Every year has been 2820 Press’ best year ever on just about every metric. However, the end of 2017 nearly broke me. Here’s what we did about it.
Christopher Wink warned me this would happen.
Back in 2016, we recorded an episode of my podcast and he told me about the challenges he faced when he finally realized it was time to start calling himself the CEO of Technically Media instead of acting as both a coach and quarterback. He was candid about the fears he had about letting go of aspects of his business, that his team would make mistakes, and about how he had to learn to trust that his team would make the right decisions.
I’d had similar thoughts on my mind at the time—2820 Press grew out of my freelance writing practice, but had grown into a communications studio serving both Fortune 500 companies and early-stage startups. I was still running spinme.com on the side as a digital product shop, but passive revenue is never really passive.
We’d already started implementing a plan to gut the business of anything that wasn’t generating a significant return on investment. Scrapped my plans for any new product launches and e-books. Took down our low-dollar product offerings. Doubled down on the kinds of projects that I knew our growing team would execute well.
By 2017, we got great at digging deeper to solve problems for our existing clients—so much that we grew our team even more.
And that’s where things went haywire.
Still approaching the business with a freelancer’s mindset, we chased more billable hours—culminating in one project at the end of 2017 that turned out great but involved way too many late nights because I was still a bottleneck for far too many tasks and decisions.
Sure, these seem like great problems to have, 2012-me would say. The extended illness I experienced at the start of 2018 would beg to differ. I hardly got to spend any time with Lori between Thanksgiving and New Year’s. I had to bolt—running—from our team holiday gathering because of a client’s emergency that nobody else had the ability to fix. My doctor told me that if I didn’t get my stress under control, my blood pressure would cause irreversible damage to my body.
I made a promise to Lori that we wouldn’t lose another holiday season to a project that had spiraled out of control, and that I’d get my act together so running this company wouldn’t flat-out kill me.
So I hit up Breanne Dyck on Facebook Messenger. (This is how I know I wanted her help, because I hate Facebook Messenger, but this was the only way she was letting prospective clients talk with her at the time.) After a week-long goal-setting intensive, Jill Joevenazzo joined our success team. Our mission over the course of the year: grow 2820 Press as a company while reducing the amount of time I spent inside the business.
That meant getting very cagey about driving more productivity from each hour I spent with clients. It also meant recognizing that it was time for me to shift my thinking—the most important thing I’m building here isn’t results for clients, it’s a team of people with a shared mission to drive those results.
I’ve always been nervous about the overhead that comes with adding more people to a team. More people means more “management,” which often feels to me like you’re not investing enough energy on real results. Jill and Breanne helped me get past that fear and to recognize that I can still lead from the front without surrendering myself to every client’s passing whim.
Here’s how our tote board changed from 2017 to 2018:
In 2017, our team cleared a total of 7,113 hours in the business. Only 13% of those hours were “unbillable,” and I felt really good about that number at the time.
In 2018, we rocketed up to 10,617 hours, and unbillable hours ballooned to over a third. This was exactly the scenario 2016-me was afraid of.
However, these pie charts don’t show you the mindset-shift at work underneath our hours budgets. Because the “unbillable” hours we invested in hiring, developing, and deploying our team enabled us to earn a consistently higher per-hour rate from clients who were delighted to get our help. Our hours spent in the business grew by 30%, but our annual revenue increased by 40%.
While there’s still a lot of work to be done, my personal involvement in the company scaled down year-over-year, as well.
This was the key metric in which Jill, Breanne, Lori, my doctor, and just about everyone in my life wanted to see improvement.
I spent 2,665 hours in the business during 2017—given my vacation time, that’s roughly 53.3 hours per week. In reality there were a lot of “spike” weeks where I clocked in 70-80 hours.
By contrast, I only spent 2,285 hours working for the company in 2018. That brought my weekly average down to 45.7 hours—but with the same compensation during the year.
Our mission’s far from over.
We intend to grow the company’s revenues by another 30-50% in 2019, and we’ve retooled our service offerings to provide maximum value for our clients while increasing our profit margin. (Like Basecamp, we reward our whole team for exceeding our profit projections each year. We literally stole their formula.)
That’s not to say that I don’t have to hit the SOS button on my Headspace app when I see some metrics that aren’t lined up. But the team we’ve assembled have been owning their roles so well, some clients ask “who’s this guy?” when I show up for a status call. I’ve become okay with the idea that clients don’t know or care that I’m the guy sitting behind the curtain—and that’s opening up new opportunities for me to enjoy more personal time in ways I’ve never really done before.
P.S.: Here’s a bonus video of a livestream where Breanne continues to bust my chops about working too many hours each week: