This Blog is transcribed from the interview from Agency Hangout a weekly Conference Call for Agency Leaders by Ian Harris using Nimbus Hosting on 26th April 2019. The participants were: Ian Harris of Agency Hackers, Danny Ashton of Neomam & Dean Breyley of Grow or Die.
Ian Harris: One of the things that I always find when I talk to agency owners is that managing their agency’s growth is one of the biggest headaches they have. How do you structure things? How do you put the right people in the right places? Recently I’ve found this system called EOS ®, the Entrepreneurial Operating System ® – and it’s basically an ‘off the shelf’ operating model for agencies. Instead of reinventing the wheel and making it up as you go along, it’s a system that you can effectively take and use to run your agency, and we are going to be talking to some people who have lots of experience in implementing this. We’ll be finding out how they’re getting on with it and whether it’s something that you should look at as well in your agency.
We’re going to be talking to Danny Ashton the founder of NeoMam Studios, which is a content marketing agency. We’re also going to be talking to Dean Breyley from Grow or Die. Dean is a Certified EOS Implementer™ so he’s one of the people who knows how to implement EOS and he’s actually helped Danny to implement. So let’s kick off with you Danny. Every hero needs a kind of dark origin story – tell us what brought you to EOS – The Entrepreneurial Operating System. Tell us about the sort of pain you went through and what brought you to it.
Danny Ashton: I’d been running the agency for probably about three years when I initially started to think about things. So, in the initial stage we were very lucky in that we had a lot of demand for what we did. I’ll be honest, I used to think “Oh this is so easy – I’m kind of getting a little bit bored because people said running a business is meant to be challenging”. Which is probably a thought that- if you ever have- you should be really worried because that means something is going to happen! The first thing that happened is that the business started to slow down a little bit. Just to give you an idea, in that year before, we grew probably from about 10 people to about 30 people all based in the office in Manchester. Over two years we grew quickly, which was really exciting. Then a few things happened within the business; one of the directors left, which meant that a pay out that had to happen. A lot of the cash that we’d been sitting on, (which was making us feel quite confident) left the business. We also started to come to a point, in October, just about to hit Christmas period, which is always a slow time. I think the first month we lost around £20,000 and then we were looking at December losing even more.
At the time I was already talking to a Consultant about something called ‘The Great Game of Business’, a business book. I explained my big plans – to get a loan just to cover me for a few months and get to January, make some more sales and everything would be okay. The consultant quickly said to me that if you take that you’re going to be paying it off for the rest of your life. From that point, we had to make some changes – we had to let people go. Five people were let go at that initial point, before we even came across EOS. I think it’s worth mentioning this, as this is the journey that we took and that ‘The Great Game’ really helped us to get our financial head ‘on board’.
We then got to a point, probably within about twelve months, where we were a bit more stable from a financial point of view, which was okay, as in ‘we were back in the black’. We weren’t making loads of money, I wasn’t looking for jobs anymore or kind of worried about that so much, but as for the situation in the office, in the workplace, that was really bad. The way I describe it is it’s like I used to wake up in the morning and I didn’t want to go into the office, which I’m sure everyone’s had that when they work for someone else but it kind of feels a little bit insane when you’re the one paying for the office.
So I knew something wasn’t right – I probably didn’t know what it was and that was when I was at an event, similar to something like this, with other agency owners. I was telling them some of the things that were happening within the team, because people were really unhappy, then someone, I think another agency guy said, ‘Look, have you heard of EOS? Based on what you’ve said it sounds like you don’t know what your values are’. I was like – ‘What the hell are those? I’ve never even thought about that, all I know is I’m having problems at the moment, people aren’t doing what I’m asking them to do and people don’t seem to like being here – and I don’t like it’! He took me to the side and said, ‘Just read this one book’, the book that is basically the story of the EOS. So we knew there was something wrong but we couldn’t put a finger on what was, THAT then brought us to the idea of EOS and maybe trying something else.
