How to Replace Yourself as Agency CEO and Remain Part of Its Future

By Jason Swenk on March 23, 2022

Do you have a clear vision of your agency’s future and your role in it? Would you like to sell your agency or just transition out of the role of CEO, maybe to Chairman? We all have to confront these questions at some point as we consider our agency’s growth trajectory and what’s next. Today’s guest may help you start to think about how to structure your agency for your eventual exit.

Zach Williams is an entrepreneur and longtime mastermind member who founded Venveo, a digital agency that focuses on the building construction space. He’s been on the podcast before talking about the 2 strategies that grew his digital agency’s revenue by 4X. After many years in the business and growing his agency from just four people to over 65 employees, Zach started thinking about the best way to continue moving the business forward. He concluded it was time for him to step away as CEO, while continuing to contribute to the agency’s vision.

In this episode, we’ll discuss:

  • How he made the decision to become a Chairman instead of CEO.
  • How he structured the agency to be able to get to that point.
  • What support Zach needed in order to get through the difficult times.

Redefining Success and Gaining Clarity In Your Agency

A lot of agency owners get into the business because they love the work and then end up hating it. For Zach, it was important that he built something that he loved while trying to keep a clear idea of his role in it and what he brought to the table. Once the company saw real growth, he started to redefine his idea of success. He started by clearly setting out his goals for the business and his personal goals. He found that what he brought to the business as an individual no longer served the goals for the business and it became clear then that he needed to exit for both the business and himself to thrive.

Zach was always very focused on business growth and getting the agency to be self-sustaining. He never wanted to be the type of entrepreneur that focuses solely on EBITDA. His goal was to create a business that could grow beyond him. Making the decision to really focus on that changed the way he and his team structured the company, the people he brought to work on the business, and even the clients they took, which made for a really smooth transition process when the time came.

How to Make a Smooth Transition Away from Agency CEO

Other than having a clear vision of what type of business he wanted to build, Zach credits these as the most important steps he took to grow his agency:

  1. Picking a niche. This is probably the most important thing you can do. You need to understand who you are targeting, what’s the value that you’re bringing them, and how are you going after them. Understanding this made all the difference for a company that business remained a small-scale operation with four employees for many years until they knew who to target and how to get better at sales.
  2. Improving sales. Looking back, Zach recognizes that he initially didn’t really like sales, which affected his agency’s growth. He knew he needed to improve a lot in that area and finally did so following Jason’s advice. He saw results right away, landing his biggest deal shortly after starting to implement Jason’s advice.
  3. Hiring a Director of Operations. Once he started filling the sales pipeline, and his confidence grew as a result, he started to build into infrastructure operations. He hired a Director of Operations and a counterpart to oversee the client strategy and continued to grow 20%-30% year-on-year. The turning point was understanding that filling your sales pipeline will lead to a waterfall effect where having more opportunities will get you to a point where you can increase your prices, which will lead to hiring the right people. This will all allow you to follow your vision.

Why You Must Trust Your Team and Empower Them Make Decisions

Agency owners can have a hard time giving up control, even when they say they completely trust their team and are convinced they have the right people in the right positions. You can’t really grow unless you give people the autonomy they need. This will not only give you more time to focus on what you really want to do, it will be good for the business and your team will grow more confident from that trust and the knowledge that you have their back. They are going to make mistakes and that’s ok. If your team doesn’t think they can take risks, then that’s on you as a leader. It will even help you get rid of team members who resist change and want to stay in a box.

Online Training for Digital Agencies

The Process to Getting a New Agency CEO Ready

For Zach, when it came time to select and start to train a new CEO it was a no-brainer to go for someone inside the organization. This person was already a team leader who had worked in the company for years and really knew the business, was a culture fit, and had a good rapport with team members and clients. As to the transition, he mapped out daily tasks that he could start to exit. He identified parts of the business where he was really involved and that would require either a new hire or delegating it to someone who was ready. This gave him more time to really think about how he wanted to position his new CEO and executive team for that transition. When it came time to announce it, the team was ready and saw it as a natural next step.

What’s Next After You Transition Away From CEO?

After a successful transition, Zach now has two main roles in the company:

  • He continues to be involved in the marketing part of the business (attending events and appearing on podcasts).
  • He is still focused on finding new things the agency can build to offer new value to clients.

This will really depend on how each agency owner sees their life after transitioning out of the role of CEO. Some may want to have nothing to do with the business and focus on new projects or hobbies. That’s fine too. Zach really likes the process of building something and getting it off the ground. He found he really shines when it comes to creating things that can help the agency be more successful with clients.

In the end, selling the business is not for him. He loves his team and his business and can still play a part in helping the agency grow.

Remember that Jason always identifies 3 reasons why an owner should really consider selling their business:

  1. You need the money.
  2. You don’t like the business anymore.
  3. You’ve reached your max and you want someone else’s help.

In addition, transitioning away from CEO has created time for Zach to pursue new ways to create. He is working on a new project called The Untold. A podcast where he uncovers obscure stories about businesses we all know. If you like business, you really need to check this out to learn really cool stories that will entertain you and change the way you think.

“Words tell you something, fonts make you feel something” ~ Zach Williams, Font connoisseur

Why You Need the Support of Like-Minded Entrepreneurs

We’ve said it before but it’s always worth highlighting the benefits of having a group of people that you trust and who can offer valuable advice. Being an entrepreneur and trying to build and grow a business will be difficult and isolating. Very few manage to do it successfully, which is why you need the support of people who will understand and ins and outs of growing a business. Zach had the support of Jason and the mastermind, who offered their expertise to help him get through the tough times and keep him accountable for his goals for the business.

If You Avoid Discomfort, You’re In Your Own Way

If he could go back and do something that could help his business grow faster, he would push himself to go in a direction that seems uncomfortable but that would ultimately help the agency. In his case, it would be sales. He didn’t like sales and subconsciously avoided it but it was the key element to grow his business.

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