25 tips for starting your own digital creative agency from scratch
Updated: Sep 14
The decision to start my own digital creative agency wasn’t an easy one, with the birth of my first child on the horizon and an eight-week-old cockapoo nibbling the end of my slippers, I did find myself questioning my sanity on more than one occasion.
I took a big risk leaving a good employer, having also taken on a new mortgage, but sometimes you just have to follow that calling and trust in your instinct. I repeated the phrase 'What’s the worst that can happen’ so many times (in my head) that they’ll probably be sketched on my tombstone.
I now run a successful digital ad agency that’s turning over just shy of 7 figures annual revenue. Not too shabby for a boy from Banbury who started it with a £5k bank loan and tube season ticket.
I don’t profess to be the next Bill Gates (showing my age) or Umar Kamani but I am an ordinary bloke (‘reluctant entrepreneur’ is the title I’d probably give myself) and I feel like that’s representative of most of the people reading this article. Hence me wanting to share my tips so that someone else might be convinced to make that final leap.
I also really want to get across the core ethical view I have which is that you can be nice (should be nice) in business and that we don’t always end up finishing last. So, here are my top 25 tips:
1. Start with your network
The first thing I did when I started was use LinkedIn to reach out to about 100 of my friends and old contacts. The idea wasn’t to pitch them directly but have them sense check my business in exchange for a free coffee or pint. It was a great experience as I reconnected with so many good people and actually generated a ton of referrals that I hadn’t factored on.
2. Overcome imposter syndrome
Perhaps your biggest initial challenge. ‘Only rich kids from Silicon Valley or Oxbridge graduates can be founders.’ Here’s a really important point. When you start your own business, for the first day you are an imposter, because you have never done it before and everything’s new to you - right? But on day 2, you’re not a total noob anymore so move on and let yourself flourish.
3. Have good people around you
Having a handful of good friends, advisors and family around you will make the world of difference. I had a best friend behind me from the word go and my wife was really supportive. Having them both there cost me nothing and they are probably 50% of the reason my business has been successful.
4. Have a clear plan with defined milestones and an ability to track
You need to map out a plan before you start. It can be a traditional business plan for the next 3 to 5 years but you should make sure to do one for your own personal goals as well. They need to work together and you should make sure it's all trackable.
5. Collaborate, don’t compete
It’s not 80s Wall Street anymore. I think that the best analogy is that we’re all fishermen out in a big ocean. Sure, we’re competing to catch the same fish but there’s usually plenty to go around and by working together and pulling resources we can actually spot bigger schools of fish meaning we all end up having more.
6. Learn to embrace the night sweats
Once you’re up and properly running, seeing the cash quickly going out the door will give you (if you're lucky) night sweats or night terrors (if you’re not). These are normal and we all go through it. Trust me, it gets better and they will go... eventually.
7. Build your safety net as quickly as you can
Having a cash buffer in the business let’s you sleep a lot easier at night. For me that was equal to about 3-4 months operating cost meaning I can still pay people even if no clients pay me for a quarter. This is my life boat and it took the first 2 years to build up. During this time I didn’t take out any company profits and it was one of the smartest things I did.
8. Focus on great clients (don’t try to work with everybody)
Fame, fortune and fun is how I decide if we’ll take on a new client. Are they a good name? Will they pay on what your time is worth? Will your team enjoy the work? Make sure you have most of these ticked before working with a client. If you can’t tick any - run a mile. When I started, every lead that came in had to be a client. I couldn’t afford for them not to be, and to be fair, their invoices did keep the Nespresso machine topped up. However, working with cheap clients may keep the lights on but it won’t allow you to buy any new ones!
9. Enjoy paying your staff (and bills)
You’re the founder and you have the idea, the plan, the clients (or the funding) but your business is nothing without your team. Never forget that. Feel pride and comfort when payday comes around (even if it means you see your balance drops by all thousands). At the end of the day, you won’t get paid unless you have a team that’s motivated, reliable, and on form to deliver the service or product you sell - always remember that.
10. Understand that your business reflects the person you are
If you’re always stressed out, that’s how your team will be. If you’re relaxed that will translate into how you are viewed and the clients you attract. You cannot go through the stress of building a business while concealing your true personality so if you aren’t happy with yourself, you need to make sure you work on that before you work on your business.
11. Control the guilt
Go for a massage, have that duvet day, finish early and go to the gym. It's never going to be easy but investing time into improving your physical and mental health is 10x worth more than spending it working instead.
12. Put family first (always)
The big pitch is the same time as your daughter's 100m final. Another pitch will come up, but you can’t get those important family moments back - ever. This attitude should also extend to your team as well. Knowing you’ve genuinely got their back will go a long way.
