How to Overcome Isolation as an Agency Owner So You Can Grow

By Jason Swenk on August 22, 2021

Having your own agency and the responsibility for people’s livelihoods can be an isolating experience. Darren Fox says he fell into the agency world unexpectedly. After a while of offering freelance web design services, it became clear he could not continue solopreneur. So, Darren founded Idea Marketing Group. and started building a team. Even though he loves building relationships with his team, as the agency grew, he had to separate himself to maintain his leadership role. “You definitely feel like you’re on an island,” Darren says. In this episode, Darren is candid about the loneliness of agency ownership. He also talks about ways to overcome isolation in order to grow a successful agency.

3 Golden Nuggets

  1. It can be very isolating. Something that is not discussed much but agency owners should be prepared for is just how isolating it can be at the top. As your agency grows, so will your team. You may find that, as the leader, it’s better for you to put some distance to maintain respect and avoid favoritism. You can’t be everyone’s best friend because you may be in the position of firing them at some point. It’s difficult and it will leave you excluded from fun lunch outings with everyone, but Darren agrees it’s for the best.
  2. Turn to people that can relate. Darren and many other mastermind members have agreed that one of the best remedies for the loneliness of agency ownership is sharing in a group of people who relate and offer advice. As an agency owner, you can feel burdened with the pressure of being responsible for people’s livelihoods and the future of your business, which you can’t really discuss with your team. However, other agency owners will understand those concerns and offer new perspectives.
  3. Find the right pace. We’re all impatient about the success we want to see for our company. We want to scale fast and take on every project we can get. But, that kind of thinking can lead to burnout for you and your team. You don’t have to take on every client. Learning to say no is an important part of the process. Our guest recommends talking with your team to be sure that they can handle the workload. Set expectations for each project and be realistic about deadlines. After all, you’re counting on them and they have to know that you’ve got their back.

Sponsors and Resources

Ninja Cat: Today’s episode is sponsored by Ninja Cat, a digital marketing performance management platform where you can unify your data, create beautiful, insightful reports and presentations that will help you grow your business. Head over to to enjoy an exclusive offer for podcast listeners.


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Learn to Deal With the Isolation of Agency Life and Find the Right Pace to Grow

Jason: [00:00:00] What’s up, everybody? Jason Swenk here. And I have an amazing guest coming on the masterclass to talk about the doom and gloom of owning an agency. The things that not many people really talk about that you need to be aware of and to make sure that, you know, look, it’s not all sunshine and rainbows. So we’re definitely going to have a lot of fun.

Um, but let’s go ahead and jump into it.

Alright, Darren. What’s going on, man?

Darren: [00:00:33] Hey, thanks for having me. It’s awesome to be here.

Jason: [00:00:36] Yeah, man. I’m excited to have you on. I was, I had Drew on last week and he was one of the other ones on top of the mountain with us. That was in the intro. So you’re the second guest on the intro. Tell us, uh, before we jump in and talk about, you know, all this amazing stuff that we wish we knew about, tell us who you are and what you do?

Darren: [00:00:58] Sure. So, uh, Darren Fox, president and founder of Idea Marketing Group. Uh, we’re a full-service agency that is known for custom web development.

So that’s been our core focus and we work with all types of industries, but we’ve really been, you know, narrowing that down to food and beverage within the last year or so.

Jason: [00:01:19] Awesome. Well, I’m excited to have you on, so let’s, um, let’s go ahead and jump into it. Let’s talk about what are some of the things that you didn’t expect, you know, creating an agency. Because a lot of times we come in and we think, you know, creating an agency there’s low barrier to entry and we’re going to have all this freedom, uh, you know, to do whatever we want and have all this money.

So let’s, let’s talk about what did you not expect?

Darren: [00:01:45] Oh, yeah. So, I mean, I guess a lot of it is time initially of like how much time it really takes. Everybody thinks that, you know, because you have your own business, that you’re just going to be, you know, going out, doing whatever you want, getting the work done.

