New gen bosses: Sarah Johnson, co-founder of The Akin on how spending money on paying people fairly should be a priority


Published May 23, 2020 at 07:00 AM

Reading time: 4 minutes

New gen bosses is a new series created to guide and inspire more people to go out there on their own, either as new business founders or freelancers. And what better way to do that than to ask the ones that already succeed at it? We want to know about big fuck-ups and even bigger successes, and the risky decisions they had to make along the way. We want to be the last little push you needed.

Job title: Director
Industry: Advertising and marketing, design and innovation
Company founder or freelancer: Co-founder
Company website: The Akin
How long have you been doing it: In forecasting and insight for 10 years, but we founded The Akin 3 years ago
Age: 31
Location: London

What pushed you to start on your own?

I had already left the safety net of a full-time job 9 months before we started The Akin. I was in need of a break and wanted to explore freelance and set my own rhythm of life. That experience sparked my passion to create a new type of agency that really put people first over profit.

I sadly had some bad experiences with agencies; being mispaid, being cancelled without notice, being haggled on my value and worth. It was clear that the status quo and opacity of how the industry and agencies work was overdue a shake-up.

What was the very first thing you needed to do to set everything up?

The Akin began with a set of principles, we wrote a list of things we wanted this to be and, most importantly, not be. When I look back at those now, I am proud to say we still live by them. They have become our mantra and the lens we apply to decisions that are hard to make.

Those statements then expanded into a vision and proposition, which led to a pitch deck and the standard suite of resources needed to talk about ourselves. I think the thing that most new businesses struggle with is finding their values and the value they bring to clients and employees. When I hear people say they founded something ‘to do better work’, it is troubling. What is crucial is to explore the barriers you face doing that where you are, and how you can use those problems to create an environment that facilitates the type of work you want to do.

What was the riskiest decision you had to take?

There have been a few hurdles we have faced and so many risks we have had to take, and as The Akin believes in radical honesty, I guess I should lay them bare.

Our first one was choosing to buy out one of our original co-founders—it was an extremely hard and emotionally taxing decision as she was a friend and an important person in my life. She, at that moment, was in a different life stage and needed something different than what the business could offer. It was clear it was selfish to encourage her to stay, but she was a huge part of the fervour of The Akin.

We weren’t sure if the business would survive to lose the cash flow we would have to expend, or if losing her (who rightly has an amazing reputation) would challenge our legitimacy or appearance of stability. I also personally wasn’t sure if I had the mental resilience to lose her as a colleague. It took time but we got through it.

The second was deciding to weather the two-year shit storm that no one tells you about. Into Q1 of our second year, the financial pressure of losing good cash flow took its toll, and our shiny newness had faded. We hit a dry spell and had projects that kept being delayed. We had to go into crisis mode and make the ultimate decision whether to continue but take no salaries for the foreseeable. We stayed with it, fought with everything we had and survived, coming back stronger than ever.

As they say, risk can reap rewards but fuck it takes its toll on your wrinkle and grey hair count.

What was a skill you didn’t foresee needing that you had to learn?

Caution. I have a ‘why not’ mentality, which makes me great to go to New Orleans with but not great at super serious decisions. I am also an ‘over-functioner’ and tend to gung-ho into a crisis or challenge but I can also go too far or make calls too quickly. Luckily, I have a German Virgo for a business partner, so we balance each other out and she has taught me an enormous number of things—especially the need for caution. Especially when deciding not to drive into a private property in the deep desert of Arizona… hugely thankful for her call on that one!

New gen bosses: Sarah Johnson, co-founder of The Akin, on how spending money on paying people fairly should be at the top of your priorities

At what moment did you realise that this was going to work out?

The day we officially launched, we had an event at the Ace Hotel, who kindly gave us their 100 room. We were really questioning if we were about to make total fools of ourselves, 30 minutes before the event began we got an email confirming our winning of a Google project. Later that night, we looked around a full room, caught each other’s eyes and knew we had made something. Suffice to say there was a lot of tears, large amounts of champagne drunk and feeling like Beyoncé in Lemonade.

What did you spend your money on?

We spent (and still spend) our money on paying people fairly. Our overheads are low and our proposition is to work with the right talent and pay them their worth.

What was your biggest fuck up?

Happy to say that the fuck ups have been relatively low level. One we now know from the year two Q2 disaster was, we should have invested and focused more on new business when things looked good. It is something you have to always have resources on.

What was your biggest success?

Our biggest success is creating a sustainable thriving company that gives us space to live the lives that we want to. We have worked on some amazing projects that have sent us to some amazing places and allowed us to meet some amazing people. I don’t know how we can top the memories and the happiness it has given us and will keep giving us.

New gen bosses: Sarah Johnson, co-founder of The Akin, on how spending money on paying people fairly should be at the top of your priorities

What do you know now that you didn’t know then?

That I am not an imposter, I have the legitimacy to have an opinion and be heard by global CEOs and fortune 500 brands alike. I think something that many female founders struggle with is feeling like because they are young or just starting out in running an agency, they are ‘playing’ founders.

…And that doing expenses on time is not a pain, and saves you money in the long run.

What are three tips you would give someone who wants to start on their own?

One: Your network is your lifeline and nurturing it is crucial, it is also your safety net.

Two: Know why you are doing it and how you are creating value with it, see it as a ‘raison d’être’.

Three: Blind faith isn’t useful, have scenarios and crisis plans ready, at a minimum for your mental health.

Want to discuss taking the leap with other new gens? You’re in luck! We’ve created New Gen Bosses, a Facebook group to continue and expand the conversation started through this new series.

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