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Five Lessons We Learned from Starting Our Agency

Ed Moed and Ted Birkhahn

Hot Paper Lantern is celebrating its fifth anniversary this month. Usually, we don’t make much of these milestones, but it is a moment to reflect on lessons learned and look forward to the next five.  

When asked to describe the last five years, the words that immediately come to mind include exhilarating, expecting the unexpected, rewarding and unapologetic, which is likely how most entrepreneurs describe their first few years in business.  

In just five years, we launched a new agency, created a new model, managed through a pandemic, won scores of new clients, survived a life-threatening disease and generated ample industry recognition of our work. We also learned a lot of tough lessons.

But what we cherish the most is the ability to build something with people we trust and respect. Being in the trenches every day with dedicated and talented professionals is a form of medicine that inspires, educates and feeds the soul.

So, with great gratitude and humility, we share these lessons learned from the last five years as we look ahead to the future.

Lesson 1: Build a Strong Culture and Team

In the agency world, culture is everything. It enables smaller firms to punch above their weight by attracting and retaining the best talent. Success hinges on finding great people and holding onto them by providing an environment that fosters risk-taking, growth and recognition. Finding the right mix of temperament, skill and ambition ensures compatibility, complementary strengths and a more well-rounded team. This becomes particularly important as clients require a mix of practitioners, data scientists and technologists to deliver a combination of services and solutions to address their marketing and communications needs.  

Lesson 2: Play the Long Game

Our industry is about building relationships – with clients, media, marketing partners and industry professionals. To cultivate strong relationships, you must give more than you get. This includes investing in relationships because you care, not because you want them to return the favor. It requires clear and consistent communication, reliability, delivering on promises and building trust. The net effect of networking produces strong relationships that compound over time and return massive value to you and the business.

Lesson 3: Prioritize to Maximize Results

The sheer number of daily activities, expectations and deliverables is daunting – from managing clients to overseeing projects to handling finances. It becomes manageable and you become more effective when you prioritize based on what’s most important to your business and people. This also means setting realistic goals, delegating tasks when necessary, and maintaining a healthy work-life balance. By managing your time well, you can ensure that your business continues to overcome hurdles and allows it to stay the course. And, you always have both eyes focused on results that matter.

Lesson 4: Adaptability is Key

Being adaptable and nimble is one of our biggest lessons during the first five years. The agency landscape constantly changes with new technologies, trends, competitors, and strategies frequently emerging. Being flexible and willing to adapt to change is crucial to staying ahead of the game. This means being open-minded and realistic about the agency’s strengths and weaknesses, seeking new opportunities, continuously learning and being resilient in the face of adversity.

Lesson 5: The Importance of Continuous Learning

Our conclusion is the fifth and final lesson because it applies to all aspects of life and work: Expect the unexpected to happen. When we started HPL, in our wildest dreams, we never thought we’d have to survive a pandemic. It was crushing. We were scared, confused and uncertain about how to move forward.  

But we did. We improvised, experimented, hustled and made many mistakes along the way. It taught us that you can’t plan for everything and reinforced the importance of the four previous lessons, which helped us move on to fight another day.

Regardless of how big or small, thank you to everyone who joined us on this journey – we are grateful. And we are excited to tackle whatever comes next.