Personality types are helpful in understanding how different people react differently in similar situations. I often speak with clients about the DISC behavioral assessment, since it can help them understand their strengths and weaknesses—and how to make better hires at their digital marketing agency.
There’s another important business personality framework I like, too—what author and business trainer Michael Gerber dubs the Technician, Manager, and Entrepreneur types in his book The E-Myth Revisited: Why Most Small Businesses Don’t Work and What to Do About It.
Gerber’s book is well worth reading, but here’s my take on how the “Technician-Manager-Entrepreneur” model applies to digital agencies. Your happiness at work may depend on it! [Updated: September 2019]
Why is the Technician-Manager-Entrepreneur model important if you own a marketing agency?
Your natural tendency (whether Technician, Manager, or Entrepreneur) makes a big difference in how you tend to delegate (whether well or poorly), whether you’re going to be more or less happy at work (based on how you’ve structured your job now)… and whether your marketing agency is still going to be around 5-10 years from now.
Know that if you’ve structured your day-to-day job in a way that’s contrary to your natural preference, you’re going to be unhappy—and you won’t know why. And you may be on track to slowly (or quickly) go out of business.
The ideal agency owner is a mixture of Manager and Entrepreneur. Read on to see why, and to see where you fit on the continuum. (And if you realize you’re in the wrong place, I can help you via Executive Coaching.)
What’s the “Technician” type?
Technicians focus on today, and the next minute, and the next hour. Technicians are good at—and love doing—their particular skill all day long. For example:
- A plumber might be great at soldering pipes and installing fixtures.
- A family practice doctor might love diagnosing illnesses.
- A marketing strategist could be happy creating marketing plans all day long.
It’s not about blue collar vs. white collar—under the Technician-Manager-Entrepreneur model, Technicians are the people who are into the hands-on aspect of what they do, regardless of whether it involves a Matco wrench or a Wacom graphics tablet.
Every company needs Technicians
Every company needs Technicians, because Technicians are typically the ones delivering the thing the company sells—manufacturing widgets, coming up with advice, or working the billable hours that most agencies use to charge their clients (until they eventually switch to value-based pricing).
Typical “Technician” roles at a marketing agency
At a marketing agency, typical Technician roles include Designer, Developer, Copywriter, and Strategist. Again, it’s not about blue collar vs. white collar—it’s about being Subject Matter Experts (SME), the person who’s doing what the company sells.
Technicians are highly billable
Your Technicians are likely billing 60-80% of their time to your agency’s clients.
The exact amount depends on how you’ve structured their role—including how much time you have them spending on internal meetings, sales support, and agency self-marketing. But ultimately, you hire Technicians because they’re going to do client-facing work and bring in more revenue for your agency.
But here’s the problem when Technicians start and run companies
The problem is when a Technician decides to start a business—whether a car mechanic starting an auto repair shop or a graphic designer, copywriter, web developer, or marketing strategist starting a marketing agency—the Technician no longer has time to spend all day doing the thing they love doing, the thing that got them started in the industry in the first place.
Instead of fixing cars, the auto repair shop owner is dealing with hiring and firing people, negotiating with tool suppliers, and scheduling a team. Instead of designing things all day, the design studio owner is dealing with client service, project management, and sales.
Technicians as agency owners will be unhappy unless they make some changes
They’re not happy, because they can’t do the thing they want to be doing. Or, they spend all day doing the thing they like… and the business falls apart because no one’s minding the store.
That’s where the Manager mindset comes in, either by changing their expectations or hiring people to help (or both).
What’s the “Manager” type?
If you’re naturally the Manager type, you like focusing on tomorrow, and next week, and next quarter. Managers love keeping things running efficiently. They love keeping things organized. Their goal is to optimize a team to work effectively, without feeling like they need to personally do every hour of billable work themselves.
They’re likely not as good at doing what Technicians do, but that’s completely OK—Managers are there to align resources to help the Technicians produce better work. Managers should understand at least the basics of what Technicians do (enough so they can manage them), but Managers don’t have to be experts at the specific “doing.”
Typical “Manager” roles at a marketing agency
At a marketing agency, typical Manager roles include Project Manager, Creative Director, Development Lead, Operations Manager, and COO. They’re doing things like scheduling, providing mentoring feedback to junior staff members, and ensuring clients get invoiced for the work the Technicians did.
