Scale-up Your Startup

Your 5-minute guide to finding the right agency partner

BY: Mark Thien, Senior Director of Solutions and Brand Expansions

While young executives can be uncomfortable with risk, the next level often requires exactly that—risk. And with it come new demands.

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 Rings,” “Mrs. 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. In fact, it was only after securing his first mobile client contract 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 is great for business, you’re partially correct. But it’s more important for early-stage companies to fuel their future with well-focused leadership, 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. Find Someone Who Thinks Like You

Our company started back in 2001. 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 National 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.

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. Which is why it’s a dynamic case study—see for yourself.                                                                                                                      

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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Mark Thien is our Senior Director of Solutions and Brand Expansions at iostudio—boasting major sales experience in media, marketing and advertising. Quintessentially, he’s our foremost expert in growing businesses, great and small. (Just ask for his client history.) Oh! And did we mention the nonprofit he founded to clean rivers, streams and lakes? He did that. Mark’s gift for listening is only matched by his gift for ideas. So talk with our entrepreneurial business guru, who loves the outdoors almost as much as he loves clients. Almost.