Agency Lifestyle

Ten Lessons in Ten Years

By Heather Friedman on January, 30 2017
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Heather Friedman

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Ask anyone who knows me well, I'm not big on anniversaries and often don't remember important personal dates. So, as we were discussing our Tenth Anniversary, I struggled to pinpoint the exact date de Novo was born. I actually had to look it up.

During November and December of 2006, I spent countless hours developing a business plan, selecting a name, working with the talented folks at Fuel to create a brand identity and draft an initial hit list of potential clients. Sometime in early January, I filed all the necessary paperwork and on January 29th, 2007, the State of Iowa finalized our incorporation papers, assigned our EIN and we became "official."

As we celebrate our big day, I thought I would share some lessons learned over the past ten years:


Lesson One:
Align Yourself with the Right People

Starting with my mentor, Dick Damrow, who spent hours helping me formulate strategies and define what de Novo would mean both internally and to our clients, there is a long list of people who helped launch de Novo. We formed an extensive network of talent our first year and focused on finding the right partners to help move business forward. ImOn Communications, Tim Wuest and Associates and True North are just a few of the clients who took a chance on a start-up marketing firm and are still partnering with us to accomplish their marketing goals. They helped us define the kind of clients we want to work with—people open to new ideas.

Lesson Two: “Pivot. Pi-vot. PIVOT!” - Ross Geller 

We had several major changes in our second year. Jen joined as Partner and brought a renewed focus on digital marketing. Things were going along swimmingly until June 13th when we lost our office, our lovely downtown and most of our clients due to the 2008 flood. The very next day we met and discussed how to pivot our strategy to not only help existing clients who were literally under water, but also move forward as an agency shifting our focus to stay in business.

Lesson Three: “Hey yo, I’m just like my country. I’m young, scrappy and hungry. And I’m not throwing away my shot!” - Lin-Manuel Miranda

I’m a firm believer in grit. Angela Duckworth has done studies, written books and even given a Ted Talk on the power of grit. As we rebuilt the company in years two, three and beyond, grit was at the center of it all. Being willing to dive in and do what was needed to win a pitch, impress a client or improve a process has served us well.

Lesson Four: “Real knowledge is to know the extent of one’s ignorance.” - Confucius 

During our fourth year, our CPA reviewed our 1099s and called to say that we needed to evaluate the folks we were working with on a regular basis to ensure we were properly following IRS guidelines on Contractors vs. Employees. It was a tough exercise but I’m so glad we trusted the experts and made the necessary changes for the years ahead.

Lesson Five: “If you change your mind, I'm the first in line
Honey, I'm still free. Take a chance on me” - ABBA

There have been so many chances and leaps of faith taken during our ten years that they alone could fill a blog. My top three:

  • Moving to a (much) bigger office—three times—each time thinking, “We’ll never fill this much space.” Each time, filling the space faster than we anticipated.
  • Building out a video studio with the hope that we could generate enough business to justify the added expenses.
  • Expanding our services based on each of the talented people we have hired over the years. Each of them taking their own leap by joining us and making their mark.

Lesson Six: “It’s not the customer’s job to know what they want.” - Steve Jobs

As we grew—both in size of our team, as well as number of clients—so did our need for well-planned processes. Client onboarding plans, creative briefs, client reports, etc. became increasingly important to ensure everyone was on the same page and our client partners were getting our best work.

Lesson Seven: “My dad told me, 'It takes fifteen years to be an overnight success,' and it took me seventeen and a half years.” – Adrien Brody

Most successful businesses, much like well-known marketing campaigns, have taken a long time to be an “overnight success.”

Lesson Eight: Fail Forward Fast

This lesson is so important that we added it to our giant mantra wall. Acknowledge the failure, learn from it, tweak your approach/attitude/awareness for next time and move on. Life’s too short to dwell on setbacks in an unhealthy way.

Lesson Nine: Look after those who look after you.

Our company culture permeates through everything we do. Company retreats, Friday morning breakfasts and thank you notes are a regular thing in our office. Not because it makes us “cool” (though we have won that award—a couple of times) but because our team takes care of our client partners and therefore we take care of our team. They are the rock stars who build the websites, produce the videos, create the brands and keep our clients happy.

Lesson Ten: “Something has changed within me. Something is not the same. I’m through with playing by the rules of someone else’s game. Too late for second-guessing. Too late to go back to sleep. It’s time to trust my instincts. Close my eyes and leap!” – Elphaba

Our goal for year ten was to leap ahead and leap we did. We added three staff members, increased our annual gross revenue by 38% and wrapped up our tenth year by celebrating with our team and taking cooking lessons at Cobble Hill.

As we wrap up our first ten years in business, I look back on the peaks and valleys with immense gratitude for the family members, employees, contractors, client partners, vendor partners and business advisors who have made it possible. I am most thankful for my business partner who has the same vision and work ethic as me and trusts in our crazy ideas as we move toward the next ten years.

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