Managers are inherently less billable than Technicians (and may not bill at all)
From a billable perspective at a marketing agency, a Manager may be billing 0-50% of their time.
Client-facing manager roles tend to bill more, since things like project management, creative direction, and development coordination are easily billable, whereas internal operations are less billable. Clients get unhappy if they realize you’re charging them to send them their invoice.
This billable percentage also tends to decline as agencies get bigger and can afford more overhead, rather than drafting operations people to do billable work here and there to help cover their salaries.
Managers and Technicians don’t spend their day the same way
Once an agency grows above 5-7 people, a Creative Director should not spend all of his/her day in Photoshop.
Their job is to get great results from junior designers and copywriters, to create marketing strategies for clients, to persuade clients that the agency’s recommendations are right for them, and to help bring in new clients.
Once there are enough billable people working under them, a Manager-minded Creative Director might spend just 10-20% of their week in Adobe Creative Suite or writing client copy in their word processor of choice.
Managers spend a lot of their day in internal and external meetings. Some managers complain about meetings (and indeed, many meetings are unnecessary). But for a Manager, being in most meetings is working. Meetings are work (especially when they’re leading the meetings) because it’s a Manager’s job to coordinate people and monitor their progress.
Venture capitalist and Y-Combinator founder Paul Graham has a great article about this daily scheduling difference, on “Maker’s Schedule vs. Manager’s Schedule.” I’ve written my own take on Maker vs. Manager, too.
The #1 job for a Manager: Get results through other people
Managers organize. Managers don’t do. Their #1 job is to get results through other people.
The blind spot for a Manager: Seeing into the future
Yet the Manager type has an inherent blind spot. Although they’re great at delegating to maximize efficiency, Managers are not necessarily thinking into the future—for instance, they might optimize how the company produces something that’s no longer relevant.
There are no business rewards for being the “best-run Flash development shop” these days. That’s where the Entrepreneur type comes in.
What’s the “Entrepreneur” type?
Entrepreneurs are focused on the future. Entrepreneurs see things that don’t exist today, or that combine existing things in new ways. They’re good at rallying people to follow them, even when the destination is unclear.
In its purest form, the Entrepreneur type will have the lowest billables at their marketing agency, because they’re investing for the future by doing entirely non-billable work.
Entrepreneurs are thinking into the future—years and decades from today
While the Technician is focusing on finishing their tasks for today and the Manager is focusing on planning for next month, an Entrepreneur is thinking about what his or her company is doing five or ten years from now.
Where a Manager at a digital marketing agency might be figuring out how to deliver faster Web 2.0 sites for clients, an Entrepreneur at a digital marketing agency is thinking about how to monetize Web 3.0 or 4.0.
Entrepreneurs aren’t just thinking about new products, they’re thinking about new partnerships they can create, and they’re meeting with people outside the company who can make that happen—advisors, business contacts, and future partners. And they’re getting feedback from clients to identify new business opportunities, beyond what’s in the current project or retainer contracts.
Gerber also talks about how small businesses should act as if they were going to “franchise” their business (that is, systematize their business model so that anyone could replicate it with a basic level of training). Managers might implement the systematization, but Entrepreneurs are the ones promoting the importance of creating a modular system.
Entrepreneur-less companies grow stagnant… or die
A marketing agency without an Entrepreneur pushing them toward the future will either become stagnant… or die.
You’ve seen those agencies yourself—the ones who were recently still tout their Flash skills or who build database-driven sites in an outdated scripting language. They’re comfortable doing things the way they’ve been doing them, and they’re probably pretty efficient at doing it… but the world’s moved on and they’re in the same place.
Entrepreneurs can still be Managers, too… if they divide their time wisely
Can a Manager think like an Entrepreneur? I think so—if they block out their time appropriately, by reserving “Entrepreneur time” for thinking about the future, meeting with people that have a very long-term ROI, and having non-billable meetings with clients to learn about the clients’ still-murky unmet needs.
Many smaller agencies can’t afford for the CEO to spend all day thinking about the future. Totally understandable. But you can block out time (for instance, several days a few times a year) to unplug from the daily grind to think about the future.
