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The Fastest, Simplest Way to Your Goal


Transcript, edited for readability:

Over the course of this year, I’ve noticed something happening with a lot of small business owners like you. Even I haven’t been immune from this problem as my business has grown and grown.

That problem… is overcomplicating things on the path to success.

This problem shows up in a lot of different ways:

You might be stuck in analysis paralysis… not sure which way to go.

You might feel spread thin… trying to do a little bit of everything to figure out what is going to stick.

You might be nearing burn out and just trying to keep it together.

Or, you might be excitedly planning for the next phase of your business and oblivious to how difficult you’re making things for yourself.

There are 2 main reasons this problem crops up in the first place:

1) You work forwards instead of backward.

You’ve got a new goal and you’re ready to build on the success you’ve already had (whether that’s the decision to start your business in the first place or a long track record of making things happen). You start with what you’ve already got and look to add on to that.

And you add and add until your goal is in sight.

That’s working forwards. And it makes sense… but…

When you word forwards toward your goal, you layer idea on top of idea, or solution on top of solution.

You say, “I’ll work with 10 private coaching clients. Then I need to sell 100 courses. Then I’ll sell 500 books.”

You just keep adding things on until you reach your goal.

This creates a complicated and nearly impossible-to-follow plan.

When you work backward, you start with a goal and ask yourself, “What’s the fastest, simplest way I could reach my goal?”

You might discover that it’s by simply taking on 15 private coaching clients with a 50% price increase, which people will happily pay because your attention isn’t divided between them and trying to make your complicated plan happen.

Or, you might discover that it’s by simply selling 200 courses and putting all your attention on making your sales process as effective as possible, something you have time to do because you aren’t also seeing 10 private clients.

That’s not to say that multiple streams of revenue are bad or wrong. It’s just that layer upon layer, complication upon complication, in the service of hitting some far off goal isn’t going to get you where you want to go.

Focus your plan by working backward from what you want to achieve and keep it as simple as possible.

The other reason this problem occurs is:

2) You set incremental goals instead of exponential goals.

And that brings me to a personal story:

When my partner Sean and I moved back to Pennsylvania a year ago, he quit his job to pursue his creative interests including fiction writing.

He’d dabbled in writing for quite some time, working on character development or penning short vignettes, but he’d never devoted himself to it. He couldn’t find the discipline to take a single idea from start to finish.

And he knew that no matter how many days he worked on character development or short vignettes, he wasn’t going to end up with a completed novel until he changed the way he was approaching the whole pursuit.

So he gave himself a massive challenge…

…he decided to tackle NaNoWriMo.

If you’re not familiar, NaNoWriMo is National Novel Writing Month and it happens every November, right alongside No Shave November (for which he is also a faithful participant). The goal is to write approximately 1650 words every day of the month so that you end the month with a 50,000-word manuscript.

You do it knowing full well that the manuscript will likely be terrible…

…but at least it will be done.

This was going to be a real test: going from a scant 100-200 words per day to 1650 words per day? How could he manage it?

Well, he did. He actually finished early and proudly printed off the entire 50,000+ word manuscript on November 30, 2015.

The reason he accomplished it was simple…

He made structural changes to the way he approached writing. He was no longer just trying to get in some writing 100-200 words at a time, he structured his day around achieving the necessary 1600 words.

It wasn’t a matter of time or hustle. It was a matter of design:

  • He stopped writing in a notebook and started writing in a Google Doc.
  • He stopped writing at the pub and started writing in an office.
  • He stopped putting it off til the end of the day and started prioritizing the action first thing.
  • He stopped second-guessing every artistic choice he made and started moving through the plot bit by bit.

These 4 simple changes meant that he octupled his production in largely the same amount of time he was spending on writing before. Not only that, but he actually set a goal and reached it.

He could have forced himself to sit and work on character development and tiny plot points a few more hours a week, hoping that the extra work would eventually see his novel finished.

But that would have never worked.

It’s the same way with your business.

When you set a goal that’s just incrementally higher (maybe 10%, 20%, or even 50%), your brain automatically thinks that doing more will get you there. You’ll add photographing one more wedding to your schedule, you’ll work harder at building your list, you’ll pump out 2 more websites, you’ll sell a few more courses…

How long will you be able to keep that up?

How tired are you already?

The only way past this is to set a goal so much higher than what you’ve done before that you’re forced to consider an entirely new way of doing things, just like Sean.

You stop adding more clients, you stop building new content upgrades, you stop jamming more webinars into your schedule, and you look at the way your business is fundamentally structured.

Then, you can work backward and find the fastest, simplest way to this amazing new goal.

Now, let’s tackle two listener questions and apply this to their situation.

First up is Yvonne Radley.

Yvonne has a niche publicity and coaching practice for fitness and wellness business owners. She’s found success with a small email list but she’s looking to ramp up and break into new markets next year. Her best list-builder to date has been an email challenge she’s been running for 4 years.

So now she wants to know:

“What else can I do to grow my email list and break into new markets?”

Yvonne’s question is one that I’m sure is on a lot of minds for next year.

And our “fastest, simplest way” philosophy is going to come in handy.

First, realize that “list-building” has become a monster as a marketing mantra.

About 2 years ago, once every finally realized they weren’t going to be able to build their businesses with social media alone, the gurus started talking about list-building.

List-building, list-building, list-building.

And… everyone forgot that the goal isn’t to build your list.

The goal is to find the right people to become customers of your business.

You heard me: the goal isn’t to build your list.

Instead, you need to be 100% focused on finding the right people to become customers.

You don’t need to have tens or hundreds of thousands of people on your list to have a million dollar business.

So… what’s the fastest, simplest way to find the right people to become customers of your business?

It sounds like Yvonne already knows: it’s this challenge that she’s been running for 4 years.

I would look for ways to amplify that, to spread that challenge into new segments of her market. And I would do that 2 main ways:

1) By tapping into the people who have already gone through the challenge and asking them to share.

Her existing list is going to be a huge help in growing her audience. Craft a campaign specifically around re-engaging these people and asking them to share the wealth with their friends and family.

At this point, I’d also look for technology that can help to simplify this: a referral system, viral marketing campaign software, etc… She should be rewarding people (even if it’s just with a “thank you” email) as people refer their friends and she should be making it as easy as possible for them to do it.

2) Paid Advertising

When you have something that you know works to turn interested people into buyers, it’s time to invest in advertising and then look for ways to scale the campaign once it’s working. Plus, since Yvonne has her customer defined soooooo well, she’ll be able to target them easily and speak to them directly—which makes any advertising campaign much more effective.

I’d start by advertising some really great content related to the challenge: a video, a blog post, even a few photos. Build general awareness about your brand and the value it provides.

Then, I’d advertise the challenge itself.

You can even run a concurrent ad to the people who have done it in the past asking them to share it with their friends!

Finally, I’d use advertising to ensure the people who are signed up are actually consuming the content you’re sending them and following up on your pitch!

If Yvonne invests all her audience-growing energy into that 2-fold strategy, she should have a great chance at both building her list and finding the right people to buy.

Our second question comes from Michael, who’s just starting his business and wants to know how to set goals.

“As a new business owner, at what interval should I be setting goals and how often should I be reevaluating them?”

At Quiet Power Strategy, we do goal setting a little differently—and you guessed it, one of the big reasons is because I like to simplify and keep things focused.

So I ask clients to choose a Chief Initiative—the main driver of their activity for a period of time, generally 3, 6, or 12 months. That Chief Initiative is the core focus and single goal for that length of time. It’s the 1 thing you want to have created or accomplished in that time frame.

For a new business owner or even an established business owner who is looking to make some big changes, I recommend a 3-month Chief Initiative.

For Michael, that might mean securing 4 client contracts in the first 3 months of next year.

In order to do that, he’ll need to accomplish some supporting things as well. I call these Projects. Your Chief Initiative might have 3 Projects, it might have 10.

Michael will identify each of these Projects, things like completing his website, contacting warm leads, or creating a proposal template. Then, he’ll make a list of the actions he needs to complete for each Project.

Each of those Projects needs to have a definitive milestone or metric associated with them so you can measure their completion.

Finally, Michael should complete a pre-mortem for his Chief Initiative. All that means is brainstorming all the ways his plan could go wrong… and putting new actions or safeguards in his plan to keep those things from happening.

