agency, we concentrate on doing the absolute best work we can, which in turn provides a reinforced sense of security. This sounds simple enough, but it can be incredibly easy to lose sight of this when you are in the “sausage-making” duties of running a small agency.
For my partners and me, it all boils down to the fact that we want to live a happy and fulfilling life and want the same for our employees. I know that a job (a.k.a. security) is the most important element in this equation, so survivability is always our focus – and to survive you have to be the best.
This has powered our creative and our work ethic, and consequently led to stability, profitability and growth. Retaining business is simple: make your clients grow and in that manifested effort, you will as well.
2. Anticipate the “Downs”
If you’re a small business owner, you’ve probably noticed a shift in the traditional buyer-seller relationship over the past couple of years. Clients are beginning to take longer to pay their bills, and in some cases, companies are even officially extending their timeframe for paying.
As a small agency, Squeaky is extremely tied to accounts receivable, so it is difficult to pay my employees and make our monthly nut if clients do not pay on time. To prepare for this, forecast revenue/profit and a loss in order to anticipate a percentage of delinquency so that when it happens, you are prepared.
Similarly, if the majority of your revenue is dependent on one large client or project, anticipate what would happen in a worst-case scenario of suddenly losing that client.
For all the optimistic energy that most entrepreneurs have, we must also have a bit of pessimism. I tend to be pessimistic about the cash, and so far it has worked for us, as it has meant that we are always prepared.
3. Celebrate the “Ups”
Happy people are creative people and creativity is the life force of agencies like mine, so we make it a point to share in each other’s successes. Whether it’s landing a big client, launching a new site or it’s just someone’s birthday (or a Friday), we celebrate. We know that our clients want to enjoy who they work with, just as we do.
Our overall sentiment and ethos shows our clients that we enjoy the work that we do for them, which in turn gives them some peace of mind and results in repeated business.
There are numerous ways to celebrate the “Ups” when you focus on your people, and not solely your business. Everyone in your company has a lot going on outside of work so if you’re truly running a great culture, then each day offers new stuff to get jazzed about.
4. Have fun
Having fun doesn’t mean playing foosball all day; it means challenging each other, supporting each other and growing together. It means finding the notes that work best together and embracing that chord. Our added-value to clients is the fact that we have built an environment that is in-touch with the ever-evolving worlds of art, culture and diversity, which is what we consider to be fun.
Since the majority your staff’s time is spent working, fighting and winning together, it’s important to recognize the need to have fun along the way and in turn, live enriched lives. You can define this in whatever way your company culture will accommodate it but an easy start is to ask your people what they want. Being able to participate in the decisions of your company will make them happier.
If that doesn’t work, get rid of them. Life is too short and growth is not possible with unhappy people.
5. Always be nice
“Be the change you wish to see in the world” (thanks, Gandhi) may be at times simple, but that doesn’t negate its worth. This change doesn’t need to be transformative — it can be easy, and it can even be as simple as being nice. But you have to lead by example.
This is the reason I still cook lunch for the entire staff once a week and take out the trash as often as the next guy. And it is this focus that has landed us countless industry awards – because we recognize that if you look hard enough it always boils down to…people. Just people.
This simple tenet is at the root of our success; it is the common thread in our agency, and the easiest and most memorable takeaway from anyone who interacts with us
So there it is; our own personal recipe for success is not rocket science. It’s based on a question that you may ask yourself when you are confronted with lower revenues, shrinking budgets and increased client expectations — the very reasons why you ask yourself: “What next?”