And having a business coach—whether me or someone else—can help you make weekly and monthly progress on those long-term goals. Your clients are glad to call all day with demands… and your coach is glad to hold you accountable on making short-term progress on your long-term goals.
It’s easy to get stuck in the present, without someone helping you move forward
I totally understand the challenge of making time to spend time on the future while dealing with today’s demands. Your clients are glad to call you all day with requests. No one’s calling you to say, “Hey, remember to plan for five years from now.”
It’s not easy, without an accountability framework to help you make time for that focus on the future. But if you don’t start adopting some Entrepreneur mindsets in your work, you’ll be in trouble—maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but probably a year from now, and definitely a few years from now.
How can you tell whether you prefer to be a Technician, Manager, or Entrepreneur?
Look at the examples I’ve described above. Which resonates most?
If you prefer day-to-day “doing”…
If you like the day-to-day doing, you may naturally prefer to be a Technician.
This is good for billables, but bad for keeping your company organized. You’ll need to accept that you need to spend less time doing and more time managing, or else consider whether you need to delegate management or go back to working as an employee again.
If you prefer organizing others and optimizing the agency…
If you like organizing teams and maximizing efficiency, you may naturally be a Manager.
That’s good as a marketing agency owner (because you’re focusing on systems and thinking about metrics), but you’ll still need people doing billable Technician work, and you’ll need to find a way to make Entrepreneur time to plan for the future.
If you prefer thinking about where you’ll be a decade from now…
If you prefer thinking about the distant future and aren’t as concerned about day-to-day doing or organizing, you may naturally be an Entrepreneur.
That’s good from a long-term perspective, but you’ll need to be sure to recruit Technicians to do billable work and Managers to handle operations details so you don’t inadvertently go out of business a few months from now.
What if you’re worried about the answer?
Keep in mind that not everyone’s going to be happy as an agency owner. If you hate Manager work yet don’t want to get help, you’re going to be in trouble.
But that doesn’t mean you can’t adapt! Branding agency owner Dawn Hancock shared about how she gave up design (“Technician”) work to be happier at work. She noted:
I’ve said this to lots of people who want to start design firms: “What do you really want to do?” They’ll say, “I love to design.” I’ll say, “Okay, but do you really want to have a design firm? Because most people who own companies are generally not doing design work.”
There are exceptions, in those scenarios where they have someone else who’s helping them do [business operations] and that they trust. They’ll just say, “You can handle everything and I’m not going to worry about it.”
[When it comes to doing design and agency operations,] it’s really hard to try to do both and to try to do them both really well. It’s virtually impossible. One or the other, that’s the only advice I know.
[Before] I changed my perspective, I was trying to do it all, just like everybody else. I was in that place. It was not an easy transition but there was a point where I started realizing, “You’re a much better designer than I am. I couldn’t do that even if I spent a week—what you do in three hours, I could not pull that off.”
I realized I should probably really stick to the things I’m good at, which is much more about clients, the new business, and the operational side of things.
Be honest with yourself. If you want to spend 80% of your day working in Creative Suite, creating marketing strategies, doing AdWords keyword research, or tweaking CSS, you should consider working as an employee at someone else’s marketing agency rather than running your own—or else bring in people to handle the Manager and Entrepreneur work.
Next steps: What’s your biggest lesson as an agency owner?
As I mentioned at the beginning, the ideal agency owner combines a mixture of Manager and Entrepreneur mindsets. But what if you don’t see yourself there?
If you’re mostly a Technician…
If you’re mostly a Technician, that’s not automatically a problem, if you opt to delegate. A key factor comes down to how much time you want/need to spend doing day-to-day execution—if you want to do Technician work while continuing to own a marketing agency, you’ll need to recruit people to help.
If you’re mostly a Manager…
If you’re mostly a Manager, you’ll need Technicians to do billable work, and someone to remind you about regularly making time to think like an Entrepreneur.
If you’re mostly an Entrepreneur…
If you’re mostly an Entrepreneur, you need the Technicians for billable work, plus someone to handle day-to-day Manager work to keep things running smoothly.
Moving forward from here
Self-awareness is the first step. If you like this information, read Michael Gerber’s The E-Myth Revisited to draw your own conclusions. In the meantime, subscribe to my email newsletter for fresh agency business tips twice a week.
Question: Is your owner personality type naturally a Technician, Manager, or Entrepreneur?