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Episode 94: Why One Size Doesn't Fit All Agencies, with Maggie Patterson


On this episode of THRIVE — sponsored by Workamajig — Kelly and Maggie Patterson, founder of Scoop Studios, discuss the myths that exist around running an agency and how to trust your instincts as a leader.



EP 94: Why One Size Doesn't Fit All Agencies, with Maggie Patterson

Duration: 18:38



Kelly: So welcome to Thrive, your agency resource. There are certainly a lot of perceptions and assumptions out there as to what an agency should be. So today we're talking about why one size doesn't fit all agencies. And my guest is Maggie Patterson, who is the owner and editorial director of Scoop Studios in Ottawa. Maggie, thank you so much for joining me today. I'm really excited to talk with you.


Maggie: Thank you so much for having me Kelly. I cannot wait for this conversation because I know what's coming.


Kelly: Well, you told me that when you started your agency about six years ago, you and your business partner actually lived in different countries. So you had to figure it out, you had to essentially look at a different way than all of the other agencies that you had seen around you. Can you talk a little bit about that and the emerging start of the business?


Maggie: Yeah, so we had been in this collaborative relationship for quite some time where I would do work for her, she would do work for me. And one day, we were having this conversation and I was like, “I am going to start an agency.” And she looked at me and said, “Me too. And we had such a great working relationship that we literally spent a full year planning out what it would look like to come together. So it wasn't like a hasty decision because there's a lot of complexity. We have cross border issues. We also had team members that we were already working with that were distributed. So we're like, okay, how are we going to make this work? She's in Indiana. I'm in Ontario. It’s very messy. So we had to do a lot of planning. But we had a very interesting experience in that a lot of people were like, wait, you can't do that? Or how does that work? But once people kind of got over that and we’re like, oh, look at us, we're blazing a new path for something that people don't typically do. And, we had a really strong working relationship for two and a half years and some personal circumstances resulted in her exiting the business, but it was the most amicable business breakup in all time, which is another thing. We often see the co-founders of an agency having a big creative difference. And we're still really, really good friends. We talk almost every day. So there's so many different ways we can do this, whether that be cross border, or how we're exiting our co-owner relationship.


Kelly: Yeah, it sounds like a conscious uncoupling to me.


Maggie: Yes, I mean, I'll be honest, I was a little angry for about two days. And then I was like, okay, I can see this isn't the best thing for you. And I as your friend, I'm going to put that relationship first and support you. And I will figure out what we're going to do next with the agency now with you exiting.


Kelly: Yeah. So that brings us to this next idea of figuring out what to do with the agency. Right? You and I sort of both have this rub around, do it yourself boot camps. And we see these ads coming up on Facebook, and an Instagram and all these different things for these sort of what we might even call fear based, even exploitative profit over people, courses, and these ads, and these things that are out there are really focusing on the idea that an agency leader or an agency owner is a practitioner first, and doesn't actually know how to run the business. So let's start to dispel some of those myths about why those actually don't work for most agencies, let alone trying to make them work for all agencies.


Maggie: Yeah, I love this question. And it's something that is actually a big reason I personally started mentoring agency owners, because I was working with a lot of freelancers, a lot of people who are pressing and they kept coming to me saying, should I do this boot camp, but I was like, no, don't do this boot camp. And, the reasons I had when we would have those conversations for don't do this boot camp was, do you understand that this is just the kind of get rich quick scheme that's being hustled by the bro marketers and online business people. Maybe we've exhausted the extent of the course market so now we're going to start going after agency owners and the blueprint they are pitching is very like you said, exploitative. It's about making as much money as possible. It's about getting you to your seven figures while you sleep kind of mentality. And it's tapping into the worst parts of us as agency owners. So many of us start our businesses, as agency owners, as you said, like practitioners. I'm a copywriter. I'm a content marketer. I didn't necessarily have all the skills to start an agency. Now I will say I did have a leg up because I did work in an agency for a long time. I did have a partner with many agencies as a freelancer. So I had a really good idea of all the things I didn't want to do when I started my own agency. And I think that's part of the reason I was just kind of like rulebook there, and knowing that those blueprints weren't there, but I think, I don't know, you've really got to watch for those signs of like, does this sound too good to be true? How does this make me feel? Do I trust this person? And what kind of business model are they personally running? If you can look at them and their agency and be like, hey, they're actually hiring $3 hour, people on their team in the Philippines, if that's not the type of business model I want to run because most of us are doing this in a place where it's not just about us acquiring wealth. It’s about really having a team that benefits from the collective efforts of the agency as the entire company, not just you as the owner. So there's so much to unpack there Kelly.


Kelly: I know. We could spend an hour just on that alone. But I want to actually build on something that you said, because I think it's important. You were talking about do I trust this person? When you're looking at those things as a way to vet it. I think it's do I trust this person? And then also, do I trust my own intuition? Because that then sort of leads to this idea that, as agency owners, and you mentor agency owners as well so you know this, we can give them permission to create the agency that they want, not necessarily following a blueprint of what everyone else is doing. Clearly COVID has made that more true than ever before, right? Because now we had to be remote teams for the last year, probably another six months at least. But yeah, it's like trusting that you have the ability to do whatever you want. You can create literally the agency that you want in terms of the type of team, where they're located, the service offerings; we'll get into that in a minute. But talk a little bit about more of this. And, one of the reasons why more clients from what you're saying are actually more open to working with these micro agencies as we're calling them.


Maggie: Yeah, personally, I could not be more excited about this, because I was like, oh, things are changing. I've been waiting. And the changes we're seeing. Obviously COVID has changed everything in terms of remote teams. And I know you've talked about that a ton already on the podcast. But the other things that are happening are companies are a little more budget conscious. So they're willing to look at alternatives to where they are paying for extra layers and layers of management and complication in these big agencies. I mean, I come from a big agency, I know exactly what that looks like. They're looking for ways to have people that are very involved in the account team, not these big teams, where they're training the juniors. They're looking for people who are the best at their craft, not necessarily the biggest, or the flashiest agency that's going to send them the really fancy Christmas gift. I think there's a greater willingness and understanding to embrace that. And I think, I'm seeing with some of my clients that own agencies, it's like opportunities that I literally two years ago, could never have imagined would be on the table. And I know, we've seen that, for us, our team to like, I'm always, is this really happening? Like the quality and the caliber of the companies that will come to us, and a lot of things have just been stripped away, that would have been a barrier attempt. They don't need to come to our office. They’re okay with us being distributed. They’re okay with us specializing in one specific thing. A lot of those rules have just been like, literally burnt down. And that really works for us, as small or micro agency owners.


Kelly: Yeah, I'm actually seeing the same thing with my agency clients. So that all checks out. [Commercial] To that end though, can you actually share an example of how sort of giving permission to a client really led  to a substantial impact for them?


Maggie: So one of my clients I mentor, I always think of her because she runs a very similar agency to what I do. She does content marketing, and she was struggling with something I had struggled with years before, was that I have to do everything and the perfect example was, she had these clients who wanted video production. And she's no interest. She's a writer. She's just like, I can write your scripts, but she got embroiled in managing independent contractors and video shoots on location and illustrators doing animations. And she came to me and she's like, Maggie, I can't do this anymore. It's like, so dope, right? I was like, wrap up the contracts you have, and you no longer offer the service. And the second she did that, you could see the weight was lifted. We've all been there as agency owners, the thing that's like, kind of tethering us down, the weight was lifted. And she discovered that those services were not profitable. They were draining so much of her time that she didn't have time to run the business. And then from there, a lot of things were able to open up for her. And she, after that, started cutting out different things. And I'm always forever encouraging people to be like, do you really like that service? Because every time you talk about it, you get this look on your face.


Kelly: And so just to turn that back on you for a second, you actually did that in your own agency, right? I mean, I know I did it when I had my agency. We cut social media marketing and management. I was like, it's not profitable, four quarters in a row, like we hate doing it. Done. But what did you do in your agency?


Maggie: Yeah, so it's been a wild adventure. But one of the things we did is we started off full service, like I think so many of us do, because we think, no one's going to hire me if I don't offer all the things.


Kelly: Oh, can you pause and say that again? So it really lands with people because this is a myth.


Maggie: Yeah, we think that people are not going to hire us if we don't do all the things, that we have to be good at all the things when really, you can't be good at all the things. So we started off with websites. I don't like website projects. They’re long. They go over budget. I don't like them. But we are doing them because we thought we had to. And we did a lot of websites, and I hated every one of them. We were doing a lot of text setup, a lot of email marketing management, a lot of integrations on things. And I was just like, this is not for us. So we basically exited an entire half of our business, anything to do with tech and web. We were like, bye. So we only do content marketing now. And specifically, not just content marketing, but content production, focusing on blogs, because I like it. I don't want to do social media management. It’s not profitable. We are writers. And that's what we do best. So we can come up with your strategy and help you execute that strategy. And a lot of times, this means we don't go into certain opportunities. Like I had an amazing RFP for a company I'm like, just cannot wait to work with. But I was like, hey, it's not a fit, maybe later. Director of content, I had a great chat. And I know there'll be an opportunity in the future because I was honest with her versus kind of contorting us to get to meet the requirements of the RFP because I like them so much.


Kelly: Yeah, that's a great point too. I think we recently talked about the RFP process and all the inherent issues with that. But one of the things that came out of that conversation with Sophia Story was really around this idea of advocating for yourself, and again, this is in line with one size doesn't fit all four agencies, we could say that about RFP is too. And that's inherently why that process is broken, because you're trying to have people bid on something where there's very little creativity. It’s very self-prescriptive. There's an allocated budget, all of these different things. But what I hear you saying is that you advocated for yourself, you stood up for your company, and you did not have the fear of, hey, we probably are not going to get this client if we don't say that we can do everything. And so what that does is it tells you or tells your team that you trust them. It does so many things for the agency. And at the end of the day, that director that you talked to respected you for it, and will absolutely come back and say, okay, now we understand that when we need your particular services, we will come back for that service. So yeah, let's start to wrap up around that idea because I think that's really important here.


Maggie: So I think this goes back to as we were talking about a few minutes ago with trust and self-trust, and I talked about this a ton, in every aspect of my life, not just in business. But how do we say, hey, you know what, this isn't the best opportunity, and just knowing that there will be another opportunity. And I think one of the funniest lessons for me of 2020 was, I had the initial like COVID client drop off where it was like three clients freaked out and they were like, oh, our budgets. But guess what? They all came back. But through 2020, I was just like, you know what? We have a choice as a team and we talked about it at length. It was like we can start to chase opportunities that are not a fit, or we can have faith that this will work out, because it always has worked out. So trusting in the skills you and your team have, trusting your team to collaborate with you on decisions, and then trusting your own instincts as a business owner and as an agency owner. You just have to constantly build that muscle because we don't just show up fully formed and go, hey, you know what, I'm really good at making every single decision. And some of the decisions are going to feel hard at the time. But Kelly, I've never looked back and been like, oh, I regret doing that. Whenever I just lean into trusting myself, trusting my team, it always does work out.


Kelly: Yeah, I think that's great. But for me, it sounds like you called it faith. I think I would call it a healthy detachment from the idea of meeting the business. Right? I think that's a really hard thing for agency owners to really embody because it does take courage. It does take bravery to say, hey, we're not the right fit for you. Or, man, there's a ton of money on the table. But like, it's just not the right fit for our vertical or our team or our skill set, or our core strengths, whatever it might be years ago. I don't know if I've actually even shared the story on the show before, but years ago, we had Johnson and Johnson come to us when I had the agency, and they wanted us to build something for their pharmaceutical sales reps. And literally, the woman said to me, on the phone, “We want you to build this tablet application, iPad application for the sales reps so that they feel like they are selling something that is going to be good, that is going to be beneficial.” And the way that she said it, just stuck with me. And I was like it was a ton of money. I mean, it was an enormous amount of money, probably one of the top three largest projects that had come into the agency as a lead. And I remember saying, Hey, can I take the weekend to think about it?” And I came in on Monday. And it was very clear. It was very clear, right? If it's not a definite yes, that's a definite no. And we passed on the project. And she's very similar to your story about the director. She said, I really respect your decision. And by the way, you're like the fifth agency to give me that same response. So it just goes to show that you really stick with the integrity and core values of your agency, and you will always make the right decision.


Maggie: Yeah. And I mean, you're also probably going to make some not so great decisions along the way that will remind you.


Kelly: Sure.


Maggie: Like we've all had those situations of the money is there, we could use the money, would help us meet our goal or whatever it is, the motivator for that, and then we do it. And then we have deep, deep regret. I have definitely done that. And it will never happen again because I just can't. I don't have it in me. My mental health, the sanity of my team, the hard boundaries there just, no, no. And I've learned that the hard way.


Kelly: Yeah, I would love to end with that note in terms of boundaries, because I think the better ourboundaries are, the more successful we are as leaders and as agencies. So Maggie, thank you so much for joining me on the show. I really, really love this conversation.


Maggie: Thank you so much for having me.

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Episode 93: Can a Company Have a Calling?, with Madeline Pratt


On this episode of THRIVE — sponsored by Workamajig — Kelly and Madeline Pratt discuss how we, as business owners and leaders, can create a company that is aligned with our greater purpose and the equity we want to see in the world.



EP 93: Can a Company Have a Calling?

Duration: 28:10


Kelly: So welcome to Thrive, your agency resource. Today, we're talking about greater purpose and equity. My guest is the incomparable Madeline Pratt, Founder & CEO at Fearless Foundry, which is a creative consultancy for entrepreneurs who believe that the purpose of their work in the world is to rebuild it for the better. Madeline, thank you so much for joining me. I’m super excited to have you here.


Madeline: I’m super excited too Kelly. It's a great way to start my day.


Kelly: Absolutely. Tattoos and everything. So we're talking a little bit about, the theme here, like can a company have a calling? I know you and I would answer that as yes. There are a lot of people for whom this would be a new theme or a new topic of conversation so just curious--how did you personally discover your calling for your company?


Madeline: So it was an interesting kind of recurring pattern that happened in my life. Prior to starting my company, I was in the world of FinTech and I was doing a lot of global business development work, traveling a lot, and my joke is that like I would be in all these different situations. I would be in a spa sauna. I would be waiting in line at Starbucks. I would be just anywhere around and doing my life. And a woman I completely didn't know would walk up to me and say, “Hey, I’m thinking about starting a business. Do you know anything about that?” And then she would just like pitch me on the spot and it was the weirdest thing that would continue to happen. I had a lot of friends at the same time who were kind of starting to approach the idea of building their own businesses and I was constantly being pulled into these conversations of, “Hey, I’m thinking about setting up a website. Do you know how to use Squarespace?” Or “I want to be able to do appointment booking on Instagram. Do you know how to integrate that?” And what I recognized was there was this consistent confidence gap as women were venturing into entrepreneurship particularly around marketing and branding and tech. And although I love my work in the business development world, I was like finding myself all day just kind of dreaming about what would it be like to build a business around helping entrepreneurs build companies of their own. And so, I spent about a year and a half like sketching out these ideas in a notebook and slowly realized over time, “Wow, there's something really valuable here.” And it's all I can think about. So about two years after this conversation started, I rolled into starting the Foundry.


Kelly: Amazing. And there's something that you say that really, right now is the right time for business owners to kind of bring forth their true brand. What do you mean by that?


Madeline: So what I think happens a lot when we approach the idea of starting a company is we consider, what is the safest plate we can make. We think that in order to be accepted in the business world we have to kind of fit into a really narrow box. I see this a lot because I have a background like I said in FinTech in accounting and so there'll be people who will just follow the model of what they've seen other businesses do. It's going to be so and so and so and so. And they're not going to embrace the brand identity that really speaks to who they are or who they want to serve because they feel like I’ve got to just be open to whatever comes my way so that I can pay my bills. And what I think happens in that instance is you start saying yes to everybody and you really lose sight of why you got into business in the first place. And so, it's really important for event brands and businesses and leaders to look at who are the people that I’m really here to serve and how can I build a brand that speaks directly to those humans. And the thing that we see because we work so much in this space is that when people step boldly forward and put themselves out there with a brand identity that really speaks to their ideal client, suddenly all of that noise falls away and you're able to have a conversation really directly and call in the people that you're meant to work with rather than wasting your time on people who are ill-aligned or don't really value what you do in the first place.


Kelly: Yeah. I think that that's extremely true and it's not that different from when we talk about like positioning messaging and making sure that you're focusing on who your ideal clients are and what you actually do in the world and not making it so generalist that it says everything to no one. But what you're talking about is actually deeper from the brand identity standpoint. You're talking about actually like making your mark in a way that's very differentiated from everyone else in the space and doing that from a place of authenticity, right?


Madeline: Yeah. And I think the thing that we're all scared of is showing our true selves and this is what this process is about. And one of the things that has been such a delight in our business and in the work that we do is helping people uncover that true identity and then embrace it in a much bigger way. I think business gives us an opportunity to really step into the qualities or attributes that maybe we're even diminished or we were told like for myself I grew up being told you're too bossy and you need to just sit in your place. Even in the corporate world, I was a little bit of a rule-breaker because I had all these tattoos and like I spent all this time hiding who I was because I was told by like the traditional powers that you can't be this way in business. And what I found in stepping into that role myself is I’m able to work with people that I love, every single day I’m able to attract clients that are curious and excited about those sides of who I am. I’m able to run a great team because I do have a clear vision and direction of where I’m going. And so I love being able to be that self all day long and I love being able to help other founders embrace it in their work.


Kelly: Yeah. And I think it's important because what you're touching on is like the fact that you and I have talked about this before that you're not actually siloing yourself. You're not saying like here's who I am at home and the audience is used to me saying this, but here's who I am at home and I put different clothes on and therefore I’m like this other persona in my business or professional world. I think that there's so much fear still around being able to do that, to take that step. So what you're talking about is like being on the other side of it as I am as well, just owning who you are, being unapologetic about who you are, what you're actually doing for your company, for your team, for your clients, is essentially like putting a sign out there that says this is who we really are, if you believe what we believe come on board. And so, there's no time or effort or energy spent on anything other than authenticity and by extension you work with the people who get you excited every day, not people who are just their like paying your bills.


Madeline: And you build stronger relationships too, like this is the thing that excites me most is like I genuinely say to clients, coaching clients like love you, take care of yourself, or just the teams that we get to work with and some of our client organizations. We have these great rapports because there's no pretense. There's no façade. We're not like I say putting on your business pants and pretending to be somebody else and particularly right now during kind of this COVID climate I think that that's really transformational for people. I remember this moment early on in the pandemic I was collaborating with one of our clients team members and he has five kids at home. They're all running around and he was visibly flustered during a call we were having and I could just see that disconnect where he was still trying to be like, okay I’m my business self here, I’ve got to be professional, and all hell is breaking loose in the background. And I was just able to say, hey man, just take a second. And that's always what we say. We're like just take your moment, like take a breath, go handle those children, like if anything they're a delight to all of us, we're smiling but like don't stress yourself out even more. Just handle what you need to handle and then get back and we can get back to work. And it was really interesting to just watch the psychology shift from like suddenly his shoulders dropped and he was able to take a deep breath and it was this realization of I don't have to worry when I’m in an interaction with you like this is not upsetting you and I think that that has continued to evolve over the pandemic. But still for a lot of us, there's this pretense that that we're playing for zoom and so I hope that that by showing up in the way that I do every day that I can kind of help other leaders start modeling that behavior so that people can just learn to kind of embrace a little bit more of who they are every single day.


Kelly: Yeah. One of the other things that you say that I really love is that entrepreneurship is the true path to equity but entrepreneurship has also been extremely glamorized so I want to talk a little bit about that because I think that that's an important topic to cover as well.


Madeline: Yeah. So I mean I think that this comes out of the world of Instagram and maybe like a small dose of shark tank but it was like something happened post 2010 where everybody was talking about like oh my gosh I’m an entrepreneur as I called it, like entrepreneur because unless you're actually making revenue it's not really business. But there is this idea that being an entrepreneur is the most amazing thing in the world and in many ways it is but I also don't believe that everybody is cut out for it. There is a lot of stress. There is a lot of burden. It is a proverbial roller coaster every single day and without mental toughness and the ability to dedicate time to your own personal development as a leader, you're not going to survive. And we see this like many small businesses fail and so what I believe is that we really have to look at ourselves prior to going into business and say am I cut out for this, do I just have a great idea or do I have the wherewithal to really build a business around it. And for me the thing that I want to see shift in our world is innovative business models that are designed to do something differently, solve a big major problem, systemic inequalities, take action toward social justice and those are all amazing causes that we can each    individually care about. But unless we have longevity and business models behind them, it's not going to make an impact and the biggest lesson for me this past year really was seeing the way that traditional business has been built doesn't really work for a lot of us. And so for me and particularly identifying as a woman, watching so many women have left the workplace like it has been such an indicator that the traditional model of business is broken and so if we want to get to a more equitable world, we need to step out of those corporate environments and start new companies that allow for us to reshape. And even in my own business, it's things like offering flexible leave offering. We do something around flex holidays so that if you practice a particular religion or have a spiritual belief that requires you to take different days off than the traditional 12 holidays, we have something built into our business model around it and what I see is it's going to take a lot of time for government and large corporations to create those different systems in business. But in entrepreneurship, we have the opportunity to write the roadblock so we can come in and say no, this is how we do things and build business models that are better for everybody in the long term.


