On this episode of THRIVE—sponsored by Workamajig—Kelly chats with Andi Graham, CEO at Big Sea about taking on business partners, transitioning from waterfall to agile development, and the importance of culture on multi-location expansion. Lots of holistic insights and valuable takeaways from this show as Andi shares her story.
EP 38: Agile Agencies and the Importance of Culture, with Andi Graham
Kelly: So today, I’m really excited to have a new friend with me on the show. Andi Graham, is CEO and Managing Partner of Big Sea based in St. Petersburg, Florida. You can actually check them at Big Sea.co if you want to jump over there while you are listening or watching to this. Andi and I actually met back in October, just a few months ago at a conference called AgencyCon in Breckenridge.
I was keynoting the conference and we ended up sitting together, struck up this conversation, and everything that she was saying was really interesting to me, in terms of how much transition and transformation her agency was going through. And I thought that would be a really, really great topic to bring to the audience. So really looking forward to talking about transitioning from a single ownership to a partnership model. I know a lot of you are thinking about that and are always asking me questions about that.
Transforming an agency from maybe typical web development methodologies to an agile firm, that’s also something that comes with a lot of change, and we did that at my own agency. So I have a lot- that resonates with me for that. Opening up maybe a second location. And then how the culture of an organization impacts all of these things and vice versa. So I know it is a lot to cover in a 15 to 20 minute show, but I think we can do it. And Andi thank you so much for being here.
Andi: Yes, thanks so much for having me, Kelly.
Kelly: So let’s start out with the origin story. Big Sea. How did you found it, what was the sort of the backstory there and then how did you go from single owner to where you are today with the partnership.
Andi: Sure. I think like a lot of agency owners, I was an accidental entrepreneur. I just happened to be responsible, accountable. I’d answer the phone when people would call me and I do what I said I was going to do.
Kelly: Oh my God!
Andi: I know. Trust me it still doesn’t happen. Yeah, I know.
Kelly: I know.
Andi: And it’s so funny how many clients you hear that from. "Well, the last people I called wouldn't even answer the phone when we…" So it kind of started as I had a lot of freelance work and I was doing a master's degree and I was working half-time at another agency and I kind of just happened to have some projects fall into my lap at a really opportune time in my life, happened to be the week that I gave birth to my daughter was the last week of paid income of any other, on anybody else's dime.
So all those things kind of conspired. I hired a couple employees that first year, and then it's just kind of grown organically through that. There's no outside investment. I have no debt. There's none of that. And three years ago, 2015, we had a really rough year, 2014 and 2015 were kind of rough. I was introducing marketing into the agency, but it hadn't taken off yet. I knew I needed some retainer based income.
Kelly: So it was all project-based before that?
Andi: It was all project based, which is feast or famine, and so there's a lot of I don't think I was making smart hiring decisions. I was quick to hire and slow to fire, which is exactly the opposite of what you're supposed to do. So I would hire just for workload and then have to support folks because I have an incredible indebtedness to the employees that we bring on. I'm figuring out how to do this, and so it was a tough couple of years. We did great work and we stayed afloat but I wasn't feeling really comfortable about where we were.
So at that point, I was attending some agency owner events around through a company called the Bureau of Digital, and I was just loving the interaction I had with really getting some of the hard, the difficult things I dealt with off my chest and talking to people who understood what I was going through. Something I hadn't found here in the area. When I got back to town after one of the conferences, I actually reached out to another agency owner here, and he and I started having, we called it co-commiseration lunch where we'd talk about clients and projects and employees and running the agencies and how we did that.
And after a few months we started saying, well, this sounds really strange but why wouldn’t we do this together. We kind of dominate our regional market anyways. Why wouldn't we merge? And so, after quite a few conversations, we ended up deciding to merge the two agencies. It was really seamless. We kind of put our team structures next to each other in it and they've just fit together like a puzzle. We knew exactly whose, would fill, which role and where they would go.
Kelly: It never happens by the way. You know how rare that is.
Andi: Yeah, it was very rare. We had, just I don't even think, we had one situation, one bit personal situation where there was a conflict. So it really merged very well and it just had a lot of it to do with like who is more senior versus the others and things like that. Luckily I have a team who support me completely, and they were skeptical, but they went through it with us and it was that sort of storm norm form thing that everybody talks about. We thought we wouldn't go through because everything fit together but looking back over the past three years, it was definitely what happened. So I went from being a sole owner to having two business partners. So 100% percent to 30% percent, 33.333 %.
Kelly: And we will touch on definitely the culture and the team and how important that is toward the end today but let's kind of transition a little bit to the work flow and the methodology because around the same time, you went from, you basically said to the team, I think we should become an agile shop. And so, bringing in these new partners, having like this cross-section or merge team structure and now all of a sudden we're going to change everything about how you do what you do every day. So tell me a little bit about why you did that and what was it that clicked for you that this is the approach that we should take.
