The Unagency Model

Austin L. Church
June 27, 2017
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What I call the Unagency Model has come up a lot recently, so I’m going to take this opportunity to organize my thoughts.I’d like to paint the model in broad strokes and help several of you understand:

  1. What the Unagency Model is, and
  2. How you might be able to use it

What’s wrong with traditional agencies?

Nothing.I got my start at an agency. Many of my friends work at agencies. Many of my friends own agencies.My choice of an Unagency isn’t an allergic reaction to some irritant in the business environment. Rather, it has been the “blueprint”—if trial-and-error and failing forward can be called such—that has emerged, gradually, as I have pursued certain lifestyle and financial goals.If, like my friends JD, Jordan, Grant, Courtney, Gavin, Dave, and Greg, you want to build an agency, then I wish you wild success. Knock it out of the park!

The Unagency Model

How did I arrive at the Unagency Model?

Despite having several opportunities to “grow” into an agency—translate: having adequate cashflow—I have chosen to remain an independent consultant.My side of the family lives in Nashville, and my wife’s side lives in Indianapolis. If we’re going to spend time with our families, then we’ve got to drive to those cities.Beyond those trips, we love to travel. I enjoy speaking on many topics related to freelancing, content marketing, and writing. And my wife Megan and I believe that it is important for us to take one or two trips without our kids each year.Though we’re not full-on nomads, our preferred lifestyle necessitates a location-independent business model.My preference for flexible workflow, extra vacation time, and making more money the harder I work evolved into the Unagency Model.

