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The Value of Operations in Scaling your Agency, with Jhana Li – Episode 103




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Last updated Mar 26, 2024


The Value of Operations in Scaling your Agency, with Jhana Li – Episode 103

Last updated Mar 26, 2024 | 0 comments



This week, Jhana Li, founder at Spyglass Ops, joins Marcel to discuss all things agency operations, not to mention its value in terms of scaling your agency.

About Jhana Li

Jhana Li has over 4 years experience specializing in operations for digital startups. At the start of her career, she served as COO for two 7-figure businesses (an agency, followed by a coaching program for marketing agencies). Since then, she’s become an operations consultant to dozens of agencies, plus Ops Coach to hundreds more! She specializes in match-making digital businesses with the operational expertise, system, and team required to sustainably scale.

Her passion lies in scaling purpose-based businesses and partnering with founding entrepreneurs to unlock their highest impact and potential. An avid advocate of work-life harmony, she led her first business from a converted van traveling through the Americas. These days, you’ll catch her building products on her computer while on rock-climbing trips in the American West, or taking calls from the ski lift!

Hop on the episode below:

Points of Interest…

  • Why Agency Operations are Often Ignored 1:12
  • Defining Agency Operations Vs Project Management 4:21
  • Critical Agency Operations Skill Sets 8:00
  • Where Operations Managers Get Bogged Down 12:38
  • Helping an Operations Manager Grow & Add Value 17:27
  • How Ops Managers Contribute to Agency Profitability 23:28

Why Agency Operations are Often Ignored

In her own words, Jhana sees herself as the ops matchmaker – in that she diagnoses critical bottlenecks within a digital business. After identifying the core bottlenecks and barriers preventing a specific agency from scaling, Jhana and her team then match the optimum operator that can plug that skillset/set of knowledge into the business.

“We do operations, recruitment, and hiring. We do operations coaching and training. All of that is around plugging the operational gap in a business and ensuring you – as the business owner – have the operator you need to scale up effectively.”

As for what lured Jhana to operations – or, what she describes as “the black sheep of the business family?” Well, it may not be the sexiest facet of your business, but it is ESSENTIAL. So someone needs to give it some love, right?!

“If I was to ask the average business owner to define operations for me, they wouldn’t be able to. If you can’t offer a definition of it, let alone understand really intricately how it drives value to your business, then you’re never gonna invest in it when you need to.”

Moreover, you’re never going to be able to maximize the value that it brings to your company. This glaring lack of standardization and understanding around operations doesn’t help businesses and it certainly doesn’t help the operators – it’s serving no one. To put it another way; Jhana and I are broccoli salespeople. Everyone else is selling leads, sales, and branding – all of that is chocolate. It’s very sumptuous and exciting. Yet the thing that everybody actually needs – that being the broccoli – is A LOT harder to sell. Especially when you don’t even know what it is…

Defining Agency Operations Vs Project Management

What are operations? How is such a nebulous thing best defined? If I asked 10 different people, I would invariably get 10 different answers… And that’s why we have an expert on every two weeks, so our listeners/readers can get into the right context for the episode. So, Jhana, you’re up to bat…

“My definition of operations is any action required within a business to optimize a company’s use of its core resources. Those resources are time, energy, money, and human potential. These resources work in your business every single day. You have a finite amount of them – and it’s your operator’s job to maximize the ROI, right?”

In other words, your operator’s purpose is to ensure all your resource investment is actually generating revenue, growth, and profitability. How do they do that? Through our dear and very necessary friends, the humble SOPs, Project Management, meetings, and so forth. Jhana considers all of the aforementioned “tools in your tool belt”, while operations is the most efficient use of said tools/resources.

At this juncture, you’re probably thinking – but what’s the difference between that and project or delivery management?! Well, the difference is that usually Project Managers are often “voluntold” they’re moving into operations and in charge of that at some point during the agency growth process. In actuality, project management and operations are two very different beasts.

“People use the term interchangeably because, in their brain, it’s exactly the same thing. If you are hiring a project manager, the desired outcome of said role is the right work gets done; they’re managing tasks, activity, and execution as organized and efficient as possible. Operations is so much more than that. It’s this giant umbrella of which project management is a small component.”

What an operator is in charge of is taking a much bigger view of the company and scale, while asking how are we going to scale to our goals? The desired outcome of an amazing operator is profitability and targets being hit across the entire company. That is such a larger lens and larger scope of work than “the right work getting done.”

***We dig into this more from 7:03 minutes***

Critical Agency Operations Skill Sets

In terms of skillset development; if I’m a person that’s coming from ops or an owner that’s perhaps wanting to get my project manager trained up to lead operations, what are the critical skill sets they need to develop in order to be successful in the role?

“Number one; they have to broaden their scope across the entire business. Project management is totally focused on the backend – it’s fulfillment. An operator, however, is focused across the entire thing. You have to understand marketing, sales, client success, plus fulfillment, and how all these things fit together.”

Side note: our Agency Profit Toolkit is a one stop shop for you to be able to outline some of these crucial profitability numbers to a potential buyer. Spreadsheets, templates and training videos, you name it, it’s all in the toolkit. Grab yours free at the link below:

Secondly, in addition to expanding your knowledge of the business in a more holistic manner, you also need to get really good at…

“Human influence. You need to think beyond ‘How am I gonna build the system’, and into ‘How do we get people to buy into using it.’ Building the thing is only 40% of the job.”

