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.
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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.
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
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?
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?
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?
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.
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.
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
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%.
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 workamajig.com/thrive 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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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?
Tina: So another wonderful thing that I love about it is the only thing that gets smaller as it gets closer.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 workamajig.com/thrive 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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?
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?
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.
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.
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?
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.
Kelly: But the little asterisk is right now. Right?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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 parakeeto.com/thrive, 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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
On this episode of THRIVE—sponsored by Workamajig—Kelly and Brent Weaver, founder of UGURUS and Maverick for Cloudways, talk about how digital agency owners can achieve peace of mind through the diversification of strategic partnerships and recurring revenue.
EP 84:Ensuring Stability for Digital Agencies
Kelly: So welcome back to this week's episode of Thrive, your agency resource. Today, the conversation is all about ensuring peace of mind for digital agency owners. And I am thrilled to talk about this more in depth with Brent Weaver. You may know him as the Founder and CEO of UGURUS, which is essentially a business training and education company, specifically for digital agencies. He also hosts The Digital Agency Show podcast, which you may be familiar with. And he's one of the brand ambassadors or Mavericks for Cloudways, which is a managed cloud hosting company. We're going to get into all of that today. Brent, thank you so much for being here. I really appreciate it.
Brent: Thanks for having me, Kelly.
Kelly: So, the thing is, COVID, we're 9 months into it. What I'm seeing from my end is that there are a lot of agency leaders who have literally just started saying yes to everything, their clients are needing all sorts of things that are sort of in or out of their wheelhouse. They're saying yes to them, because they're worried about where revenue is going to come from. And while we understand it, it's also kind of presenting some issues, both short term, and then going to present some issues long term. So can you talk a little bit about that?
Brent: Yeah, for sure. And, I definitely don't fault anyone for saying yes, to as many things as possible. And I think that one of the things that we've told our clients, is to first and foremost protect your core business. And for a lot of people, that means ensuring that you've got revenue, cash flow coming in and making sure that bills are getting paid, that you're getting paid and the core business is healthy. So I think, if anything, saying yes to everything in the short term is a solution to a problem, which is either fear of not having enough revenue coming in, or actually not having enough revenue and kind of grasping at anything. But I think Kelly, as you said, it is creating a problem or will eventually create a problem when we start to feel a little bit of burnout, a little bit of the lack of peace of mind, for agency owners out there.
Kelly: Yeah, for sure. So agency owners, when they are saying yes to some of these things, they're really just looking for project based work, they're looking for anything that's going to come in, but the Holy Grail is sort of this like passive recurring revenue, right? Like that's all any of us want. But there are some critical issues to trying to do things that are outside of your wheelhouse in house and trying to use your existing resources for just quite honestly, the things that they are not really skilled up. And I know that you have sort of a horror story that we can all relate to. I certainly could, when you told it to me at first.
Brent: Yeah. So we had been running, hosting as part of our agency's business. And we had said yes to that, partly because we wanted that passive recurring revenue. We looked at it as an opportunity to make some income from hosting, that kind of automated credit card charge type revenue. But also because clients I think, came to us and asked us to host their websites. We were there web guys or we were their web gals, right? And I think a lot of people take that. And they kind of just say, oh, yeah, I guess I should do hosting, because I designed their website. And there is actually a case for that. But it was quite a while ago.
We had about 50 sites on a server. Got a client call. Hey, our website's down. Oh, yeah, I'll take a look at it. I mean, that website is down. And another, phone rang again. I'm on the phone with this client, right? Then another client is like beeping in my cellphone, started to ring. And all of a sudden we're just swamped with all these phone calls about websites and emails that are down. Well, turn out, one of our servers’ hard drives crashed. We have like a single server in a colocation environment. No RAID hard drives. No backups. No failovers. Nothing. And this thing was a beast. I mean, it had been online, probably going on, like the better part of a decade and had just run, and we'd never questioned it. And yeah, we made some money on it. But it wasn't like massive money. I mean, we were pretty much charging commodity level rates, which means that we were kind of barely breaking even on this server, and then all of a sudden goes down.
So 48 hours of pretty much hell of trying to get this thing back up, looking at all of our old archive site files, trying to rebuild sites that we didn't have updated sites for and we eventually got the server back up and running. I'd say 85% sites were like maybe 3 weeks old kind of thing and the content wasn't like as new as it should have been. But it was pretty much back up. And I went home and my head at the pillow and it probably wasn't three hours later, I got a phone call. My phone started blowing up again. And I'm like what is going on?
Turns out RAM failure. And this second server got up and running, which basically just reset the clock. I mean, everybody came back to the office and had to get this thing up and running. And so that kind of like put a bad taste in my mouth about hosting. And I think a lot of agencies have experienced something similar. At the time, we had like one, I'd call him like, he was the systems admin in our agency’s team, but he was really a .NET developer. And he was kind of like the de facto’s hosting guy. Because he just knew the most in the office, but we really didn't have like a team in place. And we really didn't know what we were doing when it came to hosting. But I think we had the right intent, which was passive revenue, recurring revenue, maybe a little bit of diversified revenue.
Kelly: The right desire, let's say.
Brent: Yes, okay. We had the right desire, but our game plan wasn't really great. And the problem was something like hosting when it's not crashing or going down, it is out of sight, out of mind. And it's something that you kind of stopped thinking about and our clients don't think about it. They don't think about it when it is working. They just think about it when it’s not working. And so, on a long enough timeline, if you don't have the right infrastructure in place, and you're taking that money, you can cause all sorts of problems.
Kelly: Yeah, absolutely. And, I think every single one of us who have owned a digital agency for any period of time, we not only have that almost exact story, but we all have done the thing where you've got the one lead developer or someone who just knows enough to be dangerous about web architecture and running the actual servers. And that's what we do to get by. It's an early mistake. It's a common mistake. I don't think that there's a single agency owner out there who hasn't done that, or has some kind of story that's similar to that. So definitely understand it. When crisis hits like that though, it's really in the diversity and the depth of your strategic partnerships, because we really shouldn't be doing these things in house. We should really be back to what you said before, stick to our core business services, what we're great at. But those partnerships, if they are strong, they become really critical moments like these moments where COVID, if 50% of your clients leave, but you also have that recurring revenue, and a strong partner to manage that. That can actually be really a saving grace because people's websites, as you have said before, aren't going down just because of COVID. They're still up. If anything, they're even more critical now, because people are spending more time online. So can you talk a little bit about the importance of the diversification from your experience?
