Things we learnt by starting a creative agency

Motion Sickness' Sam Stuchbury on the hard lessons learnt.

I constantly see blog posts like ‘10 ways to be an entrepreneur’, ‘10 ways to be more productive’ or ‘10 ways to be a happier person’. They fucking frustrate me. Inevitably these gems of advice are a nice idea, but do not convert to reality. They often include the type of one-liners you would expect to see regrammed on your sister’s Instagram feed or made into a motivational poster. “Do something every day that scares you”. Well shit, that’s a nice idea but how do I scare myself every day when working an office job in Mount Eden? That just sounds like a bloody inconvenience.

That said, I always get messages from students and young creatives asking for advice starting their own agency or business… so I thought it would be worth giving a few practical words of wisdom regarding the creative startup process, without speaking in cliches or sounding too much like a dick. This approach has worked very well for Motion Sickness but may not be correct for every business…disclaimer over.

- Sam Stuchbury

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Do something you actually enjoy regardless of the money, you’re going to be doing it a lot.
If you are going to start a business make sure it’s something you actually enjoy. It WILL take over your life (at least for a while) so make sure you enjoy what’s at its core. When you have an idea for a business, no matter how good, make sure you actually think you want to spend a good portion of your life doing it. You might have an idea for the world’s first toilet location app, but do you really want to be spending your life selling shit.

Think of a good name. 
Think of a name that’s memorable and a bit different, even if it doesn’t really mean anything.

Being young is a an advantage, not a disadvantage. 
This took us some time to realise. Being young is a huge asset, don’t hide it. It gives us a unique perspective, we have grown up in a digital age, and we’ve got an innate sense of what is ‘cool’.

Stay humble. You are in advertising. You are not a celebrity. 
Don’t be a dick, no need for the ego.

Size doesn’t always matter, grow organically.
Lots of people get so fixated on size of business, number of staff, number of clients etc. Size of agency is not a determining factor of success. Just because you have a business that is double the size, doesn’t necessarily mean you are making double the money or having double the fun. With size comes bigger overheads, less creative care, and often less extra profit than you might expect. Yes, growth is important – but it needs to be managed and handled with care, to not overextend your business. At Motion Sickness we want to work with a limited, select group of clients in New Zealand, to retain our level of care and time for each client. To scale, we plan to create ‘pods’ around the globe, which will also service a select group of clients in each area. This way we have a smallish team working on a smallish group of clients to develop unique work.

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Don’t be intimidated by the old dawgs.
Lots of people in positions of power don’t actually know what the hell they are doing. Everyone is human, no one is perfect and lots of people have winged their way to the top. Don’t be intimidated by people in positions of power, stand your ground and believe in what you do. Things move so quickly these days and trends change daily, it is very hard for anybody to stay up to speed. There is always an opportunity to stay ahead of the game. Keep your ear to the ground and remember, they are probably working things out on the go just like you.

Figure it out as you go. 
If you don’t know how to do something try to figure it out as you go. In the early stages of our business we learnt a lot on the job. Jumping in head first and giving something a go is the best way to learn. When you start a new agency not everything is going to be perfect, and it will take time to refine your craft.

Invest in good gear. 
If you can afford it, invest in buying your own gear. Whether it is film equipment, hardware, tools, whatever. Buy your own rather than hire, you can refine your skills without having to worry about costs. It also allows you to be more flexible with clients when you start, you’re bound to underquote and you don’t want the pressure of more hire costs.

Don’t worry about the competition, operate in your own league. 
Worrying about the competition is pointless. Just have faith in your work, chip away, and do your own thing. Spend your time thinking about how you can create more cool work, not thinking about what your competition are doing.

Keep your overheads low, very low. 
This is huge. Overcommitting to hefty ongoing expenses like staff and rent can kill an agency startup. If you overextend yourself, it only takes one client loss to topple your business. Run a lean business with lots of financial wiggle room.

Invoices always get paid late, be conscious of cash flow. 
Keep this in mind in the early phases. Counting on invoices to be paid on time is a dangerous practice. Give yourself a buffer of a bank balance before you commit to any heavy expenses.

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Don’t get hung up on how much money you pay yourself.
A good salary will come with time, focus on creating good work. Don’t chase the dollar.

Don’t hire staff too early.
Be cautious hiring full time staff, do as much as you can yourself or with your founding team. Even when you are ready to hire, start with freelancers/contracted staff and only hire full time when it is financially very safe.

Turn work away you don’t believe in. 
We do this often. The work you produce is your biggest asset. People judge you on it, and it can make or break your business. Only do work you are passionate about for businesses you believe in. Be warned this is very hard to do, to turn away money for a principle. We have taken on work just for the money before, and almost every time regretted it. You didn’t start your own business to do shit work for people you don’t like. Do what feels good.

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People often say “don’t start a business with friends or family” – in my experience I feel the opposite.
You’re going to be spending a shit load of time with these people, so you may as well get on with them and know them well already. Yes, it can be challenging juggling friendship and a work relationship, but the pros outweigh the cons. Just shoot straight and be honest and she’ll be right.

Surround yourself with people you can trust and who have good taste.
Most things you can learn but it’s hard to teach someone to have good taste.

Even if you don’t know exactly what you are doing, common sense will usually prevail. 
Put the jargon and theories aside. If you’re not sure about something use your common sense, and think about who you are advertising to.

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Keep your independence. 
If your business grows (creative agency or not) you may have opportunities for investment, bank loans, joint ventures etc. Sometimes this is a great option, but often people can jump into it when they get blinded by the $$. You started this business to be your own boss, try to keep it that way for as long as possible.

Take your work seriously, but don’t take yourself too seriously. 
Just don’t be a dick. Take pride in your work, but there is always room to keep it chill and lighten the mood. It’s marketing not a cure for cancer.

Do some creative projects for free.
If you get an opportunity to do a cool project, even if the money isn’t there, and it is REALLY cool, just do it. When you start out building a good portfolio of work is essential, and these jobs often give you the freedom to do your best work. A while ago we did free work for furniture makers George & Willy; we did it for a couple of their desks, and because we liked their brand and felt like a trip to Tauranga. That video series became a staple in our portfolio of work, and generated us a huge amount of new business.

Find a niche for yourself, but don’t worry if you’re not sure exactly what that is when you start.
It’s important to find a niche, some area of the market that you can really nail. It might be content, branding, PR, whatever. However like us, it might take some time to find out exactly what your business exceeds at. Be flexible and responsive so you can find your sweet spot. When you’ve found your sweet spot, don’t get stuck in it; still be willing to adjust and change.

If you suck at something find the money and pay someone else to do it.
Be open to admit you’re not good at everything and sometimes you need a hand. If you find something you really can’t do, be open to pay someone to do it who can.

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Enjoy the ride. 
It’s easy to get wrapped up in running your own business. It can take over your life, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Try to enjoy the flexibility and the journey, it’s pretty awesome. I see my business as a lifestyle not a job, it allows me to do things I enjoy and meet lots of cool people. Yes it’s a business and I enjoy making it succeed, but what’s the point if you’re not having fun while you do it.

This story originally appeared at Motion Sickness