Is Owning an Agency Like Running Into a Burning Building?
Mark Sullivan is an agency owner who has also spent over 22 years in public safety. He has seen people in the best and worst of times. When he’s not working as a firefighter, he is the founder and creative director of the branding agency he started in 2014. Mark is on the show to talk about the similarities between fighting fires and running an agency. He’s also sharing the #1 lesson he wishes he had known much sooner.
3 Golden Nuggets
- Running an agency can be like fighting fires. Your clients are trusting your agency with their livelihood, the same way firefighters rely on each other to get out of a fire. Everyone has to have trust in order to be successful.
- Trust your gut when a client doesn’t feel right. One thing Mark wishes he had known sooner is that it’s OK to walk away from a client that is a bad fit. You don’t have to take on every prospect. It’s better to take a chance at offending them than add stress to yourself and your team.
- Empower your team to make decisions. Stand behind your team on the decisions they make. When they feel supported and appreciated, they will make smart decisions that support your agency vision.
Sponsor & Resources
Wix: Today’s episode is sponsored by the Wix Partner Program. Being a Wix Partner is ideal for freelancers and digital agencies that design and develop websites for their clients. Check out Wix.com/Partners to learn more and become a member of the community for free.
Is Owning an Agency Like Running Into a Burning Building?
Jason: [00:00:00] On this episode, I talk with a firefighter who also has an agency and has built a really amazing agency. And we talk about one of the number one lessons that he wished he could go back over. He actually learned the lesson from listening to the show.
As well as what you can do in order to really keep and build an amazing team and really be that right leader and what you should really focus on in your agency that can make all the difference, not only in your agency but also in your life. So I hope you enjoy this episode with Mark, the firefighter slash agency owner, and now let’s get into it.
I’m excited to have you on, so tell us who you are and what do you do?
Mark: [00:00:45] Well, my name is Mark Sullivan. I’m the founder, creative director of Lime Biscuit Creative. We’re a branding and design agency, just outside of Atlanta. We do a lot of web design, logos. We love to do startups or total rebrands for companies. Have been doing that for six years now, working on year seven.
And I also serve full-time as a Lieutenant at a fire department, just outside of Atlanta and been doing that for 23 years. So stay pretty busy.
Jason: [00:01:11] Yeah, it’s a definitely interesting story. So what made you want to kind of do the agency biz? How’d you get into it?
Mark: [00:01:19] Well, it was kind of a backward, a way that we got into it.
I ran a music agency where we basically would help bands and speakers get events and get into like car shows, where they would sign autographs and stuff and get reimbursement for it. They would do a concert, or stuff like that. That kind of rolled into us, working with some talent from A&E and the History Channel.
And through that process, we learned real quick that, uh, those guys become divas really fast and it’s not worth the hassle to work with them. But in that process, we learned that so many of them didn’t have any kind of brand awareness. They didn’t have any kind of design, uh, understanding of how it worked.
And so we pretty much started learning on our own, how to create a brand for someone, a personal brand, a company brand. And from that, we started doing what we’re doing today and as they got more difficult to work with, uh, we decided we were just going to kind of abandon that part of our business and strictly focus on the agency side. And, was turned out to be a really good decision for us.
Jason: [00:02:23] Very cool. And what made you get into the fire department?
Mark: [00:02:26] Well, I was, an ADD sufferer from day one. I knew the traditional school route was not going to work for me. And, uh, I’m one of the kids that, you know, from kindergarten, my mom’s got these books. What do you want to do when you grow up? And mine’s been a firefighter ever since I can remember being in school.
It’s always just been attractive to me as something to do. And I love the whole idea of you never know what’s coming next. So for somebody with ADD, it works really good. It keeps you changing up things on a regular basis. And, uh, just set out to do that. And I got about two to four more years of that hopefully I should be able to retire from that. So looking forward to that now, especially my body is.
Jason: [00:03:07] I bet. I remember when I sold my agency, I didn’t know what I was going to do after. And I went to, you know, I was talking about it to my cousin-in-law, being a firefighter is what I’ve always wanted. I thought that would be the coolest job.
