Owner Camp Diary: How I learned to be a better web agency owner

A 3 minute read written by Dave July 10, 2014

old fashioned green pup-tent in vector

We have four core values at Yellow Pencil. The fourth value is “we keep improving.” In an industry that changes as rapidly as the web, this is critical. The technology we use changes and gets better almost every day, our customers and clients’ expectations change, and the market invents something new regularly. We need to be learning and adapting all the time to stay relevant and produce great work for our clients.

That’s where Owner Camp comes in. Greg Storey and Greg Hoy from HappyCog started a conference a couple of years ago that brought small agency owners together to share stories about grand ideas, grand failures and grand slams. I was fortunate enough to be invited to a few of these events, and just got back from Owner Camp 6 in Minneapolis a few weeks ago.

What’s an Owner Camp?

Owner Camp has a fairly structured approach, with sessions, breakouts, and facilitators. Attendees vote to decide topics for discussion. The facilitators keep things flowing. Respect is mixed with candor to create some terrific conversation.

There is also a welcome and wonderful space around the “camp” agenda. Mornings start late so you can sleep in, or get in a run or workout. You can read and plan and think, and process all the ideas from the previous day. You can also meet someone for breakfast and learn about another agency and how they work.

Some of the topics we discussed in Owner Camp 6:

  • What’s the best use of a CEO’s time

  • How should you communicate as a leader?

  • New business models

  • Performance reviews

  • Company culture

  • Differentiating your industry

We also get the chance to connect with our peers for drinks, conversations, adventures and some great stories. The connections I made during these informal times started conversations that have continued past the weekend away into meaningful and useful professional relationships. I can ask hard questions about teamwork, our craft, and what brings clients success and get insightful, road tested answers.

What I learned at Owner Camp 6

Some of the things we talked through during the weekend that I’d like to bring back to Yellow Pencil:

Telling stories is important

I need to spend time every day making sure my team knows where we’re headed, and what our common goals are.  Some of the owners use video, weekly messages, blog posts, really anything they can to ensure they’re regularly telling the story of where their company is headed.
While I feel as though I talk about the company direction regularly, it brought a new appreciation that I can’t talk about this enough with my team.

Celebrate when things go well

I’m always proud of project launches and great work, but I’m learning there’s a lot more we can do.
My favourite idea from other agencies was a dinner bell. One company had a dinner bell in their main space, and informal rules around why you could ring it. When something went well, you could tell from the clang.

This seemed a bit strange to me, but five or six other agencies spoke up to say they had a bell in their office too. Sounds like a fun way to celebrate. I’m going to think on what we do to bring this same idea in.

Your process needs to match your size

As your company grows and changes, you need to grow and change how you work to make sure you’re keeping pace. What works when you’re a group of 10 doesn’t work when you’re 20 or 30 people. Everything needs to adapt, but that doesn’t mean culture needs to change.

Company culture is about work ethic and teamwork more than games and snacks

This is something we’ve lived for a long time (we don’t have a ping-pong table), but it was nice to hear stories from other agencies of how important their work culture is to them.
My favourite part of our company culture is that when someone needs help completing a project, someone always reaches out right away. To me that’s a valuable culture worth celebrating and focusing on improving. That and skittles.

Find your people

Sometimes you really need to hear from someone who has had the same professional or life experience that you have. As the owner of a web agency it can be hard to find peers that aren’t competitors. It's hard to tell if you can be direct and honest with someone, or if they have the same approach you do. And the hardest thing is to bring up the things you're struggling with most, the things that keep you up at night and make you lose sleep.

Good stories always help you work through a challenge, and that's why I go to Owner Camp. If you want to go too (and you should), talk to the Owner Camp organizers and request an invite.  If you want to hear some of the great ideas we’re putting in place for Yellow Pencil and our customers - keep reading our blog, or reach out and say hi.