He can then work in 3-month blocks throughout the year to keep the business growing and keep him and Elizabeth feeling focused and productive.

If you’d like to dive deeper into this goal-setting technique and the idea of working backward instead of forwards, check out Episode 47 of Profit Power Pursuit, called Lead Yourself Backwards.

Plus, there’s more good goal-setting advice in Episode 28 Microplanning for Success with Natalie MacNeil and Episode 25 How to Focus & Get Stuff Done with Pam Slim.

That’ll do it for this episode of Profit. Power. Pursuit. Remember to keep things simple, work backward, and set exponentially higher goals as you plan for next year.

Next week, I’ll be back with another listener-inspired episode so keep your questions coming! Simply write or record your question and email it to podcast@taragentile.com. Remember to include your name, what you do, and where we can find you online so that I can give you a shout out!

If you loved this episode or any of the 60 deep dives we’ve done with successful small business owners over the last year, please subscribe on iTunes, Stitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts.


5 Ways to Improve Your New Year Business Plans: Inspired by Listener Questions

5 Ways to Improve Your New Year Business Plans on Profit. Power. Pursuit. with Tara Gentile

Transcript, edited for reading:

It’s that time of year!  Time to make your business plans for the new year.

It’s time to assess what’s worked in your business this year and make plans to make more money, take more time off, and grow your influence in the market next year. 

Now, if you’re like me, you’ll be taking time away from the inner workings of your business over the next eight weeks to make those plans.  In this special episode of Profit. Power. Pursuit., I’ve got five ways you can improve on your plans. 

Now, that’s no matter what planning system or strategy you’re planning to use.  Plus, these tips have all been inspired by listener questions. 

You ready?  Here we go.

The first question comes from Aerie North, who you can find at Skillshare.com/AerieNorth. 

She says, “I’m never 100% sure if adding a new product or service to my business will confuse my existing clients.  I’m an artist and art teacher, and as an art teacher, I know how to create in many mediums.  I sell art prints and coloring books online, and I also make crochet sculptures for art galleries.  I’d like to add teaching crochet sculptures in my online classroom, but I already have several different art modalities represented in my online classroom.  Will adding new and different types of art classes turn off my existing students?

This is a really great question, and it’s something that I hear from listeners and readers no matter what market they’re in.  Aerie is in art and art education, but of course, I hear very similar questions from life coaches and designers and photographers, consultants, all types of businesses, and this is also a really common question at this time of the year.

Because the end of the year or even the beginning of the next poses some really special challenges for business owners, and the most insidious of those challenges is, of course, the temptation to try new things, whether that’s new products or new list-building tactics, new messages, new packages.

And… I get it…

Trying new things is fun, it’s exciting, and it could be a huge opportunity, which is exactly what Aerie is wondering about: is this a big opportunity, or is it potentially a distraction or worse?  Because any time you add something new, it could be great, or it could completely dilute what’s already working. 

As Mike Michalowicz says in The Pumpkin Plan, there is always a “direct correlation between diluted focus and a diluted bank account. 

That’s pretty clear, and I completely agree with Mike on this, and I’m sure that you’ve probably experienced this in the past as well.  Or you might be able to look at your business right now, and say, “Oh, yeah, my diluted bank account is coming from my diluted focus,” and so we want to avoid this when we’re planning for the new year. 

So the first way that you can improve your new year business plans is to double down on your positioning. 

1. Double Down on Your Positioning

Now, what’s positioning?  Before I get into the rest of the answer to this question, let’s talk a little bit about what I mean specifically by positioning. 

Positioning is where your business sits in the market.  It’s the stories that your customers tell about your business.  It’s the message that you put out.  It’s how you do what you do differently.  It’s the price you set, it’s the packages or offers that you make, it’s how you show up in the market, and all those things come together to give you your positioning.  In other words, where you sit in the market. 

Now, if you’re tempted to start something new, to add to your offerings, expand your audience, take a step back.  Does what you’re creating reinforce your brand?  The story it tells about your customers, the value you have to offer, or does it dilute your focus? 

Now, for Aerie, that means taking a look at how she wants to be positioned in the market, what she wants to be known for, how she wants her customers to talk or think about her business, and what message she wants to lead with, and then determine if those new classes will reinforce that positioning or dilute it.  And the key here really is in the answers to those specific questions, and I’ll come back to that in just a minute. 

But Aeries’s positioning may not be based on the particular art method she’s teaching.  It might be based on the particular value she’s offering through art, or maybe it’s based on who she’s helping her customers become. 

Her positioning could be based on lots of different things, not necessarily the modality or the method in which she’s teaching, and that’s so important here, because to know whether it’s a distraction or not, to know whether it’s confusing or not, to know whether it’s going to interrupt what’s already working and dilute her focus when it comes to her brand, we need to know what that specific positioning is.  We need to know where it comes from and what she wants it to be, and so that here really is the key, because until she knows exactly what that positioning is, she can’t know for sure whether she’ll confuse customers with a new offering and slow the growth of her business. 

So for Aerie and for everyone listening, you need to be able to answer these three questions:

First, when people talk about your business, what do you want them to say? 

This question’s really important because we tend to think about positioning as something that’s sort of inherited, it’s something that is done to us, it’s a place that we are put in the market, but positioning isn’t like that. 

We get to choose where we’re positioned, how we’re positioned in the market in regards both to our own business and in relation to other people’s businesses, so you get to decide what you want people to say about your business by the types of offers that you put out, by the messages that you use, by the types of marketing that you engage in, the prices that you set, all of those different pieces there tell a story that lets you position your business specifically.  So you’ve got to be able to answer that question to know whether a new offer or a new tactic is going to help you or hurt you.

The second question is what’s different about what you’re offering than what others are offering? 

Positioning isn’t just based on your business, it’s based on your business in relation to the rest of the market, in relation to other businesses. 

Now, I know the temptation here is to kind of fall into some, you know, competition spiral, where you worry about what other people are doing, but this is really an opportunity to take control of that, to break yourself out of that competition downward spiral, and instead, really focus on what you can do to actively position your business relative to other businesses, and to do that, you do have to be paying attention. 

You’ve got to look at what other people are doing so you can do things differently.

Then the third question is what story does your business tell about your customers? 

What story does your business tell about your customers?  A lot of times, with branding and with marketing, you’re focused on the story that you want to tell.  Your story.  The story of your business.  Why you do what you do, how you got here, what kind of interesting things have happened in your life or your work experience that have led you to this place, but that is the least important part of the story that your business is telling. 

The most important part of the story your business is telling is the story where your customers are the hero.  The part where your customers are the star.  So your business has to actively tell a story where your customers get to be the hero, and the clearer you are about that story, the more upfront you are about with that story, the more it affects your positioning, and the clearer your positioning becomes.  So with every decision you make about the next year, make sure you’re reinforcing those answers, and then doubling down on your positioning.

Aerie, for you, that could mean that those new classes go one way or the other, but you won’t be able to figure that out until you have the answers to those three questions.

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Now, our next question comes from Jody Riddick of JustJodieLeigh.com. 

She asks, “How do you get the most out of mastermind?” 

Now, I love this question, and it leads me to the second way you can improve your business plans for the new year, which is to get support from diverse sources. 

2. Get Support From Diverse Sources

I named 2016 the Year of the Mastermind for me, and it’s proven to be an extremely helpful strategy.  I have taken part in three different masterminds over the course of this year, you know, where I am a participant, and I’ve also led two different masterminds over the course of this year, where I’m working with clients in a mastermind group, and I have seen and felt the power of masterminds firsthand all year long. 

I can tell you in also watching what is so powerful about masterminds that there are three ways that people most often go wrong with masterminds, and there are then three ways, of course, that you can improve on what your past experience with masterminds might have been. 

So the first thing is that people seek out mastermind partners who are kind of going at the same pace they are, which might be slow to non-existent, and so the first way that you can get the most out of a mastermind is to actually…

Seek out people who are moving at a faster pace than you. 

You want the people that you’re masterminding with, as a business owner, to actually push you, to challenge you, to inspire you to get a little more uncomfortable, to do things a little more outside of your comfort zone, and really use that to propel your business forward.  So that might mean that you have to introduce yourself to some new people to put a really effective mastermind together.  Or it might mean you need to revisit some contacts that have gone stale, because those people have been moving at a faster pace than you’ve been.

