The "other" digital agency playbook

Today we've announced that Rocket Insights (part of Dept) has been awarded No. 156 on the annual Inc. 5000 list, the most prestigious ranking of the nation’s fastest-growing private companies.

With 2,418% growth over the last three years, this puts Rocket Insights in the same category as Pandora, LinkedIn, Yelp and Zillow. All had similar growth in the "technology" category and ranked as honorees on the Inc. 5000.

Obviously we're proud, but why should you care?

The message that gets missed is how we built Rocket to enable this growth. That is the most interesting lesson. We grew 2,418% over three years with no Marketing, Sales, Legal, Finance or significant investment in overhead. We ignored all the standard "best practices". This has been the fastest growing, most successful company for most of us, and we did it all the "wrong" way.  

For us, this award represents validation that you don't have to follow the same old playbook. You won't always succeed - and we've made plenty of mistakes - but in the journey, you might figure out a better way of doing things.

Lots of what we learned is specific to running a digital agency, but we've boiled them down to a few nuggets that we think can work for any business.

Lesson #1: the work you're doing now is 90% of your future business.

All credit to Rick Webb for this simple but powerful chesnut. When it comes to agency work - and we would argue any work - the quality of your effort today directly impacts your future business. Build something great, clients come back. Help a colleague, they return the favor. Tackle a hard problem, people remember. It's easy to overthink your business plan or career path. Most of the time, the right answer is simple. Do a great job and good things come.

Lesson #2: you don't have to build a perfect sales & marketing engine.

Think about how much time your organization spends perfecting your "sales & marketing engine." From your investors down to your operations team, years are spent defining, optimizing and arguing over the "engine".  We're told it's the single most critical initiative for any company. It's the only way to have visibility into the health of your business, identify performance issues, give accurate projections etc.

That's 100% true. However...

What if you stopped trying to build the perfect sales & marketing engine?

What if you just built the bare minimum?

What if your company decided that a directionally accurate prediction is good enough?  What if you ignored funnel conversion, sales activity or deep analysis? What if you just tracked your quarterly revenue goal, opportunities and lead source? Nothing more. What if your leadership was comfortable having less insight, and a greater degree of uncertainty, in exchange for more time with clients and focused work?

This is exactly what we did. We tracked our high level goal, opportunities and lead source. We ignored everything else. We decided our time was better spent making sure our customers and colleagues are happy.

And guess what, we were fine. More than fine. We experienced 2,418% growth and hit 119 people with $15M in revenue in 3 years. Our NPS is world class and our employee churn is less than 3%. We stopped caring about projections and just made the best decisions we could on the data we had. Our saved time was invested in the work.

We're not saying a sales & marketing engine is worthless. It's not. We also know that being a bootstrapped agency, we had the luxury of not having to report to VCs or PE stakeholders. That said, the lesson remains. We deliberately stopped worrying about building a crystal ball and instead focused that time on our people and the work.

Lesson #3: treat colleagues like adults and they will stay at your company.

At <3% turnover, our employee retention is enviable. Much better than previous companies we've worked for, with a fraction of the benefits. We don't bring in regular lunch. We don't have super swanky offices. We don't have ping-pong tables or a hangout lounge. We don't give everyone t-shirts and create culture word clouds.

We've ignored the best practices, yet Rocket has really high employee retention.  

Why is that?

Our secret is that we treat everyone like an adult.

We trust that you are working hard. We trust that you have sound judgement and will do right by our customers. We trust that you'll treat your colleagues respectfully. We trust you'll tell us if you're not happy or need help.

We're not going to ask you for a weekly status report. We're not going to micromanage your time. We're not going to define a culture code or force you to adhere to it. We're not going to care if you're in the office every day. We're also not going to coddle you, or pretend this is your work family or summer camp. If we do optional company events like a bed race or building a ghost, they will be unique things that we're going to put some thought and effort into.

We're going to treat you like the adult you are, and ask you to do the same. No-one remembers the free lunches, or fancy snacks, or the culture building exercises. They remember how they were treated, and in our experience, that's the important part.

Lesson #4: meetings are not the first step, they are the last step.

This one is simple and to the point. Meetings are a neccesary evil. You need them to communicate decisions and make sure everyone is on the same page. An hour long meeting is generally not an effective way to accomplish anything. You could cancel 50% of the meetings on your calendar right now and it won't matter. The standard playbook says to meet frequently for 1:1s, communicate your company BHAG and work together. We ignored this and tried to keep meetings to daily client stand-ups, quarterly company meetings and 1:1s at the cadence the individual chooses. Some folks like a daily quick check-in, some folks want to be left alone. The best thing we can do is give people time to get their job done. Meetings often get in the way of that.

Lesson #5: beware the "furniture" hires.

As you grow fast in any industry, you'll be tempted by highly skilled generalist hires that seem like a great fit but their duties are gray or overlap with existing people you've already hired. The standard playbook says to grab talent when you can and then figure out how to best apply their talents. In our opinion, you sometimes get lucky, but most of the time you make matters worse. You start to collect what our friend Dave Knies calls "furniture" hires. Folks that are always around, and seem to be involved, but it's not really clear what they do. Avoid these hires at all costs.

Lesson #6: act like you're the world's greatest plumber

Have you ever had to hire a plumber? Or an electrician? Or have you ever hired someone to fix something for you? Everyone wants the same thing. A talented person, who will stand by their word and not rip you off. When it comes to running an agency - or really any business - we think the same applies. People don't want to be sold. They don't want excuses or confusing answers. They want an agency (or product) that is fairly priced, does what it says it will and gets the job done. It's really simple.

If you run your agency or product company like you are the world's greatest plumber, that advice will serve you much better than fancy SWOT analysis or "growth hacking".

Just be a really good plumber and you'll be fine.

In closing, as you build your own product, solve a complex problem or grow your business, it's tempting to reach for the documented best practices. Someone writes a book, people move around, and you can see how conventional wisdom travels from company to company. A quick search on Amazon shows no shortage of titles like the "Sales Development Playbook", "Marketing Playbook" or the "Change Maker's Playbook."

Best practices are helpful, but they are not the only answer.

As you start thinking about your 2020 plan, maybe this is a good time to ignore the "right" way of doing things. Leave the "standard playbook" on the shelf.  Take a minute to entertain the crackpot ideas. Ignore the best practices. Call it "first principle thinking" if you want to feel fancy. For us, it came down to trying something new. Taking the leap of faith. Being comfortable with the unknown. In the words of Barry Diller, "put one dumb foot in front of the other and course-correct as you go."

Even if your decision is a small one, you might just find a better way in the process.