Ian: Now Dean, one of the things that just seemed so seductive to me and probably to a lot of agency owners about EOS, is that it’s the idea that someone has done the hard work of figuring out how to structure businesses operations. If you look at a Designer, designing something, they don’t start from scratch, pixel by pixel – they download things and use templates, and the idea that someone’s got a template for business is really attractive. How do you how do you explain EOS to people?
Dean Breyley: Well, there is a lot in the name: ‘The Entrepreneurial Operating System’. Like Windows runs your PC and OS X runs your Mac – using the software thinking analogy, EOS is an operating system that runs your business, and yet it just isn’t software. When everything is running smoothly, it sits in the background and you would hardly know it’s there. Having a clearly defined operating system in place allows you to do all the wonderful, important, and most valuable things on the top. It is simply a set of tools that helps to take care of the running of the business – which so many people spend all their mental energy on, just trying to keep the wheels spinning.
Whether anybody knows or not, their business has an operating system. They just might not have a clear definition or it might not be tangible. There is a way that sales talks to marketing, marketing talk to ops, ops talks to finance etc. There is a way that we manage cash flow. There is a way in every business – it just might not be functional, might not be that effective or that defined. I had the same experience [as Danny]. I came to the end of a relationship with a business partner, in my own marketing agency, because we didn’t have any of this stuff together ourselves and it was a couple of fantastic consultants who introduced me to Traction. As soon as I saw it, I got it, because it made sense to me. I was like ‘why am I trying to reinvent the wheel and solve all of these problems, almost as if nobody else in the history of business has had to solve these problems before?’. So it really gave me a mindset shift – I was like, hang on a minute this is predictable stuff right? People have had problems with ‘vision’, problems with ‘people’, problems with ‘data’, ‘process’ – all of this stuff. I was reading the book thinking there must have been millions of businesses before me, why have I not seen the light so far, and thought that someone’s probably figured out how to do this in a really simple way, so I can just focus – and that was the beauty of it for me. It is a system that you can implement in to the business that helps you get the basic stuff done right, all of the time, and then run a better business more consistently.
Ian: Danny, now EOS has lots of different things to it. It gives you a way to set your values and it gives you a way to structure team meetings and know what everyone’s working on. What are some of the most useful features for you with EOS?
Danny: So I think the thing that really got our attention initially was this whole idea of the Accountability Chart and the ‘right people’ having the ‘right seat’. So, before you can do anything else, you’ve got to have each person in one seat, with their own areas of accountability, and that is key for them – everything else follows. That’s the thing that we found. Obviously we self implemented for two years and we probably weren’t that great at it, but we tried some of the tools and that’s probably going to be most people’s experience. You’re not going to just pick it up and everything’s going to be fine.
I think the big thing, that we found very powerful, were the Level 10 meetings; which are regimented meetings that you have every single week. You have five minutes to update numbers, five minutes to update on what’s happening with the team, and your Scorecard, and probably things that you already do. You then you have an hour to deal with issues – which is probably the scariest thing when you first hear about it, but you do this every single week and you also do it at the quarterlies and the annuals, to a similar degree.
I’ve done my Kolbe [Test] and various other different personality tests and I’m very much the person who likes to start things, I don’t like to sit still for any length time, I don’t like to implement and I certainly don’t like to sit in meetings. So when I first got into this I thought that this is going to be terrible, but now three and a half years on, I couldn’t be without it. That’s not me just saying that – I don’t care if people do it or not, but I know if I had to have that taken away from me, our business would suffer significantly because it’s the way it is. It gives us a place to make the decisions on the business.
If I think back to previously, if it was really hellish, it could be six months or so without talking about stuff. Now we are forced to bring these issues to the rest of the Leadership Team and face them in a way that isn’t ‘rethinking the wheel’, ‘do whatever we want’ and ‘talk about it endlessly’, which is probably what we did before, and probably what many other people do. Now we actually go through them in a very specific way; this is the issue, try and remove any emotions and different things that come with it, face them, make decisions and have next steps. That was probably the ‘big one’. The second big one was the whole idea of the Visionary and the Integrator [roles].