And then he kept telling me stories about most of the things are car wrecks and involving very, uh, disturbing stuff. And I was like, I would pass out for that. So I kind of nixed the volunteer fireman route.
Mark: [00:03:35] Yeah, it is. It’s definitely not what you see on TV, but it does have its moments. But it has been a culture change in the 23 years I’ve been doing it. It’s nothing like when I first got into it, but, uh, still wouldn’t trade it for anything.
Jason: [00:03:49] Okay, cool. So let’s talk about kind of the agency. You know, you’re a Lieutenant in the fire department. Is there some parallel between the agency and fighting a fire or saving people’s lives?
Mark: [00:04:02] Ironically, there is some, it’s been a very unique journey to kind of see how those things kind of correlate.
But you see a firefighter on TV, you know, going into these house fires or going into a building that’s on fire and the camera follows them around and they can see everything that’s going on and they walk right up to somebody and grab them, throw them over their shoulder and walk out. But, in reality, when you enter a fire, most of them are zero visibility.
So you’re basically feeling your way around the whole time, trying to figure out where you’re at, trying to find out if anybody’s in there, if there’s anybody that can be recovered or saved that’s in there. And through that process, you learn, you know, which direction to go first based on the time of the day.
And it is a lot like working with a company. People will come in here in total darkness. They have no clue where they’re at in a house, so to speak. They have no clue how to get out. And so their message is stuck. And so it’s easy to relate a lot of those things. So it’s actually been pretty cool to be able to talk with clients and just say, look.
You know, it sounds like what I was learning how to fight a house fire and going in, I have to learn these certain patterns to keep me on target of what I’m supposed to do. In a business is that same way. You know, there’s certain things in business that if we forget to do, you know, we can stray away and wind up completely lost.
So, uh, there’s a lot of, of, uh, similarities with that. But then at the same time in the business realm is keeping those people at the firehouse close to you and trusting you is a huge, huge thing. And you’re literally, depending on someone else. Doing their job for your life to be safe. And, uh, a lot of times in what we do, I think we forget that we’re entrusted with a lot of people’s livelihoods and, uh, they want to trust us and know that their best interest is at our heart all the time so that they know their business is safe, their finances and their family are safe.
So that’s kinda the two ways that I see that they kind of go side by side a lot of times.
Jason: [00:05:58] Yeah, I was, um, yesterday as we’re recording this, I, uh, chatted with Nick a former Navy SEAL. And he was actually saying, look, I’m more stressed out running a business than I was getting fired at and in combat. And I was like, really?
And he was like, I was just more prepared. And he also said cause I asked, I said, well, was there ever a time that you didn’t trust your teammates? Or how did you pick your teammates? And he goes, well, they, they were always assigned to us, but they had to go through a rigorous process that was proven.
Versus a rigorous process for hiring an agency employee. Cause everyone does really well in the interview. And then they all go to shit, you know, after that versus, you know, having a hell week and B.U.D.S. And probably the same thing at the fire department where you’re, depending on someone’s that your life is in someone else’s hands.
But I like your analogy with, the same thing with an agency, right? Yeah. Your livelihood for a lot of your clients, especially in these crazy times of going, you know. Of going, hey, if they have an extra 20,000 to spend and you spend it incorrectly, you know, they could lose their house, they could go homeless, you know, and there’s all kinds of repercussions that go into there.
Mark: [00:07:16] And that’s caused a lot of sleepless nights here lately, for sure.
Jason: [00:07:19] Exactly. As you’re growing your agency, how do you reassure? And I like that analogy that you use with the fire department to your prospects, how do you reassure or what’s the process that you walk people through to reassure them that they’re making the right decision?
Mark: [00:07:38] It seems to differ from person to person. The one big thing that we’re lucky about here is almost all of our clients come exclusively from referrals. We do very little advertising. We do very, and when I say little less than $5,000 a year, total in advertising. So one good thing we have is that when they come to us, they already have a little bit of trust because somebody, they trust refer them to us.
