How I Built A Branding Agency, In Six Not-So-Simple Steps

This morning, as I waited for my daily caffeine fix at my local cafe, I met a wonderful woman with bright eyes, vivid white teeth and that insanely curly hair that makes you wonder if human DNA could have been infused with strands of Maggie Noodles at some point in history.

I got chatting to Miss Curly Sue about the weather, as you do.

It’s a drizzly rainy day here so we talked about what a perfect day it was to stay indoors, manhandle your doona around your bod and get shit done. She asked me what kinda shit I get done for a living, and naturally, I told her that I run a graphic design agency. She said ‘Ohhh, amazing, I’ve actually been inspired by this incredible graphic design agency for a while, they do really beautiful design and their marketing is nek level’ (her words, not mine). She pulled out her phone, loaded up the Instagram app and began typing in the letters ‘S M A C K… I thought to myself, surely not, there’s another graphic design agency starting with Smack, that’s ludicrous. And before I could send an urgent telepathic email to my lawyer to triple check our trademark, she’d typed Smack Bang Designs into that little finger smudged iPhone screen of hers.

I was gobsmacked.

Of course, I gloated, madly kissed her* and told her that it was, in fact, my agency and that I couldn’t believe she knew of us and how grateful I was for her support.
*kissed her in my imagination. She was cute, but not my type.

Why am I telling you all of this? It’s not just to brag about random people getting their half strength soy cap (I know right?!) whilst telling me how much they love my biz, my mum’s doing a good enough job of that without me. I’m telling you this because this was the first time in a very long time that I was thrown into a state of reflection and awe for what my team and I have created.

As a business owner, we are all too often too busy looking forward to see the past. We are in a perpetual state of forward motion to stop and smell the milestones. We think that taking our foot off the gas, even just for a second to stop and gaze behind us, will mean that everything will come to a grinding halt. And when people say, “gosh you should be proud”, we shrug and think, g-damn there’s still so much to do. We can’t see the forest for those bloody trees. It’s the very nature of doing what we do, we create, evolve, push, merge, build, all forward-forward-forward. There’s simply no time for looking back.

And instead of cherishing how far we’ve come, we only see how far we’ve yet to go.

But on this rainy old day, Curly Sue reminded me that I have in fact created something from nothing and that once upon a time, I didn’t have an agency and that believe it or not, these 15 staff didn’t magically appear on my desk one day. I was a part of this process and I (along with some other pretty magical humans) made all of this happen. Little, old, inexperienced me.

Stopping to reflect is not something I’m all that great at. And to be honest, I feel like there are better things to do with my time, eg. watching paint dry. But Curly Sue and the hyperactivity of my coffee this morning invited me to take a trip down memory lane.

Sometime in May 2011, I jumped in my shitbox car, drove into the city and waited in line to register my business name in person. Little did I know that I could do it online from the comfort of my lounge. This would be the first of many, many mistakes and the beginning of a very steep (and often slippery) learning curve.

Back then, I had exactly zero customers. OK, maybe one. My roommate’s best friend but equally devoted, non-paying ‘customer’.
“You can do it, babe!” my boyfriend said.
“I know I can!” I replied.

And if we fast forward to today, I guess I kinda have. I have 15 amazingly dedicated staff, a big-ass studio, an ever-expanding gang of clients and we’re about to tick past our 2000th project very soon. Phewww. Looking back at this blurry, sweet, sweaty mess, it simultaneously feels like 20 years and 20 seconds. And whilst it might have seemingly happened quickly to outside people looking in, let me assure you, it did not happen overnight. It happened gradually, messily and with a lot of muscle, heart and hard bloody work.

At first, this biz resembled more of a flailing inflatable tube man hanging limp and deflated off the side of a car dealership than a design agency. For the first 6 months or so, it was just me doing absolutely everything — design, production, client communications, dealing with suppliers, schlepping my way through ‘intuitive accounting’, and delivering prints to clients by hand (no matter the suburb). We (and by ‘we’ I mean me, myself and I), operated in the back of my dimly lit apartment with a quasi-illegal bathroom, suspected rodents in the kitchen and displaced floorboards that let the cool winter air whip itself around my frostbitten toes. Our Photoshop license declined on numerous times due to lack of money in the bank and our first upgrade to a real studio meant that my staff and I washed our dirty dishes in the bathroom sink.

And whilst we are not even close to nearing what I have in mind for Smack Bang, Curly Sue and her questionable coffee choice has reminded me of just how far I’ve come. It feels awfully surreal to look back at our growth year on year and think of how all of this came to be. In an attempt to condense six and a half jam-packed years of hard lessons and intense mistakes, here are the six top things that have helped me get to where I am today.