Brent: Yeah, so at the time, initially were like, screw this. We are never touching hosting again. This was a painful lesson. And we're never going to do this again. So our initial reaction was actually to get rid of hosting as being part of our business. So we started to actually push clients away from our company, and said, hey, you're responsible for hosting your website, which I think is also something that I see out there in the marketplace, which I think has a good desire, as you said. To say, I'm just not dealing with this. We're gonna find other ways to make recurring revenue. But because we were still the companies that we’re building the websites, and my clients had my cellphones, we would put them on like GoDaddy hosting and be like, oh, you got to call GoDaddy for issues, but because we were the company that was building their website. And anyway, they have my cellphone, right? They don't have CEO of GoDaddy, his cellphone.
So what we found was we actually pushed that money away. And we still had the same problem, except now we had, let's say, I mean, we were assigning about 50 clients a year at this time. So we had 50 to 100 clients over a couple of years that we're all on random hosts, and then they were all still calling us for all their problems. And so this created like almost a death by 1000 cuts, right? We no longer had the revenue. We weren't diversified in that way anymore. But we still had the problem. Now, our stuff wasn't going, if one host went down, or one client site went down. I mean, the only benefit was that, we didn't have 50 clients go down at the same time.
But we decided to kind of change our tune. So at the time, about 3% of our revenue was from recurring. I would say I didn't have the stability. I didn't feel like I had peace of mind. We really didn't have that diversification. So we said, look, let's put some effort into building up our recurring revenue and the very base layer of that became the infrastructure. If our clients call anyways, let's at least make that a profitable part of our business.
And at the time we were charging our clients, 20 bucks a month or something like that for hosting on our shared servers, but they had my cell phone. So what's the value in that? Like, I can pay GoDaddy, 8, 9 bucks a month. But I also don't have their cellphone. I'm calling somebody who has no idea who I am, all that kind of stuff. So we looked at it as kind of three different components in the recurring revenue side. We wanted to get our infrastructure straightened out. We didn't have enough revenue to hire a full sysadmin team. We couldn't have enough of the right people on our team to be able to do that.
So we had to find a cloud based partner to do that. But our clients still had us as that middle agency layer. So we just decided, hey, we can probably charge $100 to $200 a month to be that kind of not human layer, but kind of a translator layer, where our clients didn't have to talk to sysadmin.
Kelly: The intermediary.
Brent: Intermediary. So we decided we could charge 100, 200 bucks a month. We called it web care. We bundled hosting into that. We had a really strong cloud hosting provider. We stopped doing any kind of sysadmin level hosting work internally. We relied 100% on our partner. So if a server went down, it was all of their responsibility. And we kind of played crisis manager. We kind of would monitor them. We kind of figure out what was going on. And we would keep our client up to date whenever issues like that happened. And then the other layer on top of that though that became really interesting for our business’ stability was the ongoing maintenance and management of our client sites. Once we had a reliable infrastructure layer, that next layer became a really profitable part of our business where we were doing website updates, plugin updates, those types of things that aren't really that exciting, but it kind of keeps the trains running on time.
Kelly: They're necessary. Right?
Brent: Yeah, right. Somebody messaged me the other day about a client of their site got hacked because it had an outdated plug in, like it's not that sexy, but it happens. When it happens, everybody feels that, knows about it. But I think what ended up driving the most recurring revenue for us was kind of that growth driven design layer, where we went to our clients and started really working with them on strategic initiatives, helping them run campaigns and launches, building additional websites for them, micro sites, that kind of stuff, where one client would turn into 10, 20, 30, $50,000 a year in additional kind of growth revenue. And none of that would have been possible, at least for us without really nailing those first two layers. Right?
Kelly: Absolutely. And your partner now is Cloudways. I know that you recently joined them as a Maverick, which is essentially like a brand ambassador, but you've been a client of theirs for some time. Can you speak a little bit from your firsthand experience with them?
Brent: I mean, I've been in the agency space now for 20 years, and I've been kind of enamored with the companies in our market that really make an extra effort to work with agencies directly versus the kind of direct to client type of business where agencies are just kind of like a different type of customer. And so what I saw, Cloudways is really making that move to support agencies as a unique type of client, because every agency might not be supporting one website. So if they have issues, they might have 30 clients, 40 clients, 50 clients, and they really need to be dealt with a little bit differently. And they probably don't need to have those like standard support channels.
And so when I saw their moves, going more towards that part of the market, it was really exciting. So we decided to move all our stuff over to them. And it's been cool, because it's made us a lot more profitable. I think we cut our costs by about 70%. And I didn't want to do that unless stuff performed better. So I had my team, basically benchmark all of our sites beforehand. And we actually experienced about a 2x lift on speed across all of our sites. So it felt really good. Once we saw that, I was like, okay, we saved a bunch of money and stuffs a lot faster. And they're making huge plays towards helping agencies. And so, kind of approached them and said, hey, I'd love to help you guys get more people in our market to be aware of this, because we think this could help them with that stability, with that peace of mind. Everything we've kind of talked about in this episode.
Kelly: Yeah. And then as an added benefit, they didn't actually mention that lift in speed is actually helping your clients from an SEO perspective, right? Like Google loves nothing more than a really super fast site. So that's great. That's a completely added benefit. I can't believe the 70% increase in profitability, did you? Do you think that that's something that can be expected across the board or did you have a situation where you were just kind of admittedly overpaying with the previous provider?
Brent: I mean, probably overpaying and probably some of us. I still have some scars from that month’s lost of my productivity and of my life. I mean, never gonna get it back. I wake up every morning, and I put on that hosting crash t-shirt and I think, oh, gosh. But I think that there's probably some truth to that, of wanting to make sure that we have a partner, that we're paying for in case, a lot of people say, you don't pay for when things are good, you pay for when they're bad. And so I think we had that kind of experience. And we wanted to make sure we had somebody that was going to make sure this was never gonna be a problem for us again.
And so we probably did overpay a little bit. But that being said, I think that the WordPress managed hosting market has changed and evolved. And I think as an agency, I mean, most agency owners have, maybe they have like 20% of their clients or like high performance websites that need to be on their own server. They need to have like lots of infrastructure behind them. And so we want to make sure we have a hosting partner that can help with that. But then there's that 80% of sites that like we don't necessarily need to have. It’s like a local restaurant or whatever that's getting 100 visits a week, which obviously, we should be working to help them grow that but maybe they're on getting huge traffic.
