7 lessons I’ve learnt running an agency for 7 years

Belva Digital turns 7 years this Saturday (April 25th) ๐ŸŽ‰๐ŸŽ‰๐ŸŽ‰

I’m an accidental agency owner so this is kinda monumental. I never had big plans when I set out. I was driven by a boyish desire to own a business and inspired by the digital evolution that was in its early stages then.

Prior to going into business, I was fortunate to briefly work for Google and then IBM. At Google, I was in a client-facing marketing role and then transitioned to an immersive but brief sales position at IBM. I was restless. I wanted more. There was an underlying opportunity to drive the nascent digital agenda for businesses in Kenya. So I took the leap of faith, and I’ve never looked back (well, I did a little but it doesn’t matter now ๐Ÿ˜€).

What have I learned during those 7 years?

1. Your network is certainly your net-worth
The first client was Google Kenya. Mainly because of the relationships I had built in my short time there. My first office address,ย which Jackson Biko goes at length here, I was sub-let by Prof Bitange Ndemo who’s gone to be a great mentor and a friend. A lot of business and other opportunities have been mainly because of how we’ve intentionally nurtured and maintained relationships with clients, partners, and industry stakeholders.

2. Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth
I got my first punch right in the second half of 2013. Right after the elections. Then, I wasn’t aware that politics and business share a duvet in 254. Our business plan was focused on small businesses. They got really hit, and I lost my front teeth. But you have to get back in the game because as Dedan Kimathi said it’s better to die on your feet rather than live on your knees.

3. Appreciate progress, don’t always pursue perfection

It took me a while to come to this conclusion. I always wanted a particular caliber of clients, an office with all the fancy stuff, and X millions sitting in a reserve account but I’ve come to the humble realization that there’s so much in your control. There is a power above and you have to let God (or whomever you believe in) decide the time and the way. But you need Faith. Faith is what keeps you alive in business.

4. Your clients are a moving asset. Never get cocky.

You will likely keep your clients if there’s a true exchange of value. However and recently, we’ve seen clients’ expectations often exceed agency capabilities. And that’s when you start losing business. Or hearing of in-housing. Clients can also leave because of other factors eg COVID-19. As agency owners/leaders, it’s then our responsibility to then own or resell products that can be scaled to new verticals, regions, etc.
Knowledge now is distributed, it’s no longer monopolized by agency guys.

5. As the business owner, don’t become the product. Grow a team.

In the initial stages, most agency owners are everything between the CEO, Account Manager, Copywriter, and Accountant. We wear many hats and it helps us appreciate all the facets of running the operations. However, as you grow, you have to bring in great people that you can trust to own these roles. This frees you as the owner to be strategic, and focus on growth.

As you hire people, bring folks with the right attitude.

Belva Digital got into the KPMG Top 100 mid-size companies in Kenya in 2018, at year 5 of operation. This, I credited the team we have; we are a work in progress, but we put our heart and soul into what we do.

6. Build a culture. It’s the rhythm of your organization

Culture is what will either attract or push away business and people to join you in your journey. It’s not an activity, an event where you go out and play paintball with your team; it’s everything that goes on in your organization. And culture feeds off your company values, mission, and vision.

7. Find your market position. You either grow or die.

Along the way, we’ve remained agile and quickly adapted. Our business today has two divisions;

Agency Services: Under this, we provide marketing services such as brand and digital strategy, copywriting, creative design and development, SEO, website & app development, research, data analytics, and much more.

Marketing Technology (MarTech): this is a new R&D unit. We’ve since developed two products;

  • Adpsace – An out-of-home (OOH) planning, buying, and measurement tool. We’ve partnered with OOH vendors to aggregate inventory and at the same time, we are using satellite imagery to measure the reach and impact of your billboard, street pole, wall branding etc
  • AXIS – A soon-to-be-launchedย conversational marketing platform integrating WhatsApp, Messenger, Email, SMS, Voice and Mobile Money to allow conversation and commerce. We are also in the process of launching a full-scale WhatsApp Customer Service Helpdesk.ย You can also see the COVID-19 messenger bot developed by this team here.

Lastly, develop a mentorship program. It’s certainly lonely at the top and you need to surround yourselves with positive energy. Mentorship doesn’t always come from sitting down with people. You can find it on YouTube, in podcasts, in blogs, and in books. Talking of books, these are my top recommendations:

  • Strategy and the Fat Smoker – David Maister

It’s a really practical guide for those of us in the service industry. Thank you, Fridah Makenzi, for this timely and timeless gift.

  • Shoe Dog (A memoir by the creator ofย Nike) – Phil Knight

Set in the early 1970s, it’s a still relevant story of growing a business from the garage to the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE).

  • Elon Musk – Ashlee Vance

The story of Elon is full of grit. It’s also taught me the essence of evolving and going beyond human-mental boundaries that we often impose on ourselves.

7 is the number of perfection and completion. We are not yet there, but we are in pursuit of it.

That’s my short story. I hope it inspires you ๐Ÿ˜‡


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