I always felt that I had the role of CEO however, I only felt like that because every business has that, so you have to have that – I knew that many of the activities involved [in that role] I really hated and really didn’t want to do. I felt like I was lazy and that I was always looking at new things in the future, never really looking at the day to day operations and the different things like that. I think that is what EOS has helped me to understand – that’s because I’m a Visionary, it’s okay – I’m alright.
Luckily we were in a position where Amy, was already doing many of the ‘Integrator’ things. So the Consultant with The Great Game System had already identified her – whether we called me a ‘Visionary’ or had another word, I don’t know, but he knew that if we were to move the business forward Amy had to be a core part of that. Once that happened, very early on, it really freed us up to know ‘this is how it’s going to work’ and those two [EOS] activities were really, really powerful.
Ian: Cool, so you’ve got the momentum – that’s number one – the momentum of decision making and stuff that EOS forces you to stick to, and then number two there is leadership, the part which elevates you from the business. I think that’s really interesting. Dean, now one of the things that EOS talks about is ‘letting go of the vine’. What is meant by that?
Dean: In order to grow, the principle is; you’ve got to let go. Entrepreneurs tend to hold onto things because they’re not sure how things are going to get done if they’re not done ‘their way’ or that they are not going to get done to the same level of quality. If you’re opening a restaurant, you can’t be Maître D’, Chief Cook, and you can’t be Table Waiter, all at the same time. So, the story about ‘letting go of the vine’ is that if you put the right things in place, in terms of safety nets, the right tools or management practices, the right systems, the right processes then actually growth is not a problem. You can bring in the right people, you can put them in the right seats and you can lead and manage them from a distance – you don’t have to be sat prodding and poking them all day long. You can align them around the vision, you can use a handful of numbers to just drive the performance of the business and you can bring consistency in via some very simple processes. We are fans of Pareto’s Law; 20% of the documented process, will deliver 80% of the value, return and compliance. Putting in a system of execution to make sure that if we have this vision, you know everything we want to achieve is being achieved and how.
Ian: In case anyone’s listening to this and they think well this kind of EOS system is quite interesting, where do I begin with it?
Dean: I began with the book ‘Traction’ by Gino Wickman. There are three different ways that people tend to engage with EOS. You can begin with the book – you can pick the book up on Amazon. I think paper copy costs around £6. If you send me an e-mail, I’ll even send you a free copy in the post! There are five books in the library, Traction is the workbook. Traction documents the main model that is EOS. There’s a lot more to EOS than described in Traction, but Traction is more than enough to get you going. It talks about the Six Key Components™ and it talks about the 12 tools to help strengthen those. Teams have absolutely great results by just picking up the book, digesting it and then spitting it back out into the business. The book gives you everything you need to get going. That’s your lowest cost option, but probably hardest to get the return on; because there’s lots of things that come from doing it yourself. That was my first experience – I self implemented EOS into an agency for eight months, before I decided that I wanted to become a Certified EOS Implementer. EOS have a platform which you could consider your ‘safe space product’ – it’s a learning platform. You get real in-depth implementation material; you get videos to guide you along the way. Again, I’ve worked with teams who have got great results from just logging on, watching the videos where you have the EOS visionary, Mike Paton, walk you through the tools, then you take them and implement them into your business that way. It’s about £300 per month subscription to that platform, but you get access to everything that we do, as Certified Implementers. You get the same training materials, the same tutoring as we get.
Then, of course, there a people like us. There are currently 256+ Implementers around the globe, all working every day with privately run, entrepreneurial businesses to help them get there quicker. We are the accelerant, we’re the ones for the companies that say; ‘we get it’, ‘we love it’ but don’t have the head space or capacity to do it themselves. They bring us in, and our job is to speed them up, to get them there quickly, to be the accelerant that gets them the results in the quickest form – that does come with the highest investment.
Ian: Cool. So you can read the book, decide the best platform (for implementation) and then you can reach out to someone, like you, who is a Certified EOS Implementer. Danny, values is one of the things agency owners often struggle with. They have a strong cup of coffee, get excited and scribble some values down and launch them at a retreat and then they’ll just be shelf-ware for the next number of years. How has EOS changed how you look at values?
