Are you ready to hire a project manager?

Or do you need to create better processes in your agency?

In our experience, most agencies and productized services hire their first project manager too early and before they have their key systems and processes in place. 

This creates all kinds of problems, including more work for both you as the owner as well as your new project manager. And, it can even sabotage your new project manager’s chance of being successful in his/her role. 

So, what’s an agency owner to do? 

In this post, we’re going to dive into the top processes to build out, the benefits of doing so, and when is the right time to hire a project manager.   

Is it too early to hire a project manager?

Hiring a project manager too early almost never works out, and usually results in lots of lost time, money, and opportunity costs. Here are four signs you shouldn’t hire a project manager. 

1. You are drowning in custom, one-off tasks and projects. 

When every project and task in your agency is different, then you are continuously delegating one-off tasks to your new PM. You end up wasting a bunch of time training and giving feedback since every task is so different.

A better approach is to work on your agency so that it becomes more predictable. This could mean:

This helps your agency become more predictable, efficient, and scalable. You can set up recurring processes, manage the incoming work, and delegate efficiently since you are no longer reinventing the wheel every single time.  

2. Assume it is based solely on headcount. 

The next reason you might be tempted to hire a PM is based on headcount. For example, the agency owner reads a management book. The book says you should hire your first project manager at 7 employees. You do this blindly instead of taking the time to evaluate what you need within your agency and if you have the infrastructure and processes built up to support that. 

3. Treat the project manager role as a “catch-all” for all of the random tasks in the business.  

As tempting as this sounds, this almost never works out. When you hire someone to be a project manager, the majority of their time should be spent on project management, not customer support, marketing, social media, or as your executive assistant. 

The end result is a hire that is unfocused and struggles with what to prioritize. This either means that things take longer to accomplish, or the person completely burns out. Neither is a great look.  

4. It is an ego boost for the agency owner. 

Some agency owners are motivated by team growth. If you find yourself boasting about your team size, you might be tempted to hire a project manager before you really need to.

If you feel like many of your tasks are one-off and different from one another? We recommend working a bit more on your processes and making things more predictable first.

How to prepare for hiring your first project manager 

Before you hire a project manager, it is important to think strategically and build out systems and processes. This will give you a solid foundation for your first project management hire to build upon. 

Even if you’re not hiring right now, or maybe not for a while, it’s still a good idea to start thinking about your systems and processes now.  Your business will be much stronger for it, and, oh yeah, it’ll make hiring that first project manager far easier once that time comes.

Here are the four main benefits for becoming more process-oriented.  

1. Deliver consistent & high-quality service delivery (every time).

This is the big one. As you grow your team and delegate more of the client work, the quality of the work you deliver can suffer. You can mitigate this risk by building better systems and processes and ensuring that everyone on your team follows them. 

2. The agency owner is no longer the bottleneck for growth. 

Improving processes will also give more confidence in your agency’s growth trajectory. 

Without better processes, you might be hesitant to invest in sales or marketing because too much work would break the business. But with better processes and systems, you can feel confident that if you 2-3x their business next week, things wouldn’t break. 

3. Speed up the hiring and onboarding process for new employees & freelancers.  

As you scale up, you are probably spending a lot more time hiring, vetting, and managing employees and freelancers. Building out processes for all of the key components, from writing and posting job descriptions to onboarding, can address this. 

4. You can take vacation time. 

When every critical task in the agency revolves around you, you can’t take a vacation or a few days off without something breaking or having to put tasks off. Whereas, if you invest in building the right systems and processes, you can step away from the business for a week-long vacation, and the business runs fine without you. That’s actually a great stress test for an agency owner.  

What are the top processes that all agencies should have? 

Here are some examples of processes your agency should have in place before you hire your first PM.  

Don’t expect to have all of these fully built out and perfect.  But you should at least start building the framework for these now, then improve them with more details as your business grows and becomes more mature.

