Let's set the scene: It's a snowy day in Erie, Pennsylvania, during Christmas break of 2010.
Ten of my eleven siblings were home for the holidays, and I was happy to be with family. Christmas break was filled with family time, working out, and running my startup web hosting business, which would quickly evolve into the agency GuavaBox.
In the midst of all the busyness of break, I read one of the books that has had the greatest impact on my business career -- The E-Myth Revisited: Why Most Small Businesses Don't Work and What to Do About It by Michael Gerber.
Build Your Agency Like a Franchise
In The E-Myth, Gerber writes about the lifecycle of businesses, the grim odds of success, the difference between building a job and building a business, and the importance of systematizing your organization and thinking like a franchise owner.
Andrew, my business partner, read the book at the same time, and we shared this vision of building a business that would scale beyond us, capable of operating seamlessly without the direct operational contributions of the founders.
Then we started GuavaBox.
An Agency With No Processes
Here's a list of the processes we had built out when we started GuavaBox:
That's right. Zero.
We relied on our network to land some initial business -- website design projects, social media setup, hosting accounts, video work, etc. As the workload increased, it didn't take very long to see the painful ramifications of not having established processes.
A few of the problems of being a process-free agency, include:
- Inconsistent deliverables (which leads to inconsistent results)
- Inconsistent results (which inevitably leads to inconsistent client happiness)
- Extra work to fix things and make clients happy again
- Inefficiency everywhere
- Lack of confidence during the sales process (which leads to fewer sales, lower prices, minimal profit, etc.)
- Inability to hire because onboarding with no system is a terrifying prospect
- Unwanted surprises and stress
It didn't take us long to realize that we needed to quickly start applying what we had read in The E-Myth.
Building Systems Slowly, but Steadily
We started with an internal WordPress install as our process hub, then moved to Google Docs and Basecamp. We experimented with Asana, Mavenlink, and Teamwork, then stuck with Podio for a while. A couple years later, we started building DoInbound to fit the specific needs of digital marketing agencies.
The tools were important, but never as important as actually documenting processes and getting the whole team bought in to using those processes and holding each other accountable.
We took away a few lessons from this experimentation:
- Documentation begets improvement. Once you write down a process, you'll quickly see if/where it needs work and what assets or templates need to be in place to help your team be more effective and efficient.
- Slow is okay. Steadily is imperative. Systems-thinking isn't a one-time or twice annually phenomenon. The environment changes, the processes need to change, and your team can't approach this with a one-and-done mentality.
- Leadership needs to -- shocker -- lead. This is not an initiative to be led by your summer interns.
- Following documented processes is a new skill. This may be slow and seem unnecessary at first, but practice and dedication pays off (especially when you bring on new team members).
- Sharing processes between team members leads to a lot of improvements.
What Did We Systematize?
For the first 18 months of GuavaBox, we were doing a ton of small WordPress web design projects. One of the first things we built out was the GuavaBox Custom WordPress Install, a pre-built WordPress instance with all the tools and settings we regularly used. What used to take a solid two to four hours of initial setup could now be done in five minutes.
We built out a lot of documentation, templates, and assets around web projects, SEO, our sales process, and finance, and it grew steadily from there.
Here's a peek at our ancient (AKA from 2012) internal operations hub:
Okay, enough embarrassing screenshots from the primitive days of GuavaBox. Let's move on to how to systemize your agency.
How to Document Processes for Your Agency
In the midst of client delivery, project management, sales, finance, and operations work, where are you supposed to find time to document processes? And even if you do make the time, where should you start?
The easiest path rarely correlates with the best path, and documenting your agency processes is no exception. It certainly takes work, but it pays major dividends in long-term efficiency, consistent deliverables, and superior outcomes.
Here are five key steps we've learned about the best way to document agency processes:
1) Prioritize Your Needs
Bring your team together, identify the core functions of your business (marketing, sales, operations, etc.), and take an inventory of your current strengths and weaknesses. Break each core function into sub-sections and prioritize your highest impact areas.
Note: You need to actually prioritize. You can't have 30 top "priorities." Create a high impact, but achievable, list of three to five processes to document. Systemization is a marathon, not a sprint -- starting small and building consistently is critical for success.
