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Avoid Chasing New Business over Taking Care of Existing Clients!

And more advice from Peter Kang, Co-founder and CEO at Barrel, an ecomm web agency, and co-founder and Chairman of Barrel Holdings, a portfolio of digital agency businesses.

Barrel helps clients navigate the digital landscape and create impactful experiences that deliver results. They help with overseeing creative direction, user experience, and digital marketing. Barrel works on large-scale website redesigns, new e-commerce business launches, comprehensive web app product designs, brand identity makeovers, and media planning. Past and current clients include: KIND Snacks, Barry's, Hurom, Scholastic, NETGEAR, Columbia University, Caruso Affiliated, Microsoft, and the National Football League.

1. Avoid chasing new business over taking care of existing clients

I founded Barrel with my co-founder Sei-Wook Kim in 2006 and have worked with different businesses and clients over the years. The first lesson I learned was to avoid chasing new business over taking care of existing clients. And when you're in a services business like ours, there's an interesting dynamic where there's always a shiny new client you want to go after. There is the lure of a bigger, well-known client that you want to win that work. But in the service of doing that, you sometimes need to remember to take care of the clients who've already gone with you, are paying you, and are expecting a certain level of service. We've fallen into that trap now and then where we just took our eyes off servicing our existing clients. And that leads to a troubling cycle where your reputation takes a hit if you don't serve your current clients well. When you're trying to chase new business while you have unhappy clients, that comes back to bite you because these clients will not give you a great reference, and you won't have excellent work that you can show prospective clients. Think about it as a holistic ecosystem versus thinking that landing a new client is the thing to do. So it took us a while to learn that.

2. Don't underestimate the importance of a sound co-founder relationship

The second one is near and dear to my heart because it's a source of strength for us. One issue for many people is letting problems or conflicts with partners and co-founders linger and not working through them. The relationship with your co-founder or even people on your leadership team is huge. So, I think many businesses with a lot of potential fail because the relationship at the top is not strong. And I think it starts with trust. It begins with a complete alignment of the vision and the goals. It also helps to be self-aware of what makes each other tick. Not everyone will be 100% compatible right off the bat. It takes work. It's like a marriage. And so you've got to be willing to put in the work. And a lot of that means having tough conversations about what works and doesn't work. We are always assessing how we can work better together. I've been with my co-founder for 17 years in business together, but I've known him for 20 years. We have weathered many ups and downs in our relationship, and having this strong foundation of trust has been a huge strength.

We have a weekly one-hour check-in to discuss different things with my co-founder. Then, with all four barrel partners, we meet for two hours weekly to get deep on different issues. And then, on top of that, we meet every day for 30 minutes to debrief on how the day went, especially because we've gone fully remote and all live in different places now. It's been key to feeling connected. Finally, we have our group chat, where we continue sharing stuff throughout the day. The connection aspect is huge, and knowing where everyone's heads are is also big.

3. Don't avoid difficult conversations with employees

A big mistake is avoiding difficult conversations with underperforming employees. One of our challenges, especially earlier in the business, was prioritizing wanting to be liked over having a performance culture and a winning team. It worsens when you don't nip under-performance in the bud because that builds resentment in you towards the employee. It also builds resentment amongst others performing well who see the employee as dragging the team down. So, it creates a toxic situation by trying to avoid it or playing nice and handling it with kid gloves. And I think here one thing we've learned is if there's underperformance, be straightforward and honest about it as soon as possible, and give the employee a chance to rectify it, get better, and fix it with clear feedback and clear goals. But at the same time, if underperformance continues, it needs to be addressed, and ultimately, if it doesn't improve, difficult decisions need to be made. But not doing that is what leads to cultural rot. So this is a hard-earned, hard-learned lesson for us, and it's something that we take seriously.

4. Don't underestimate what you bring to the table

Don't underestimate your own experience and expertise. There's a sense of humility and modesty that can be harmful because I think what used to happen was whenever I came in contact with somebody who seemed or felt more experienced than I was, I'd always get overly deferential and not have confidence in some of the decisions or the experience that I've earned and gained. So humility is good, but at the same time, there's value in having confidence in your hard-earned experience and the expertise you've built up over time. To project confidence as a result is big because then people take you more seriously, or then it's more of a discussion among equals, let's say, versus just feeling like you have nothing to give to a conversation or contribute. Whether in conversations with consultants trying to help you in the business or a senior employee from a much bigger and more prestigious agency, you may think they do this better than me. That sets the wrong tone. It has to be like, look, this is how we do it here, and this is what's worked and not worked for us, but at the same time, be open to ideas.

5. You must be on top of your business performance

I can't emphasize it enough, but it is all about being on top of your business performance. You need to know your finances and understand the ins and outs, especially when times are bad. There's a tendency sometimes when the numbers aren't looking so good, to not look at it and not be reminded of the challenge. But it's the opposite. You should be even more on top of your numbers when things are not going well because you've got to dial in tight and manage costs as best as possible.

Every week, we generate multiple reports. So, we have our utilization numbers, our new business/revenue book numbers, and an overall cash position/runway type of report. Then, every month, we meet with our CEO coach, who will go into even more granular details about different aspects of the business. Being accountable on a regular basis is key.


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