Kelly: I love that, and the holidays are a great example of how you've actually taken that to heart and really imparted that in Fearless Foundry. What are some of the other ways that you've kind of like really embodied that in your culture?


Madeline: It's been interesting because everything has been in a process of disruption because it started when we were building our first employee contracts and I did what anybody would do, you go out on the internet.


Kelly: Search for free templates.


Madeline: Yeah, here's the template for a hiring agreement and you download it and you look at it and you go, well, I don't agree with that and I don't agree with that. And so one of the first glaring ones was developing maternity leave policy. We had several employees who are younger women who plan to have family someday and that was a really key part of the negotiation process and like half the templates we looked at didn't even have that and then the ones that did had language where it was clearly written by a human who's never encountered children and it was all based of government paradigm. So like you get six weeks of unpaid leave and then it's up to us, to do what we want with your job. And having been through that construct myself, had a baby in a corporate environment and just feeling completely screwed over by the system, I was like this is not the way we're going to do things. And so, it was an opportunity for me to reflect as a leader and shape a policy that I think is actually supportive and encouraging of our team to grow their families and also to be excited to come back to work after six months of paid leave. So that was one example. The other one we've been navigating more recently which has been super interesting is 401k. I’m a really big believer in investment and empowering women in conversations around money and 401k is a great vehicle to kind of get people to do some early investing, particularly when I was young I was part of a corporate environment that just like really pushed me to co-opt in and now I have this nice little reserve of money I never would have had if it wasn't for that. But when we started researching 401ks, it was like total old paradigm. It was like we've got this provider, they're gonna pick your mutual funds, take it or leave it kind of thing and so we had to do all of this hunting to find a provider that would come up with plans that match our values because so much of our company ethos is around sustainability, it's around gender pay equity, it's about being supportive of the LGBTQI community. And so we knew that if we created a policy and a plan that didn't reflect those values, nobody in our team would opt into them, and so it's been harder for me as a leader. I haven't been able to just like click a box on our payroll company but I also being able to like proactively seek out those resources, that we now have a complete green retirement plan that reflects our values, and that all of our employees are excited about participating in because they know their money isn't going somewhere that they don't agree with.


Kelly: Right. Zooming out for a second, I almost like can hear people in the audience saying like, this sounds great Madeline. I would love to put all of these things in place. It sounds great. How do you balance that with turning a profit? And how do you sort of like, in your mind, make the mental shift? Because that's actually what it is, the mindset shift that these are not opposing things on a spectrum, right?


Madeline: Yeah. So I'm gonna say something slightly controversial. But what I don't believe the purpose of a business is to just make money. I think the purpose of a business is to be a vehicle for growth for the individuals inside of it. And so as long as our company is able to pay everyone a great living wage, as long as it's able to continue to grow me as a leader and support clients that we love, as long as I can pay my team really well, like those are the things that matter most to me. And I think that when we get into business, the mindset is, grow the revenue, grow the revenue, grow the profit, grow the profit, but it doesn't look at, is the system inside of this business healthy. And one of the things that I think about all the time, and I can't remember if it was you who shared this with me or someone else, but is this fact that businesses today, the average lifespan is like 15 to 17 years, where previously, it used to be like 60 to 70 years. And I think it's because they're unsustainable on the inside. And so if you take a system, and it's getting sicker and sicker over time, it's going to die. And so I think that the most important thing inside my organization is the people with it. And so in order for my business to grow, I know that I need to invest in them. And I've been a part of organizations that didn't do it, and watch how that turnover and just disrupted culture and destroyed people and caused infighting. And it's like, that is the opposite of what I'm looking to build here. And so it is a huge mental shift, but I see the people inside my company as the most important piece. And so investing in them just has to be a priority.


Kelly: Yeah, no, I love that. And obviously, I couldn't agree more. I think that there are a lot of agency leaders who have that belief. And also, they have their own individualistic desires, right? Like they want to be able to retire, they want to be able to maybe exit the company at some point. And in their minds, the only way to do that is to like, yes, take care of the people almost secondarily. Yes, it's important to them, but ultimately, it's about growing the profit and the revenue. So this is a great conversation, because what you're saying is like you're starting to change, I mean, it's like a giant wheel, turning, going up a hill, as kind of like the visual that I have. But it's starting to change that mindset and that frame around, these are not competing things. What we have to do is actually really deconstruct the entire system that we're playing in and decide whether we want to play that game or create our own, and essentially you've created your own. All the little pieces inside of your company are a differentiation from the way that business is done in at least in this country. So I appreciate that so much. I really, really do. I commend it.

Madeline: Yeah, and I mean, it's not easy. I think one of the other contracts we're still really up against in the agency or consultancy environment is that the historic trend to underpay creatives. Like I didn't even plan to build out like an agency style model. Originally, I was consulting on my own primarily, but then I was also getting into all this execution work. And then I was hiring contractors to help me with that, because the work just started to grow and grow and grow. And what I saw was like this pervasive problem where creatives were just being completely underpaid for their work. And the interesting thing is, multiple members of our team now have been a part of other agency environments. And they've also contracted and it wasn't any better in that agency environment. They still felt super exploited. They still felt like they weren't really valued for their time or their work. And so for me, creating that different model is really important because it means that I'm going to be able to attract a different type of talent. And, maybe this is wildly ambitious, but my hope is to transform the way that people see creatives because I think that there's been a lot of mythology around the starving artists’ sort of thing and even as we've stepped into the digital world, people don't believe in the value of our work and our worth. And so by putting our model in place the way we haven't, and we talk about it pretty openly too. We blog about it. And I talked like this some podcast about it. But again, we're attracting a higher caliber of business that's willing to pay more for our work because they understand the way that we operate as an entity, and know that the team that we have is really well taken care of. And from a work product perspective, it's a better experience, because it's not like, oh, yeah, we had that contractor you were working with, but now they're not here anymore, because we were paying minimum wage, and they decided to move on. And so again, it goes back to that relationship building piece, we're able to be closer with our clients because our team is so well solidified.


Kelly: Yeah. And you're speaking to something that I talked about a lot, which is like the money follows value, right? Where you're taking care of the team, they're essentially taking care of you, taking care of the clients, they stay longer, the clients stay longer, the work is better. And, I think, again, this kind of goes to that, the gears turning in people's mind, like, oh my God, if we take care of the team at the top of this, then the profit margin, and all the other things will just naturally flow as part of all of that. And I think we're starting to see some shift around that, which is really exciting to me. And I think, you doing what you're doing in the world right now and the fact that there is such demand for what you're doing is a really, really good sign that this is where everything is going so. So as we start to wrap up, I would love to talk for hours. But will you actually share a little bit about the story of your rebrand, because I think that's something that a lot of agency leaders can have some takeaways around, specifically within this context of equity and getting the team involved. How all of that happened for you?


Madeline: Yeah. So this was such a fascinating process. And I think it's something that a lot of agencies struggle with, rebranding themselves, because it's like this huge dose of your own medicine, particularly if you claim expertise in this space. And for me, the desire for the rebrand came about because we had grown tremendously. So we went from like a team of like two and a half to now we have about 10 people who work for us. And in that transition, we were still kind of clinging to an old identity that was basically built when it was just me. And so we needed to embrace something that professed our unified calling to the world, and also was something that the whole team felt like they were a part of shaping. And what was really transformational about the rebrand was the way that we went about it. So rather than just me as the leader sitting in a silo coming up with a new name and a new construct, we got the whole team involved in the process. And it was a realization that we couldn't do it alone. So we actually sourced in a team, which we brought in Emily and Justin from Root and River to lead a series of conversations with us to help unify the identity of what we were doing. And it was a maturation of a lot of the stuff that I had started out with in terms of core values, just kind of some growing up, that we had done as a brand kind of came through with the team. But the result that I didn't quite expect, but was blown away by, it was how much it strengthened our culture. Suddenly, we all knew who we were as a business. Suddenly we all knew what our core values were. Suddenly, we all had the same language to talk about our brand. Suddenly, that website copy we'd been trying to write just came out like magic. And we were like, yes, this is it. And it was because we got everybody involved in the process. And so for me, it really changed the way that we think about brand building now. Because if you do have a team, if you want them to be a part of that shift and not feel left behind by it, you have to get them involved. And so we've really started to encourage the leaders that we work with, if they have a team that they can come bring on board to do it, because it's such an amazing culture building exercise. And it allows for everybody to come on board and be a part of the new brand rather than feeling like, wait, what's going on? Why are we changing? And so, it was a really fantastic process. And it took time. I think that's the other reason leaders resist. You've already got enough client work on your plate, but to take the time was really worth it for us. Because now we've got a team that feels so much stronger in the new era.


Kelly: Yeah, I love that. And that's a direct reflection of my experience with agencies. Because when I'm brought in, there's not necessarily like a rebranding, from a brand identity standpoint, but certainly there's some positioning messaging that needs to be sort of iterated and I always say that I won't take the engagement on unless we're doing intake sessions with everyone on the team from the CEO down to the summer intern because everybody's voice matters, everybody has something to contribute. And then making that process really collaborative is so important because I think that you're right, a lot of agency leaders have this idea that they are the ones with the vision, it's their charge to make these decisions sort of in a vacuum, and then just communicate to the team. Oh, by the way, we have a new name, or we have a new positioning statement, or oh, we have a new website. And it's just the wrong way to do it because they're left with feeling so disconnected. Right? Whereas if you just bring them in, this goes back to everything that we're talking about here. You bring them in, you show them that they're valued; you have a stronger result at the end of it. So whether it's client work, or your internal marketing and branding, it doesn't actually matter. It is the strength of an organization, especially in the creative services field. It is the strength of everyone's voice as part of that.


Madeline: Yeah, and the other thing that I learned in the process where I'm maybe I'm a little critical of myself, but if I could go back and do one thing better in the rebrand process, it would be to think about the way that the rebrand would be experienced by our existing clients. So it was one thing to rebrand and get our team on board. We thought a lot about what will the message be to new clients, who do we want to attract now, but that transformation has a ripple effect on the clients you're already serving. And so that's one of the things that I think we could have done a better job with, to also take into account there's an energetic shift that happens when you change your brand identity. Our new identity was a lot stronger, a lot more progressive. And we needed to reach out to our clients and say, we're changing, and we want you to be a part of that. We didn't lose anybody in the process, but we did kind of feel a little bit of shifts of like, oh, wait, how does this going to work? Or people being like, are fees going to double now coz you look a lot better. And so that's one of the things that I learned throughout the process. We got to look at how this is going to ripple effect. Everybody, we're involved with our team, our existing clients, and then also the humans that we want to see that we serve in the future.


Kelly: Yeah, that's a great takeaway, and something that I think a lot of agencies if they do go through a rebranding or repositioning process, they don't necessarily think about. So super, super valuable. Well, you can find out more about Maddie at and thank you so much again for joining me. This has been a great conversation. I wish we had another two hours.


Madeline: Me too. Thank you so much, Kelly.


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Ep 92: The Serve Don't Sell Approach, with Liston Witherill


On this episode of THRIVE — sponsored by Workamajig — Kelly and Liston Witherill discuss how agency leaders can serve their prospective and existing clients with a diverse content mix that’s rooted in relevance and integrity.




EP 92: The Serve Don't Sell Approach

Duration: 30:21


Kelly: So welcome back to Thrive, your agency resource. I'd like you all to meet Liston Witherill, a sales trainer and consultant who helps service-based companies to serve not sell to the ideal clients that they want to be working with. He's also the host of the Modern Sales Podcast. And he was kind enough to have me keynote client con, one of the days back in October of 2020. Liston, thank you so much for joining me today. I'm really, really excited to have this conversation with you.


Liston: Thanks for having me. It's my pleasure.


Kelly: So we were connected a little bit before the show. And we were joking around a little bit, because we're both in some ways consulting on business development, and pipeline and all of that. And you said something really funny. Most people don't think that they have a sales problem. They think that it's like an issue with their pipeline. And I would love for you to start out by kind of expanding upon that.


Liston: Yeah. So well, where should I start? So I think that if you kind of trace the trajectory of the average agency owner, often they either worked in house somewhere and they had a great client or three, and they left and those clients weren't with them. Or maybe they were working in house at a company, they left that company, and that became their first client. They kind of had a fast track to be an agency of record. There was a network effect built into what they were doing.


Kelly: That's right.


Liston: And that, for a lot of people, for most people, the majority, will not sustain a business. And certainly you have very little control over what's going to happen in terms of referrals and word of mouth. And so if you want to build your business in a more intentional way, you need other sources. So I think that's one of the first places where people say, I've got a pipeline problem, if I just had more opportunities. Now, I was actually talking to someone the other day, and he was sort of bragging about the fact that he closed over 50% of the deals that came to him. And to that I always respond, you don't have enough opportunities then. And he was sort of taken aback. And he's like, well, what do you mean? And I said, well, if you're closing that many opportunities, it's probably a sign that you're not taking enough risk in your marketing and your sales.


Kelly: That's interesting.


Liston: Because you're basically only addressing people who you think for sure will close. And so I think that's kind of the first thing, is a lot of agencies don't see themselves as being in sales or having even a sales function. They use euphemisms for it. So we just have conversations with potential partners, something like that. And I always say, well walk me through how that works. Well, we meet. I ask them some questions to see if we can help them. Then we put together a proposal and we review it together. And then there's a small negotiation. And I'm like, so that's not sales. And they're like, oh, no, no, no, no.


Kelly: We’re not salespeople, please.


Liston: Right. Yeah, if I don't have sales in my title, I can't be doing sales. I think it’s kind of the prevailing feeling. And as a result of that, they always think, well, if I just had more pipeline, that would be the answer to all of my revenue problems. But I think, I guess, there can be a semantic question here of like, what sales and what's marketing? But certainly what I find is a lot of people who get opportunities that they quickly disqualify have no process to nurture them to the point of being a mature opportunity that once again, they can start that sales process all over again. So that may be a little bit of a complicated answer. But that's what I see is from founding to the self-identity, part of like, I'm not in sales. I just have conversations. That's why a lot of people think that I have pipeline problems.


Kelly: Yeah, it's so interesting. And I would say that the vast majority of agencies that I work with all fall into that same, I don't know, sandpit, I guess, you could call it up, like we are 100% or 99% reliant on referrals. The networks of the leaders of this organization, we are tapping them, we're tapping their agencies, or clients that they used to work with, or their personal networks or what have you. And at some point, there is capacity to that, like a network can be very expensive, but there's a capacity to that. So you have to do other things. But just sticking with the idea of networking for a second, you have I think some great things to talk about in terms of habit formation, when we're talking about networking and how it relates to business development. So I'd love to kind of pop over there in the conversation.


Liston: So for anybody listening to this, what I'd like you to do right now is take stock of what habits or regular activities you have that are building your network. And you can think about that on several dimensions. So the obvious one is reaching out to potential clients that you can help. But I also mean, industry thought leaders, potential partners, or vendors that you could be working with, event planners or coordinators, maybe even doing your own events, or even dare I say, a podcast, all of these little things add up over time. And that's what really makes your network grow in an intentional way. And so, I challenge you to think about what are those activities that you're executing regularly. And what I find is a lot of people say, almost none. I post on LinkedIn every quarter something like that or I send a newsletter every now and again. But that doesn't count. And when I think about habit formation, there's this great book, The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg, which is now pretty old; I think, eight or nine years old. But it builds on the work of B.J. Fogg who talks all about habit formation. And really, it's trigger, routine, reward. That's what they call the habit loop. And so building in a trigger is really important if you want to create a networking habit. And that trigger can be at 4pm every day I reach out to at least two people for various reasons. That could be your trigger. Another trigger could be, I produce a podcast every week. And so, I need to interview someone. Another trigger could be, every month I want to attend an event or plan an event, a webinar, or something like that. Building something like that in and having accountability at the level of your revenue growth plan, I think is really important in order to start to build that habit. And then you can look at, did I achieve it or not? Most measures say that it takes about 60 days, depending on who you believe the research is, not definitive on this topic. But it takes about 60 days to build a habit. And so in terms of work days, that's 12 weeks, 5 work days every week, assuming you're not working 80 hours, listening to Kelly more if you are. But assuming you're working a regular workweek, that's going to take about 12 weeks to do that. And so that fits nicely into having a quarterly plan that you can start to execute and making this more of a routine thing, where you're doing it in little bursts, 5, 10, 20 minutes a day, rather than sitting down and go, I'm gonna spend all day building my network and then not touch it again, which is how much most people approach diet and exercise.


Kelly: That's right. I mean, that's such a great point. And really, what we're talking about here is, like you're talking about it from the standpoint of habit formation. But we're also talking about it from the standpoint of like diversifying your business development mix, which is something that a lot of people just don't. They don't do it. They don't really invest in it. So when we say diversifying the business development mix, it's like, when are you speaking? When are you getting on keynoting client con for a day? Or when are you doing a webinar? Are you doing any outbound account based marketing? How is your SEO looking on your own website? I mean, that is the redheaded stepchild of the agency world, like all of their own sites are just pretty poor. I mean, even ones that focus on search engine optimization. And the list goes on. Podcasts, we talked about that a little bit, which we'll get into in a minute. There are so many ways in order to amplify your visibility, and add to the top of that funnel. So I want to talk a little bit about that, because that to me is sort of the antidote to this idea that relying on referrals as your predominant business development source is just not sustainable back to what you said before.

Liston: Yeah. And I think about the marketing mix as a two by two because every great topic in business needs a two by two. And so, I think about push and pull, right? So push would be outbound cold or warm email, depending on your preferred way of thinking about it, or you're choosing who you want to contact. And then after you do this for two, three months, you should be able to determine, hey, when I put in this amount of effort, I get this many conversations.


Kelly: Or when I use this language, I get this many conversations.


Liston: Yeah. Okay. All right, you’re keeping me honest. Just let the record reflect. I think the way you message and especially the way you approach people and how much research you put into it is critically important. But I was just sort of assuming people knew that.


Kelly: I wish that they did. I maybe out of business, but I wish that they did.


Liston: And then so push, pull, right? So that sort of outbound would be the classic example of pushing and pulling would be SEO. People are searching for something online. If you rank in the results of something that's relevant to their search, they come to your website, and they go, oh, this is interesting, I should learn more about them. So that's the difference between push and pull. And then there's mechanical versus organic. So organic, again, SEO would be the classic pull organic channel. But mechanical is also pretty important. So by mechanical, I mean, paid advertising. We talked in the pre-show about account based marketing where, if you only like to work with giant companies, we're gonna prioritize 100 or 200 accounts for the entire year, and all of our marketing and sales budget will go into that. That would be one way of doing a mechanical push, but having something where you have more control than the typical business development plan for an agency, which is just do great work, and great things will happen to us. And while that does work for some people, it's not a great business strategy, because you have so little control over it.


Kelly: Yeah. And I want to highlight that for those who are lucky enough to have that work for them, it's not luck. It's not luck at all, because they probably had a previous relationship. Or if you actually look under the hood at their agency, one account might be representing 80% of their revenue. And they're just landing and expanding and growing business inside of one large account. Whereas you can see the obvious issues with, what happened if that account were to leave or if they were to pull back budget. So there's some sustainability issues with that as well. 


Liston: Well, you've now touched on something that I think may merit a separate podcast recording. Maybe I'll have you on to talk about the role of luck and how much we can attribute to luck. But what I find is the sort of standard line of do great work and good things will follow. There's a survivorship bias in there, or confirmation bias, where the people who that works for will tell you, this is the best strategy, just do this because it worked for me, just like anything else you see online. Everybody who has an opinion about what you should do is typically selling something related to that, or it's worked for them. That doesn't mean you'll be able to replicate it. And, when we talk about marketing mix, I think about diversifying your stock portfolio. You wouldn't put all of your money into one single company. You'd put a little bit into index funds and a little bit into dividend paying stocks, and maybe place a few individual bets on companies that you think are really going to grow or have an advantage. But you wouldn't put it all into one single place that's dependent on movement in one area. And that's sort of the equivalent of the do great work and great things will follow kind of business strategy.


Kelly: And just to touch back on what we were talking about before with regard to podcasts. So podcasts obviously, I think that's one of the most relevant things that we can talk about from a business development standpoint. Some agency owners are starting to understand that getting booked on podcasts can amplify their visibility that can add to and create some thought leadership content that they can then extend into their social media channels and all these different things. What should people keep in mind, in your opinion, as they're thinking about trying to get booked on podcast or even potentially creating a podcast for their own company, for their own agency?