  1. New Client Onboarding 
  2. Sales Proposals Process 
  3. Client Billing / Invoicing 
  4. Hiring new team members 
  5. Hiring new freelancers 
  6. Onboarding team members and freelancers 
  7. Delivering retainer services, such as running marketing campaigns for clients or content publishing, such as blog post writing or podcast episode production. 

If you are not used to thinking in systems and processes, it can be overwhelming and counterproductive to try and create a bunch of systems all at once. Instead, we recommend starting with creating a process around new client onboarding first. 

This is because new client onboarding involves a lot of steps. If it goes badly, the client is going to churn. On the other hand, if you create a rock-solid onboarding process, the client is likely to stay around for a while and will refer you to more clients. It is a win-win. 

Pro Tip: Check out our free new customer onboarding process template to streamline the onboarding process. 

Editor’s Note: We’ll dive into how to build out sophisticated hiring and onboarding processes in a follow-on post. Subscribe to our email list to get notified when this post goes live. <need link to a newsletter form – TBD?> 

3 biggest mistakes that agency owners make when creating their first few processes

As you start creating processes in advance of hiring your first PM, here are three of the top mistakes that agency owners make. 

1. Building too many processes at one time 

It can be tempting to try and systemize all the things at one time. Instead, it is best to start simple with just one high-level focus area at a time. You can always add more complexity later.

If you try to design the perfect system at scale with lots of automation before you stress test those processes in the real world, you – or your future PM – will end up having to redo a lot of that work later. 

So, it’s best to start with just the basic steps, a few instructions, and some simple automation. Then observe and see where you can make things more efficient, add new SOPs, or tweak things so that issues don’t repeat themselves.

Pro Tip: Did you know that ProcessKit’s propagation feature lets you continuously improve your processes and magically update all of your active projects without disrupting their progress.

2. Adding too much complexity into one process 

Who wants to read a 50 step SOP? Most of your team might read it once and then start going off script, which of course affects quality and scalability. A better approach is to break up a large process into smaller, more manageable tasks.

Let’s go back to the new client onboarding example. Your process there might involve the following mini-processes:

Those 3 parts of your onboarding process can each live in their own SOPs.

Software, like ProcessKit, makes it easy to connect those 3 SOPs together in a single project, or even automatically add the “next” SOP when an earlier phase has wrapped up.

3. Relying on manual processes instead of using automation and conditional logic 

Just because you may hire a project manager soon doesn’t mean you shouldn’t look to automate as much as you can.

When you design processes to handle the day-to-day “if-this, then-that” automations, it frees up your future project manager to focus on communication and strategy.

This is where conditional logic comes in handy.

Here is an example. If you run a web design agency and half of your clients use WordPress and the other half use Squarespace, you don’t want to create 2 largely identical client onboarding processes. That will result in duplicate work. Not to mention, when you make improvements, you’ll need to do it in multiple places, which increases the chances of SOPs and processes getting outdated. 

Instead, using a tool, such as ProcessKit, you can build conditional logic into your processes. You can base these rules on your clients’ attributes so that those tasks automatically adapt to each clients’ project.

So, when should an agency hire a project manager?

When you have dialed in processes and recognize common, repeatable patterns on the way you manage your client projects, that’s when it starts to make sense to hire a project manager. This project manager can be plugged into your agency’s systems and work to refine your processes.

Pro Tip: Remember, your processes don’t need to be perfect and pristine before you hire a project manager. There should be space for your PM and team members to shape your processes as your business grows.

This is usually around 5-10 team members. However, it is less about headcount, and more about how dialed in your agency’s core systems and processes are.   

What are the key factors to consider when hiring a project manager?  

Your project manager is one of the most important roles on your team as they are in charge of managing either specific client accounts or projects from end-to-end. This means that soft skills are especially important for this position. Here are the five skills that all great project managers possess:

In sum, hiring a project manager is a big time and money investment. Investing time up front to create dialed-in systems and processes makes it easier to find and hire your first project manager. This allows them to hit the ground running, managing projects, and refining your processes instead of working with you to create them from the ground-up.