But once they get to us. And we’re talking about this marketing package or this brand package and launching this. Either a new company or whether it be just rebranding or a marketing idea for a company. A lot of times they’ll get those cold feet right at the end. And we get a lot of clients that come in here, as you can imagine with our name, Lime Biscuit.
We don’t do things the normal agency way a lot of times. And so when they come in here and they talk to us, they want it to be kinda like us and that I want a crazy name. I want to do this. I want to do this. But then when it comes down to it, they’re like, no, I can’t do this. It’s just not in my DNA to do this.
And so they go back to their, their old path and stuff. And so we have to kind of just sit with them and say, look, this is something we have proven results with. It’s something we’ve done before, it’s something that we’re comfortable with. And our goal is not to be a one-time check for me. Our goal is to continue a relationship with you and build with you.
And we wouldn’t lead you down this path if we didn’t think it was also going to turn into revenue for us at the end of the road. So they kind of understand that this is a process we’re walking through with them as they stay in business. We’re not just somewhere that wants to launch a logo on a website for them and walk away.
And I feel like once they understand that we’re kind of their partner in that, they tend to trust us a little more and they get a little bit more gumption to kinda go forward with it.
Jason: [00:09:29] Very cool. What would you wish that you knew toward the start that you know now that you would tell yourself?
Mark: [00:09:36] That’s an easy one.
Uh, and I actually learned this from listening to the Smart Agency podcast. So credit to you for this, because I have told this to so many other business owners. It’s all right to fire somebody. And to say no to them. And for the longest man, we were just like, you know, we thought we had to take everybody.
We thought that it was, these people were coming to us. We have to do this with them. We have to take their money. We have to help their company. And man, it drove us just crazy. And we were working with clients. We knew we didn’t align with, and it was just a struggle the entire time. But I remember specifically the day I was listening to the podcast and I was actually sitting at the firehouse.
It was about eight o’clock at night. And you were talking with somebody just about how, you know, we’re not made to work with everybody all the time and that it’s okay to fire a client. And man that from the beginning, it would have saved a lot of years and a lot of wrinkles on these eyes. Because that was the thing that, you know, I’ve learned that my gut instinct, when they come in and I’m like, I really don’t think they’re a client for us.
And I don’t think we’re a client for them. I’ve learned to just trust that and just chance offending them and just saying, we’re not right for you. And man, I wish I’d have known that from the beginning.
Jason: [00:10:57] Oh, I’m glad that helped. Um, how do you tell if they’re the right fit for you in the very beginning?
Like, I think it’s different for everybody. Is it like a gut feeling or is it more of like, oh, you have to check the box for these four things?
Mark: [00:11:13] I think for us, a lot of it is gut because when we have somebody come in, like each client obviously starts at a different process, but like I said earlier, we do a lot of either rebranding or startups.
And so our first process in that is beginning their visual identity and how their logo is gonna look, how their colors are gonna flow. And if we come up with a really cool concept and just right off the bat, they’re like, I don’t like this. I like this. And they show us something that is so far removed from us.
That’s generally an immediate response of, we’re just going to give you your check back and you can go somewhere else. And we handle it with a lot of tact and we try to even give them other contacts to reach out to. But for us, we do, honestly operate differently. Like you don’t go into many agencies where, you know, you got a firefighter with only a high school degree that’s this coming in here doing this.
So, we tend to, to act differently with our clients. We like to have fun. We like to cut up with them. We like to show up at their office on announce with ice cream and stuff and whatever. And so if we don’t see that they’re going to enjoy that and something, that’s going to make them feel more comfortable with us then that stomach just tells you this isn’t right.
Jason: [00:12:35] That’s good that you really kind of found the lane and, you know, who your ideal client is that you want to work with. It took us many years to figure that out, takes many. Sometimes people are still figuring it out. You know, maybe if there’s someone else sitting into, you know, their own firehouse or somewhere else, listening to this and be like son of a bitch, like I can get rid of the pain in the ass client? Like it’s very helpful.
