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Building Agent3: Three ‘scale up’ lessons from the front line

Clive Armitage

February 07, 2020

Our journey with Agent3 has been a fascinating and challenging one and I wouldn't change anything that we have done to date because even the things that didn't work, we've learned from.

January is typically a month of new beginnings (resolutions, fresh starts, or a lame attempt at Dry January in my case) but for Agent3 it is actually the last month of our financial year.  So, every January, our team is busy closing out projects to meet final year end targets but also planning for the new Financial Year that starts on February 1st.  Pleasingly, we’ve just completed our sixth full financial year with our highest ever revenue, our highest ever headcount and also our fastest year of growth.  And our plan for our new FY is showing growth that is in excess of what we have achieved this year.  Happy days.

For Agent3 therefore, we’re very much in growth mode and we are laser focused on ensuring we scale our offer globally in an efficient and sustainable way.  But here’s a secret; it hasn’t been plain sailing since three of us started the business in 2013!  At times our development has felt like we have been in a maze; taking paths that we felt were right, only to be confronted with dead ends, and periods where we seemed to be making rapid progress with other times when we seemed to be getting nowhere.

Now, while we always had faith we would find the right path to growth, the process of doing so was challenging, stressful and, occasionally meant we went backwards (in revenue terms) rather than forwards.  So, to mark the closing of our FY, I thought I’d detail the three main lessons I have learned when scaling a business started in a stationary cupboard with no clients and three people to a business with more than £10m of turnover, 6 offices and close to 100 people…

  • Never lose sight of the problem you are trying to solve

In starting a business, any founding team has to understand what problem the business is going to solve in the market and why it is differentiated in attempting to do so.  This seems blindingly obvious but I have seen many, many businesses lose sight of this as they develop, and even some that have opened their doors for business without seemingly having a clear understanding from the get go!  So, from day one of Agent3 we knew that we wanted to help clients who were desperate to sell more to their key and named accounts, and then help them do so by having a unique ability to combine the three drives of modern marketing (data, technology and content) to drive better engagement.  Knowing this, we were then simply confronted with the challenge of bringing this proposition to market and then executing the process of building market share.

  • You won’t crack things immediately, and that’s OK

As we attempted to build market share for our offer, we were given possibly the best piece of advice from any of the people we greedily approached with requests to help us develop Agent3; ‘plough a number of fields and you’ll, in time, work out which are the most fertile’.  This gem came from Richard Eyre, the Chairman of our major investor, Next Fifteen.  And it was incredibly helpful for a number of reasons.  Firstly it took the pressure of us feeling that our investors needed to see instant results.  Secondly, that it gave us confidence to try different things in the marketplace in order to learn what may gain traction.  And thirdly, it created an internal environment where innovation flourished – in the earliest days, we had SO many ideas that bubbled up simply because we had the mindset of ‘let’s try different things and see what works’ (clue – not all of them did!)

  • The ‘numbers’ aren’t everything – financial performance is a lagging indicator of the health of a business

Anyone that was privy to our financial performance in the earliest days of our existence would likely be horrified!  Our revenue jumped around a bit, and even went backwards in one year.  In terms of profits, we didn’t make any money at all for the first few years and, actually ‘lost’ money through conscious investments in technology that we believed in.  But here’s the thing; if we’d have obsessed about our financial performance, as opposed to obsessing about the customer challenges we were trying to solve through innovation, we’d have changed strategy.  Yet, by having supportive investors who believed in our vision, and then by being dogmatic about pursuing that vision, we were able to do the RIGHT things for the business’ health in the medium to longer term, without being forced to react to the indifferent financial performance that we were posting.  And by laying the right foundations for Agent3 in the early days, we were then setting ourselves up for the growth that we believed would come in time.

Building businesses is hard.  REALLY hard.  It’s why I have tremendous admiration for entrepreneurs and founders who follow their passion and start things that they pour their heart and soul into in an attempt to build successful businesses.  Our journey with Agent3 has been a fascinating and challenging one and I wouldn’t change anything that we have done to date because even the things that didn’t work, we’ve learned from.  I’ve shared the three points above in the spirit of sharing the things I have learned along the way; I’d love to hear the things that others have also learned as they have scaled their businesses, so feel free to share them!

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