11 Business Lessons from a 15-Year Agency Owner

I’ve been running my agency, Lform Design, for more than 15 years. I started the business after a stint as a freelancer and, prior to that, working in-house as a designer.

Since 2005, we’ve been helping our clients move the needle through modern, responsive website design that reflects their needs and values.

Of course, I’ve learned a lot about running a business in the 15 years I’ve been at the helm. Today I want to share some of the most important ones with you.

You might also enjoy a recent episode of our podcast sharing exactly what it’s like to be a founder of your own company:

1. Your people are your most important asset

We believe that teamwork is an art, and the most important one you can master if you want a successful business. My team of seven (eight if you count Mose, the office dog!) works closely together in a warm, collaborative environment.

We share the same core values and enjoy bringing our diverse skills together to create something extraordinary for the customer.

Do you want to create a successful business? Then begin by hiring the right people. Skills and qualifications are important, but even more important are attitude, team spirit, and creativity. I take pride in my business, and I only want to hire people who feel the same way.

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Once you’ve hired those people, you need to manage and develop them effectively. Employee engagement and appropriate recognition is the best way to retain your best performers.

If you recognize someone has potential, work with them to develop that talent and provide opportunities for advancement. They’ll reward you with their hard work and loyalty.

For more info on hiring the right people, listen to a recent episode of our podcast, Freelance to Founder.

2. Adaptability is crucial

In 2020, we have seen the importance of adaptability like never before. The COVID-19 pandemic has caused a tremendous shift in the ways we live and work, and the businesses that have survived – and even thrived – are those that have remained adaptable.

But adaptability isn’t just for major world crises. By being adaptable, you can keep your finger on the pulse of changes in your industry or the wider business landscape, and roll with them as they come.

A lot has changed in the web design world in the years I’ve been running my business. I am convinced that our adaptability in that time has been key to our success.

For example, in 2005, no-one could have predicted just how much mobile technology would become a part of everyone’s daily lives. Yet now, most of us cannot imagine living without our smartphones.

By adapting to this change, we’ve been able to continue creating websites that meet our client’s needs and fit with the way most people use the internet today.

Never sit back and assume your work is done. The world of business changes quickly, and you need to be prepared for whatever comes your way. Refusing to move with the times will harm your business more than almost anything else, while adaptability is one of the surest indicators of long-term success.

3. You can’t do everything by yourself

Business owners tend to be highly motivated and hard working. They feel a strong connection with, and sense of ownership over, their business. Unfortunately, in some cases this can lead to a tendency to want to do everything by yourself.

This is simply impossible. Not only will it cause you to become incredibly stressed and eventually burn out, it will also harm your business in the long run.

To dive deeper on the issue of bottlenecking your success, have a listen to this:

One of the hardest and most critical lessons business owners need to learn is when to bring in additional help and when to outsource.

I am very aware that I cannot do everything myself. That’s why my team includes an Art Director, a Copywriter, and an Administrative Assistant, amongst others. In addition, we also outsource aspects of the business to external agencies when it’s appropriate to do so.

Leadership doesn’t mean doing everything yourself. Instead, a great leader can communicate their vision and expectations to their team, and then empower that team to go out and get great results. Business owners like to be in control. However, letting go of that control occasionally is one of the best things you can do for your team and your company.

4. Work/life balance matters

It can be easy, as a business owner, to get so caught up in your business that you forget the rest of your life. However, this is a huge mistake.

Poor work/life balance can have a significant negative impact on your physical and mental health, family and relationships, and overall success. If you try to work every single waking moment, you’ll burn out and end up being less productive.

Instead, make sure you set boundaries around your work time and stick to them. Yes, you will occasionally need to pull in extra hours – that’s the nature of owning a business. But if you’re doing so every week, that’s a big problem.

Most of us wanted to escape the typical nine-to-five grind precisely because we wanted more control over our lives and a better work/life balance. Do not counteract that by forcing yourself to work every hour of every day.

For me, one of the best things about owning my own business is that I can balance work with spending time with my wife, children, and friends, and enjoying my hobbies.

Nothing is worth sacrificing your health or your relationship with your family for. Make sure you always make time and space in your life for those things first.