And I feel like when I first started, I was probably working almost double the hours that I was previously for like a fraction of the price. Probably like my first job, like pushing shopping carts at a retail store is essentially what I was making, but working so much harder and longer.

And, you know, I kind of fell into the agency role unexpected. I was really just going to kind of do it as like this freelance thing and do it on the side. And it all just kind of happened. Then, you know, it started to snowball and I was getting bigger and I was like, I can’t do this by myself. I need to start hiring. And, you know, just learning about the challenges of hiring and trying to bring on the right people.

And I think, you know, I obviously learned some mistakes early on that the best thing to do is, you know, spend that money and hire the best talent that you can early on. Um, so that was probably like one of the biggest mistakes out of the gate is I was just trying to hire like what I could kind of afford. And just learning early on that, you know, that’s not the right type of mentality that you need to have to make the agency successful.

Jason: [00:03:14] Yeah. I, um, I see a lot of times, and I even did this as well. Like in the very beginning when you’re hiring someone, you’re hiring them to do something that you don’t know how to do. That you’re really trying to sell them on working with you versus the opposite. And I look at it now looking back and I think you do too of going, if I could go back again, I would actually hire someone to do something that I already know how to do really well.

So then I know how to manage them and they’re actually doing the things that I don’t need to be doing anymore. So I can go on to the next.

Darren: [00:03:51] Right. Yeah, because I mean, every agency owner should constantly challenge themselves to, you know, do professional development and just keep growing. Because as soon as you stop, you die. Like, yeah, this is just kind of the nature of the beast, especially in this industry with how fast everything changes.

Jason: [00:04:10] Yeah. What about like, when things go wrong? Like, what’s your, what’s your thoughts of, uh… You know, can you go to your team? Can you go to your employees? Like, I mean, it’s pretty, I remember it was pretty isolating.

Darren: [00:04:25] Yeah. Yeah. You definitely feel like you’re on an island. Like, you know, you want to share these things with people. But at the same time, they’re putting their trust and faith in you as a leader.

And you don’t want to jeopardize that either, because then they start to question what you’re doing. So, yeah, it’s an extremely lonely position to be in. And it’s tough too, because I’m the type of person like I like to develop like really solid relationships with my staff. And then there’s also that fine line too, of like, well, you still have to be the boss.

You can’t be somebody’s best friend because you may be put in that position to where you’d have to fire them. And I’ve had to do that and, you know, it’s, it’s a hard position to be in. So I think just kind of knowing that fine line of like, wanting to bring on people that fit from a culture standpoint, because they share the same values as you do. But you also have to kind of, you know, keep that line in between of not becoming friends.

I mean, you can be, but it’s like, it’s a different type of friendship.

Jason: [00:05:32] Yeah. How have you gotten around that? Because, you know, I’ve, I’ve struggled with that in the past. And even on this go around, you know, it’s, it’s really, it might, like with Stacy and her team, like they’re, they’re like family now. Um, and I know what you’re saying about like, you know, if you get to a point where you have to fire someone because they’re not doing something, it makes it that much harder.

But I guess elaborate a little bit more about, because most people don’t realize this and it does get very, very difficult.

Darren: [00:06:11] Yeah. Yeah. I mean, when you say family, you look at it and the people that you work with are probably the people that you see more often than your actual family. So in essence, they are your family because, yeah, you’re around them so much.

And, you also, like, as you’ve grown, you add staff, I remember, or a smaller, we would do everything. It was like a, a tight little group too. We would do like launch outings and everything. But then as you get bigger yeah, it’s like, oh, we can’t really just bring everybody out to lunch or we can’t do this.

And then you have to start to be selective of like, well, if I go out to lunch with this person, is it going to piss off the other person? And people start to see that you’re playing like favoritism. Um, so that’s also hard too. So, you know, a lot of times like the team would go out on lunch outings and I’d be like, yeah, I’m going to sit this one out because you guys will be able to bond more without me there and present.