Liston: So those are very different things. So I think the advantage of being a guest on a podcast is you get access to an audience someone else has already put the painstaking work into building. You also get their conveying credibility through the transitive property. Their listeners go to them and think that they have great taste in people and guests. And so when you show up in that feed, de facto, you get a level of trust that's assigned to you based on their perception of the host. So all of that is conveyed as a guest. And overall, it's much less work to be a guest than to produce your own show. I can tell you from experience. So I have a popular podcast that now I think we're up to about 150 episodes. I've been doing it for around three years. And it's a lot of work if you want to do it well. So I would hold off on making that commitment unless you really are committed to doing at least a season, 12 to 20 episodes to see if it works for you. So being a guest allows you to, as you said Kelly, amplify your message. But it also allows you to skip a lot of the work that goes into the production, the promotion, putting it up on a website. The host does all of that. So that's great. What a lot of people will get wrong is they think, well, if I just show up on a show, and I'm somewhat interesting, then people will reach out to me. And that has not been my experience. Maybe yours is different. But my experience is if I show up with a short message, and I have a call to action that's associated with what I talked about, that's going to produce much more interest in what I'm doing. And that will, from a sort of getting the word out, kind of missionary style approach, that's going to be the most effective. So would it make sense to talk about why you should start your own podcast?


Kelly: Yeah. I mean, we could talk about that, because I think that that really fits into this idea of additional business development channels. I think you started your podcast, probably for the same reason I started my podcast two and a half years ago, which was, I wanted to have conversations with agency owners. And so for me, it was two-fold. I did it initially as a business development tool. And then once I attracted a sponsor for that, I looked at it differently. I looked at it more as creating value add content for people who may never be my clients. But please, yeah, talk a little bit about that. Because I think that with the surge of podcasts now, probably even greater, during the pandemic, people are listening more and more and more. You see a ton of companies that are coming out as podcast production and management firms. So they're realizing that this is pretty swelling industry. But yeah, what would you advise if an agency was thinking about having their own podcasts? I'm seeing it pop up all over the place now.


Liston: So the first thing I would say is get clear about what your goals are. So most people I talked to who, individually absent in any conversation with me or thinking about starting a podcast, have these visions of building a loyal audience who hangs on every word and shows up to hear what they have to say. And my feedback on that is don't start a podcast if you want to develop a giant audience. Now, podcasting still has a lot of growth to go in terms of listenership, in terms of how many shows will be available. So there's already an oversupply. But that's going to get worse. So it's actually still a pretty good time to start a podcast. But generally, for agency owners, what I would say is, the main advantage is you get to interview people who otherwise may be inaccessible to you. And so, as you said, Kelly, it's great to have your ideal clients on the show, and talk to them about what they're going through. So if you're an SEO firm, and you work with, of course, SaaS companies don't do that. First of all, change your positioning, if you're doing that. But let's say you're an SEO company, working with SaaS firms, you would want to have on marketers and SaaS firm owners who talk about where they're getting traffic, what are some of the problems with that, what are their growth plans, and kind of start to build a picture of where you can fit in. But that can also lead to a discovery call where afterwards you can say, hey, by the way, I can help you address some of these things you talked about. Would you like to talk about that separately? I'm not a big fan of like this has been done to me and I personally hate it. We're exchanging notes about things we hate in terms of marketing and sales beforehand. And one of the things I hate is when someone says, oh, yeah, come on to my podcast, and then I show up, and it's just a thinly veiled sales pitch for their program, whatever it is. And I'm like, why did you do that? Like, you should do that separately?


Kelly: Yeah, I had a really, really terrible experience that I just want to highlight just in case this happens to anyone else. I was approached on LinkedIn to be interviewed, to be quoted in a book. And the book was like, very relevant to my industry, and whatever. So I get on the call. The call was not with the same person that had originally reached out to me on LinkedIn. And it was literally the most egregious sales pitch. It was a very funny thing what happened in the actual content of the conversation. I got the guy to admit, essentially, that it was a sales pitch. And he just was very upset, that this was his life. But anyway, I digress. If you are going to do this, be in an integrity about it. So I think that's kind of what I hear you saying underneath.


Liston: Yeah, and I like the word integrity better than authenticity. This is another thing I could go on a rant about. But yeah, have integrity. So if you're going to start a podcast, you actually have to make the podcast and have the intention of producing it, and having a conversation related to whatever the topic of the podcast is. But if you start one, let's just do some simple math. You can have 52 conversations throughout the year. I'm guessing I could be totally wrong. But your average listener on the show right now probably is not having 52 conversations with people who are in their target market. So that can be huge. I mean, you can also invite potential referral partners. You can also invite vendors to learn about what's interesting or trending. You can invite event planners who may later ask you to come speak. You can invite other podcasters whose show you can be on later. So I think there are lots of benefits to it. But I would flip on its head, the sort of main way people think of podcasting, which is I'm going to develop a giant audience. And, again, we should trade notes on this, if you want to do that, my experience has been time is a core ingredient of developing a bigger audience. Do a lot of good stuff over time. There’s a chance that you'll start to see some organic growth. But if you really want to change the trajectory of your show, you have to do ads, and you have to be on a lot of other shows. That's the only way. I've tried a lot of things. I have a list of, I think 37 tactics that I've used to try to grow the show. And those two things seem to do the most. I'm a big fan of podcasting because also it's so intimate. So let's go back to this idea of outreach in habit formation. So think about the difference in the proposition where you reach out to someone and say, hey, we do X, Y, and Z, we help SaaS companies with their SEO. Here’s some results that we've given other companies that seem relevant to you. Would you like a few tips on how we can help or what you could do? That's version A. Version B is, hey, I see you're a fast growing SaaS company that just raised your series B. I have a podcast about that. I'd love to interview about how you're thinking about the next phase of your business. Way different. And what I find is when I reach out to people for the podcast, the chance of them saying yes, is over 80% versus any sort of outbound sort of approach with the express intent of showing a company how you can help them or maybe giving them some free content that could help them whether they work with you or not. That’s going to be less than 10% guest rate. So big, big, big difference. And the other thing I love about podcasting, and then I'll shut up is the overhead to produce it is for most people way lower than writing articles or making videos. And so that is super helpful as well.


Kelly: Yeah. It's definitely low risk, low cost. I mean, I have a podcast production and management company now and they're very affordable. They do a great job. It allows me to do other things and use my time in a way that's a little bit more appropriate for me. But yeah, I mean, like I said before, there are a lot of companies out there that are willing to help, but I think what you're really saying is be an integrity about it. Figure out what you actually want to do with this. And it's really got to be something that you and or your leadership team, come to the table and brainstorm like, what are my goals and objectives for this? How is this going to help our agency? What are we actually looking to do with this? I think it's about being intentional with it. And, just being really conscious about why you're doing it, as opposed to, hey, there's this new shiny thing out there called podcasting. Let's just launch one and see what happens. Like don't do that.


Liston: Right. Exactly. Or like, in the old days, people would say, what's this Facebook thing? We need a Facebook strategy. And you're like, well, what will that do for you? And they're like, I don't know, don't I need it? So for podcasting, I know people who focus on interviewing ideal target market clients, and just starting a relationship, knowing that it may take 6 or 12 months for that to happen.


Kelly: Yeah. This is a long game, for sure.


Liston: Exactly. But I've talked to other people who say we'll use the podcast as a way to attract great speakers because we do live events for our clients. And that's like the main engine of our business development. And the podcast can be an easy way to get great people to speak for free and then maybe come out to our events. So there's lots of different ways to approach it. But yeah, you're right, intentionality, and just committing to a one page plan. What is this about? Who is it for? What am I trying to do? How often will it be? What's the show format? That's all you really need, and then start moving forward on it.


Kelly: And I also didn't mean, like this entire episode or half of the episode to be focusing on podcast, but I think that it's super relevant when we're talking about business development, because the whole landscape has changed when it comes to business development. We all get those emails, or the spam emails, or the LinkedIn connection requests from people that are just trying to sell us things. And clearly that doesn't work. So we have to be more creative about how we diversify that business development. I think podcasting is right now just a great topic to talk about, because it's super effective. But as we start to wrap up, what I love to ask sort of like, what is your big takeaway, or your greatest piece of advice? And in this case, being a sales trainer and a consultant, what would you say to agency leaders who fit into what we talked about at the top of the show, which is the ones who don't think that they have a sales problem and believe that they have a pipeline problem? What do you say to them?


Liston: Actually there are two things I'd say to you. One, start dissecting where the waste happens in your whole funnel from first introduction to closing a new client and starting work with them, like where are they dropping off? And that will help you identify, is it within the sales process? Do we truly have a pipeline problem and we need more opportunities? That would be the first thing. The second thing I would tell you is, rather than thinking about what are ways you can get the word out about your service. Think about ways that you can address and help your target clients, whether they do business with you or not, in a way that also positions you and in a way that eventually could lead to your service. So your marketing doesn't have to be about your service. It always should be about something that will help your clients be better at what they're doing. It doesn't have to be directly related to your service. Start there. And you will start to see better results.


Kelly: Yeah, that's great. I mean, that's really what this all comes down to. And that's why you call it the serve don't sell approach. It's about giving an adding value over and over and over again until that prospect believes that, wow, I really understand what the intention is at this company, like they really do care. You want to really I think, like, make it land with them, that you care about their success, whether as you said. they become a client or not. So I'm 100% invested in that same philosophy and that mentality and it is extremely effective. Counter to what people may believe.


Liston: We're on the same page.


Kelly: As usual. Well Liston, thank you so much for joining me today. I really appreciate it and I will put links to all of your sites and all of your contact info in the show notes.


Liston: Thank you so much.



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EP 91: Dismantling Toxic Workplaces, with Rachel Renock


On this episode of THRIVE — sponsored by Workamajig — Kelly and Rachel Renock, CEO and Co-Founder of Wethos, discuss strategic ways that creative leaders can work to dismantle toxicity within their organizations.



EP 91: Dismantling Toxic Workplaces

Duration: 28:09


Kelly: So we've got an important episode for you today. I'm joined by Rachel Renock, CEO and co-founder of Wethos, a platform that helps people build magical virtual studios. We'll hear a little bit about that. But we're really going to focus our conversation today on something that we are both incredibly passionate about, which is dismantling toxic workplaces. Welcome to the show my friend. It is so good to see you again.


Rachel: Yeah, it's great to see you. Thanks for having me.


Kelly: So your story is actually one that I think a lot of entrepreneurs tell. You work for the big firms. You want to create something different, better, more disruptive in the industry. That's kind of how the first iteration of Wethos was born. Do you want to say a little bit more about that? And talk a little bit how it's transitioned from then?


Rachel: Yeah, sure. So we always say like, the first virtual studio was our own. Basically, like, I used to be an art director. So I used to shoot commercials and do a lot of social and digital campaigns. I worked on big brands like CoverGirl, and Hershey's. And I worked at a few large agencies in New York City. Back in 2016, I was highly engaged with the Black Lives Matter movement. I was really involved politically. And it got to the point, I think, where I was working at a big agency where I really was seeking more meaningful work, I guess. I met my co-founder, Claire at that agency. And ultimately, we left to start our own studio in pursuit of more meaningful work. Through the journey of working with a lot of nonprofit organizations, we realized that there was this key around teams, both because the organizations we were working with really required different myriad of teams based on the policies or the initiatives they were doing. And on the side of, a lot of independence, that we are working with a lot of our friends who really wanted access to those bigger projects, and the more meaningful work that they used to get from an agency perspective in terms of like these big problems that they want to solve, like these freelancers are pigeonholed into like, make a few logos and call it a day. And when you come from an agency, that's not really what you want to be doing. So there was this sort of magic that happened there. And basically, as Claire and I started to scale our own studio, we realized how challenging it is to scale a creative business, from the business revenue model to resourcing to like all of the things basically. That when you're at a big agency, you don't really have to think about it.


Kelly: I don't know what you're talking about.


Rachel: It's exhausting. So we went out, and we raised a bunch of venture capital money, and we ended up building internal software for ourselves that helped us facilitate and we actually ultimately grew our own studio to like 1.4 million in revenue in about 18 months. And we essentially took that technology and consumerized it for other owners, independent owners of different studios, collectives, boutiques. So that's where the evolution is, like we ran our own studio through it for a long time. So we know that it's powerful. And really, our vision is to put more money into small businesses and independence pockets. And so, we do that through teams, and through making teaming up easier and more accessible to a wider audience.


Kelly: Yeah, it's such a powerful platform. I've definitely had the opportunity to demo it myself. So if you haven't, check it out.


Rachel: I showed it to my mom and she was like, “This is great, but like, I have no idea how much of what you just showed me is like prototype.” I was like, “No mom, it's real. We built it. Like people pay for it.”


Kelly: I think your greatest critic is definitely like your parent. Right?


Rachel: Always.


Kelly: It's funny. I have a story of funny parents’ story. My dad used to say like, “I don't really know what you do for a living. I know you're really good at it. I know you make money at it. I just tell people that you like built the internet.” And I was like, “Please stop telling people that I built the internet.”


Rachel: And then you go over to their house and they're like, oh, could you fix our Wi-Fi? No, I didn’t signed up for that.


Kelly: Exactly. So what were the things that you saw? Because this is like, again, every entrepreneur story or most of them anyway. What were the things that you were seeing in corporate America that kind of fueled this passion to dismantle the toxicity that we have all encountered in our prior workplaces? What were some of those stories? I mean, I know we could go on forever but…


Rachel: I mean, honestly, like the way that I look at this now that I reflect back on it is through the lens of my own personal response ability, I guess, in both participating and perpetuating certain things that I definitely at my core didn't or don't agree with. But when you're within a system, sometimes you lose sight of that. And I think, in that the biggest sort of spark for me was recognizing that I was becoming someone I didn't want to be. And the reason for that is because it turned into this very sort of competitive kind of nasty sort of environment where at a big agency, they're pinning creative teams against each other to pitch, whether it's new business, existing business, whatever. And they're putting, a lot of times like ridiculous deadlines on things, unrealistic timelines. And, frankly, my co-founder for better, for worse saw how much they were charging the client versus how much money was actually going into people's hourlies or salaries. And it's like a devastating thing to look at. I mean, it's like, 5, 600%, more is being charged to the client, than what you're actually taking home. And so all these things sort of combined is what ultimately drove me to the decision. But between the sexism that I experienced, the racism that I saw, and was slapped on the wrist for calling out, very much perpetuated by both the agency and the client side, a lot of us have been in the situation where we’re trying to cast a TV commercial, you put an interracial couple on the table, and there's a lot of hemming and hawing. And oh, they don't quite look like we want them to look. And like this sort of like coded beat around the bush kind of language. And at that point, Eric Garner had just died by the hands of police. I looked out the window, my agency in New York, and I saw a huge movement of people coming down the street that I ultimately ran out the door and joined. And when you're at these two different realities where people are truly like begging you for their lives. And then you're inside of an agency, trying to make a commercial that reaches millions of Americans where you can't even get somebody to say like, yeah, an interracial couple. That that sounds good to me. You just lose. I felt like I lost my purpose. I felt like I lost who I wanted to be. And I wasn't on the path to becoming who I wanted to be. And so that's what ultimately made us or made me leave. And I think that was a big thing that pushed me over the edge. But I also will say that I worked with a lot of really incredible people. And again, I believe that the system itself is broken. And I believe that it's too deeply entrenched in this toxicity to be able to change it from within. And that's what ultimately led me to leaving and trying to build a new system outside of it.


Kelly: Yeah. It's so interesting. And I do want to kind of like put a pin in your experience because I think what you said is really powerful, and I think resonates with a lot of people. You didn't like who you were becoming as part of the mechanism inside of that system. I think that's ultimately what we're saying about the story that a lot of entrepreneurs tell like we were a part of this big machine, it didn't feel right. But what you said is actually more to the core of what's happening. It's not that it just didn't feel right. It's that it actually impacted you on a personal soul level, to realize and to wake up one day and say, yes, this is impacting me, let's start there. And I don't like who I'm becoming because of it. And I want to change it. So that might mean for some people who are in those organizations leaving and starting their own thing. It might mean leaving and joining another organization that does align with your values. I mean, it could mean a lot of different things. What about the people who are already running their own shops already doing their own thing? And are having the realization that whoa, I actually may be contributing or perpetuating this same problem inside my organization knowingly, unknowingly. That's like a slippery slope. But I hand that over to you.


Rachel: Yeah, I mean, look, it's really hard I think in my experience. I've gotten to the point where I think the biggest teams I have ever been was maybe 20, 25. I think that the hardest thing about gaining power is recognizing that you have it, especially when you come from a place where like, I quit my job when I was 25. So I was like a mid-level junior kind of art director. And so my whole life trajectory was about climbing a ladder, getting that power, getting to the top and then I'll change things and they'll do whatever, blah, blah, blah. Suddenly, I was. I left and now I'm in the seat where I have access to capital, where I am at the top of the organization where I set the tone, rise up the culture regardless of whether we are 4 people or 25 people or 100. Like the tone and what happens at the top is what ultimately sets the culture. And so I think, for me, it's a lot about reflecting on what is the power that I have, when are the moments when I'm not recognized in that power I've found in the past that I'm an idealistic person. I love to throw ideas. I do that. But as a CEO, people take that and they're like, we need to go make this idea happen. And you don't necessarily realize that you're causing a lot of anxiety with little things like that and little actions every day because you're not recognizing the influence that you have within the organization. So I think the first step, for me and for everybody really is just acknowledging and recognizing that you have power and that you also have the choice to wield that power in a positive way. And to, I think, continue to remember, because I'll never forget what it feels like to be that junior employee, and to feel like you're not seen, you're not appreciated, you're not treated well. You're not paid fairly, or all those things, or much worse. Yes, of course. And really just thinking about, what are the policies? And what are the things that we can do from day one that put some safeguards in place because we're all human and we all make mistakes, and we all have moments. I've had plenty. But I think understanding and recognizing that and not just brushing it under the rug is one of the most important parts of that.


Kelly: Yeah. I think that's true. I think that's definitely true. My own experience was like, I definitely encountered a lot of sexism, especially because of my sexual orientation, being queer identified and encountering the types of leadership that I encountered, I mean, it was really like, I don't know, I mean, I kind of joke around about it, like I was riding my motorcycle to work listening to Anita Franco. And they were like, we don't know what to do with you. And that would have been fine. If they kind of like embraced it, like oh, it's like the art director is just being expressive or whatever. And it's embraced and it's tolerated, like in that culture, that would have been baseline. But it wasn't that at all. I mean, it was like so egregious. And, it's funny, and looking back at it, I think that there was definitely some trauma around it that I didn't process until many, many years later. And like you, I was really young. When I left that whole environment, I was only like, 22. So it was like my first entrance into “corporate America”, like small business. Corporate America was like wealthy, white, cisgender, male lead, top down fear based. And I was like, oh, this is like so repulsive to me. And I was like I could probably do this better. And, you don't know any better at the time. So I didn't come from the big firms. I just came from a super toxic work environment.


Rachel: Yeah, I think it's interesting to be on the agency side too, because you're not only interacting with your coworkers every day in the agency itself, but then you also have this whole other thing that is the client. And like, each account inside of an agency has its own little business, it's own little thing, and its own little people run it, and it has its own budget. And, you could jump accounts inside of the agency and have a totally different culture shock, go into a different account, led by different creative directors, whatever. And so, I think that definitely experienced sexism. I mean, for everything from like overt, about, like, we know, you came up with this idea for this men's sex product, but you're not a man. So we're going to have the male ACD pitch your idea to the client. Telling me that in the car on the way there, like you're going to be quiet, and he's going to pitch it and I'm like, men have been selling women's products for years. I do not understand. And like that kind of overt sexism to, the death by 1000 paper cuts to your point, like being told, I'm aggressive, like the gambit of things and I have the privilege of fortunately unfortunately presenting or people think I'm straight cisgender woman even though I am queer, and so like I can “hide it” or it's not in people's faces. And like, there's privilege to that, honestly. And I think, being in those spaces, I had a lot of moments people didn't know I was gay and were saying shit in the room. And I was just like, yeah, so this isn't gonna fly. And it's really frustrating. And I think the problem that I see a lot in people starting their own businesses after leaving that environment is not doing the work of reflecting on what they learned and what they don't think is right. And then applying that to their new business and whether or not they're conscious of it, or perpetuating the things that they've learned and have been ingrained in them. Because they've never seen any other way. And that's something that's a big challenge for sure.


Kelly: And I want to also highlight that, when we say toxic workplace and dismantling a toxic workplace, it doesn't necessarily have to be something egregious like that. It doesn't have to be something where there are racist comments being thrown around, or overt sexism, like there are things that are much more nuanced that are just as impactful to the people on that team.


Rachel: Yeah, a hundred percent.


Kelly: Can you share a couple of examples because I really want to drive this home because I think that a lot of small business owners, like their heart is in the right place, they really start these small agencies, they're trying so hard to grow them to be good leaders even if they've never seen what effective conscious leadership actually looks like. I just want to have a couple of like concrete examples, so that they can potentially see where they might be falling into those same traps that are more than once.