Andi: Sure. I had been doing a lot of research around how this might work for a marketing based agency, so we do traditional WordPress development, start to finish waterfall, whatever that is. When I was at an agency with 10 to 12 employees, it was easy to kind of throw work wherever anybody had time. There wasn't a lot of accountability around, here was the estimate and here’s how much you're working, here it is, the smaller tasks, things like that. It was whoever was available got things done.
Now with 20-some employees, we realize there had to be a lot more organization around the work flows themselves. We wanted more accountability in our marketing retainers and have been doing a lot of research into agile marketing specifically and how those things work. And so, we had been merged six months at this point when we decided to just pull the trigger. I have a partner who is our C. O. O. so he's our operations guy and he was just planning and planning and planning and planning. And I finally said, "That's it. We're just doing it. It's starting August 1, we're going all in."
And so we literally just set up some boards. We had a sprint planning meeting. It was a complete cluster. But you just have to do it, and so it's amazing how quickly, we sat down, we did a huge leadership retreat on Friday, and everyone around the table sat down and said how did we ever get anything done before this was how we did it? Because we have so much accountability now for every task that happens, where it's at in the process, who's in charge of it, who's leading it, which team is working on it, we have just so much more insight into how we work, why we work and where our money's going as well.
Kelly: Yeah, and like I said at the beginning of the show, that resonates with me tremendously because we were an agile shop until probably 4, 5 years before I sold the agency and looking back I feel the same way. I don't know how we did what we did for almost 10 years before that, but you take it to the point where right now you sort of positioned Big Sea as an agile digital marketing agency. I mean, you put it right up front there.
Andi: Yup. And it's important to us that people understand because what that does being agile as a marketing agency allows us to pivot very quickly. We're not tied into, here's your annual marketing plan, and ops, sorry, in May, we're going to be doing this even though Google just changed their algorithm and you’ve dropped all your rankings. We didn't have an SEO plan in place right now. That's not until June. So we can pivot, we are really data-driven, we’re constantly watching metrics and changing what we're doing based on what we're seeing.
Kelly: And clients are getting a ton of value out of that because of that ability to pivot.
Andi: Yeah. And the other big thing we did we went to agile in August but then in last January, we actually transitioned to cross-functional teams and so instead of having one agency that still, even though we're organizing the work in an agile fashion, we actually went into the cross-functional teams model and so we have two separate teams that work side by side. So the client gets the full, I mean, our developers set up the table just when we're making decisions about what to do with our accounts and they're looking at conversion rate optimization and site structure and page load and all those different things.
Kelly: Which is the way it should be, because you have to have all those people who know their specialties to that degree all sitting at the same table because you don't want someone in marketing or an account manager making a decision that the developers like, "Why did you tell the client that?" That's not how it works. So talk a little bit more about the team from the perspective of how you, as a leader, give them direction but also balance that with equal parts of autonomy so that they can figure out the nuances themselves.
Andi: Sure. This has been really interesting for me because I'm a little bit of a control freak, which I'm sure a lot of your agency owners are. So yeah. So watching two teams take off and then, so we have fairly good processes. So we had gone through about a year of really heavy documentation of what we do and how we do it. And so, we have this whole process docs folder in Google and you can look at like how do I onboard somebody, how do I do this, how do I do that, it's all very sort of written down.
What we've had to do is kind of consider those as frameworks versus tried and true bibles. So each team has really started working together in very different ways based on each team's personalities and strengths and weaknesses and things like that. So each team has their own variations on those processes as long as the clients are happy, I don't care, even though I did care a little bit.
So we're working this year on, they've kind of grown apart a little bit and so next year, one of our goals for 2019 is sort of bringing them back together to share successes. So we've set up some structure around how are we gonna start it, work together to talk about what's working across their different client accounts and account managers can work together and what's working for their account stuff and things like that. So we're trying to build a little bit that into the process.
Kelly: And do they get excited about that? Like are they are into that, or does it feel like we're finding our own way and leadership is saying, you guys have to come back together or they?
Andi: No. Yes, so they wouldn’t be in our team if they weren't excited about that. We have really high levels of low ego and high collaboration so it's really about putting the best for the client first always. And so, if we had somebody risk this into that, they wouldn't be on our team. So yeah they're great about it. We have a disciplined director for each so we have a design director and a marketing director and so those people are in charge of the disciplines and so they work on leveling people up across their teams, making sure the standards are met for our agency in a general sense, that type of thing.
Kelly: And with all the change and directions that you're being pulled in, having this new presence in Colorado, how do you sort of balance your own time and manage your own time, what does that look like for you?
Andi: I'm really strict about maintaining time for my…I have a child and a husband, with like my family is very important and it's important for our entire staff so we’ve just a year where some of our staff have gone through some crazy health things or their spouses have or whatever that is. And so, I think it's something we really value highly and so I value it for myself. I'm gonna be leaving at 4:30 today.
