I talk to agency founder Fredric Örup. He shares how documented agency processes have helped his companies make smarter decisions. It’s all about understanding what information you need to make better calls, he says.
Before we dive into the topic of agency processes, I ask Fredric about his background. He’s done and does many different things. I’ve known him for 8 years or so and much has happened since we first met.
He’s currently the co-owner of two companies. Stormfors, an agency specializing in building e-commerce sites on the Salesforce Commerce Cloud Platform for B2B businesses. He’s also a co-founder of Leadfront, a consultancy that supports its clients in digitalizing marketing and sales.
Fredric tells me his interest in the “world wide web” (as it was still called back then) began in 1994 or 1995. He recalls printing out HTML page source code and marking it up using a highlighter to learn the syntax. That’s how he learned to build web pages. He says he loved how the web made it possible to post things that others could access and view.
Prototyping a Smartphone in the Year 2000
His interest in the web and digital technology influenced his higher studies too. Fredric wrote his thesis (for an engineering degree in multimedia technology) based on a project at mobile communications company Ericsson. It looked into ways of using 3G mobile communication technology. 3G back then was exciting, but the real potential wasn’t really clear to most people.
Fredric describes how he and his fellow thesis students developed a device concept similar to today’s smartphones. They envisioned AI assistants and high-resolution touchscreens. Unfortunately, Ericsson didn’t take it further. Perhaps it was just too ahead of its time.
After earning his degree he went on to work for IKEA. He was on their multimedia team developing customer-facing applications for their stores. After another stint at Ericsson, he returned to his native Stockholm, Sweden, and joined an agency. His time at the agency didn’t last long. But Fredric made some important friends and connections during those years. People that have been part of his professional life ever since.
Chasing the Housing Market Crash in Warm and Sunny Spain
The agency life and the 2001 dot-com crash had Fredric reconsider his career choices. Drawn by the climate, the food and the pace of life, he chose to move to Spain to work as a real-estate agent. That’s where he discovered his passion for relationship-based selling. It was something vastly different from the ABC hustling that many associate with the word. Fredric’s real-estate seller colleagues jokingly referred to it as “wine, dine and sign.”
Fredric stayed in Spain until the housing market crash of 2008 before returning to Sweden. He eventually co-founded Stormfors. The agency originally focused on Drupal (an open source CMS) and saw B2B companies as their primary clients.
It was in the following years that I got to know Fredric and his co-founders. My agency used the same CMS and technologies. We were competitors, technically speaking. But we all knew that the smartest thing to do was to grow the pond, not fight over it. We co-organized events and conferences together to help our technologies gain more ground.
Over the following years, Stormfors’s B2B focus sharpened. A few years ago, they split off their marketing automation team as its own company: Leadfront.
This long and broad background made me interested in hearing about Fredric’s experiences with building scalable processes.
When Did You Start Being Interested in Processes?
I get the sense that a part of Fredric always knew how important agency processes are but he hasn’t always followed that inner voice.
“In the beginning when you start an agency, you very much want to work according to processes. Problem is, you usually don’t. You take on work and then do the job, simply because it’s easier than following a process. But you eventually realize that everything gets extremely difficult without following a process.”
Fredric says that while he’s a fan of processes now, that wasn’t always the case: “It took me way too long… I mean waaaaay too long to learn that the key to everything is having a process. Now that process may not be perfect but at least it’s something you can develop. If everything is done ad hoc, then you have nothing to develop since you will not know afterward what it was you actually did.”
Not a “Process Person” But Loves to Hire Them
Fredric describes himself as someone who is not a “process person.” He says he thinks that’s why he works so hard to find talented project managers. In his view, being able to design and work according to established procedures is a hallmark of a great project manager.
During a moment of introspection, he says his “FOMO personality” (fear of missing out) is probably one of the reasons why he’s come to embrace processes. He finds it difficult to say “no” to things. Processes are a support and provide a framework for him. They help him prioritize and be more effective.
What Are the Greatest Challenges When it Comes to Agency Processes?
“Finding the process and the way of working that fit you and your company best, “ Fredric answers. Perfect is the enemy of good when it comes to agency processes. “You might think that you can come up with a perfect process. You never will. But you will iterate to find ways to act when the outcome isn’t what you expected.” The important thing is that you start defining processes, even if it’s to a limited extent. Many never even do that.
