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Starting up shouldn’t be jumping in

Barking Dog  //   //  By Christopher Davies

Just over 20 years ago, Dog and Pony Studios opened for business. Starting up was not a strategic move no matter how you looked at it.

On a personal level, I didn’t think about the impact or opportunity it would have on my professional life. By the time I opened Dog and Pony, my career had wandered through 13 years of various Toronto Stock Exchange jobs, from working on the trading floor to being its creative director. In my mind, opening my own company was simply a way to make a change. It sounded like fun (and some of it was), but I had no idea how hard it would be to set it started, manage it and make it profitable.

On a company level, Dog and Pony threw its “open for business” sign out before it had a direction, strategy or serious financial plan. You would think having these things mapped out would be the first step in any start up’s life; but apparently it’s not. We have worked with 50+ start ups over the years, and most did the same thing as I did: they jumped into the water without knowing how deep or how cold it was going to be.

Beyond planning, there were a few things I hadn’t thought about, or knew enough about, to get the company moving forward properly. For what it’s worth (and that’s up to you), here are the top five mistakes I made in the start-up years. Your mileage and experience may vary, but these mistakes kept my company from stabilizing and growing until they were corrected.

1. Business plans that focus on reality, not dreams

For years (ok, just over a decade) I didn’t have a business plan. Sure, I started with what I thought was a plan. In reality, it was a one-dimensional best-case-scenario map of who are clients would be, projected revenues and a path to millions. These kinds of plans are inspirational. They get you out of bed in the morning. They sound great to clients, colleagues, friends and family. They sell you to prospects, partners and financiers. But they are one dimensional and dangerous.

Of start-ups that have come through our door over the years,  most did exactly the same thing: a narrative, not a plan. Oddly enough, these companies are the hardest to market properly. Without a fully articulated strategy and plan, they don’t really know what they stand for, what they do differently or why anyone should listen. “Happily ever after” isn’t an interesting opening to a story.

You owe it to yourself and you business to have a plan that maps out the good – and more importantly – the bad. Your plan can have the ideal narrative at its core, flanked by all kinds of “what to do if…” strategies. Things can go bad quickly (more on that in a future post). Have your survival plans ready. Preventable failure isn’t professional.

2. Too much production, too little management

When you flip the sign on the door to OPEN, your workload will double. All the behind-the-scenes work of setting up shop doesn’t go away. It was a full-time job to get things started, and it’ll continue to be a full-time job to keep things going. But now you have people coming through the door wanting to pay you for whatever you offer. Now you have another full-time job on your hands: production.

It look me almost 15 years to step out fully of production. I thought I was cheap labour. I’m already getting paid, so if I tack on a few projects to my to-do list, I don’t have to pay someone to get them done.

In reality, I was a huge expense. When you’re juggling two full-time jobs inside the same business, you’re doing neither effectively. The managerial to-do items would drift and wait while I was in production. Book keeping, invoicing, sales, taking time to build client relationships, strategy…all had to wait when production deadlines starting to glow red hot.

The production to-do list would always have its deadlines pushed to the limit (sometimes asking for extensions, or disappointing clients) while I was catching up on my management job.

The back and forth between management and production was a predictably swinging pendulum. All jobs suffered and I had a complete lack of focus on what my job should be inside my own business.

All that said, it’s likely you’re going to be in production work while starting up. But get out of that cycle as soon as possible. If you are to grow, you need to be focused on management. It seems expensive to hire someone in to replace your hands-on work. But the cost to the business’s health and your clients’ collective sanity will be exceptionally high if you don’t take your hands off the work and get your hands around the wheel.

3. Partners weren’t in sync

I had two partners when the company started up. It’s been thirteen years since the last of the two left. We were mismatched in a number of important ways, which held Dog and Pony back. I’m not blaming them, nor myself. I think all three of us should have been more aware of the importance of a partnerships having the right mix of talents, perspective and experience.

If a business is to succeed, the partners need to equally matched. I’m not saying everyone needs the same strengths, capabilities, etc. I think that would be a disaster too. Diversity and differences matter when it comes to partnerships. I happen to agree with the cliche about the Beatles scrolls through LinkedIn regularly: each brought a unique strength and offset the others’ weaknesses.

It is solid advice, but it wasn’t the case for Dog and Pony (and I’ll dare say, from an outsider’s perspective, most of the start-ups we have worked). To make it a little more concrete, here are a few things we needed:

  • each partner to focus on one of these management tasks because it was their best strength: strategy, sales, operations
  • outstanding communications skills (particularly with each other)
  • to be friendly, but not close friends. You tend to tolerate each other’s weaknesses more than a business can withstand if you’re lenient from deeper bonds – and you lose a partner and a friend all at the same time when things go bad
  • the same financial, professional and personal stakes on the table. Managing a business is an ongoing process of managing risks. Imbalance in each of our risks meant we were either throttling back on the risk of growth to satisfy the partner with the most to lose, or accelerating faster than that partner could handle. You can’t make smart collective decisions unless you’re all concerned about roughly the same things.

Not one of these things were true for Dog and Pony, and sometimes I wonder how we go as far as we did.

4. Believing that hard work alone leads to success

Let me clear: hard work is required to succeed, but it’s not the silver bullet. You can work hard – and work “smart” – but it’s doesn’t guarantee success. A space heater in a warehouse is working as hard as it can, but it’s not achieving the goal it intends to.

What guarantees success? After 20 years of experiencing my own company and hundreds of client businesses, I can honestly say nothing is guaranteed, no matter how hard you work.

Rather than asking if hard work is the key to success, it’s better to invert the question. What guarantees failure? Or, at least, failure to realize the amazing plan you had when you set out? Here are a few observations:

  • if you don’t work hard at every task in front of you (including taking a step back to sit quietly and think), you are not supporting your path to success
  • if you don’t work hard at the good luck and opportunities that may land in front of you, you are paddling in the opposite direction you want to go
  • if you don’t work hard when bad luck or issues arise to correct course, work around problems or avert disaster, you’re heading to failure. You need to give as much, or more, to the bad stuff as you do to the good stuff even when the bad stuff is demotivating (at best) or terrifying (at worst).

Work hard. Give it your all. But only think the flour alone will make the cake.

5. Your process needs to be as good as the product

Our clients have consistently been happy with our work. Whether it’s a new brand, copy writing, print, video or websites.

There have been clients over the years who would say “If only the process was a good as the product”. I’ll admit – we have failed at process and project management a number of times over the year. Our creative game has always been top notch. Our project management game is usually good enough. Most projects have been well run. But “good enough” isn’t good enough for every project. Some require more management due to their depth, complexity or timelines (very short and very long are equally challenging). Don’t expect, or ask, your production staff to execute and manage projects at the same time. They can’t. They’ll end up with the management-production pendulum.

We are lucky to have clients who have appreciated our effort and work enough to come back for more work, even when the process has gone off the rails. But we had to earn their trust back. How? By working hard to develop a project management processes can cover any project that comes our way.

Sort out your production process from the start. Invest in it. Get the right tools to manage projects. Develop bullet-proof workflows. And invest in people who can make outstanding execution happen. Investing in management helps the bottom line as much as investing in production. They’re two sides of the same coin.

I hope there was something amongst those five start-up mistakes that could be helpful. I could list the next five mistakes, then the next five, and so on. Businesses, like people, aren’t perfect and they make mistakes. Running a business is never easy, particularly if you’re always pushing in new directions and growing.

But instead of focusing on the negative, I’ll share the top five things that have kept Dog and Pony Studios, and its clients, happy in the past two decades.

Speak soon,
C!