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9 Lessons from 9 Years

Date: September 10, 2020 • Category: Digital Natives • By: Ben Guttmann

This month, we celebrate the 9th “birthday” of Digital Natives Group. Normally this is cause for a party and some celebratory meals, but 2020 is anything but normal.

Instead, looking back I wanted to distill nine of the most valuable lessons that we’ve learned in these past nine years. Each year has brought new successes and challenges, and we’re grateful to have picked a few things up along the way. Thank you to all of our friends that have helped us learn these lessons and get to today – here’s to the next one!

1. Clients want two things: results, and to enjoy the experience

Nobody goes into business to do bad work. But some people do good work for bad reasons. We have never done any project that is just focused on winning fame or an award. Our own goal in every project is to achieve the client’s goal, which is often revenue, reach, or something else, but never once has it been for the work to win us a piece of hardware.

In a slight paradox though, clients do actually also care about something else far from the bottom line: do they enjoy working with us? In any successful agency relationship, you spent a lot of time with each other through both the thick and thin, and it helps immeasurably to be in the trenches with somebody you actually enjoy spending that time with. And when your clients see you as a friend and a partner, you get more trust and therefore more freedom to do great work.

2. I’ve never regretted meeting new people

This is lesson is especially poignant now, six months into a period of seeing very few people in general, let alone new ones. In general, I’ve found it’s always been worth it to take the meeting, go to the event, or reach out for advice. You certainly get some duds, but throughout this journey I’ve met some fascinating and incredible people in the places I’d least expect. To this day 90% of our new business leads come in through referrals, and it’s often the loose connections that make things happen.

3. Most things don’t matter that much… then some little things change everything

I’ll admit it, we could take or leave most of the things we’ve done to build our own brand and presence over the years. There are side projects we spent hundreds of hours on that barely made a blip, and then there are things we turned around in less than a day that got us boatloads of attention.

To the lesson above, most of the networking-type meetings I’ve been to were nice but not particularly fruitful. But then I responded to an old friend’s Facebook post one day and that set off a chain reaction of projects and referrals that make up a sizable chunk of our business.

4. Looks make a difference

As a designer by trade, I’m bias here. But making sure that everything we do (both internally and externally) has a certain level of visual polish has helped deliver the premium experience that our clients expect and deserve. And while it is certainly true that good design can paper over some deficiencies in content, the inverse is the more powerful truth: bad design can make waste of your good ideas and efforts before they ever have a chance.

5. We have a responsibility to others

We harbor no illusions that we’ve done any of this on our own. Everybody on our team is supported by not just those of us in the tent, but by a large network of support. This network is both the obvious, like our accountants, lawyers, advisers, cleaning crew, and the like, and also everybody that we rely on in our extended community, from the first-responders and public servants who keep us healthy and safe to the teachers that made us who we are. This mindset has informed us since day one, and we continue to try to give back each and every day.

6. Document everything

There are two reasons to keep detailed records. First, you want to do better work, cover your butt, be able to answer questions, and make it easier to add new employees. Second, we’ve had an absolute blast looking back at what we’ve done through the years and seeing how we’ve grown. Old inside jokes come back up, long-ago projects inspire new ideas, and we can even see how we’ve aged over a near-decade. Put a shoe-box in your closet and fill it up with all those knick-knacks and mementos, you’ll appreciate it later.

7. You’re never fully educated

If you think that you’re done learning when you receive your cap and gown, you are quite literally setting yourself up to be a dummy. This applies to everything in life, but double for our industry, where what we did in the spring is often out of date by the fall. To that end, we’ve long encouraged our team to take lessons, attend conferences and seminars, follow the news, and read/watch/listen to everything they can (if somebody wants a book, any book, we order it for them). This is an industry where half the time we’re selling our brains – we should do everything we can to make them as full as possible.

8. Things are what you make of them

Over nine years, there are certainly are bad days. Somebody might be angry because of this, or frustrated because of that. Business can be slow, and people can get tired. But there are things that happen to you, and then there is how you deal with things. In the words of Captain Kirk, “I don’t believe in a no win scenario.” There is always an upside, there is always a solution, and no matter what there is always tomorrow.

9. Don’t work with jerks

Life is too short, our time is too precious, and our reputation too important to work with people who suck. Every year, we’ve turned down clients that would hurt our morale or our morals. And probably every year we’ve parted ways with clients who weren’t aligned in how we want to do business. The work we do on this earth is a reflection of who we are, and we want to continually do that in a direction which reflects better upon us.

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