FROM freelance to agency

Blog_July2021

When I first set up Spokes Education, I didn’t intend to create an agency. It wasn’t even my plan to freelance, or in fact to specialise in digital learning at all.  

Things just happened though and it’s now been around 5 years since my first freelance project and 2 ½ years since I employed our first member of the team. Since then we have grown organically and today we have a team of 11 (currently looking for a 12th), and we are on course to turnover more than £500k this year. I hadn’t really stopped and thought about how or why it happened, but we’ve just written a new business plan, so recently I’ve been considering the things we have and haven’t done well.  

A few people ask me for some tips as they are interested in establishing their own agency, so I figured I would put my thoughts together and create a series of videos on a range of topics which I’ve summarised below: 

1. Building a team 

Surrounding yourself with good people is the single most important thing you can do. This starts long before you even think about “employing” someone and I’ll cover the importance of having a good relationship with other professionals and trusted freelancers. I’ll then talk about how, why and when we’ve recruited permanent staff, and the profile of the individuals we look for. Finally, I’ll go over people management, roles and responsibilities and staff development.  

2. Budgets (what costs do you need to factor in) 

I’ll be sharing our finances over the last 3 years, showing what we’ve spent money on and how/where expenditure increases as the business grows. There’s loads to cover here. Should you spend money on marketing? Is it important to have an accountant? How much does an employee actually cost? Should you register for VAT, and if so is flat rate better? (I’ll try and separate content on taxes and UK centric topics). 

3. Establishing a brand/identity and creating an offering 

This is the area that I’ve probably struggled the most with over the years, and the one I feel the least qualified for. We’ve rebranded 3 times and are constantly refining our offering based on what we think people need, but they’ve also changed as our capabilities have grown. Although I feel much better about where we are now, I’m still not sure if we are doing things right here but I’ll be sure to explain the decisions we’ve made and let you know where we’ve gone wrong in the past. 

4. Finding the opportunities 

I think this is the area that I hear most people struggle with. I was lucky in that my first few jobs came about from referrals, but they were gained from relationships I had built in my previous roles. If you are good at what you do, and people have enjoyed working with you, you’ve got yourself a good head-start. If you don’t have the contacts, then you’ll have to work a bit harder, but I’ll go through the various channels you can explore.  

5. Taking the opportunities

A lot of our business is repeat and referred, which is satisfying – knowing that people have liked working with you enough to do it all again, or to recommend you to someone else. Winning a competitive tender is equally satisfying, but in a different way. And it’s something we’re good at. Since 2018, we’ve won more than 1/3 of the opportunities we’ve bid for and now regularly win 6 figure contracts. It’s never too soon to tender either (I beat a number of other agencies to a project with BMW and got the final 2 of a £360k contract – both when I was technically the only employee). I might share some of our secrets… but not too many.  

I might add more topics as I go, if I think of anything else, or if any questions arise. It’s worth noting that I’m not an expert – I’ve learned on the job, applying previous experience and skills from roles in project management, people management, learning and development and customer/client service. My only qualification is that I’ve done it, but hopefully that shows you can do it too!  

Videos will be released on our social media channels, starting in July. If you have any questions you’d like to ask Phil, or if there are any topics you’d like him to cover, get in touch via our contact page or via social media. 

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