MAVERICK: 16 Lessons over 16 Years as a Small Business Owner

I felt like Jerry Maguire 16 years ago. I walked away from a great job, solid clients and the only thing I took from the office was my Rolodex. (We didn’t have any goldfish on the premises but would have taken those too!) 16 years later and one great mission statement to guide us, I have learned much about running your own company, hiring talent, winning and losing and constantly evolving and growing together as a team. We turn 16 years old this month and along the way, I learned some pretty neat things. Here are 16 to celebrate our 16th. Happy birthday MAVERICK!

1. Creative ideas rarely come out of scheduled brainstorm sessions.Corporate brainstorms are a useful forum to spit ball ideas, but rarely do they yield the big audacious idea. Instead, go to a museum, walk barefoot in a park or try listening to a new genre of music to open your mind. You’ll be far more creative with a lot more clarity when you walk away from the problem.

2. Hire passionate, energetic souls. Whether your employees embody quiet energy or exude passion from the rafters, those are the people you want in your organization. Anyone who shows a true passion for caring about work is a must hire.

3. When you share the same values and ethics as your clients, they will be with you for life. The common denominator of all solid client/agency relationships starts with connecting on a human level. Trust is the beginning of a meaningful and wonderful partnership.

4. Never cheapen your work just to get a client assignment. Nothing is more demeaning to the spirit than to give away great thinking for free, or at a bargain price, because the client can’t afford it. Unfortunately, our ideas are not a commodity and should not be reflected as such in our fees. If some clients can’t afford our services, then they can’t be our clients. It’s as simple as that. Only those clients that recognize great talent and thinking, and can pay for it, are the ones we work with.

5. Embrace humour and laughter in the workplace. There is a palpable feeling in any office work environment when employees are laughing, smiling or enjoying a water cooler giggle. Laughter is infectious and breeds a positive work environment. I hear laughter, I want in on that!

6. Commend your staff publicly, but do it when it really counts. In the movie Whiplash my favorite line is uttered by JK Simmons“There are no two words in the English language more harmful than good job.” I have to agree. Good work is simply the price of admission of your job, not the gold standard. When I started my own company, I didn’t want to be the boss that gave out lollipops and gold stars to employees simply for doing the job they were hired for. Praise is a currency whose value only goes up when it is truly deserved.

7. Get rid of shitty clients. It’s akin to bad milk. You don’t put back spoiled milk in the fridge hoping it will get better tomorrow. We all know the signs of a terrible client relationship. They don’t value what we do, they don’t listen, they question the work ad nauseam and every invoice is a battleground. They never say thank you and treat your staff like footstools. Dissolve the relationship and see the sun again shine.

8. Bring pets to the workplace more often. Our fuzzy, furry friends have the ability to swing moods in the most positive of ways. There is nothing more comforting than having our fur children roam about the halls and nuzzle under our desks. Cats, and especially dogs, have an uncanny power to bring smiles even to the biggest curmudgeon in the office.

9. Write a yearly business plan … Then throw it immediately in the recycling bin. Because you’ll never refer to it. Hold a monthly meeting with key management instead. Build a plan of action and purpose each month. Keep thinking current, keep on top of trends and set stretch goals that are motivating, not deflating. Agency life is unpredictable, so why have a business plan that is static?

10. Be grateful to everyone who has crossed your threshold to your workplace. Employees are the lifeblood of the organization, without them, there are no ideas, no clients and in the end no business. After 16 years, I’ve been blessed with a successful agency, but truly grateful to all those who helped build it along the way. For that, I say thank you to all.

11. Know what each employee values, and give it to them. Sounds simple doesn’t it? It is. Everyone has varied life goals and are at different stages on their own journey of life. Your staff have a life outside of the office and their personal ecosystem is probably much different than your own. From first time moms, to new homeowners to the avid traveller — your staff have wants and needs that go beyond a paycheque. Some employees don’t even want more money. In fact, if you ask your staff what they really want, you’ll be surprised that flex hours, more vacation and maybe a new laptop is enough to keep them deliriously happy and loyal for years to come. Just ask them.

12. Communicate often to staff. I learned a long, long time ago when I was a VP at another agency that the key to empowering staff didn’t come from my weekly update emails or quick hello in the hallway. Instead, face to face dialogue and open honest discourse was the only way to really connect with employees. And no topic was ever off the table. As a boss, I recognized that opening up the kimono to information only made my staff more engaged, more active and more appreciative of the bigger picture and purpose of what we did. Employees that care about your business, should know all there is to know about the business.

13. Listen to employees; they speak from the heart and with a different lens from your own. A 360 degree view is true perspective.

14. Don’t focus on your competitors. You will lose sight of your own destiny. If I started my company with an eye squarely on the competition, MAVERICKwould be chasing shadows all day. I rarely think about my competition, I know they are out there, but they are not my life’s mission to watch their every step. We’ve been a successful agency doing what’s right for our clients, not to outsmart the competition.

15. Celebrate all victories. Big or small. Don’t reserve the big bottle of champagne just for bagging the white elephant. Those client wins are rare and very hard to come by. Instead, celebrate all positive things that happen in your company like a new baby on the way, a small project win, a pro bono mandate that made everyone feel good. You don’t need to break out the Mums every time, those Timbits work wonders too!

16. The best fertile soil to the road of success comes from the manure of failure. I believe we blossom best in the midst of defeat. Joel Osteen once said, “just because we are in defeat, doesn’t mean we are defeated.” I believe that all great failures lead to supreme success. Valuable lessons need to be gleaned from our missteps. Whether we made a bad hire, lost a client pitch or failed to deliver on a client mandate, analyze what went wrong, learn from it, change behaviour and don’t for goodness sake make the same mistake again!