10 Lessons Learned in 20 Years Building an Agency


Recently One Smooth Stone celebrated a pretty big milestone: 20 years in business. And we have a lot to be happy about. We’ve become a home where people can become their best selves. We’ve helped companies such as A.T. Kearney, Gartner, McDonald’s, and United Airlines support their growth strategies with events and communications. As cofounder, I’ve also been feeling a little reflective. When you reach a milestone like this one, you naturally ask, what have I learned in all these years? What lessons will help me and One Smooth Stone succeed 20 years from now? I’ve summarized 10 of those lessons here.

The first three on the list are especially noteworthy because they were also assumptions upon which our agency was founded, and I learned that they were the correct ones:

  1. The Right People Make All the Difference

We founded One Smooth Stone knowing that people make a culture. So we’ve always been very choosy about hiring the right people and then developing them.

The right people need to have the necessary skills, yes, but they also need to share our values, which we openly share on our website: being smart, fast, and kind. We make clear those values during our interview process so that potential hires understand us, and we use those values as a critical litmus test to assess for potential fit. I’ve learned to be slow and deliberate about hiring. It’s better to be patient and hire the right person.

Once someone becomes a Stonie, we develop their skills and leadership talents through a mentoring program for more junior employees and a leadership program as employees stay with us. The mentoring program gives employees a coach to assist the employee’s supervisor so that each person always has someone in their corner.

Hiring for cultural fit and then developing talent is not only the right thing to do, it’s a successful approach. Clients respond to a strong culture. They can sense when your team is cohesive and focused. A strong culture creates strong relationships inside and outside One Smooth Stone.

  1. Invest in Your Brand

As an events and communications agency, we’re supposed to know how to make our clients’ brands shine. It’s important to set the example by investing in our brand.

Our approach from the start has been to build a brand that tells a story, starting with our name: One Smooth Stone. When people first hear our name, inevitably they ask where it came from. We chose the name from one of history’s greatest underdog stories, in which David defeated Goliath with one smooth stone launched from a sling, as told in the book of 1 Samuel.

The story has always resonated for many reasons. When we launched One Smooth Stone in 1995, we were a brand new company coming from out of nowhere. We were a David fighting many Goliaths. Like David, we were, and continue to be, in a high-risk arena: there is no do-over with live events. You get one shot to get it right.

And we’ve always borrowed from David’s playbook to succeed: applying the precise tools that will yield the strongest results. David chose five smooth stones from a brook before he squared off against Goliath. He needed only one.

A brand isn’t a one-shot investment. We chose the right name for us, but over the years, we’ve changed how we build equity around that name, including a major revamping of our visual identity in 2015. Bottom line: times may change, but a strong brand endures.

  1. Be Ahead of the Curve with Technology

I am a techie geek. Technology either automates or eases up task making, which can free you up to do more strategic things. We’ve always believed in supporting our people with the right technology to help them communicate and collaborate from far-flung locations. So long ago, we jumped on the best technology-based tools such as voice-over Internet protocol and sharing information on the cloud. When the smart phone revolution occurred and cloud sharing really became popular with our clients and across our industry, we didn’t need to change the way we do business. We were already there.

A willingness to invest in technology has put us in the right mindset to apply technology for our clients, too. Tackling challenges such as incorporating new technologies into an event experience is not intimidating to us because we do so inside One Smooth Stone.

People. Brand. Technology. Those are the three foundations of our business, and over the years I’ve learned we chose the right ones. I’ve also learned some additional lessons:

  1. Aesthetics Matter

Aesthetics make the first impression. When you write a proposal, it had better look great. You better look great when walking into a meeting. The appearance of our headquarters creates an impression (which is why we always have nice flowers out front during the summer months). You need to get the aesthetic details right to make a first impression that endures.

  1. Nothing Lasts Forever

We love our clients and strive to build long-lasting relationships. But after enduring a number of economic downturns, I know relationships don’t always last — which is not necessarily bad. I’ll tell you what’s bad: getting so secure in a relationship that you become complacent. It’s healthy to accept change and move on.

  1. Live within Your Means

Don’t take on more work than you can do. Don’t take on excessive debt. Don’t overcommit to expensive assets. When you exercise discipline with your operations, you are resilient and flexible. Living beyond your means results in disappointed clients and, ultimately, unhappy employees.

  1. Written Words Have Power, Even in the Visual Age

Good writing is both an aesthetic and a window to your soul. Good writing communicates intelligence and emotion. It helps your brand. I’m frequently disappointed by writing I see from college students today, probably because they’ve been influenced by so much short-form texting and tweeting. The world of texting and shortcutting does not lend itself to a well-crafted email or an executive brief or a proposal. If you write well, you can hold an audience.

  1. Pay Attention to Politics

Being political doesn’t mean being Machiavellian. Being political means understanding an organization’s structure and oftentimes unspoken rules for getting along — and then finding the right lane where you can build a relationship. Not paying attention to politics means burying your head in the sand and failing to read relationships properly.

  1. Never Stop Networking

Everything comes down to networking — offline and online. Your sustainability comes down to the relationships you build — to support what you are doing and to give you the opportunities to support others. And supporting others is an often-overlooked rule of networking. You won’t be a very successful networker if you don’t give something.

  1. Bet on the Right Risk

Successful entrepreneurs have a skill to see opportunity and own it. They eliminate liabilities and turn the “good” risk into a profitable business. I’ve always trusted my instinct on knowing which is which but have found there is a careful balance of instinct and data to guide me. Don’t ever discount your gut instinct, but you can’t afford to make decisions without knowing what’s real.

At One Smooth Stone, we care very much about being stewards for our brand. We care passionately about what the next 20 years will bring, and the next 20 after that. We hope that when a future Stonie decides to do a “what I learned in the past 20 years” post, they’ll feel like they might have learned a little something from a couple of guys who had this idea for a new kind of events and communications firm back in 1995.

What are your lessons learned?

For a complimentary 30-minute consultation on how to build your brand and inspire an audience through events and communications, please contact Brian Duffy by calling 630.427.4235 or by emailing bduffy@onesmoothstone.com


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