Rocking the Boat When the Seas are Calm

If you’re in the rare position whereby you’re hitting your target margins, your clients are happy, and you’ve got your staff turnover well in hand, now might be the time to ask yourself: what am I doing wrong?

It may sound strange, but it’s at these oddly calm times that your business is best able to weather fundamental disruption.

Quite a few years ago, we were a specialist studio (Flash) with a well-earned internal reputation and a real depth of creative, technical, and marketing talent. We were turning down far more work than we accepted, and it was of the calibre that I used to dream of when I’d started out. (This was during a more innocent time, before Steve Jobs went to war with Adobe). Perhaps it’s because I was too used to struggle, but my Spidey Senses were tingling and I couldn’t help but feel there was something we weren’t doing right – despite the accolades and profits.

Since things were running smoothly, we had the time to analyze our market position and study the leading trends in everything from consumer behaviour to emerging cross-channel strategies. We had the luxury of time to engage our clients and discovered that they’d wanted us to take a more involved role in their business strategies. Previously, we’d been too busy being “successful” to see the landscape subtly shifting.

We committed to a fundamental repositioning of the business – from specialist studio to digital agency. It meant hiring/training positions we hadn’t previously had, reorganizing our business, and educating our clients. We lost some clients, gained others (by means or reputation), and endured a 12-month pivot with steep learning curves and costs. By the time the Flash market started to collapse six months later, only 10% of our revenue was from that stream – all of it servicing longterm clients that we had paper out with for new, non-Flash campaigns and initiatives.

Going through a pivot is a daunting/terrible process that can only be done when you can give it your uncluttered focus. Perhaps your organization doesn’t require such a systemic change, but there’s likely something that needs to get done that’s historically been too disruptive or risky to contemplate earlier.

Now could be the time to fire an anchor client that you’ve outgrown, recruit high value execs that will recast aspects of your business, or roll out incentives like profit sharing (to keep longterm staff costs down and reward loyal contributors). Also, weigh the value of more dramatic actions like shopping for a buyer (if you’ve got your exit strategy in play), pulling the trigger on a lethargic partner, or reevaluating your market position. The landscape in which we do business is evolving. It’s only natural that our actual companies should, too.

My ardent advice is to avoid being lulled into complacency by success – there’s always something that needs to be done to protect your future. If the seas are calm, you can afford to rock the boat—albeit intelligently. Prospective failures won’t be catastrophic since you’ll be able to both plan for and fully understand the implications of them. More importantly, you’ll be able to bankroll the process.

Odds are, if you’ve got the pedigree and experience to have lead your company to stability and success, you’ve learned a lot of the fundamentals that will see your organization thrive under the right kind of change.