I decided to write this article four years ago and I have made zero progress on it until today. But its continued presence in my "ready to write" folder is annoying, and so I'm going to press some keys to see if I can make any sense of this, and you'll be my victims (if you decide to keep reading). Everything true and righteous can be plotted on a three-part scale. Having only two parts presumes that the world is simpler than it really is, and four parts just leave us a little confused. So in looking at the universe on which your firm's standing can be plotted, there are roughly three options:
- Present. This means we know the sandbox that your firm plays in, but it doesn't really stand out. You're in design, UX, branding, PR, advertising, some combination of SEO/SEM, app dev, marketing, or one of two dozen other categories. You exist and you make a good living. It's not remarkable, but you enjoy work and you have clients who think you hung the moon and you don't see any fatal aspects of your business that constitute any sort of crisis. Exactly 20 other firms know you exist, and that's because they've won or lost to you in an RFP shootout or some team member went to or came from your firm. This represents 60% of the market and I refer to them as the 1.0 folks. They bill $155k/FTE, have an out of date website, send a "newsletter" to 780 people exactly once per year, have a steady stream of loyal referral sources, and the firm will disappear when they do. There are 14 people at the firm. One has been there forever, one should have been fired 2 years ago, and the rest really like working there, except when they don't.
- Prominent. Then we have the 2.0 folks. These are the ones who read industry blogs and listen to industry podcasts. They are ambitious and think about their firm on the weekends. They track their progress and long for a higher growth rate. They go for the "Best Place to Work" awards and they have a new business plan. The principal has fashioned a defensible positioning and they seldom cheat about it, and when they do, they keep it to themselves, like all good cheaters should. They still respond to an RFP or two, but they are choosy and they hate every minute of the necessary evil. They know about value pricing, they use HubSpot for themselves, they know and track all the important metrics. They dip their toe into being a public persona on LinkedIn and they get one or three unsolicited acquisition offers each year. They are proud and generally satisfied. They work hard and are open to the newest trends. These 2.0 folks represent 38% of the market.
- Dominant. These people are the 3.0 crowd. They are super ambitious. The sole principal makes $400-600k each year, without fail, and the idea of not making a profit is a joke. They hold everything close to the vest. They are shrewd and unflinching. There's not a single "Quit and Stay" member of the team, and there are past partners buried in the back yard. They suck from the industry but don't give back. They aren't content to see competitors squirm, but need to crush them until the silent tears flow and somebody loses their home. They have a very aggressive and disciplined lead gen plan and they are involved in that personally. The CFO is very capable and very loyal, but not very self-confident. That role is a lifetime appointment. This firm is full of co-dependent team members who are afraid to level with each other, even out of the office. The story ends in one of two ways. Either a caretaker stand in for the departed principal and runs the place for 6 years until it folds, or there's a surprise acquisition that nobody saw coming and Mr. or Ms. Dominant wins one last time, much to the world's chagrin. These people represent 2% of the market.
- Advantages of "Present" Category: None, nada, zilch. It's a great place to be born and a terrible place to die.
- Advantages of "Prominent" Category: All things being equal, this is the best place to land. It represents the easiest setting to find a great team and to fill your roster with solid, grateful clients. It gives you a taste of winning, but still allows collaboration with others as you stand strong against the robber barons who have moved from the railroads to procurement.
- Advantages of "Dominant" Category: You don't want to be here. Well, maybe you want to dip your toe in these waters, but don't swim in them. It's nasty and you've got to be mean to survive. This is where most of the world's stomach acid is produced, and it's where the dearly departed aren't dear at all, and people show up for your funeral...just to make sure you're dead.