Agency Unfiltered - Daryn Smith, from MPULL

Strategically Manage Your Team's Capacity

Daryn talks capacity management and his recommendations for monitoring, managing, and optimizing your delivery team’s capacity. We discuss the tools his team uses, the processes they have developed, and how he takes advantage of under-capacity teams.

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Episode Transcript

Today, on Agency Unfiltered, we've got Daryn Smith in the studio. Daryn is the co-founder of MPULL, a Cape Town-based marketing technology agency that helps provide strategy, inbound, and creative to help agencies grow. On today's episode Daryn talks capacity management. His tips and tricks for monitoring, managing, and optimizing his team's capacity.

We discuss the tools his team uses, the processes the team has developed and how he adjusts for when the team is either under capacity, or over capacity. And one of Daryn's biggest takeaways, is how your agency's team can leverage marketplaces for when team capacity is available. You can have folks pick up work, and projects, through these platforms, to continue bringing in business versus letting this availability go to waste. Interested in learning more, let's dive in.

KD: Daryn, tell us a little bit about how you guys keep an eye on the capacity of your team, the workloads of your team, bandwidth of your team, any kind of tips, tricks you have to keeping an eye on that stuff.

DS: So we've always used project management systems. We've been through them all. We've used Trello, Teamwork, Basecamp, and so on. And it was great for managing a project, but we could not see who was being allocated to the work on a dashboard level. So each time a account manager, or a project manager, could create a new project, schedule it, but we wouldn't know if a John, or a Peter, or whoever, had nine or 15 hours of work assigned to them a day. And as the agency grew and grew this was becoming a big problem.

KD: I can imagine.

DS: And, and I'd go and make a coffee and someone would say, oh, I'm so busy, but are you busy, are you, what is your perception of business? So we started to look around for other tools. We actually found Accelo and it's completely transformed our agency. So over and above the project plans it has a, kind of a dashboard that works in a kind of traffic-light system. So if somebody is not too busy they've got a green square on that day. If they're orange, they're almost at capacity, and red, there's too much. They're over capacity.

And that has been absolutely phenomenal to help the agency. I can now give clients kind of accurate start date, end date, so when I'm in the sales process you can actually say, well I can start this project on this particular date, if you don't sign now you may lose that block of time. Also, a couple of months back went in from a management point of view, looked at the dashboard and saw we have eight full-time writers and four of them had 10 minutes of work a day for the next two weeks.

They were completely green. I thought: I'm paying these guys salaries, expenses of desks, and all that type of thing.

KD: Yeah, right. They have to be generating billable hours, they have to be on client accounts.

DS: Yeah, yeah, but once again, in grabbing a coffee: hey, how are you doing?
“Oh, I'm so busy, you know…” so Accelo helped us identify that we didn't have enough content work at that point. So our sales team could go out and quickly try to sell more content work, or do something to--

KD: Get some work on their plates.

DS: To, yeah exactly.

KD: And so, that's interesting you saw a lot of green and so here's our opportunity. Especially because if we can sell those accounts, then they can begin delivery right away. Is green the optimal color you'd want to see? Or is orange, that middle ground, preferable? What would be the optimal look?

DS: Yeah, absolutely, orange Is the optimal look. Like you don't want, you don't want people to be in the red for long term. We agency owners we do want them to be red a little bit, but you want most of your guys in the orange.

KD: Talk about the red: obviously if you see a lot of red, there's two things to consider. I would imagine that, okay, how long are they going to be forecasted to be in red? And if it's going to be a long time, then that's probably going to spark a hiring decision, right? Do you have any rules of thumb, or best practices, or tips, as to like how long you're comfortable with the team being in the red before saying: oh no, it's time to think about hiring?

DS: Yeah, so, great question, because that's exactly what it does drive is a hiring. So, so we've got a full-time traffic manager and all that person does is every single day they come in and they monitor that dashboard. And if they see one of the designers is in red and somebody else is in orange, or green, they're able to simply drag and drop and move tasks around. If a client, for example, misses a deadline you have to move, work out, and suddenly somebody may open up and you can slot in work over there. So, yeah, in terms of hiring like it's very easy to spot. And obviously normally you have to, if you're going to hire somebody, it's 30 days time at the minimum that they're going to be able to start. So that's when you have to use freelancers or one of the platforms.

KD: Something like a stop-gap right?

DS: Yeah.

KD: Now on the other end, on the other side of the spectrum, what if you, maybe it's a new hire, or maybe just within the workload of the team, you see some greens. Obviously you want your team members to still maintain some productivity, so how else do you fill available capacity besides just client-based work — if there's anything in particular?

