Embracing Turbulence: It’s Time to Be More Honest About the Realities of Founding an Agency

By Simon Massey, co-founder and brand strategy lead, Neverland

I’ve always been fascinated by the ups and downs, the successes and failures of entrepreneurs. Elon Musk’s SpaceX launched three Falcon 1 rockets which failed, before he finally succeeded with his fourth launch. Back in the day Richard Branson launched Virgin Bride, Virgin Cola, Virgin Cars, all of which no longer exist. Mark Zuckerberg’s mantra is “move fast and break things”.

No matter how successful it looks from the outside or how big it grows to be, starting and running a company is never plain sailing. Every business and every founder goes through ups and downs. I just don’t think we talk about the downs enough, the essentiality of them and the advantages they can give you. Every failure, every misstep is an invaluable opportunity to learn and improve.

The future of the advertising industry, of every industry, of the survival of the planet is reliant upon the next generation. We need thinkers, creators, inventors, and entrepreneurs willing to take risks, make mistakes and make things better. Today’s founders have a responsibility to nurture that future by speaking honestly about the challenges they have faced, how to tackle them and how to thrive.

I’ve co-founded three marketing agencies over the last 30 years and while each of those experiences was positive and rewarding, I made plenty of mistakes and ran into my fair share of problems.

As stressful as the tough times can feel, they’re important. If your business only ever runs on an upward trajectory, with no problems (first of all, I don’t believe you), you never get a moment to step back and reflect. It’s those challenging periods, when you really get the opportunity to review your progress, work out what’s working, what isn’t and how to improve. That’s what enables you to do better for the company, your clients and your staff; the worst thing in business is stagnation.

As Musk says about the difference between NASA and SpaceX, “There’s a silly notion that failure’s not an option at NASA. Failure is an option here. If things are not failing, you are not innovating enough.”

In other words, there’s no such thing as failure when building a business. There are only lessons learned along the way. For example…

Pick your business partner wisely

Think carefully about who you go into business with. Your partner or partners are often your primary source of inspiration, energy and support, and that relationship can make or break a company.

I fell out spectacularly with my first business partner and it truly damaged my self-confidence. In my second business, my partners were fantastic initially but in the latter years, were less interested and I felt like I was driving solo.

In my third business, I got it right, discovering that brilliant partnerships make for brilliant businesses.

Learn how to run a business 

There’s a big difference between being a great marketer and a great business leader, and it took me until my second business to figure out how to be really good at the latter. Knowing how to operate your P&L effectively, manage cash flow, pull the team together when it gets difficult, drive a culture of anything is possible are all critical to thriving when the challenges come along.

Listen and lead

I find leaders often fall either on the side of dictatorship, leading with a follow me and do as I say bellow, or democracy asking what everyone thinks with every gentle step. I think you have to do both. You have to listen to everyone, every single piece of advice, reaction and reflection. Obviously you only act on what you deem relevant and important. But you also need to lead. No one wants a rudderless leader. You must have a vision of where you’re going and what you’re trying to achieve. You have to inspire.

Dream, Plan, Hustle 

Our approach is Dream, Plan, Hustle. We use this to drive Neverland forward, but also to define a future for our clients and their brands. The Dream is ‘what do you really wish for more than anything else’. It needs to be big and bombastic, a huge ambition, something that scares and excites you in equal measure.

The Plan is ‘What is your north star? The simple truth that will guide you to everything’, this should be clear and deliverable, against which you can write simple KPIs.

The final element, the Hustle is ‘What will make you fly?’, the thing you’re going to do to make it all succeed, to deliver on your dream, the magic element, the special sauce. If you have all of this in mind as you charge forward, when the going gets tough, you have something solid to lean back on and go again.

Don’t give up

We launched Neverland nine months before the pandemic hit. It was, without question, a terrible time to launch an agency, but we used those challenges to our advantage. On Teams, no one knew we were small, so we could compete with much bigger competitors. We pulled the team together in ways that only a disaster can muster. We invested in new people when the world was closing down, and it paid off.

So, if you find yourself in a corner, don’t cower. Find the advantage in your position and come out fighting. Have the bravery to make the right choices for the long term, regardless of any short-term difficulties. Keep dreaming, keep planning and most of all, keep hustling.

There’s no such thing as failure

In short, entrepreneurs need to view setbacks as lessons, not failures. Every business struggles at times; you need the courage to learn from your experiences and keep going. And remember, if you get it right, on the rollercoaster that is running your own business, the downs are right before the ups.