Starting a Digital Agency – What I would say to my 23yr old self

Not long after my 23rd birthday I decided enough was enough, I’m going out on my own to do my own thing. I had a great job and was well paid in a large company where there was plenty of potential to move forward.

Saying that I wanted more. I wanted more time, I wanted more freedom, more money and frankly, I didn’t particularly enjoy the rat race. I was racing cars at the time and had a real passion for motorsport which I wanted to pursue. Working for a company and its  simply wasn’t for me.

So I decided to leave. I wrote my resignation letter put it in my top draw and waited. I waited until one day, when enough was enough, to finally sign it and hand it to my boss.

I remember thinking, life is going to be good from here on in. I’ll make money, I’ll have time to race and enjoy life. Wrong. No. Yes.

I often think back and wonder what I would have done differently if I could go back and do it all again. Would I have waited before I left my job? Would I have left earlier? What would I have done differently?

This made me write these points aimed at the the 23yr old me and what it would sound like with the power of hindsight and 20 / 20 vision. Here it is.

1. Focus

Focus on creating value for people and not so much on making money. Making money is a bi-product of creating value, not the other way round.

Focus on what you do well and work hard at doing it even better. Don’t try and do everything because ultimately, you won’t do anything that well and you won’t get anywhere. That make money online book you bought that tells you to sell their book on Clickbank to make money? Yeh that won’t work mate. Trust me. Guitar lesson ebooks? Seriously? Nope. Pull your head in and focus.

2. Multi-tasking

You can’t do it so don’t even bother. Some people can but you, absolutely not. Juggling businesses, websites and being a jack of all trades will ensure you deliver consistently crappy work. Refer to point 1 again. This is a great way to get everything half done so you’ll end up with a list of things to do that are almost there. Guess what? No one wants something almost finished! The difference between not done and half done is zero. Focus on completing tasks and doing it as well as possible.

3. You will fail.

Bit harsh I know but believe me, you will fail. That’s going to happen but guess what? It’s ok. You will learn from your failures much more than you will from your successes. A step back will in most cases lead to 2 steps forward so failing is good, embrace it. Failure leads to a better, stronger and more stable business so take it as a positive.

Eventually you’ll learn how to quantify a failure. You know that for every pitch you fail at, it brings you closer to the one you will win. So much so that every failure becomes worth $XXX.

4. Say no

Saying yes to every deal that comes your way is a great way to burn yourself out (and those around you). Learn to say no, push back or turn away from a deal. If you don’t feel comfortable about it, there is a good chance your gut feeling is right.

No is powerful and liberating (and is also an awesome bargaining tool!) as people don’t expect you to say ‘no’ to money on the table. Saying no ensures you work with people you want to work with that is mutually beneficial. Practice it on that next $100 a month PPC management you are thinking of taking on board.

5. Understand your value

Thinking your own ‘services’ are free to your business is a mistake. This will result in longer hours and over extending yourself. Just like everything else you put a price on, sort out the price of your time early on. I know its easy to just do things yourself especially in the early days but you will need to get used to letting go and making sure your time is spent doing things that provide you value.

To give you a heads up, in a few years you will build a list of things that are important to you. You will set a reminder every hour on your phone which will beep to prompt you to think about what you have done over the last hour and whether those things fall under your list. For reference here is your list:

1. Do things that will grow your business – focus on ‘grow‘ and focus on ‘your‘.. trust me you will understand why this is important in a few years.

2. Write more – Writing will help you understand things in even more depth that you already understand pretty well. As well as building your knowledge base, believe it or not, people will actually ready what you write! This is great to grow your profile and feeds into point 1 above.

3. Focus on your fitness & health – You are going to end up wanting to do triathlons which I know sounds really bizarre but trust me, you’ll enjoy it. Exercising, eating well and being fit will not only make you feel really good, but it will keep you sane. The 5:30am starts are your time to think and enjoy the outside world. Try not to miss training sessions as it does wonders for your day and best of all, keeps you healthy. You don’t have a second chance at health so make the effort.

4. Family and Friends – Your long hours and restless mind will unfortunately mean less time with family and friends. Do what you can to enjoy your time with them. Put the phone down, forget about that client call and be present. This sounds easy but it is probably the hardest thing to do out of all your priorities. You’ll need to work hard at this one but it will be worth it. Oh and wash your dog.

6. You pay for what you get

That freelancer for $6 an hour? Or that hourly rate that you thought was a bargain? These will actually be the most expensive mistakes you can make. There is a reason why they are cheap and it sure isn’t because they are good. Utilise resources that are better than you or have the potential to be better than you. You are not cheap so neither will they be. Be prepared to hire quality and be prepared to pay for it. It won’t be nearly as expensive as you think.