DS: Yeah absolutely, I mean like that happens all the time. So a project ends and your resources free up. Clients say like can only get to this in the next two weeks. So the time allocated to them suddenly frees up. Sometimes you get to a conference and you find that absolutely most brilliant developer and you just think, I need to get this person on my team. Your sales team, I said we're going to hit targets and so you go ahead and forward-hire and then the work doesn't come in, they don't hit their targets. So what do you do with that person?
We have it all the time. We work with a lot of agencies, we see this problem all the time. And so there's a couple of things, right? So, one, the most simple thing, is get them onto your own marketing, alright?

So whether that is a marketer that can go and schedule things, set up paid-media campaigns, that type of thing, or get into social media, whether there's copyright, or they can write blog content, E-book content, all that time of thing. A designer that can go out and create infographics, improve your website. There's plenty of stuff for them to do, and as an agency, often you're marketing, all though it's extremely important, often it goes at the bottom of the priority list.

KD: Yeah, it's like the cobbler's shoes mentality, right, like that's the thing you always neglect, right?

Now I just want to double-click into that one really quickly. Often times you hear agencies say like, oh, “best practice: treat yourself like a client, assign yourself an account manager and have that.” Do you also say, versus dedicating a singular person, it's whoever has the available capacity that will contribute or chip in?

DS: Yeah, so I think there's still huge value in having a dedicated kind of account manager, and we also treat ourselves like a client. We do have one of our team members as our account manager, but when there's capacity, like everybody can chip in. It also gives it a nice different perspective. So maybe the person that's been dedicated to our account has been following a certain strategy, somebody else comes in and they get, they have new ideas and so on. So, yeah, I would definitely recommend.

KD: That's great. Any other tips, or how else would you allocate available capacity?

DS: Right, so then the other thing that we do is we do proactive pitches. So if we look at our client base, we look at who are the customers that I can potentially, we can potentially grow? And then we get the team in the room, whether it be a copywriter, maybe a strategy person, and they come up with new, kind of, inbound funnels, or they look at what functionality in HubSpot is this customer not using? And we put together, and they put, they put a lot of effort in and they put a beautiful picture together, go and present to the customer and that often results in a project, or additional retainer work. So, so we kind of, yeah, I'd say on a quarterly basis when we're busy planning and we look at those schedules, see who's, who's not too busy, we assign them different clients to go and do proactive for.

KD: So it's not their own clients, it's just whatever client you feel would be the greatest opportunity? But it's really, what, building the picture, like alright, what can we bring to the table as like a cross-sell, up-sell, opportunity for these guys?

DS: Yeah, absolutely. It's great if it's a different person because it's different perspectives that come out, right? It's almost like when you go to the doctor, the doctor tells you one thing and you go to another doctor for a second opinion.
And then the other thing, I'm mean it's not really pitching, but for example, I was speaking at the INBOUND conference and I assigned a couple of the copywriters to come up with a creative concept for me. And so, I suppose it was a bit of our own marketing, a bit of pitching, but it got to be a proactive use of their time.

KD: How'd they do?

DS: I thought they did really well. Way better then I would have done. And then the last thing that's, we're big advocates of, is putting your additional resources on to a market place.

KD: Sure.

DS: So we've got our own marketplace called, On The Bench, but there's plenty: Upwork, Fiverr, and then there's the specialists marketplaces, like for example, nDash, does copywriting. So put your, if there's capacity in the team, put those resources onto a marketplace and you'll immediately start picking up work and they, and you, and the agency actually earns revenue from that. You're still paying those salaries, so why not? And many of the platforms you can charge very similar hourly rates to what you would normally--

KD: What your retainer evens out to, yeah.

DS: Yeah. And as HubSpot becomes more and more of a platform with so many different integrations and tools, and so on, you know, your team can't possibly be an “A player” at absolutely everything.

I mean like you guys do great at, and has what, an Academy, in creative in training on everything, but does, can somebody actually consume every little bit of training in case their client might want to do a Chatbot, or might want to do this, or might want to do that. So we advocate for agencies to become A players, in particular, around functionality and particular tools.

Maybe they become brilliant at PandaDoc or Terminus, or Vidyard, or one of those integrations or maybe, you know, talking internal HubSpot functionality, the new Sales Hub Enterprise, or Marketing Hub Enterprise. Does everybody know how to set up those security settings? Those teams? There's a lot of complicated stuff. So, so become “A players” at something and then when you've got capacity in that, register us, and other agencies that don't know how to do that particular thing, or even direct clients, can then pick it up. Actually, come to think of it, there's another thing that I recommend is getting into the HubSpot community forums.

And so a lot of guys go and help people that get stuck, post a question, how do I do this? And actually when you speak to those guys they pick up a huge amount of projects, and big retainers, after they've helped somebody. So somebody may go, for example, how do I set up a workflow?

