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Let's be honest, the HubSpot agency model isn't broken — we are

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Let's be honest, the HubSpot agency model isn't broken — we are

When I started out on this journey as a business owner, I told myself the last thing I wanted to do was build another agency.

Don't get me wrong, the reason I'm standing here today — virtually speaking, of course — is because of all the incredible, inspiring HubSpot agency experiences I've had at Impulse Creative, IMPACT, and The Sales Lion. (I love you guys.) And that's not even counting all of the insanely amazing humans I've met through the HubSpot and inbound community since I drank the Kool-aid back in 2012.

However, I think we can all agree that, to some degree, the excitement and optimism around the idea of a HubSpot agency has dissipated somewhat since what some may think of as the "Golden Age" of HubSpot Partner Agencies between 2012 and 2016.

I think that's normal for anything though, right? I don't care if we're talking about agencies or relationships or a new phase in the Marvel Cinematic Universe ...

There's always a honeymoon phase 🌙

When something is new, we see it as pristine, exciting ... heck, maybe even limitless in terms of the opportunities it presents. We're head over heels with the reality of what's happening in front of us, as well as the alluring mirage of what we consider to be possible in the future.

And hey, those possibilities may be realities.

But, over time, "reality" can start to set in, as the newness of whatever that thing is transitions into something more stable and expected. We hit unexpected roadblocks or fall into conflicts with others. On occasion, when we inevitably leave this honeymoon phase, we can also leave feeling a little disenchanted, right?

Longing for when things felt fresh, optimistic, and exciting, and less serious and heavy. 

And I think that's what's happened in the HubSpot Partner Agency community. 

The promise, the excitement ... those elements are still very much present in the HubSpot Partner Agency; although that was something I'll admit I needed to reconnect to recently.  Now, when I say that, I want to make one thing perfectly clear — my love for HubSpot has never faltered. Between the HubHeroes Podcast and all of the work I'm doing here, I would hope that's abundantly clear. 

🔎 Related: What I learned in my first 60 days working with George 

But more and more recently, I keep people in our partner agency corner of the world saying variations on the same theme ...

"We're not building an agency, we're building something different"

And guess what? As of a couple of months ago, I was saying that, too. 

"I'm not here to build an agency," I said to a friend of mine just a few short weeks ago. 

In response, they asked me why I was rejecting the "agency" label, because (on paper) what I'm doing looks, acts, walks, and talks like an agency. And in that moment I realized something. 

She was right. I am building an agency.

More than that, however, I'm building an agency the way I believe it should be built.

And my resistance to being called an agency at first boils down to what I think many of us have observed in pockets across the HubSpot Partner Agency ecosystem. Even with the best of intentions, toxicity can poison the culture of an agency.

It can start at the top, with ownership making decisions from a place of fear. For example, completely sacrificing all time for professional development and mental space for genuine creativity for employees to "maximize" your people to be as billable and "efficient" as possible. As a result, agency specialists start to feel completely burned out, every second of their working lives tracked and documented to the point of suffocation.

🔎 Related: Business owners, it's time to make education a priority

Then there's the opposite side of that coin, where you have the dopest agency ownership possible. I'm talking about agency owners who are totally committed to professional development and education, trusting of their people, really committed to the humans they employ and serve.

But a toxic employee or two can mess things up real quick when they bring their own crappy emotional baggage to the party. That's when everyone loses, because that employee couldn't see they were in a good place, so they poison the agency culture for everyone — and then things can start to rot from within.

Look, I can't count the number of totally freakin' amazing humans who I know in the agency space, owners and agency specialist all-stars alike. But I think we can all be honest here within the confines of this blog post (I promise, it'll be our little secret!) that we've witnessed more than a handful instances of what I've described above. 

And it's absolutely excruciating to watch and experience.

As a result, I'm willing to bet those moments pushed more than a few of us to start running away from the "agency" label as fast as possible. That's not who we are, right? That's not what we want to be or build. 

Not because we disagree with the idea of a group of committed, talented humans providing outsourced HubSpot and inbound support to those incredible companies that need us. Rather, we've hit a few rough spots over the past five to 10 years, and now we're trying to build something "fresh" to wash over that.

There's just one problem with that, though.

We're wasting a lot of energy running from the "agency" label

Now, keep in mind that, when I say this, I'm also pointing a finger at myself here. I'm also the agency owner who insisted for close to a year that the last thing I was building was, once more with feeling, an agency. 

Still, that's the truth. 

Because we're afraid of repeating what we've seen go wrong at agencies in the past, we're expending a ton of energy trying to create distance between ourselves and that seemingly tarnished label.

Is there a better way to use that energy? I think so.

What if, instead of exhausting ourselves trying to rebrand ourselves as anything but an agency, we recommit ourselves to healing and repairing what it means to be an agency in the first place?

What if, instead of bashing the idea of an agency, we recommitted ourselves? What if all of us in the HubSpot Partner Agency space doubled-down on doing what it takes to show up as whole-ass humans who believe that what an agency should be is totally possible?

We need to redefine what it means to be an agency

I don't know about you, but I'm tired of watching good agency people get hurt. I'm tired of seeing good agency people get completely chewed up and burned out.

I'm also tired of exhausting contradictions. For example, think about the much-coveted "unlimited vacation" policy. It sounds great at first, but then you dig into the employee manual and see it's not actually unlimited. 

You can only take a week at a time, every 30 days. 

Mathematically, that's not unlimited. Mathematically, that's what ... 12 weeks? Why not just say that? Why say it's unlimited when it's not?