Mark: [00:13:01] We’ve learned that there’s usually somebody else there to give you a check, so to speak. So, for the long time, it was just terrified to fire ’em because where’s the next revenue stream going to come from? And then we’ve learned. And like I said, it’s compliments to you, man. It’s been a lot of our staff listens to the podcast and it is the only podcast that we all listen to and that they’re required to listen to.
And it’s just been one of those things where, and you just got a grin and bear it and say, We’re just not your team. Sorry. And after you do that, a couple of times it does seem to get easier, but you still worry about that income.
Jason: [00:13:39] Yeah. When, uh, I always tell everybody I’m like, your team is your number one asset.
And, uh, I will always stick up for my team. If someone comes along, I don’t care if they have a billion dollars. I may, I may think of it a little bit different. But it would be a little harder to have that decision, but I would still choose the team because team’s, everything.
So if someone gives you a billion dollars and then you have no team to execute on it. I mean, you’re on the Island, you’re on this little Island that you can’t get off and you’re imprisoned.
And we really, uh, we don’t create our businesses to be in prison. Most of us are, uh, unfortunately without figuring out the right systems and, and figuring out that, you know, that getting that clarity. For, hey, these are the clients is, really kind of step one. Right?
Mark: [00:14:25] Right. We empower our team to make decisions without asking.
Like I’m gone every third day to the fire department. Most of the time they can reach me by phone. But yesterday for instance, I just got off this morning. Hadn’t slept. So if I sound groggy, that’s probably why, but uh, sometimes they can’t get in touch with me and I want them to know that you’ve got my blessing to make this decision.
If my lead designer says this client is just not having it, then she’s got full power to tell them to go somewhere else. And I try to make sure that they are equipped with that, and that gives them a buy-in and they understand that I trust them. And I believe that goes a long way.
Jason: [00:15:04] Well, I think he hit on something that most of us take for granted, right?
As we’re being leaders and we’re leading our team, most of us, we don’t tell our team that we trust them, literally. Like, I trust you to make the right decision and whatever decision you make, I will stand behind you. And like, I think when your team members hear that, because you got to think of as like human beings, we all want to be part of a community.
We all want to have that significance. That’s why they’re probably working for you. They’re probably not working for you because of what you’re paying them. Right. Like, honestly, probably go somewhere like at the agency, like they could go work for a huge agency or a huge business and make more money, but they’re not going to get all of that community, the accomplishment, the recognition, all of that.
And I think we forget a lot of times, like, I was talking to my buddy Gene and he coaches a lot of people on the business side. And, uh, we were talking, it was like, when’s the last time you went to some of your team members and said, hey, I trust you. I really appreciate you. And a lot of times, most people will be like, I’ve never done that.
But they talk to their are other people like us coaches or advisors, and like, oh man, I could not do this without them. And I was like, why didn’t you tell them that?
Mark: [00:16:21] That reminds me of The Office. I’m a huge fan of The Office where Michael Scott, you know, says behind Pam’s back. He said, she’s actually really talented artist, but I’d never say that to her face.
Jason: [00:16:32] I’ve watched one episode. I was kinda like that with Seinfeld when it was on, I thought it was probably the dumbest show ever. And then I watched it like the last season and then I’ve been hooked ever since.
Mark: [00:16:42] Exactly. But it is the team. If you don’t have them to support you, especially with my schedule, it’s not going to go anywhere.
And, you know, we try to do little stuff for them. It’s, they’ll walk in and there’s literally something as simple as chocolate bars are laying all across their desk and keyboards and stuff like that. And it’ll be on their Snapchat story later. My boss knows how to get to my heart by chocolate.
And it’s just little stuff like that, but I’ll make sure I send them a text or Snapchat when I’m at the station frequently, that just says, thank you guys so much. I love you guys. You don’t have any clue how much it means to me and my family that I can trust you at the office. And just to let them know that I don’t take them for granted.
