As an interactive agency owner, there are many events and observations that happen in my life outside work that remind me of my life at the office. Such an event happened on May 31st when I ran the Timberline half marathon.
I’d never run a half marathon before. In fact, I only started running about two years ago… in high school I was a swimmer, and as an adult I’ve ridden bikes and slid down mountains on a snowboard, but nothing like repeatedly putting one foot in front of the other in rapid succession. Well, sometimes rapid succession. For my first half marathon I couldn’t do a standard, 13.1 mile road run – it had to be a 14.4 mile loop around Timothy Lake, a beautiful trail east of Government Camp on Mt. Hood.
The race was challenging, exhausting, beautiful, stressful, and exhilarating – all of the same emotions we go through as business owners. So it seemed only natural to draw the parallels between running a half marathon and running an interactive agency.
Set a BHAG (Big Hairy Audacious Goal)
Without setting BHAGs, we aim lower, we don’t push ourselves as hard, and we accept mediocre results. Big Hairy Audacious Goals make us work harder, do better, and strive beyond our comfort zone. For me, running a half marathon was something to train for well beyond my comfort zone of running 4 – 6 miles at a time. The same goes for running an agency… starting it, setting annual and long-term business goals, goals for each project… setting higher expectations means we must do better at everything we do in order to accomplish them.
Not everyone is crazy enough to do it
Not everyone has the energy, the courage, or the lack of better judgement to run a trail half marathon. Same goes for running an interactive agency. It’s not for everyone; some people are a bit too sane to go down this path. But sometimes an absence of better judgement makes you do something outside your comfort zone.
Don’t judge yourself against others
There were a lot of people participating in the half marathon. Different genders, shapes, and sizes; all sorts of shoes, clothing, and accessories. I learned when I first started running that judging another runner is wrong, and measuring yourself against other runners is wasted energy. ANYONE who has the drive and willpower to run deserves respect, not judgement. Because for many, running is simply one method to live a more active and healthy life. It could be anything – doing yoga, writing, growing your own vegetables – it’s way easier to NOT do something than to do something. When I see someone out running, I remember how painful it was when I first started. And I realize there are so many runners who can run faster and farther than me. When I was standing at the starting line for the Timberline half marathon, I knew better than to compare myself to anyone else. The exact same thing applies to running an interactive agency. I now know better than to judge our wins over another agency’s wins, or client list, or size, or interactive solutions. We are different agencies, with different goals, different numbers of employees, different methods of working, and different specialties. Which leads to Number Four…
Compete against yourself first
There were several hundred people running the Timberline half marathon. I knew damn well I wasn’t the fastest one overall, in my gender category, or even in my age group. But I set a personal goal for what I wanted to do. Could I even complete the course? (Yes.) Could I do it in the amount of time I set for myself (2 hours – nope.) As an interactive agency, we compete all the time against other agencies: for clients, for talent, and for thought leadership. But we’re not really competing against other agencies. We’re competing against ourselves on proposing the most appropriate and attractive solution, or creating a great work environment, or taking the time to think, write, and act. Sometimes other agencies win a project over us, or have a work environment more attractive for a certain type of employee, or publish more. It’s up to us to do better than what we did before, not compared to others, but compared to ourselves. We’re our own harshest critic and hardest competition.
At one point in the run, I tried chewing one of those Clif Bar shot bloks. When I did my training runs on pavement, it was easy to pop one in my mouth and kind of suck on it while I was running. But on the trail, I was breathing harder, focusing on the rocks and roots, and my mouth was so dry it kind of got stuck in my throat. I started to panic: what if I can’t swallow it? What if I choke? I had to calm myself down and realize it wasn’t a big deal, I could spit it out, or I could actually just stop for a second and finish chewing it. My second point of panic was when I got a cramp in my side. What if it doesn’t go away? Again, realizing that I was panicking was the key to relaxing and letting the cramp go away. My third panic point was when the trail forked and I didn’t know if I was going the right way. I could kind of make out someone in front of me, and I think someone followed me, but were we on the right path? After a minute or two, the trail met back up with the one it forked from and I realized either way I would have ended up at the same place. The same thing can happen when running an agency. Do we have enough work coming in? Do we want to work with that prospective client or maybe not? Do we have enough staff to get everything done? Is our office space too big, or too small? While not necessarily panic, they are things to worry about, and worrying about things can take your focus off of what you’re really trying to do: create great interactive solutions. So… breathe deeply, know that others have gone through the same things you’re going through, and don’t panic! You never make the best decisions or perform well when you’re panicking.