So those are some of the challenging things too, is just pulling back and sometimes it puts you or paints that picture of like, oh, you’re this guy that, you know, doesn’t want to be around the staff when really you do, you just have to like… Yeah, it’s, it’s hard to say. It’s like, yeah, you’ve got to kind of just separate yourself.

You can’t do after hour get-togethers or those types of things.

Jason: [00:07:33] Yeah. I remember when I had, I think we’re about eight people at the time and a lot of the people at this level, um, I remember having them over at my house, like a bonfire behind and I just treated them as like friends. And then I remember the culture really started shifting a little bit in the wrong way, um, for like listening to us.

It was kind of like, they didn’t look at you as the leader anymore, but like, oh, I can do whatever. I remember having to get rid of a lot of those people. And I remember coming back at it going I can’t do that anymore. And it’s like, one of my favorite movies is miracle right there about the 1980 hockey team.

If any of you have watched or hasn’t watched it, you got to go watch it. It’s really pretty amazing. And, uh, Herb, I think it was Herb Green was that w was that the coach’s name at the time? And the whole, this whole committee wanted to put all these a, a, you know, all these, a, um, star people on the team. He was like, no, I want the right people on the right position.

Um, it’s not, they’re not the best player, but the best player for the team. And I remember him separating himself from his team. Like… and I remember the doctor and his assistant coach was like, has he ever done this? It’s like, no, never, but there’s always a reason. And, uh, it is, you know, it is pretty lonely at the top.

Um, what are some things that you’ve done to kind of make you sane because you are on an island?

Darren: [00:09:15] Yeah. Um, so actually probably the best thing was joining the mastermind group too. And just being around other agency owners and just being able to share with them directly. Because those are the stories that we haven’t been able to share internally.

And then you have somebody that’s in the same boat as you, that you can be like, all right, I get it. Like, let’s just talk through this. So I think that’s really valuable too, because, yeah, I see it with every agency owner where they start to have second thoughts of like, do I get rid of the agency? Do I keep going? Is this the right thing for me?

Um, so yeah, I mean, we all battled depression too, which is an unfortunate thing as a business owner, but, it’s something that everybody should be aware of.

Jason: [00:10:03] Well, I think, I think the depression comes because we do feel like everything’s on our shoulders. And there’s, you know, there’s, it’s like these people are going to eat or they’re going to die, you know, with us.

And that’s, I think we put too much pressure on ourselves. You know, I’ve always joked about, I’ve always been fired from every position I’ve ever had, other than the ones I create. Um, and it’s always been the best thing, right? So I can go on to the next, and I could eventually find this. And I look at, look, even if you make a wrong decision as an agency owner. That’s okay.

Like you get a reset, even if it does take down and you have to lay people off. That’s okay. People are going to be fine. They’re resilient. They’ll actually go do it. So it’s not a life and death situation. Um, yeah. And you know, I hear so many stories, kind of like yours. I was many points in my agency where I just wanted to throw in the towel.

I was, uh, I was looking through some of the stories and old emails, um, to kind of look at some of the successes that our clients have had over the years. And, you know Jack well, and I remember Jack, he sent me an email many years ago. He goes, should I shut down the agency or push on? And like there’s so many times, and I remember sending him an email. I was like, uh, no, you should push on.

And I said, whenever you feel it you’re at the max kind of the Navy Seals have this motto that you’re only at 40%, you still have 60% to go. I’m so glad he continued, cause now is a multimillion-dollar agency, uh, you know, owner. And he’s picking and choosing doing what he wants, but it’s just like, sometimes you have to disconnect and get the emotion.

Like how do you… in your agency, I think a lot of times I would, even in my company now, uh, you make emotional decisions. So how do you take emotion out of it when you’re making a decision?

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Darren: [00:12:04] That’s the hardest thing, because I feel like I make a lot of decisions based on emotion too. So I think the best thing to do in that case is don’t decide right at the moment. Like, digest it, take, uh, take time.

Um, like I think another thing that agency owners fail to do is they don’t take vacations. Like, especially early on too. And that was something that I started to do, because just as you said, it’s kind of like a reset to get away and be like, all right, recharge, think about it. And really just like reflect on where you’re going, what you’re doing and think about it. Because I’ve had those moments too, too, where it’s like, all right, what do I do?