Thirdly, in Jhana’s ample experience, she finds that strategic decision-making is a key component to being a successful Ops Manager. The job isn’t just looking at the here and now, it’s about projection – where is the company headed? That last statement alone requires breaking down further into the following…

  • Where do you see the company failing?
  • If you have a six-month game plan, what systems are likely to break?
  • What team members need to be hired or fired?
  • What’s required to build and reinforce the existing infrastructure?

Then, you need to hone all of the skills to create the necessary solutions. By way of a snapshot, these include re-sorting meetings; hiring people; building SOPs; reconfiguring sales; and CRM, for starters. These are all of the tacticals that should come from an overarching set of skills, which is diagnostic in nature, but ultimately results in knowing where you’re going and what you need to get you there. ***More on this from 10:19 mark***

Where Operations Managers Get Bogged Down

Where does an operations person create the most leverage? Conversely, what kind of stuff bogs them down the most? I’ve seen this time and time again… a business owner starts to see operations as a very tactical and administrative role. Therefore, the ops person winds up getting completely held back by all these little tasks that are – let’s face it – really below their pay grade.

The result? They’re no longer able to think strategically about the business because they don’t have the bandwidth to do so. So, where does Jhana see ops managers being held back, and ideally, where should they be spending their time?

“Operations is not firefighting. Not inherently. You might have to do some as part of the role, but that’s not the job, or the goal. Operations is not being an executive assistant, or what I can ‘the rebound borg’ – which is just the person everyone goes to because they don’t know who else to go to. Operations is not the garbage collector. Operations IS to create the necessary systems where those messes aren’t a problem in the first place. “

You can’t grow in the role, and your business owner can’t support you in the role if you’re spending all your time putting out fires and cleaning messes. You need to be creating increasing efficiencies across time, energy, money, and human potential that’s measurable.

This is Jhana’s experienced definition of success that you can drive towards, get on the same page, and then you can ask yourself the question, “Okay, does cleaning up this mess contribute to increases inefficiency gains? Does fighting this fire help me get the data that I need to understand why this fire happened in the first place?

Operations does not involve launching everything at one person. After all, there are only so many hours in the day, which gives rise to the inevitability that your ops person will – themselves – become a huge bottleneck, backed into a corner in the business where they aren’t doing any strategic thinking.

Helping an Operations Manager Grow & Add Value

The biggest shift that needs to happen in the mind of the business owner to be successful in helping their operator grow and add value is recognizing the benefit of how said operator views things.

“As a business owner, nine times out of ten, you are thinking about your company through a very non-operational lens. The true value of operations isn’t SOPs getting built out or meetings happening, right? It is a unique lens, a way of perceiving the company through the lens of systems and inefficiencies, gaps, and streamlining. It’s a wholly different worldview that they’re bringing to bear on your business.”

The job of an ops manager isn’t to replace you, it’s to view things differently and to devise things in a way that you would never come up with by yourself. Because the way you were doing it wasn’t working. Their job is to step in and fully redesign this thing so that there are fewer fires, fewer messes or – preferably – neither of the aforementioned.

In order for that to happen, you need to respect that the operator knows what they’re doing; they’re not a second pair of hands, they’re an entirely new way of strategic thinking. So, ideally, you shouldn’t be the person training your operator. Why? Because we’ve established you’re not approaching the running of the business in the most effective way!

In order to maximize them as a lever for growth, then you need to find someone who can train them up in this new unique way of strategizing. For example, I have an amazing co-founder who thinks in an entirely different way, which means one of us is the risk taker, while the other stops the risk taker from burning the business to the ground ***More on the benefits of pushback from 19:25 minutes***

How Ops Managers Contribute to Agency Profitability

How do operations managers and operations departments contribute to the profitability of the company? Is that something they should be thinking about within the sphere of their responsibility?

“When I was COO for my seven-figure agency, I would say the average account manager could probably handle between like 30 to 40 client accounts if they were doing well. My account managers were handling between 80 and 100 client accounts each They were so supported by systems and automation, alongside really efficient meetings and clean SOPs.”

The point is, if you build the right ecosystem around your team, that allows them to be as efficient and productive as possible, they now have the potential to double the productivity and revenue output per person. If we’re thinking about profitability; the salary that you don’t have to pay to the account manager that you don’t have to hire because your guys are so productive, that money drops straight to the bottom line, right?

***Myself and Jhana dive straight onto our respective soapboxes from 24:43. Do join us, won’t you?***

Key Takeaway

To recap, Jhana’s three Top Ops Manager Skillsets include the following…

  1. Scope broadening
  2. Human influence
  3. Strategic decision-making in terms of business projection

The end goal? Developing the necessary Operations Management skillset which requires looking ahead and then reverse engineering what it’s going to look like for the company in its entirety. The Ops Manager is the steward of the entire system. You no longer have the luxury of merely being able to don the blinders and focus on your one area of the business.

You see, the thing nobody wants to admit about leadership is that it’s just about learning how to make compromises. You’re never making the best decision, you’re just picking the least shitty one in a lot of cases! And that just gets worse and worse the bigger the company gets. Right?

However, there are efficient solutions for getting your time back. Your job, as agency owner, is to always be running that calculation for your time and everybody else’s around how to ensure everyone’s time is being used as effectively and high value add as possible.

See more from Jhana…

Did you learn anything new from this episode? Let us know in the comments below! We have helpful blogs designed to bolster your agency profitability, such as How To Calculate Your Billable Employee Cost-Per-Hour.

Our next installment of #APP, on January 11th, will see Marcel chat with Paul Higgins for our 104th edition. Our previous blog – Episode 103 with Sharon Toerek – can be viewed here…

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