Jason: [00:17:23] Awesome. Very cool. Well, this has been amazing, Mark. Is there anything I didn’t ask you that you think would benefit the audience?
Mark: [00:17:30] And I think coming from the firefighter side of agency owner, uh, side of it is, is that we spend so much time, uh, sometimes investing in our clients and in their lives and, and what they have going on. And we obsess over what we can do for them. And. I think sometimes you just gotta stop and think about yourself.
Think about your own agency. And I think about your own family. And I have seen hundreds and hundreds of times, people who never planned on their life-ending on a certain day. And it’s so easy in the agency life to get wrapped up and even sitting at home, watching TV in the back of your mind is spinning like, well, what are we going to do for this client?
Or what are we going to do for this client? And. It gets so easy to rabbit trail and forget that we have our own lives and our own agency that we have to protect and watch out after. And I think it’s just that as, you know, watch out for your family, watch out for your own employees, your own agency, because, if you don’t do that, it doesn’t matter what kind of clients come in.
Eventually you’re going to falter. So take the time to stop. And you know, like you said earlier, spend time with your own clients and your, or your own employees and just say, hey I appreciate you and you know, how do you think our agency can be better? And you might be surprised the answers you get.
Jason: [00:18:48] Yeah, no, I totally agree.
It’s a crazy world. And, uh, you know, we all, we try to work ourselves to death and we’re like, well, in 10 years, when I sell the agency, then I’ll be able to spend time with my family. I was like, that’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard, because I think there’s certain people out there that really preach work all the time and hustle, hustle, hustle, hustle.
And I don’t agree with that at all. I agree. There’s times to work hard and put your head down, but if you dictate your whole goals, all based on revenue and growth, rather than think about why are you trying to get that? When people talk to me a lot of times about, you know, my goal is to sell an agency like you did Jason.
I’m like, why? Well then, so then I can have fun. I can do. I’m like, you can do that now. I was like, you don’t need that. Yes. It’s a couple of little more zeros at the very end, but, but why do you want more zeros at the end? Right. And I’m like, look, if you start with a time goal and maybe keep it very simple. I want to take off Friday afternoons and not work on the weekends and just start there and think about in order for that to accomplish what systems do we need in place?
What team members do we need? What different types of clients, what do I need to charge? And you start there. I think a lot of us listening will be a lot happier rather than just chasing money. I heard something too. It’s like maybe, maybe this was from the hustle King, Gary Vaynerchuk, which he is very brilliant.
And he talked about don’t chase the gold, sell the pickaxeto the people going after the gold. I was like, that’s kind of, that’s pretty smart.
Mark: [00:20:27] I like that. Yeah. I listen to Gary all the time, but there’s certain parts of that I just, I can’t go along with, on the nonstop all day long. Doing what I do. It’s just, I’m already working 60 hours a week doing that and, this is kind of my segue to retirement. I want to retire early from there and this will be my full-time career. And it just went a little quicker than we anticipated.
So luckily surrounded with great family and great staff that, that helped me keep it going. So, uh, I’m just blessed in that part.
Jason: [00:20:56] Awesome. Well, great. Uh, what’s the website people can go and check it out?
Mark: [00:20:59] Uh, they can check out our agency at LimeBiscuit.com, just like the food.. And then my personal one on the fireside, my blogs and stuff is MarkTSullivan.Me and they can check it out there as well.
Jason: [00:21:13] Awesome. We’ll go check it out.
And if everyone listening enjoys this episode and you really want to know what are the right systems that you need to put in place in order to really get a hold of your agency, where you can scale it on a consistent basis where not every decision has to go through you.
You’re getting consistent leads. You’re charging the right amount. You’re not getting crushed on scope creep. I want you to guys go to check out the Agency Playbook at JasonSwenk.com/playbook request an invite. And check out the systems that have worked for thousands of agency owners over the past couple of years. If you do jump into it and you get a lifetime access to it and we’re always updating it and it will show you that framework that you can follow.
So you can really scale and grow the agency that you really want. So until next time have a Swenk day.