7. The Good, Cheap and Fast Paradigm

Going on from point 6, make sure you understand this chart really well:

Good Fast Cheap

You can pick 2 at a time and must forgo the other. Want cheap and fast? It’s not going to be good. Want Fast and Good? Definitely not going to be cheap! Put this on the wall somewhere and remember it during a deal or when you need some resources. This chart is never wrong. Ever.

8. Stop thinking small

Even though you start off as a small business (literally located in your bedroom at mums place) there is not point thinking you are small. Thinking small keeps you small for longer and its only until you feel big will bigger more interesting clients want to work with you. Fake it until you make it. When you make it… keep faking it.

9. It doesn’t get easier

You think that once you have a really good team around you then you will be able to relax a little and reap the fruits of your labor. Sorry buddy, it doesn’t really work like that. The bigger the team and the bigger the clients means the bigger the problems.

There is more at stake with more mouths to feed and people relying on you to steer this thing along. But that’s what you wanted right? Obstacles will continue to fly your way but don’t worry, you become a better steerer the more experience you have in wild seas.

10. Find a complementing partner

You will never have a business partner in any of your businesses in the first 10 years but I don’t think that is the right way to go about it. Find someone with your vision early that complements you.

You are good technically but in terms of marketing yourself, your introverted nature will make that super hard. Get someone to focus on business development so you can focus on  the operational side of the business. You will grow faster and better this way but whether you choose to or not you’ll be ok as long as you hire right the people.

11. Stay in control

Don’t let your business be dictated by things you don’t have control of. Control your ship and steer it the direction you want it to go.

Don’t be dictated by one single client where you rely on them to keep everything afloat, no matter how close that relationship is. Don’t let any 1 client take up more than 20% of revenue, better yet, keep it well under 10% where you can. This will allow you to stand your ground and feel in control. This means don’t rest on your laurels when you land ‘the big one’ as this will put you at risk. Nailing a big client should mean determination to diversify that risk. Stay hungry and keep a healthy fear of the downside.

12. You can’t please everyone

This will be the hardest lesson for you. You take pride in your work and want to be the best that you can be and that’s a good thing. But guess what? Sometimes it just won’t work out. Some client’s won’t be happy with your work. Some projects and campaigns won’t work out. This is all ok and is to be expected.

Clients will come and go and some will prove difficult to work with. Learn to let go and don’t take it personally, you will be better off building good relationships and nurturing those instead.

13. Don’t be so nice all time

You are a nice guy but that is something you need to be wary of. You need to learn to draw the line between being nice and making the right decisions which don’t always go hand in hand. Look after yourself and your team and don’t be taken advantage of. You’ll understand this very early on which leads me to:

14. Get your legals sorted – assume nothing

Get contracts and service agreements in order get everything  in writing. This will save you big time in the long run. Hear’Say is dangerous so it’s always good to have something cemented to fall back on. Its a tedious task so get practicing early and make it a habit. In 99% of the cases it won’t matter, but for the 1% where things go a little pear shaped you’ll be glad you followed this point.

15. Enjoy yourself

Doing your own thing and starting your agency will be a lot of hard work. Rarely will you see a day under 12hrs so you better learn to enjoy what you are doing. Enjoy the time with your team, enjoy the challenges it will throw at you and enjoy creating value for your clients and colleagues.

Don’t take everything so seriously and if you make mistakes, people will forgive you. Learn from it, shake it off and move on.

16. Take time off

You will go 8 years without a break. That’s right, 8 years! Even your honeymoon would not be the break you need (watch out for the 4am time zone work conference calls from the business centre). Before you make the same mistake again, learn to have a break (weekends don’t count!). Even if it’s just 1 day every few months. Challenge yourself to not check your email or voicemail at all for 1 day.

Do this early on because the longer you leave it the harder it gets. People will start to expect responses at 11pm or on weekends and once that expectation is set, it’s extremely difficult to undo.

Switching off is also a great way to get your team used to you not being there. You’ll gain confidence in their ability (they are super good by the way) which will help you not only when you are away but also for when you are there as you’ll finally be comfortable delegating. Don’t wait 8 years, start as early as you can. It will never feel like a good time so don’t wait for that either.

17. Take Advice

For some bizarre reason you’ll just try and do everything without getting help. People will give you advice or offer to give you advice and you’ll shrug it off.

Take advice when it is presented to you. Listen and learn as much as you can, even in 10yrs time, you don’t know everything. You never will.


I’m sure every business owner will have their own set of points to tell their former self. I know I will think of a few more as I continue through this journey but if I only knew these I think I would have had less stress and enjoyed myself a little more.

If you have a bit of advice you would like to share to fellow business owners, feel free to share them in the comments.