Danny: I’ve said it to Dean before, I think getting the values right is the hardest bit, and I think it makes sense, especially when I described earlier the kind of situation that we were in, when we first started EOS – we were a mess. There were lots of things that we were doing, just because we thought we had to, and we didn’t have much confidence in ourselves because we were losing money and we were having challenges. So, we watched the videos, but we still felt that they (our agreed values) weren’t quite right and its probably taken us a good three years to find four of them that work for us. Part of that has been ‘feeling’ the values set are the right values over time – you know beyond that strong cup of coffee on a retreat, actually seeing how they feel daily, when things happen with employees and clients and actually realising that maybe that isn’t a value because we haven’t really done anything about it, we haven’t made a decision based on it. So, where we are now, I’m not going to say we have the perfect values but there’s certainly been progress from each quarter – we’re able to go “Oh yeah, that’s our value, that’s why we did that, that’s why we chose that client or didn’t use that client or why we did X”.
I think it’s it takes a long time and I’d say that about all the EOS stuff – it’s hard work. I’m not going to say it’s like installing a CRM system and off you go, it’s going to involve a lot of self-evaluation and accepting the way you did stuff was not right. You have a lot of things that you have to face yourself as a business owner, of what you do and why you do the things that you do. Many of those decisions might be based on fear and worry rather than really getting what you want from your business. The way I describe EOS is; it allowed us to be ourselves as a business. Previously we were doing what probably most agencies were doing – what everyone else is doing. Picking and choosing and saying will they do that, ‘that seems right’ and you’ll have your values based on what you think makes sense. Many of those values might just be stuff that you’ve seen, that you think ‘well that’s going to make us money’, because at the start every agency needs to make money, there’s no getting past that! But as they grow and as they become more mature, than they are going to depend very much on the leadership team knowing what they want.
I look back to when it was really bad and I thought I knew what I wanted but I never shared that with anyone. I never really sat down myself and had a proper think about it. So we ended up then with a team who had their own values. At one point some people thought that that we were going to be a great design agency, some people want to be a great PR agency and the reality was that our focus, our values and everything that we wanted to do as a business was all mixed up, with all the different people in the team, because we had never clarified that. What I love about EOS is that we have, and can give, very real clarity to the people who work with us – who we are as a business, what we’re going to do and where we are going.
Ian: Yeah, it seems like you really are. I don’t know if this is the right word, but it seems that you really ‘hit your stride’ in the past year or two, for anyone whose listening I really recommend you follow Danny on LinkedIn. Danny shares and lets you know what they’re up to and I think you used to mainly be infographics in terms of content marketing, so clients could get links, but now you’ve moved on to different forms of content marketing and they’re all really original. Danny shared this one piece of content where they rendered some famous hotel rooms from films, so you got the Caesars Palace Suite from The Hangover and it is just really original stuff, it has helped you hit your stride and get everyone on the same page?
Danny: For sure, so one of the things that you do as part of the EOS is decide your passion and your niche. So for us our passion is ‘Creating content that people want to share’ and that’s something that I’ve had since starting in the business. I know many people have different things and it’s worth mentioning that what our passion is, will be completely different to anyone else’s and that’s not what EOS is trying to push us for, but it does give us those tools to actually go ‘well, why are we in this business?’. We want to create content that people want to share, and once we understood that, we can share that with the team, and then that becomes everything that we do – it just makes sense.
