Stick to Your Guns

(Boston, MA, 12/10/14) Acceleration Partners Wednesday, December 10, 2014. Staff Photo by Matt Stone

This article was originally published at the Tugboat Institute.

When you launch a new company, there are two courses open to you: follow the crowd or go your own way. Following the crowd might bring you fast money and quick growth. Going your own way can mean lots of long nights worrying about bringing in the money your company will need to grow.

But I would advocate that you stick to your guns. Going with the market is often the path of least resistance, but carving your own path is usually far more rewarding—and one of the advantages of being an Evergreen business.

I choose to go my own way, and I have never looked back.

In scaling Acceleration Partners, I had a vision of a marketing company that helped our clients grow, had integrity and was built around sustainable principles—for myself, my employees and my clients.

That meant going against the tide.

A few years ago, there was a lot of easy money in digital marketing as a result of venture capital firms overfunding e-commerce businesses, which then had huge marketing budgets to spend. Traditionally, marketing companies get paid a percentage of the client’s marketing spend. So the best way to earn more money is to convince the client to spend more money.

In my mind, this model made no sense. How does spending more of my client’s money help my client? I believed (and still do) that a flat fee-based or performance-based model is a better way to go. It helps control costs and aligns incentives, motivating agencies to manage client money as if it were their own. I believed strongly that clients would stick around only if they felt they were getting value for their money. And I wanted clients who would stick around.

Believe it or not, my way was sometimes a hard sell. There were many accounts we didn’t land because the client wanted to go with the old model. For example, a few years ago, subscription boxes were all the rage. It seemed like there wasn’t anything that couldn’t be put in a box and sent to your home each month. Those companies had tons of recently raised venture capital to spend and called us looking for help. However, we saw how competitive the market was, and we didn’t feel like any of them could be successful with a fee-percentage model. We talked with them about slower ROI-driven programs, but they all wanted faster top-line growth and we decided not to take that on. Two years later, most of these companies are out of business or have been sold.

If we had taken the easy route, we could have grown faster and hired more people. But as the owner of an Evergreen business, I value sustainable growth over quick hits, where you scale up for something that can’t last. There were times when I had pushback from within our team, when people were anxious to do more hiring. One or two times, we took work that we knew was outside our sweet spot and probably wouldn’t be successful. But we never felt good about it. It hurt morale. We almost lost an employee over one such decision. Everyone is now on the same page that sticking to our guns is the best way to grow our company.

And it’s working.

We are now the agency of choice for many blue-chip e-commerce companies, and over 90 percent of our business comes from referrals. Slowly, we’re seeing the rest of the market come around to our way of thinking. Clients are demanding more accountability from the agencies they work with, and firms have to adjust. Because we stuck to our principles, even through the hardest times, we’re now ahead of the game.

If you’re passionate about an unconventional approach, stick with it and be unwavering. That’s your core mission. It’s easy when your message is aligned with the market. But when you are going against the tide, it’s hard to hold the course. You and your team need patience and perseverance—plus a commitment to being profitable early, so that you can sustain the business until the market comes around to your point of view.

If you are on the right side of history when the tide turns, you will eventually thrive and grow. And people will respect you for being consistent in your values and convictions.

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