Rachel: So for me, like the number one thing is, it's all about the money, underpaying people, and consciously doing that, which a lot of owners do. And a lot of them are putting in top positions, because the client doesn't want to pay what they're worth. And, there's this race to the bottom that happens like, oh, well, if you won't do it, I'll find somebody, I'll outsource, I'll find somebody who will. And it's really tough. And I think like, a lot of the source of I think toxicity and stress and pain as a small business owner is around money. And when you're running out of money, or when your client won't pay enough, ultimately, that impacts you. But then you turn around and you impact others with that. So like one of the biggest things that I see is just people who are dramatically underpaid for what they're doing. Like it used to blow my mind, even the big agency where like, you have account managers who are literally holding the business together. I am a creative and I love account managers. They are the best like amazing account managers. It’s life-changing. They put their whole business together. They're coming out of college for a 35K salary in New York. And it's crazy when you turn around and you say, this is a Hershey’s account, they're billing the client millions of dollars. With a small business, there isn't as much cushion to play with. So you don't have the stability of having a huge account, and being able to put people on salary and stuff. But a lot of this comes down to valuing people and valuing their time and valuing them for what they're worth and telling them, showing them that they're worth what they're worth through money, because you can say it all day, but you're dramatically underpaying people. Ultimately, that toxicity is going to seep into your relationship, and there's going to be resentment, and they will ultimately be able to really turn people quickly. So that's a big thing that I see that people don't realize how toxic that can become when it comes down to it.


Kelly: Yeah. And I think what you're saying also sort of like the way that I connect those dots is that really comes down to a positioning issue, right? Like if you're agreeing to take on work where the client is not valuing you, and it has that race to the bottom mentality, where they're saying, oh, if you're not going to do this for 2000, I'll find somebody who will. That is not an ideal client. Like get better clients. Because we talk about this money following value idea. If you value the people who are essentially when you're talking about a creative or media or technology services company, your people are your product. I say that all the time.


Rachel: 100%.


Kelly: If you value your people, they will stay longer, they will be very productive, very dedicated, very loyal, more fulfilled, which is actually what you should care about. But you have to get the type of work. So this comes down actually to positioning, how well-positioned are you to attract those more ideal clients in whatever niche or verticals you're serving. So yeah, I mean, all of these things are so intertwined. It's very hard but I think you have to zoom out a little bit and really look at the big picture, valuing your people and paying them what they're worth is not separate and apart from the type of work that you bring in. I think there's this idea. Maybe it's just because people don't really know as much, or there's no manual for this, like there's no like here's how to run an agency. There is no manual, but like, the more information that you gather, you start to see that this cycle is very real and intrinsically connects a lot of different things.


Rachel: Yeah. And that kind of toxicity that leads into things like being overworked, especially with the remote environment that we've got going on where there's been a lot of conversation online about like Microsoft Teams and the productivity metrics and how they're basically like tracking your every move and measuring your every calendar invite, and all this other stuff. And, we've been remote for three years, like, we don't subscribe to any of those things. Like we don't have set working hours where you have to be online, you have to sit at your desk, like your employees are adults. They’re people. They need to be trusted. And trust is at the core of everything. And I think you can't trust someone, you can't give somebody a goal and an end date and agree on like, what's feasible, what's possible and say, like, okay, call me if you need me. Let's regroup on Friday. And you can't feel comfortable taking a step back and saying, like you don't need to like check in, you don't need to have that header, like the little Slack icon that's green or whatever, what people do in every other different way. Like, I don't care. You could do your work at 2 in the morning from the moon. I don't care. But if we are hitting our deadlines, we're hitting our goals. I'm good, I'm chill. And I think in doing that, and giving them trust, you also trust them to fail. And that's really, you're trying to take bigger risks, right? Like you have to build that trust, because ultimately, everybody is gonna fuck up honestly. And like, there's always gonna be that one that do it all the time. Failing is okay. It's required. It's how we respond to that failure that really matters. And I think it's those moments that really start to set the tone of where is this place that I work, and what is it really about. How you deal with those moments is really important.


Kelly: Yeah, this is like such a great conversation. I wish we could go for like another hour. But as we're kind of wrapping up for those who are listening or watching and kind of self-aware enough to just to go back to what we said a little bit earlier to see the ways in which they might be, I won't say part of the problem, but certainly could be part of the solution especially as the leader, what would you impart on them? What would your kind of like big takeaway be from all the experiences that you've had and where you are now?


Rachel: Yeah, I mean, look to zoom like way out for a second. If you look at the agency market today, 70% of agency revenue is owned by one of the four holding companies, WPP, Interpublic, Omnicom, Publicists; they own 70% of the market, which is $19 billion in revenue. The remaining 30% is made up of small businesses and independent owners. We, as that 30% have the power to change things. And now is the moment to do that. And I say that, because 2020 just showed us that all this work, agencies big and small, can be done remotely. That puts these big, big, big companies at a big disadvantage; it puts them in a place of being very vulnerable. And I think, in seeing the trends that we've all seen, we all started small businesses, for some reason, in seeing the trends and the direction in which the market has been already moving, this only exacerbated clients waking up to the fact that they're overpaying for these big firms,  waking up to the fact that they're looking for better more agile solutions, like the time to be an independent owner is now and with that opportunity, I think comes responsibility. Because if we have this moment, we have the opportunity to sort of rebuild the system to redistribute some of that wealth, not only into our pockets as owners, but into the pockets of the people that we work with, then we need to think and reflect a bit more deeply on what is the future that we actually really want and what is the future that we want to build together because one of my favorite quotes of all time, it's like, the best way to predict the future is to invent it. And with 40% of brands saying that they're looking for new agencies this year, there's a massive opportunity to win that business to redistribute that wealth and to really create cultures and environments in which people can thrive and the next generation can really thrive. And I think, we've talked about this before we hopped on, like I came up through the agency world, you did not, you came up through more like in house at the brand and then starting your own thing very early on. For folks like you who just was like, nope, I'm doing my own thing, I could do this better, it's hard to have that for professional growth, that professional trajectory of like, what's next? And how does this work? And you don't, you're still manual work to this point. And everything I've learned to this point, everything that you Google in terms of HR policies are kind of toxic in and of themselves. And so you're left there wondering like, well, what am I going to do? Reinvent the wheel? Like what am I going to do? The answer is, yes. And I know that that sounds daunting. But there are resources out there. We have a lot of resources. And really, what we want to do is encourage small business owners, because the change starts with them. And it starts with you and whatever power you have in your circle of 5 or 25, or 100. And if you can focus in on what is behavior that I'm exhibiting or what are the things, what are the moments maybe in the past year or two that I haven't been proud of, what's the stuff that keeps me up at night, what's the kind of business we want to become, what's the kind of leader I want to become, then you take that, and you can take it into a more actionable place because we can't start talking about solutions unless we agree that there's a problem. And the problem is really with all of us who have learned these things over decades and decades of basically like this patriarchal way of doing things. So I tend to believe that the future is much more collaborative than it is competitive. And I think as agency owners, and especially small businesses, banding together on this, developing these policies, talking about these things, talking about being paid fairly, paying people fairly, it does start with us. We do own 30% of that market. And the more and more we can continue to grow that and perpetuate that and redistribute some of that wealth, the better the future is going to become for the next generation that's up and coming. And I really do think that we can change the way that we've done things so far. And I think that we can dismantle a lot of this toxicity and, frankly, move into a better situation, a better world for all of us, healthier makes me happier, less stressed as an owner.


Kelly: Yeah, for sure. Well said, I just want to take that entire couple of minutes that you're talking and make that into one soundbite.


Rachel: We’re coming for you on the com. We're coming.


Kelly: Yeah, I mean, it's great. And, I do think that there's a lot of power. And I sometimes think that we forget that as small agency owners or leaders, that we wield that power. And to your point, this is definitely not about competition anymore. This is about collaboration. This is a whole new era of leadership. And it really starts with self-awareness, which is really what you're saying. So I love it.


Rachel: Yeah, totally.


Kelly: Rachel, thank you so much for joining me today. This has been an incredible conversation and keep up the good work.


Rachel: Thanks. Thanks so much for having me. Appreciate it.




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EP 90: Winning an RFP with Playfulness, with Sophia Story


On this episode of THRIVE — sponsored by Workamajig — Kelly and Sophia Story discuss how to win a Request for Proposal by being playful. Forty percent of big brands are actively looking for smaller agencies this year because they’re more nimble, can push creative boundaries and tend to think outside the box in their work.



EP 90: Winning an RFP with Playfulness

Duration: 34:45


Kelly: So welcome back to this week's episode of Thrive, your agency resource. As most of you know, I love having conversations with agency owners about their fears, their failures, their realizations, things that they experiment with, because they're curious. Today, I'm actually joined by Sophia Story, the co-founder of 3 Sided Cube, which is an app design and development agency based out of Chicago. And she has an incredible story that she's going to share with us about Winning an RFP with Playfulness. So Sophia, thank you so much for joining me today. I am super excited that we've connected on LinkedIn. And now we're here.


Sophia: I'm excited too. Thank you very much for having me.


Kelly: Yeah. So the reason why you're here is because there was something on LinkedIn, that you had posted about an RFP that you won with a very different approach from what I have ever seen before. And I thought, wow, this is really brilliant, because not only did you win, obviously, it was effective. But there was something about the way that you made me think differently about RFPs. And I kind of want to level set there if we can, because most of the audience knows, from previous episodes, I'm pretty anti-RFP for all of the obvious reasons. You have clients who are self-prescribing what their problem statement is, what their needs are, what strategies you might use the budget, I mean, all of it really is detracting from the value proposition of the agency that they want to hire. So yes, anti-RFP. However, there are lots of agencies that just by the nature of the industries or the verticals that they serve, have to respond to these things. And yes, the process, the whole entire thing is flawed. And I would even say that it's even broken, but it's still a necessary evil, right? So how you respond to them? And I don't mean physically responding with a proposal, but how you respond to even the lead is really important. So I would love for you to dive in and tell us a little bit about this unique situation that you encountered, and how you solved it, because it was, again, in my opinion, really brilliant. 


Sophia: Thank you. It didn't feel brilliant at the time. I mean, I've never done anything like this before, I have to be honest. I'd love to tell you that I always do this, but I don't. This was a first for us. But it's definitely made me stop and think about, like responding to RFPs moving forwards and how we respond to those RFPs. So yeah, I don't do this all the time. We had a cold lead come into the agency at the start of September. And it was from a well-known brand, Red Bull. But interestingly, the contact did not have a Red Bull email address. So I was I was curious. I was, like suspicious. I wasn't sure whether or not it was real. Probably it wasn't formal. It was very laid back. And they just completed a contact form on our website to say that they were thinking about designing and developing a mobile app. And, they just had a few questions, and they wanted to know if we'd be interested in working with them. I had to like, stop and think and reread that contact form and was like, did that just happen? Like did Red Bull just reach out to us? And I was on holiday at the time. I was in Greece. And the time difference was quite significant. So I replied straightaway, I was like, yes, potentially. But I guess what's different about 3 Sided Cube is our mission, to build tech for good to change millions of lives for the better. So what I mean by that is as an agency, we will only work on projects that have a positive impact in the world. And, there was no details within the contact form to let me know that the project was for good. We don't work in like retail or e-commerce so that's not our bag. So I reply cautiously. It was like, maybe yeah, but it would be really good to kind of jump on a call and find out a bit more about the project. But I think I replied pretty quickly. I mean, it did get my attention. And then they replied pretty quickly. And they we're like, yeah, we'd love to jump on a call. Are you free now? And I have to be really honest and say, yeah, I am. But I'm on holiday. So I'm not in my usual office setup. But yeah, so I jumped on a call. And there were two gentlemen, a guy called Will and a guy called Constantine. Will was based out of LA. And actually, interestingly, he was ex Red Bull. But he was contracting for Red Bull. And then the other guy was from a team working out of their head office in Australia. And we got on the call. And sometimes when you get on a client call, you just have chemistry and you're just like, I would love to work with you guys, not that it is a well-known name, but because you seem like really good guys.


Kelly: Ideal clients?


Sophia: Yeah.


Kelly: Personality fit. All of it.


Sophia: They got it. They got that I was on holiday. They got how we worked. And it just felt good. Like, we had really good chemistry on the call. And we talked a bit about their project. I asked a lot of questions. It didn't get all formal. It just felt like a really good client call.


Kelly: Which is great from a discovery perspective, right? Like, that's how you want it to be. It's conversational. It's not like you had to put a deck together. It wasn't a capabilities thing. It's just a conversation. I love this, because this is what I'm seeing in business development also, with all the agencies that I work with bringing humanity and actual organic conversation back into business development. I don't know how we got so far away from it, but I'm glad it's coming back.


Sophia: I would describe it as magical. I don't have these conversations very often. But when I do, really, I treasure them. And it was great. Because I could ask questions. Nothing was off the table. And they were asking me questions. And I hate diving into decks, making it more formal, but I was talking them through our process. And I was like, look, I've got a deck, but I haven't tailored it for you guys or anything. And they're like, no, no, no, cool. Just open it and we can go through it. And that's what we did. Like, it wasn't a polished process. And anyway, the call ran on for like an hour and a half, 90 minutes. So it felt good. I think that's a good sign.


Kelly: Yeah, definitely. I want to ask, though, in the context of that discovery conversation, you're both exchanging information, right? Like, you're listening really intently. They're listening. You're both respecting. Like, it just sounds like a dream conversation, right? Like this is how you want a discovery call to go. What was the one question, if you could name one, that changed or informed the trajectory of how you responded to that RFP?


Sophia: So I asked them, what concern, if any, do you have around working with 3 Sided Cube?


Kelly: And that was toward the tail end of the call?


Sophia: Yeah. So it felt really, really good. And it's a question I actually asked a lot with potential clients, but usually, like at pitch stage, or when we've done a bit more work, but I could just tell that. I mean, if it were me, like, I'd have just said, yeah, like it just felt so good. And I think halfway through the conversation, they were really honest. And they were like, look, we have to go through an RFP process. Like, that's just what we have to do, and my heart sank a little and I was like, yeah, like because doing it for the sake of doing something isn't always the right thing. And, yeah, so I just I asked them, what were your concerns? And their response shocked me a little and hurt my ego. But they said that they were concerned that as an agency, were we playful enough for them? And it really took me back.


Kelly: It’s a whole new brand.


Sophia: Yeah, absolutely. If you go onto our website, we're quite a bright, vibrant, playful brand. That should or I hope it comes across in all of our comms, and we can be quite cheeky, but it really stopped me in my tracks because I don't think I've ever had a single person question our playfulness as an agency. And yeah, it left me gobsmacked, honestly, and it was a moment that made me really think. So that happened on like a Thursday. And they basically said that they would issue the RFP on Monday, and that there would be a tight deadline. They didn't confirm the deadline, but they said that it would be tight. So in my head, I was thinking, okay, we're going to get the RFP on Monday and we're going to have two weeks to respond. Most RFPs, I have two to four weeks, maybe a bit longer. But yeah, usually around two to four weeks. I was like two weeks we can do that. No problem. I opened my emails on Monday. Sure enough, like RFP came through. And no, it wasn't tailored. It was a very cold, generic email with a cold generic attachment. What was interesting was the document; the RFP itself was like two pages long. It was very brief, but very to the point, very succinct. But nothing around playfulness. All they asked for was a proposal that outlined like your process timings, costs, and then the team that would be working on it. And it all just felt a bit boring, to be honest with you. Like no proposal. It’s playful. Like you can’t make it something that it's not.


Kelly: And also, what's coming up for me is that had you not had that conversation? Had you not been really responsive and got them on the phone? Right? I always say you have to push back against anyone who issues an RFP that says we're not open to, like don't contact us, just respond, like I'm out. But had you not had that conversation with them, you wouldn't have asked that question. Right?


Sophia: Yeah.


Kelly: You wouldn't know that was actually their greatest concern. And really, that RFP, the way that you're describing it, the way that it was structured, and the nature of it sets everybody up for failure. Right?


Sophia: Absolutely. And I'm like you, I don't think I would go for any RFPs that we couldn’t have a conversation. Like, if they want us to put the time and energy, like the investment into it, then I need them to give us time and energy.


Kelly: Absolutely. That's respect. That's mutual value. Yeah.


Sophia: Yeah, definitely 100%. This is our fear, like I guess I just stared at it for a day. I was like how, what? And then, I spoke to the team. And I was like, right, we're going to create a game. And honestly, they were like on it. And this is the other thing. The deadline was Friday. This was one week. We had one week.


Kelly: And you were sitting on the RFP for days. You actually had four days.


Sophia: Yeah, absolutely. And I was like, oh, gosh, and you have to think time difference came in to this as well. Because we had a client in LA. We had a client in Australia. And I myself at the time is based in the UK. And so I was straddling the time zones. Like you're basically losing a day because of the time zone as well. So it was quite a challenge. And I thought, honestly, if we're really brutally honest, most proposals are copy and paste jobs. They might be tailored and tweaked. And, we know that we should always put creative in there. But I think today, it just doesn't cut it. Like if you really want to win a project in the design and development world, you need to show off your skills. You need to show something. And whatever that is, whether it's a prototype, whether it's a demo, whether it's just a video, but just something you need to bring something to life to show off your skills.


Kelly: So you don't have to go so far as to like create something the way that you did, in this case, responding with a game, right? Because that's like a lot of design element time, all of that, especially under that time crunch. But I like that you're offering a couple of different options around that. I agree.


Sophia: Like always, and I think you just got to go the extra mile to show that you've got that passion, enthusiasm, and tenacity.


Kelly: That you want the business?


Sophia: Yeah. Absolutely. And I would expect that like if I was procuring something, then I would want to see that from whoever I was chatting to. So when I sat down with one of our creatives, and we basically had two days to design and develop something. And that would show that we could work quickly. Our creative was shit hot. And we could be playful, we could be funny, we could be cheeky. So we were like, okay, we looked at some basic game concepts, and we were like, okay, well, let's just do a quiz. We'll ask them. I think the dream was to ask them 10 questions in three minutes. And if they got the 10 questions right within the three minutes, they could get our proposal. That was the reward. But if they didn't, if they got it wrong, their proposal would burn and they wouldn't get our proposal. And the way that we framed it was, we did the design and development, we were playing with that. And we made it as best, I mean, it wasn't perfect. It worked on mobile, but it wasn't polished. So we were like, look, you're gonna have to do this on web. But I was like, I can't just send this to a client, like what we're going to say. So I drafted an email, and I was like, look, hey, guys, I know you know that we really want to work with you on this project, like it is good. It's everything that we stand for as an agency. But I need to know that you want to work with us, like I need you guys to sell to me that you are going to go above and beyond to work for us to or to work with us. And I was like, okay, so I need you to answer. I think we only did eight questions. I need you to answer the eight questions in three minutes. If you get these questions right, you'll get the proposal; if not, the proposal will burn. And I think I had some like quote about luck, which was from hunger games or something. And then I kind of basically sent a link to this quiz in an email, and I sent it on, it would have been there Friday morning. And I didn't hear anything for four hours. Four hours, they made me sweat. And of course, I had analytics to see if they were engaging with it. Nothing, radio silence. So we sent or I sent the email. And the proposal, just FYI, it was a really detailed proposal. Probably, I mean, some might say too detailed. It was like 32 pages. It had loads and loads of information. But it was really pretty boring. Like we all know that when you send a proposal, the first page people go to is the cost page. That is what they want to know.


Kelly: Which is why you never send a proposal.


Sophia: Absolutely. So I was like, okay, cool. And then it got to, I think it was like the end of our day in the UK where I was at the time. And Will, who was in LA Red Bull, emailed me and was like hats off to you guys. Like, that's amazing. I didn't get it right first time, but I did get there in the end. And what was, I think, quite smart was all of the questions that we asked were all relating to the conversation that we've had on our first call. It was all around our process. So they needed to have listened.


Kelly: Oh my God. This is everything. This is like literally if we could create a template for how new business should be cultivated and won in the new now, like this is it. I love it so much. I love it.


Sophia: It was good. It was great. Fun. And then Constantine, I guess I would call him the master of playfulness like he runs an agency that specializes in playfulness. And he was just like, I've never seen anything like it. And there was an assumption that there was going to be a pitch at the end of the proposal process. But there was no pitch, like on the back of that, that got sent on the Friday, and we'd want it the next week.


Kelly: Yeah, so really, really fast process. I mean, basically what that tells me is they found you however they found you. I think you originally said, when we first talked it was through a directory that they found 3 Sided Cube, right?


Sophia: Yeah.


Kelly: So that tells me that from a new business, like I'm trying to break down all the steps. So from the visibility perspective, you were clearly on a directory, or there was some visibility from a search. So this actually came from organic search, which everyone, who thinks SEO is dead, or is something that you don't have to be on clutch or you don't have to be on all these other directories or you don't have to worry about search engine optimization for your site. Here you go. That is not true. It's part of the process. It's part of the mix that you need for effective business development. It's part of the whole cycle. So that comes in. It was also your response time, which was the make or break here. It was also the questions, the actual questions that you asked. The nature of the dialogue, the exchange that you had, the chemistry, the humanity, and then injecting the playfulness. So it's all of it. So of course, what that ultimately leads to, is you made 3 Sided Cube, the irreplaceable firm in the mind of Red Bull. And so there was no reason for anybody to do creative or to pitch or it was just like, these are the guys that we're working with.


Sophia: Yeah. And we gave them no option.


Kelly: You gave them no option. That’s why I'm saying it's brilliant, because that's where everybody wants to sit, right? Like, that's where every agency wants to sit. You give them no option, and you don't even have to pitch. And I get that this is a unique opportunity, like this is not always how it works. So many things in here, in this story are anomalies. But I actually see something like this being becoming more of the norm, right? Because there are a lot of big brands who are looking for smaller agencies. And ones that are more nimble ones, that are more playful ones or that are going to think out of the box ones that can actually produce a game, a quiz that burns a proposal. Like it's great. It's so fun. I love it.


