Why an $80 Million Agency Owner Had to Recalibrate Ambition to Grow
Are you wondering how to go beyond the six or seven-figure mark and continue your agency growth? After graduating college with a Liberal Arts degree and an interest in advertising, Ben Wiener jumped at the opportunity to work at Wongdoody, an advertising agency that specializes in UX, as well as customers experience and employee experience. He continued to work there for 28 years and is now the CEO of the recently sold agency. He sat down to talk with Jason about the importance of the pipeline to keep your agency going beyond the million-dollar mark, how he goes about building the leadership at his agency, how to recalibrate your ambition to keep going after reaching eight figures, and his current role at the company.
3 Golden Nuggets:
- Beyond the million. Many agency owners that reach the million-dollar mark have a hard time going beyond that level. In Ben’s experience, this entails a mind shift. It’s a point where you will need your new clients to be as big as your biggest client. Making the decision to stop taking small clients may be difficult and requires a lot of confidence on your next step, but you need to recognize that small clients take as much time as big clients and keep you from reaching that next level. This pipeline piece is key and you need to have a clear vision of what you want your client roster to look like.
- Building leaders. Hiring is one of the most important things agency owners do once their agency starts to see a certain level of growth. Once you’ve hired people t start doing the things you used to do you will need to start hiring people that do things you can’t do? How can you ensure they really know what they’re doing? Our guest believes sourcing talent from companies that are ahead of him in the growth curve is the best way to go about it. It provides credibility and, at the very least, they will be well trained. After you hire your leadership and empower them to make decisions, your job will become clearing the path for them to be able to focus on their jobs.
- Recalibrating your ambition. Getting to seven figures is the number one goal for many agency owners, and it might be so overwhelming to get there that you just think “I can’t believe I got here”. Ben argues that continuing your growth will require recalibrating your ambition, thinking how do I use eight figures as a platform to get to 10 figures? And what are the next set of changes that we are going to make? Of course, not everyone has eight or nine-figure ambitions and that’s ok. The things you love about your agency at $5 million will definitely not be there at $50 million. You have to be very clear on what you want going forward.
Gusto: Today’s episode is sponsored by Gusto, an all-in-one people platform for payroll, benefits, HR where you can unify your data. Gusto automatically applies your payroll taxes and directly deposits your team’s paychecks, freeing you up to work on your business. Head over to gusto.com/agency to enjoy an exclusive offer for podcast listeners.
Building Leaders and Recalibrating Your Ambition Will Help You Continue Your Growth
Jason: [00:00:00] What’s up, agency owners? Jason Swenk here, and I have an amazing guest on today’s show. We’re going to talk about what is the milestones that you’d go through in order to build an over $80 million agency. Yes, $80 million. I want you to sink that in because a lot of you are trying to get to the eight-figure mark or the nine-figure mark.
So we’re going to talk about the milestones that you go through. And I have an amazing guest who’s been in the industry and been with Wongdoody for over 27 years. So let’s go ahead and get into the episode.
Hey, Ben. Welcome to the show.
Ben: [00:00:45] Hi, how are you?
Jason: [00:00:47] I’m excited to have you on, so tell us who you are and what do you do?
Ben: [00:00:52] I am Ben Wiener. I am the CEO of Wongdoody, which is, as you pointed out a 28-year-old at this point, um, former advertising agency that has evolved into a global experience design company.
Jason: [00:01:09] That’s incredible. And so we were talking in the pre-show that you were employee number four. So talk about the progression and you know, how did Wongdoody get started? And first off, just tell people how you guys came up with the name. Uh, cause I’m sure people, you know, I was very interested before.
Ben: [00:01:31] Um, it’s a really funny name. It’s a really boring story. Um, Wongdoody was founded by two people. Mr. Wong and Mr. Doody, otherwise, why would you ever call a company that? And for the most part, you know, we’ve survived the credibility problem that we start with. But there’s still a couple of clients that we’ve had over the years that have said, you know, there’s no way our board of directors is hiring Wongdoody. Can we just call you WD?
And we’re like, sure. Whatever it takes for you to get Ben Wiener from Wongdoody employed.
