Business advice from Casey Cobb at Project Ricochet
You can learn a lot from your fellow agency owners, but it’s hard to find a time when you’re both available to chat. In my new interview series, I’m asking digital marketing agency owners how they got started, where they spend their time, and how they’ve overcome obstacles at their agencies.
Next up is Casey Cobb, partner and co-founder at Project Ricochet. His agency does web and app development, with a focus on Open Source technologies like Drupal and rapid development frameworks like Node js and Meteor js. Clients include startups and established organizations like Survey Monkey and UC Berkeley.
I interviewed Casey via email from his office near San Francisco. Topics ranged from why non-strategic growth is toxic to why he invests six figures a year to improve agency efficiency.
Check out their exceptionally well-stated Core Values and follow the agency on Twitter at @ProjectRicochet. [Note: I’ve added my own bolding to highlight Casey’s written comments below.]
1) Why did you start Project Ricochet? What was your goal in starting the agency?
When it boils down to it, my business partner Steve [Pope] and I started Project Ricochet because we just don’t like working for other people. We like flexibility and autonomy and we want to build really cool products with a team we really enjoy working with each day. And we want to do it all with balance in our own (and our team’s) lives.
We also wanted our work to mean something. Our push into Healthcare is an example of this. We recognized that if we could do work that makes the world a better place in a balanced way and do it with a happy team—all the while still spending evenings and weekends with our family—then it would be a major win. And that’s what we’ve done. Happy people do great work.
2) Why do your clients pick you over other agencies (that is, what do you think you do better than competitors)?
I think one of our key competitive advantages is the fact that we don’t want to get much larger than we are now. [Editor’s note: Project Ricochet currently has 12 employees.]
A lot of really cool things happen when you make this decision:
- Our profit can be reinvested back into the company to improve efficiency and better deliver on our core mission to our clients. When you have increased efficiency and a fixed resource pool, it means your team has more room to think, enjoy their work, learn, grow, and get better at what they do. It’s a really cool virtuous cycle.
- We can pick the projects that best help us deliver on our core mission. We only have so many hours we can allocate and generally there is more work than we can handle, so we can strategically make the leap to do work that means the most to us. This excitement for the work means we do an ever better job at it, which makes our clients happy and produces a great work product—which builds a reputation and brings us more work in the areas we’re interested in. Again, another virtuous cycle.
- We feel comfortable being a true partner to our clients. As cliche as this sounds, the web development game is oftentimes too transactional. It becomes “us” vs. “them” and a bit of a battle around a Statement of Work that oftentimes has little relevance to how the project has evolved as it’s progressed. At Ricochet, we’ve developed tools that help us give instant feedback to our clients to help them understand how their project is going on a daily basis. Decisions can be made early on to keep the project on track and a success. I believe that most projects that fail do so because the feedback loop is simply too long (sometimes it takes a PM a month to get a burn report to the client and even then it’s hard to make sense of what it means in practical terms). We’ve flipped that on its nose and it’s a beautiful thing.
- We can spend time reinforcing and growing our team. We’ve developed an internal app we call “Teams” that lets everyone see what everyone is doing at any time (in real time). It also helps each team member see what they’ve been staffed on and what tickets are assigned to them (across several systems) and plan each day in a way that everyone can see and comment on in our daily scrum. Each team member can also see how they are doing according to their plan throughout the day and at the beginning of the next day. This helps the team get better at planning, and also helps management figure out where we’re pulling someone in too many directions so it can be addressed.
This level of focus and daily growing/learning feeds the success of our projects and happiness of our team tremendously. Unclear priorities can be deadly to a team’s effectiveness and cohesiveness.
3) What’s a challenge you’ve overcome at Project Ricochet (and how did you do it)?
The biggest challenge Steve and I faced was figuring out a way to keep us from being the linchpins in our organization. When everything has to go through us, then we become the bottlenecks and we end up getting worked to burnout. So our challenge has been implementing a cohesive system that achieves several key objectives:
- Helps the team grow, learn, get better, stay effective and enjoy what they do. I mentioned some of those initiatives above, but we have lots more. We spend several hundred thousand dollars a year on this initiative. It’s the most important thing we can do as leaders and spans human systems and IT infrastructure.