Sophia: And you know what? I would definitely say like I struggle with RFPs, I find them boring. I have never met a single person that loves the RFP process. And if they say that they do, I think they're lying. But I thoroughly enjoyed that process. Like I was so excited to send that to the client. And like my heart was in my mouth when they didn't reply. And I was like, oh my gosh, they hate it. Like we've screwed this up. But it was high risk but for a big reward. And I think sometimes you have to take those risks somehow. Going back to our mission of building tech for good, what I've learned over these past years is you've got to stay true to your mission and what you're trying to do. And if a piece of work doesn't fit with that, it's okay to say no, or to push back on an RFP process, like we say no more than we say yes. And I think you've got to think about the types if you are going through the RFP process. Like I do understand that sometimes they're inevitable, but you could definitely stand out and have some fun with it for sure.


Kelly: Yeah. And I think just to build on what you said about saying no. I think saying no, is also part of the equation, part of the mix that makes you an irreplaceable firm, because you're not saying yes to everyone. You're saying if this doesn't align with our mission, then it's not a good fit. So for me, I think about that under the concept context of like essentialism. If it's not a definite yes, it's a definite no. It makes it very clear to make decisions. So it sounds like your big takeaway, like if we're kind of wrapping up and saying, alright, so agency owners, leaders who are listening or watching this, your big takeaway was really about standing out. Yeah?


Sophia: Absolutely. I mean, this will forever stay with me and be the lesson that we've learned that you can't underestimate how important it is to stand out in a crowd. And we know, especially now that RFPs are just so unbelievably competitive. But I think there are really smart ways to stand out. This is just one example. But I'm sure that there are quite a few out there.


Kelly: And I would imagine that this is going to change the way that you respond to every single RFP going forward.


Sophia: 100%.


Kelly: Yeah, I wouldn't want to be going up against you. Sophia, thank you so much for joining me today. This was such a great conversation, and I wish you all the best of luck in 2021 and beyond.


Sophia: Thank you so much.

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Ep 89: The Purpose-Driven Pivot, with Hilarie Viener


On this episode of THRIVE — sponsored by Workamajig — Kelly and Hilarie Viener discuss how to successfully pivot toward purpose. They share their own stories on how to look inward, discover your purpose, and embrace it in all aspects of your life and legacy.



Ep 89: The Purpose-Driven Pivot

Duration: 17:41


Kelly: So welcome to this week's episode of Thrive, your agency resource. I am really excited because I have Hilarie Viener with me today. She's the founder of Viener & Partners and the Interim CEO of the Genius 100 Foundation. Today, she's going to share her evolution story with us, which is really inspiring to me. I know it's going to be inspiring to a lot of you who after last year, you're maybe starting to think, what do I actually want to do? Do I maybe want to think about some kind of purpose-driven pivot? That's what we're going to talk about today. So Hilarie, thank you so much for joining me today. I'm really excited to talk to you again.


Hilarie: Thank you. This is really exciting for me to be able to talk to you today.


Kelly: It's so fun to share our stories, right? I'm sure you do a lot of interviews like I do and you're kind of telling your story. And I feel like in some ways, it doesn't get old because you learn different ways to tell it. And some of those things land with people, and they're really inspiring, or they really resonate pretty deeply. So I want to know a little bit more about your story from the stand point of I feel like your background from what I know is that you've always had this blend of commerce and conscious awareness. But what were the circumstances that kind of led you to enable you to pivot at the end of 2020?


Hilarie: Well, the circumstances kind of bubbled up. I've talked about this offline before. All of us are always seeking what’s next, even if whether it's overt or kind of quietly; generally thinking, if I didn't do this, what would I do. And sometimes you don't really have the time to explore that. And in this past year, there's been so much around us that has changed, and so many people seeking out answers. So this pivot for me into kind of the Interim CEO role in a nonprofit as well as running the agency has come out of having lots of conversations, really. And that's what everyone had told me when I really want to do something with more purpose. And I always kept- which will probably end up talking about- half of my business is focused towards helping nonprofits and half their commerce. But this opportunity really came out of having conversations with the people that were running the foundation, and needed kind of new vision, new leadership. As you know, things have evolved from a very steady good growth economy to a very weird time.


Kelly: So I feel like the way that this interim position came to you was, like you said, really based on your network- your deep meaningful relationships with people. Their trust in you, all of that, accumulates, and when they needed a leader, you stepped up, and it wasn't even a decision for you. For most people, there's fear when it comes to making a change, especially a pretty big change, like the one that you've made. So, why do you think that is? What holds people back from kind of breaking out of their comfort zone and getting to that next level?


Hilarie: Oh, there are a lot of things. I think one of it certainly for many people, is financial.  Think about the circumstances that you set yourself up and you work so hard for. And I think, again, we've talked about this before, that most of us are very focused on what's the next thing. How do you build the next part of your career? How do you stay in this particular track? And I think a lot of people, myself included, get in a trap. I thought that being in the agency world, I’ll work my way up in becoming the president of one et cetera, et cetera, started my own, and you just stay in that agency model. And then you're like, okay, I'm at this place where I'm in senior leadership, and I have my own team, etc. There's nothing else. I think, all of a sudden, if you start to have conversations and see there is something else, then it's giving yourself the permission to let go with that really tight grip that you have. And I think that's difficult. I mean, I'm not saying that it was easy for me to see, but if you let yourself see it, you can see that there are opportunities that you can use your experience and your value in other ways.


Kelly: Yeah, I think that's so true. I mean, I definitely resonate with that. Having owned an agency for 14 years and then feeling like, is this all there is? How can I leverage my expertise, my passion, all of those things, and have greater impact and have more fulfillment? That's kind of where we're all going. I feel like if you think about it the way that you and I talk about it, sometimes, what was fulfilling to you as a leader or as a person, as an individual 5 years ago, is definitely not the same as what it is now. So thinking about this next iteration or this next chapter, in the context of, it's not the last thing that you're going to do, it's just the next thing. It's having that mindset is super important.


Hilarie: I also think it's really important to recognize that there comes a time in your career where you feel like, if you're looking at it as I checked all these boxes, I'm supposed to get here, no one tells you. I think our generation of female leadership is different in that way, but at least when we are coming up, no one tells you what's on the other side of the mountain. You just aspire and work and do the long hours and do all the difficult stuff. I know in coming up, we live through ‘me too’. We live through all of these things. I didn't ever really take into account that there was gender bias or any other kind of bias. I just thought it was in a tough industry. And you work really hard. You work as smart as you can. Deal with as much as you can, and keep trying to focus your eyes on the prize and keep moving forward in the best way that you can. But no one explains to you when you get to a certain point. There's a whole another army with slings and arrows coming at you from the other side of being in that leadership position. But it also creates a whole another level of experience.


Kelly: Right. I love that you use the mountain analogy because I'm in the process of writing my first book. So one of the ideas that came to me was exactly this. You kind of reach this elusive summit. You are at the top of the mountain. And where do you go from there if you're at the ‘top of the mountain?’, or ‘the perceived top of the mountain?’


Hilarie: It's was a perception.


Kelly: It's a perception.  And so, my contention in that was it's not about reaching another summit. It's actually about, at that point maybe diving inward, maybe realizing that you don't need to climb another mountain. You need to go inward and realize that you are the mountain, right? Because that's a whole another chapter.


Hilarie: You are so right on, because what happens is, you do get to the point where you reach inward, because you say, okay, well, all of the optics of this look fantastic. I was just talking to a friend of mine the other week. Somehow we got on the conversations with percentages of females versus males and all these different ways. And when you look at percentages of female CEOs, for instance, on average, it's about 5%.


Kelly: Right.


Hilarie: So you think that's really very rare. But at the same time, it's like, well, what do you do with that? What do you do with that platform? And what does it mean to me? At some point, you have to say, what does it mean to me personally? I'm one person and I have one life. When I keep talking about this bell curve, that's my newest. The thing I keep talking about is like, can you get to a point where here's the top of the bell curve, and you're like, we're right here. So what do you do once you get here and for the rest of the time, you're at that place and forward? Because at some point, you also put into how many years you've been in the industry working in, etc. What's the next half? To me, it's under the halfway point. So what's the other half look like?


Kelly: Yeah. Let’s face it. Agency life looks very different than ever before. Remote and hybrid teams need better tools to help them communicate and access files, track their time, manage client budgets, and more. If you believe that it's time to streamline things once and for all, Workamajig is the ‘all in one agency management platform’ built to help you do just that. Head over to to learn more. Back to the show.


It's so interesting. I mean, we're kind of saying the same thing, just using like different terminology or different analogies. I feel like at this point, we're sort of let's call it the halfway or midpoint of COVID. Maybe a little bit ahead of that, who knows? But this whole last year has really provided an opportunity for a lot of people to go inward, to pause, and to reflect. To look at what is my legacy? What do I want to contribute? How about the rest of my career? What does that look like? Maybe I own an agency but the way that I lead that agency or maybe our philanthropic efforts are a little different as we go forward. Whatever the situation may be. I just feel like this has been such an opportunity for us to really look at things from a completely different perspective because we had that time. Was that the same thing that you were saying on your end?


Hilarie: I think opportunity is the keyword in your explanation. I think a lot of it is the way that you perceive things as well, and giving yourself the opportunity to perceive things differently and to make a different reality for yourself. Because if you were, like I said, on that track and your track got derailed, for anyone a variety of reasons. At this point, the opportunity is to see what you can do with everything that you've learned and all the knowledge you’ve accumulated, and to not discount yourself because of the environment that we're in.


Kelly: Right.


Hilarie: I think it's been a great moment for people too, if they can take stock of what they've already done,  and figure out within that huge amount of work, and hours and time and effort. What are those things that made you the most happy? Because the things that have made you the most happy are the things that you're the best at. It's like a self-fulfilling prophecy. It's like positive reinforcement. But it's kind of true at this point. We spend a lot of time mentoring, and I always talk about that. What is the most fulfilling? What are you getting the best positive response out of is really the way you can shine. And I think it's a good time – if you can - to take a break and look at what's made you shine and what's made you happy because that's what's going to be the most beneficial to everyone around you and yourself.


Kelly: Yeah. I'm curious to know what impact it's had on you, personally. With this kind of purpose-driven pivot, what impact has it had on you personally to take over this Interim CEO role and become a mentor? How does that change you?


Hilarie: It is still in the semi-beginning phases. Definitely, the beginning of anything, it looks one way, and then you get under the covers, or under the hood, or whatever those terms are, and it's totally different. So I think how it's changed me is, you use the same skill sets, the skill sets that we've learned in the agency world. I don't want to be self-aggrandizing from agency role point of view, but if you came up from there, in the big agencies, you have enormous war chest, tool chest of skills, because you genuinely live with your head on the swivel every day. You never know what's coming next, you never know what's going to change, how it's going to change. So that elasticity and that kind of sharpness of being able to operate under those circumstances is enormously beneficial when coming into a new organization. There were certain things that were done very differently than I would have set them up or done them and then there were other things that I was like, well, that's interesting learning how this works. So it's really kind of blending my business background. Someone with a business background and creative background that goes into a nonprofit is a tremendous advantage. So it's been really interesting, because I'm also now setting a new course for how the organization operates. Because every nonprofit is also trying. At the end of the day revenue is revenue. So there's just different ways of explaining it. It's a different language. But it's applying that to a different type of entity.

Kelly: Yeah. This is so great. So as we start to wrap up, I'm curious also, what's been your biggest takeaway from the whole process of the pivoting and stepping into sort of your next level of leadership?


Hilarie: Well, there's a couple of things. I think one is, I'm used to working in a global brand capacity, and to now step into a global philanthropic capacity is extraordinarily eye-opening. Of hearing people's stories from different parts of the world, and the impact that they want to make and what drives them to do it. And that collection of information is so powerful and so motivating. That is a key difference. And when you're working with a brand, when they are truly looking at revenue, they're truly looking at profitability, they're truly looking at sales. When you look at something from the point of view, right now, I still have the agency still up and running, and that's going. But when you look at it from purely from an impact standpoint, of how you can actually help other people and how you have the ability to do that, it's extraordinarily rewarding in a different way than it is from a purely business for profit way.


Kelly: Yeah. And I think we're actually seeing a ton of change from that perspective. The brands are leaning in more. They realize that consumer demand means that they have to have some type of give back initiative, and not just for PR sake, but like to actually change their impact on the world, their carbon footprint, whatever the case may be, whatever their cause is. And maybe it's not an org, maybe it's not people or planet. Maybe it's both. Hopefully, it's both. But I think that that's the direction that almost everything is going in. I mean, I see that with my agency clients, I'm sure that you see that with your agency clients.


Hilarie: Absolutely.


Kelly: So that gives me a lot of hope. Right?


Hilarie: Yeah. And it's really interesting because this is just coming from the other side of it. And like you said, to hear from different parts. We also get kind of stuck in our geographies in a way. And to see this every day, instead of talking to different clients in different parts of the world, I'm talking to different people that are running these incredible nonprofits in different parts of the world. Starting my day off, yesterday, with people in Bahrain, and the day before someone in Afghanistan, But these are people that are actually grassroots, doing things that are making incredible humanitarian education change.


Kelly: Yeah.


Hilarie: And it's so commendable. I feel blessed to just be in the room to even hear, to be on the inside track of what's possible.


Kelly: Yeah. It's really such a beautiful evolution. So I want to thank you for sharing it with us. And really wish you all the success in the new role.


Hilarie: Thank you so much.

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Ep 88: Getting Under the Conscious Mind, with Tina Greenbaum


On this episode of THRIVE — sponsored by Workamajig — Kelly and Tina Greenbaum, author of Mastery Under Pressure, uncover why fear is our greatest teacher. For creative leaders, in particular, share tools to initiate relaxation and to increase the probability of desired outcomes.



Ep 88: Getting Under the Conscious Mind

Duration: 22:49


Kelly: So this week's episode of Thrive is all about getting under the conscious mind. Tina Greenbaum is my guest. She's an executive coach with a clinical background for 37 years and author of Mastery Under Pressure. All that stands between you and your goals, is you. One of our mutual colleagues introduced us and I'm thrilled that he did. Tina, welcome to the show. It's so good to see you again.


Tina: Thank you so much. Thanks for having me.


Kelly: So in Mastery Under Pressure, you talk about this concept of how to use fear as a teacher so that we can overcome it and reach our goals. Can you talk a little bit about that, because that was really interesting to me.


Tina: Sure. But there's a wonderful great sayings of couple of them that I use all the time is the only way past it is through it. So what our general tendency is to, when we get scared about something, we don't want to look at it, we get scared, and we turn the other way. And the tendency is to avoid. And so when we do that, we miss the opportunity to like find out like, what is my body? What is my mind? What is my intuition telling me? And so I always kind of think of it as like, if you don't look at it, then you're putting on blindfolds, and then you're trying to figure out like, where do I go from here?


Kelly: Yeah.


Tina: So another wonderful thing that I love about it is the only thing that gets smaller as it gets closer.


Kelly: Oh


Tina: So when it's very far away, and we're avoiding it, it's really, really, really big. But if we start to look “Oh, yeah, I understand that”, “Yeah, that would make sense. That's why I'm scared about that”, or “this is what I need to do about it”.


Kelly: Right. Right. Oh, that's so interesting. I really, really like that. It's kind of it reminds me of the rearview mirror like Jackson's.


Tina: Yes. Absolutely. So your body gives you all kinds of wonderful information. We don't want to miss it.


Kelly: Yeah. So kind of transitioning to taking that fear and having it teach us something. There are all different ways in which we can really have that be actionable. Right? So given our current economic, political, racial, environmental climate.


Tina: Yes.


Kelly: You have a lot of things that are vying for our attention and a lot of things that are keeping us in fear. How can initiating what you call the relaxation response help agency leaders to navigate all of this and to really kind of tolerate the unknown as we move forward.


Tina: Right. And that's a great way of tolerating the unknown, and tolerating the uncertainty. So we have a nervous system. And when we're in high alert, it's the sympathetic nervous system that is activated. And most many people just even before COVID hit are in a chronic state of stress.


Kelly: Right.


Tina: Kind of deadlines and all kinds of things that are coming up. So when we're in that state, the stress hormones are coursing through our body, steroids and cortisol and getting us ready for that fight or flight response. And so when we're in that response, all the time, the body is tight, the muscles get tight, and it knocks down our immune system. And this is what actually makes us we set, settable to stress related illnesses. So through the breath, your breath is the only thing that we have, it's voluntary, that we can change that nervous system, from that sympathetic nervous system that's on high alert to what they call the parasympathetic nervous system where it's like, I got money in the bank, everything is fine, I got lots of time, might sound absurd right now. But the more that we can live in that nervous system, the quieter the body is, and then the calmer the mind. So when they talk about a body mind connection, or mind body connection, that's kind of what we're talking about, that these things are so interrelated. And if we want to be able to manage them, or control them in any possible way, we can do it through the breath. And it's something that you can practice. And many times people say, Well, I'm relaxed, I watch TV, or I do this or I run or I do exercise. Those are ways of relaxing, but it's nothing like that deep, deep, deep state of relaxation, where your brainwaves start to slow down, and your body slows down, your breathing slows down. And it's very restorative.


Kelly: Yeah. I have a little personal hack that I've come up with to a, to kind of forced myself to remember that that's an option, that that's always available to me.


Tina: Yes.


Kelly: So parasympathetic. I just kind of created that as the acronym PS. So you know how when you're writing a letter, at the end, you might say PS, right? And it's something that causes you to pause before you finish the letter. And it's something that just, it's like a changing the environment or changing the fact that you're just like reading something and kind of on default, like in default mode.


Tina: Yes.


Kelly: And then it kind of stops you for a second. So whenever I'm kind of feeling in, not unlike Oh, PS, right.


Tina: I love that.


Kelly: And it's just that tiny little thing.


Tina: But that little thing that you said, is so important, because it's the pause. We have a conditioned response, when we do things, we kind of like, I do this, and then I do that, and then I do that. And that's the way that neural pathway has developed. And these are habits, right? So in order to change a habit, we have to have some level of consciousness that are mindfulness, awareness of what's going on so that we can then create the pause, and then we can choose a different point, right?


Kelly: That's exactly what I say I say, PS, you have a choice.


Tina: I love it. Yeah, it's great.


Kelly: So there's another tool that you have that you talk about in the book, with regard to visualization, right? Which is especially relevant to creative leaders, you're very visual people. So how do you suggest creating powerful visualizations to increase the probability of realizing a desired outcome?


Tina: Okay, perfect. So it's the use of your senses. So you can visualize, you can picture something, let's just say you want to picture an outcome of a project that you're working on, and that your people are gonna love it, your clients gonna love it. And there's and, you're even imagining what is the presentation of the content of the event is going to be, so you bring in all your senses you bring in, in the room that you're in, right now, we're all on zoom. So we can still imagine how many, what the, what everything looks like, and the people look like, and what the how I want to feel and the feeling that I want to evoke, in the people that I'm working with. So it's, it's all your senses, I can taste it, I can feel it, I can see it, and you create this image. So I do this every time before I'm getting ready to do a talk or presentation or a speech or I imagine the room that I'm in, I think a lot about that the energy that I want to create. And I imagining, looking at you, I'm doing a podcast with you and imagining before I even get on, how I want to be, how I want to look, how I want to feel. So you get us all bring in all your senses. And you and you do it with great, great detail. And so when you do that, your brain already has gone through the experience.


Kelly: So it's not the first time when you do it.


Tina: Not the first time.


Kelly: Right, it's so interesting. And I would imagine that this is something that creatives can definitely latch on to because they're already used to creating things in their mind. And, when you start hearing a creative brief, or whatever it might be, your brain automatically starts going to like, Oh, I wonder what concepts could come up could arise for this brand identity or wonder what the website could look like or right, like all of these ideas come into your consciousness very naturally, right? So this is just a way to, to do that, in order to prepare you for the realization of these desired outcomes, whether it's a sales call, or some type of presentation, or whatever it might be, you can really use it for anything, right?


Tina: You can use it for anything, and you can use it. I have a lot of background in sports psychology. So I love sports. And I love athletics. And I like the emotion that's created around it. But there's also a lot of pressure. And so a lot of times like great teams will do a preparation and visualization. Let's imagine that we want to bust them or go into a game, and we get a flat tire. And so we go through that whole scenario, and what would that look like? And how will we deal with this? And then how would we deal with that so that when the actual event comes, you've already problem solved and brainstormed and imagined all the possibilities. So the unknown and this comes back to a lot of the stuff that we're dealing with right now. We have Plan B, we have Plan C, or we know that we can make it up. But we think ahead of time. And it's very powerful.


Kelly: Yeah. I think about that. Also in terms of like business development when you're doing a discovery call or reviewing a proposal with a prospective client. I think the visualization or and I don't even know if it's actually visualization or just preparedness but thinking about and listing out all of the questions that they might ask that might could potentially feel like out of left field, but writing all of those different things down and having your responses, I think that really prepares you for success because then you're not sort of waffling in a moment.


