If I knew then what I know now is a series of bylines from small agency executives about the lessons they learned in building their shops.
I wish I knew how much fun the ride was going to be.
I started Chemistry with a group of partners when I was 40 years old. I was pretty fucking nervous and scared. I had been an agency “employee” all my life. Most people don’t become entrepreneurs at 40; most people are too smart to become entrepreneurs at 40. I had always been a pretty conventional guy. Growing up in Western Pennsylvania, the dominant strategy for success in life was to get a job with a good company, work hard, get promoted, and the company would take care of you until the ripe old age of retirement. I was essentially leaving that strategy behind for the unknown and highly fragile world of an agency start-up. Like every man or woman that ever started down this road, my first goal was a practical one – to make enough money to pay my mortgage and eat.
I wish I knew how close I would become with my partners. The stress, the laughter, the gallows humor when a client meeting didn’t go the way we hoped or planned. The feeling of being in it together with another group of people is truly amazing. Picking up one of your partners when you can tell they’re at the end of their rope and then having them do the same thing for you is powerful. The sense of being in a room full of clients and being able to read your partner’s mind and know where they’re going and how they’re setting up the idea before they even speak is like being a world-class ballroom dancer. To have this dynamic of being in total sync with one another is invaluable.
I wish I knew how truly helpful people would be. This business has a reputation for being pretty cutthroat and competitive, but I really never felt that. I received so much support and meaningful advice from my old bosses and clients. I found the agency community to be very generous with its time and enormously open about anything and everything. Everyone I leaned on for answers was extremely humble in explaining where they had made mistakes and what they wished they’d done better or differently. Those interactions made me appreciate the type of people that are drawn to this business in the first place. It made me realize that character is what gets you through the triumphs and disasters of running an agency.
I wish I knew how much pride I would develop in the agency. Working at an agency and having success is nice– you feel like you’re part of a winning team and maybe you’ll get a promotion or a bonus–but it’s true that it feels different when it’s yours. Winning a new piece of business or a creative award feels like someone complimenting one of your children. There’s nothing like it.
I guess in retrospect if I had known the ride was going to be this much fun, I might have started it sooner. So if you’re thinking about it, if you’re wondering whether you should start your own shop, my advice is to go for it. I guarantee it will be the wildest, hardest, and funnest ride of your life.
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