This also means that you’ve got to be willing to say no to masterminding with people who could hold you back, and I know that that is something that gives people butterflies in their stomach, it makes them feel bad, and I know, I’ve totally been there, too, but this is something that really will make or break your mastermind experience. 

So as you are building a mastermind for next year, and I really, really hope that you do, do seek out people who are moving at a faster pace, who are trying new things, who are setting bigger goals than you, and I think very, very quickly, you’ll find that you’re getting more and more out of those interactions.

The second thing that people do wrong with masterminds is that they put together groups of people with very similar businesses, people who run in the same circles as they do, and of course, you can fix this one simply by…

Putting together a mastermind with people who have different types of businesses from yours, and people who run and move in different circles of influence from you. 

So you guys don’t all want to have the same mentors.  You don’t want to all have the same influencers.  You don’t want to all be reading the same blogs or listening to the same podcasts.  You want to put together a mastermind group of people who are getting information and ideas and inspiration from different sources, and you want to put together a mastermind group of people who are operating different businesses than yours.  Or at the very least, operating their business very differently from yours. 

The problem with putting together kind of a really homogenous mastermind group is that there’s a lot of confirmation bias that happens there, and you end up kind of doubling down on strategies that are just what you’re already doing.  They’re already the things that don’t seem really to quite be working, but if instead, you know, if you’re a life coach and you mastermind with a photographer and a website designer and a B2B business consultant, you’re going to see opportunities in what they’re doing that you would have never considered as part of your kind of life coach-y business brain way of thinking. 

It’s not that things in the life coach business sphere are bad or that things in the photography business sphere are bad or that things in the B2B consulting space is bad, it’s just that there is more creative ideas out there, if only you would break out of your sphere of influence and into someone else’s, and masterminds are perfect for this. 

You’re going to find out what’s working in other industries, you’re going to find out what’s working in other business models, and you’re going to be able to get creative about what to do with that in your own business simply because you’re not going to be so close to that idea, so close to that tactic, so close to that strategy that you can only think in terms of what you’ve already done or what’s already worked or what you already know.  So that’s the second thing that you can do to get the most out of a mastermind.

Another reason masterminds go wrong is because they’re unstructured.  If you want to get more out of your mastermind group next year…

Use a structure. 

Make sure there is an agenda to every meeting.  Prepare for each meeting.  Know what you’re going to share. 

In most of my masterminds, it’s some variation on a very simple structure, and I have Jaime Masters from The Eventual Millionaire Podcast to thank for this in a couple of different forms, but in most of my mastermind groups, the structure is simply having a round-robin group share at the beginning.  That can be around challenges, it can be around victories, it can be around what you accomplished over the last week productivity-wise, and then spending the rest of the time focused on one person or one issue or one goal in the group. 

And simply by breaking up time like that, everyone gets heard, everyone has an opportunity to speak up, to share something, and then everyone also has the opportunity to focus on just one thing, and this really has been the difference between, again, mastermind groups that make it and mastermind groups that get broken. 

So make sure you’re using a structure, and it’s going to feel a little weird at first.  It’s going to feel awkward, I promise you that, so just be prepared for it.  If you’re the person kind of imposing the structure on your group, it will feel strange, but that strangeness will wear off over time as people just come to know what the expectation is week in and week out, and that structure, again, will give everyone a chance to kind of relax and focus and get the most out of the mastermind group.

But above all of those things, regardless of what’s going to work for you, or you know, what you’re want to take or leave from what I just offered there, I do hope that you set a goal to create and meet with a mastermind group next year, whether that’s monthly or biweekly or weekly.  Most of my groups meet weekly, and I highly recommend it.  Even if not everyone can meet each, you know, week in and week out, that’s okay, but that weekly structure, it keeps the pace moving.  It keeps people on topic.  It means there’s less catch-up time every time you meet, and so I find that weekly frequency really, really helpful.

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Our next listener question comes from Leslie at MischaLee Jewelry.  She says, “How do you manage your time when there are a lot of really different business tasks that have to be done?  I feel pulled in so many directions sometimes.” 

Of course, the answer to this question is the third way you can improve your business planning for the new year, and that is to know your top priority at any given time. 

3. Know Your Top Priority At Any Given Time

Now, one of the biggest benefits of planning ahead, whether it’s for the month, the quarter, or the year, is that it becomes easier to spot your top priorities. 

These priorities will show themselves as specific goals.  So if you look, at your next year’s plans or your next quarter’s plans, you’ll see some specific goals, hopefully, that you’ve set for yourself.  The more specific, the easier it will be to know what’s important for you and your team to be focused on. 

But underlying your specific goals, the things that are really important to you at any given time, there’s going to be three currents.  Think of them as ocean currents, so no matter what direction your ship is traveling in, you’ll get influenced by the current that you are currently in.  You need to take that current into account, and adjust for it as you go.

Now, the first current is bringing in revenue… 

and this is maybe the current that most of us are in most of the time, and it’s also the most powerful current, because if you don’t feel like you have this taken care of, if you don’t know where the money is coming from, you really can’t focus on anything else.  Most specific goals can serve this current, which is a really good thing. 

If this is where you’re going to be a lot of the time, you need to know how any of your specific goals can help you bring in revenue so that you’re going in the direction that you want to be going in. 

So if you’re building your list, make sure you’re making offers to new people who join your community, making money off of that specific goal of growing your audience. 

If you’re aiming for a book deal, make sure you know what that advance from the publisher needs to be to keep your business running, so you know that when you sign that contract, there’s going to be an amount of money coming in that leaves you comfortable, that leaves you, again, steering that ship in the right direction. 

If you’re growing your team as your specific goal, make sure that you know how each new team member will allow for new revenue to come in.  So again, each time you hire, you’re not feeling like, ech, that expense of paying them every week or every month, instead, you’re saying, ooh, I get to bring in this new team member, and they’re going to bring in this many thousands of dollars to my bottom line every month.  That’s a much better way to look at that, and it’s going to keep you a lot more focused.

Now, the second current is building your base or filling your pipeline…

and you can’t ever really ignore the need to know where your next lead is coming from, but sometimes, this is the biggest priority. 

Maybe things have tapered off, or you know that you really need to accelerate building your audience, filling your pipeline in order to get to that next place that you want to be in your business.  Now, again, if this is a need for your business right now, or you know that it will be sometime over the next three, six, or twelve months, look at how you can leverage specific goals.  Maybe like a big launch, a speaking gig, or a media campaign to grow your audience and fill your pipeline.  Look at the things that you want to accomplish next year, and figure out how you can use them to steer your business in this current of building your base.

The third current is optimizing internal systems. 

Now, as my good friend, Natasha Vorompiova from SystemsRock.com would tell you, every business has systems.  It’s just that some of us pay attention to those systems, and some of us don’t, and so at any given time, you might feel a priority in your business for focusing and paying more attention to those internal systems.  Your specific goals can be used to focus on optimizing these systems.  Making them work smoother, delegating more of their pieces, or codifying them as part of your operations. 

So if you want to know how to manage your time, know what your priority is right now by knowing what specific goal you’re working toward and how the current you’re in is affecting how you approach that goal. 

Just about any goal that you see in your plans over the next three, six, or twelve months can be leveraged within one of those three currents, so that you’re not feeling conflicted, but instead, you are moving in the direction you want to be moving in.  So instead of balancing, you know, going after that book deal and bringing in money, you see how those two things can work together.  Or instead of, you know, managing a big launch and having that conflict with optimizing internal systems, you can see how those two things work together.

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Now, the next question, and this is a very popular one, is from Kay at The Happiness Detective.  She says, “How can I improve my sales technique?  I have the shop, I have the products, I’m out there promoting the best I can, but so far, only crickets.” 

Now, the answer to this one, is the fourth way, of course, that you can improve your business plans for the new year, and that is to separate your marketing plans from your sales plans. 

4. Separate Your Marketing Plans From Your Sales Plans

Separate your marketing plans from your sales plans.  I want you to make sure that you have campaigns in place that serve two different, though related, purposes. 

One, building awareness of your business and your brand, and two, converting sales. 

Way too often, especially in online business circles, but this is pretty much in every business circle, I see these two objectives overlapping, and it makes each of them less effective.  So if you’re overlapping building awareness with converting sales, you’re probably not building as much awareness as you’d like to be doing, and you’re probably converting sales less than you would like to be doing, and no small business owner wants to be in that situation. 

