In December 2019 I emailed the Agency Hackers audience that I’d quit my job to go full time on Agency Hackers.
Recently, a lot of people have asked how Agency Hackers is doing. So I thought I’d tell you.
We cover other people’s businesses every day in our sessions, but I’ve never really opened up about how Agency Hackers works.
So here goes.
- We have 103 agency members. At the start of March we had 60.
- Revenue is about £15,000 per month. At the moment that’s all subscription revenue.
- Growth was completely flat from March to June. (In fact, it probably shrank by 10-20%). But then it hit 15-20% per month since then, and hadn’t stopped.
- Monthly churn is quite low – about 5% a month.
- Generally the business is going well. It’s still just me – but it’s at the point now where I just can’t run this by myself. So I’m building a small team and putting in proper processes to make the business less dependent on me.
- There are still lots of challenges I need to solve – and a few things I’m stuck on. I’ll share some of them in this post.
Where did Agency Hackers come from?
I started Agency Hackers in 2017 as a little side-project.
Here’s one of the first ever events at the Kensington Roof Gardens.
This was the first Agency Summit in 2017. The Kensington Roof Gardens was a great venue, but it shut in 2018.
With most “origin stories” there are two versions:
- The tidy lie (the one you trot out in pitches)
- The honest mess (the one you never tell because it doesn’t really make any sense, even to you.)
Here’s my ‘tidy lie’.
In 2017 I was part of an agency’s leadership team. I wanted to meet other agency leaders so we could compare notes and whinge about our clients.
So I emailed a few people to see if they wanted to meet up, and – to my surprise – they did.
Afterwards, people kept asking me: “When’s the next one?”
From there Agency Hackers took off, propelled by popular demand, and it eventually became a business.
It’s kind of true.
But when you start something, it’s tempting to cast yourself as an accidental hero. The clown car that drove into the gold mine.
If that’s the ‘radio edit’, the ‘club mix’ would include the fact that I deliberately targeted agency leaders because I thought they were a great audience to build a community – and ultimately a business – around.
Here’s why agency leaders are a good audience:
- They have common problems.
- They are pretty nice people.
- They are easy to reach out to.
- They have lots of stories, so they will provide content.
- If they want to buy something, they don’t have to get anybody’s permission.
So far that’s proved to be pretty accurate.
Agency Hackers – 2017 to March 2020
For a long time, Agency Hackers ping-ponged between different formats and I just fit everything around my day job.
There were monthly roundtables at CitizenM. Dinners in St Pancras Clock Tower. Annual events at the Kensington Roof Gardens and The Ned.
For a long time Agency Hackers was mostly sporadic events – like this dinner inside the St Pancras Clocktower.
People were happy to come to the odd event, but there was no regular schedule. There was just the odd random event.
Everything was glued together by an email newsletter, where I steadily built an audience of people who liked eavesdropping on other agencies adventures.
In August 2019 I started to wonder if Agency Hackers could be a proper business. Could it make enough money for me to quit my job?
I remember being in the swimming pool on holiday and I decided to become a “proper” business, Agency Hackers would need to settle into a proper schedule:
- There would be an event every month – not just a few times a year.
- Agencies would sign up to be members, rather than buying tickets here and there.
There were already other businesses targeting agency leaders. But none of them did an event every month. They also didn’t have the vibe I felt our events have – whether that was because they were held in the evening so they didn’t attract many women.
Almost immediately it started to work.
In October I had to register for VAT because I was about to cross the £80K threshold – which seemed like a crazy milestone.
January and February’s events had maxed out the 100 capacity, so April’s was all set to move to the British Library – which has a 300 capacity.
We were about to move from this venue (100 capacity)…
…to the British Library (300 capacity).
There would be a theatre, and six breakout rooms – so you could hear from the agency leaders talking about their adventures, and then go and meet them.
On the day I left, I had the live monthly events planned riught through to September.
The themes were set, the speakers were locked in, the artwork was ready.
I felt like I’d spent months building a bonfire, and now it was time to add petrol.
In March I started to realise this virus might affect us.
I still have this email drafted:
It was saying what would happen if this virus somehow affected our ability to run events.
I never sent it. People would think I was ridiculous.
We had an event scheduled for March 20th. A couple of weeks before, I rang around people asking if they were still coming.
“Of course, what are you talking about?” was the answer.
Then I had a conversation with Steve Parks.
Steve in a previous life had worked on some kind of scenario modelling of a global pandemic.
“I’ve been encouraging our staff to stock up on food and prepare to be at home for at least two weeks.”
Come on, Steve. It’s just the flu.
“Covid is different. You will know people who die from this.”
Agency Hackers is in good shape.
At the start of March I was wondering what I’d gotten into.
Every day people were cancelling their memberships.
It went from 60 subscriptions to about 35. Many agencies will have had a similar experience with clients pausing or cancelling projects, so clearly the experience isn’t unique.
Fortunatly I hadn’t really taken any money out of the business over the last few years. I think I had £40,000 in the bank account, so even if everybody cancelled I would have time to pull a new rabbit from a new hat.
Then one week the cancellations stopped.
What is Agency Hackers?
Clearly it was not a live events business now.
People had live subscriptions. What were they actually paying for?
What can I do so people don’t cancel? How can I make it even better?
I sat down and thought: what do people actually need, and what am I actually good at offering?
What do they need?
I am good at finding stories that people really want to hear. I spent a long time as a journalist, so I know what’s interesting and what isn’t.
I know that there’s a big difference between what people say they are interested in, and what they are actually fascinated by.
Just put on loads of interesting events.
People need it more and more now.
I always felt the ‘unfair advantage’ was the focus on actual agency leaders, rather than people who talk about it for a living.
You see a lot of events aimed at agency leaders, and they go fo the easy option of packing the schedule with consultants and coaches.
It’s much easier because they have ready to go talks with slides and bullet points.
Nothing wrong with that. They are fab – but you
///Agency Hackers now
///What’s going well
Editoiral is good
///Problems I still have – things I haven’t solved
Ways to collaborate more
I started to realise
What is my unfair advantage?
What am I uniquely good at?
March – quit job. Everything was ready. Situation at that time – events full
Corona. Draft email. Jonathan Kirk.
No evnets (compeitive advantage)
Launcged Guild community
Ran events online
Gave it more purpos
Started to get new sign ups
Got into a groove.
Support not just the leaders, but the team memers
Where we are now.
I’m also nervous that marketing will bring in people who aren’t a good fit.
I started Agency Hackers as a side-project in 2017, and in March 2020 I finally left my job at an internal communication agency to focus on Agency Hackers full time.
I handed in my notice in December 2019. The trigger was the event we ran that month. Basically I didn’t think it was as good as normal.
I ran an event in December 2019 that was okay – but not amazing, I felt. I hadn’t had time to prepare properly. That was a signal to me I had to go full time on Agency Hackers.
It wasn’t our guests fault – they were great. I just felt I hadn’t prepared enough to ask them the right questions properly, and I felt some of the lack of preparation showed.
We ricocheted between topics a bit, and I’m not sure I did a great job of pulling what we needed out of everybody.
It was clearly time to go all-in.