Why Agencies Struggle to Scale

It’s a tale as old as time – a recognized expert starts freelancing. They get enough clients that they need to hire help. They get more clients and need to hire more help, maybe even their first full-time employee or two.

Then their business tops out. It doesn’t stop growing because they don’t have leads. On the contrary, they have more leads and interest in hiring them than ever.

It stops growing because the founder never learned how to delegate work and train others in their systems.

Sometimes this is because the founder doesn’t have systems, or doesn’t think they have systems. They’ve been doing what they do for so long that it’s automatic for them, and they don’t know how to teach it. I’ve been here.

Sometimes it’s because the founder doesn’t trust others to do things “my way” or can’t keep their hands out of little details. They drive their employees crazy. Their employees never learn, both sides get frustrated, the founder wonders why they’re paying the person “if I have to do everything myself still,” and one side or the other decides it’s “no longer a good fit.”

Even if the founder finds someone they feel they can “fully trust,” they still can’t grow the business fast enough to take on all the clients that come to them wanting to work with them.

And that’s the heart of the issue – the founder is still the founder. Clients want to work with THEM, not with their team.

The founder is not an entrepreneur. They might be a business owner, but the business they think they own actually owns them instead.

If this resonates with you, you have two choices:

  1. Realize that your skill set at this point makes you a great highly paid solo consultant, and you commit to that, or
  2. You commit to growing the skill set of being an entrepreneur so you can actually scale your business. Note that this does NOT necessarily mean you have to stop doing what you love!

There are a few areas you need to grow in (“your mindset”), and a few strategies you need to implement with that new mindset, that will set you free.

They are, in order:

  • The order in which to replace yourself in your agency
  • The 3 principles I was taught about delegation that will change your business.
  • How to delegate things you don’t love

A caveat: an agency doesn’t have to grow! If your agency is the size you want it to be, then good for you. Keep it there. Don’t let anyone tell you that you SHOULD want to grow it more. But if you do want to grow your agency and get out of the day-to-day hamster wheel or agency wheel of death of marketing -> sales -> deliver -> back to marketing -> sales -> delivery, then this post is for you.

The order in which to replace yourself in your agency

Tell me if this sounds familiar – you love what you do, and people come to your business to deliver a specific service to them. Whether that’s SEO, web development, graphic design, content editing, or something non-digital, they hire “your business” to do the thing you’re known for or trained in (maybe both). The reality is, they’re hiring YOU, not your business.

Because this is the work coming in, you probably think you should hire someone else with the same skill set as you. You’re a web developer, and people are hiring you to develop web properties, so you hire another web developer.

Now you find yourself spending more time managing, training, and delegating work to that person than coding. And they don’t have as much experience as you, so their work isn’t as good or as fast as yours, so now you feel like you’re fixing work and still have all the business things to do.

This is because you hired for the wrong role.

It’s a classic mistake, and one I want you to avoid.

Instead of hiring to replace yourself in doing what you love to do, hire for the things you don’t love and aren’t good at. 

This includes:

  • business things like finance, payroll, and other admin tasks (even scheduling and email management via a virtual assistant!)
  • anything project management related
  • maybe even eventually marketing and sales if you don’t like those and aren’t good at them.

In short, the most effective order in which to hire for your agency is:

  • Admin
  • Delivery
  • Marketing
  • Sales 

Note that hiring for “delivery” does not mean you have to stop doing what you love (in this example, web development)! Delivery is also all of the things around the actual work, like onboarding, account management, invoicing, reporting and status updates, and more.

It’s all the things that have to happen around the core thing you do! Hire for all of THAT.

Recommended read: The E-Myth Revisited

3 delegation principles that changed my business trajectory

These three principles changed how I think about hiring and working with others.

  1. 80% done by others is 100% awesome
  2. 10-80-10
  3. Build systems, not hard work

80% done by others is 100% awesome

I learned this (and the next) principle from my friend and mentor Dan Martell.

You should pick up his new book Buy Back Your Time, where he outlines a lot of these principles. 

I remember being on a group call with Dan when I was in his SaaS Academy program. Someone (I don’t remember who, maybe it was even me) asked a question about hiring and delegation.

Dan said in a matter-of-fact way: “something 80% done by others is 100% f-ing awesome.”


That hit me hard. You can’t expect someone, especially someone new, to do something better than you straight away. They may even do it in a different way that is better, but you’re focused on them doing it “your way” and so you don’t even recognize it.

But if they did it 80% of the way, that’s 80% you didn’t have to do. And that’s frickin’ awesome.

10-80-10 principle

This one is an extension of Dan’s above statement, drawn out into a principle.

The principle is basically that you can’t expect to fully replace yourself in a role and not have to give any feedback, especially if you are committed to growing your people’s skill sets and helping them become even more productive to the business and in their own careers.

So, what do we do with that? If the hope that you can just hire someone and they’ll instantly be awesome is a pipe dream, are we just stuck?

Nope. Basically, the principle says this:

  • You do the first 10% to come up with the idea, cast the vision, and hand it off
  • The team or person you hand it off to does 80% of the work, to get it to 90%
  • You come back around 90% completed and get the project the final 10% of the way across the line.