And so that's, I think, where there's an opportunity to create a lot of profit, assuming that you have a solid hosting partner. And so that's kind of where we looked at it. The high performance sites probably about, even in terms of profitability, because we had to create our own infrastructure there. But it's those sites that we could leverage a little bit more buffer on, those where we saw a big lift.
Kelly: Yeah, cool. Now, Cloudways has an actual formal agency partner program that they have in the works. I know there's like a waiting list for it right now. Do you know about that program? And can you tell me a little bit about what the specific benefits would be for agencies? Like, if I still had my agency, why would I sign up for that?
Brent: Yeah, so one of the reasons I joined as a Maverick was basically to go all in with their agency partner program. So it's still in kind of early pilots. They have a handful of agencies, a few dozen agencies that are in the program right now. And they're in the process of accepting additional agencies into that program. So if you do go and sign up, depending on when you listen to this episode, you might have to join a short waitlist.
But for the three big things, one is priority support. So as I mentioned earlier, agencies need a different kind of support than your retail hosting support. So they have a few different channels, including Slack channels for some of their higher performance partners. So literally, you've got Cloudways on demand for your agency. If you have an issue, you've got them essentially on live chat all the time through their Slack channels. They also have kind of a growth program where they're going to help with co-marketing and also some discounts. So if you're actually joining the program, you can kind of as I mentioned, increase our profitability, partly because we're able to get better pricing on some of their cloud hosting and support.
And then the last part is relationships. So you get a dedicated partnership manager, which is kind of your main account manager, if you will, where you can contact them, talk about what's going on with your clients, if you got some big clients you're about to sign, maybe you've got some additional clients that are getting featured or need some kind of higher traffic, or you just see your agency growing, and you want to be able to work with somebody on their sites, you've got that a dedicated partnership manager.
And then you've got people like me on their Mavericks program. We're running some additional training for those agencies that are in that partner program, some additional coaching and support to help them not only with the hosting and the tech stuff, but also to really help them grow their business, which is one of the things that I'm most excited about.
Kelly: Yeah, that's amazing. And it feels very, very support centric, like everything that you just mentioned; it's not just about Cloudways just wanting to sign more clients. It really feels like they thought it through, and that they're really providing all of the things that historically have been pain points for digital agencies when they thought about maybe getting into bed with a partner like this to outsource their hosting.
Brent: That's one of the things. When I joined, that project had already been, let's say 80, 90% completed, but I was blown away, one of the other Mavericks has been working with our team in this like intensive user experience research study. So they've been talking to dozens of agencies within their network and doing interviews, proposing what those plans might look like, iterating them, testing them, doing more interviews, lots of feedback. They're like going really, really slow with the program right now. And I've been really impressed because a lot of people are like, oh, we should make money and agencies. And they just like launched a discount code, launched like a dedicated email address. But there's no real background process on that. And so I've been really impressed by seeing what they've done to create this program. And I think there's a lot more in store with what they're offering.
Kelly: Yeah, it seems like it. So if there are any digital agency owners or leaders out there, and you're interested in checking out that partner program, you can just head over to cloudways.com/thrive. And that'll take you right over to that agency partner’s page. I think they're also doing a discount if you're just interested in trying out the hosting, like as a trial run for maybe one or two sites, maybe for your own site, maybe for a new client. And so if you just enter thrive as a promo code at checkout, you'll be able to get an exclusive discount. Obviously, I'm going to put all of that in the show notes if you didn't catch it. But, Brent, thank you so much. I mean, I think this is incredibly valuable, not only in general and support of agencies and growth and stability, but also as we're all sort of navigating this new normal. And so having these really strong partnerships that can add to our growth, add to our recurring revenue, like nothing is more important than that right now. So I just want to thank you for all that you're doing as well.
Brent: Yeah, thanks for having me on the show.
On this episode of THRIVE—sponsored by Workamajig—Kelly and Ezra Bookman, founder of Ritualist, discuss how the art of ritual plays an important role in our agencies where our team members need to both collaborate and process emotion but cannot be in the same physical space.
EP 83: Remote Ritual and Agency Life
Kelly: So this week's episode of Thrive is all about the practices we create within our agencies. I'm joined by Ezra Bookman, founder of Ritualist. It's a boutique consultancy transforming companies and communities through the art of ritual. Ezra actually came onto my radar recently, because Karl Sakas, my agency growth consultant friend, actually clipped out the article from the New York Times and mailed it to me. And he basically knew that this would really resonate with me, and the work that I do with agency leaders. So I was really appreciative. Thank you Karl. If you're watching this, I reached out to Ezra immediately. And here we are. So thank you for being so generous with your time and having this conversation with me today.
Ezra: Thank you. It's an honor and a pleasure to be here. And I love the old school clipping the actual article out. That's awesome.
Kelly: Do you know how excited I was to get that in the mail? I was like, this is great. When is the last time I held a New York Times?
Ezra: I only have the digital. So I didn't even get the paper. And so I put out a call for like, if anyone actually has a physical paper, could you do exactly that? And then I was like, oh, we were on the front page. I had no idea.
Kelly: Amazing. So for those who are tuning in to watch or listening to this conversation, I would imagine that they're probably coming to the table with a lot of different preconceived notions about what ritual is and what it is not. So I'm curious how you define it or describe it when you're talking about what you actually do.
Ezra: Yeah, thank you for that question. Ritual is one of those things that have like an infinite amount of definitions. It's like my hobby to collect definitions of rituals.
Kelly: I saw that in Instagram. That's a great collection.
Ezra: That's like just scratching the surface. They're kind of all true. There is a great ritual theorist, Catherine Bell, who famously wrote a book on ritual. And she famously would never define it, because she said, like how you define it says a lot more about you than it is about the people, or the practices that you're observing. From my perspective, there's two big misconceptions about ritual. One is that it has to be spiritual or grounded in some sort of religious tradition, which was not true, right? We are immersed our whole lives in all kinds of rituals, outside of religious tradition, both in our personal lives, and obviously, in our professional lives as well. And I think a second misconception is that you need to do it 1000 times for it to become a ritual, or you can continue to repeat it. But there's all kinds of rituals that we've only done once in one specific moment. My definition of ritual is that it's an intentional, symbolic action, that heightens impact, importance, or meaning. And so I think what it does, is really super important to helping frame what a ritual is.