  1. HIRING THE RIGHT PEOPLE BECOMES ONE OF THE MOST SACRED PARTS OF YOUR LIFE.
    My favourite part of doing what I do is the people who I work with. My team is my greatest challenge and my biggest achievement. These insanely talented, downright lovely and donut-crazy bunch, are the reason I do what I do. I really dislike the word staff, that makes it sounds as though people are working for you and doing exactly what you say. I think of us more as a team, and more than that, as a family. My management style wouldn’t fly for people who’d want to be guided every step of the way. I let my team do their jobs, make their own mistakes and give them space to grow in whatever direction they choose. And above all, I bring together people who share our core values of genuity, grit, grace and the ability to laugh at themselves and each other. The key thing is starting with people who have differences of opinion, different skillsets and different reasons for being, but ultimately who share the same values. I believe that this is what allows us to work full steam ahead towards the one united goal.
  2. WITHOUT SYSTEMS YOUR TIME (AND MONEY) WILL EVAPORATE FASTER THAN A SNOWBALL IN HELL.
    When I first started Smack Bang I had a desk piled high in lists, notes, and a desktop covered in excel spreadsheets and unnamed folders. The ‘back-end’ of my biz was a steaming hot mess. Sure, I was working my ass off, but all I was basically doing was playing Santa Clause with a team of drunk reindeers trying to get all the way around the world in one night with a long list of kids’ addresses written in hieroglyphics. The sooner you streamline your systems and start to automate your processes, the sooner you can get back to doing the fun stuff and the sooner you can start to scratch out your profit margin from under the surface.
  3. A BUSINESS MENTOR WILL SAVE YOUR ASS AND YOUR BOYFRIEND’S EARS.
    When I first started out, I got inspiration, knowledge, and advice from business books, podcasts, and blogs. I scoured through well-written advice, poorly-written advice, my Dad’s loving advice and even advice written from the perspective of an advice-giving cat. But it wasn’t until I found a business mentor that I was confident I was getting the exact advice I needed. I worked with my business mentor, Pru, for years and I am eternally grateful for everything she taught me. My boyfriend is also eternally grateful for her, not for the advice she gave me, but rather for the lengthy rambles and emotional turmoil his ears were spared. Here’s the thing, when you’re in business, stuff happens. The good, the bad and the downright disastrous happens. You need people to talk to. You can call your brother, but he doesn’t quite get this whole entrepreneurial thing you’ve got going on. You can call your best friend, but she’s on her way to a yoga class and is a little too zen for your chaos. Your neighbour seems like a nice guy, but from what you can tell he might be half deaf or isn’t quite loving your 6am blender and smoothie combo. Even your dog is too busy cleaning her genitals or barking at passers-by to listen. Enter: The business coach. Not only is your business coach there to listen, but they will provide solid advice to take what you’re feeling or experiencing and turn it into a step forward for your business.
  4. YOUR TO DO LIST WILL MAKE YOU AND IT WILL BREAK YOU.
    I know how it goes: your day begins with high hopes for productivity and positivity. You swear that today will be different and you’ll smash through your task list like a levitating goal-kicking version of Yoda. You begin writing out your tasks for the day, and as the list grows and grows, you begin to wonder if 24 hours will be enough. Before you know it, a tsunami has just traveled through your entire body and you feel the need to breathe into a paper bag to regain some level of clarity. Learning how to prioritise when everything is urgent is one of the hardest lessons us business owners have to learn. I’ll come clean and say that I still have to learn and relearn this lesson every single day. I used to begin my day with a gigantic list in front of me and break into a sweat with no idea how I’d ever be able to get all of it done. Nowadays, my task list consists of a 2 week roadmap. I allocate a maximum of 4 tasks for each day, no more. If I was to only view my task list one day at a time, having only 4 things on there would freak me the F out. But because I can see two weeks worth of 4 daily tasks, my stress levels ease and I know that it will all get done, one day at a time.
  5. CUT THE CORD OF YOUR INBOX BEFORE IT EATS YOU ALIVE.
    Back in the day, I used to get excited at the AOL voice’s interruption of ‘You’ve got mail’. But now? With a thousand emails firing at me day-in, day-out, I’ve come to point where I just don’t give two hoots anymore. There, I said it. I don’t care to battle my inbox anymore. I’m flying the white flag with the realisation that emails have no respect for office hours, for lunch time, for my wellbeing or for my sanity. Sure, if an email lands in my inbox and is important to me, I will reply. But that ever-elusive goal of “inbox zero”? I’m done with it. Of course, I’d be lying to say that I wouldn’t have a huge spike in dopamine for that brief dream moment of g-damn peace, but I’ve realised that’s all it is – BRIEF. The sooner you can get over your quest to conquer your inbox down to zero, the sooner you can start doing some real work.
  6. GET COMFORTABLE WITH WEARING A PERMANENT WEDGIE.
    In business, and particularly in a rapidly growing business, you’ll never feel comfortable. Nothing will ever feel finished. And the rate at which you have to work will always feel like something is prodding your ass and not allowing you to sit completely relaxed, no matter how soft those Calvin Kleins are. One thing I learned early on in this game was to get comfortable with the uncomfortable because everyday you’ll have something to deal with that pushes you out of your comfort zone and into new territory. I’d also like to mention here that naturally, I’d score 10/10 on the introvert scale. I’m not a networker. Dealing with people exhausts me. I’m a total homebody and love nothing more than sitting in my home office with my phone off and inbox on pause to smash out some work in the peace of my own solitude. It takes a huge amount of stamina for me to continually ‘put myself out there’ as business asks you to do. But I buckle down in the uncomfortable and do it because I know that I have to.

Building a business takes more than elbow grease. It takes more than smarts. And it takes more than experience. Building a business requires grit and grace, passion and perseverance, resolve and resilience. And more than that, it requires you to fail fast, learn on the fly and grow in ways you never even knew you could.

If you want to learn more about the trials and tribulations, ups and downs, ins and outs of what it has taken me to build a branding agency, get your mitts on my new ebook that I wrote. This is quite literally the business bible I wish I’d had back when I was a whipper-snapper excitedly securing my very first ABN. It’s the juicy AF encyclopedia of small biz survival that I’ve created to help you through all the nitty gritty that got me stuck at the studio ‘til ungodly hours of the night trying to figure it all out.

And let me declare, this is not just a normal ebook. This is a deep dive, 300+ page ecourse that delivers everything you need to know about running your own biz. It is your secret weapon for practical knowledge and rapid growth. And I promise you, I wouldn’t write 40,000 words of rubbish. It is probably the longest piece of writing I’ll ever read (let alone write) in my lifetime. 😉