We want to know that our base, our audience is growing all the time at a pace that’s going to allow us to grow our revenue, too, and of course, we want to know that the sales are coming in.  We want to know when they’re coming in, and so this is kind of a, maybe a counterintuitive against trend recommendation, but based on what I see going on in the small business marketplace right now, I want to encourage you to, on some level, separate your marketing plans from your sales plans, and that means that you are focused on, you know, whatever blog post is going out, whatever podcast episode is going out, whatever emails you’re sending, whatever list-building campaigns you’re engaged in, you know what the main goal is. 

Is the goal of this tactic or strategy to build awareness about your brand?  To grow your base?  To build your audience?  Or is it to convert people who know about you into buyers?  Which is it? 

Now, I’m not going to say across the board that campaigns can’t do both, but if you find yourself struggling in this area, I think this is one of the most effective things that you can do, and I think that that’s where most of our listeners find themselves in, and even if you’re finding that you are marketing well and you are selling well, I think that drawing attention to this and looking at these two different opportunities can help you do even better with that as well. 

Any time you are marketing and selling, or promoting as Kay said, for your business, make sure that you know whether you are focused on building your audience or converting your audience into buyers. 

Now, the biggest opportunity here is really to give other people an opportunity and a reason to say yes right now whenever you’re looking for sales.  It’s really hard to do that when you’re focused on building your audience.  Building your audience gets people excited, it gets people engaged, it gets people sharing, it gets people commenting, liking, opening emails, clicking on things, right?  But it doesn’t generally get people buying. 

The kind of mechanisms at play there are pretty different. 

When you want to shift gears and focus on sales, when you want to get people to buy, you really have to be focused on giving people a reason to say yes right now, and so that means first and foremost giving them a clear call to action. 

You’re not just posting pictures of the work that you create, you’re not just talking about the service that you offer, but you’re actually asking them to buy.  You’re asking them to set up an initial consultation.  You’re asking them to register now for a workshop.  Make that call to action really, really clear, and then back that call to action up with natural urgency. 

Natural urgency is simply the answer to why buying now is more important to your customers, or potential customers, than putting off, and why it’s important now has to do with them.  It’s a situation that’s happening in their life.  It’s a way that they feel.  It’s a goal that they’re working toward.  It’s a problem that they keep bumping into.  An obstacle that they can’t overcome.  So think about what that is.  Be as specific as possible, create that call to action, then back it up with that piece of natural urgency.  If you can do that, and at the same time, separate out those things that are just there to build awareness, just there to build your audience, I think you’re going to get a much better return on your time and your energy when it comes to sales.

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Now, the final way that you can improve on your plans for next year is inspired by my friend Elizabeth Cronise McLaughlin from The Gaia Project for Women’s Leadership. 

She says, “Talk to me about how to handle the emotional transition from solo to CEO.  Releasing task responsibility, delegating without fear has been my challenge for about the last six months,” and I know a lot of our listeners are in a very similar position here. 

So the fifth and final way that you can improve on your business plans for the next year is to make a plan to step back while letting your business grow. 

5. Make a Plan to Step Back While Letting Your Business Grow

Now, a lot of people are going to put delegation and team-building on their new year business plans, but it’s not enough to just hire people to ease your workload.  As my friend, Peter Lang, from the Uhuru Network marketing agency, told me in regards to myself and my own business, you have to offload responsibility, too.

This is where so many small business owners go wrong, myself included, from time to time. 

Now, when I say responsibility, I don’t mean the responsibility for whether a task has been done properly.  Whether the blog post gets uploaded, whether Facebook posts go out on time, whether the customer service emails get answered, etc.  What I mean is responsibility for important indicators in the business, important metrics, the things that really make our businesses tick. 

In other words, if you’re really looking to step into your CEO role and give yourself some space in your business, you need to be able to say, “I have a marketing person who does more than post to social media and plan my email marketing.  They’re in charge of making sure my subscriber count goes up month by month.  They’re also in charge of insuring our conversion rates during launches maintain a certain benchmark.” 

Or maybe for your business, you need to be able to say, “I have a customer service manager who isn’t just in charge of answering email.  She also looks for ways to improve our net promoter score and owns our customer retention efforts.” 

See the difference there?  It’s not just about the individual tasks that need to get done, getting individual activities off of your plate as you delegate.  It’s also about delegating a higher level of responsibility.  Responsibility for something that is key to the way the business runs. 

In the first example, it was about conversion rates and subscriber counts.  In the second example, it was about net promotor score and customer retention. 

Now, when you plan for that type of team management, you’re not just offloading tasks.  You’re not allowing yourself to continue to be the bottleneck for decision-making and strategy. 

You’re actually creating a team that knows how to create value for your organization, and they actually have the space and capability and responsibility to do that, even without your direction.  That then allows you to step back and still watch your business grow.  And so to that end, for next year, don’t just plan to make changes in your team.  Don’t just plan to add new team members or delegate tasks that should have been delegated a long time ago. 

I also want you to plan for time off.  Plan for time off such that your business continues to grow.  Plan for time off in your quarterly or annual plans, and don’t allow yourself to make this time that the whole business is taking off. 

This isn’t just time that you can afford to step away because the business doesn’t need to grow during that time.  Make this time that the company is growing without you, and if you can delegate that level of responsibility, if you can assign that level of responsibility and let people take charge of those important indicators, those important metrics for your business, the important strategy-level decisions, you’re going to be able to do just that.

So again, let’s go over those five ways that you can improve on your business plans for next year so that you can get the most out of what is a beautiful new opportunity, which is starting fresh, whether that’s in January or April or July or September.  You can start over again with your business at any time of the year.

The first way you can improve on your plans is to double down on your positioning, making sure that every decision you make for your business reinforces the story that you want to tell about your business and its relationship to the rest of the market. 

The second way you can improve on your plans is to get support from diverse sources.  Put together a mastermind group. Seek out people who are moving at the same or faster pace to you.  Seek out people who have different types of businesses, and use a structure to make sure that those meetings are as productive as possible.

The third way you can improve on your plans for next year is to know your top priority at any given time.  Know both what your specific goal is for any week, month, quarter, or for the year, and at the same time, pay attention to the current of your business.  Do you need to bring in revenue?  Do you need to build your base?  Do you need to optimize your internal systems?  And allow your specific goal to become leverage for getting those things done as well.

Fourth, separate your marketing plans from your sales plans, and in doing so, make sure that when you are actually selling, you’re making a clear call to action, and you’re giving people a good reason, an urgent reason to say, “Yes,” right now.

And finally, make a plan to step back and let your business grow.  So as you’re looking at opportunities to build your team in your business plans for the next year, use it also as an opportunity to give people responsibility over important indicators and metrics in your business, so that you really can step away and continue to see the business grow without you.

Want me to answer your busines question in an upcoming epside? Leave a comment here or–better yet–use your phone or computer to record yourself asking your question (plus who you are, what you do, and where we can find you online) and email the file to podcast@taragentile.com.

Subscribe to Profit. Power. Pursuit. on iTunes and, if you loved this episode, leave us a review and let us know!

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Growing an Agency with Aeolidia Founder Arianne Foulks

Growing an Agency with Aeolidia Founder Arianne Foulks on Profit. Power. Pursuit. with Tara Gentile

When I first started thinking about adding more people to the team, I was totally resistant to it, because I would not call myself a perfectionist, but I have a very high standard for the work that I’m doing, and people need so much stuff when they want to put together an ecommerce site.

— Arianne Foulks, Founder of Aeolidia

Tara:  We’re working on a few special episodes featuring you, our listeners.  Have a question on time management, business and revenue models, expanding your audience, marketing your business, or building your team?  Here’s what you need to do:  Use your phone or computer to make a short audio recording of your question.  Include who you are, what you do, and where we can find you online.  Then attach the recording to an email, and send it to podcast@taragentile.com.  I’ll be answering your questions between November 29th and December 20th, and the deadline for submission is November 20th.  We’d also love to hear your success stories implementing lessons you learned from our guests, so send those along, too.  If we choose your question, we’ll give you a free CreativeLive class of your choice.