Kelly: Really interesting. I was thinking about this this morning, because I'm like, oh, I've never actually asked myself the question, how would I define ritual? And after a couple of attempts, I came up with a ritual seems to be something that creates space in which emotion is welcome. Any emotion. So I thought, oh, that's interesting. It was just something I was playing with. And as a follow up to that, so you have that definition, right? Which is a great definition. I love it. But if you take that a notch deeper, what does ritual mean to you on a personal level? Like, what does it mean to you, not to how you're describing what you do for a living.
Ezra: For me, personally, rituals are the tools that I use to make meaning out of my life and to have a deeper, richer experience of life. And I think that goes in a lot of directions, right? They have rituals that helped me connect to something larger than myself, something bigger than myself, expand outside, and reduce the kind of hyper individualism that I think in a lot of us seem to be habitually on the pathway of, connect across time to reflect on, to ground myself in what is, and set intentions for what I want to be. That's often how I use rituals in my life.
Kelly: Yeah, beautiful. So as we're thinking about this in the context of people, leading agencies and having employees at those agencies who are now needing to collaborate on different work for brands, but not able to be in the same physical space, how can ritual play an important role in in those situations?
Ezra: Yeah, I always knew that this work was important and COVID, and all of us switching to remote work overnight, I think the whole world realize just how necessary it is. Because all of the things that we used to rely on is just like automatic, just being in the same space, culture would happen, and connection would just sort of happen. Now, we really need to be intentional about designing and being purposeful about it and asking for it, and showing up for it with full presence. So when you focused internally on your own company's culture, what are the ways in which you're providing spaces, containers for your employees to connect with each other, to slow down, and recognize each other's work, to have the interpersonal moments like a web connection that an agency really is. Because it's made up of people. The agency is really just a collection of people. And who are they? Are they able to show up? I love the phrase, like, show up with your full self, as if that's a choice. We we're full humans, right? We will show up with our full selves. We might not express it. We might tamp it down. And we try to leave it in the car and pretend like it's not happening, but it's there. So if you're the director of an agency, recognize the full humanity of the people that you're working with.
Kelly: Right. Yeah, I always like to say, without its people, there is no agency. You’re not selling widgets. You're essentially selling the ideation and strategic thinking and the doing of those people. So I think so much more focus needs to be placed on culture and supporting those employees in all of these ways. With what you just mentioned, are there a couple of specific examples you can give about how that shows up? Like when you go into an organization, maybe even a particular creative agency or technology agency, how does ritual play a part? And, what are some of the examples as to how you might help that culture deepen, or work through certain things that they might be experiencing?
Ezra: Yeah, it's an expansive question. And I think each agency and each client that I'm working with is coming with really specific problems. Some people are dealing with, like, the fact that creativity and brainstorming is really difficult in Zoom and remote work. Like that sort of flow that can happen when you're in person is really difficult. Some people are just starting out, and they want to be intentional about crafting their culture from the very beginning. And the rituals that mark time and the transitions and movement through the company. I think what's most important is to recognize that no matter what, like the culture will exist, whether you create it or not, there is a company culture already. It's just whether or not you're going to be intentional about crafting it. And be specific about what it is and how it will manifest. Where I always start is, what are the core fundamental values of this agency? What is your vision of the world? Not just what is the next client that you're trying to chase after, but what is the bigger vision. And get people to step back and zoom out. And when you do that, you can think about what are these tangible manifestations of how I can connect my employees to that larger vision to their day to day work, right? We're in this like, just like deluge of emails and the micro and all this sort of stuff. When I'm in that, I can zoom out. I can take a step back and I can remind myself what the bigger vision is that I'm working towards. I think that's really core.
Kelly: Yeah, I think its core also. And in my work with agencies, I think that that's probably the biggest disconnect that I see, is that an agency leader or leadership team may have a vision, you may have a mission statement. You may have core values written on the pre-COVID office walls. But there is a disconnect between the employees really embodying, feeling, understanding, and living that every single day because there is just not that connection and it's a lot harder to be not in person.
Ezra: Yeah, I think that a lot of vision statements and value documents exist as documents.
Ezra: But we don't have these embodied practices that bring them to life and put them into actual practice. So that their lived experiences, rituals are our lived experience of our values in the world. And they embody those values and create communal experiences around them, so that we can also hold each other accountable to them. I can say from my own personal work like knowing that value exists, but having no mechanism on which to hold either my fellow employees or even my employer accountable to like, is that what's happening in this moment? And rituals are those touch points that we can say like, oh, this is important, we're taking time, we're slowing down, and we're marking this as important, we're putting a big circle around it. So then it becomes more fluid, it becomes part of the life of the organization.
Kelly: Yeah, one of the things that was mentioned in that Times article, and I believe it was you that mentioned it, as an example of ritual, was holding a grief ritual for the loss of a client or the loss of a client account, or even holding like a funeral for that, instead of just a simple or traditional retrospective. I thought that was really, really interesting. Can you talk a little bit more about that?
Ezra: Sure. I think it's important to recognize that we are full emotional beings, and that it's okay to have an emotional experience around our work. Because if we care about our work, we care about what we're doing, if what we're doing is an extension of who we want to be in the world. And, a lot of studies are showing that that is where the trend is going. Then, those moments of failure, as well as success will have a big impact on our emotional lives. And if we expect to just sort of cruise right through it, and ignore it and pretend like it didn't exist, then that un-incorporated and unintegrated emotion is going to have an effect on our future work. And so something like I mean, the form of what that grief ritual could take is really infinite. And again, this should always be a reflection of who the team are, what their values are and traditions that they find to be important in their lives. But at the very least, like you said earlier, creating a container for people to have that emotional experience. And to let it go to ultimately let it go, which is what all rituals really enable us to do, is to eventually name it, feel it, and move on.
Kelly: Yeah. So this article that I keep mentioning, it was actually called Doing God's Work in Corporate America. I'm not sure how you feel about the title itself. But one of the other people that was mentioned or featured in that article was the co-founder of Sacred Design Lab. And I found it really interesting. He said something like the next white space in advertising and brands is spirituality. And I thought that was a really, really interesting comment. I guess the question that I have around that is, how do you feel about that site? I could imagine there might be some thoughts you might have there. And my real question is like, why do you believe that spirituality or divinity or even ritual has been kept so distance from business? Why have we or even talk about it from the standpoint of emotions? Why do you believe we have kept these things so distant? Like an emotional being state and like doing work. I'm just curious what your thoughts are on that.
