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Chapter 5: What Nobody Told You About Being an Agency Owner

Congratulations on your new business!

Was it announced with fanfare and confetti?

Did you set up a fantastic new office space and with a front row parking space?

Did your team immediately follow you into the workweek like Braveheart’s legions into battle?

Yeah… me neither.

In fact, when I first went out on my own, I thought the problems of working for someone else would fade into a hazy, distant memory. After that first rush of excitement passed, reality set in.

While everyone dreams of setting up their own shop, few people talk about how the shift from being a technogenius production unit to an owner-manager impacts your sense of identity on a daily basis.

Feeling a little lost is perfectly normal, but that feeling doesn’t have to dominate your first few months in this role–or the decisions you’ll be making for an entire team.

Brain Pride

Let’s face it–programmers take great pride in their brains, from how much information it contains to the type of technical details that mere mortals simply can’t understand.

You may think that that amazing brain and flashy coding skills that you’ve been cultivating are the reasons knew you could make money running your own business, but that’s only part of the picture.

This comes as a shock for most programmers, who intentionally move from a world where their value is based on producing magnificent code on demand and into the foreign land of management, where communication is the key.

That’s right. The very skill that you’ve based your business on is now going to take a mere fraction of your time, and you’ll depend on new skillsets instead.

Time to get your head around that transition.

New Manager, Say Goodbye to Coding Marathons

Once you step into your leadership position, your primary responsibility will be to communicate, communicate, communicate. You’re a conductor, and your team’s eyes will be on you for direction on all sorts of levels.

As you (rightly!) turn your attention to team dynamics, workflow and overall project demands in the first few months of being an owner-manager, you will see your employees start picking up new skills–and you will not.

Now that you’re out of the production-only cycle, it’s inevitable that the coders in the trenches will surpass you. Realizing that you’re no longer seen as the top programmer in your company is downright jarring.

Even now, I feel a pang when I see programmers heading off to a conference. While I love leading teams, there’s something so appealing about going back that level of focus and the simple, powerful exchange of a paycheck for your brainpower.

It’s Almost Cruel

During the first three to six months as a manager, feeling your skills slipping can drive you to some dark places.

You’ll panic about how you’ll find another job if your company fails, or you’ll imagine your team losing respect for you. All the confidence you’ve built over the years about your career and your worth will evaporate.

It’s almost cruel. As you feel the skills that gave you the confidence to begin this new adventure start getting creaky, your management skills aren’t even close to their peak yet.

The Trap of Panic

Fear makes people do crazy things, and new managers are no exception.

In order to beat back the feeling of failure, most programmers will run right back to the last place you felt success: coding. I’ve seen so many new managers grab a project and hunker down in front of the computer, which just confuses everyone.

Your team needs you to lead, not disappear, especially when the going gets rough.

It’s Not All About Your Brain

Reality check: You aren’t in charge just because of your exquisite brain.

Even if you don’t realize it, most people who have the vision and fortitude to create their own tech company have a collection of abilities that go beyond programming. As you may have experienced, not every programmer is cut out to be a leader, so congratulate yourself for having the capacity to handle layers of complexity.

When you feel that rising panic, steer away from your programming skills and toward your management potential.

Here are a few reminders to help point the way:

Realize that your management skills will improve–and you will work magic.
There are some experiences of collaboration or breakthroughs that you can only experience when you’re leading a team. Trust that with some awareness about what’s working and what’s not, you will help shape these moments. Really.

Focus on how much you’ve improved since Manager 1.0.
Chances are that if you’re reading this, you’ve been making your way as a manager for a few weeks or months. Take stock of what you’ve learned since then and how many more details are under control or within your grasp.

Get some feedback.
It takes some courage, so muster it and ask other small agency owners for their insight so you have perspective on what you’re doing well and what still needs attention.

Anxiety isn’t fun, but it’s a good sign.
It sounds crazy, but studies have shown that some people who are bad at something don’t realize it, leading them to believe that they overestimate their abilities, like the dreaded pointy-haired boss from the Dilbert comics. If you’re feeling insecure, then you’re aware that have room for improvement, and that is an asset to your team, your company and your career.

Read the rest of this series.
I want to help all new technology managers avoid some classic blunders and build their management chops quickly. I’ve distilled the biggest lessons from my management career in these pages so you can make the best choices–right from the start.


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