Just like so many startups we’ve met over the last years, we set ourselves goals to go faster rather than further. And before too long we painfully experienced what happens when working towards the wrong ‘success metrics’.

Consultants and agencies are notoriously bad at taking their own advice. Even though we were aware and had regularly joked about this, we didn’t think about it during our sprint to grow faster. We run a professional services business but having noticed so many parallels with startups in other industries, this experience with our own growth journey has helped us strengthen our belief in the model of Slow Growth thinking, which we bring into all our work.

Our learning journey around growth started quite early in our business’ journey, when we got excited by having taken on a number of customers, saw very good results of our work and received plenty of positive feedback. Most of our business to date has come through referrals, giving us a lot of confidence in the value of what we were doing. It seemed clear to us that our offering is relevant in the marketplace. Everyone in our team had had years of experience as consultants and in-house marketers, so we were confident in our skills and ability to scale up the team with more great talent. The obvious goal seemed to be to boost our business development, to help as many clients as we could and build a strong, sustainable consulting business.

We set ourselves very clear targets, based on the overall number of projects and clients we would take on every year. Even though the targets were ambitious, we had a plan for how we’d serve all those new clients up to our standards. And the targets didn’t seem out of reach from a customer acquisition perspective, either. 

“What we missed was defining the right time-frame for our targets, and that they didn’t reflect the actual metrics we needed to optimise for.”

But, what we missed was defining the right time-frame for these targets, and, even more importantly, that they didn’t reflect the actual metrics we needed to optimise for. In our case: clear differentiation from competitors and a defined niche, customer retention and brand perception. Fast growth would have been the result of optimising these, whereas we tried to do it the other way round and just looked at our rate of growth.

Instead we continued to hustle and took on as many customers and projects as we could serve well. In a competitive space like marketing consultancy, our standards have to be high and it’s always been important to us that all our clients are completely happy with our service. Unfortunately, because of the structure of traditional agency contracts, there are many cases of companies’ being disappointed by consultants and agencies, so we set out to build more effective relationships with clients. As we took on more projects we grew our team, and increasingly my co-founder and I were mostly tied up helping our clients. This didn’t leave us much time and energy to reflect on the trajectory of our own business, if it was growing sustainably and true to what we wanted to achieve with it.

Eventually, some customers started leaving. Thankfully not because they were unhappy with our work, but rather because in some cases we were not quite the right partner for their particular challenge. As we were looking too closely at our top line growth targets we seemed to have taken on some projects we should have passed on. In other cases, customers changed their strategy which had nothing much to do with us. But as we’d been tied up helping our clients we didn’t spend enough time to develop our brand and business development process to make up for these natural cycles.

“We had to live with the disappointment that comes from missing targets we were overly invested in - even though they didn’t reflect the progress that really mattered for long-term success.”

All in all it was a very sobering and somewhat scary experience, which would also lead us to some of the most important learnings of our journey. But at the time, we had to let go of some of the team, face our self-doubts and live with the disappointment that comes from missing targets we were overly invested in - even though they didn’t reflect the progress that really mattered for long-term success. In the following weeks we went through a self-enquiry process that helped us understand some of what had happened and refine it into an actionable method to generate sustainable growth:

  • Our first big learning was to see that we had set our targets based on the wrong factors, partly external from our immediate environment, and partly from within ourselves. Having worked in a culture that often values speed and scale rather than genuine progress, we took the bait and planned to add our own success story. Although it seemed strange to be asked about the ‘exit plan’ for our business just a year after launching, we thought within 5 years we’d be able to at least make the decision to sell the business or find someone else to run it. Combined with our own motivations - receiving external validation for our offering, and scaling the business to achieve financial and professional security - this led us to set targets around speed of growth rather than building a foundation for sustainable growth. 
  • The second big learning was to realise that we needed to shift our metrics and measurements to those that actually mattered for the business and for us individually. The security, flexibility and validation we were looking for would come as a result of building the right foundations for the sustainable growth of the company. 
  • Thirdly, the time it takes to meet our growth targets needs to be determined by the ability to grow the business, rather than by outside factors. So we started defining goals as milestones to be achieved, rather than strictly sticking to a sales target for every month and year. 

In many ways we’ve become more ambitious through this process, looking to build a highly relevant, resilient business that reflects the values of the people shaping it, and has the potential to thrive for decades. Being clear on our values and strengths also helps our current and future clients, which is the reason we’re doing this in the first place. And whilst we’re grateful for the self-discovery process we went through, we hope we can help some other founders see these traps earlier so they always work towards building great, lasting companies that make a real difference for everyone involved.