Jason: [00:02:09] That’s just so great. Um, well tell us, uh, when you were employee number four, like how did you start? And kind of walk us through your progression through the agency. And then we can jump into kind of the different milestones that you’ve seen over the years.
Ben: [00:02:25] Uh, in college, I was a big fan of the show Melrose Place. Which dates me and dates anyone who gets that reference.
Jason: [00:02:31] Oh, I loved that. Yeah. I think we’re the same age.
Ben: [00:02:33] I graduated from… I graduated from college with a useless Liberal Arts degree and a short attention span. Um, advertising seemed like a really fun, interesting thing to do. And yeah, through a friend of a friend of a woman who was in book club with my girlfriend’s mother, which is how all good things happen.
Uh, I happened to get introduced to this guy, Pat Doody, who had just started this agency. We had lunch, we hit it off and he offered me this amazing opportunity to come work for him for free. So I, I took him up on that. Um, and, uh, you know, 15 years later or so I became CEO of Wongdoody and then three years ago we sold the company. But it was a pretty interesting evolution from, uh, Pat, Tracy, and two other people and me in one room to over a thousand people.
Um, and I guess the biggest evolution is going from doing kind of every job in the agency, which you do as an intern, to having no clue what half of the things we, we do today are. Um, yeah, which I guess is management. So it’s really, how do you go from a business where your fingerprints are literally on everything to thinking more about structure, thinking more about strategy, to thinking about how you deploy resources. As opposed to how you just get everything done yourself.
And that’s probably the biggest evolution and continuing evolution of a company is it’s a gradual process of figuring out what you can let go of. And more importantly, how you can find the people to let go to, because at a certain point you definitely come up against the limits of your own knowledge, intellect, and ability.
Jason: [00:04:16] Yeah, let’s talk about kind of the milestones, right? I find a lot of agencies can hit the million mark, but they really can’t maintain that. Or they can’t figure it out how can we get to the multiple million mark? And that’s kind of the first milestone I look at. Um, what, what do you think, what, what’s the shift in your mind?
Because I really kind of think it’s a mind shift, more than anything else to getting to the two, three, $4 million range.
Ben: [00:04:52] It comes down to I think two things. One is pipeline and the other is people. And both of them require a leap of faith to get to where you want to be. When you’re an entrepreneur and you are hustling and you were trying to make payroll and pay the rent every month, revenue is revenue and it’s really hard…
All revenue is good revenue. And at a certain point, what you want is more clients that are bigger than your biggest client. Not more clients that the size of your smallest client. What you start to recognize is that the small clients take as much time as the big clients. Um, and what’s holding you back from focusing on big clients and bigger clients is confidence or a lack thereof.
And so as entrepreneurs, when you were living with that nightmare of today’s the day when my phone rings, all of our clients, fire us, and that never rings again, it’s very, very hard to say, you know what? We’re not going to talk to local businesses anymore, or we’re not going to talk to regional businesses anymore.
Or we’re just going to say a hard no to any client below a certain revenue threshold. No matter how nice they are as people, or they don’t have any money this year, but man, next year, next year, they’re going to budget. There are all these stories we tell ourselves as agency people to rationalize, doing things that we know deep down, we shouldn’t be doing. If we want to grow our business.
Jason: [00:06:26] Or they say, give me a discount and I’ll refer you to all my other businesses.
Ben: [00:06:32] Who’ll also expect a discount. Also don’t have enough money to change your business. That’s what you get. Absolutely. Absolutely. So these are, so, I mean, that’s the pipeline piece.
It’s really, how do you have a clean vision for what you want your client roster to look like. And how are you actively making decisions that shape that roster and how are you making the painful decisions to not pursue things that don’t fit that? Uh, so that, and the other thing that you have to recognize is that, you know, clients have aspirations as well.
They look at the other clients on your roster and they say, do I want to be in that club or do I not want to be in that club? And so, you need aspirational clients to find aspirational clients. And by the same token, you know, of all if your clients are discount seeking small scrappy companies… They may be a blast to work for, but they’re never going to provide you with the stability and the growth that you need to get to the second point, which is people.