Tara:  Welcome to Profit. Power. Pursuit.  I’m your host, Tara Gentile, and together with my friends at CreativeLive, we talk to powerhouse small business owners about the nitty gritty details of running their businesses, making money, and pursuing what’s most important to them.  Each week, I deep dive with a thriving entrepreneur on topics like time management, team building, marketing, business models, and mindset.  Our goal each week is to expose you to something new that you can immediately apply to growing your own business.

This week, I sit down with Arianne Foulks, the captain and founder of Aeolidia, a web and graphic design studio that’s been working with creative, design-oriented shops since 2004.  Aeolidia serves those at early stages on their path with an informative blog and supportive community, and her agency builds fully custom ecommerce sites for established business at that tipping point where strategic design can be transformative and cause exponential growth.  Learn how Arianne decided to build an agency instead of going it alone at web design.  We talk about who she hired first, how her team works together, and both the first and last steps of any client project.

Arianne Foulks, welcome to Profit. Power. Pursuit.  Thank you so much for joining me today.

Arianne:  Thank you for having me, Tara.

Tara:  Absolutely.  So I’ve always looked to your agency as sort of a leader in web design for creative business.  You guys have been around for a long time, but everyone starts somewhere, right?  So how did Aeolidia get started?

Arianne:  Thank you.  We definitely did start somewhere.  We started very small and humble, and in fact, like, I’m always so busy keeping my nose in my own textbook, that I don’t even really notice how much word about us has spread, and I always get kind of surprised when people have heard of me.  But yeah, we started as just me sitting on my couch with my laptop.  I didn’t have a computer when I was growing up, so when I went away to college, and I had unlimited access to the computer lab, I found myself spending a ton of time in there, and I figured out how to make a website on GeoCities.

Tara:  Nice.

Arianne:  Which will be hilarious to anybody as old as I am.  And I spent a lot of time designing a website for my zine and redesigning it and redesigning and redesigning it, because it was fun, and eventually, my friends noticed that I had a skill there, and they wanted websites for their band or their record label.  Most of the people that I helped out at the start were in the music business somehow, and of course, they were not loaded with riches or anything like that, so I ended up doing a lot of websites as favors, or just for fun, or maybe as a trade or something like that.  And then eventually, I had a friend who had an ecommerce shop, which I had no experience with ecommerce, yet, but she wanted me to help her make it look better.  So I came in and helped her figure out this new ecommerce software, which I’d never heard of, and I was like, oh, look at all this, it’s HTML, which I know, but there’s also this PHP and all this crazy stuff, but I figured it out and we made her website, and it looked pretty darn good, and from that one project, I got introduced to kind of this world of pre-Etsy handcrafters.  They had a little community going, and I think it was the year before Etsy began that I really started working on projects with crafters.  And so before Etsy, there was no easy way to get a website up online.  You had to actually get web hosting and know how to use ftp and upload all these files to your server, and you had to, if you wanted to change anything, you had to know HTML or CSS or PHP, so you know, they couldn’t really just pop up a website like you can nowadays.  They needed somebody technical to be able to help them, so I was quite busy for quite a while in this little niche that, you know, had a need that wasn’t really being served.  So yeah, I was super busy with a bunch of crafters, and it was all word of mouth.  I wasn’t trying to advertise or find new clients or anything like that.  In fact, I was often turning away people when they asked me, because I was just too darn busy, because it was just me.

Tara:  Yeah.  And were you operating under the Aeolidia brand then?  Or was that something that kind of came along later?

Arianne:  I was.  I think I had a couple different names as I was transitioning from hobby to more of a business, but when we, when I started doing sites for crafters, we were … I was Aeolidia back then, yeah.

Tara:  Got ya.  All right, well, that’s a really good segue into my next question, then, which is about, you know, how lots of web designers really, they choose to go it on their own, or they think that that’s kind of their only option.  Either they’re working with, you know, a developer, or they’re doing even everything, you know, development-wise themselves.  How did you make the decision to build out an agency and start working with more and more people to produce the sites that you wanted to produce?

Arianne:  Right.  Well, that’s very complimentary that you called it decision.  I was not making any strategic decisions back then.  It’s something that just kind of happened.  So, in fact, when I first started thinking about adding more people to the team, I was totally resistant to it, because I knew I didn’t want to become just like the boss, and I wasn’t doing any creative fun work anymore, and I was like, nope, nope, that’s never going to happen, I don’t want to do anything like that.  But at the same time, I would not call myself a perfectionist, but I have a very high standard for the work that I’m doing, and people need so much stuff when they want to put together an ecommerce site.  So, you know, I would just dig in there and get going, but they would come to me and they wouldn’t have a logo, and so I’d have to like try and just type their name in a nice font, and I eventually ended up learning how to design logos myself, because people needed them so often.  People needed product photography, and I’m not a photographer, but I didn’t know any photographers to refer them to, and I didn’t really like the idea of referring people to a third party, because it was totally out of my control.  I didn’t know if the quality was going to be high.  I didn’t know if the product they brought back to me was going to work for the website.  The whole thing just felt very uncomfortable. 

So I ended up actually bringing on people to do all these different services that it turns out my clients just kept needing that would pop up as a surprise.  Eventually, we ended up adding people to do all of those things in house, so we could, you know, be in charge of the whole project, and know what was going to happen with all the parts and know we were going to get something that was up to our standards.  So you know, it all ended up being in house, and I was so worried about losing the work that I had to do sitting there and designing websites, but let me tell you right now, I am thankful every day that I don’t need to sit down at Photoshop looking at that blank white screen and try to figure out what to make for somebody.  I don’t regret it at all, now that I see how it worked out.

Tara:  Yeah.  And I love that you talk about the reason that you brought people in house, the reason you, you know, wanted to bring other people in period is because you had this need, you know, you’re a bit of a perfectionist, maybe even a bit of a control freak, and so I love thinking about going the agency route as being a way to appease your perfectionism and control freakness, because I think a lot of times, perfectionists kind of isolate themselves, and I love your solution much better.

Arianne:  Well, the best part is, it turns out everybody I’ve hired along the way has ended up being much better than I ever was at all the things I was trying to do by myself, which I love and is the best thing about running Aeolidia.

Tara:  Yes.  Amen to that.  Okay, so who was your first hire?

Arianne:  So I was thinking about this.  My first hire was actually a small troop of illustrators, because I just loved illustration so much, personally, and when I was sitting there with that blank, white Photoshop page, I really wanted to have something awesome to start with, and I hated having to have a very text-heavy site or just sticking with my clients’ awful photography or going to some terrible clip art or stock photography site, which back then, there were not a lot of options, and it was really kind of terrible.  So I just reached out to a few illustrators.  They weren’t, some of them weren’t even doing client work.  Some of them were just illustrators that were doing it as a creative hobby, and I asked them if they would like to be paid to make illustrations for my clients, and that worked out really nicely.  And even though I was working with maybe, I don’t know, at some point, we had … we had a lot of illustrators at one point, and things have gotten a lot more sleek and clean and modern lately, but you know, I would have maybe five different illustrators and me, but people would tell me back then that they knew it was an Aeolidia site before they even scrolled to the bottom and saw our credit, just because I think we were doing something there that you didn’t see a lot on the internet at that time, and our sites looked a lot more creative and illustrated and arty and interesting than people were used to seeing, so that was really awesome.

Tara:  Yes.

Arianne:  But, you know, that didn’t feel like, I didn’t feel like a studio at that point.  I felt like I was just making websites and I had a couple helpers.  I did bring my friend, and my best friend from college had been doing web design and development, and when she moved up to Seattle, I was like, you know, I’m turning away clients left and right.  I think it would make a lot of sense if we just worked together on this, and then you could do some and I could do some, and maybe I wouldn’t have to say no so often.  And so we both ended up working together.  She managed her own projects.  I mostly just kind of got people started and took care of the money part of it, but we were basically two freelancers who happened to be working together.  And then I also brought my husband in.  He had been doing this really boring cubicle-style office job, and I think I just wanted to save him from the cube.  I was like hey, you know, you could learn MySQL and PHP and help us with these databases and we can all work together. 