Keep your eyes on the trail, but also on what’s ahead
Running on the road, while challenging from an endurance and fitness standpoint, is fairly predictable from a terrain standpoint. It’s asphalt or concrete, and generally smooth. A trail, however, twists and turns. Roots, rocks and branches appear out of nowhere. It can pitch and yaw, send you at a breakneck pace downhill, and force you to practically be on your hands and knees climbing the steep parts. You have to constantly be checking your footing, looking several yards ahead to know where to plant your feet, and searching 10-15 yards ahead – if you can see that far – to know what’s coming next. Running an interactive agency isn’t like running on pavement (or if it is, as soon as you start daydreaming you’ll get hit by a bus.) You have to know what’s going on today, what’s coming up tomorrow, and where you’re going in the upcoming weeks/months/years. The footing is uncertain, the future is hard to see, and the unexpected can put you on our ass. Knowing what is going on today from an employee and project standpoint is crucial in setting yourself up for success tomorrow. Looking ahead a few weeks means preparing for both the expected and the unexpected. And envisioning your future creates a vision and path to follow in order to make it a reality.
There’s always room for improvement
Prior to two years ago, I never ran. Well, I never ran for exercise. So when I started, I started slow. I had to walk after a mile in. I had to stop and catch my breath. I could only go for a couple miles, and they were slow miles. Gradually, very gradually, I got faster. I went farther. I felt stronger. Not every day had those results – some days I felt slow, sluggish, and weak. Some days I didn’t even want to go out running. But I knew those days, the days I didn’t feel like I even wanted to lace up my shoes, those were the days that mattered the most. Those were the days I could improve, both mentally and physically. And now that I’ve done my first half marathon, I realize there’s plenty of room for improvement for the next one – how to train, what to eat, how to pace myself, how to prepare mentally…
There’s plenty of room for improvement in running an interactive agency as well. I’m constantly learning how to manage the business, projects, people, and expectations. I’m constantly improving my design abilities. I’m always working on how to explain why we do what we do, what we do, who we work with, and how we help our clients. The days I improve the most are usually the days that challenge me the most.
Enjoy the ride
Running 14.4 miles isn’t all fun and games. There were points where I wanted to just stop. But as I was running along the trail and the forest opened up, revealing Timothy Lake, warmed by the sun and cooled by the mountain air, that was the point where I understood it doesn’t have to be all suffer-fest. I could enjoy the experience, not just despite but because of all its challenges, obstacles, and exertion.
Running an interactive agency isn’t all rainbows and lollipops. Some days are hard. But some days, when we launch a site, welcome a new client, invite someone to join our team, show off the amazing thinking and projects created by the people who work here, or something as minor as standing around in the kitchen on a Friday afternoon sharing beers and laughs, those are the things that remind us why we do what we do. Enjoy the ride, for all its challenges and rewards, because if it wasn’t hard it wouldn’t be worth doing. And if it wasn’t fun it wouldn’t be worth doing, either.
1. Set a BHAG (Big Hairy Audacious Goal)
2. Not everyone is crazy enough to do it
3. Don’t judge yourself against others
4. Compete against yourself first
5. Don’t panic!
6. Keep your eyes on the trail, but also on what’s ahead
7. There’s always room for improvement
8. Enjoy the ride
See you next year at the Timberline half marathon. We can talk about running and interactive agencies, but preferably we’ll do it after the race, with beers in our hands and medals draped around our necks.