Tina: Right. And then if you even want to prepare more, you could actually rehearse it with somebody.

I'm a speaker. So a lot of times I think about it, speaking off the cuff is not the same as actual real preparation for it, and doing it over and over and over again and saying things out loud. And what if this happens? What if that happens? So these combinations of the preparation, how you talk to yourself, the visualizations, they put you in a really good place to be prepared.


Kelly: Yeah, yeah. Let's face it. Agency life looks very different than ever before. Remote and hybrid teams need better tools to help them communicate and access files, track their time, manage client budgets, and more. If you believe that it's time to streamline things once and for all, Workamajig is the all in one agency management platform, built to help you do just that. Head over to to learn more. Back to the show. Most of us, obviously, are all still working from home. And I think time management has definitely fallen a little bit by the wayside, because the lines are very blurred now.


Tina: Yes they are.


Kelly: So you talk a lot about Eisenhower's time management quadrants, and I'm wondering how that might be applicable to the agency leaders that are listening.


Tina: Yeah, so I heard people talk about this before, and I kind of like, do a little research and Eisenhower, this is the way he did it when he was a general and then probably the president. So this question says four quadrants one is important and urgent, and then is important, but not urgent, not important, and not urgent, and the fourth one is get it off the list. It doesn't belong in any one of those three quadrants.


Kelly: Okay,


Tina: Get it off the list.


Kelly: Not applicable.


Tina: Right. So I like to talk about a lot of the stuff that I do in terms of working with people's minds, and good mental health and stress management and all that. In many times in businesses, it was the way kind of the marketing that I would get was, it's important, but not urgent. We value how people think and how our employees feel, and all that kind of stuff, but we got it, we got other things that are more important. But in COVID, now, this is important and urgent, I don't know that companies can really not pay attention to this, how their employees and how they're feeling and how they're managing, all this time management stuff. So a lot of times in the morning, when I or the night before, when I kind of think about what's coming up for the next day. And I'm making my plans for how I'm going to prioritize what I can realistically accomplish in a day. And I use the word “realistically accomplish” because the list really never gets really, really, really done. But what is really important and urgent, and what are the values that you put on to put into that list. So in other words, if we're in business, it's been said to me, and I really kind of think it's true 80% of the day really needs to be focused on income producing activity. So I wouldn't necessarily kind of use this valuable time to do my bookkeeping, unless it was really important that it was my that was going to intimately create, connected to my income, or just, or use it, get it getting onto Facebook, or any of the social media. The statistics say that if you get if you go off for 30 seconds, you're likely to be there for half an hour and 30 minutes. So be again, this comes back to being conscious about how am I using my time? Is this taking me if I've set out a goal for myself, is this matching up to that goal, or have I gotten distracted. And that's one of the other things I talk a lot about is focused, being in focus, knowing when I'm focused, and knowing when I'm out of focus, and then how to bring myself back, and really being disciplined with yourself, has a lot to do with your time management.


Kelly: I'm wondering if because so many people sort of default to lists like list making. I know, I definitely did when I owned my agency, I had to get it out of my mind. So that it was on paper, right? I'm wondering if like one of the methods for using these quadrants or taking that list, which that you're probably until you train yourself out of making the list, write the list and then next to it on the same page, you create the quadrant and then you add the things from the list to those quadrants is that sort of how you're sort of.


Tina: That’s sort of what I do. You're one of the other things that I'll do is I'll look at the list and then I'll number them.


Kelly: Yeah.


Tina: So I might have, five or six things on and this is one, this is two this way down here. And so it puts order. So I think one of the things that's really important in this period is that we do best when we're grounded. When our mind is not scattered and all over the place. And it's the easiest place to be right now. Because there's, as you mentioned, in addition to all the social things that are happening in terms of, and then what's happening in people's homes, and you're not used to working from home and being disciplined, and then you've got kids and all kinds of things. So it's really about grounding yourself, what do you need to do? You and I were just talking just before we came on in terms of, I have a wonderful meditation group that every morning at 7:15, which really grounds me, and because I'm in this group, and I'm actually paying for it, but that's so secondary, but I'm in this group. And so there's an accountability, there's a commitment to myself, somewhat to the group, and whether they would really notice whether I was there or not, but it gives me order, it gives me structure. And so when we come to the level of uncertainty that we're living in, it's really about what's in my control, lets me control. This is one of the central themes that I think about every day, as soon as I start to feel anxious. The second I feel anxious, okay, what's in my control? What's out of my control?


Kelly: Right. Right. That's a good way to put it. And I really, really resonate with the idea of commitment to self. I love that I talked about that also, because, for me, it comes down to trust, right? Like, if trust is so important in all of our relationships, how can you expect someone else to trust you if you don't inherently trust yourself and making these small commitments like going to this meditation practice every day? That's a commitment to self. Right?


Tina: That's right.


Kelly: So along those lines, you like to leave leaders with a simple question that actually helps them to explore things for themselves. And the question is, do you believe that the skills and the knowledge that you got that got you to where you are now are going to be enough to get you where you want to go? And I think that's a really beautiful question. And I think, the introspective nature of it really allows people to be conscious of like, am I defaulting? or am I growing? Right? I'm just curious, what are some of the conversations or some of the things that have come out of that question that you've asked to others?


Tina: It's interesting, I just had a conversation with a colleague, a friend yesterday. And she said, I'm bored. I'm just like, really bored. I went to a conference actually was a live conferences, one of the few


Kelly: Oh, wow.


Tina: They also have the restaurant to go and to be there. And they were very conscious of how they were set up and so on. She said, but, it's the same people. And the speakers were great, but I've heard them all before. She said, is there something wrong with me, am I not challenging myself to grow or doing the introspective work that what's going on. And there's a really wonderful diagram that I learned a long time ago and I can just describe it if somebody.


Kelly: Sure.

Tina: But imagine that you're a dot. And everything that you have ever done in your life is all involved in this dot, your education and knowledge you have your life experience. But at some point, it gets a little kind of, boring, it gets a little tight. And we want to get outside of that dot. And so we start to venture outside. But oh, my goodness, this has no shape, this has no form that I think I'm going to go back, it's a lot safer to be a dot. And so we go back in here, and then we get, again, we're bored, and then we venture out. But if we allow ourselves to continue to venture out, we have no idea where we're going. We have no idea what it's looking like. But we're sort of following that intuition. At some point, we become a triangle. Right? So we've got the dot and our triangle, we have all this space to discover all these new things. So it's a process of discover, explore and mature. And so now I'm in this triangle, I know every nook and cranny of it. I'm so bored. And then we start to venture out again.


Kelly: Okay


Tina: And so this is a wonderful way to think about the process of growth of where am I today? On this scale? Right? So my friend was she had, she was at the edge, and she was done. She was ready for something new. And didn't really realize it. And so we just started talking about, other possibilities of things where she could take her business and take herself, and new groups and new energy, and then we get vitalized. Revitalize.


Kelly: Yeah.


Tina: And so that's where people who are really growth [20:33], and many people will stay in that dot forever.


Kelly: Yeah. Yeah, it's so interesting. I really love that analogy so much. Because I think of the dot as the more that is encompassed and not comprised, and not the tighter it feels, because everything is keeping you small.


Tina: That's right.


Kelly: And so I like the idea of changing the shape, there's something nice about that. Changing it from the triangle, and then I would imagine, as you're going out, you probably creating a square, and then ultimately, you probably get back to a circle again, but the circle is so much bigger. It's like 25 times bigger. Yeah, that's a really, really interesting analogy.


Tina: And what I said to her, I've been doing this for a very long time, and my clients don't bore me, I get bored with me, sometimes, if I'm repeating same thing, and using the same time techniques, and some, so when I get to that place, when I get bored with me, and it's time for me to grow, you needed to learn something new.


Kelly: And that's where the self-awareness comes, right? I'm being conscious of it. Well, so good. Oh, I love this conversation. Tina, thank you so much for joining me today. I really appreciate it. And I will put show notes in the show notes. I will put links to your website and to the book on Amazon as well.


Tina: Thank you so much. And there's also a quiz that people can take,


Kelly: Okay, great.


Tina: And I'll get to that too. And they can see where they are on all these different things that we've talked about today.

Kelly: Fantastic. Thank you so much again.

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EP 87: Getting More Strategic in 2021, with Jeff Meade


On this episode of THRIVE — sponsored by Workamajig — Kelly and fellow agency growth consultant, Jeff Meade focuses on what will be most important for agency leaders to think about as we head into a new year.



EP 87:Getting More Strategic in 2021

Duration: 34:45


Kelly: So welcome back everybody to this week's episode of Thrive, your agency resource. Today we're talking about getting more strategic in 2021. I think we could all use a little bit of that. We're talking about the practices in our agency that just cannot be ignored. We can't bury our heads in the sand. And today, I'm talking with Jeff Meade, who runs Mead, which is a management consulting firm that works with mid-sized marketing agencies just like yours. Welcome to the show my friend. I'm so excited for you to be here.


Jeff: Thank you. Thank you for having me. Glad to be here.


Kelly: So this show has been a little project and progress in the making.


Jeff: Right.


Kelly: What a year, this year has been 2020, just kind of was that wave that swallowed us up, and we dove back into the sea and got turned around again. So interesting. So with all that's happened in the last 10 months, we don't have to rehash that. Everybody listening or watching knows exactly what I'm talking about.


Jeff: Yeah.


Kelly: There's actually been a lot of things, though, that have just naturally fallen to the wayside. There's no shame in it. It's just what happened for all of us.


Jeff: Right.


Kelly: So now that we've been through a couple rounds of getting kicked around a little bit and we know full well that those things are not going away. Right?


Jeff: Right. 


Kelly: How can we actually start to get more strategic for next year?


Jeff: That's a good question. Right? It seems like as you look out onto 2021, I was with an eye doctor the other day, and when I think about this, it's almost like that fuzzy focus, an eye doctor saying, “Which looks better? A or B?” And you're like, kind of the same, but do it again. And, that's what 2021 feels like. It's starting to come into this fuzzy focus where you kind of been beat up, you got back up, got beat down, got back up, and now you kind of see the landscape. And so you're saying, alright, now I have a sense of what's going on. Right? I know, generally, when people might come back into the office. There's talks of when the vaccine might widely be available. So now you can start saying, okay, what do we look like in this new landscape? Is the stuff that we were doing in 2019 the stuff that we pieced together in 2020? Is that still going to work in 2021? And really start saying, who do we want to be moving forward? Thinking about being more strategic, this is that time of year where Kelly, I'm sure you've gone through it with your agencies is now is when everybody's planning. Pandemic or not, this is when we would have been thinking about the New Year. And we've been putting together all those big, hairy, audacious goals of all this stuff we're going to do. I think now we can start doing it. But the difference is, now we can start saying, what do we want to look like? Like, now we can force ourselves to say, okay, now's a good time as ever. We've been beat up so much. How do we start to make the company look like the company we've always wanted it to be? I think with this crisis, this pandemic, it's forced us. Many of the things that we didn't want to do, whether it was a we can set up a location in that city, oh, well, now we see that we can, it can happen real easily. So I think what many people realize, and I've seen it is a lot of the stuff that we kept putting off, we'll get to that. Now you can look at that and say, oh, you know what, this is the landscape where we can start to take some risk, and see what sticks.


Kelly: So what I'm hearing you saying also, the way that I interpret it is that there's a mindset shift that we kind of wanted to happen, but it sort of happened for us, right? So this mindset shift of like, oh, I can't do that, like looking at all the reasons why something can't happen or won't happen or won't be able to happen. As opposed to looking at those limitations. We’re thrown into like, oh, it's happening. I guess I better get on board, right?


Jeff: Yeah.


Kelly: Like how important do you think is the continuation of that kind of mindset, that like there are no limits mindset, that abundance mindset? How important is that going to be, not just going into next year, but continuing through into the future, right? Because in my experience, like this is a choice. This comes down to a choice. Your mindset is a choice. We can continue to choose fear, scarcity, limitation, or optimism like innovation, opportunity, abundance, how important is embodying that in 2021 and beyond.


Jeff: I think it’s huge. I think many people as tough as it was to get here, many people are saying, wow, this is the mindset that I've always wanted. And I think we see it professionally and you see it personally. Anybody who's gone through a personal crisis and this is the time where you start saying, it's now or never. Like, you're kind of forced. I mean, I think about even kind of personally, like I remember having a health scare. And I, for the longest time, I kept saying, oh, you know what? I should lose a little weight. And then when you get that, when you hit with a crisis, you're like, oh, I better do it now or else. And I think that's what many people have felt. It's like, now is the time or else I have to walk away from this? Do I truly want to grow an agency? Do I truly want to run an agency? And now is when you have to look at yourself in the mirror and say, is this something that I want to do? And if the answer is yes, I think you have to take that mindset and lean into it. Well, this is what I have to do to accomplish these goals. No longer can I push things to the wayside.


Kelly: And hope that everything's just going to magically happen one day.


Jeff: Exactly.


Kelly: I think that's good. I think that's a good foundation of like what we've been through, the mindset that we've always wanted, it's here, we can now actually embrace it, embody it. But now let's get down to like brass tacks. When you work with your clients, you work with them using what you call score cards.


Jeff: Right.


Kelly: So many agencies are using probably up to 15 different metrics out there. But we can't look at 15. Right?


Jeff: No, you can’t.


Kelly: Like, the reality is that this is back to the mindset, like, if you really want to be serious about things, you have to have consistency. Right?


Jeff: Right.


Kelly: So if you want change to be sustainable and consistent, we have to narrow down what we're looking at in terms of these goals. So can you talk a little bit about like, the five things, maybe not the 15, but 5 that you really say like, the other ones have importance, they have value, but these 5 are like non-negotiable? What are those for you?


Jeff: Right. Yeah, I think for me now, and it's usually I think, if I look at different agencies, sometimes I may drop one or two, but for the most part, what I'm seeing now, is that I'm putting in everybody's scorecard is motivation. That's the first one I'm putting in. And the reason I put it in, is because I think what we're seeing now is when people are stuck at home, and, boy, we've been stuck at home for a long time, right?


Kelly: Yeah. And we'll be, we will be for a while.


Jeff: Exactly. I think if we're listening to the news, when it's all said and done, we will have been at home for more than 12 months, right? And so what starts to happen as you start, people start becoming demotivated, it's hard to see the big picture. And so the first metric I usually like putting on the scorecard is just, what does motivation look like? Are my people motivated? Do I need to give them a challenge? I often say, and there's research to support it that people that work in agencies, knowledge workers, they're like folks who volunteer for an organization. And so the big thing is, they need to have purpose, right? And so, are you bringing purpose to the job and that was easy when everybody was coming to the office. But now when you're at home, and you fire up your zoom, and then you're talking for about 30 minutes, and then you get off, and then you do the work and, then you're trying to figure out how to do stuff with your kids and your family on the same roof, you start losing the big picture and it becomes really tactical. I think that's what we started seeing, that people just their mindset becomes really tactical. Alright, I have to do a, b and c. I have to make lunch for my kids. And so they do that. And I think now is really pulling back and saying, how can we keep people motivated? So that's one.


Kelly: Before you go into the second one, I just want to build on that for a second, or just highlight how important that is. Because I'm seeing the same thing. And I think we have to remember, we have to like go back to a little bit of analog. I said this the other day, like innovation going forward might actually look like going backward. And I don't mean back to the way that we were doing things. I mean, not relying so much on the shiny things. So getting back to basics. Yes, it's about purpose and fulfillment and all of those things. I feel like we forget sometimes as agency leaders that like we don't sell products. The thing that people are buying from us are our people, right? It's the not the people themselves but the brainpower, the thought, the strategy, the enthusiasm, they're buying all of this. And so if we don't take care of the thing that we're actually “selling”, I think we're missing the whole point.


Jeff: Yeah. I mean, you hit it. People are our greatest asset. And if you're not taking care of that asset. It's not like other businesses where we're worried about property, plants, and equipment. It's people. If the people are not happy, if they're not motivated, we're not creating the best product.


Kelly: Yeah. And if your product, your “supply chain” has all the reason in the world to leave, right? Like there are a lot of people who are jumping ship. They’re starting to realize that this time gives them that introspective quality to say, you know what, do I really love working for this company? Am I being seen, heard, understood? Am I valued? Like, I don't have to take this. I could go anywhere. I can literally work anywhere now. I think that's just like, again, back to this mindset of like valuing people, it might feel analog, it might feel like a simplistic thing to say. But I think people that are not really, really understanding that and, again, embodying that and running their companies that way, they're going to be in for a rude awakening if they haven't already been this year.


Jeff: Yeah, no, I completely agree. Completely.

Kelly: So sorry to say.


Jeff: No, that was perfect.


Kelly: I was just getting on my little soapbox. 


Jeff: That was awesome. What else I look at scorecards right now is I'm looking at hours of professional development per employee. And the reason that we're looking at that is, I think when you have a scorecard, and not a scorecard that has 15, 20, sometimes people are just measuring too many things. But when we have a tight scorecard, it really sends a signal to what matters to everyone in the organization. And if you're measuring it, then people know that you care about it. The same way that you would measure profitability or revenue that people see, oh, we're actually tracking our ability to make sure that I'm learning new skills. I think that's important. So in many ways, this sends a signal. And, there's not really a benchmark of best practice, but I like to put it on this so you can start tracking to see. Are we really developing our talent? Far too often people in agencies just say, I'm not learning anything, or no one prepared me for this. If you don't come in with the skills, you don't get upskilled at all. So I have that and then also, I put recurring business ratio. And that's especially important this time around. It is because I want people to start looking at saying, what business are we going to have, if we don't do anything else, just to set a floor, so that you know, alright, this is what our revenue will be next year. At that revenue we should hit this profitability. So this is my baseline. That means if nothing else I can afford this staff. So really just focusing on that, then I think profitability always has to be on there, and I go profitability by client. I think oftentimes, we'll look across the agency and say, alright, this was a good year. We hit 20% profitability. But I think sometimes you may have a client that's bringing in 35% and another that's bringing in 5%. And really, why I'm trying to force people to look at it is just to make sure that they're on some clients who are dragging you down. And I'm not telling anybody to do anything crazy like fire a client right now. We've lost way too many clients. But really just see where you're leaking money, to see how you can really bring that client up.


Kelly: Yeah. And, also, I think it's important to say, you’re not advising anyone to necessarily, let go of any clients right now. 


Jeff: Right.


Kelly: But the little asterisk is right now. Right?


Jeff: Yes.


Kelly: We have to manage cash flow and make sure that we're investing in our people. We need money to do that. But if the trend continues, where one particular client or two particular clients are much lower on the profitability, and the accounts aren't great to work on, we're over servicing, maybe the clients are not treating our employees well, whatever the case may be. I still think it's important to have in the back of your mind or written down somewhere, what those clients, which clients those would be, the day that we're able to replace them. So sometime next year, you're probably going to get a client that is more ideal than this one that's kind of in the bottom of the barrel. And you want to know which ones are sort of, right on that chopping block. I would then add on top of that, it's not so much about just letting them go, but not leaving money on the table, maybe you have a strategic partner that you can refer them over to, and get a finder's fee or ongoing commission for a year, whatever the case may be. I think that's what it is. When you talk about strategy or being strategic, it's not just about bringing in. It's also about realizing that you want to uplevel those clients.


Jeff: So right. Yeah, I completely agree. And I think once you put that asterisk next to some of those clients, that then allows you to say, okay, these guys on the chopping block, is there any other reason that we would keep them around, and maybe that reason is, boy, they sure do look good on our client list. Or when we get back to a world where we're networking, we always drop their name, and people get excited. But the point really is, let's just be strategic. But first and foremost, you don't want to pay for the privilege of having anyone as a client. You don't want to lose any money. And then, I'd say to round out my top five, that last one is inclusion. And I think just looking at this current landscape, there's a lot of diversity metrics, and some are easier than others. But really, with inclusion, it's really just about how do you make sure that your employees are bringing their whole self to work. I think that's the one that's really tough. And unfortunately, far too many people aren't bringing their whole selves to work. And it's really tough to measure. I actually found a survey tool that's pretty good. And I can put a link up for your listeners so they can get that.


Kelly: Yeah, I can. I'll put that into the show notes later.


JJeff: Perfect. But what it does is really just show you, across your organization are people feeling included in the organization, and it has some questions like I can express my opinion here without repercussion, and for many people, that's huge. And many people across many groups don't feel that way. And another question that has is I believe management respects everyone equally. So it's really just about, hey, do I feel included in this? And, do people value what I bring to the table? So that's really what I have in the scorecard right now that I think people should be focusing on going into 2021.


Kelly: I love the scorecard because this is not, I mean, let's be honest. Three, four, or five years ago, some of those things would not be on that scorecard.


Jeff: No, I got laughed out in the room.


Kelly: Yeah. So I think this is a positive thing. This is incredibly positive. This is like if we all want to create the lives, the teams, the businesses, and like the world that we ultimately, I'm assuming we all want to see. I think the scorecard is brilliant. I think it's great.


Jeff: Thank you.