My daughter has a chorus performance and it's just, that's number one. Number two is my work. And I can do my work at 10 PM or 4 AM or whatever it is. And I think that's the example that I set in that they see as well. We have required everybody has to put in billable hours just like any other agency. They meet those, some of our, we have some moms so leave at 3 and come back online at 8 PM after the kid goes to bed and then finish their day, that type of thing.
Kelly: So it’s just about being flexible.
Andi: It is, yeah.
Kelly: One of the other questions that I wanted to ask and sort of end the conversation with a wrap up, with was, with all of this change happening at one time, I would imagine that the core, the foundation of your team had to be so rock solid. It's kind of like, I don't know, introducing something new into a relationship. You have to have a really, really core foundation before you can sort of take things to the next level. So talk a little bit about that. How vital was it that the team was already to that, really, really strong foundation with the sharing of goals and shared values and all of that. Just talk a little bit about that.
Andi: Sure. So we have shared core values, which I'm sure a lot of people talk about. We have them painted on a wall, which I'm sure a lot of people do. Different to us, is that we use them to guide just about every decision that we make so while we're having a discussion between two people about how should we handle this, what should we do, somebody throw a core value out, and say well this is what we believe in so here's why we're going to do it this way. Our people really adhere to them and trust in them and we have rewards for them every year and we talk about them on a constant basis. We build them into our hiring and firing and our process improvement, everything that we do.
So I think that's a big piece of it- that we all kind of have that one thing we align behind but another piece of it is everybody, if you were to go down and interview everybody on our team and ask them what's unique about the Big Sea culture, they’d all say it’s a weird family. And they'll say I'm the dad, they'll say that my partner is the mom and they will say that there's a weird uncle here or there and it's we are a big weird family. We all support each other in our highs and lows. We hang out together on the weekends. We know which- our kids are here in the office all the time. It's just a strange weird little family. So bringing new people in, we have to know that they're going to fit into that family in the same ways.
Kelly: Yeah. And one of my favorite stories that you shared when we met in October was about the controller, I guess coming to you and saying "Hey, Andi, what's this charge, why did you take like 500, 600 bucks out of the ATM for?" And you told them that you took everyone to the tattoo parlor. You have to share the story.
Andi: We have an anchor that we've used for a long time as our logo and we have since discontinued the use of it so it is a retired logo. But one of my employees was talking about she wanted to get the anchor tattooed on her and so I said I'll go with you, in fact I'll pay for it and I happened to say that in the work area. And so about 10 other employees heard me say that, and they're like wait, you're paying for us to get the logo tattooed on us? And I said, "Sure!" So we literally called around and found a place that could get us in that afternoon and we ten or eleven of us went down to the tattoo parlor and got the logo tattooed on ourselves. I don’t know if you can see it.
Kelly: It’s awesome.
Andi: Some people it was their very first tattoo ever, and their parents are not very happy with it. And some people with their first tattoo in say ten or twelve years. People got them on their ankles, on their wrists, and everywhere. I didn't realize it was cash only. I thought I could pay it with credit card but no, and nobody would find out about it, but I had to go to the ATM and pull out 600 bucks to pay for everybody.
Kelly: There's so many things about the story that I love. I think first of all when you talk about strength of culture, I feel like that same type of thing would have been something that my team at my agency would have done because we had a very similar family oriented, weird family oriented situation. But just the fact that they wanted to get behind it and they wanted to like codify something on their bodies. I mean that's granted, young people don't make the best decisions all the time, but in this case I think that there's something really special about that, and you have to feel that I as or have to imagine that as the agency leader, that's got toreally warm your heart and moves you in ways that other things may.
Andi: Absolutely. That was definitely one of the highlights of owning this business and doing this and this being my life for sure. And I should know that they weren't all that young. Most of my employees are in their mid-thirties. They knew what they were making decisions.
Kelly: Yeah. Absolutely. So as we wrap up, is there anything that, we've covered so many different things in this conversation, and it's been great, but is there anything that you would sort of pull out as I don't know maybe the one take away or the one thing that you might hang your hat on when talking with other agency owners if they're going through any of these things? Whether it's opening up a second office location, thinking about developing a partnership, maybe moving into agile methodology, whatever it is, just something that you can kind of pick out and say this is what I would do or this is what I would suggest.
Andi: Yeah, I think one of the biggest things for us has been alignment, and it's really knowing that we are aligned behind the same things, not just goals but values, core focus, the things that our vision for the agency. We just went through a divorce with one of our partners and so that was a big thing. We were just misaligned in what was important and what our priorities are. And so, I think when the whole team is aligned and know those things and truly believe in those things, not just hear the talk.
Kelly: Not just painted on the wall.
Andi: Yeah, exactly.
Kelly: Live by it.
Andi: You can make anything happen, yeah.
Kelly: Awesome. Thank you so much. I really appreciate this.
Andi: Thank you. It’s good to talking!
Kelly: Me too. Alright, talk to you soon.
Andi: Alright bye.