When is it the right time to grow your small agency? [+ podcast]
Stratfords is a family-run agency that has successfully relied on organic growth for many years - but now recognises that it needs to actively grow to survive, as explained by Luke Thirkettle, Director of the agency.
Since the beginning, our main growth at Stratfords has been organic - a new landlord here and there, or existing landlords that buy a few more houses. We've never had to do much advertising, it's always been a lot of repeat business. A large proportion of our landlords, we either know well personally, or they've been recommended by someone that we know.
However, we realised that we couldn't rely on those recommendations forever. We were starting to take on staff - growing from the three-person team of me, my mum, and my dad - because we got to the point where we needed more help. Technology came along as well in a similar timeframe, making everything paperless or cloud based - and a lot easier.
We were starting to see more of a balance in activity levels between the sales and lettings sides of the business in the last few years and, with our new staff in place, I had more time to focus on the big picture stuff, rather than just keeping everything running. All of this meant that it was time to consider actively growing our agency.
The first acquisition
Acquisitions are of course the best way an agency can get meaningful, short-term growth. Every day, I read more industry news about another acquisition here, another one there. I felt that if we didn't do something, we could be one of the agencies that gets snapped up by a bigger group.
We'd been keeping an ear to the ground for any opportunities that might come up. We quickly realised that one of the central challenges for small businesses is getting the funding to do acquisitions and that you really need to use the connections that you've made over the years.
When we first started looking around, by the time we'd asked for some more details, the agencies had been bought for cash. You need to find one that's not even reached the market yet because, short of that, the big companies just snap them up.
Two years ago, we took on our first outside portfolio of landlords, and that came with a couple of extra staff. That was the first acquisition that we dipped our toes into.
It came from a conversation with someone we've known for 20 years - a right place, right time scenario, only made possible through those personal connections that we've worked hard to cultivate across the industry.
The benefits and challenges of a bigger team
Thanks to our investments in growing our agency and its activities, we're a team of seven now, which has meant a learning curve from a management perspective.
We never had to worry about HR when it was just the three of us, for example. We also needed to establish systems and processes that weren't just inside my head, but were open for everyone to access.
For our customers, we had other considerations too. The biggest challenge has been trying to keep our ethos of personal service alive while scaling up the business. But that's of course where the extra staff come in too.
Growing our team allowed me to look at everything we do, and actually have time to adjust and improve it, not just be to one side, keeping all the plates spinning.
This is the same for some of our marketing activities. One of the downsides of running very lean on staff is that you try to do everything yourself, but that means you have to neglect some things.
For us, it was social media. Now, with the extra staff, we've already started to see some results from investing more time into these channels, which I didn't expect so quickly.
The core of this is trust and building strong relations with the people you work with and employ. Having to let go of the way I did things was quite difficult at first, but once you get the people that you trust around you, your business will go from strength to strength, making that growth possible.
We're in a good place now, with a team that we trust, our other industry connections, and our experience. When the next acquisition opportunity comes along, we'll be ready to jump on it, with a much better idea of how to handle it to ensure Stratfords continues to grow its presence and market share for long-term success.
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