So that still didn’t feel like I was building an agency.  That felt like we were maybe like a mom and pop shop kind of thing, like a little family business.  I think the big change happened when a designer who I admired reach out to me to ask if she could work with us.  And this seemed, I mean, already, I had hired some people, but this seemed super foreign to me when she said this, and I was like what?  Hire somebody?  That’s crazy.  I don’t know if we should do that.  I mean, how would we keep control of what’s going on?  Will it still look like an Aeolidia site?  Like it all just seemed fraught with peril, but I was pregnant with my first child, and I knew that I had no idea what was going to happen to my schedule after he was born.  So it seemed like a really good time to just go for it and see how it worked out.  So we hired her, and it was awesome.  It was the best.  I was able to just like fade into the background with a baby for a while.  She was designing sites, my husband was developing them, my friend, Shoshanna, who’d been working with me all along was taking care of her own clients, and it was really a great way for the business to keep afloat while I basically could hardly do anything.  So I think that was our big tipping point where it began to be more of an agency.

Tara:  Yeah, I love that.  And so now, is … are … are … is the group that you have, are they a mix of, like, W2 employees and contractors?  Or is it one way or the other?

Arianne:  So all of our workers that provide a service are contract workers, so they’re all either freelancers or they have their own small studio.  My only employee is my project manager, Sam, and she takes care of all the project management stuff that I started having to do when we brought more people onto the team.  Other than that, everybody who works for me, you know, we all live in different places.  We have a designer in Australia, we’ve got a developer in Canada, we have people all over the United States.  My one employee, Sam, is actually in San Jose while I’m in Seattle, so we all work remotely as a, just kind of a magical team.

Tara:  Nice.  I love that.  I love that.  Sounds like you’re super-flexible.  Is flexibility important to you?

Arianne:  Yeah, it totally is.  I … I always think if I had to go back to like a regular job and lose my flexibility, I don’t even know if I’m employable anymore.

Tara:  That’s great.  That’s great.  So you mentioned earlier that you’re really glad you don’t have to stare at the white, scary Photoshop screen anymore, and so that makes me curious how you’re actually spending your time in your business.  What role are you personally, or have you personally taken on with the agency?

Arianne:  So it’s super-interesting to me, because when I was resisting the role that I have now, I was not fully imagining what I would actually be doing.  I just pictured myself bossing people around all day long, which I totally don’t do.  I hardly ever boss anybody around.  I spend most of my day doing content creation and marketing type stuff, because finding work for 19 people is a lot more work than finding work for yourself or maybe three people.  So I write for the blog a lot, I do our social media.  I’m the mastermind of thinking of what new things we need to be doing or how we need to change our process or what we should be working on next or what our clients need, all that kind of thing.  I’m the tricky situation smoother-outer.  Whenever anything weird comes up, I get to pop in there and unruffle everybody’s feathers and figure out good solutions.  And all that kind of problem-solving stuff is what I love doing, and I’m way better at problem-solving than I ever was at designing a website, so I’m really glad I’m doing what I do now.  And I do still have the blank page problem, because I write for the blog a lot, so I sit there in front of the blank WordPress screen, but that is a lot less intimidating to me.

Tara:  That’s awesome.  So it sounds like it’s sort of a, like, dual CEO/CMO role.

Arianne:  Yeah, I guess so.  I would eventually like some help with the marketing, because a lot of it is a drag to me.  Like, I love doing the blogging, and I love talking one-on-one with business owners and solving people’s problems.  In fact, I spent a lot of time kind of doing free consulting work for people, just because if somebody puts a really interesting question in my inbox, I cannot resist getting in there and figuring out how to crack that nut.

Tara:  Yup.

Arianne:  So sometimes, I’ll just go and I’ll help people out, but then what I do is I turn it into a blog post that is super helpful for other people in the business.  So it all works out, but yeah, it’s all fun for me to just sort of figure out how to make things better for Aeolidia and for our clients and other small business owners.

Tara:  Perfect.  Cool.  So you’ve started talking about this a little bit, but I want to drill down into it a little bit more, too, and that is how have you decided to add people to your team?  It sounds like some of them have presented themselves to you, some of it’s been by need.  When you’re looking at your business right now and thinking about those new directions, or you know, maybe new services that you want to add for clients, how are you thinking about who you’re going to bring into the business, too?

Arianne:  Right.  So I have become a lot more strategic about this in recent years, but in the olden days, I used to just kind of add people if somebody asked and I thought that they would be an amazing fit or if I saw somebody online where I just loved their design work and I thought they’d be perfect, and we also spent some time trying to figure out to balance our team, because for a website project, you need a web designer and a web developer, and we didn’t want one group of people being super busy while the other was kind of sitting around twiddling their thumbs looking for work. 

So we would do that kind of thing or maybe replace people as they left, but now we have a more businessy type way of figuring this out.  So we have a certain amount of projects that we would like to be working on each month, and we’ve actually finally gone through the numbers and figured out how we stay profitable, and so we’ve just figured out how many projects each person can do, and that tends to be different for each different worker, and then we plan our team based on that.  So if we know that want to be doing 12 or 14 projects in one of our two-month blocks, we look at who we’re going to have then and how many they can do, and if it looks like we don’t have enough manpower, then I can go out and try to find somebody else to add to the team, and that is what we have been doing recently.  And right now, we, it feels like we’re at just the perfect size, because we’ve recently added a couple designers to the team to replace some designers who are out on maternity leave, and I think we should be set for a while.

Tara:  Nice.  Awesome.  How do your team members work together?  Are they talking to each other?  Does everything go through the project manager?  How does that work?

Arianne:  So we have used Basecamp ever since it existed, I think, to talk to our clients.  I was thinking the other day, I was doing something before Basecamp where I just had like a bunch of tasks written out into a text document, and I seriously have no idea how I used to ever get any work done.  But now we have wonderful tools, so we use Basecamp with our clients, but the thing that’s been huge for us internally is we started using Slack when Slack started existing, and that is a tool that lets us all chat with each other with no clients ever involved.  Like we definitely had a couple of mistakes in the early years where we think we were sending a private message on Basecamp and the client would get it, so now, you know, we’ve got our internal team on the internal software with no clients on it and we can all just sit there and chat with each other, and that has been huge not only for just organizing projects, but it has really made our team feel like a cohesive team of people that all actually work together, whereas I think before everybody kind of felt like freelancer that was just doing their own job, and the project manager would be popping in to ask them about it, and you know, we would be emailing back and forth on Basecamp to ask each other questions, but now with Slack, we have a way to all, you know, make jokes and share random stuff we like on the internet and figure out ways to do stuff better and have little chats where we improve things, which has been so awesome, and I feel like we’re much more of a team now.

Tara:  I love it.  I love Slack for all the same reasons.  It brings … it brings people together.  It brings the team together.  It creates a culture, and it’s, obviously, it’s just great for communicating, too.  So that’s …

Arianne:  Totally.

Tara:  Yeah, so that’s super helpful.  Okay, so can you walk us through what happens internally after you’ve signed a new client?  What are the … what are the first steps there?  How do you get started working on that new project?

Arianne:  Yes.  And I am very happy with what we’re doing now.  We spent the last year kind of building this out, and it’s all working so well.  So we used to just take on a project willy-nilly whenever the client was ready.  We’re like, okay, here we go, let’s get started.  And it was chaos.  And now we have kind of switched to a block system.  So in the block system, we have two-month blocks throughout the year.  We have five this year.  I think next we’re going to try to make it six.  And each client project is going to take at least one block, or maybe two, possibly three.  So if you’re doing a logo and a website, that ends up being three blocks, because we do two months on the logo, two on the website design, and two on the website development.  So before the block starts, we have a phase that we call Phase 0, and we like that to be about a month long, although we can get away with less, sometimes, but a month gives us lots of time to get everything done.  So what we have been doing, we used to just kind of collect content from clients as we worked, and if they didn’t have photos, for instance, we would use placeholders, and it was hard to do our best work. 