And at some point you got to make that transition from doing things yourself, to sort of doing things by delegating, to doing things by bringing in a next tier of leadership. And that’s very, very different. Because I think the first step is you hire people who can do your work for you, or can do the things that you do, but more of it.
And at a certain point, you’ve got to hire people who know things that you don’t, who do things that you can’t and need to be empowered to take some responsibility for the business. So it can’t all sit on your shoulders for better or worse. Those people are excited. Those people are taking a leap of faith by joining you and those people are going to make you uncomfortable. But you’re never ever going to scale your business until you can start to not just delegate, but assigned true leadership responsibilities that people who can build your organization.
Jason: [00:08:28] So I think a lot of people struggle with, I can hire for someone to do my job because I can evaluate them if they can do it. So when you get to that point and you’re building your leadership team and you’re hiring people that know how to do things you don’t, and you’re kind of clueless on those. How do you evaluate and how do you make sure they’re not blowing smoke up your ass?
Uh, right? Like, I mean, I hear that all the time.
Ben: [00:09:02] Um, it is hard. And, you know, as far as things that create discomfort. Absolutely. Because we’ve all been sold a bill of goods by people who claim expertise in the emerging realm that you have to be in. You know. We need a, who’s going to own our influencer marketing strategy? I don’t know that person’s seemed to know what YouTube is, perhaps they can.
Um, hiring is the hardest thing that we do. It’s the most important thing that we do. There is, um, you know, to me, there’s always a value in pedigree, you know, there’s that saying no one ever got fired for hiring IBM. So generally if people have come from bigger, better places and have been there for a while, um, at the very least they’d been well-trained.
So, you know, where are you sourcing your talent from? And, you know, we generally look to the places that we want to be, you know, for our talent. Places, you know, companies that are five years ahead of us on the journey that are a few hundred million dollars ahead of us on the growth curve. And so that gives you some element of credibility.
Um, some of it’s got… Look, I mean, we all get conned from time to time. But the longer you’ve done this, the longer you can separate the, okay, you just threw every single jargon word at me, but what have you actually done? And go, where is the work product and where are the references?
And the other thing is, yeah, who have, who have people worked with that you can get to that you know and trust. Or that know and trust someone that, you know, that can give you a real reference. As opposed to the, uh, I fired this person and feeling guilty about it, reference that you’d get some times. You hear great things about a person that you’re not sure about.
Jason: [00:10:59] Oh yeah. Well, I, you mentioned one thing, your gut. Usually your gut’s never wrong. Um, you know, because you, you feel it, whether you take on the wrong client and you’re like, like my gut just told me to run, but I needed that money. Or, you know, you hired that amazing…
I remember doing this. I, I got so close to hiring this amazing 3D artist. I mean like the most amazing 3D world I’ve ever seen, he built, but he was the biggest jackass. And my gut was like, do not hire that guy. And, and the rest of my team was like, man, there, he’s amazing. Well, we’ll put up with any shit. I’m like, no, we’re not going to do it.
Ben: [00:11:43] Yeah. So we spend a lot of time rationalizing decisions that go against our gut, whether it’s clients or people.
Um, part of that’s also a mindset shift, you know, as I think we’re all naturally optimistic. As entrepreneurs, you need to be, because the only way you can dust yourself off whenever you have a setback. So what I’ve found is people… You know, the assumption is every candidate’s amazing and every client is perfect.
Versus, yeah, why should we take this client? Why should we really be hiring this person? So if your default is always, they’re great until proven otherwise, um, you know, your, your mind overrides your gut more often than it should.
Jason: [00:12:28] Yeah. So let’s talk about building leaders, right? Like we talked about, we got to build the right pipeline, so then we can pick and choose, right?
And, and I think. You know, you’ve got to get to a point where, like, I think when we first start, we’re building our business on referrals, really. And then, then it, you’re building it on marketing. And then you have to build it on a machine that’s producing two sales, and then you talked about your, the people.
So how can we build better leaders? Because what I find is a lot of agencies I chat with, and I remember going through this in our phase as well. We can get to a certain point and then everything kept flowing through me like a tollbooth. And I’m like, no, no. Like we have to build a leadership, the right leaders in order to take over the stuff.