And sometimes that is it’s like, you just need to get away.

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I love that you said take a vacation, get away, because especially for the first couple of years, or decade for some people… You work around the clock because you’re like, this is my time I got to grab as much as I possibly can. But it’s almost kind of like, you know, my son, um, he runs the mile at track and a lot of kids take off just sprint the first two, and then they die at the last two. You got to pace yourself.

And I find, I found, you know, especially in doing this business… You know, I, I felt like I wanted to get all the market share, but I knew I was like, well, why, why, why do I need that? And I said, I need to have some time to self-reflect to do my own thing. That’s why I only work Monday through Thursday, you know, from a certain time to a certain time.

And that’s the firm’s goal of each quarter is around my time goal. And that’s a rule. I don’t break it. I think so many others, if they did that, then they enjoyed a lot more. And yeah, you might not grow as quick but who cares if you grow a thousand times, you know, every, every year, if it’s going to get you a shitty life?

Darren: [00:15:22] Exactly. Yeah. I mean, if it’s consistent and you’re still seeing that growth, even if it’s small, I would much rather have that than… You know, early on we did some significant growth and scaled up, probably too quickly, and had it take some time back and just like, all right, we, we need to work on process. We have to do this, get this set up.

So yeah, I think that’s the other thing too. Everybody’s always so impatient to like, just as you said, cover everything. And it’s like, you don’t have to.

Jason: [00:15:56] Yeah. What, um… one of the things like, how did you kind of change the impatientness, uh, of kind of giving yourself more time, because I see so many agencies they rush.

Like how did you know…? Because everything in your company is designed to break, I look at right? Like think about, uh, marketing should break sales. Sales should break operations, right? And so how did you know what’s the right pace for you to grow? I think not many people really talk about that.

We just talk about 10X, 20X, 2X, whatever it is. Like, how do you find the right pace for your growth in order for it to work for you?

Darren: [00:16:42] Um, really, it was the ability to learn, to say no, which is like one of the hardest things too. Because you can look like, just, as you said, you had access to production schedules, like, you know what’s happening.

You could easily take another job on top of it and kill your staff or you can say, all right, you’ve identified this, you, you mentioned a couple of red flags and it’s probably not the right fit. So even though you have the money and you’re ready to go, we’re not going to take on the project. So that’s been like the biggest thing to like slow it down. And just make sure that, you know, selecting the right type of work.

That took me years to figure it out. Um…

Jason: [00:17:30] Was it because of process, process of elimination? Or why do you think it took you many years? It took me many years as well.

Darren: [00:17:40] Yeah. It’s really, it’s just, um, saying no to the money, because just as you said, early on, it’s like everything’s on our shoulders to make sure that we’re paying salaries. We’re making sure that we’re providing.

So when you have the money there and you see it and like, okay, this is going to help everybody out. But at the same time, you start to look at it, is it really going to help everybody out or is it going to put them in a different type of mental state that you don’t want them in?

Um, so yeah, it was challenging because yeah, when we first started, we were taking on any project that we could get because it was just a project to put in the queue. Um, so I think that was probably one of the biggest things and it’s hard to learn and to, you know, say no.

Jason: [00:18:25] How… last thing I want to ask you, um, is your team is always going to say you’re maxed out or they’re maxed out.

So, and I don’t think many people talk about this either of going, how do you really truly tell if your team is maxed out or not in order to figure out when to say no? Like I know you’re saying when to say no to the wrong client, or when you can say I need to bring on someone else to help. Because that’s a, I think that’s an, that takes, you know, years and years to figure that out too.

Like, cause I remember my team going. Man, we’re, we’re maxed out. We can’t take on any more work.

Darren: [00:19:08] Yeah. Now you hear that a lot. And, you know, there’s things like time tracking that you can look at and everything, but really the best way is just to sit down with your team one-on-one and just ask them outright.