Kelly: I do want to talk a little bit more about the idea of inclusion, though, because, again, we're here. We're having potentially a little bit of an uncomfortable conversation, which I love to dive into. And the reality is that up until 2020, diversity and equity, consciousness and inclusion, all of those things were what I would consider an HR afterthought. So for the agency owners or leaders who have brought this into their awareness, because they didn't have another option. And they want to shift from diversity being an HR afterthought to prioritizing diversity as a core value. What would you say they should keep in mind as they start to shift in their organizations?


Jeff: I would say when I saw this kind of playing out a couple months ago, in many ways, and what I'm speaking about is just what was happening racially across racial lines. Inclusion includes racism and a lot of other things, but across racial lines, I saw a lot of people saying, man, I see our leaders saying things, and kind of saying that they are allies, but I don't see anything changing at home. I don't see anything changing in our organization. So one advice I say is really kind of sit down with folks and say, what's broken internally that we can fix, right? Let's just start at home before we make these platitudes about how we're gonna play a part in the age of landscape of solving, is what's broken internally. And I think what that does is everybody brings their perspective. And so some people may intuitively just say, hey, we got to get better at just project management, that may be one tactical approach. But then other people who are if you're forcing people saying, hey, I want you to look at this, and bring in thoughts of diversity, thinking about it from an inclusive perspective, you're going to have other people bring their own opinions and say, there's no groups for folks like me. Or you may have somebody say, I'm the only woman that works here, right? But you want to have those conversations, and you want to include people. But I think the other thing you want to do is, now say, how do we start solving this and everybody plays a part in how we solve this? I think that brings purpose into the organization where instead of you just kind of at your computer being really tactical, you can now say, wow, this is what we're going to work on and this is the part that I'm going to play and working on that. I think that's really huge. And I'm seeing that that's really helping folks where you just say, you know what, I don't have all the answers. But I think collectively, we do a good job of solving problems. We're super creative. Let's just sit down and think about what we can fix. What can we fix internally, and then it gives everybody a mission to focus on. You get buy in.  


Kelly: Yeah, I love so much of what you just said. My favorite thing is that as the leader, I think we really need to drive home the idea that it's okay, and actually really beneficial for you to be able to say, I don't have all the answers, like to me, that is like the most courageous and most beneficial statement that you can make as a leader. I don't have all the answers. I can't fix it. And nor is it a leader’s job to solve all the problems or to fix it.


Jeff: Right.


Kelly: And somehow we have gotten down this path where we believe that leadership is equated with being the one who solves everything. Just as no matter who you voted for, like whoever was going to become our new president. Nobody was going to, well, one person or no two people, no duo was going to fix the problems. Right? It's all of us.


Jeff: Right.


Kelly: So I think like this shift in understanding that inclusion and diversity is not about just feeling a couple of different seats at the table so that your conference room or your zoom meetings now look like a rainbow.


Jeff: Right. Not at all.


Kelly: The point is… and I think, really, that's what the HR afterthought was all about, in my opinion. It was like, how does this look good? When we go to our about page on our website, are there lots of like black, brown Asian, like is that would it looks like. And maybe that's the way that we can sort of show or prove that we care about this.


Jeff: Exactly.


Kelly: If that's what the thought was, there's no shame in that. But we can't continue under the same guys.


Jeff: Yeah. It's so true.


Kelly: Yeah. The whole idea of like, the voices at the table. I think what I really loved also about what you said is like, having those conversations to say, what's wrong? Dialing up curiosity is my favorite way of talking about it. Like, let's all get curious. What’s not working for you? What is working for you?


Jeff: Yeah. And I think the key to that too is that we can fix, right? Let's not make the problem so huge.


Kelly: It's overwhelming.


Jeff: Yeah, that we can't fix but what can we as a group fix, and I think it piques people's curiosity. But then also it's, well, what can we do? And, it could be as simple as something with a local organization. But who knows, and I think it's unique to every agency, but people come with some great ideas. And collectively, you're all working to change something. And that's huge.


Kelly: Yeah. And at the end of the day, this is what I would call like a triple impact, right? Like, if you really value the perspectives of every single person on your teams, whether they're internal, you bring in some contractors, consultants, whatever the situation may be. If you really value all of that, then what's going to end up happening is your work is going to be more effective, right? Because you've got every perspective at the table. You're not going to let anything slip through the cracks. You're not going to have a situation where you have like the Pepsi commercial that everybody was up in arms about, right? Or the T-shirt in that one catalog.


Jeff: Right.


Kelly: So the whole point is like the work is more effective, right? And so what happens when you have more effective work? Your clients stay longer. You don't have as much client attrition. Your clients now become your brand advocates, and they refer people that are equal to them.


Jeff: Exactly.


Kelly: So they're referring more ideal clients. People are more invested in staying there because the work is good. They’re feeling fulfilled. They feel like they're part of something. You’re gonna have less employee attrition.


Jeff: Exactly.


Kelly: It's just like this whole idea of like money follows value. If we invest in our people for the right reasons, it's only going to bring us back to the profitability. But it's hard sometimes to make that connection. And I think that's kind of what we're talking about. In this case, it's like, how do we get more strategic, but at the end of the day, we're saying, if we value our people more, the trickle effect is going to make us more profitable.


Jeff: Yeah, you hit the nail on the head. I mean, I think being strategic is really just valuing your greatest assets, which is your people. How do you make sure that they can bring more to the table, and that they want to bring more to the table and that they're motivated to bring more to the table. As agency owners, you're motivated by the fact that your agency is growing, that you're creating really cool work, but someone you hire, they want to make sure that they have a story to tell. So you want to make sure that their story aligns with your story. And I think the only way to do that is get everybody in the room and now is the right time to really get everybody in a room and say, all right, what do we have to fix? And like I said, in many ways, a lot of things will come out, you'll get the diversity and inclusion stuff because you want to force people say, hey, I want all of this. I want the uncomfortable stuff to come up to. But then you'll get just the business stuff like, okay, yeah, we need to get better with our billables, accounts payable, all that stuff. But it happens when everybody has a seat at the table, and everybody is comfortable speaking up, and knowing that they will be heard.


Kelly: Yeah, to me, this is like the most important conversation of the year almost, because it's like what have we been able to boil down from everything that we have learned introspectively with our agencies, with our teams. What have we learned this year? Like if we don't learn something from this entire experience between the racial revolution, the pandemic, the election, the divisiveness, like if we don't come out of this, learning more about how to connect deeper and how to grow sustainably, like it’s all for nothing.


Jeff: Exactly.


Kelly: Strategy to me is like, how do we implement what we've learned and actually just make it more actionable? And it doesn't just stop like, yes, we're talking about this in the context of like getting more strategic for 2021. But that's just like a soundbite for a title. We're talking about getting more strategic for the rest of our lives. We're talking about committing to being better, to valuing people more, to valuing relationships, whether those are our clients, or spouses or team members. Yeah, I get a little excited about this.


Jeff: No, I love it. I love how you summarize the two. I mean, I think really thinking about being strategic for 2021, as we've seen in everything that has happened is now you know what to do, right? So what's preventing you from doing it? Like you have in the conversations, now, let's do something about it. You've done the hard work of still having an agency after all of this because many people can’t say the same. So if you've gone through that, now, it's just like, what do we have to do next? And I think this is a time where you kind of bring everyone around and say, what's our next challenge? Okay, let's do it.


Kelly: Yeah. So, as we start to wrap up, I guess I would just ask the question, and again, it might be a little difficult to answer. But for those agencies that are really struggling, like, yes, they've made it through 2020. But they're really struggling, they were relying on some of the funding that has dried up, we don't know what's going to happen with that going forward yet. And they're struggling to maintain their client relationships. Maybe they're seeing some of those drop off even towards the end of the year now. Maybe they're having to lay off a couple of people right before the holidays, which is also kind of hard. But the ones that are really kind of right on that edge, what would you say to them in terms of looking ahead and going into 2021?


Jeff: Yeah, that's a great question. I would say really, this is a time where you have to focus on what you're great at. And I don't mean it as some big ego thing, but what I'm saying is what I see a lot of agency has done before 2020 was kind of bolt on these additional services, right? You're working with a client and they say, oh, we need some help with social media. And so then you staff up and hire some folks. And then that client is gone. And you're trying to figure out how to allocate that person. And so what I'm saying is, what are you really great at? And maybe it comes back to a position in conversation, right? And so really just double down on what you're great at and focus there. Here's a good example. Like, I have an agency, they're really good with events. I think they're one of the best in the country. And, of course, I'm saying that because they’re one of my clients.


Kelly: We’re all bias when we talk about our clients.


Jeff: Yeah.


Kelly: It’s okay.


Jeff: So they do amazing live events, and 2020 has been tough, but I think what they've done really well is that they move the conversation away from live events to experiences. And so really, they're helping their clients really think through how do we create these experiences digitally? And how do we think about how do we move out of this pandemic? So I've seen them, they've taken a hit, because there's just no live events, but they're really starting to go deeper into what does it mean to create a brand experience? So really experimenting with stuff online. So that was the course. So I would say to those agencies really just figure out what that core is. And, how can it play out based on the way the landscape is. Do you have to do more stuff digitally? But I think it's paring back some stuff that you're not really great at. And that's where we have to be honest with ourselves.


Kelly: I was just gonna say that.


Jeff: Yeah, we do it, but we're not great at it. I think you really have to pare that stuff away, and to say, alright, we're gonna double down here, when someone says, I want you to come speak here, they’re asking me to come speak, because I'm an expert. Or if you're writing a thought piece, like what is that and focus on that. That would be my advice.


Kelly: Yeah. And that goes back to your scorecard, right? Work hard about like, looking at the profitability of each client, I would look at that as maybe the profitability of each service. That was actually one of the things that I looked at, at my former agency, and it caused us to get really honest with ourselves and say, you know what? We don't want to do social media anymore. It's a thing that for us, there are tons of agencies out there that specialize in social media marketing and management. For us, it didn't make any sense. Because when we looked at the profitability of each service, month after month, it was breakeven. And if you're a breakeven, what are you doing? Like, that's not why you're in business. So we created a strategic partnership with a social media agency. That's all they did. And then we transitioned each of our clients over to it. So I think that's great advice, because getting back down to what you're great at, what your core is. So we can talk about that in terms of core values, core services, whatever it may be, get back down to that, because that's really where you're going to connect.


Jeff: Absolutely.


Kelly: That's where you have the history, the deep expertise. And if you had any question mark in your positioning, now it becomes a lot easier.


Jeff: Yeah.


Kelly: Yeah. So not that we're trying to be cliché and always have everything come back to position. But the reality is that if you are struggling, and you're trying to extend yourself into multiple places, you basically become all things to all people, which means that you're nothing to everyone.


Jeff: Yeah. Right. Exactly. And when everybody's budget is tight, no one's going for the generalists. You want the experts because you're not going to have a second chance. You got to get it right the first time.


Kelly: Right. Well, Jeff, this is an amazing conversation. I knew it would be. I'm really, really grateful to have you in my life and that we were able to have this discussion and I think it'll be really valuable for a lot of agency owners. So thank you.


Jeff: Yeah, absolutely. Ditto and thank you for having me on. It was great speaking with you and your audience.

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EP 86: How Deep Listening Led to a Successful Pivot, with Marcel Petitpas


On this episode of THRIVE—sponsored by Workamajig—Kelly and Marcel Petitpas uncover how deep listening and curiosity helped his SaaS platform pivot in order to provide greater value to agencies that want to understand their profit margins. 



EP 86: How Deep Listening Led to a Successful Pivot

Duration: 19:18


Kelly: So welcome back to this week's episode of Thrive, your agency resource. Today, we're going to talk about pivoting. But not necessarily just pivoting because everybody's doing that these days. We're going to talk about it in the context of deep listening and why that matters in order to create a successful pivot. I'm joined by Marcel Petitpas, Co-founder and CEO of Parakeeto. A good friend of mine, Parakeeto is a software that helps agencies and consultancies automagically create accurate data-driven estimates for their projects, literally in seconds, using their historical data from harvest. So really, really niche. We'll talk about how that all occurred. Marcel, thank you so much for joining me today.


Marcel: Thank you for having me Kelly. Always a pleasure to spend time hanging out with you.


Kelly: I agree. I like to spend time with myself and I really like to spend time with you. So you say that you have known since the age of 7 that all revenue is not created equal. And I would love for you to extend upon that.


Marcel: Yeah, we learned that tough lesson. I think all agency or service business owners learn at some point in their career, which is that you can lose money on a job. And we learned that. My brother and I, on a snow day, because we grew up, I still live in Canada today on the East Coast, we get a lot of snow here in the winter. And so it's not uncommon for you to have a day off from school because there's too much snow and we thought, hey, maybe this is a good opportunity for us to go make some pocket change. So we grabbed our shovels and we went knocking on the neighbor's doors to offer some snow shoveling services. And that was going swimmingly well for the first little while. Everyone paid us handsomely relative to the time it took us to clear their driveways. And it all changed when we got to Miss Harrison's house. She was kind of an older lady. She was widowed. And when we knocked on the door. She was so excited to see us. And she kind of said, yeah, could you shovel the driveway? And we said, yeah, totally. How much will you pay us for that? Because we were kind of we didn't know how to price. We're seven years old. So we were on the honor system. I was like, what will you pay us to shovel your driveway? And she said, I'll give you guys each a toonie, which is like a funny Canadian coin for $2. And we looked at the driveway, we thought, yeah, that seems fine. Like it's just a light dusting of snow. So we said yeah, sure, whatever, for two bucks we'll get this done in a few minutes. It'll be fine. It's less than most other people paid us but whatever. And we went over and started shoveling the driveway and figured out that she hadn't cleared her driveway since the last time it had snowed. So below that nice thin layer of snow that would have been easy to shovel. There was basically a coat of ice that we had to chip through for the better part of a few hours. And I remember at one point, like sitting there and it started storming again. And I'm just like, so dilapidated. I'm like, man, this is the worst. And when we went back up to collect our payment a few hours later, she gave us the $2 that she promised. And I think she felt bad because she knew it took us longer than we expected. So she went back in the house, and she gave us these little sesame snacks as a tip. And I was just like, man, we got to figure this out. I don't want this to happen to me ever again. I knew at seven years old that I had been grossly underpaid for my time.


Kelly: It's such a good story, because I think like we probably all have stories like that, especially if you live in a climate where you shoveled snow as a kid or you mowed lawns, or you had a paper route or whatever the case may be right. And that also speaks to your entrepreneurial spirit at seven years old, which I love. But since we're talking about your big pivot today, with Parakeeto, can you share a little bit with us about what the vision was for the software? From its inception, like what pain points were you aiming to really mitigate for agencies, and then we'll talk a little bit about where it went from there.


Marcel: Yeah, so the original thesis for the business and the thesis hasn't really changed. But obviously, what we've learned is that our approach to solving for that problem had to be very different. But the original thesis is that small and mid-sized agencies have a lot of trouble answering simple, important questions about their business without drowning in spreadsheets, things like are we making money on our projects? Are we profitable? Should we be utilizing our team better? Do we have capacity for new work? All these kind of day to day operational questions that are a function of time, and people and money and that tend to have data required to calculate them that live in all kinds of different places in the organization, time tracking tools, accounting tools, and so on. So we had this vision to create essentially a middleware platform that would integrate with your time tracking and your QuickBooks and your project management, pull all the necessary data into one place, and answer all those questions for you, kind of in an automated way. That was kind of what we originally had set out to do with the product.


Kelly: Sounds great. Right?


Marcel: It sounds amazing. It was easy to sell that value proposition and in the beginning, it was easy to sell it to myself and to clients. But eventually we started to figure out how difficult it was going to be to actually deliver on that value proposition and what was going to be required from a data perspective, from a technology perspective. And, I think, we started to realize that we were kind of in over our heads once we actually got to the point where we had to try and onboard people onto the product and get them to that outcome.


Kelly: Yeah. So before we talk about where it pivoted to, or where it is now, I should say, let's talk about the concept of reframing this, because as you and I spoke about earlier today, it's really easier. It would be really easy for someone to say, “Hey, you set out. You had this thesis. You built this platform. It didn't actually take off like you failed.” And there certainly could be people that are in that camp. But then there's another way to look at it. And you shared with me a book that you're reading. So I wanted to talk a little bit about how you've been able to like reframe this from the standpoint of failure into a mindset shift.


Marcel: Yeah, I mean, you alluded to it earlier, it's kind of about the framing. If our framing was we need to make this product work, then yeah, totally would have been a failure. But we were able to, as a team kind of step back and say, well, look, our objective isn't to make this product work. It's to build a successful business and solve a real problem for agencies. And so, learning that this path was going to be potentially not viable was an important step along the way. Because we could have kept investing in that indefinitely until we ran out of money, ran out of time, ran out of energy, whatever the case is, but we were able to catch that soon enough. And ultimately, looking back, we'll probably say that was a critical turning point in the business. But at that time, we really had to basically take a step back and think like, our current circumstance is a reflection of the mindset and the thought process that we had before. And obviously, this isn't going to work. We need to kind of reframe the business, reframe our approach, and try to learn as much as we can from this experience to increase our chances of getting it better next time.


Kelly: Yeah. And for me, anyway, here's where like the magic lives in this story. You didn't pivot and say, okay, we'll just come up with another thesis. And we'll just like, throw something against the wall and see if it sticks. You actually went to the people who were familiar with it, or had tested it, or demoed or knew about it, or whatever the case may be and said, here's the problem, or here's the problem as we understand it. Is that still the case? And what kind of things would actually help you more?  So you took a stance of curiosity, you took a stance of realizing that it was totally okay for you guys to be wrong. And you took a stance of really honoring deep listening, like deep listening to what your customers’ needs are. So can you talk a little bit about that?


Marcel: Yeah, absolutely. And I mean, this was like our theory from the beginning, that we wanted to build a very customer centric company, and we want to build our software in a very customer centric way. But of course, that's a lot easier said than done. Like, tactically, there's a lot of moving pieces around that. You’ve got to be reconciling customer feedback against your vision for the product and balancing those two things, strategic considerations, and so on. And then there's a certain volume of feedback that you need to be able to achieve, to see patterns and see clear direction and credit where credit's due. A good friend of mine, Anthony Cintron, was really critical in helping us kind of go through the process of learning what this new path was going to be. And a big part of that was that he was an external facilitator. We brought him in as a consultant. And he was able to kind of be an objective facilitator of what we called a solution design process. And he kind of really helped us go out and have these conversations with our customers, with people that weren't our customers that were interested and really kind of asked why aren't we able to get you to a successful place? Why are these issues that we're running into with our product happening? We understood like you want this outcome, but we had to get a deeper understanding of how it was actually going to help us get there. And that led us constantly back to the source, which was estimation. We realize more and more and more as we have those conversations that the foundation of all these systems for agencies is the ability to make somewhat accurate assumptions about what projects are going to look like. And that really just happened through having a lot of conversations with clients and then being able to step back and as a team kind of lay our swords down and reframe being wrong almost from like, being afraid of being wrong to like being excited about being wrong. And this is a crazy thing, right? Because if we didn't get a definitive answer to that, or if we didn't get enough signals, then it would have been difficult to make the decision to say, okay, we need to close that door, we need to scrap what we've built and invested a lot of time and money, and building and move in a different direction. But there's a certain turning point where we started to be like, we were embracing the fact that we might be wrong about this. And then we were going into the next idea of being like, how quickly can we prove ourselves wrong? And it was a total shift in mindset with how we looked at being wrong. It's like, we want to figure that out as quickly as possible so that we can increase our chances of landing on the thing that's going to be right.


Kelly: Right. And what I also hear you saying is like, the mindset shift, probably also had something to do with like removing your ego, or tamping your ego down a little bit in that process. To say, yeah, like get me to wrong, get me to know, right? Because like that only opens up all of the possibilities and the opportunities. We can clear out what's not working quicker. It's a total mindset shift. When you're talking about building anything, it's not just a SaaS platform. I mean, you're talking about any type of project, any type of creative output or technological output. So yeah, so you've pivoted. And now talk a little bit about all of the solves for  this platform, the real time feedback, the comparison to past projects, and estimates and all that, because I think it's exciting that agencies now have the ability to use something like this.


Marcel: Yeah. So I mean, as we went down this rabbit hole o f estimation, we figured out that it was like a real pain point. And some of the things that we kept hearing were, we're not good at this. We're not very accurate at it. We were having trouble with scope and with profitability. And when we started to try and reverse engineer the process, everybody had their own idiosyncrasies the way they did it. But largely, the process was, well, we kind of try to think about what have we done before that smell similar to this thing that the client wants, and we try to pull up that proposal or we try to find that in our time tracking tool, and we use this historical information to try and get better next time. But over and over, we kept hearing like that is an arduous process. And it's time consuming. And we spend way too much time on estimates. We started doing the math on like, how much time are you spending. Like well, all of our executive leadership in a room for three hours. So that's five people at three hours. We all billed out at 200. So we're spending 1000s of dollars a week like building these estimates. There was all these bottlenecks to where it was like the senior most people in the organization because it was very subjective and not a very data driven process, they were kind of handcuffed to this thing of having to approve and look over estimates. So we kind of step back from all those learnings and said, okay, we want to create a workspace where we can make it easier to use information about projects you've done in the past, to get the next ones, and create a feedback loop between what actually happens and what we assume is going to happen. And so, Parakeeto, essentially, is a tool that you can connect to your time tracking tool. Today, we integrate with Harvest, and pull in projects that feel similar to the one that you're estimating. And then it actually just breaks down by task, like how much time you spent on these past projects, and allows you in real time to compare your estimate to those other projects. And then also gives you some feedback on the profitability of that project to the forecasted profitability based on the inputs and outputs. So you can say, hey, here's the budget, what's the hourly rate gonna be if we charge this much? Or you can flip it and say, here's what we need to make. What should we charge the clients? And it's really just kind of a workspace where you can take all these things that you might have been doing in spreadsheets and kind of do it in one place and collaborate with your team and streamline that whole process. Hopefully get more accurate over time.