And like my, my goal, and, I’d like… Answer this and then I got a question for you to follow up, to be like, what do you do every day, now that you have a thousand people and a big leadership team? I want people to know like, what, what that looks like too.
Ben: [00:13:33] So, um… In the first phase of the agency, everything I did really boiled down to sales. It doesn’t really matter what you’re doing on any given day, your focus is driving revenue in the door. I never had sales in my title. I never had business development or new business in my title. But everything I was doing was in service of how do we get more clients and more revenue flowing in this place?
Um, at a certain point that shifts and now I’d say everything I do is HR, which is not in my title. Another thing I’ve never really formally had a job in, and I’ve never been trained in. But I spend my day trying to get things out of the way of the leaders that we have hired to drive the business to the next level. So they can do…
I want them to be able to do their jobs. So there are spear that I need to catch. There are obstacles that need to be eliminated. There are sources of confusion that require clarity, and it’s really about clearing the path. So there’s no glory in it. And some days you feel like you’re doing absolutely nothing. Yet what you’re doing is the most critical thing. Because it allows the people that you care about and the people that you empowered to drive your business, to do what they need to do to be successful for themselves and for you.
And so all the most unpleasant tasks, uh, are the ones that fall to you and all the really good, fun business building stuff that you used to do falls to them. And that’s a difficult but necessary adjustment.
Jason: [00:15:19] Yeah.
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So when I was, um, when we started really getting traction in the first agency, I started realizing there was kind of like four or five roles, right. One, setting the vision and communicating it to the team. Uh, coaching the leadership team. Understanding the financials, I hated spreadsheets, but I needed to understand, like here are the KPIs that we’re going after. You know, support sales. Um, and then, you know, be the face of the organization.
Do you find that now, like have those roles changed? Because I bet you probably had those roles or do you still have some of those roles? I know, you know, like me, I’m always trying to like, like you, I’m trying to take away stuff so my guys can have a clear path. But do you find that those roles still fit what you do? Or does that change at a certain level?
Ben: [00:17:26] You’ve summed it up pretty nicely. Um, what I’ve found is that the balance changes over the course of decades, but also on a day-to-day basis. Yeah, the financial piece is interesting because somewhere between you, you do sales and you do an HR. The other thing that I’ve discovered is half it’s also accounting.
Um, and it’s not just, you know, because how do you recognize revenue? When do you want to recognize revenue? Where are you actually profitable versus where you… where you’re earning revenue and where you’re actually profitable are very, very different things. There’s a whole understanding of the business that you need to have that goes beyond…
Early days, is there money coming in to cover expenses? We got payroll and rent done, uh, is there enough left over that? I can take some money out of the business? Is there enough leftover that we can think about, you know, investing in more senior leadership who could theoretically help us grow the business? Now that’s the basics.
And then at a certain point you realize, okay, I’m not sweating the basics anymore. Now, what do I need to know about my business? Because I want to grow the profitable parts, not the unprofitable parts. I want to fix the unprofitable parts so I can grow them.
And so it’s not just about what’s coming in and what’s going out. It’s where we really truly making the money? Where, where are the leaks in our business? And that’s the other thing that people don’t really understand, which is what’s all the stuff that they’re doing that’s um, producing activity, but not results?
So you got three or four lines of business. One of them is probably a great. One of them is probably a loser. The other two were in the middle. You know, if you can figure that fast and stop doing the stuff that’s losing you money… flows right to the bottom line, finds your growth. But you need to have a level of insight into your numbers before you can start to look at it that way.
Jason: [00:19:23] Yeah. So, I mean, basically you’re just still a problem solver for your team. Uh, and, and just saying here’s, here’s the direction that we want to go. You guys figure out the, how. I’ll support you however. You just tell me what you need, is that right?
Ben: [00:19:41] Yeah. It’s a lot of what, you know, figuring out what’s missing. And also, um, just because you want to take the business in a certain direction, doesn’t mean everybody wants to go with you. And so then you get faced with a far more difficult set of choices, you know. Um, how do you persuade the people that you need to come with you, that this is the right journey? I know that what we’re doing and where we’re going seems weird or sounds scary, or isn’t what you signed up for, or it’s not at all what you saw on Melrose Place. And that’s okay.
