Business Lessons: 4 Things I’ve Learned in 4 Years at Canny

In 2012, I wrote a post called 12 Things I Learned in 12 Months of Business. In October 2016, we started our 4th year with Canny, so I thought it was time to write about some more of the things I’ve learned.

Don’t panic:

I’m not going to overload you with 48 Things I Learned in 48 Months of Business!

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Now that we’re well into our 4th year in business, I’m writing 4 Things I’ve Learned in 4 Years of Business, and exploring each of the issues raised in more depth.

We’re now four years on from when we started in 2012, and most of the 12 Things I Learned in 12 Months are still 100% valid. But, I’m guilty of letting some of them slip.

Here’s the thing:

I stopped marketing Canny because we got too busy.

But then, we hit another quiet patch, and I got worried. When that happened, I should have read back to the 2nd thing I learned in 2012: Don’t Ever Stop Marketing.

And that’s why Don’t Ever Stop Marketing is number one on my list this time around:

Don’t Ever Stop Marketing


When I started Canny, I was a plucky kid with a vision. Hell, I’m only 27 now. Perhaps, I’m still a plucky kid with a vision! I definitely still have the vision, although I’m not sure I’m a kid, anymore!

In the early days, I was solely focused on creating great work for clients, and that was it. I was forever working in the business and never on the business. And, to be honest, working on the business never crossed my mind in a huge way.

Creating great client work is fantastic and that’s what enabled Canny to move forward. We created and launched one great client project, and that client recommended us to a friend, and so on.

Our projects were snowballing. Positive word of mouth was spreading and generating us more work. And that was fantastic news for a new design agency based in Newcastle, England!


We were operating in small circles. We absolutely had to deliver, or our revenue stream would be cut off entirely. That was never a problem, as we always deliver, but it wasn’t exactly the safest of strategies for moving forward.

Eventually, we invested a lot of time into our blog and put together a basic marketing strategy.

We toyed with a few different blogging strategies:

Posting content once a day, once a week, once a month, not posting and more. This opened up several opportunities for us.

But, when we stopped engaging with our blog, the opportunities stopped.

Here’s what we found:

1. When we were posting once a day, our traffic crept up almost daily. However, we were only running short 200-300 word daily inspiration posts and for all the traffic skyrocketed; we didn’t see any leads or inquiries come through.

2. Posting longer-form blog posts — 2000-3000 words, perhaps — was the strategy that worked best. People were engaging with the content. And when we managed to keep this up for several weeks on end, both traffic and leads went off the chart.

Things got so busy that we had to stop.

3. Once a month is a little too infrequently to keep people engaged. The posts would get a little bit of interest and then simmer out.

Marketing a business is hard. And when you’re busy, finding the time to carry out marketing activities becomes even harder, especially when you’re committing to blogging every week.

However, we found the more we put into it, the more we got out.

And it’s a vicious circle.

If you write consistently over a period and publish regularly, things always appear to be on the up, and you’re always busy. If you stop, things slow right down, and you need to start again.

It’s important that you not stop. Keep pushing up that hill and marketing your business. Being busy is great as it allows you to turn down work you don’t want to do or even pass work on to other companies in your area.

We found that content marketing worked really well for Canny, and I’m sure many other channels would work well, too. It’s finding time to explore them all that’s the difficult part!

Our blog posts have led us to work in Canada, Egypt, Dubai, and Japan. And that leads us nicely on to the next point…

Go Where Your Clients Are


When we were blogging a lot, our inquiries were through the roof. We couldn’t move for leads coming in left, right, and centre.

We had some leads from our local area, from all around the country, and even from the opposite end of the world.

At the time, we had no idea how to handle this situation.

This is what happened:

One of our first international leads came from Canada. Thankfully, they were happy to work it all out via Skype. So over the course of several weeks and months, we built and delivered our first brand identity project to an overseas client, Bizpixplus.

They loved the identity that we created but decided they wanted a more “hands on the ground” approach when it came to developing their website. So, they went off to have their website made by a local creative partner (more on that later), but we kept chatting, and the relationship developed and matured.

Within several months of completing the work for Bizpixplus, we had a meeting with a rather interesting chap over in Tokyo.

Having not gotten to work on Bizpixplus’ website at the time because we weren’t local to them, I wasn’t ready to lose out on another opportunity.

When the call from Japan came, I volunteered to travel across the world to visit them. We went from our base in Newcastle, England all the way to Tokyo and Yokohama in Japan. It was quite a journey.


Needless to say, we got the project. And several months later, Shodai was born.

As we were arranging our trip to Japan, Bizpixplus popped back into our lives and explained the disastrous situation that had occurred with their chosen web design partner. And as we didn’t want them to make another mistake with their website, we arranged to go and meet them, too.

Travelling is always great fun, and getting to cross the world and meet clients is even better. Every time we go the extra length to meet our clients, it always ends in a fantastic working relationship and great new project opportunities.

From Japan to London to Toronto and back again, we’ve travelled the world for our clients and would recommend that if the opportunity arises, you do the same.

