We talked with Volum8's founder and Creative Director, Charlie Graham, about his company’s story and the role that 10,000ft has played in its growth.
Tell us about your background and how Volum8 got started.
I was a music producer and studio owner for nearly a decade. One morning, I woke up and realized there was a different calling for me. I sold my studio and hit the road for several years, exploring the world as a photographer, writer, and designer. In 2012, I was excited to learn that my daughter was on her way, and at the same time, I was anxious to build a foundation.
So, I laid all my cards on the table and asked myself, “What am I willing to commit the next 10 years of my life to?” In the summer of 2013, I formed Volum8.
I started out by myself, then brought on a Business Development partner and called on all the best freelancers I knew. At first, we were just a merry band of freelancers.
Then, we grew. Then we grew some more. We started to turn into an actual company. We went from being two people in a 400-square-foot co-work space, to ten people in a 2,400-square-foot space for our operations of strategy, design, development, and branding.
What have been the biggest challenges of scaling your team?
At the beginning of last year, we were six people. By the end of this year we’re aiming to double in size – we’ll be 12 strong.
Growing a team centers around balancing supply and demand, which is one of the biggest challenges when you do everything in house, as we do. You have to make sure that you have the clients who are willing to pay for the work, as well as the internal resources to support that work.
It’s really the chicken-and-egg dance of “Do we have the revenue?” versus “Do we have the resources?” and it’s never an exact science.
In addition to balance comes the challenge of accepting the risk of taking on more clients or committing to new talent. It takes a certain type of determination and belief. When you’re young and you don’t have a lot of employees, there’s not much to lose, so you’re able to take pretty big risks for growth. Once you’re providing for a team however, it’s not just you at risk. So your tolerance and determination have to scale as well.
That requires a certain level of belief in yourself, which can be challenging on those mornings when you wake up and it seems the whole world is poised against you. You’ve just got to believe and keep moving forward.
How were you projecting resourcing and hiring needs before 10,000ft?
Well, we weren't. We were very reactive back then. We handled PM needs within Asana, but all of our projections for project scope and depth were done through a series of spreadsheets, which were difficult to manage and not very dynamic. We’d get hit head-on when we had too much work, or all of the sudden when the work wasn’t coming in as we had hoped.
What was the breaking point when you realized, "We're going to have to find some way to manage this"?
It was right around six people. As a first-time CEO, you get to a point where you realize you can’t wear all the hats anymore; you have to start thinking strategically about growth.
We brought on a Director of Strategy to manage and direct our growth and went back to post-its on a whiteboard. We took a hard look at our existing internal processes and noticed that many of the weaknesses centered around scheduling resources and projects and not properly estimating.
That’s when I started to research which tool would work best for us. We looked at a lot of different Gantt charts and applications but none of them would fit the way that we wanted to approach the problem. We wanted to find a tool that fit the way we worked, rather than adapt the way we worked to fit a tool.
I came across 10,000ft, and it had all the potential that we needed to map our projects and keep track of estimates versus actuals. Ultimately, it helped us establish more formal, effective processes. 10,000ft has given us a higher level of accountability in how we manage our company and growth.
What role has 10,000ft played in helping you develop Volum8’s strategy?
10,000ft does a great job of not just providing the canvas, but also giving you all of the paint and brushes. You have everything you need to fit your unique management style and make accurate projections.
Last year, we spent the entire fourth quarter looking at everything from rate cards to revenue goals to expense projections, human resources, and business development needs. During that time, 10,000ft played a major role in our strategy and decision-making process.
We used 10,000ft to mock up the coming year and determine the size and quantity of projects required to optimize our utilization. The analytics inside of 10,000ft are what made this possible, as we were able to see the utilization for each resource, department, and the entire company.
From there, we experimented with various rate cards to identify revenue and bonus potentials. We checked those numbers against our sales projections to create our final sales goals and revenue targets.
At the end of that process, we knew ideally how many projects we would need to close and what types they would need to be. We knew which rates were fair, yet profitable and more importantly, we knew when we would need to bring on new people to accommodate further growth. To me, that was the most valuable thing 10,000ft has done because it informs our strategy based on the actual capacity of our team.
How does data affect your company culture?
I believe in open-book management; letting our team members see expenses, revenue, and projections. So, data is paramount to our culture. We track every project to see if bonuses can be earned and use data to deliver critical numbers to our team. By using data in this way, our team members have a stake in the company’s success and take more ownership of project estimates and outcomes.
The reports we can generate from 10,000ft help keep project budgets and timelines transparent as we progress, which benefits everyone from the client to the creatives.
What utilization percentage do you aim for when scheduling your creative team?
On average for each team member we calculate 35 hours of time per week. Knowing that there will be sick days, vacation, etc., we aim for our team members to work 92% of those 35 hours. From there, our goal is to have about 70% of a person’s time focused on billable client work and 30% on internal work.
Our target is 35 hours because I’ve been a creative my whole life, and I know you can’t work a 40-hour work week every single week without getting burned out. It just doesn’t work. To combat that, we baked into our culture something we call “maker time”. For four hours each week, our team members can be in the office, utilizing the resources we have and creatively doing whatever they want during that time, without interruption.
With that premise set, we went into 10,000ft and adjusted the utilization percentages to reflect that. So in our planning, we’ve already accounted for what we consider to be a happy workplace and productive schedule.
In our 10,000ft account, we monitor reports that show us what our actual current utilization is based on time tracking, versus our current billable rate as a company. We can also check all of that against what we had projected in 10,000ft – it’s simple and beautiful.
Would you recommend 10,000ft to other business owners who are focused on scaling?
Absolutely, and I already have. Even if you’re just a team of two making big plans to grow your company, 10,000ft is a phenomenal tool. I didn’t have this when we were a team of two, and it could have saved me from making several costly mistakes.
If you start with a tool like 10,000ft while you’re still small, it becomes much easier to scale. In addition, all of the data in 10,000ft grows right alongside you. It’s like having a growth consultant on staff.
What advice would you share with other agencies who are looking to grow?
Have a mission and take it seriously. Ask yourselves, “What are we really doing this for? Why are we all here working together? What is our culture? What do we value?”
We’re constantly redefining our mission to get down to the core of what brought us together, and what sets us apart. Knowing who we are and why we do what we do sets the stage for getting the right people to join us.
Once you have a mission, I think the next most important step is to specialize. Don’t try to be everything for everyone. Find your niche and really hit that hard. It’s easier to become successful by giving 100% to one thing than to be divided.
Another thing that I would recommend is to be accountable. If you promise something to a client, then deliver it at any cost. Even if it’s going to hurt your business momentarily. At the end of the day you’re only as good as your word, so be impeccable.
Lastly, don’t be afraid to make a mistake. At Volum8, we don’t believe in failure. There is only UNsuccess. If you approach unsuccess through the lens of constantly learning, then you really can’t fail. You can only get better.