The best things come in threes, so they say. Others point out that two’s company, three’s a crowd.
For Quickfire Digital co-founders Martin Harper, Fred Cohen and Nathan Lomax three really is the magic number.
Three company founders, three separate skill sets, three perspectives. And, yes, three heads that can butt against each other from time to time.
Not too many businesses are created by a triad (not the organised crime syndicate, we must point out) but it works for us. In this article, we’ll highlight the benefits and point out the challenges to help fellow trios in their quest for success.
How we started
Quickfire Digital – an e-commerce web agency that specialises in the Shopify platform – was formed in the summer of 2017. Each of us had our own micro business, in slightly different areas of digital and web, we got chatting and decided to unite.
We started out by taking pretty much any website or IT project we could get our hands on, utilising existing contacts and beginning to get a feel for how we could work together.
It didn’t take too long to settle into our ‘swim lanes’: Martin is well organised, likes structure and, in his words, ‘just wants to get shit done’; Fred has the ability to get to the root of what a client really needs and how best to achieve that; Nathan is great with people, an eternal optimist and never satisfied.
After a few years of shifting responsibilities, we’ve settled into these roles. Nathan is the agency’s frontman, leading on sales and marketing; Fred’s focus is on client strategies and solutions; Martin takes care of delivery and agency operations, ensuring we hit our profitability targets.
Nathan brings in the clients, Fred solves their problem, Martin gets the shit done.
Being a trio has allowed us to create this neat structure, and it’s been a major positive because it fits within a tried-and-tested creative agency model: Sell > Solve > Sort.
It also points to an obvious, but critical, component within a multi-founder business: Play to your strengths.
Without this delineation of roles, there can be a danger of straying into territory you’re not comfortable with – and, in many cases, rather than improving a situation, it only serves to make it worse.
It’s happened to us. Over the years, and at different times, we’ve all had frustrations that aspects haven’t been moving fast enough or going well – maybe it’s a perceived lack of urgency on recruitment, the way a process is being maintained, or a drop-off on agency performance.
As a founder, you’ve got every right to ask questions and push for answers, but for the relationship with your peers to work, you’ve got to create some boundaries. It’s where agreed accountability comes in, plus it helps shape boardroom agendas.
Listen to understand
Effective communication is something we all strive for, but we’ve learned that the need for it between the three of us is significantly increased. This is for a number of reasons:
- It keeps us on our chosen path. Providing clarity on our swim-lane plans means we are fully aligned to maximise growth for the business, and we can be judged against complementary KPIs
- It helps with being consistent in our dealings with staff – something that is often overlooked. We might have different opinions on certain issues, but strong communication between the three of us avoids team members receiving conflicting instructions or advice
- It leads to better decision-making. Listening to understand can be challenging – especially in the heat of the moment – but it’s so important when working towards a satisfactory outcome. Each of us has a strong personality and we have strong exchanges, but we’re continually aiming to enhance our own emotional intelligence. By listening and not simply waiting to respond, we’ll invariably reach agreement much quicker. Indeed, often we’ll find we’re actually singing from the same hymn sheet, just starting on different notes
- It avoids unnecessary conflict. It can be tempting for an individual to take matters into their own hands and live by the mantra of ‘it’s better to seek forgiveness than to ask for permission’ – but if a fellow founder hasn’t been consulted on a major decision then it can spell trouble.
Acknowledge shortcomings – and take action
Growing a business has many challenges, some of which are new to us or beyond our specific knowledge or skills. That’s fine as long as we are able to recognise them and take action.
Leveraging external help to plug gaps is one area we have been particularly strong at – and one we would encourage other founders to seriously consider.
Over the six years of our business, we’ve had mentors, non-exec board members, struck up multiple strategic partnerships, and we currently work with a chairman – who has extensive experience in the creative agency world – and operational specialists.
Putting our egos to one side and admitting where we need help has undoubtedly played a major role in us becoming what we are today.
The external expertise required changes as a business grows. When we started out, we won a lot of projects that were local to us, so it made sense to work with a non-exec director with a strong local presence and a contacts book that brought a lot of value.
As we broadened our horizons and took on the goal of becoming a leader in our field, we required a different level of expertise. Our inspirational chairman, Paul Woolley, wouldn’t have been the right choice when we started out, but he now holds the three of us to account and guides us through his previous experiences of building successful global companies in this space.
In summary, having three founders certainly brings challenges, but it also brings strength in depth. We recommend:
- Understanding your individual strengths and taking accountability for agreed swim lanes
- Practising effective communication to reach strong outcomes in good time
- Staying humble and seeking external support at the right time.
Martin, Fred and Nathan are co-founders of Quickfire Digital, an e-commerce performance agency specialising in the Shopify platform. Based in Norwich, the seven-figure agency employs 25 people, supports brands around the world, as well as working with multiple external specialists to drive their growth mission forward.