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The Agency CEO Leadership Challenge

Most agency leaders never planned on being business owners.

I had been designing and building websites since I was fifteen during the late 90s. Back in the day that meant coding raw HTML & CSS, publishing through platforms like Yahoo! Geocities, using MS Paint to make graphics, and learning how to code by reading community forums. All I wanted to do was create in a new way beyond what I was learning in art class.

Fast forward to 2005, I graduated from the University at Buffalo with a Media Studies degree and a tenacious desire to get out of the world of classwork and into real digital design and development. It just so happened that, at the time, the internet was about to get a shock to the system when Google introduced Adsense, Facebook opened registrations to the public, Apple had the iPhone ready in its back pocket, and responsive web design was on the horizon. Here I was, after deciding 3D animation would be too hard to pursue, sitting on the cusp of a giant digital wave with nothing to grab on to.

You see, back then, the world of creative and advertising was still clinging to the idea of selling media and producing creative for print, television, and radio. Even after 10 years of the internet being readily available to the public, lots of companies still didn’t have websites and their sales strategies did not include digital. There were limited opportunities for a digital creative talent to find a place in the industry. That’s how I ended up freelancing and teaming up with my former partner and Luminus co-founder, Mike LaDuca. It was easier to find work for people who needed it as opposed to finding agencies expanding their digital departments looking for talent. So that’s what we did and that’s what a lot of other people did in the mid-2000s as well.

I didn’t completely realize it at the time, but when I made that decision, it was the first step to drifting away from creative work. Ironic, because that was day one in the industry as a self-employed professional, but it began then. Soon I’m finding myself registering a DBA (later the LLC), getting bank accounts, tracking income for taxes, managing sales conversations, coordinating projects, and managing invoicing. Even after all of that initial shock, it was still amazing. At that point I was doing work that I loved and learning something new every day, because I always said yes to whatever challenge was thrown my way. The time spent on business was just part of the equation. The work was the reward.

But here’s the thing… if you’re good at something, it grows. When it grows, everything becomes more complicated. When things become more complicated, somebody needs to steer the ship and that can be one hell of a task.

This is the breaking point.

When we started our agency Luminus, we knew it would grow because we already had momentum and decided we’d need a team eventually. Given my track record of starting bands, sports teams, and record labels, I knew I’d willingly fall on the sword of taking the role of organizational leader. Then we started hiring, which introduced HR responsibilities. We expanded our services, which meant developing new processes which Mike and I continually worked on, rarely settling on, but also needed to coach our team to be able to perform them successfully. Then comes team management, performance reviews, benefits management, and all of that good stuff.

Then one day you step back and realize, you do no creative work anymore. For a lot of people that’s a tough pill to swallow. For some of us, like myself, we’re able to adapt and look at all of these new challenges through a lens we’re familiar with. For me, it’s drawing a parallel between my creative mind understanding databases and programming functions to now solving the puzzle pieces that are people and processes.

I will admit, it only partially fills the void. I am jealous of my team occasionally.

Having said all of that, I love what I have. I love that Luminus is now a destination for someone, like “2005 Tim,” who wants to find a team to work on that believes in great creative and great digital execution. I love the experience I had growing the agency with Mike. I love the team that’s formed and how they work so well together.

I know I’m not alone when I say that I didn’t expect to be here, but I wouldn’t trade it for anything.