Timing is everything – launching an agency now is a risky endeavour

By Darryl Sparey, MD and Co-founder of Hard Numbers.

‘To be lucky at the beginning is everything’ – Miguel De Cervantes, Don Quixote

In his brilliant book When, Daniel H Pink examines all aspects of timing and optimising for success through carefully considering timing in your working day, your month, your year, and in your life in general.

Like it or not, timing is key to whether any activity in life is successful or not.

It’s probably not surprising, but the hard numbers are that there is an 82% increase in Google searches for ‘diet’ in the US on 1st January every year. Yet only 64% of resolutions continue to be pursued beyond that first month.

The factors that determine whether an agency business fails or flies can be closer to alchemy than we founders might like to think. But among the hard work, luck, grit, guile, salesmanship, determination, (did I mention luck?) and clear value proposition, timing is up there with the most important.

Despite having lived near the south coast of the UK for many of my formative years, I’ve tried surfing only a few times – and I’m absolutely terrible at it. I look like I’ve been poured into a wet suit and forgot to say ‘when’, and I have all the poise of Bambi on roller skates on ice. On the water. But I’m told by people much better at it than me that surfing is all about catching a wave, at the right time. Timing is the key to success at surfing.

And this surfing analogy seems very apt right now.

I’d been thinking about and discussing the launch of a new type of consultancy business with my now co-founder Paul Stollery for many months. In fact, it all began on a cold pre-Christmas, positively Dickensian December night in good old London town when I shared a beer and a chat about success stories from the previous year, but also how things could be done differently. And the market was buoyant.

Whatever your views on the election and Brexit (which seem like a lifetime ago now) there was a feeling of renewed optimism in the UK. The FTSE 100 Index was riding high on the crest of a wave, and it felt like 2020 was going to be the ideal time to start a business.

Little did I know that two months later, as I handed my notice in to my very comfortable and very safe job at global communications firm Hotwire, an enormous tidal wave of a pandemic was just getting started on the other side of the world. I would be lying to you if I said I didn’t feel a spasm of concern as I watched markets crash globally at the end of February.

What seemed like the perfect time for a new business to launch suddenly felt like a wipe-out.

But it’s now June 2020 and my new business, Hard Numbers, has launched, and Paul and I are currently struggling to keep up with all the kind messages, social media posts of support, and even gifts that we’ve received from ex-colleagues, friends, competitors and industry stalwarts.

We haven’t achieved anything yet. We’re literally just getting started, and we have a long road ahead of us. But there were probably a few things that have enabled us to press ahead with launching the business, rather than thinking about going back to the safety of full-time employment.

Chief among them is luck.

It’s not by design or any form of career planning that I’ve no real experience in hard-hit consumer sectors like travel, tourism, hospitality and retail. If that was my core skill-set, and the value proposition of the agency targeted this market, we would probably not have got out of the gate. I would currently be begging Barbara Bates for my job back.

We’re fortunate that we’d focused on sectors which have proved, comparatively, robust – technology, professional services and data providers. Similarly, my co-founder, Paul, despite being a brilliant creative is also highly commercial. And naturally, rather than by any specific training, he focuses on the return on investment from clients and their communication spend. Neither of us planned to be the people we are, and we are the people we are mostly by chance.

Beyond luck, experience helps. Whilst Paul is annoyingly much younger (and more talented) than me, I’ve traded through more than one recession in my twenty or so years of work. I’ve seen downturns in the economy before and whilst no two downturns are exactly the same, there are similar patterns in the ways companies respond, and in how you need to tailor your message to them.

Flexibility is the other key thing.

Again, we’re very lucky that we were starting with a blank sheet of paper. We can tailor our message and how we talk about ourselves and our services to the audience and the economy we’re now addressing. We didn’t change anything fundamentally about the business. The commercial focus, the commitment to measurement and ROI, and utilisation of technology to do things in a better way were always there. But how we talk about the business has changed a bit. For example, the strap-line we were working on for the website in February was definitely not ‘in uncertain times, you need Hard Numbers’.

So here we are.

Lucky to be here, but with the experience of having traded through this kind of landscape before, and flexible enough to make changes ‘in-flight’. It might be a winning combination for our clients and for us.

Or, like Don Quixote, who I mentioned at the start of this piece, we might be tilting at windmills, and doomed to ignominy. But while we can’t control the economic world around us, we can control how we respond to it. And if we focus, work hard, give great service to our clients, and stay lucky, maybe Hard Numbers has got a fighting chance of making a go of it.

Only time will tell.

Photo by Antonio Piña on Unsplash


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