13. Accept that nothing just ‘comes to you’
Think about it, have you ever had someone knock on your door and say ‘you’re just the kind of company we’d like to give £500k of custom to’? No, that’s because it just doesn’t happen - you have to go out and work hard for that kind of success. Even when a customer comes to you off their own back, they won’t have done so unless another customer referred you because of a fantastic reputation that you’ve spent years building up.
14. Change your attitude
We deal with the world based on our past experiences (good and bad). In business you sometimes need to unlearn things to allow you to cope better with the challenge of today. Your parents might have told you to never leave a job, which is a classic belief system you can and need to change to move forward as an entrepreneur.
15. Don’t be grumpy
Living with the pressure of running a business can take its toll. Fuses can shorten with those closest to you that you feel aren’t pulling their weight or supporting the wider team. This fuse can even be shorter with strangers who get in your way at Aldi (I mean Waitrose) that bump into you.
16. Learn from the young (as well as the old)
The world is changing. It took me a few years to see this but now I know that how I worked 20 years ago (as an employee) isn’t how the world is now. In the past you were lucky to have a job and your employer called all the shots. Now young people want a fair workplace that puts their personal development at the same level of importance as company profits. I agree with this because at the end of the day, the only way you can grow your company is by growing the people within it.
17. Learn to delegate
Work on your business, not in your business. You’ve hired smart people for a reason. Let them get on with it and don’t be a technician. Many businesses are started by people who used to do the job that the business offers (e.g - A florist starting their own shop) but you have to step back and let your people work things out, otherwise you become a bottleneck. It’s impossible to scale yourself.
18. Don’t sweat the small stuff
Ok, you’ve lost money on a job, you’ve paid too much for an office lava lamp. So what? Taking care of the pennies does look after the pounds but that becomes less important as you scale your business. You need to save your strength for bigger decision making (of which there will be a lot).
19. Play the long game
Very few businesses scale over night especially within the services vertical. Over 60% will fail in the first 3 years* (Source ONS) so start off by knowing that slow and steady wins the race. My plan was to spend up to 10 years building my company to the point I could step back. If it happens sooner, great but over estimating it meant that I took my time making the big decisions which has left my company with much stronger foundations upon which to grow.
20. Don't just give up (but know when to focus your efforts elsewhere)
People only ever tell you about their wins. That’s the tip of the iceberg and I've never seen a post that said someone is proud to have lost out on their 17th RPF this year. It doesn’t happen, so the perception is that everyone’s doing well all of the time, when that’s absolutely not the case. Look at us, we support BBC Global, the Economist, Hearst, the AA, and the list just goes on and on. We’re successful right? Not always. That’s the 10% of our iceberg that you get to see - for every great client we have, we’ve probably missed out on another 5 in the process! So don’t give up. Be like Colonel Sanders - if he’d given up (and hadn't kept going until the 1048th restaurant, where he finally heard a ‘yes’) KFC would never have been.
21. Manage your money (but don’t let it manage you)
Your time is precious and your hourly rate is higher than you think. If you’re ‘saving money’ by doing your own invoicing (when it can be outsourced for £25/hr) it’s a false economy. Outsource to experts and free up your own time so that you can focus on what you’re good at and what’s most important for your business.
22. Prepare for maturity
Once you've made it and can afford to buy an Aston Martin, you’ve probably moved past the point of actually wanting one. That’s the irony of having success in business - those who do well aren’t motivated by the financial reward but by the challenge of actually doing well.
23. Know that sleep is overrated (in the short term)
I managed to have 2 children and operate on 4 hours a night during my first few years. If it was good enough for Margaret Thatcher, it's good enough for you. That said, you can’t live like that forever and once your business is settled make sure you get 7 hours back in your routine. Here’s a little tip as well - set a reverse alarm. So if you need to be up at 6am, make sure you set it for 11pm, meaning when it goes off at night, shut down the laptop or Netflix and get your beauty sleep.
24. Make sure you give back (mentor others)
If you’re experiencing success, it’s been borrowed from the universe. Make sure you replenish it by giving some of it back.
25. Never stop reading
If you read for just 20 minutes every day, that’ll add up to about 40 books a year. Which is 1000 books over the next 25 years. There’s no way for you to experience everything in this lifetime but by reading at least a little bit each day, well, it seems like you can expose yourself to an insane amount of knowledge that you’d never normally pick up.
Anyway, I hope by reading this you are able to take away at least one useful piece of information.
At the end of the day, all the stress and hair loss I’ve experienced in the past 6 years have totally been worth it. The biggest success for me is the pride that I now have in myself and the fact that I’ve been able to give a modest amount of opportunity to others who joined me on this journey.
And yes, as I finish writing this, I’m still sat working at the same kitchen table I was when I started, with my cockapoo (who’s no longer a puppy) still nibbling the end of my slippers as I type.