I know, I know. Well, you can come back for another one. But let's at least touch it. And then we'll do a part two, maybe.
Ezra: All right. Well, the easier part of that question is I don't consider myself a divinity consultant.
Kelly: I know. That was a really strange term that they use.
Ezra: Yeah, I would never identify myself as that. Like I said at the beginning, our graduation ceremonies are not necessarily connected to any spiritual or religious tradition and yet they can create meaningful moments in our life. So rituals exist outside of divinity. It doesn't need to be sacred; it just needs to be special. And so that's my position. I think that we will of course, learn from, grow from, and be inspired by the people who have been investing thousands of years into the exploration of ritual. In my design practice, which is called the ritual lines, which identified the seven key components of impactful and transformative experiences is certainly influenced by, I spent six years as the artistic director of an experimental spiritual community as well as my art practice. I'm not trying to bring God into the workplace by any means. Why spirituality?
Kelly: Well, let's talk about it from the standpoint of emotion because I feel like the whole spirituality component in the way that the New York Times article couched everything, really took it in a direction that the people who were featured may not actually believe in. So I would say the better question might be, why have we kept emotion so distant from business for so long?
Ezra: Yeah, we used to believe in work is what you do, and then all the meaning in your life is at home. And then we switch to this concept of like, work-life balance, which now seems almost like quaint, right?
Kelly: Also impossible.
Ezra: Exactly. And I think what we're moving into right now is an understanding of a fluid experience of life. And that we are trying to live fully integrated lives in all of our entire life. And so those things are blending, we're moving beyond that and thinking of just having them in balance, but having them fluid and connected. And worse, we spend the vast majority of our lives at work, more than home, more than anything; we spend it at work.
Kelly: Basically sleeping and working. Right?
Ezra: Right. And then like the occasional, I don't know, nice meal. And so if we're spending all of our time there, of course, people are starting to ask and demand that their work is a positive extension of their values and who they are in the world. And, for me, that's a signifier that we can actually move beyond a purely exploitative kind of capitalism towards a more compassionate or a more human centered capitalism, that is still within the marketplace, of course, but has human flourishing and human growth and human value at its core. And in order to do that, we need our internal practices to reflect that as well as our external practices. And so that's probably a little bit of emotion, that's empathy. That's sort of soft values that we thought we need to like, cut off of ourselves and show up in this aggressive, hyper masculine patriarchal kind of mode of doing and working. That is also thankfully, finally starting to fray and we've realized the negative impacts of that on our environment, on our client, on our climate, on our souls, on our happiness, and our ability to be engaged at work. I am not sure if I answered but, again, I think we need to hold.
Kelly: I was gonna say, the reason why I paused was I was having this moment of like, what you said in the last two minutes. I don't know if I've ever felt more alignment with words coming out of another human’s mouth. I mean, if you would like to host the rest of the show, I'm happy to have you do that.
Ezra: You’re doing a great job.
Kelly: No, it's great. And this is all what I've been talking about and writing about and doing keynotes about. And I agree with you like thankfully, this is where we're at. Right? Thankfully, we don't have to over index on that masculinity or that masculine energy. The audience is very used to me saying being versus doing energy.
Ezra: I guess, maybe just one other point, one other thing that I sort of failed to note is that there's also a loneliness epidemic that is very real right now.
Kelly: Thank you for bringing that up.
Ezra: It has a significant impact on our health. There's a recent study that says loneliness has the effect of smoking a pack of cigarettes a day, on your longevity, and so, and right now, especially with remote work, a recent study says that 58% of remote workers feel disconnected from their coworkers, and that 44% feel more isolated and lonely now. And so we're at work with other humans with other people, some people that we even actually believe it or not like, and enjoy those professional interactions that we have. And building a community or building a strong culture that embraces that, can be one of the tools that we'll use to ultimately tackle that loneliness epidemic. So at the very least, you can feel a sense of belonging at work.
Kelly: Yeah. And that's what it's all about. So for those whose curiosity has definitely been piqued here, how might they apply that ritual in their culture, their operations? If they're interested in how, what that might look like? Where would you typically have someone like that start? How would they start to think about it? What might they ask or what would you typically advise them to do if they were interested in really being intentional about incorporating ritual into their agency?
Ezra: Yeah, great question. I think the first and easiest place to start is to identify transitions. Rituals have often been used to help hold and create a container around the inevitable anxiety and fear that comes with transitions.
Kelly: So when you say transitions, can you talk to some examples of that in the agency world?
Ezra: Sure. I mean, it's any movement from one state to another. So if it's onboarding a new employee, if it's signing the actual deal with a new client, if it's the completion of a project, if it's a change in leadership, if it's a shift in strategy, any shift, change, movement that is happening, that's a good place to start to think about, how can I actually slow down and create an intentional experience that names what's happening and gives people an opportunity to express, to use some sort of symbol that will ground them, and help them metabolize the fear and anxiety because in a transition, there's always a loss, there's always something that's being lost and separated from. And it's beautiful, because you can actually move into something new, but there's that middle stage, the desert, so to speak, where you haven't fully integrated into that new state. And that really can be a chaotic place; it can be an anxiety inducing place. And so that's where I would recommend people start.
Kelly: So interesting, as you were talking, I got this very strange visual, that just kind of came into my mind. It was like a clear plastic line filled with water. And, this was the line of how we typically operate in our day to day at an agency, exactly all of the things that you just said. We might onboard a new client or a new employee. We're collaborating on some strategy for a brand, whatever these things are, we might change course, here and there, might be someone promoted. So something throughout the lifeline, and then I almost had this idea that ritual was like injecting an air bubble at those moments, creating that pause, where it's not just rushing through, but creating that little container or that pause or that space where you can say, hey, how is everyone feeling about this? Or, as you said, whatever the ritual is, based on the values of that agency. I don't know why as you were talking, I was like, oh, air bubbles.
Ezra: It's a beautiful image. And one, interestingly, that I've used before, like creating a bubble in time. And rituals are often the sorts of places where magic can happen, where transformation can happen. And so, there are great experiences. There are people who work a lot in transformation and talks about the magic circle, that you like, cross into this space where anything can happen. And, creating a safe container for people to step into. And then also to step out of, go back to work. I always say that, especially with onboarding, like most people when they onboard, like there's the bathrooms, here's your computer password, right?
