Insights

Achieving growth: to agency or not to agency

April 29, 2020

How to best staff your teams to enable your organisation to grow

It might be you’ve started to gain traction with customers, or maybe you have to grow to hit funding targets. Either way, your team doesn’t have the capacity to move quicker and you need to start hiring people quickly.

For scaleup teams, it raises the question: to agency or not to agency? Do you wait to hire permanent staff – which may mean you lose precious time? Or do you spend more money and get help straight away from a third party?

This is going to be an even harder decision for those founding teams that have had to make some difficult staffing decisions during the current COVID-19 crisis. There’s certainly no right or wrong answer as to what to do next. With this in mind, I’d like to offer a frank assessment of what you can gain - and lose - from working with an external partner (such as Idean).

Let’s dive in head-first with the risks

In my honest opinion, there are three main risks of choosing the agency route if you’re a scaleup:

1. They’ll lack knowledge of your business and its past

Bringing on new teams will require time from your people to bring them up to speed. Whilst partner teams will bring new thinking, they don’t know everything you’ve learned or even those things you’ve already unlearned and discounted.

2. It’s hard to keep knowledge within the business

Good agency teams become like your own and develop expert knowledge of your business. It’s a good thing – but when they leave, that knowledge also leaves.

3. They’ll struggle to contribute to culture

When scaling quickly it’s important for teams to build their organisation’s culture – a sense of belonging that is bigger than simply work. Whilst partners can do their bit, such teams are often tasked to work on discrete bits of work and are kept relatively far away from the day-to-day operation. As such, a reliance on partners whilst scaling can mean that organisations reach the scale they wish but are unable to sustain it as they lack cultural glue in their team.

Designing for the right person

Now for the positives

1. A fresh perspective

Working in a startup affords teams the chance to have a near 100% focus on solving immediate problems. How do we stop drop off here? How do we fix this bug there? This focus can be extremely fulfilling.

However, in my experience, this can lead to product teams getting stuck in the weeds and developing a single track view of the world – meaning that the simplest solution to a problem can be missed.

Agencies provide a fresh perspective (like any new team members), they’re able to challenge existing ideas and they aren’t hung up on your internal political conflicts. Sometimes it’s the hard truths that you need to hear, and it can take an external voice to get it heard.

2. Experienced product practitioners, fast

Experienced product people are hard to come by and expensive to hire.

But think: the average agency project is 12 weeks, and most agencies focus on hiring senior practitioners over junior roles. So hiring an agency can often give your team tens of years of pure product experience, often in adjacent or analogous industries to your own.

External support can up your product team’s collective experience without creating a top-heavy team.

3. Spend more but get the job done

Agencies cost more than hiring new people or getting a few contractors in. This is true. However, key to making this equation work is assessing the value of getting the job done in the first place.

When you use agencies to scale, you don’t just get a team of experienced people. You also get a company’s contractual commitment to deliver certain outcomes. This means that founders can have confidence that targets will be hit in the coming weeks.

You decide to try an agency. How do you get the most value out of the partnership?

It’s all about mitigating the risks whilst amplifying the benefits. Our team has worked with countless startups, from early stage to pre-IPO goliaths. Here are a few key learnings from our successful partnerships, which you can apply to your own:

Mix the teams by default

Build mixed teams – members of your own team and those of the agency – to make sure those new perspectives are supported by your institutional knowledge. Ideally this mix occurs across all disciplines: strategy, product, design and engineering.

Adopt and embrace rituals

Rather than setting up project-specific rituals, work to your existing processes from day one. It’s important that the partner team becomes part of THE team.

Build-in more feedback loops

Focus on doing over reporting. But make sure there are plenty opportunities for your wider team to feedback. You can do this by physically co-locating together; getting work up on the walls fast, to capture the incredibly useful ‘passer-by feedback’; ensuring research sessions have a video link for anyone in the scaleup to attend (nothing beats hearing first-hand user feedback); and getting a standing demo slot once a week.

Assess value and impact frequently

Rather than the usual sprint goals, set goals for what value the team is going to deliver and release. We’ve found that weekly or fortnightly releases of value work well. In certain instances, we’ve even got this down to 2-day releases, especially for more discovery and design work.

For the team itself, this can help mentally break down dauntingly large or fast paced goals. For founders it constantly allows for an assessment of value vs spend and effort.

Weighing up the pros and cons of an external partner can hang over any business. That’s why we make sure you get the most value out of a partnership with us. What’s the biggest barrier stopping you from working with an agency? I’d love to hear about it. Send me a note and we can talk about where your team needs to go next.

Business Design Director, Idean UK

Andy Wilton

Andy likes designing impactful propositions and solving big problems. He hates it when people forget the importance of the business model.

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