«What’s going on at Hotwire?» and the secret to building an entrepreneurial agency culture

«What’s going on at Hotwire?» This question has been put to me after three members of the agency’s senior management have left to embark on their own entrepreneurial journey to start two new agencies Centropy and SourceCode Communications.

When people see events happen like this in quick succession, they naturally think the worst. But rather than seeing this as a sign of weakness, observers should look take a look at Hotwire and ask how one company has managed to be the entrepreneurial breeding ground for so many new ventures over the years. After all Centropy and SourceCode are just the latest in a dozen new ventures to have been launched by ex-Hotwire employees. The fact Hotwire has continued to grow, innovate, win awards and compete says a lot about what is great about the company’s entrepreneurial culture rather than suggesting anything is wrong with it.

Over my 16 years at the company I witnessed a dozen new agencies be born off the back of Hotwire careers including Battenhall, Diffusion, Babel, Dynamo, Oseon, Fabriq and CubanEight. In a lot of cases, these agencies have made real waves in the industry picking up multiple awards for their work. If someone told you this and you didn’t know who the agency was involved in spawning these other agencies, you might wonder if there was anything left of it? In reality, while my former company certainly lost talent to these new entrants it never prevented the company from growing, winning awards and continuing its own entrepreneurial journey.

The real question to ask is not what is going on at Hotwire, but what is the secret to generating an entrepreneurial culture, which gives birth to so many entrepreneurs whilst still driving your business forward? I would pinpoint four strategies for developing an entrepreneurial culture.

  1. Transparency. How are you meant to be entrepreneurial and contribute if you don’t know what the state of the business is? Confident and expansive businesses are completely transparent because they are not afraid of honesty and they welcome new ideas. You can always tell businesses that are in trouble and don’t know what they are doing because they operate under a veil of secrecy and have the hatches properly battened down. It doesn’t have to be this way. A problem shared can be a problem halved and I often felt my most entrepreneurial when you are collaborating to deal with a challenge. Why? Because I have always operated on the philosophy that if you lay out the situation with your team they are then empowered and informed to help you make a difference. Entrepreneurial businesses always aim to nurture a culture of transparency.
  2. Seek out new engines of growth. When I look back at how my former company grew it usually comes down to spotting and backing new engines of growth. Perhaps you have an employee who wants to launch a new specialism, whether it be an industry vertical or a new service? Maybe you have an employee who wants to start a new brand altogether. Over the years my former company launched new industry practices, new services offerings, new offices and new brands. I see they are still at it launching pop-up offices, launching a new practice for non-profits and launching a new brand this week. Entrepreneurial agencies cultivate an environment where employees think this is possible. The more of these ideas you back, the more that will be forthcoming.
  3. Give people roots and wings. It has been popular in start-up circles to talk about giving people permission to fail, and that you learn via failure. To cultivate an environment where failure is ok you have to make people feel safe in the first place. They have to feel that you 100% have their back. Make people feel invincible and that is when they will deliver their most entrepreneurial contributions. Make people feel paranoid and vulnerable and you will get employees who will always play it safe.
  4. Align rewards with team and individual success. I don’t believe in the Fairy God Mother. I don’t believe in the power of an individual alone to transform a business. I have always believed that the right entrepreneurial culture is one that allows individuals to flourish but in a team-based environment. Some businesses believe that you should allocate rewards very selectively to a handful of rock stars. I always believed and still do that true entrepreneurial success comes from the combination of the individual and the team in pursuit of a common goal, and therefore rewards are shared out across the agency.

The great things about all four of these entrepreneurial strategies is that they don’t really cost anything to implement. In fact, get it right and you will not only be more successful you will also have a much easier life because there will be more people thinking about how to make you even more successful.

Hotwire might have lost three members of its senior team, but you can be very confident that there are a new generation of entrepreneurs working their way through the agency and helping to propel it forward. More competition in the market is good for everyone and ensures that the bar is continually being lifted, benefiting clients and employees in equal measure. In fact I would even go as far as to say that number of start-ups in the PR industry is a key measure for how innovative it is. So congratulations to the latest entrepreneurs to spawn out of Hotwire and here’s to hoping there are many more in the future. I’ll be adding to the long line of entrepreneurs to spin-off from Hotwire very soon.