And somebody responds and then they can see who it is. They're going to look for them online and they go, actually you were a huge help. Can you maybe do a full website. Or I'd like to get you onto retainer. And it's the same thing with these marketplaces. You could, you may do a small project, but it's almost a way that customers can trial you as an agency.

KD: If you delivered a remarkable job, maybe that just opens the door for a larger engagement, right?

DS: Yeah, yeah. And I'm like, and the other thing is, I'm a huge fan of freelancers, and we use them, but sometimes on a lot of the platforms you gotta wonder are they a freelancer because nobody wanted to employ them, or are they, have they made a lifestyle choice?

Now when you start working with platforms that are linked to agencies you know that the people that are going to help you have passed an interview, have been employed, they're A grade, agency employees.

KD: True, yeah. They were desirable to at least one organization which is a layer of qualification when finding help.

DS: Yeah absolutely, absolutely.

KD: Now for putting your team on like a marketplace, does that filter into your traffic dashboard for capacity? And are you able to monitor that stuff as well?

DS: Absolutely, so in Accelo, you can link your Google calendar so if you've gotta go and take your kids to soccer practice and you've blocked out an hour, or whatever you've blocked out, time in your diary, it syncs into your, into the scheduling dashboard so that when the project managers, and traffic managers, actually assign work, they can see actually, this person is too busy. I think one of the key things though is, is you need to, when scheduling you need to think of value-based pricing.

So you may have sold six hours of time, but maybe you've worked out a very good process, or you've got a template and you can actually do the work in 20 minutes. You can either make sure that when the project managers are scheduling that in, they schedule only for 20 minutes, because otherwise somebody could look like they are very busy, but actually--

KD: --they’re just firing off something quickly.

DS: Yeah.

KD: Another question I had for you, too. You keep talking about the traffic manager. They come in and they monitor and they can reallocate projects. What number hire were they, or when did you get to the level where you felt comfortable being able to support, that's sort of infrastructure role — especially if they're not billable on the client work side. Where did you find, timing wise, it was time to invest there?

DS: I wish I had done it earlier. I didn't come from the agency world, I came from the corporate world — I worked for Verizon. And I thought that a project manager, and a traffic manager, were the same thing. So when we started to need that, which was probably around 20 employees or so, when the kind of team leads, and so on, were having a little bit of difficulty working out who's busy, who's not busy.

We also, we initially had pods, and in those pods, we had a copywriter, designer, and so on. But that model didn't really work for us too well because sometimes, a pod didn't have too much writing work, or too much design work. So we then created a kind of shared-resource team of creators, all the writers, and all the designers, all the developers, and so on. And it was quite a difficult thing for a project manager, or an account manager, to know: is this person busy? Are they not busy?

So initially we went out and hired a project manager and that project manager built project plans and they assigned work to people. But what they didn't do is, is actually monitor that person's schedule, that check in daily.

KD: See how availability evolves over time, yeah.

DS: Yeah, absolutely. And also coming from the corporate world, you know, it was always your manager, or your team lead, that kind of managed how busy, what you're doing, what projects you were working on, but when it comes to creatives, the creative director doesn't do that. They would hate to have to do that. Head of content doesn't do that. They're an editor, they've got passion about content. So I learnt the hard way that a traffic manager is the person that does that, and they're kind of, they're this awesome kind of mix of a project manager and team lead, and so on, and the other thing that I found is they've got this ability to work on way more work then a traditional project manager. They're used to that high-pressure environment of an agency, that fast-paced environment. So when I arrive at the office, even if I arrive early, 6:00 a.m., the traffic manager's sitting there already. And she is the last person to leave. So at the moment we were just under 50 people, and there's only one traffic manager, and when I return home, it's the next hire. I'm feeling that she's burning out a little bit so I need to.

KD: Daryn, last question I have for you and I ask this to everybody. You never really know how it goes: what would you say is just the weirdest part of agency life?

DS: Good question. I've always kind of had this goal of having a self-managed agency and I've kind of treated it a lot like a tech startup, because when you read things, they're the people that get put on all kinds of stages. And for me, I really thought that I could get the agency to a point where there's managers and everything running itself. But what I've discovered, which I don't know if it's that weird, is the owner, the founders, to have a successful agency, you have to be entirely bought in, you need to be in the trenches every single day.

So I also learnt the hard way, I thought okay, I'm going to build out this team and I'm going to paint a vision, give them high-level goals and let them be. And I didn't get the growth that we wanted. So I think, because an agency is such an emotional type business that the passion that lies in a founder is so important. So for me, that's what I'm doing at the moment. I've gone back in the trenches over the last few months and we definitely got the growth, growth back.

KD: That's exciting.

DS: Yeah.

KD: Well Daryn I appreciate you coming on, always great to talk to ya. And we'll catch you again next time.

DS: Awesome, thanks.


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