- Keeps Steve and I involved in every project. We give partner attention to every project we do. We feel that this is important so we don’t want to grow to a point where this isn’t possible. We’ve focused on the nature of our involvement on projects to make this possible as we’ve grown so that we’re adding value where we truly add value and don’t get pulled in as another developer on the project. This has been key.
- When a business grows, the leadership oftentimes becomes disconnected from the inner workings of the “boots on the ground” business, which can compromise what originally made the business successful in the first place. Our business is who we are, so we never want to lose touch with the roots of our work. It’s important that we stay grounded.
- Keeps everyone focused on what they do best. We use a personality system called DiSC to uncover everyone’s unique strengths and we make sure that each person’s role is built around the team member’s strengths. Everyone knows how to communicate with each other around the way each person individually processes information (more on that here).
- We also spend considerable time figuring out what each role should be doing. When we find that the nature of the business requires someone to be doing something that’s not their strong suit or isn’t within the realm of what their role should be doing, we architect a solution to resolve the issue (shifting resources around, hiring administrative support, etc…).
If you’re not careful, the demands of a business will steamroll everything in your life, so we actively manage the business so that the river flows the way we want it to.
4) Most agencies struggle to create their own products, especially when they always put client projects first. What’s your advice to agencies on ensuring the product actually happens?
[Editor’s note: Casey describes creating the agency’s Pushpin Planner app in this article.]
I think the big takeaway is that we needed to architect our scheduling and resourcing from the top down and “push” what we’ve needed in order to achieve our objectives.
When it boils down to it, if you don’t have enough revenue (or bill enough hours) to have some cash to pay your team to develop products for you, then you can’t do it. You’re fighting a battle you can’t win because if you have to choose between paying bills and putting hours on your app, then you’ll choose paying bills.
So, figure out the hours you need to pay your bills and have profit. Figure out how many hours that profit can buy someone on your team or a contractor each week. Consistently schedule that many hours on that project/product each week. Make it a priority and chip away at it. If you find that you’re not making much of a dent, you need more hours. So figure out how to get more revenue to make that happen (raise your rate, bring in more business and hire someone, etc…).
I think that’s where most people get stuck and it’s actually not a tough problem to solve when you think about it.
If you have the resources on paper but still get pulled off of products due to client demands, then it’s likely a discipline problem. It means you’re taking on too much work. To that, I’d ask “why?”
Growth for growth’s sake is toxic. It results in a constant strain and lack of focus on the company’s core objectives and it means you’re not a product company using consulting to fund your goals. Rather, it means you’re trying to be a growing services company. I think folks have to choose a path, lay in a plan, set up their staffing so that it all works (for the most part) and work at it each week (not month or year. This is a weekly process).
That’s my two cents at least.
5) What’s one area of Project Ricochet you’re hoping to improve in the next year? How do you plan to accomplish that?
We’ll spend next year continuing to relentlessly root out inefficiency and mental space black holes in our business. Anywhere that someone isn’t being effective or enjoying their work is a waste of resources and keeps us from delivering value to our clients.
When all the monotonous and annoying day-to-day stuff is automated or at least super easy, it frees people’s brains up to be creative and enjoy their work. A few of the things on our docket are:
- an app to streamline deployments for the release manager,
- improving our QA workflow and process,
- implementing more key metrics, KPIs, and dashboards to show everyone how the company is doing (and how the team member is doing in that mix),
- improving our invoicing workflow, and
- an app to help each of us analyze the time we spend each week in line with our stated priorities (called a “Drucker Analysis”).
6) What’s your favorite piece of advice on running a digital marketing agency and why?
Plan your resourcing weekly, every single week. Doing this helps you see whether you’re delivering on your commitment to your clients, whether you’re overworking your team and creating an environment that won’t lead to creativity and happiness, and whether you’re billing what you need to achieve your goals (in terms of revenue and other stuff like developing products). It brings up uncomfortable conversations with your team that need to be had to keep things working well and it gives you a good feeling for the pulse of your team and deal pipeline.
The moment we started doing this, everything slid perfectly into place. It was huge and I’d recommend this process to anyone and everyone.
Question: What’s your favorite takeaway from Casey’s advice on how to improve agency efficiency and more?