Here is the Unagency Model in broad strokes…

  • Keep overhead low. That way, during dry seasons, you can easily tighten your belt and drum up new business.
  • All 1099 contractors; no full-time W2 employees
  • Remote/distributed team… work with people all over the world
  • Focus on repeatable systems. For example, filling out a questionnaire takes less of a client’s time (and less of yours) than a face-to-face discovery session.
  • High touch and high respect… Despite the inefficiencies that you witness everywhere in business, most clients prefer to not waste their time. Be high touch. Be caring and attentive. But don’t make the mistake of believing that the client interprets lots of meetings, phone calls, and emails as “value.” Most appreciate succinct two-sentence emails; short, highly tactical meetings, and calls with clear agendas.
  • “Talent first” hiring mentality; I don’t care where you live as long as you do amazing work
  • On time, on budget, no excuses; the punctual bird gets the worm; the reliable contractor, wherever s/he lives, gets the repeat business. In my experience local contractors who speak fluent English often have a sense of entitlement and produce sloppy work.
  • Deliver amazing client experience… I don’t have a swanky office or beautiful conference room with surround sound; I’ve got to create value instead with high-quality work, efficient project management and processes, kindness, generosity, responsiveness, and expertise. Go learn from my friend Laura Elizabeth about client experience.
  • Find the profit margin. No project should be a “loss leader” to get clients in the door. Even if you only make $10, don't lose money on project.
  • Say no more often. If the project doesn’t pique my curiosity or pose an interesting intellectual problem, then I need to take a pass. I don’t do my best work when I’m struggling to stay engaged.
  • Pay contractors really, really fast. The best folks know they have options. If I want them to make my projects a high priority, then I need to pay them quickly. Net-30, net-60, and net-90 payment schedules don’t inspire loyalty. Same-day or next-day payments do inspire loyalty. And word travels...
  • Shield contractors from difficult clients. It's my job to keep the client happy, and it's my job to put out any fires. By protecting my specialists from any weirdness or outbursts, I preserve the space that they need to do their best work.
  • Manage projects like a boss. I already alluded to this. Effective, efficient project management ensures that the client is never waiting on me. Some delays are unavoidable, but I don’t want those delays to come from my end.
  • Any questions clients have to ask are bugs. Create process docs that clarify each step of the process.
  • Design and implement a killer client onboarding process that earns a new client’s trust and empowers you to lead the project.
  • Elevate your clients. You may eventually work yourself out of a job. That’s fine. Even after you have taught them most of what you know, clients will still keep you around because they value your opinion.
  • Find ways to be generous. With contractors, this looks like bonuses for a job well done, a deadline beat. With clients, this looks like extra work, highly personalized gifts, fixing things that need to be fixed without being asked and without invoicing the client afterwards.
  • Kindness wins. Clients sometimes do weird stuff. We all do when we’re under stress and wrangling anxiety. You can only control your own behavior. What kind of story do you want to be able to tell after a breakup, after a spell of weirdness, after a taker client rips you off? I have always found that killing with kindness is more effective than threats, so when a client does something stupid related to money, my desire to be true to who I am should trump (I hope) my need for “justice,” revenge, vindication, apologies, recompense, or some acknowledgement of wrongdoing or bad form on the client’s part. Takers gonna take. But they will eventually reap what they have sown. I don’t want the bad eggs to turn me into a jaded, cynical, bitter, skeptical, suspicious, stingy person. That would be the true loss.
  • Contracts also win. Most weirdnesses with clients (and contractors, for that matter) came from Swiss cheese contracts. Attorneys are a thing for a reason. Hire a really good one. A really good client service agreement serves two purposes: 1) It gives bad-fit clients a chance to throw up red flags, and 2) It gives you legal recourse when a relationship falls apart. Expect the best, and prepare for the worst.
  • Don’t work with rude people.
  • Exercise your walk away power. Being right is rarely worth the cost of litigation. Any money you might deserve usually is rarely worth the emotional toll. Suffering abuse, condescension, chronic excuse-making, and chronic delays from clients kills your enthusiasm for your work. The clients that you complain the most about are the ones that you need to fire.
  • You don’t need a lot of clients, just happy clients.
  • Follow up every six weeks to three months and ask for repeat business.
  • Ask for referrals.
  • Be honest. If you believe your client is making the wrong choice, speak up. If your client still insists on making the wrong choice, then either help him/her to achieve the best possible outcome. When they say, “you were right,” smile. Don’t rub salt in the wound. Don’t say I told you so.
  • If you can’t knock the project out of the park, refer the client to someone else.
  • Stop using contractors who miss deadlines.
  • Say, “Thank you” to your contractors and compliment them often.
  • Say, “I’m sorry” to your contractors. You know how bad clients act. You have been a bad client before. Acknowledge your craziness, poor communication, or flash of temper. Then, change your behavior.
  • Join a Mastermind group. Being an independent consultant can be lonely. You can develop tunnel vision. You stop approaching projects and clients from new angles. Find colleagues who can sharpen you. Sharpen them in return.
  • The pie is plenty big. Friendly competition is better than a dog-eat-dog attitude. If your competitors like you, they will refer you business. Shoot, you may even become business partners eventually. Be cordial, collegial.
  • Bite your tongue. Don’t say anything bad about your colleagues unless absolutely necessary. Don’t complain about your clients unless you’re asking for advice. By reinforcing a client’s negative opinion, you hurt your industry as a whole. And clients have been known to kill the messenger. They agree with your assessment of a debacle with another freelancer or consultant, and because the whole situation stinks and people with your specialization are suspect, they won’t hire you! It’s better to be tight-lipped about your colleagues’ apparent failure, and focus instead on figuring out whether you’re a good fit. There are two sides to every story, and you may soon realize that the client, not the contractor, sabotaged the project.
  • Find a mentor. A Yoda with gray hair can save you a lot of mistakes and heartache—that is, if you stay teachable. Thank you, Jerry, Bruce, Dick, and Malcolm. You all help keep me sane.
  • Mark and celebrate your successes.
  • Go on vacation often. Without a full-time team you will have a tendency to burn down and burn out faster. Time away accomplishes two things: 1) It tests the strength of your systems and processes, and 2) It gets you out of the weeds so that you can rest and gain clarity. Besides, what's the point of having freedom if you don't spend it? Otherwise, all you've done is create another job for yourself.
  • Take one full day each week or two hours each day to focus exclusively on business development. As the owner of an Unagency, you’re the only one who can grow the business. You need to work on the business, not just in the business.
  • Sell other people’s stuff. My skillset is tied to copywriting and strategy, but I also sell development, design—really the full range of creative services. I make some money off those pieces, and because I offer them, I have more things on the “menu” to sell.

What would you add?

There are probably things I’m forgetting. Have you intentionally chosen to remain an independent consultant?If so, I’m curious to hear what you’d add to the model above. Email me at hello [at] austinlchurch [dot] com, and let’s keep the conversation going.