Getting more done during the hours you’re actually working will help you relax and be present when spending time with the people you love. For more advice on getting things done, have a listen to this podcast episode:

5. Learn from your mistakes

Perhaps the most human thing of all is to make mistakes, and this is never more true than in the world of business. If you run a business for any length of time, you will inevitably make mistakes.

Some of these will be small mistakes that are easily corrected. Others might be major mistakes that cost substantial time and money to make right.

Don’t go into business expecting everything to go perfectly. This is, quite simply, impossible. Instead, plan for mistakes to happen. Put a robust system in place that will allow you to analyze what went wrong after a mistake is made so that you don’t make the same one again.

In addition, create a culture around owning and learning from mistakes in your team. If your employees are terrified of making a mistake, they’ll be less creative and more stressed. Their output and productivity will suffer. Instead, build a culture where owning mistakes and learning from them is rewarded.

You need to lead by example on this one. No-one is infallible, no matter how senior their role or how many years of experience they have behind them. By being willing to acknowledge your mistakes and missteps, you’ll create permission for others to do the same.

6. A collaborative approach is key to happy customers

Our customers hire us because we’re great at what we do – designing and building websites. However, we always approach building a website as a highly collaborative process. The client knows their business best, after all. They understand their goals, mission, vision, and values. Our job is simply to translate those aspects into the perfect website.

“Customers first” is at the top of our list of company values. We understand that without our customers, we don’t have an agency.

For that reason, we have learned to work in a collaborative way with each client. As a boutique agency, every solution we provide is completely bespoke, and our team works personally with the client to ensure they’re completely happy.

Whatever service you provide, I recommend considering your customers and clients as partners. With a shared vision and combined expertise, you can work closely together to build something extraordinary for every single client.

7. Culture can make or break your business

Many people roll their eyes at the mention of “company culture”. However, through working with various web design agencies and eventually founding my own, I have learned that culture is tremendously important.

In short, culture is not about what you do, but how you do it. It encompasses your core values, the behaviors you encourage, and the kind of environment you build in your workplace.

I believe that a positive company culture is fostered on teamwork, strong communication, diversity, and warm and friendly relationships.

What kind of workplace do you want to create? In an ideal world, how would you like your employees and customers to describe the culture of your business? If you make all your hiring and strategic decisions with culture in the forefront of your mind, you can’t go far wrong.

8. Being a responsible company pays off

Corporate social responsibility (CSR) has become a buzzword in recent years, but that’s because it really does matter. Consumers and customers are more discerning than ever, and expect more from the companies they work with. They expect businesses to take an active role in making the world around them a better place.

That’s why we list “social responsibility” as one of our four core company values. We strive to be an active member of our local and global community, contributing positively to improving people’s lives. We put a particular importance and focus on environmental initiatives.

Decide what is important to you, and live those values. If your company is seen as being a responsible local, regional, and global citizen, you’ll build a greater level of trust amongst your prospective client base.

9. Never stop learning

The day you stop learning and trying to improve is the day your business stops growing and moving forward. None of us can ever know everything, and assuming that we have nothing more to learn spells disaster for your success.

Therefore, stay curious and stay open to learning from every experience that comes your way. Understand you can learn something from everyone around you, too.

Never assume that you know more than someone else in your team, just because you’re more senior in the company or have more years of experience.

I have learned from every person I work with, no matter what their job function is. I also learn new things from my clients all the time. And I firmly believe that a culture of continuous learning is good for everyone and for the business.

10. Business is a marathon, not a sprint

“Rome wasn’t built in a day,” so the saying goes. Well, neither is a great business. It takes time to create something amazing, so don’t try to do it overnight.

When I launched my company all those years ago, I knew I wanted to be in it for the long haul. That meant building the business slowly, and not trying to rush everything in the first week or even the first year.

To use another common analogy, running a business is a marathon, not a sprint. Don’t exhaust yourself, your team, or your resources in the first mile. Instead, build things up slowly and plan for long-term success. This way, you’ll end up with a sustainable business model that will still be serving you well a decade or more from now!

11. Running a great business is about more than the bottom line

In short, all my learnings can be summed up as this: running a fantastic company is about much more than just the bottom line. Yes, making a profit matters. But it does not, by itself, make a great agency or business.

Focus on your people, your culture, your customers, and your society at least as much as you focus on making a profit. The rest will fall into place.

Running a business is incredibly hard work, but also tremendously rewarding. Wherever you are in your business journey, I wish you the best of luck with it.


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