Now, we insist on having everything totally ready for us before design begins.  So Sam works with our client to gather content, so that would be like product descriptions, whatever they want to write on the home page, what the about page is going to say, all their photography, their preferences, feature requests, that all happens during Phase 0, and that is also when we bring in our copywriter to create content for them or edit what they’ve got, and our product photographer to take their beautiful hero shots for the front page of their website and all their product shots, and so all that time is mostly, you know, the designer and developer relaxing and Sam is in there with the client digging everything together.  At the end of Phase 0, when we have everything ready, we all get together in Slack for an internal project planning meeting, and this has been wonderful.  We used to just kind of go by whatever the proposal said and then work out any kinks as they happened.  Now, we try to work out all the kinds before they happen, which is a much better way of doing it.  So now, we look at both what the client has given us and all the content, and we check out their goals and their objectives and first, we look through the proposal and make sure that we didn’t put in anything that was unnecessary or didn’t leave out anything that is going to be really helpful.  So sometimes, we make some adjustments to scope right there at the start with the client’s agreement, and then we spend some time just kind of making our rough plan for how we’re going to do things, and we try to pinpoint any possible problems that might come up or like unusual requests or things that we don’t often do, and we try to make a plan for how that’s going to work and what’s going to happen, and during this time, we also tend to show the client either a wireframe of what we’re planning for their site, or we will give them some information, like for example, we often end up editing and adjusting a client’s category list.  So they’ll give us this list of like maybe 18 product categories, and we help them whittle it down and reorganize it and make it make sense to their customer.

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Tara:  Is the average project that you’re doing average?  Like, do the projects look very similar or is there a lot of disparity between the different types of projects that you’re taking on? 

Arianne:  They do look very similar, and the reason is because we only do ecommerce projects right now, so we don’t do informational sites or service-based businesses, we only do product-based businesses, and if you want somebody to shop online, there are a certain about of expectations that your customer has from shopping on Amazon and other big sites.  They’re expecting the cart to be in a certain place, they’re expecting the login link to be in a certain place, they know kind of what an add-to-cart button looks like.  So you have a lot of constraints when you’re designing for ecommerce, which actually turns out to be wonderful, because you’re not reinventing the wheel each time.  So most of our client projects are very similar.  Like, they’re so similar, in fact, that we just kind of go through a checklist when we’re making a proposal of which things to include and not include.  We don’t have to come up with new crazy things very often.  We usually have a flat rate or a set price for each type of feature we’re adding.  Yeah, so things, you know, we get to put our own spin on it and our own details, and there’s usually not a lot of wild variation going on.

Tara:  Got you.  That’s … that’s really interesting, and I love the … I love the hyperfocus that you have on who your target client is, and how that not only makes it probably easier to find new clients, but also has streamlined your process so that it’s as efficient as possible for you, and I think that should be a huge takeaway for anybody, whether they’re running a web design agency, or you know, any kind of business that they’re doing, I think that kind of hyperfocus on who you’re selling to really has ripple effects through your entire business strategy, so that’s awesome.  Do you mind if I ask you what your average project fee is?

Arianne:  So we have kind of a minimum and maximum right now.

Tara:  Okay.

Arianne:  So most of our clients that come in … So we have a starting at price and then we just add on features that they need to it.  So some clients want a blog and some don’t.  Some clients have a bunch of informational pages.  Some need to add things like downloadable products and stuff like that.  So our starting at price for a custom Shopify site is $14,000, and we have had projects go up to $25,000 and $30,000, but that’s usually when we’re adding in completely separate services like marketing and SEO and stuff like that on top of what we normally do.

Tara:  Great.  Awesome.  That’s super helpful.  I think fees for web design, well, one, are all over the place, and two, people never know what to expect, and I just, I love hearing, you know, what people are charging.  I think that’s really helpful.

Arianne:  Right.  And they’re totally all over the place, because there’s so many different things you can get.

Tara:  Right.

Arianne:  Because if you want to set up a shop on Shopify, you could do it over the weekend for $0 by getting a theme from the theme store, and that is probably going to work for you, though it might not be the best.  The clients we work with have been in business for a while, and they have seen success and things are working for them, but they feel like it could be working better, so when we come in, we are not starting with any kind of framework or theme or anything.  We are starting from scratch based on their goals, based on their objectives.  We’ve been huge on return on investment lately, and figuring out what’s actually going to help the client make money, not just make a pretty website.  So yeah, there’s a big difference in services there.

Tara:  Perfect.  Absolutely perfect.  Okay.  So we’ve talked about the beginning of the process.  Now, can you walk us through what happens when you’re completing with a client?  What are … what are those last few steps where someone’s working with you, you’re finishing up this site, what does that look like?

Arianne:  So the last thing we do is testing.  We have a browser tester on staff who goes through and looks at each website we’ve designed on every reasonable platform.  So she’s in there looking on the iPad and the iPhone and on Android and different browsers and Macs and PCs, and she sends this whole crazy report back to the developer to get everything fixed up, and then when we like it on our end, we send it to the client to do their user testing, because we found over the years when you don’t have the website owner go through the entire checkout process, they come back two months later surprised by something that they’ve never seen before, or they didn’t realize their shipping was working that way or something like that, so we have our clients go through the site as a customer, and we have them complete checkout and use the different payment methods, try the different shipping methods, make sure the order emails they get all make sense.  You know, we want them to see everything their customer’s going to see, so they have a chance to customize it if needed and change it if they don’t think it’s going to work and all that good stuff.  And then we are ready to launch their site, and then after launch, we spent some time to prepare them and our team for their six-month checkup, which is something we started doing this last year, where we launch them on their way and they get to set sail, and then we meet back up with them after six months to see if they’re on the path to achieving their goal and how it’s going, what’s working, what hasn’t been working, and we’re available at that point to do some updates or changes to the site if needed, and we try to make that very stats and sales-based, so we’re not just, you know, changing the blue to a lighter blue for fun, but doing something that’s actually going to be effective for them.  And then it’s just we have a week in between ending a block and starting a new block, and during that week, we do a lot of internal marketing type stuff, like the designer makes some graphics for the portfolio and blog posts, and I plan out what we’re going to blog about for each client, and we get their testimonial, and we see if they’ll send us the print work we designed for them so we can take photos and all that good stuff.

Tara:  Cool.  Very, very cool.  Are there any trends that you see coming in web design or in ecommerce?

Arianne:  Oh my goodness.  It’s so hard to know, like, what is going to be an important thing to do and what is going to be a silly trend that nobody’s going to care about in a little while.  But you know, we keep our eye out, and it’s actually really good, Shopify has got a really good blog for following along and seeing what is happening with ecommerce, because they really are trying to stay ahead of the curve.  In fact, we went to the Shopify partner conference just for their developers and designers and experts, and they were demonstrating virtual reality shopping, where you put on like the headgear and the gloves and you’re walking around in a store and grabbing things off the shelves, and I have no plans to start doing anything like that for Aeolidia clients yet, but it’s definitely interesting to look at.  We, personally, have been seeing a lot more video on websites, which is nice.  Like you can do video on product pages to just make people really understand what it’s going to be like to have the product, or like a video of your brick and mortar shop, or whatever your process, whatever’s special on the home page to get people interested, so that is something we’ve been looking at.  Mostly, we try to stick to what we know works and not get too wild, because if you get super experimental with somebody’s product-based business, you could be costing them money, so we try to stick to what we know is working at the time.

Tara:  Cool.  Awesome.  All right, last question for today.  What’s next for you and Aeolidia?

Arianne:  What’s next?  So I am working with one of my developers on building kind of a members area on the Aeolidia site, which is just something for our newsletter subscribers.  It’s free.  It’s something that exists right now, but it’s a total mess, because it … it made sense when I had three things for them, but now that I have tons of things for them, it’s just getting confusing.  So I’ve been making a lot of content upgrades for my blog posts where there’s maybe some more information or like a guide you could use or a workbook or a video to watch and all that kind of good stuff.  So I’ve been saving that stuff in a members area for people who subscribe to my newsletter.  It doesn’t cost anything, just your email address, but that is kind of just, I just keep adding to it, and it’s been going totally crazy, so I’m trying to turn it into an actual nice resource area for somebody who is either starting or growing a small creative business can use all the info we’ve put together over the years to really make some good next steps for themselves.  So we’re working at that, tapping away at it.  I am also speaking at the State of Making summit, which is something the Academy of Handmade is putting on, and we’re going to be talking about what changes we have seen in the industry over the last year, and I am pretty excited about that, and other than that, I’m just kind of sitting back hear and any time I see things that are not perfect in our process, I am sneaking in there and improving them, and making it better for everybody.

Tara:  Awesome, awesome, awesome.  Well, that’s a perfect place to leave it.  Arianne Foulks, thank you so much for talking with me today.

Arianne:  Thank you, it’s been fun.