Kelly: And you also have a profitability toolkit that you were telling me about.


Marcel: Yeah. So I mean, this is something that's we've, so to kind of take a step way back, we started doing profitability consulting before we ever started building a product. And that was another way for us to try and get as close to this problem as we could to try and deeply understand it. And so through that, we've developed a bunch of checklists, cheat sheets, templates that we've used with our consulting clients. And, that's something that I'm happy to share with your audience. So if you head to, if you can get access to that library of tools to help you implement some processes to improve your profitability.


Kelly: Perfect, thank you. I will definitely pop that into the show notes for everyone watching and listening. And yeah, so as we start to wrap up the conversation, like I would imagine that there is a significant amount that you have learned throughout this process. And I always think it's great to pass on those learnings, those findings, those lessons that we encounter along the way. So what piece of advice would you leave agency leaders with? Not necessarily when it comes to the technicalities of profitability and estimation and all of that, but just in general, like what have you learned specifically from the deep listening and from the pivot itself.


Marcel: Yeah, there's a couple of things that I think are really critical. The first is something you alluded to earlier, being able to be at peace with being wrong and understanding that that's not your job. As an entrepreneur, your job is not to be right all the time. Very few entrepreneurs that have had success have been right all the time, and attribute a lot of their success to the things that they got wrong. So being able to kind of lay down your sword and be okay with your ideas, not necessarily being in line with reality, and just being open to learning. And I think that's the real superpower. Empathy is the real superpower. Because if you can deeply understand your customer, and explain their challenges better than they can and come up with, the right solutions that are intuitive to them, then you should be able to find success. And that is really a process of listening, not a process of being some kind of creative genius. And then the second thing is just embracing closing doors. The more the deeper we get into this business, the more we realize how important clarity is. And clarity is as much a function of what we are doing. In fact, I would say it's more of a function of what we're not doing and a function of what we are doing. So really kind of leaning into this idea of invalidating ideas as being just as good, if not better than. Validating ideas so that you can close those doors and confidently say, we are not doing these things. And putting all of your resources and all of your attention into doing the things that you know you have confidence or are going to give you success or that have already proven to give you success. And getting your team aligned around that stuff is going to be a lot easier if you're able to say no, and do that with confidence and get to that answer quickly. So those would be some of the things that I would encourage you to think about. And then lastly, there's a book I'm reading right now called A Happy Pocket Full of Money. And there's something really interesting that I pulled out of that book, which is this idea that your current set of circumstances is really just an image of yourself and an image of your kind of past thoughts and mindset. So really, try to reframe anything that's not going well that you're not happy with around an opportunity to kind of observe yourself in that situation and learn as much as you can about your approach. And that's been pretty transformational for me just in the way that I've been looking at things as we go through this pivot, and we deal with all the uncertainty that comes with that.

Kelly: Yeah. Well, I will definitely put a link to that book in the show notes as well. And yeah, really incredible takeaways. I think they're all important. I don't know if I would rank or prioritize one over the other. I think they're all equally important. And just appreciate your transparency and the fact that you took a vulnerable step to say like, hey, something that I was doing wasn't panning out. And so I took a step back, I said that I could be wrong. And I embrace that and like, look where we are now. So really, really good stuff. Marcel, I am so proud of you. And I really appreciate you coming on the show today.


Marcel: I appreciate you having me Kelly. I know I've said this to you privately, but publicly you're one of the people that supported me very, very early on as I got into this industry, so I can't thank you enough for being that person in my corner and for always being there for me.


Kelly: You got it.

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EP 85: Beyond Objectives & Key Results, with Wendy Nguyen


On this episode of THRIVE—sponsored by Workamajig—Kelly and profitability coach, Wendy Nguyen talk about a holistic view of financial health for service-based firms. This is especially important for agency owners that want to do work that contributes to the equity of their teams, clients and even the planet—all while turning a profit. 



EP 85:Beyond Objectives & Key Results

Duration: 29:24


Kelly: Welcome back to this week's episode of Thrive, your agency resource. Today, I'm joined by Wendy Nguyen to talk about Objectives and Key Results or OKR. Some of you might be familiar with it. Some of you might not be and that's okay. Wendy is a profitability business coach and founder of TNC CPAs in Houston, Texas. We both had the opportunity to go through the Goldman Sachs 10,000 Small Businesses program. And honestly, I just had to bring her on to the show because I rarely hear financial folks talk about passion and purpose on the same level as profit. So she speaks my love language. And Wendy, thank you so much for joining me today.


Wendy: Well, Kelly, thank you very much for inviting me to the show. And I am super excited to be here and to share more with all of you about OKR and other topics, especially profitability.


Kelly: Yeah. And that's a big one. Everyone in the audience wants to know about profitability. So let's start. For the members of the audience who aren't familiar with the OKR book, what do we mean by objectives and key results?


Wendy: So there's a book called Measure What Matters, and in there he talks about that every single business or even anything that we do would have objectives and clearly the key result to it. So going back really quick, in the book, the OKR methodology actually has been adopted by many of the tech companies including Google and it was the first very first method that Google has used to grow them into a multimillion dollar company. The venture capitalist John Doerr is the one who introduced this methodology to Google, and he just published the book in 2017 to really talk about his stories, his involvement with Google, and how other organizations including the Gates Foundation using OKR and many other companies using OKR. So for small business owners, it depends on the path that you cross. Sometimes, you hear this and you just think, well, it's gonna be more applicable to bigger organizations and it's not really applicable to me, even a startup. As a matter of fact, it is so crucial and so important because the objective is almost like a goal; you want to accomplish something. And that is an objective that you put out there. So what are the objectives? How do you know that you actually attain the goals? And so that is telling you the key result, that you achieved the goal. So let's say if a business is saying that right now I am only at $300,000 and I want to grow my company to be a $3 million company in revenue. That is an objective. Well, first, you're going to have to very clearly identify your objectives. It is like, well, I want my company to hit a $3 million in revenue in order for what? So it's truly also when you talk about that, it is how to have a purpose.

It's just not only about the money part. But going back to the example, you can say, I want to have $3 million in revenue in order to really hit all of the services that I can provide to my customer to be a one-stop shop. So that's where the money part and the purpose part is coming in together. But again, that is just a goal. Right? So the key result is telling you whether you achieve the goal or not. I mean, a lot of the time people think, well, that's the 3 million right there. Right there is already a key result. Actually, it's not. The reason is that the key result is you also have to have sort of how do you measure it? Yes, 3 million as money is measurable. But the key result is going to be like, why do I want to attain this revenue by 2022? Is it by 2025? So that's the key result, which means you have to put a specific timeline in there. And a healthy set up of an OKR is to have three elements into it. What's the timeline? And if I say okay, it's a $3 million revenue, which means you have to get how many customers in order for you to attain that 3 million. You can say that I need 100 customers in order for me to get to the $3 million in revenue. So again, 100 customers is another key result. And then the last key result can be, I need to have a team of 20 or 30 people. So that's another key result; that you can say, okay, now, you can actually have a company with revenue of $3 million providing the service a one-stop shop service to your customer. So, yeah.


Kelly: So it's basically like identifying what you want from a financial perspective, but then putting in all of the pieces that are going to be necessary from a resource standpoint, from an income standpoint, from the customers. There's also part of this framework that you talk about, which I love. You talk about in the context of the 3 Ps, and you kind of alluded to that. My framework is the 5 P's. So we have some synergy there. But you also talk about these pieces of passion and purpose. Is there a social impact component to that? Like, can you talk a little bit about your holistic view when it comes to the financial health of these service based firms?


Wendy: Definitely, it has to have. Every single business has to have the 3 Ps formula. It means passion, meaning you love your business so much that's why you are starting this business in the first place. And then the next thing is profitability. Your business has to be profitable in order for you to stay in business. But now you're going to ask the question, why am I working so hard? So you have to have a purpose and the purpose has to be very clearly defined. And so, the first purpose for all of us is going to be what is going to be in it for me. When I create this business, what is in it for me? That's the purpose. I'd have to generate enough money profitability so that I can support my family. But then, once you are at the level that yes, you can support your family, it also has to have the next purpose, how are you interacting with the community? If you go out of business tomorrow, who will miss you? And why is that important? And so that's part of the social impact. It is there because no matter what, we are really interrelated, one way or another. I have an accounting firm. But again, I would need a marketing agency in order to get the word out there, that this is Wendy's accounting firm. But why is it people need to engage Wendy versus another accounting firm next door. And that's because let's say my specialty is very different from the person that is next door, and there are many people that want to know more about OKR, for example. So they can come to Wendy’s firm to get a defined OKR. So it depends on people’s preference. And, again, that is the community aspect of that. Another way that you are also looking at is that sometimes, as a service-based company, the customers are not responsible for knowing how to solve the problems. We are the one that will come up with solutions to solve people's problems and come up with the creativity side of us to help them solve the problems. That's why the social impact, community is so important. You have to look at every single angle of your business and how you are intertwined with other people.


Kelly: Right.


Wendy: Did that answer your question Kelly?


Kelly: Yeah, absolutely. So you talked a little bit about OKR or the book that really brought that into the spotlight for a lot of us. The author of Profit First actually transformed OKR into what we might call a more expanded view that incorporates more of the passion and purpose that we're talking about. So can you talk a little bit more about that, that OMEN acronym that that author talks about?


Wendy: Yes. So Mike Michalowicz is the author of Profit First and this year, beginning I think maybe March or April, he has another book called Fix This Next where is lining up what businesses should fix. Do they need to fix their sales? Do they need to fix their profitability? Do they need to fix their processes? Because business owners often go in multiple directions. And one thing that I really loved when I was reading that book is that Mike actually referred to OKR. So when I was following and adopting OKR, I liked it but it is still somewhat not a complete picture for me. Mike expanded it. He created a new acronym for it called Objective Measurement Evaluation and Nurture. So the objective that he has is very similar with the objective that we mentioned in the OKR acronym. He's put measurements instead of key results. So the measurement is going even more in depth. How do you measure? It has to be something that is measurable because objectives can be very abstract. And he went on to say, evaluations, because a lot of times people put objectives and key results out there, but what if you didn't really hit all the key results, what if you’re only 90%, 80% or even 50% of that? So you have to really go back and evaluate that. So he put the evaluation piece into the OKR. And I think that is important because sometimes we just run, run, run, and then we forget to look back at what we've done so well, and what we need to improve. And he went on, saying that there's another component called nurture. So, if a company is setting out OKR, and that OKR is doing really, really well and the company has accomplished that, then you need to also nurture that OKR and you don't have to really create another OKR. You may be just gonna be changing the key result of the measurement to another quarter or another year. So that's the nurturing piece that is important. Because at the same time with evaluation, what if you didn't hit the goal? The key result. Then how do you evaluate and then you nurture it. That way you can actually go back and hit that mark. People just set goals. They don't meet it and then they just run off. Right?


Kelly: Yeah, you know what's interesting? What this brings up for me, I didn't think about this before, it just kind of like came to my mind now. This is very similar to performance reviews of team members, right? So we have these objectives that we set for our team members with their input, with their assistance, then we measure them, then we evaluate them, and if they don't hit those, or even if they do, we up level, we nurture, like, okay, so you've hit these, now what do you want to work on improving next year, or you haven't hit these, how are we going to nurture you and support you further so that you can hit these goals. So it's interesting. You're talking about it from the entirety of the business sense. You could also, in a way, say that this is very possible to use when you're thinking about employee performance, or you can at least draw a correlation.


Wendy: Yeah, actually the OKR methodology or OMEN is used for all aspects of the business. Not just only businesses, but actually you can use it personally. I mean, you can really say I have my own objective that I set out for 2020. Like a lot of people are doing vision boards. So when you think about vision boards, it is really objective. And then they put the picture in there, that's the key result that I actually went and hit that place this year on the vision board that I put. So you can really apply it into every aspect of your life. And even when you talk to your child or your spouse that this is how we know if we are doing well together, like we spend this number of days and times and hours. You can tell that I'm a number person.


Kelly: So let's go back for one second and talk a little bit more about the social impact because I think that, speaking of 2020 vision boards, there are more and more especially agency owners, agency leaders realizing that they want to do work that contributes to the equity of their teams, the consumers, the world at large, maybe even the planet, if they're working with sustainable brands. But they also want to turn a profit, right? Like we're not just doing this to run charities. We're wanting to run profitable businesses. So from that lens, why is this holistic picture so important for those types of agency owners?


Wendy: There is a notion out there, especially with the pandemic, if a business comes out saying, well, I am actually more profitable than ever in my previous years. People may not really say that because they felt like, if I say that, then I don't empathize with the rest of other people who are struggling. But what if people turn around and say, hey, what do you actually do in the pandemic that backed your company to be profitable. And you have to think of it this way in terms of social impact. When you want to change the world, first, you need to go home and take care of your family. So marketing agencies really want to believe in the social impact aspect. They also have to look back into, am I really first taking care of my employees? Are there days when they are onboard me or I have to let them go? And then going to take all of the work by myself. So profitability and sustainability are so important. But sometimes people marry the two aspects of it. They feel guilty about it. They feel guilty about the fact that I am profitable and the rest are not doing well. But if you think you're profitable, which means you can hire more people and you can save one family from losing their house. So if you think of it that way, then first, start with your employees with the people that are next to you. And then now you can really set the footprint to the next level of how to go about it. So when business owners go out and just want to give like, okay, I want to give this free resource to so and so. But then at the end, if you're suffering financially, then you shouldn't do that. Because you actually stop yourself from hiring another employee that can come in and help you.

You're actually overextending yourself, helping the other business to stay afloat, to get the word out, but then at the same time, you don't have the money to really bring back employees. So you have to think very carefully about the social impact that you make. The thing is that when I become profitable, especially with my CPA firm doing the PPP. So I would apply for payroll protections, loan first for my business, and at the same time, I assure my employees that you guys have a job because I'm going to get this loan. And at the same time, my employees now can help all of the other businesses; that we have to secure this loan so that they can get the employees. So really, you have to think internally first. But of course, you also have to really take care of yourself first. It's self-care. We hear a lot about this concept when we’re flying. It is always like hey, put the mask on your face first before you put the mask on your child because if you’re out, then everybody’s gonna be out. I hope that really there is holding on to people and there is no notion of feeling guilty about being profitable.


Kelly: Yeah.


Wendy: But actually, it's important for you to be profitable so you can help other people to be profitable. 


Kelly: Yeah. No, I think it's a great point. And, obviously, the audience who's listening or watching, I talked about the oxygen mask theory pretty often, or there's a quote by Rumi that I really love, which is like, give from your overflow, not from the depths of your well. I mean, really, self-care is a big thing that most people just are not talking about enough. So I'm really glad that you brought that up organically. I think this fear or this guilt that you talked about, in terms of being profitable or being successful during the pandemic, that's actually a really interesting point. So thank you for bringing that up as well. It's really, really important for people to not feel that way because look at the impact that you're having, if you are in that situation with your business.


Wendy: Yeah. And then the other thing is when you hear people that have that kind of profitability, you would just put your head down, and say, you know what? My business has been struggling. What did you do to get your business to be profitable? Can you show it to me? So really help people open up to learn from other people.


Kelly: Right. Well, that's where the vulnerability aspect comes in. And that's one of the hallmarks of a great leader. It is actually a vulnerability.


Wendy: Yes, but it takes a lot of courage too.


Kelly: 100%. So I know that you have a couple of free master classes and video series and things like that, that can really help people, can you talk a little bit about where people can find, maybe not where they can find it, because I can put that in the show notes, but just talk a little bit about what those master classes and video series are all about.


Wendy: Sure. So, because again, with the whole pandemic, I actually post on LinkedIn every day about little tips here and there for leadership and profitability. And during the whole pandemic, I also came up with this 3 Ps formula called Passion, Profit, and Purpose. I want to help people on how to align your visions into your profitability, that’s going to give you the purpose that you want, at the end of the day. So let's say that your vision is going to have a really big marketing agency that can really provide help to many business owners, then now, you also have to ask yourself first, what do you really love about your business? Is it digital marketing? What exactly do you love doing so much? Because sometimes you will say, well, I want to provide the service from A to Z, but then really, you only like F, D, or E, then that is where your passion and maybe that is where you really have to pick your niche and stay in that part. Because when you love something so much, you're going to have curiosity, you want to learn, you want to innovate, you’re passionate to go into it. And so when that passion of yours is going to translate into creating of values for your customers, not just only solving a problem, but you can say for example, if you are really good with social media, and you say well, I can write this post or like you Kelly, when you do this thing, you can have a reach of 30,000 potential leads. So that's because you're so good at that, and you're passionate about it. And so what kind of profitability that can bring out this number of leads and outreach there. So then you're going to sit there and you're going to calculate, okay, what does it cost for me to get to 30,000 potential customers? And then the next thing is that, how do I turn that 30,000 into a customer, and what that cost will look like, right? And then now you can say, okay, if I'm spending an hour and I'm reaching 30,000 potential customers, and then I will be able to turn maybe three of them into customers, and that three will pay me $10,000 a month, something like that. So really, now that you can have an hour of your time invested and they're actually generating $10,000 so now business owners are going to be focused on the hours that they spend on what they really love to do into $10,000 more revenue for the business.


Kelly: So that's what the masterclass is about.


Wendy: Yes. So what the masterclass is really helping you do is connect the dot from your passion to your profit, and then also from the profit going to the purpose. So now that you have a $10,000 customer that you need to serve, you need to have a good system in place, or if you want to spend less time in your business, then how do you do that? And so you have to build a team to carry out the task. So now you go back to calculate the cost. So really the 3 Ps are just dangling back and forth. There's no specific order. Any you also have to really wake up every day and say, will I be working on the passion piece today? Will I be working on my profitability today? Will I be working on my purpose today?


Kelly: And what about the video series?


Wendy: And then on top of that, I am also coming up with seven steps on how to restructure your business to be profitable. So the main seven steps are really helping business owners read their financial statements in a way that it can really tell what cost it can contribute to your business. What cost should you not spend any more or what part you should invest your money in. So I broke it down into a seven key cost component that every single business owner has to do, like a mini dashboard. And that's all you're gonna monitor for your business. So like if a business owner comes to me and says, well, I want to grow my revenue to $3 million. The next question I ask is, how much money have you spent in your R&D? How much money you actually spend in thinking about innovation. And they say, I don't know. My accountant maybe knows it. And even your accountant doesn’t know it, because this is the money that you spend for innovation or not. So it's just like, for example, as a CPA, I always have to go training. And so if I go into a training and learn more about accounting stuff, then that's really holding on the core of my business being a good CPA, up to date with the rules and regulations. But if I go and I spend my time, like, for example, we put up 10K Kelly. So if we go and spend our time with 10K. It is learning. But not only that, not only the time but also the cost, the core innovations that we invest in our business to innovate. So we can get more ideas out to the people.


Kelly: Absolutely.


Wendy: So you have to really know the time that you spend. Is it an investment in your business, or should that be ripped apart? Because during the pandemic, people talk about essential business. So to be open. At the same time, in a business, you need to know what is essential. And, interestingly enough, I'm sure a lot of marketing agencies faced this. The minute when the pandemic came, the first spend people cut is what?


Kelly: The money in advertising.


Wendy: Right. So that's the first spend people cut. In fact, that's the worst thing that they can do. What they really have to look back into is, if I invest $1 in marketing, what is the result that I'm getting? So you have to be able to measure it. And sometimes people are not able to really measure it. They just cut it up and say, okay, I don't need it. I'm just gonna be really doing everything, just let everybody go. So that is really the case. As a CPA and business owner, I have 5 companies that I'm running right now. And so I don't have time to look at that lengthy profit and loss, news and entertainment, everything; it doesn't mean anything to me. So I have to really break it down. Is that the cost of my marketing? Is that the cost of my operating company? Is that the cost I'm keeping my company organized? Your legal expenses. Your accounting expenses. So you really have to know and say, okay, I need to cut this cost. I need to actually increase the spending here.


Kelly: Right. So that's basically what these seven videos cover.


Wendy: Yes.


Kelly: So important. So I will post links to each of those, as well as a link to your CPA firm in the show notes and just want to say thank you so much Wendy for joining me today. It was an honor to talk to you.


Wendy: You're very welcome and I'm really glad. If there is anything I can do anything to help all of the business owners out there, I would do everything that I can.


Kelly: Thank you.

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