About 10 days ago I attended the first annual Owner Summit in Austin, Texas. It is a new conference put on by the Gregs (Greg Hoy and Greg Storey) and Carl Smith, a production of the Bureau of Digital Affairs. The TL;DR is that this was an awesome event with top quality speakers and lots and lots of useful take-a-ways. So often I go to a conference and there are 1-2 talks that apply to me as an agency owner. While the technicalities of design and front-end development are still interesting to me the truth is that my main focus right now is learning more about running an agency. Owner Summit is the first conference of its kind in that all of the talks are for agency owners. If you are interested in the details then read on.

Nancy Lyon’s opened the event with No Such Thing as a Work / Life Balance. This was easily one of my favorite talks of the conference. The talk covered lots of ground. Much of it was centered on how we create culture and that ultimately we influence culture through who we hire. That because our roles are so influenced by who we are that our main way of influencing culture is through our hiring process. As agency owners we need to learn how to say no. The best way to do this is by knowing who you want to work with, what you believe, and what you are passionate about. And ultimately, we are unemployable, we chose to go down this path because we wanted to create the work environment we want. Our job is to create a place where people want to be.

Richard Banfield spoke on How the Best Get to the Top. I had a chance to talk to Richard between sessions and I have to say he is a genuinely nice fellow. He is taking on a project where he is interviewing some of the highest achievers in our industry to find out commonalities. Richard is very passionate about this project. There were two things I took away from his talk. The first was a reminder that my role as a leader is to provide vision and values. The second is a statement he made that “Just because you’re a great designer doesn’t mean you’ve mastered the design business”. There is a lot to running an agency. And there is a lot to being an excellent designer/front-end developer/programmer/content strategist/etc. Personally I think it is tremendously hard to do any of these really well let alone multiples. A deep interest in the craft of running the business is necessary to achieve the highest levels of success in this industry.

Dan Mall was a highlight as well. He gave a talk on Value Pricing. I’ve been curious about this topic for about 6 months now but the main resource for learning about it is a textbook and it scares me every time I look at it. Dan broke it down, but really if you want to fully grasp the topic you need to read Implementing Value Pricing. There was a lot of math in this talk and math is hard so read the book.

Andi Graham’s talk was probably the one I related to the most. Her talk was entitled The Accidental Owner. Her premise was that she ended up running an agency because she can answer the phone and emails. I'm not an accidental owner as I an intentionally going down this path but it was still a relatable talk. She covered a lot of ground. Here are a list of take-a-ways:

  • Good intentions don’t pay bills. Make sure prospects are collectible before making them clients.
  • Set limits and expectations in your contract that cover hours
  • Learn to let go by setting up systems with employees. Set expectations and talk to them about possible consequences and then let go.
  • You are a professional NOT a merchant. Act like one.
  • Give yourself an out in contracts.
  • She, just like most of the presenters, talked about knowing your target audience, project, and industry

It was a really good session.

Tracey Halvorson spoke in one of the break out sessions on Creating Healthy Client Relationships. This presentation was the one that I have put into action immediately. There were two things that I will remember from this talk. The first is that you should never take a contract that you can not deliver on 110%. If you think about that it affects many different aspects of the deal. Am I getting a budget that is workable? Does the client have a good understanding of the work involved and what they are responsible for? Does my schedule allow for me to spend the time necessary to give this my all? Does my skill set allow me to just absolutely kill this project and knock it out of the park? When taking on a project you want the client to become a good reference for your company. If you can’t deliver then you shouldn’t take the project. The second part piggy backs on that topic and it is this… your clients’ often times have a boss. Your job is to make them look good. They chose you. Their jobs, raises, and face depend on your delivering what you said you would. Don’t let them down.

The overarching theme of the two days was a mix of creating a culture that is attractive to prospective clients and prospective employees, managing cashflow, and sales. This may not be interesting to those of you that do not run agencies but the truth is that it should. The more you can make these things part of your DNA and understand them, the more you will endear yourself to your agency owner. I guarantee that doing so will also make you a better employee and increase the chances of pay and position because so few people care about them. Agency Owners want people to empathize. They want people who care.

And lest you think all agency owners are nothing but cash hungry cows that don’t care about people, Mike Monteiro wrapped up the conference with 13 Ways Designers Screw Up Client Presentations. The whole talk was geared towards teaching designers how to sell their work. He wrote a blog post about it but the talk was more in depth.

To wrap up I’ll leave you with this. Mike stated that selling is a core design skill and the reason is this. Design and development work does not sell itself (his words not mine). As agencies our existence is dependent on 4 things:

  1. Get work
  2. Move work
  3. Maintain quality
  4. Get paid

Without doing those 4 things the agencies that we love will cease to exist. The jobs that we enjoy because they allow us to be who we are will *poof* disappear.

So my main take-a-way? I have two. Never stop selling, and never stop telling the folks that work for me that I appreciate them. Without sales we have no work, and without the folks that work for me I have no way to fulfill that work.

If you are an agency owner go to the next Owner Summit. It is definitely worth the investment of time and money.