2) Select the Format & Outline Expectations
How much detail is appropriate for your team? Do team members prefer to watch how-to videos or read text? Who needs to participate in documentation? If a process needs to be improved, who is responsible?
Start by understanding your team's culture and choosing the appropriate format for them. Get your team's input, and make sure everyone is on the same page about documentation formats, how to follow processes, and who is involved in continuous improvement (hint: this should be everybody).
At GuavaBox, we use an ordered list of steps, add more details where necessary, and create a quick video overview (using either QuickCast or Screenflow) so that team members can access bullet points for a quick reminder or watch the process being executed step-by-step if they need more detail.
3) Choose the Right Platform
There are tons of tools to choose from that are capable of storing your processes. But processes need to live where work is being done -- in other words, a process binder on the shelf that never gets opened is useless.
You could choose to build an internal site or wiki (using a platform like Google Sites or WordPress), you could rely on Google Docs or Evernote, or use a process documentation system like SweetProcess.
Ultimately, the tool is never as important as the actual acts of documentation and using those processes consistently.
Regardless of platform, what matters is understanding your needs, picking a platform that meets those requirements, and then committing to standardizing and scaling your agency.
I can't stress enough the importance of accountability to make sure your team members are all following the processes you've documented. If team members never referred to processes, then you'll continue to be plagued by inconsistent deliverables, spotty results, and inefficiency.
4) Schedule Batch Days
The single most effective method we used to systematize our agency was batch days.
The idea here is simple -- everyone blocks off a period of time (a full day, a half day, or even just a couple hours), has a list of what needs done, turns off all distractions, and cranks out documentation.
If you're serious about improving your agency documentation, here's my recommendation:
- Every month or week, block off three hours in the morning for your core team members.
- Come in each week with a prioritized list of what needs documented.
- Shut off all distractions, assign processes for documentation, and get to work.
- Spend the first two hours working on documentation of your processes.
- Spend the last hour presenting your work, improving it as a team, and wrapping up the loose ends to make sure it's in your process management system.
- Take any notes on ideas you have for the next block and shut down the work after three hours. Sticking to a specific time block is a big psychological advantage.
At GuavaBox, we applied batch days to many areas of our business, including marketing our agency. This helped us grow our blog traffic from less than 1,000 visits per month to more than 15,000 per month in nine months. That work, based on the processes we had in place, was a huge part of our agency growth and success.
5) Create a Culture of Continuous Improvement
When you're writing a blog post or hosting a webinar and you realize that the process could be improved, what do you do? Make a note for later or go fix the process immediately?
There's not a universal right or wrong answer (as long as it gets done), but it's critical that your whole team shares the owner's mentality of continuous improvement and maintaining strong processes.
The tools we use and the efficacy of today's marketing tactics will change as frequently as search engine algorithms. The way to scale your agency is to constantly be looking for ways to improve and take advantage of the changes.
Determine what method of continuous improvement works best for your team and make sure it's a shared expectation by all team members and that everyone is held accountable to that standard.
Learning Processes From Other Agencies
Still not sure if documenting your agency's processes is really that important?
I understand -- I've been there. It wasn't until we felt enough pain and committed to overcoming that pain that things really started to take off. But the GuavaBox narrative alone might not be enough to convince you, so I want to share examples of documented processes from a number of other successful agencies.
On Inbound Agency Journey, we've been able to hear the stories of dozens of agency owners who have leveraged strong processes to grow revenue, client success, and their teams. Some outstanding examples include:
- Josh Ames' web design processes that helped Spark Reaction reach HubSpot Platinum partner status in two years.
- The inbound selling process that Josh Harcus uses at Huify.
- Elyse Meyer's 126-point checklist for client onboarding or Eric Pratt's first 30-day formula for clients at Revenue River.
- Kuno Creative's John McTigue on training clients to follow his process.
- Web design processes from HubSpot Diamond partner New Breed.
- Jeff Coon on how his agency produces great content from client interviews.
- Building an agency operating system where Marisa Smith talks about the EOS.
- How Impact Branding & Design on-boards new employees.
- Doug Davidoff's strategic hiring process.
- Hiring an inbound sales rep with John Shea.
All of these successful agencies have amazing stories of how they leverage processes for client success and agency growth. Learn from their example and get serious about systematizing your business.
What processes do you have in place that have fueled your agency's growth? Share your story in the comments below!