Um, because here’s where we’re going and why. And I have… come on board. Uh, it’s finding people who, you know, can come in and understand that vision and help make it understood inside the organization. Uh, change is scary and difficult, and we’ve got people at Wongdoody have been there since 1994, 1995.
Um, and so part of the balancing act is we have changed radically in that time. We’ve, we’ve reinvented ourselves multiple times and that’s great. And then there are some fundamental things about the business that cannot, should not, and will never change. And those need to be protected. And that’s, uh, figuring out what, figuring out what the real core of your businesses versus what’s just sort of comfortable or habitual.
That’s another challenging thing because you want to, you want to know what’s up for grabs and there should be more things that are up for grabs and you’re probably comfortable with, but you can’t sell your soul for anything.
Jason: [00:21:19] Yeah, well, yeah, you have to, you have your beliefs and the beliefs of the company and, uh, that, that always stays true, I find.
Even though your services, your solutions, who you target may change. Um, but, uh, talk a little bit about… Because you guys have been around, I mean, I started solar went out in 99, so you guys are, you know, a couple of years ahead of us. And we went through a lot of different changes. I mean, I remember going through the yellow pages going, you want a website? And they’re like, what’s the website?
And I was like, I’ll put it on Netscape composer. Um, so talk about how do you know when the company outgrows an employee that’s been there for so long with you? And how do you… How do you get past that? Because I think people hold on to people too long as the agency outgrows that individual.
Or how do you bring those individuals along? Um, you know, make them better.
Ben: [00:22:28] Oh, I mean, these are hard, hard things, particularly when, you know…
My goal has always been to have the agency changing faster than our clients so that, you know, changes never being dictated to us and that we’re ahead of the market. And by that same token, I need people who can change as fast as the agency. And so when you realize that people have a fixed mindset or they are nostalgic for what the agency was.
Um, or they can’t contribute to the growth. It’s a very, very difficult decision to help them find a place where they’re going to be better off and happier, but ultimately they’re going to be better off and happier. We’ve had people who came to us and said, we want no part of this digital thing. And we’re like, that’s great.
Uh, I don’t agree with you, but I value everything that you have brought to this company for the last X years. How do we find you a better place to be together? What’s our plan? We have an obligation to the careers and the growth and the progression of the people that choose to work with us, whether or not that work happens in our company.
And so our responsibility to mentor and find opportunities doesn’t stop when people start getting a paycheck from us. So I think if you take that attitude of you want the right people in the right place, whether or not that’s inside your organization. Then it becomes a different conversation than sorry, Suzy, you know, we’re moving on and you’re not.
Jason: [00:24:11] Yeah, I liked, I liked that approach and I think that’s the right approach. Um, because look, I always joke around. I’ve been fired from every single job. Uh, I’ve ever had other than two and my best friend owned the company, own the businesses. That was when I was little. But, um, but yeah, like at the end of the day, I, and I figured it out. I just never liked quitting.
But when someone would come along and say, no, you need to go do this, I was like, oh man, thanks. That’s very freeing. And the lesson I learned there, I was like, you know, when you have the people that are not the right fit, find them the right fit. And there’ll be so much happier rather than thinking that their life is over.
Um, and it’s, it’s a good mentality because like agency changes so many times it’s gonna outgrow a lot of people, including owners. Um, it, I see that a lot at times happen and the owners have to stop out. So it’s great. Um, last question, uh, before we wrap up, talk about what is it like, to like, how did you get from the eight figure mark to where you’re at now?
Like what… If you had to pick two things outside of people and the right clients, because we’ve already covered those. Is there anything else? Um, or is it just boom, boom, boom.
Ben: [00:25:35] You have to recalibrate your ambition.
Jason: [00:25:40] How so?
Ben: [00:25:44] When you get to seven figures, you think, oh my God, you know, here I am at seven figures. And many people think I never thought I was going to get here. Wow. Isn’t great? Versus, okay, how do I use eight figures as a platform to get to 10 figures? And what are the next set of changes that we are going to make?
It’s like a, you don’t want to be George Bush on the battleship. You know, there’s no, the mission never accomplished, which is not to say you can never step back and enjoy where you’ve gotten. But you need to be looking at all of it on a path to where you want to be. And not everybody has eight-figure nine-figure ambitions.
