How to grow your agency while looking after your business budget

Lydia .

Growing an agency

Budgets are always a touchy subject, particularly for small, growing businesses. You’ve got to spend money to make money, right? But what if there’s very little to spend and a whole lot of pressure to make big things happen?

Well, don’t panic. We’ve put together a handful of quick, doable ideas designed to help you bring in some handy extra income and find the hidden earning potential in what you’ve already got. A bit like finding a fiver down the back of the sofa, they’re surprisingly simple ways to feel better about your budget – and what you spend it on. Here goes…

Cut out hidden costs

When it comes to your business model, most successful start-up entrepreneurs will tell you to keep it lean. Is it nice to have an amazing office with organic elderflower-and-pomegranate-infused filtered water? Sure. Is it going to do your bank balance any favours? No.

Of course, a little fake-it-till-you-make-it works wonders. After all, you don’t want your clients thinking you’re teetering on the edge of bankruptcy. But whatever you’re spending, value should always be at the heart of your budget decisions.

Work out where you’re wasting money

You’re not the only business in this boat. Small, growing agencies often make the same spending slip-ups. So what are the big things you should be looking out for?

Premises: You’ve got to have a clean, bright, functional workspace. That’s a given. But make sure you don’t overshoot on size or location when you sign up for that first office rental. Take a careful look at the size of your team and how likely it is to grow in the next couple of years.

Sometimes location really matters, but sometimes it really doesn’t. Think about whether clients need to visit you on site, or whether you could save time (and tidying up) by holding more meetings online. In some cases, it’s actually better to get out and visit clients in their own premises too – especially if you’re trying to tailor a service to their specific needs.

Employees: Building a team of highly skilled professionals is absolutely the key to a successful business. But in the early years, you might not have the consistent workload to keep every employee fully occupied, all the time. Twiddling thumbs is expensive, so think hard before you hire permanent staff and make sure you’re confident you can cover their wages, whatever happens.

A less risky option is to consider outsourcing some of your services, using companies who’ll only charge you for the work you actually need. Alternatively, you could bring in freelancers to work on an ad-hoc basis. You can still build a team of great people you enjoy working with regularly, but you won’t need to pay them when the work’s just not there.

Jobs it might be cheaper to outsource:

  • Marketing
  • Accounting
  • Human resource management
  • Admin

For affordable freelance talent, try:

Equipment and technology investments: Ok, be honest. Have you got equipment that’s just gathering dust? If you’ve bought or hired something you rarely use or make money from, it’s time for a spring clean. Think about cancelling that rental, selling something off or outsourcing that service to reduce your regular outgoings.

It’s also helpful to do an audit of the software you pay subscription fees for. Do you use it often enough to justify the price? Is there a free version or cheaper alternative you could use instead? Dreamstime is a great example – it’s a source of free stock images you can tap into while you build up your budget to gain access to better platforms.

Unused employee benefits: You’ve got to look after your employees, but rewards that aren’t really relevant won’t make an impact, inspire loyalty or increase retention. They’ll just burn a hole in your pocket. There’s no point paying for gym memberships people never use, so work out what motivates your team and put benefits in place that people really value.

Manage your project pipeline

When it comes to running an agency your project pipeline is the moneymaker, but disorganisation in this area wastes money. Simple.

Not having set, formalised processes in place for your projects creates chaos when you’re trying to see something through from start to finish. If everyone on your team is confused about their roles and your expectations, you’ll be running a messy project, wasting expensive resources and running the risk of making everyone – from your team to your clients – pretty unhappy.

So you’re not wasting resources on firefighting, compensating for unmet deadlines and creating friction in your team, set up a strong, robust framework with genuinely attainable goals.

How to map out your project process

1. Create key roles: Delegate ownership of tasks, be clear about who everyone’s reporting to and make sure they really understand what their responsibilities are.

2. Track progress: Try using task tracking or productivity software to make sure everyone’s in the loop – with every stage of every project.

3. Clear up communication: Find a transparent, centralised platform everyone can use to communicate and stay up to speed. It’s also important to create a language that everyone in your team understands, so there’s no confusion about expectations, and less costly rework. Platforms like Slack or MS Teams are great for creating open, project-based communication channels.

4. Know your clients: Before you start a new project, be super clear about what your client’s expectations are and how you’ll manage them. Create a list of questions you cover at every project kick-off meeting. Use the answers to tailor your project strategy to the client’s needs and continuously prioritise their end goal.

No-spend ways to boost your revenue

Business growth is, essentially, income growth. If you don’t generate more revenue each year, you’ll soon hit a plateau or start to stagnate. So, it’s important to always review your marketing efforts, identify new opportunities and take calculated risks to explore new revenue streams.

That said, you don’t need to plunge into expensive campaigns or make significant investments to make a powerful, positive difference. Here are five things you can do, absolutely free…

1. Step up your content game. Creating content is free and easy – and if you want to generate new leads, it’s what your audience needs to see. Whether it’s by being more active on social media, publishing regular blogs, or putting out practical tutorials and engaging videos, having valuable, visible content can help you win the confidence of potential clients. To quote the entrepreneur Gary Vaynerchuk, “content is the gateway drug for small businesses”.

2. Find a niche. In the beginning, you might be open to working with a whole range of different clients, with vastly varying budgets. But if you look closely at this type of business model, you might find it’s not a very sustainable one for scaling up. Think about whether you’re attracting a specific kind of client, and whether your team’s equipped with the skills and resources to give that client outstanding service. If you see a pattern and it’s bringing in a consistent income, think about zoning in on that industry and getting even more out of it. You can still spread your wings and broaden your offering, but you’ll have a strong revenue stream to support you along the way.

3. Capitalise on your happy customers. Word of mouth is a powerful thing, and a potent marketing tool. It doesn’t cost you anything to ask happy clients for reviews, or invite them to feature in content like case studies and testimonials. Gather their opinions and get those words of praise up on your website – it’s a great way to inspire trust, create confidence and get new clients knocking on your door.

4. Sell new features to existing customers. It’s good practice to review the services you’re offering your clients from time to time, and see what else you can do to help them on their own growth journey. A client you did a project for a year ago might now be reaching into new markets, or have a bigger budget to play with. It’s excellent inbound marketing to check in, ask whether they’re happy and offer new features that complement what you’re already doing.

The key takeaway

In a fluctuating economy, with the odds stacked against new businesses, it’s understandable to be keeping a tight hold of those purse strings every time your marketing manager comes up with another brilliant but expensive idea.

But, as we’ve seen, there’s a whole load of quick, clever ways you can snip back your budget while still helping your business grow and thrive. To recap:

1. Cut back on expensive things you just can’t justify at this stage of your business journey, like unsuitable premises, fluffy overheads, underused staff and outdated or unused equipment.

2. Streamline your project management and fortify yourself against expensive firefighting and re-work. Find fun, free or cheap ways to grow your audience and generate more leads.

3. There’s no shame in being frugal – just keep your eye on the prize and make sure you’re managing your expenditure with expansion in mind.

We thought we’d leave you with this no-nonsense quote from IBM’s CEO, Ginni Rometty: “Growth and comfort don’t coexist”. Right? Right.

In other words, when you’re small and growing, no decision is a safe decision. You’ll have to spend some to make some. You might even lose some. But ultimately, with a good plan, good people on your team and an effective business model, you really will grow.

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