Maybe these types of inconsistencies worked well (or were simply more easily overlooked) in the pre-COVID era, when more people were working together, in-person. Where you could have a brick-and-mortar agency with lots of perks — ping pong tables, beers in the fridge, snacks, etc.

But in this post-pandemic world, that's not how life works anymore. Sure, there are still those of you out there with physical agency locations and people who come into the office. For the most part, though, remote and hybrid are more of the norm. And, as agency owners, we need to acknowledge that our employees now likely value completely different things

Heck, so do we, if we're being totally honest with ourselves. 

We value our family time, our mental health, and our freedom more. We're less tolerant of spaces, places, and people that infringe upon what we set as the baseline for our quality of life. Hence why the Great Resignation was such a big deal.

People got sick and tired of being sick and tired at work.

And can you blame them?

We can't pretend that agencies are immune to this massive shift in humanity's relationship with the idea of work. We can't force our people to conform to pre-pandemic norms when that is simply not the world we live in anymore.

I know there's an abundance of good intentions in the agency space 

I say that because I don't think any of us got to this point on purpose. None of us set out with the goal of setting the conditions to one day feel disenchanted with the idea of an "agency," either as an owner or employee. 

No agency owner wakes up each morning with the goal of burning out their people.

No agency employee wakes up each morning ready to corrode a company culture. 

But good intentions aren't everything. You have to deliver on the promise of your intentions with purposeful action. And you have to make the choice to do that over and over and over again, not just once.

There's a reason why I have to proactively challenge myself every day, as a human and now as an agency owner, to not lose myself along the way. To not lose my dream of what I believe is possible, and work every day to make it a reality.

But that's easier said than done, right? Particularly if you're an agency owner who's been burned before. Maybe another agency poached four of your employees right out from under you. Or maybe you experienced an unexpected downturn that resulted in you losing five clients at the same time. 

🔎 Related: The true power of HubSpot Academy (HubHeroes Podcast)

Moments like that are scary, and they can destroy any sense of psychological safety or commitment to "the vision" overnight.

Instead of focusing on your dream and continuing to nurture that healthy company culture you worked so hard to establish, you become obsessed with dollars. How you can get more in the door immediately, and how you can guarantee no more walk out the door. 

This is when things can start to go wrong. This is when toxicity can leak in.

Of course, agency ownership isn't easy ... even on the great days! 

When you're building an agency from the ground up yourself, you're not just running the agency and managing your people. You're also doing a lot of the work yourself. It's that precarious balancing act between working in the business and on the business.

The thing we need to keep in mind is that, while clients may be "paying the bills," so to speak, they aren't the only humans we serve as agency owners. 

We also serve the people we employ.

Our employees are important humans, too. Without them, we wouldn't be able to serve the other humans (our clients) we're so desperate to attract and retain.

I've talked about this before, but one of the most effective ways to create the space necessary in your agency to nurture your people and your company culture at the same time is to increase the amount that you charge. It scared the crap out of me to do it myself when I first started, but I committed to it.

Instead of charging the minimum of what I thought people "might" pay, I priced our services at 3X that number — in line with the actual value being provided — and you know what? Clients are paying it. And now I have more time to be the agency owner I want to be. 

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And my people also have more time to develop professionally, learn, knowledge share, and come together to rise together.

If you're stuck in this loop of dropping prices in order to compete, you're always going to be operating from a place of scarcity; and that's going to translate to the culture of your agency, and potentially increase turnover among your people. 

Agency owners, let's walk this road to recovery together

I know I've laid down a number of truth bombs, as well as a few challenges to what I see as the status quo in the HubSpot Partner Agency space. 

But please know I'm doing this from a place of humility. I know I'm equally responsible for where we are, as a recently reformed agency denier myself. I know I'm also responsible for making good choices today and going forward to right this ship. 

From today onward, I am going to be challenging myself to think about:

  • What should I be charging in future?
  • How long should our services take to deliver? And how can we be as efficient as possible without sacrificing quality, sanity, or our humanity?
  • How can I create an agency environment that makes all of the humans who join me excited to do the work and proud of what we're building?
  • How can I also enable those humans as their lead HubHero to feel as good and empowered as possible? How can I give them room to grow and be truly creative?
  • How can I empower those humans to really embrace an owner's mindset, and not in the nickel-and-diming way?
  • Who do I want to partner with moving forward? And, most of all, who do I not want to partner with going forward? Boundaries are important, folks.

My humble ask is that you do the same. 

However, if you're an agency owner who's read this whole thing and finds yourself fundamentally disagreeing with anything (or everything) I've shared here today, I can respect that. But before you rush to disagree, ask yourself why you find yourself disagreeing with me. 

To be clear, my goal here is to start a conversation, so I invite other opinions — I always do my best learning from those who have different perspectives. 

🔎 Related: How to set really big goals you actually achieve (HubHeroes podcast)

All I ask is that you reflect on the last five to 10 years of your agency ownership experience (or however many years you've spent in the game). When did you lose your dream? When did agency life zig instead of zag in a way that maybe made you more jaded or question if your dream was even possible?

And is there anything you can today that can start the dominos falling once again in the right direction, toward that dream? 

It's always easier to fight against something. In this case, it may feel easier to fight against the "agency" label and let it die rather than face how we got here. But maybe, just maybe, this idea of a HubSpot Partner Agency is something worth fighting for. 

I think it is. And that's what I'm going to be fighting for and championing starting today.

My name is George B. Thomas. I'm a HubSpot Partner Agency owner, and I'm proud of it. Who's with me?