In the old days we had a large team of designers, copywriters, and it became like a factory of ‘let’s produce this one type of content’ which in our case was infographics, but I see it with many other agencies as well – they’ll have one thing that they can work out because that’s easy to do if you’ve got a big team and everyone has to do the things that we want to do. But we knew that that wasn’t the passion I had – of just being a big factory making machine. So, having that confidence of going ‘Well we just want to keep creating content that people want to share’ and we also want to get links with that so that’s one of our other things, our niche is ‘Supporting SEO with content that gets links’. EOS then also has a guarantee in their toolbox as well. Not every company has to have one, but you are asked ‘What do you want to guarantee?’ Might be just a good experience for clients but we chose to guarantee a number of links with every campaign. So what it really allowed us is that freedom to go ‘OK, well we’re not caught by the structures of we have to do a ‘certain’ thing, we can just fulfil our passion, create content that people want to share, that gets links and gets as many links as possible because we know that that’s what our clients want and then we can be really flexible with everything else’.
We can try out mad ideas one week and do all the other things the rest of the time, and what we found is that because we’ve been really clear with the passion, our niche, and what we want to do with our business, we’re really clear when people join our business with that’s what we’re going to do. I think the mistake that we had previously is that we never really had that and so people would have different views on what they wanted to do, whereas now we have people who are excited by our passion and want to share. I think previously, the challenge with content is that you can end or become a bit of a template machine – that the biggest problem – it is not so much that clients don’t like it, it’s more that people get bored doing it. You don’t see that love that goes into the work, because you can’t produce work of a great standard without people being really caring and taking it to that next level – to give that extra bit of effort and get the best possible visual at the end. It then allows us, if challenges occur, to go back and think ‘well, should we not spend too much on this campaign?’- actually no, that’s going to end up not getting any links and no-one’s going to care about it, so then we shouldn’t be creating it. It’s a really powerful way to keep coming back to the passion and the niche, all the time, the core focus of what we do, which I’m sure everyone’s got that in their heads, and I had it in my head, but it probably changes every couple of months or every year, depending on what’s happening around you.
Ian: Dean, in terms of what people are working on, I wonder if you could take us through this system of ‘Rocks’ and how to manage that drumbeat of what people are working on? I saw one woman on LinkedIn who runs an agency and she took a photo of an empty bank of desks and she said, ‘Oh it’s a bit of a scary feeling, I let people work from home now, when they want, so this is the first time basically everyone’s been working from home’ and she felt a bit nervous. One of the things I think about EOS that is interesting is that everyone knows what everyone is working on – could you talk about that system of Rocks?
Dean: Certainly. With EOS being an operating system, the system contains a set of tools. Tools in isolation don’t give you the effects or the results, and yet it is the compounding effect of bringing all these tools together which generates the results. One of the tools in the EOS Toolkit is ‘Rocks’ which is derived from the analogy by Dr. Stephen Covey about having a glass cylinder that gets filled with rocks, pebbles, sand and water. If you spend five minutes on YouTube you’ll find 50 different versions of that little analogy. In essence your Rocks are the most important, most impactful things that we want to get done, and yet because everything else is so urgent and important, those things usually don’t get done. The analogy is about how to get all of those things – the rocks, the pebbles, the sand and the water into that jar, if that jar represents your time. Rocks, in essence, are just the 90 day priorities, the fewest but most important things that we want to get done as a company, as individuals, as different departments or different functions and we can create this world where every 90 days we get together, make sure we’re still on the same page with the vision, pick out the fewest yet most important priorities get our heads back into the business, get stuff done and then execute for another 90 days. You get the energy beaten out of you by the world during that time and then just at the right time, you get to the end of that 90-day period, having completed all of the things you wanted to complete. You can take a breath, kind of pause and reflect, make sure on the same page with the vision, pick out the next set of quarterly priorities ‘the Rocks’; ideally between three & seven – hopefully closer to three.