We had a… Wongdoody was a great lifestyle business until we realized it was unsustainable and that we were not going to keep our good people challenged. We were not going to be able to attract and retain the best talent as a lifestyle business because ambitious people want growth. So massive amounts of growth… It’s a choice.
And you need to be ready for that choice and recognize that it’s not the only valid choice. But if you want to get there, it’s also believing that it’s possible. You know, we would often look at bigger, better agencies and say, how can we be like them? And you go to, oh, we can’t be like them. And they’ve got this and that and this and that and whatever. And you make this list of why it can’t be you.
That’s another example of our ability to rationalize ourselves into bad decisions or no decisions, uh, or selling. So I don’t want to be like an inspirational poster and be like it’s 99% attitude is not, um, it’s attitude is luck. It’s hard work. It’s being smart.
All of those things in equal combination and don’t discount luck. Um, you know, and you have to make sure that you want to get there because the other thing is a lot of what you love about running a $5 million business. Is not there when you’re running a $50 million business, there are different things to love, but it’s not the same job with more zeros at all.
Jason: [00:28:02] I like that you said be careful what you wish for. Because you know, uh, and we’re even going through that right now, for us, personally, in this consulting and education business of like, man, life is good. We’re serving all these amazing people. And we’re like, do we want to blow it up and, and take it to, you know, a gazillion dollars and, uh, you know, it’s, it’s a challenge.
Um, and I think it just takes some time to think about, and I think you can kind of constantly change your mind. But I, I do believe what you said is like don’t um, don’t show shortcut yourself of what’s possible. Just really kind of dream it and then just start figuring out who do you need to hire? What do we actually need to do in order to get there?
And, uh, you know, once you get there, then, then you live in the bed that you made.
Ben: [00:29:00] Well, I think the other thing is, you know, generally starting a company is a culmination of your career. I worked for a bunch of other people. I worked for a bunch of other people. I learned this, I learned that I saw all this stuff I could do better.
I saw the opportunity my last boss was missing. I started the company and now I’m done. And I think that’s also a dangerous attitude or thought. Because you don’t stop growing and evolving, like you have the same obligation to yourself as you do to your employees, which is how do we keep getting better? How to keep getting smarter? How do I keep learning new things? And how do I keep challenging myself?
And so whether, you know, you don’t want to go blow up a business for the sake of blowing it up. But once again, if you’re not continuously trying to reinvent yourself, you’re going to get reinvented by the market, by your clients, by forces, beyond your control. And that’s nowhere you ever want to be.
Jason: [00:29:46] Yeah, I love it. Well, this has all been amazing, Ben. Is, is there anything I didn’t ask you that you think would benefit the audience listening in?
Ben: [00:29:57] that is not the conversation I was expecting. This is like, this was a people conversation and a leadership conversation. Much less a, you know, what is the future of UX and touchless retail experiences and, you know, what are you seeing about global trends? Which is great, um, because. Yeah, for better.
The people are kind of why I show up every single day that the work is incidental. Pat and Tracy and I always said that we, whether we’re running an agency or running a carwash, we would do it the same way. So thank you for letting me think about and focus on what really matters.
Jason: [00:30:28] Yeah, definitely. Well, thanks so much for coming in. Uh, what’s the website people can go and check you guys out?
Ben: [00:30:35] Uh, www.wongdoody.com. Uh, and we have a zillion open roles. So any disgruntled employees from other agencies that are watching this, please go see if there’s a fit for you here.
Jason: [00:30:48] Awesome. And you date yourself by going www. No one does that anymore.
Ben: [00:30:53] HTTP.
Jason: [00:30:56] Uh, I love it. I love making fun of my friends that do that. Cause I used to do that until someone razzed me. I was like, oh my gosh, www.
Ben: [00:31:05] I am, I will own that.
Jason: [00:31:10] Well, awesome.
Ben: [00:31:10] I got that going for me.
Jason: [00:31:14] Well, awesome. Thanks so much for coming on the show. And if you guys enjoyed this episode, make sure you subscribe. Make sure you comment.
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