Shannon Litton | Crain's Nashville

In this ongoing series, we ask executives, entrepreneurs and business leaders about mistakes that have shaped their business philosophy.

Shannon Litton

Background:  

Focusing on organizations and companies driven by change, 5by5 Agency delivers marketing strategies and story-telling tools to clients like the Nashville Rescue Mission, LifeWay and Upward Sports. The Brentwood-based agency takes its name from the military term "five by five," which denotes excellent signal strength and perfect clarity.

The Mistake:

I have been in the agency business for about 17 years, and this is the third agency that I've owned. The one mistake that stands out to me, because it was so significant when we fixed it, was not investing in sales early on.

At the first agency that I owned, we had grown every year for about five or six years and we plateaued. I went to work trying to figure it out and read all of the business growth books.

I really figured out that we had capped because we were doing the maximum amount of business that the partners could manage and be involved in every transaction, especially at the beginning of the sales process.

When we looked at that and realized we had to fix that model, over the next six months we hired our first business development position. We put business development processes into place and invested in sales materials and all the pieces that we didn't have. It was a conversation in a day when we decided that the one thing we had to invest in was building a sales team and a sales process.

After years of growth, we were very surprised that growth had stalled for us. It was a lot of research and trying to figure out what it was. We were blaming things on the economy. It really just became clear to us that sales don’t just happen. We had done it very organically, and there's a point in growth you can get to when you're building off of relationships and word of mouth – but we had capped that.

The next year, we went back into double-digit growth and had our significant growth years those next three years. It changed our business significantly.

After years of growth, we were very surprised that growth had stalled for us.

The Lesson:

When we started our second agency, the very first hire we made other than the partners was someone who was focused on business development. We have seen 50 percent growth year-over-year during the four years that we've had this agency, and I attribute a lot of that success to going to investment sales early on.

It's really hard to invest in sales when you're a small business. You look at a salesperson's salary. It's funny as a marketing agency to say that we weren't investing in marketing, but we weren't.

It was the very first thing that we invested in when we started this business. We've probably had more sales processes and systems than any six-month-old company when we started years ago just because we knew it was critical.

We have now created a culture where everybody is involved in business development. We often remind everybody that our director of business development's job isn't to go out and find new business, as much as it is to close the business that we find. That's been an important shift for us.

Follow 5by5 Agency on Twitter at: @5by5agency

Pictured: Shannon Litton | Photo courtesy of Daniel C. White Photography.

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