A "client concentration" problem refers to having a single related source of work representing more than 25% of your gross profit (fees + markup income). That's usually the point at which the yellow light should blink on your financial dashboard. That same light should blink red if it moves to 35%, because my research shows that to be the median at which one-half of firms fail. In other words, one-half survive the loss of a client that represents ca. 35% and the other one-half fail. Maybe not immediately, but they can usually trace it back to that point if they were not prepared for it. This is meant to prepare you for it.
You either had, have, or will have a gorilla client. Don't be afraid of it, and don't say "no" to the work. A problem like this almost always comes from something great you've done and you deserve the accolades in the form of even more work. Don't get a huge head, though, because unusually high spikes in your top line revenue typically stem from a client concentration issue and not unusual and sudden strong new business skills.
First Step: Honesty
When I talk about this to clients, the first thing they always say is this: "Yes, but all this related work is coming from different departments, and even different contacts in the same department. In fact, they hate each other and we'd probably get more work if we lost one department!"
That's bullshit, if you'll pardon me, because it assumes....Read More
I’m frequently asked how to fund growth. I’m going to answer that question here, too, but first I want to lay a foundation for why I answer that question a certain way. In the end you may disagree with me, which is fine, but you at least deserve more than just a simple answer.
Let’s first review our options for funding sources.
First, growth can be funded from ongoing operations. When more comes in than goes out, there’s a certain amount of leftover funds called profit, and that profit can be used to make investments in the future of a company. These investments may take the form of hiring an employee before you really need him or her, purchasing equipment for that employee, building out a nice new space, etc. The money to do these things isn’t missed because there’s plenty of money there in the form of ongoing profit.
Second, growth can be funded by deferring expenses. Even though you may be on the hook for certain obligations, you may decide to not pay them promptly, stretching the vendor out and using the money in other ways until new money comes in. So a client might prepay you for media expenses, but in this scenario you don’t set it aside for that media expense but instead use the funds to cover growth....Read More
What leads to business success? If you’ve ever gone back to your high school reunion, you’ve probably seen some surprise success stories and scratched your head while asking the same question. For small marketing firms, success typically follows one of two paths.Read More
The first step toward an improved business environment is stepping out of denial with a deep sigh of relief as you begin to use new found energy to fix the problems instead of mask them. We all have ways of talking about specific situations that make them a bit more palatable.Read More
There are thousands of tools for social media, and only a few dozen that strike me as useful. One of those is Tweriod, which analyzes your Twitter account, including when followers are most likely to interact with you, and thus when you should post. Best of all, it will auto-populate your account at Buffer, building the schedule for each of your accounts accordingly.
Click to download a 9-page PDF of the data from my account to illustrate what you'll see.Read More
As you grow, what transitions are useful and even expected? Let’s look at a few that you’ll almost certainly encounter and help you see what might be on the other side of the transition.
One: Hiring for Expertise vs. Money
The first good transition to make is to begin hiring people for their expertise rather than for what they cost you. In the early days, you have a budget and you hire accordingly. You aim for whatever you can get for that price, and that’s the best you can do. There simply isn’t any more money, and expertise takes a back seat to available funds.
Eventually, though, you determine that expertise is more important than money. So you outline what you’re looking for in great detail and you don’t settle for less. You have a budget in mind, but the budget takes a back seat to the requirements for expertise. That means you may bust the budget. But in this scenario, one very qualified person may actually be equally as effective as two less qualified individuals.
Two: From Judging to Shaping
The second good transition to make is to move from judging to shaping the work underneath....Read More
I had trouble getting to sleep last night, and for some reason I started thinking about how managing client relationships has changed over the years. I'm not talking about my clients, but your clients. Do you know the really important things about how to do it right? I'm not sure i would have figured all these out, but I have paid attention to the hundreds of firms I've worked with and tried to cull out the best practices that have been proven in the field.
Just for fun, I started writing these down as they came to mind in a stream of consciousness style. Here are a few of them:
- The only power you have in a client relationship is to withhold your expertise.
- The degree to which you have power in a relationship is directly related to how long it takes to replace you.
- There are only two ways to have more opportunity than capacity, which represents your ability to say "no" to prospects and clients: create more opportunity or reduce your capacity.
- The most important criteria in evaluating a prospective client is whether or not they've used a firm like yours before. Never be the first.
- Your cheap ass clients are the ones spending their own money. You want to work for clients with budget authority over someone else's money.
- The clients who trust you say: "I have $140,000 for this project. What's the most we could do with that money?" The ones who don't trust you say, "Here's what I need. What will it cost?"....
A great client recently asked me to outline my definition of success for their firm. I really enjoyed doing that, and below is a version that you can adapt to your own situation, putting your own stamp on it:
- Partner compensation equals or exceeds industry benchmarks.
- After that is achieved, you still 20% net profit.
- The more entrepreneurial employees are satisfied that their contribution to your gain is recognized and accounted for.
- Partners and employees in key roles will have already tasted competence in the area of your focus, or they will experience it within nine months of joining the firm.
- There will be few or no young employees who value variety over expertise.
- When employees talk about your firm, while still employed, their private comments will be complimentary.
- When partners and employees head out the door to work for the day, they look forward to the challenges, the companionship, and their participation in the overall culture.
- As a firm you will not require extraordinary people....
I was recently working with a firm under our new "Come to Nashville" program for a day and we were doing long-term planning, mainly, but with an eye on how that might impact the short term. I came up with some questions that turned out to be very helpful as they took a break from the continuous crazy days we all have, and then answered them honestly and seriously.
- How do you feel about the current positioning of your firm? If you could waive a magic wand and change it (without regard to current employees or clients), what would your positioning be?
- What are your biggest fears in just pursuing that positioning, even if it means doing so alongside your current firm and maybe even doing it all alone without employees?
- If I watched you on a typical day, would it look like you are taking care of clients or would it look like you were taking care of employees (who would then take care of clients if you did your job well)?
- Who are the two weakest employee links who probably should be dismissed in the near future?
- Who is the most talented person at your firm who is disruptive to the culture? Are they on the list, above, of people to dismiss?
- You likely started this firm to create an environment for yourself that allowed for more freedom, control, and money. Now that you have built it, to what degree are these three things true?...
I seldom give up my 17,000-person blog platform to guests. Keeping your attention is important and my primary marketing tool. But, I read a blog last week that Mark Busse wrote, and I thought it was brilliant. I'm sharing it here with his permission:
Rushing into starting your own design business can turn a dream into a nightmare.
Recently I heard from two former students of mine. As they entered the industry a few years ago we had some honest talks about their options, and against my advice they decided to skip internships or junior positions--which they felt were both beneath them--and went into partnership together with another classmate to form their own design studio. After some early success working for friends and family, their studio quickly fell into chaos, the partnership dissolved, and the company folded, leaving their clients in rough shape.
I'll spare you my story of how running my design business has still not brought the freedom, flexibility or financial reward I'd hoped for after 15 years--and I have a business degree--and how I often miss the days of just working for someone else. Instead, let's talk about how lazy, short-sighted and dangerous starting your own business can be.
You heard me: lazy, short-sighted and....Read More