Like, how are you feeling like you want to go through it together? Like, let’s talk about it. Because the other big thing too is like, you know, we’re in the agency life, we’re not in the ER. Like we have projects that, you know, sure they may have a deadline, but it doesn’t mean that somebody is going to die because we can’t get it done on that day.

Like, so that’s the other thing too, is like just setting expectations and going through that. I think that’s, you know, another hard lesson for agency owners is, you know, they do one project at this time and then figure that’s what it’s going to take for every other project. But every client’s different, you don’t know what it’s going to like, be like to work with them.

Um, so really setting those expectations and letting your staff know that you’ve got their back and be like, all right, here’s the deadline? What can we do to hit it? Can we pull in other team members? Or is this even a realistic deadline? Do we have to stretch it? So yeah. It’s just really that transparency and just, you know, talking to your staff, like they’re humans, because really they are the most important piece of the agency.

Jason: [00:20:31] Too it’s, it’s relying on them, right? Like I always tell everybody it’s like delegate the outcomes you want, not the tasks. And a lot of times too, you can delegate the problems to them. Um, without divulging that you don’t have a clue about it, right? So if you went to your staff going, uh, I don’t know how to grow this damn company, can you guys help me out? They’re all going to do, they’re all going to jump ship.

But if you can kind of go, hey, what do you guys think? I want to get your input on, you know, what do you guys think we need to do in order to get to this point? They’re going to be like, wow. You know, Darren’s asking me for my input. So I feel significant. I can contribute. I can be a part of something bigger than myself. It’s just about reframing that.

So just, and the other thing too, and I think you’ve realized this, you know because look running an agency’s tough and you’re going to have a lot of days where you wanting to quit. How you come into the office, if you guys have an office or how you show up, when you chat with your team, directly impacts them and their mood.

I remember when I would show up to the office, if a client screwed us or whatever happened, uh, or if I was mad at a business partner. If I showed up pissed or in a bad mood, it, it rained down.

Did you see that as well?

Darren: [00:21:56] Yeah. Yeah, because my team knows me well enough that they can tell as well too. And I’m the type that likes to do shenanigans and pranks at the office to keep everything light. And cause really it is… it’s like, we’re all supposed to have fun. Like, just take it easy and just do good work and rely on each other.

I mean, it’s just simple rules.

Jason: [00:22:22] And Darren really means that like he showed up at the digital agency experience with, uh, what was a balloon launcher? Um, he was the first one when we found that creepy tunnel in the old mines. I was like, I pulled like literally guys, we found this old mine when we were on these ATVs and it wasn’t locked.

And I opened this and I look at Darren, I go, you want to go in? And before I knew it, he was in and we kept one person out in case we all died, like an avalanche happened, but, uh, it was so much fun.

Darren: [00:22:54] Yeah, exactly. I mean, we only get one shot, so just make it count.

Jason: [00:22:58] That’s right. Well, awesome. Darren, is there anything I didn’t ask you that you think would benefit the people listening in?

Darren: [00:23:06] Um, I would just say just, if you start to doubt yourself, just you know, talk to family and talk to loved ones, take a break. Um, because you’re going to be able to push through it. Like, don’t feel like it’s all on you that you do have a support line that’s out there

Jason: [00:23:24] And what’s the website people can go and check, uh, check the agency out?

Darren: [00:23:28] Yeah. So it’s an Idea Marketing Group. And then, then it’s

Jason: [00:23:36] Awesome. Everyone go check it out. And if you guys liked this episode, you’ll make tape. Make sure you take a screenshot. Shut us out on Instagram saying, hey, got a lot of value from it. Thanks for sharing your perspective.

We’ll give you a shout-out back as well.

And uh, if you guys want to be surrounded by amazing agency owners like Darren and come to, uh, the mountain to have an amazing time and just be able to talk about the stuff you can’t talk about with your crew. Um, I’d love to invite you guys together to and see if we’re the right fit for you and if you’re the right fit us.

So make sure to go there now. And until next time have a Swenk day.

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