Kelly: Very transactional.
Ezra: Right, like you're here. And if you have the desire for that person to feel connected to their other colleagues, or to feel connected to the larger vision of your organization, you didn't do it. And ritual can help. But the ritual, you also still need to show them where the bathroom is, and tell them what their computer password is, those things go hand in hand, which was not this panacea that will just cure everything, that all the issues that you have, and make up for not having those actual business practices that are going to actually do the work and move the work forward. But if you do all that work, and don't take an opportunity to celebrate it, to amplify it, to make sure that it lands and lives and breathes, and is embodied, then you put a lot of effort and a lot of time and a lot of money, and haven't actually achieved everything that you can prove from that experience.
Kelly: Right. And for the people who are thinking about this, from exactly what you're saying, taking that in, but also thinking about the bottom line, what we're really talking about here is creating more trust among your team members, creating a culture in which people feel more supported in a culture in which people feel like they have the opportunity to ask questions, to voice their opinions, or concerns or give feedback. And ultimately, what that does is it makes the work better, which makes your work more effective, more valuable. Your agency then becomes potentially more irreplaceable in the minds of your existing clients and prospective new clients. So what we're talking about here is like, money following value, right? And, this is good for business. So it's not just good for your people. It's also good for business. Those things, I think we need to stop looking at them as too siloed ideologies, right? Like this is all part of the same circle.
Ezra: It's an important point for sure. It's not necessarily what I lead with, because I am trying to lead people to value different things. But the research is really clear. There's Emma Seppala, a PhD at Stanford University Center for Compassion and Altruism. And she's done a lot of really fascinating research on engagement, which I know can be like a word, or a little buzzy. But first of all, there's very real business impact to an unengaged employees, lower profitability, productivity, lower job growth, lower retention. And again, her research is showing that employees prefer workplace wellbeing to any kind of material benefits. Company companies are spending millions on the Ping-Pong table, and the food, which is great. But ultimately wellbeing is really what employees are after and what will ultimately result in higher engagement.
Kelly: And when you're saying wellbeing, you actually really do mean emotional wellbeing.
Ezra: Yes, full bodied, holistic, whole human wellbeing. There's also a really interesting research from this organization out there called meaningful brands. And they did this whole study, trying to determine how meaningful a brand is, and showing pretty consistently that meaningful brands had like 40% higher KPI on all sorts of metrics. And so I think that's really what Casper was saying, when he was talking about spirituality being the new white space, is employees are demanding a more full, rich experience of their workplace, but also consumers are demanding that the places that they're interacting with, that the clients or the products that they're purchasing are also a reflection of their values and who they want to be in the world. So how are you as an agency going to respond to that? And how are you going to help your clients who are trying to reach those people respond to that?
Kelly: Well, I'm really happy that we're at this time that we're seeing all of this come to fruition. It's really exciting. And I will put notes, show notes to the New York Times article and also to your website, which is ritualist.life as well. Thank you so much for being here. And I really, really appreciate it.
Ezra: And Kelly, thank you for these fantastic questions and for your curiosity and inquiry, and all the work that you're doing, hosting these really important conversations and thank you to everyone that's listening. I hope whatever you're doing in the world grows and is strengthened. Thank you.
On this episode of THRIVE—sponsored by Workamajig—Kelly and Steve Pockross discuss Verblio’s approach to curating a thousand copywriters for content marketing across nearly all verticals, as well as the value to writers and agencies alike.
EP 82: Strategies for Curated Content + Resourcing
Kelly: So welcome to this week's episode of Thrive, your agency resource. I am super excited to be joined by Steve Pockross, CEO of Verblio, a curated two-sided marketplace for writers and agencies, and other digital marketers in SMBs, other types of organizations. I have been super fortunate to be a partner of Verblio for a long time. And actually some of the writers on their platform write my own blog posts, which some people may not have known. So Steve, thank you so much for joining me. I'm really excited to talk to you today.
Steve: It's great to be talking to you again.
Kelly: So you took this marketplace over at some point over the last decade, and it eventually became branded as Verblio. I think it was BlogMutt or something like that before, right? If I remember correctly.
Steve: That is correct.
Kelly: Let's talk about it from the standpoint of how is the entire value proposition of Verblio changed in the context of COVID. Because you're seeing a lot of this from the back end. And I'm wondering if that data is telling you an interesting story.
Steve: It is definitely telling us an interesting story. We have a super unique courtside view of what great digital marketers are doing. So we have over a thousand digital marketers and 400 plus agencies that we watch every month. And so our expertise is less in what you should do in content marketing and more in reporting back what great content marketers are doing. And so, what we're seeing is some big trends and kind of a really dramatic shift in the marketplace. I'm sure, doesn't surprise people. First on the portfolio side, which is of course, that SMBs got hit the hardest. And so, we saw a big drop off. And I've been saying that this is kind of like watching a drone strike on TV. You just watch the numbers go down as a couple SMBs are leaving every day and you can just kind of feel the pain of the economy and what's out there. They were rapidly replaced by bigger players that were going much bigger into content, as content was always an amazing channel for marketing, but there was just a few others left, and it became even more effective with more eyeballs at the same time. So that's one of the biggest trends. Those who believe that they're in it for the long run, they're investing in marketing went a lot bigger in marketing. There's two other trends. And one is I think really related to what agencies are probably hearing conversations of every day is the wait for your SEO to kick in and actually start driving those organic results. As we promised, within six to nine months, you're going to have an amazing channel that turns out customers forever as opposed to your paid advertising. The patience for those type of long term programs is really going down. I'm sure you're hearing that from all of your agencies. And so we're doing a lot more kind of content that has more immediate impact, not just SEO, although much of it is an SEO but also all the other benefits of content, like moving customers through your funnel, creating sales, collateral things of that nature. And so there's been a big focus on, we're getting more and more requests for content refresh projects. You’ve already created great content. How do you get your best performing content to perform better? We've gotten a ton of repurposed content requests. So podcasts that we’re turning into blog posts or into white paper, or multiple podcasts that are now becoming eBooks, and really kind of either going from micro to macro content or back or forth, and moving much more across channels than it ever did before. We're getting a lot of video conferences that they want to have a written piece on each one of them and add video to it as well. Yeah. Those are the big trends.