Why You Can’t Force Agency Processes on Your Teams and Why You Should Co-Create Them Instead
Many people associate agency processes with management. They view them as something that someone dictates. Fredric says that rarely works: “You can force the processes you like on a team and try to get buy-in from them… but that is rarely the best way to implement a process. My advice is that you’re more agile and involve the team in creating the processes. That will work so much better than just inviting the team to a presentation titled ‘This is how we will work’”
Fredric recommends running workshops during which the team discusses possible scenarios: “What happens if the customer calls and something doesn’t work? Whose responsibility is that? If you’re not at work, who takes care of it?”
He says these kinds of exercises build a sense of ownership and creates buy-in by the team. More importantly, it fosters a sense of client-ownership and accountability to the clients. One thing he has discovered is that bringing developers to client meetings contributes much to achieve this. When the client trusts your developers, “the circle is complete.”
Process Ownership Helps Attract Great Team Members
Big companies have pre-defined ways of working. They can only hire people that buy the existing processes and commit to them a 100%. A small company, on the other hand, has the advantage of being more flexible. It can give team members real influence over how they work. Teams can shape agency processes, creating a stronger sense of ownership.
Still, even so, Fredric says that having agency processes in place is something that prospective employees value. Showing that you have defined and documented methods and processes is a key part of successfully recruiting new team members. It’s also a way to check the cultural fit to ensure they’ll feel at home in your company.
Having Agency Processes Impresses Prospective Clients
Prospective employees aren’t the only ones who find agency processes appealing. Fredric says that even in selling, showing that you have established processes does matter. Prospective clients are impressed to see even a small business, such as an agency, operating in a pre-defined manner. It reduces the sense of risk and the fear buyers feel when considering working with a smaller agency.
Are Processes the Enemy of True Creativity?
At this point during our conversation, we approach a common dilemma of growing creative companies: the desire to bring order while staying creative.
In my view, this is often a false dichotomy. Agency processes don’t oppose creativity. On the contrary, great work is often done when there are constraints in place.
I ask Fredric if lack of order creates freedom.
“Knowing the current status of things creates the freedom to think about anything else other than what’s right in front of you,” Fredric answers.
“There’s no freedom in having to think about everything at once. As an employee, not having processes can be perceived as being able to do a little of everything. But in reality, all it does is causing conflict. People get disappointed. The client gets disappointed. You get annoyed with colleagues when things aren’t done right. It creates a bad mood,” he explains.
In other words, lack of order doesn’t create freedom, it only causes dissent.
“I believe agency processes are important for creating stability within an agency and building culture,” Fredric adds.
Defining Agency Processes for Creative Work Is a Major Challenge
Processes can, in fact, help you be more creative. Even so, Fredric says that when it comes to agencies, defining processes for creative work is extra challenging.
“In my experience creative people such as designers, copywriters and illustrators have a clear idea and they want to work with it until it’s done and ‘out there’,” Fredric says.
He says it can be hard to fit that kind of work mode into agile sprints and iterative improvements. According to Fredric, you need to create space for creative individuals to come up with ideas since creativity comes in bursts and rarely on command.
Once you have something to show the client, you need an iterative process for revisions, Fredric says. But you never know when the new revision will be ready. In his experience, it doesn’t run like a clock, such as when writing code in sprints.
The Myth of the Flat and Process-Free Organization
The “flat organization” is often mentioned in the same sentence as the term “creative organization.” Fredric tells me during our interview about someone who approached him with an idea in this vein: the prospect of the organization without hierarchies.
In theory, it sounds wonderful. I think we both agree on that. But in practice, there will always be informal leaders – people others refer to for judgment and decisions. Similarly, all organizations have processes, but in small ones, they remain informal.
Fredric gives an example: “If you’re a small company then you’re like a guerrilla team, you have informal communication, everyone knows what they’re supposed to. Everyone talks to everyone to solve complex problems… You can liken it to a small military unit that operates on its own and solves problems together. And that works, when you’re that few.”
“But when you grow to 50 or 100 you need to re-organize, to a platoon or company. Structures work differently. You can’t make 5,000 make the right decision at the right time… all this requires formal structures and processes.”
Many Companies Put the Cart Before the Horse When It Comes to Processes
It’s surprisingly common that companies start thinking about processes when they look into process-supporting software, Fredric says. But that’s putting the cart before the horse.
