The Less Obvious Scary Things About Starting an Ad Agency

If you're going to bootstrap your own thing, you're going to have to learn to live with fear

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If you inherited your agency or have just won the Powerball and are thinking of starting up, you can stop reading right now. This is for the bootstrappers, the freelancers, the one-man-bands, the scrappy ones.

If you’re going to bootstrap your own thing, you’re going to have to learn to live with fear.

The big, obvious one is leaping from the comfort of a bimonthly paycheck, healthcare and a 401K match. And the further you are in age from the day of your birth, the scarier that leap is. Sometimes you choose to leap, sometimes you’re pushed. I’ve done both, and they’re equally scary.

So, that giant fear is behind you. But there are many less obvious fears you should know about if you are going to embark on this journey.

Straight off the bat, brand identity, company registration, legal contracts, company insurance, IT and banking are all on the very “front edge of your home office seat” stuff. But it’s new and exciting, so there’s a lot of good nervous energy.

Reaching out to your network is a different kind of fear. They loved you when you won those six Cannes Lions together and drank pink wine on the Croisette. But will they like you solo with no company credit card?

Turns out they do. Some of them. But they aren’t shifting their whole account to a one-person band, so you land a tiny project or two that might cover your daughter’s third semester in college, but definitely not your mortgage.

You need freelance help and make some calls. “How much do you charge a day!? OK, I guess. Crap, do you accept Venmo?”

Finding office space and signing a lease with no guaranteed income—that’s a lil scary. Co-working spaces like Industrious and WeWork make it slightly less so.

One expense I never trimmed was my weekly coaching session with Karen Crane; she was a huge help in talking me down when things inevitably got to be a lot and still is very valuable.

Trying to borrow money to make it through the startup months ain’t easy. Pro tip: Borrow money or take an extension on your home loan before you leave that paycheck behind. It’s impossible to borrow any money for your first two years in business.

Paying out all the money coming in for freelance and office space will get your pulse racing, but hiring your first person is truly terrifying. This is at the same time the scariest and most important thing you’ll ever do as a founder. It’ll happen before you can afford it or feel comfortable doing it. Way before.

Know that you cannot grow a successful advertising business alone.

Over 30 days, I interviewed more than 20 people at a local coffee shop, and then the Ad Gods delivered. Alexandra McInnis. A young, energetic, driven, smart woman with six years of experience who I would trust to run SpaceX, never mind a startup ad agency. Alex is the wind beneath our little Murder Hornet wings.

But knowing she had to give up a proper job at a real ad agency to join me—when I couldn’t afford to pay myself—was petrifying.

Together, Alex and I have been on a magical six-month run, doing big projects for global clients like Zoom and Bumble as well as Murder Hornet becoming the creative partner to Fortune 100 Company New York Life and Lipton Teas & Infusions’ Tazo brand.

And we did this while adding a few extremely special people to our “nest” and managing an enormous “swarm” of trusted and invaluable partners.

Everything gets easier with a little money coming in. After nine months, it feels like I no longer sit bolt upright in bed at 2 a.m. and think, “WTF have I done?” … as much.

Now it’s about trying to continually do great work, managing cash flow, choosing your pitches, growing efficiently and keeping the culture.

Thank God I hired Alex.

This article is part of an ongoing Voice series that takes a behind-the-scenes look at new agencies in their first year of business. For more on Murder Hornet, see the previous article, Why Would Anyone Name Their Ad Agency Murder Hornet?