Of course, while the person/team is doing the 80% stretch, you should be checking in with them and they should be checking in with you to make sure they’re going in the right direction. The bigger the project, the more important this is because even 1% off the mark over a long enough period of time will end you up in a very different place than where you were trying to go, which means you’ll spend even more energy (and budget!) to get where you ultimately want to go.

So it’s better to have small corrections along the way.

Systems, not just hard work

This one is original to me, though it’s been built over the years as I have built businesses and learned from both experience and others.

It is the idea that as we build service businesses, most commonly called “agencies” in the digital world, we should not be just working hard and “figuring it out” all the time, but rather as we work hard for our clients we should be establishing tried-and-true processes that can be taught to others and thus scaled.

Every time I try something new, or I’m tempted to add a new service offering or add-on to the service, I always think “how can we deliver this at scale?” and “how can this become a process that others can execute on?”

The founder being stuck in the delivery of the work, and not delegating other parts of the business, is the death knell of every agency that wants to grow significantly. Founders who become entrepreneurs will realize that they’re best utilized in building the business and the team, which means focusing more on team hiring and retention as well as marketing and sales to keep the lights on and everyone, including themselves, gainfully employed.

How to delegate things you don’t love

Now come the final two questions:

  1. How do I discover the things I don’t love?
  2. How do I delegate those?

First, let me dispel that you should hand off things that you love and give you energy! If delivering the work your agency is hired for gives you energy, then you should delegate EVERYTHING ELSE, including business management and hiring, so you can focus on the work itself.

Second, let me also say that if you don’t want to significantly grow your business and you’re happy with where you are, great! Don’t let anyone tell you that you HAVE to “scale” your agency or grow it bigger than it is.

But if you do want to grow your agency significantly, this section is for you.

How do I discover the things I don’t love that I should delegate?

There are two parts to discovering what you don’t love (in other words, what does not give you energy):

  1. Audit your calendar for everything you’re doing and spending time on
  2. Make a list of the things you’re doing that you hate and therefore put off or have to motivate yourself to do.

No entrepreneur will grow their business into more pain (that’s a quote from Dan Martell again). If you want to grow your agency and you know or FEEL that selling more will only bring you more pain, you’ll quit marketing and selling and your business won’t grow.

So, you owe it to yourself to get out of the things that you hate which will be required even more if you grow.

Here are the steps to take:

  1. Look at your calendar and to-do list from the last two weeks.
  2. Make a list of EVERYTHING you’ve done in a spreadsheet, in the first column.
  3. In the next columns, put the energy level you feel (1-5, with 5 being gives you energy and 1 being you abhor it), the necessity to the business, and the number of hours you spent on it.
  4. Now find the things that are low on the energy scale for you, high on necessity to the business, and high on hours spent.
  5. These are the first things you delegate to someone else.
  6. Once those are delegated (often just solved via a virtual assistant if you’re a founder), move on to low-energy but still important to the business, and so on.

Keep delegating until you’re primarily working on things that bring you a lot of energy and make the business a lot of money. It’s a process that you have to keep doing consistently to keep offloading tasks and roles you do not like, but if you do it right then you’ll be able to afford those people simply because you’re working on things that you love doing that make your business a lot more money!

Who and How do I delegate the things I hate?

A few things will help you wrap your head around delegating things you hate.

The first is a mindset shift that there are people who love doing the exact things you hate. As soon as I realized this, I stopped feeling bad about “offloading tasks I hate” and started empowering others to do work they love.

The second is who to delegate to and how to do it.

The WHO is always harder than the how, but both are important. For most entrepreneurs or leaders, having someone take care of admin tasks like email, scheduling, payroll, accounting, and more is the first thing they need to hire. A virtual assistant is usually the right first hire. 

You also don’t have to hire them full-time if you can’t afford it! I have a full-time assistant at Credo, but here at EditorNinja, I have a part-time assistant through a service that specializes in it because that’s what I can afford right now. The order in which people usually hire assistants or others for tasks they’re delegating is:

  1. Freelancers – project basis
  2. Part-time – ongoing, working closely together as if they are a full-time permanent employee
  3. Full-time – once the position merits it.

Don’t get stuck not hiring because you can’t afford someone full-time. If you’re thinking that way, you’re not ready for a full-time employee in that role anyway.

Now, how do you delegate work?

This a topic that deserves its own blog post, but there are a few strategies to follow:

  1. Before you start delegating, make sure you are clear in your own mind what the process involves. Then record (via Loom or similar software) yourself doing it 2-3 times.
  2. Get someone to document the process in writing from that video. Ideally, this is the person you are hiring to do it. I prefer to have my assistant do it, and we store these playbooks in a central place (Google Drive folder, delegated Trello board with lists for each part of the business).

When you hire someone or engage with someone to try them out in a role, this will set them up for success. Give them the task, set the expectation for when it needs to be done and how it should be delivered, and let them do it. Be available for questions, as they’ll always have questions. After they do it once or twice, and expectations are set, you can reasonably expect them to do it moving forward, though you should also hold them accountable to it.

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