Fredric has seen several examples of this. He says that at Leadfront, they often see clients look into buying systems to fix their processes without knowing what their processes are: “But it’s the total opposite!,” he exclaims, and continues:” First you document your processes: How do you work? How did you work? How do you want to work? Try it out manually first before buying a system that automates or facilitates that way of working.”
He says one way to find systems that fit is to simply try lots of them and see what sticks. That’s how his two companies have come to use Google’s G Suite of email and office applications. Similarly, it’s also how their developers found a tool for documenting code that worked for them.
Fredric says the number one challenge of those that build and sell process-supporting tools and systems is on-boarding: helping the customer start using the system. It’s easy to buy a system, hard to start using it.
How an Improved Sales Process Helped Fredric’s Consultancy Make Vastly Better Marketing Decisions
I ask Fredric about his favorite example of when adopting a process has made a huge difference. He tells me about when one of his companies, Leadfront, decided to adopt a defined sales process. He says that what’s made it such a success is that it’s been a team effort. “Everyone provided input,” Fredric explains. He says that it has resulted in buy-in from everyone at the company.
They started with one of the established ways of building a sales process. One of those you find in books and articles on sales pipelines and processes. Then they adopted it to their specific circumstances and size of their company.
Working together, they put a lot of focus on how they wanted to measure their success. “How do we want to measure that we’re making progress in our process?” was the question they asked.
What Information Do We Need to Make Better Decisions?
Their starting point was the metrics or KPIs (key performance indicators) they needed. The next step was to design the process based on those metrics. That enabled Leadfront to measure all stages of the process.
The team asked questions such as: “What in this sales pipeline do we want to measure? What are the necessary steps? What progressions between steps do we want to measure?”
It was the need for information to make better decisions in all parts of the company that informed the design of the process. By starting with the information they needed, they could design a process that served operations as well as strategy.
Having a Process Everyone Knows Creates a Sense of Comfort
I ask Fredric what the result is, he says “a sense of comfort.” Everyone knows the state of things. They have a common language to talk about leads conversions from marketing to sales. There’s an agreed-on way in the company how to define and measure it. This makes ROI (return on investment) so much clearer to them.
As a company with B2B clients, they’re used to long sales cycles. Being able to break down these multiple year-long cycles into smaller steps means they can measure progress at a much more granular level. They get earlier and more frequent feedback. That helps them make better sales and marketing decisions.
All thanks to a better process.
Fredric’s Top Tips to Agencies Looking to Improve Their Agency Processes
1. Get Started Documenting How You Do Things, Whether You Want to Or Not
“Even if you don’t think you have a process, start documenting how you do things,” Fredric advises. He says all projects have things in common and it’s only by documenting your work that you will discover what those are. That will provide a foundation and a starting pointing. You can always develop and improve your process later.
2. Don’t Start By Getting Too Theoretical and Adopting Someone Else’s Agency Process
Fredric says he made this mistake early. The error was assuming that adopting documented processes required passing certifications and understanding complex project planning models. “You start drawing this huge process on your conference room whiteboard and then you try to follow it by adopting reality to it. No. It’s the other way round: Start by looking at how you actually work and develop that, the rest will follow naturally… don’t go top-down, instead go bottom-up,” he advises.
3. Think About Scenarios Together With the Entire Team
Bring your entire team together in a workshop and discuss why you need agency processes and what you want to achieve. Make a list of common scenarios that you’ve either experienced or consider likely and design the process to handle them.
Try asking questions such as:
- What happens if a client calls and something doesn’t work?
- Whose responsibility is that?
- If you’re not at work, who takes care of it?
4. Start Where You Are and Create the Habit of Process-Building
Adopting an agency process is an evolution, not a revolution. Create the habit of always looking into sustainable and repeatable ways to improve your ways of working. Do what fits your culture and goals. Just because something worked for another company doesn’t mean it’s right for you, Fredric cautions.
About Fredric Örup, Leadfront and Stormfors
Fredric is the co-owner of two companies. Leadfront, a consultancy specializing in supporting B2B companies in digitalizing marketing and sales. Stormfors is an agency that builds e-commerce websites for B2B clients on the Salesforce Commerce Cloud Platform. You can read more about Fredric on his Linkedin profile and reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.