We create that kind of perpetual motion in the business by taking our big things such as Annual Goals or big issues and break them down into chunks of just 90 days. There are some men in white coats that have done studies on our psychology and they figured out that we could just about retain focus and energy on something for around about 90 days, which is why this quarterly pulse is such a thing in the world – we tend to work in quarters with a lot of things in life. So we break execution down into chunks of 90 days. What we do is we create that absolute laser focus on the most important, most impactful things we’re going to get done and then we find a way to put them in our jar first – going back to that analogy. So rocks equate the most important, most impactful things, the pebbles would be the day job – the repeatable process driven steps of just getting more of the same stuff done, then the sand and water become all the noise and the interruptions and the distractions. It is a time management tool in terms of helping you focus – it creates a high level of accountability, discipline, and execution. We make sure there’s great communication in terms of a weekly pulse to keep them what we call ‘on track’ but in essence, we don’t get overwhelmed about any big Ten Year Target for example, because we’re just going to get it done one chunk of 90 days at a time. That’s actually quite refreshing to think about execution this way. Being able to let the future go, because we know that through our planning all we have to do is deliver the next 90 days, and if we do that we’ll worry about the future when we get there.
Ian: Danny, for anyone listening to this who has thought that this could be quite an interesting way to run their agency – Is there anyone who would you recommend it to?
Danny: Well I’d recommended it to anyone, but I do mainly recommend it to people who are having problems, you need the pain to be able to keep you going, because it is going to be hard. We’ve had tears, we’ve had arguments, we’ve had all these things happen in either quarterly or the annual events because it is a big commitment that you have to make to it, yet even though it is a big commitment it was very easy for us to do it because we’d felt the pain of not having a system, and having all the challenges that came with that. Anytime I hear someone say ‘oh I’ve not got enough sales’ or the usual problems that people have, they’re just the symptoms of the bigger issues. So that’s who I’d probably recommend it to – if you’re having problems, things aren’t working out so well, because I think if I went back to me in my early years I’d be like ‘I don’t need it because I am I’m doing great’ and I certainly wouldn’t be up for having a 90 minute meeting with my Leadership Team each week. I think that’s why you have to feel the pain first, hopefully survive, and then you can do EOS.
Ian: I’ve noticed that, like a lot of the hallmarks of EOS, it seems to correlate with what I observe to be the traits of a successful agency. As you know through Agency Hackers, I meet a lot of agency owners and the successful ones all seem to have several things. First of all, they all seem to have a PA – someone looking after their time. They all seem to work to a three month schedule such as an event/ retreat or strategic kind of review which EOS says you should do. They all seem to have very clear short term and medium term goals so it seems to be something that a lot of people should consider.
Dean: We are the first to hold hands our hands up and say ‘look there’s nothing new here, right’. This isn’t rocket science and it certainly isn’t any kind of silver bullet or magic pill. EOS is a model and that’s exactly how Gino Wickman put it together. Gino spent many, many years working with companies – privately run entrepreneurial companies as part of the Entrepreneurs Organization. It was during that time of coaching, mentoring and helping other people build fantastic strong, healthy, functional and cohesive businesses that he started to find the tools that got the most impact, had the most positive and permanent change, in the shortest amount time and then he started compartmentalising them. So there are people that can just magically do this without having to have a defined framework, but I would say they are the few. Many, including myself, make a mess before discovering frameworks like this. So for some of us it’s just easier to have a set of rails to say ‘look someone’s been there before, solved these problems, figured out a really quick way to get great results’ and so what we do is we use that model – we model many things in life and EOS is just modelling a great business. A lot of people will do this naturally, some of the others, like me need a system to just show us the way, to show us how to do it simply.
Ian: Thank you guys for sharing your experience with us. I think if anyone is listening to this and they want to get started with EOS I’d recommend you read the book ‘Traction’ by Gino Wickman. Also if you do want help implementing this, Dean what’s the best way to reach out to you?
Dean: They can just drop us an e-mail on ‘firstname.lastname@example.org’ and I’ll happily answer any questions. One of the things that myself and all of our EOS community offer, as Danny mentioned, is 90 minutes of our time to hold a learning and teaching session for anybody that wants to know more. There’s no obligation, its part of our commitment – to give back to the community and to help share the tools.
Ian: I think, one of the things most agency owners would admit is that we’re all making it up as we go along, to some extent, I think. If you are ready for a bit more structure and you want to keep momentum and the idea of an operating model does appeal, then I think this could be right for a lot of people so I really recommend that you check this out. The replay will be on www.agencyhackers.co.uk hangout soon.