When I quit my full-time job to start my design firm in 2016, I had no experience building or running a business, I had very little knowledge of client services, and I had no cash or clients. My friends and family thought I was crazy.
What I did have, however, was a strong conviction: design firms and agencies needed an upgrade.
This was my thesis: In 2016 and even now, there are too few firms that go beyond pretty visuals and snappy animations and connect to the psychological implications of their work. It was a gap in the market compelling enough for me to jump in, as unprepared as I was.
Fortunately, it worked. Within a few months I had a handful of paying clients, a few people on payroll, and a shiny new office space.
Although building a business was still new to me, one thing was clear: clients were willing to pay for the service. And when you have a paying customer, the world tells you to find more. Go make more money. Scale. That's what you're supposed to do.
And like most companies in the design business, I followed the playbook: build the business by hiring more bodies and brains. It's hours for dollars.
But if you've ever made a bad hire, you know how detrimental it can be, both to the company and to your own well-being. I made several.
What's more, now with a handful of people to manage, I was spending my days on mundane sales and HR tasks--and failing miserably at them. Some days I felt like nothing more than an office manager. I didn't sign up for this.
To top it all off, I was taking on projects that weren't meaningful for difficult clients only so I could make payroll for people I didn't like (I didn't learn about the concept of a "culture fit" until much later).
In an attempt to build the business, I felt like I had built a prison, instead.
Now, I'm sure this is a common struggle for most entrepreneurs. This is, after all, what has been coined as the founder's dilemma: that the founders of a business are more often than not unsuitable for a business in its growth stages (50% of founders are no longer the CEO after a venture's third year).
It was very clear at that point that I was unfit to grow an agency and, even more importantly, unhappy doing it. And so, despite the revenue growth year-over-year (nearly $1 million in annual revenue), I parted ways with my staff and existing clients and went back to the drawing board.
But the inquiries kept coming in and, before I knew it, I was accepting projects without a supporting staff. Why not? Although I had failed at building a design business, I proved that I could be successful as a practitioner.
Could I throw convention away and grow a design business without hiring a full-time staff? I couldn't help but try.
After finding some success experimenting with staffing practices and pricing models, I'm convinced the agency of the future has no employees.
First, there's been an increase in robust in-house teams that are strong, educated, and talented. Hundreds of design firms have been acquired and absorbed as in-house teams in the last decade.
Moreover, agencies have been on the decline for the first time since the recession in 2010. The current market demands nimble and focused service offerings to supplement in-house teams.
Like the retail industry--where big box stores are competing with boutique brands focusing on experience--more larger, more established agencies are finding themselves competing against small consultancies. Clients are looking for a more personal experience - not just the cold, stark efficiency of a massive agency. I have found more success than ever before pitching to bigger brands against larger agencies.
Yet, as convinced as I am of the changing agency landscape, the reality is that nothing is predictable.
"We are in a business where it's very hard to predict change." Dan Gardner, CEO of Code and Theory, told me. "The only prediction I absolutely have is that change will happen. Change is the constant."
Gardner started Code and Theory in 2001 and has grown the firm to around 500 full-time employees with clients such as Google, Adidas, CNN, JP Morgan Chase. He's someone who's seen the trials and tribulations of scaling a design-led creative firm, and has become a company that many in my position aspire to become.
Who better to share my hypothesis with?
"It's very hard to be an agency that doesn't have scale in today's modern world." Gardner said. "The [clients'] asks are so big and complicated that you need different types of skill sets and it's harder to have the pool of skill sets you need when you're smaller."
Although I've had experience working with some of the most recognizable brands in the world, saying I'm ignorant to the scale that agencies like Code and Theory have would be an understatement.
However, it's projected that most workers in the U.S. will be freelancers by 2027 rather than full-time employees. For obvious reasons, technology has made it easier than ever to work wherever and wherever. It's forcing us to rethink how we view work and how we make a living.
In other words, regardless of the nature of your business, you'll find it increasingly difficult to hire for full-time positions.
With more people preferring to work independently, the supply of talent will force most companies to operate lean. It might be best to start getting used to working remotely and working with freelancers.
At least that's what I'm betting on.
While generally cynical of my proposed agency model, Gardner did have some optimism about being nimble.
"If I was you today, with no family or overhead, I'd be excited about the prospect of servicing a variety of startups for an equity exchange and having a real seat at the table. I'd want that brick; it's a different perspective when you're servicing a client as a partner at that level."
He went on: "You have the freedom. My advice is just do whatever the f*ck you want."
And with today's business landscape, I just might.