Kelly: Yeah, it's so interesting. So that brings up three different questions like right off the bat for me. It almost seems like people are focusing more on strategy more than ever, and then compounded with that, it's like what is the low hanging fruit? You talked about refresh projects and kind of overhauling some of the existing content. How does that perform better? And Verblio essentially had this marketplace, this platform that was there when the need arose, when people started turning that eye inward to say, okay, well, we know we have to do content marketing even if we've historically pushed back or resisted. Now, there are so many eyeballs, especially during COVID. And for the foreseeable future, so many eyeballs online, how do we do this? And how do we not necessarily break the bank? So talk a little bit about how the platform has evolved over the last 10 years. And then specifically in the last six months as well.
Steve: It is super fun. There's nothing better in business than when you create something and you pour a lot into it and all the sudden, your clients figure out better ways to use you than you'd even thought of before. It's just like, there's just no better feeling. So I took over this company four years ago. The founders were a journalist and a developer, 10 years ago what they were trying to jump on is the big trends in SEO, which is if you write words on a page, and you write more and more then Google appreciates that. You get free traffic.
Kelly: That sounds like SEO 10 years ago.
Steve: Yes. And so there it was. I came over four years ago. As everything had evolved, everything was moving more long form, the algorithm was catching up with humanity, we were reading for people as opposed to the machine. And we had to really dramatically change the system. And so I think we were part of a movement that was called crowdsourcing, and we're trying to replace that with marketplace services 2.0, or something of that nature. The idea being that, when people think of the gig economy and freelancer economies, they really think of the two models. So they think of either the Upwork model where you go out, and you have to go through all of the work of finding your contractor, you vet them themselves, you set up an individual relationship, you give them part-time work, which gives you the flexibility and the lower price. But it also means that they might be less reliable, and you had so much more effort to go into it. So you have that model. And then you have like the Uber model, which is humanity gets basically turned into widgets, and the platform delivers everything, but the people are not there for skilled labor. So I think those are the two models that were out there. This movement was really started in the early 2000s. It was originally called crowdsourcing and the idea was how do you bring in the concepts of SAS, which is you understand a deeper way one specific work type. Salesforce starts this with sales, then it goes into HR, and every single work type has now been developed. You understand it better, you deliver it better, you make it flexible and on demand. But there is very little people involved. So at some point, you need to bring skilled labor and skilled freelancers into this process and marry them together to produce something more valuable. So if you're doing this, you're producing higher quality content at scale with deeper subject matter expertise for any niche. And that's what we aspire to do. And so basically, when I took over, I was trying to revamp a broken marketplace. So the marketplace has gotten to a place where more generic content wasn't helping our clients. It wasn't helping our agencies or our businesses do the SEO impact they wanted to. But it also wasn't working for the writers. And I think this is a key part of the story, which is everybody understands the concept of financial incentives, which I think is deeply important. And we try to pay more than anybody else in our industry. We actually raised our writer pay on April 1 right after this began when we had a choice of lowering writer pay. Because we have a commitment to raise writer pay consistently to be the best in the market. I think the more interesting one is the passionate economy that these writers are looking for more than just pay. They're looking for a career development. They're looking for a sense of community, and they're looking to stay interested, that you don't write because you want to write about a financial service product again, and again, 50 times a month. And so part of our model is that we give writers the choice of what they want to write about. They select our clients. They select the project, and they get to learn more as they're going. And they have to prove themselves to the client to make that higher level quality. But we think that creates a more motivated writer, which creates a better product for our client.
Kelly: Yeah, and I can speak to that just like on the customer side. There are two particular writers and I've been using Verblio for many years now. There are two particular writers that every single time I put a request in for my own marketing. I know that one of those two will probably pick it up. Because either with those particular writers, I have never needed to request any edits from them. They just nail it. And I always give them like a glowing review or write them a little note to say like amazing job. And I think that that's also part of the value of the platform. It's not just you put the requests out there. And any one of these four or 5000 writers in the network will select it. It's the fact that you can actually say I prefer to work with this writer or these 10 writers or what have you. And from the way that I understand it works is that my request will then go to them first. Is that true?
Steve: It is this true. Well, first of all, thank you for the endorsement. We greatly appreciate it. And I'm glad that it's working out for you. And you're gonna find out kind of another major kind of evolution of model. So crowdsourcing really stalled at the point of how do you deliver this better for skilled labor. And so one of the first things that I did is we used to have 10,000 writers and now we have about 1000. And so to me, it's about right sizing the pool. You want to be able to curate upfront. We only accept only 4.5% of the writers who take our writing test, pass the test, to go in. So that upfront curation is deeply important. You want to have that perfect balance of the smallest pool that you can with the most diversity and the most confidence in the skill they'll deliver. And so, that pool has gotten smaller. And the idea that we're trying to put forward is exactly how we're using it, which is we want you to choose. You have your own team of writers that understands your preferences so they have the reliability. So if one of your writers went on vacation, you wouldn't be stuck in the exact same way. So the request goes out. The preferred writers know that you're going to choose them first. They write for you more often. And then it goes to another pool of qualified writers that gets to see if they can compete for your business.
Kelly: Yeah. And one other thing that I'll kind of add in there. I have been really, really impressed with the turnaround time. So that's probably another question on the minds of some of the listeners. How long does it take? After I've put forth my submission, whether it's for a blog post or a white paper. Obviously, the type of content that I'm requesting is going to dictate how long it's going to take to get that back. But for me, utilizing it mostly, I would say, 95% of the time for blog posts, sometimes for case studies, but mostly blog posts, and I have gotten those back within 6 to 12 hours. I mean, to me, that is like unbelievable. It is absolutely unbelievable.
Steve: I'm glad to hear that. It is kind of one of the hidden benefits of the system, is that we basically inverted the laws of kind of like the incentive structure of supply and demand where the writers are kind of competing for your business. But they know once they have it that you're their person, and they're looking for you to come up.
Steve: We do think we have the fastest turnaround times. Our average I think for a thousand word blog post is 48 hours. Our SLAs are much longer than that. But that's our average turnaround time. For edits, it’s less than a day.
Kelly: Metrics that you can be super proud of, though.
Steve: Thank you.
Kelly: Yeah. So we've sort of been throughout this conversation, sort of touching upon little features, little functions, little this, and that, and giving people a little bit of a flavor. But can you give us sort of an overall download of the platform itself? How does it work from the macro or micro level? However you want to answer that. And then how do you talk about the value for both sides? For the agencies and then also for the writers because I would imagine that both might be listening.