We now travel to London four times a year. Most of our clients are based there, and we now make a quarterly visit to catch up, talk about work, go out for food and drink, and really focus on building our client relationships because:

The Relationship is More Important Than the Money

Here’s the thing:


Everybody wants to make money. The thing is, in the long run, you’ll end up making more money by caring about your clients and not just hunting down the big money-oriented projects.

Over the four years that Canny has been in business, we’ve tried to make money both ways.

We started off working with people whose businesses we genuinely loved. They showed as much passion about their enterprises as we do about design.

The money we got paid working with this type of client wasn’t fantastic, or at least not at the outset. Starting budgets tended to be lower, but the relationship has lasted longer.

Because we helped out and shared our knowledge when people needed it, we’ve forged some fantastic relationships that will last forever.

Some of these first clients grew, and their budgets grew with them. Others haven’t grown, but as they were so thankful for the work, they referred friends who referred their friends, and so on.

And that type of relationship is invaluable to any forward-looking business.

At some point in the last four years, we let our better judgement become clouded. We took on lucrative paying work for clients that turned out to be troublesome to work with, and we regretted every second of it.

Eventually, we struck a middle ground. We managed to find clients that were hands-on and cared enough about their business and our relationship, and also had enough of a budget to see their projects through to the highest level.

There are a whole load of different famous internet marketing darlings and business people who are always saying, “Don’t chase the money; it’ll come to you.” And they’re right.

That’s exactly what happened to us. We started out by caring about our clients, our work and building the relationship rather than building our bank account. And it’s paid us back in the long term.

You Have To Build Trust


The next most important thing to build, after your client relationships, is trust. And trust comes in many forms.

As you build your client relationships, you slowly but surely begin to earn their trust. That’s a precious thing to have.

To be able to say things to your client such as:

“I don’t think that will work because of X,” and have them get fully behind that what you’re telling them is both fantastic and frightening. That trust is what builds the most solid relationships.

Here’s another:

“Have you looked at trying X and Y in your business?” Sometimes X and Y could be a rebrand, a new product line, some new advertising ideas, online content or something else entirely. More often than not, when we suggest things to clients, there is some work for us.

However, and this is important, we’re not doing it for the money. As mentioned above, the money will come when you’re not chasing it.

When we make suggestions to clients, it’s because we genuinely want to help them grow and improve their business. It’s not about us making a quick buck.

And when your clients trust you, they begin realising that you’re only suggesting things to them if you genuinely believe it will help them. Then, they commission the work, and the money comes in because you have their best interests at heart.

Away from clients, it’s also important to have trust in your colleagues and acquaintances.

I don’t mind telling you:

I’m a control freak. And that’s not great when it comes to business.

At some point in your life, you have to relinquish control over some aspects of your business.

You can’t do everything. One of my favourite entrepreneurs/bloggers, Chris Ducker, often talks about Superhero Syndrome. In fact, he even has a book called Virtual Freedom that deals with the topic in more detail.

You really can’t do everything yourself. And if you do, you’ll end up burning yourself out.


It doesn’t sound scary. Perhaps you get a little bit sick — a little bit fed up of your job. Maybe you’ll not rush into work so quickly in the morning; maybe you’ll have a bit of a lie-in.

That’s not it at all.

Chris ended up in hospital suffering from exhaustion. He talks about it openly in his podcast here.

I’ve never suffered burnout personally, but there came the point earlier this year where I was millimetres from going over the edge.

I did two things:

1) Stopped trying to take on everything myself by making several hires for Canny.

2) Booked a family holiday to Disneyworld, Florida to get away from it all.

I was only able to do that because I trusted people. I trusted my Commander-in-Chief to hold down the fort in my absence.

He was in charge of making sure all projects ran smoothly and on time. He had full access to my personal emails and could liaise with clients on my behalf.

It made me nervous, but I pushed through. And I’m happy to say that nothing went horribly wrong. There were a few minor hiccups, but they’ve been ironed out for next time.

As long as the same mistakes aren’t made twice, our process will forever improve.

Trusting the people you work for, the people you work with, and earning their trust back is one of the most important and rewarding things I’ve achieved in the four years that I’ve been running my own business.

It’s crazy to think that when I started Canny, there was so much doubt. My friends and family doubted me, the local business advisors doubted me, and I doubted myself.

Well, today I’m happy that I said, “To hell with it; I’m going to do it, anyway.” It’s been an adventurous four years, and here’s to many more!

Tony Hardy is the Founder and CEO of Canny Creative. He is a graphic designer, web designer, brand consultant, blogger, Newcastle based entrepreneur, drummer, and wrestling fan.


2 comments on “Business Lessons: 4 Things I’ve Learned in 4 Years at Canny

  1. Hary Shah on

    Hi Tony, loved your blog. I am a very young creative agency (focused on digital marketing), and I can relate to all of the above. I totally agree with your value system, and I see similar results from some of the same principles even in the short run. For me, the #1 point is the most useful—as we get so focused on delivering for our clients, that we don’t invest the time to market ourselves, and find leading edge things happening in our space.

    • Tony Hardy on

      Thank for commenting Harry! It’s really important we don’t get bogged down and forget to work on our businesses. Things really take an upswing if you work as hard on your own business as you do on your client projects.


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