When you’re a kid you might have gone to summer camp. If you were lucky, you might have gotten to go to a special camp like Science Camp! By the time you’re an adult, such camps are a thing of the past—or are they? Recently I found out about an amazing event called Owner Camp put on by The Bureau of Digital. There, I met a small group of people doing all the things that I was doing, owners of small companies.
I first heard about Owner Camp—and The Bureau of Digital—tangentially when I was at DrupalCon New Orleans’ Business Summit, where I met Seth Brown, COO of Lullabot, and came to find out he had been to Owner Camp. The idea of a camp just for owners was really interesting to me. I thought, Cool! I’m an owner! I can go to this! But after doing some research, I discovered you had to apply to get in. Initially, that discouraged me from attending and I really didn’t have the time to go through that. I subsequently forgot all about Owner Camp. Later while talking to Jeff Robbins, my friend and mentor, in one of our weekly discussions, he mentioned he’d just attended Owner Summit, a similar event run by The Bureau, and had a really great time! We talked about Owner Camp, and he encouraged me to apply.
So I filled out the online application and after a few days, I heard back: “We’d love to have you!” I accepted the invitation, was added to Bureau of Digital’s Slack account, and got excited at the idea of meeting owners who were crushing it!
Who Attends Owner Camp?
Prior to camp, we received a survey to fill out; it was similar to the application but more extensive. Bureau of Digital then compiled all the surveys and produced a dossier, with a page for each attendee, including a photo. The dossier was available prior to camp and as a printed booklet when we arrived. It also included a plan of the conference rooms, an agenda of activities, showed where each person would be sitting, and who you’d be sitting next to. It was so useful to have this information ahead of time: getting to know who the attendees were before meeting them in person felt like a novel idea and given there were fewer than 30 of us, reasonably doable.
Of the companies represented:
- Most were small (under 20 employees) while the rest were medium-sized (about 50)
- All had been around for at least five years; there weren’t any startups
- All were American companies, except one from Canada (Hi Jeff! 👋🏻)
- All focused on the digital industry, with a mixture of design, development, marketing strategy and PR companies. We even had one law firm focused on “creative business.”
There was also a good spread in the ages of the attendees, ranging from young agency owners to owners who were looking at exit strategies. There were only four women owners out of 22, something I wish was much more different.
I flew in to Oregon on a Wednesday and made my way to Tetherow Resort in Bend, where the two-day event was held. The first night was welcome drinks and then dinner: I was able to meet and talk to about eight of the 22 other owners. Everyone had interesting background stories: we’re all trying to run a company the only way we know how.
Both Thursday and Friday were structured session days with small group breakout sessions. Saturday was an optional day with a financial workshop. I stayed for that one!
The sessions covered basic topics for running a company, like finances, structuring your company, business development and marketing, and even mergers and acquisitions. There was also enough “open session” and unstructured time that we could talk with each other on more specific topics. Since we all sat together for breakfasts, lunches and dinners, we had more time to chat. I talked to every single one of the 22 people there at least once, but usually more than that. I also learned about Front, a favorite shared inbox app that one attendee raved about. I should probably check that out.
Diverse Billing Methods
It was fascinating to find out how different companies bill their clients. I was surprised to discover that more than three quarters of the agencies and owners do fixed-price projects, and that most of them have fixed-price monthly retainers. Out of the companies that talked about their billing, 10 of them did fixed price, and three did time plus materials, which is what we do.
I learned so much about value-based pricing! This is when your client pays a price based on the perceived value of your services. For example, one owner talked about a project for which his client had a $100,000 budget that could have been stretched to $120,000. He bid it at $80,000, executed on a highly profitable project and made the client feel like they were getting a deal. That kind of pricing is great for a business when it works out.
What Happens When You Want to Sell
We talked about what happens during mergers and acquisitions, how your company gets valued, and what buyers look at when buying a company. Buyers look for growth year after year. They want clean books—making sure your personal expenses are disconnected from company expenses, and making sure you haven’t done any weird deals or trades with clients. Organized contracts and cutting edge tools will be beneficial to you as well. It’s smart to get your financial ducks in a row ahead of time; you don’t have to wait for someone to make you an offer.
I’ve noticed more tracks at conferences centered around mental health, and this camp was no exception. There was a great deal of focus on self-care, encouraging owners to prioritize it for our employees. One attendee said, “You need self-care like you need air,” which resonated with me. Getting that nudge encouraged me to take some time off myself. I forget to do that. Another phrase I remember which I really liked was “work-life focus” instead of “work-life balance.” Making this subtle change in the way you think about your work allows you to shift to what you are focusing on, not balancing, between the two.
No One Goes to School for This
The other thing I really loved about Owner Camp was that everyone was relieved to find out that everyone else is also making things up as they go along. The “imposter syndrome” manifests itself uniquely for different people and owners are no exception. For example, some companies have their ducks in a row when it comes to tools, others don’t. Some have CRM figured out, and know exactly what brings them leads, and how to nurture them. Others don’t! There were two owners at the camp that admitted they had no idea that culture was an important part of their business. To them, we made suggestions, like, “Have you read the Simon Sinek’s book ‘Start with Why?’ Have you done a DISC Analysis? Have you done a Strengths Finder?” It was wonderful to be amongst a group of peers who had similar issues that we could help each other with.
How TEN7 Contributed
During open discussions—where we asked questions that were on our minds, and other participants would provide help—I was happy I was able to offer advice on several topics.
Someone asked, “Does anyone have recommendations on an employee handbook?” I raised my hand and said, “DO I EVER!”
I told them how we had recently written an employee handbook, and that we were going to be releasing it as open source on our website so others could use it as a starting point. I was also surprised to learn that many companies didn’t have an employee handbook!
How to Be a Distributed Company
There was a break-out discussion about distributed companies, in which I was able to share thoughts about my own experience.
One company was having a hard time hiring developers. In the city where this company is located, developers had been swooped up by large companies in the area. The company was adamant that they needed to hire from the region, and have an office that everyone goes to. The employees of this company are mostly junior level. I was able to share that I had been in exactly their position, and that I found having local employees and needing an office wasn’t really necessary. I suggested they consider testing having remote employees. We talked a great deal about my experience transforming TEN7 from in-office to distributed.
Before camp started, we had all been added to The Bureau of Digital’s Slack account, and we used it while at camp to communicate with other attendees. After the Bend Camp was over, we were added to Owner Camp channels that contained all of previous attendees of Owner Camps, as well as other Bureau events. Now our community is much larger, how wonderful!
The conference fee for Owner Camp is on the high end, but if you’re the owner of a digital agency, and are looking to connect with others who are in the same boat, I absolutely recommend it. The friendships started are invaluable. The Bureau of Digital puts on high quality events—and in addition to the Owner Camps and Owner Summits, there is a litany of other opportunities with The Bureau that you should check out, whether you are a digital project manager, creative or in operations.