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Scale Up Your Startup

Your 5-minute guide to finding the right agency partner

One of the most enterprising people I know is Tom Morales, CEO of TomKats, a multifaceted hospitality company based in our hometown of Nashville, Tennessee.

In the 1990s, Morales established TomKats as a preferred catering company for the entertainment industry. With Lord of the RingsMrs. Doubtfire and Groundhog Day all on his catering highlight reel, it’s hard to imagine any point when TomKats was hungry for business. He was even profiled in Food & Wine magazine.

Still, in his earliest years, Morales sought to pivot his one-man catering operation into a mobile catering company—even though he had no truck and no staff. He marketed his concept as a working business and soon found his way into a contract. It was only after securing that first mobile client that Tom purchased a retired taco truck, repainting it with “TomKats Catering Truck #3.” Overnight, his operation was legit.

While young executives can be uncomfortable with risk, the next level often requires exactly that: risk. And with it come new demands, like business efficiencies, advanced marketing and software integrations. So if you’re a young and growing business on the verge of scaling (or launching), here are four things to consider when seeking a partner to help grow your brand.

1. Know fully what you’re buying.

We often hear of young companies dropping $50,000 to $200,000 on branding their new company, expecting that a great look will produce revenue in spades. We can’t say this loudly enough: Branding is not sales. Branding can aid—but never replace—dynamic, revenue-generating activity.

If you think a great logo and brand personality are great for business, you’re partially correct. But it’s more important for early-stage companies to fuel their future with well-focused leadership, super-solid strategy, white-glove customer response, and flawless products and logistics that deliver every time. If your agency partner suggests any of the above are not ready for prime time, lean into the discussion. Your business likely needs more than new brand work.

Regardless of the services your agency partner provides, always convey what you expect as deliverables. Don’t assume they know. Put it in writing. Clarify the differences between sales, conversion initiatives and branding. And be sure to note how and what you expect from each of these activities.

2. Find a collaborative partner.

Sometimes the math just doesn’t work. An agency’s upfront costs may exceed your comfort level or cash flow. And from an agency perspective, your budget may not be enough to wind the clock. So you need to be strategic in finding the right partner.

Strong agency partners are similarly interested in your success, so consider agencies that are skilled at mapping out your entire universe of needs—and willing to implement in phases, not waterfalls. This will require them to solve your problems with thoughtful, enterprising approaches. The best agencies welcome this.

3. Don’t skimp on strategy.

Our company started back in 1997. Three partners on a borrowed couch, connecting to the outside world via a single internet cable, landed their first project: a poster for the Army National Guard. After decades of federal contracting with the Guard, Department of Defense, U.S. Navy and Army (just to name-drop a little), we’ve developed an efficiency model that supports the startup market perfectly. Because handling public assets, funded by hard-working Americans, requires abundant ROI.

That niche also requires skillful strategy, which is one area we don’t skimp on. While some small businesses might do fine to hire a designer friend to punch out a logo, you cannot reach that next level of business without a functional strategy. Your approach to market—and all related activities—must be well-reasoned and well-researched in order to make your expectation a reality. And that requires proper investment in strategy.

One of our favorite clients is Kekoa Defense, a global provider of supplies and services to the U.S. Department of Defense. The family-owned business in Burns, Tennessee, shares our agency interests: family, service and national security. (Almost half of our employees serve or have served in the United States military.) For Kekoa, our subject matter expertise allowed us to employ smart efficiencies that maximized their ROI, extended their budget and launched their new brand with speed in just 45 days.

4. When it’s time, invest.

Remember how Morales struck when his business opportunity arrived? Sometimes, we see growth-stage clients who manage their own growth nearly to the point of buckling—with their dreams outpacing their means. Eventually, they search for an agency partner, enjoy an exploratory meeting or two. They may even field a sensible rollout plan. But then they freeze over the next steps.

One of our founding partners’ mantra is: “Hire talented people you can trust and stay out of their way.” If you’ve followed the first three points, then No. 4 should be a breeze. When the opportunity presents itself, have confidence in your decision and your team. Hire an awesome agency partner, follow our lead and achieve.

If you’re stuck in a stairwell but ready for next steps, send your distress call here.

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