Steve: For sure. Yeah, I think we touched on pieces and parts here. So I’ll try not to talk too much of it. But from a high level, we're trying to rethink this model. I think there is value in rethinking how does a marketplace of skilled labor work with a SaaS model to deeply understand a vertical like content creation. And so we are reinventing us all the time. I think we have the largest investment in our technology team in the business. And so a lot of what I’m saying I hope sounds different to you, is we're trying to evolve the space. I know many of your agencies and many of your listeners have used services that pretend to do similar type of services before and have had not great experiences. And so I would like to say we're rethinking this and we think we have a better mousetrap now. And so that mousetrap is thinking about our marketplace on both sides. For the writers, we talked about better financial incentives, more secure work, and larger amount of work. So for them, writers didn't get into the business to do business development and account management. They did get in to do great writing about things that they find interesting and use a skill set that I marvel at every day, because I'm not a professional writer. I was a journalist for six months in Chile once but that's a side story. So I think the financial piece, taking the headache of the business development that all services people who start off your business because you're an expert, and then find out you have to run a business is just painful.
Kelly: Nothing that you've said will resonate more than that statement.
Steve: It's amazing. I even got an MBA. I'll get back to the point. But I got an MBA, which should be about like how do I run my own career and my own business and all they taught me was how to help other companies make more money and nothing about my own career either.
Kelly: You got it.
Steve: What do you learn? So first is financial incentives. Second is like just make an easier life, that's predictable. And like, how do you turn this into a career? I think the third is that motivation of staying interested and engaged, learning new topics. Yes, you're my legal and financial go-to writer and you've proven yourself in those spaces, but 52% of my clients indicate their vertical as other which means that you can still focus on those verticals and also write for the long tail of diesel tractor engines, or I think we write more about Kim Kardashian than any other company that I know of right now. I think that's important. And then I think community is so important. We have a really active forum where our writers are writing back and forth. They're in their own worlds. They're basically very isolated, and the smaller we can make that group, tight-knit, the more they can talk to each other online and try to create that space. And we're trying to think more actively about how to create a better overall experience. So the way that we live up to that model is we put our money where our mouth is, that we pay more, but we also put more into our product as far as writer development than we think anybody else, which is, I've worked with enough crowdsourcing companies now. I think there's like five that I've done this. And the people that always get screwed are the community and the workers because all of the product fixes go towards the clients who are screaming a lot larger and pay the checks. That's for the writer side. For the client side, you get the ability to, I think some of the natural value propositions for working with freelance platforms are obvious, you get flexibility, scalability. You don't have to have full time labor on your staff, and you get more affordability is in general than bringing on full time people. I think the more interesting things are that when you think about content creation, most companies that have internal hires are thinking about content creation of how much can I create, as opposed to how much should I create. And so if you're seeing a great impact with your content or new directions, or a new type of topics, and tones, you should follow that. You can do that with a freelancer platform like ours. If you have an internal hire, you're really restricted to basically doing that much content. And if you don't do enough content, then you're not utilizing that asset as fully as possible. I think that's really interesting. And the last is the subject matter expertise. When you have a pool of 1000 plus writers, you have people who have written on everything. When we had a legal client come to us and say that they needed a lawyer to edit every piece of content, we had 10 lawyers in our pool to edit all that content. We have the same for architects. I think one of the most interesting trends is thinking of content less as this is something that I need to do and something that content is a competitive advantage. What could I do? What if I had an architect review every piece of my home services content? What if I created 100 pieces a month because I could affordably give myself a month around every other client that nobody else can do? We're doing a lot more of those, just insanely large clients right now that I think is pretty cool.
Kelly: Yeah, amazing. As we start to wrap up here, how would you guide agency leaders as they're really starting to consider at this point where to invest in 2021? Because, I think it seems like we're kind of in this new world, this new now, for the foreseeable future. I don't think things are going to change too much. People are still going to be mostly working from home or hybrid models and things like that. So there still are going to be an influx of eyes, right? Consumers are spending more time online. Content marketing is only going to go up. You see the trend happening. I don't think that that's going to change. So if that's the case, the agency leaders that are listening and sort of wondering, how do I budget for this, like where do I invest for next year and even potentially beyond that? How would you answer that? How would you guide them?
Steve: Well, just a point of clarification. Invest for their own marketing or invest for their clients marketing?
Kelly: You could answer it either way, or both? Because I think that they probably have the same question for themselves and for their clients.
Steve: Indeed, I think you're right. So my point of view is based on observing marketers, but also what we're doing with our own content. So we produced about four times as much content in the last five months, the last two years combined. So we are going harder on content and trying to live up to that expectation. Because we believe that that's where everything is going. I just wrote a blog post that I like the title called Content Was King – But It Got Promoted. And I totally think that's true. There are other quotes out there about it's amazing how much you can believe in something if your paycheck depends on it. So that for a grain of salt, but I really do believe that content is only going to increase in value. We are putting most of our efforts there. We are starting to do actual outbound sales and paid marketing more and more as well using that content in a more effective way. Because we think that's kind of arms, those opportunities. So I will say that there's probably about a third of our strategy right now. The digital marketers that we're seeing are basically seeing about a 50% increase in the amount of content that we're producing. So I would say, think strategically about how to, if you want to go into your clients and talk about a higher retainer for content upfront, if you want to invest more of an upfront kind of content package, this is what you're going to get so it goes quicker. I highly recommend that. Thinking about customizing programs per client. We're broken down into verticals. So it's really easy to just start off clients that way as well. I think it's going to become more important. And then going back to the trends I was talking about which were content refreshes and repurposing content. Other channels are becoming more important too. So you're going in, you're analyzing your clients’ assets. Do they have podcasts? Do they have videos? What else could I use to just amplify the amount of existing content through a partner? Could I take every one of their pillar pieces and turn it into 100 blogs and use our partner to do something of that nature?
Kelly: Yeah. This is great Steve. This is really great, good stuff. And I think it's going to help a lot of the agency leaders and, the captains of their teams to go back to their clients and say, hey, we could put together the strategy. This is kind of what we would advise. These are absolutely great takeaways, and I just want to thank you so much for sharing and thanks for joining me today.
Steve: Well, thanks so much for having me. I hope that was helpful.