Tara:  Find out more about Arianne Foulks and Aeolidia at Aeolidia.com

Next week, I talk with Jill Knouse, who gave up a lucrative career in the financial field to become a certified yoga instructor and massage therapist.  Jill and I talk about creating an innovative business model in a saturated field, and we jam about collaboration, creating events people love, and testing new ideas.

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That’s it for this week’s episode of Profit. Power. Pursuit.  You can download other episodes of this podcast and subscribe in the iTunes store.  If you enjoy what you heard, we appreciate your reviews and recommendations, because they help us reach as many emerging entrepreneurs as possible.

This episode was produced by Michael Karsh at CreativeLive.  Our audio engineer was Chris Stow.  Daniel Peterson wrote our theme song and also edited this episode.  Tune in every week for new interviews that give you the inside scoop on how successful small businesses run and grow.

Use Your Finances to Make Better Business Decisions with Evolved Finance

Analyzing Your Business Finances with Corey Whitaker & Parker Stevenson from Evolved Finance on Profit. Power. Pursuit. with Tara Gentile

I think in order to run a stable business is you just have to be ready to make sometimes sacrifices on your own payroll if you need to build that buffer or if you need to cover maybe a larger expense one month versus another.

— Parker Stevenson, Evolved Finance

Tara:  Welcome to Profit. Power. Pursuit.  I’m your host, Tara Gentile, and together with my friends at CreativeLive, we talk to powerhouse small business owners about the nitty gritty details of running their business, making money, and pursuing what’s most important to them.  Each week, I deep dive with a thriving entrepreneur on topics like time management, team building, marketing, business models, and mindset.  Our goal each week is to expose you to something new that you can immediately apply to growing your own business.

My guests this week are Corey Whitaker and Parker Stevenson from Evolved Finance.  Evolved Finance is a bookkeeping firm and small business consultancy that specializes in online businesses, ranging from personal coaches and affiliate marketers to lawyers and bloggers.  These are actually the guys I trust with my own business’s finances.  Instead of asking for financial advice, I wanted to turn the tables and find out how they use financial reports and tracking in their own business to project cash flow, make hiring decisions, and plan for the future.  I talk with Corey and Parker about the schedule they use to review their own books, the exact reports they use to track the numbers, and how they set financial goals.

Corey Whitaker and Parker Stevenson, welcome to Profit. Power. Pursuit.  Thank you so much for joining me.

Corey Whitaker:  Yeah, thanks for having us.

Parker Stevenson:  Yeah, thank you.

Tara:  Absolutely.  So you guys run a bookkeeping and small business consultancy that specializes in online businesses, like many of our listeners own.  Kind of an unusual specialty, which I love, and as I mentioned to you earlier, I’d really like to take this discussion kind of meta, and find out how you guys track your own finances, and how that really affects the decisions that you make in your business.  But before we get into that, can you guys tell me how you got into bookkeeping and consulting to begin with?

Corey:  Yeah, sure, so this is … this is Corey, so you guys don’t confuse our voices.  About ten years ago, I started working for a successful lawyer, Alexis Neeley.  Tara, you actually know her.

Tara:  Mmhmm.

Corey:  And I was working as her personal assistant, or that’s what I was hired to do.  During that time that I was working for her, I was attending college, and as a requirement for my degree, I had to … I had to take a few accounting courses, and I realized during that time that I loved numbers, but actually, quite frankly, I hated accounting.  I loved learning about how businesses made money and how they spent them and everything that goes along with that, but I definitely was not interested in accounting.  So around that time, the crash of 2007-2008 happened, and my boss, Alexis, she needed to consolidate her payroll.  She was looking to cut expenses.  And I had already expressed to her some interest in working with her in the numbers area of her business, and getting to know that a little bit more intimately, and so she decided that I was going to be her bookkeeper.  Which is crazy, because I had … I had no experience bookkeeping when she decided that at all.  She actually, I guess she just believed in me, I don’t know, and she paid her then current bookkeeper to train me to do bookkeeping, and then she let her old bookkeeper go.  And then I also befriended in the process her accountant.  So I sort of just got thrown into the fire and started just trying to learn everything I could about bookkeeping, even about accounting, talking to her accountant quite a bit, spending tons of time with Alexis herself, and learning everything that she knew about her numbers. 

And then about, I don’t know, maybe six months later, seven months later, she started getting involved more in the entrepreneur world.  Things like digital marketing and affiliate marketing and all that kind of stuff, and she realized, I think she … I guess … I think she realized my potential, and she started to meet people in the entrepreneur world, and then started to refer them to me to work with me.  So flash forward about eight years, and here we are now.  It obviously has been quite an evolution since I started eight years ago, but it really is pretty remarkable.  Ten years ago, if you’d asked me that I … if you told me that I would be working as a bookkeeper and own a big business as big as Evolved Finance is, I would tell you you were crazy and that I couldn’t do that, but here we are.  So that’s sort of in a nutshell how things kind of got started.

Tara:  I love that.  I feel the same way, too.  If you told me eight years ago what I’d be doing now, and besides my business, I would be shocked and dismayed.  So can you guys …

Corey:  Yeah.

Tara:  Can you guys both kind of talk about what roles you each play in the business?

Corey:  Yeah, yeah, for sure.  I’ll start.  I … I am like the operations guy.  I know everything about how to do bookkeeping.  I know everything about how the business runs, and Parker is really, really good at sales and marketing.  I am not so great at that.  So Parker can … Parker can talk a little bit about that if he wants to, I don’t know.

Parker:  Well, no, yeah, I think that’s … I mean, Corey’s been doing this so long, he knows the bookkeeping side of things and the operations side, and that’s really where he … we have two other bookkeepers.  Corey is working closely with them, because they work out of the same office together.  I work remotely in San Diego, so I’m not part of the party every day in the office, but when Corey and I were talking about bringing me in the business, and he was telling me about the business, I was just kind of blown away by the niche he’s kind of developed and how appreciative his clients were of what he did, so I felt like there was an opportunity to grow the business and take on more clients and potentially create some digital products and grow the revenue streams, so that’s where I got involved.  I’ve learned how to do the bookkeeping side of things.  Corey’s taught me way more about finance than I ever thought I’d know, and it allows me to support our clients in a really great way as well, but while Corey is managing the business and using all his extra time to make sure the business is running well, I’m using all the extra time when I’m not with … talking with our clients or servicing our clients, we’re working on our new online course that we’re launching in October, and working on developing our website and just overall developing our brand and developing our sales and marketing strategies overall.

Tara:  All right.  Fantastic.  And Parker, I’m not actually sure that I know the answer to this question, even though I feel like I know you guys pretty well, but how exactly did you get started with Evolved Finance in the first place?

Parker:  Well, it’s interesting, because I think, you know, with Corey’s story, he kind of had an opportunity in front of him, and so he jumped on it, and that’s Evolved Finance, and I think for me, you know, Corey is actually known, Corey and his wife have known my wife for years.  They grew up together in L.A., essentially, and so Corey has kind of been a part of my life for a long time, and I was in the corporate world and Corey was, you know, running his own business, and Corey, I think, at one point was going, “Man, maybe it would be fun to go work at a company, and not run, you know, my own business,” and I was like Corey, are you crazy?  You’re insane.  Like, stay with the business, man, you can control, you know, your schedule, you can control how much money you make, blah, blah, blah, and so we just got to talking.  So that’s kind of how I got involved in the business.  It’s just we were friends, we were hanging out, we both loved business.  I was interested in what Corey was doing and where the business was going, and again, it’s one of those things where if you had told me three years ago that Corey and I would be running a business together, I would not have believed that myself.

Tara:  Awesome.  And I love that you guys shared that you have such complimentary skills.  You don’t have matching skills, you have complimentary skills, and I think a lot of people when they think about business relationships are not necessarily taking that into account, and I think it’s really, really important.

Parker:  It is.  It is really important, and just to touch on that is I think that’s one of the reasons why Corey and I wanted to work together, is we had spent so much time together, and I was actually a musician when I was younger, and I was in a band, and I was playing in a band with the same guys for, gosh, seven, eight years, so I know how difficult it can be to work with somebody even if you are friends, and I think that’s the one thing Corey and I realized is that because we had complimentary skillsets, it’s made working together like almost scary easy.  Sometimes, it’s almost too good to be true.

Tara:  Oh, that’s so good to hear.

Parker:  Yeah.

Tara:  Yeah, so let’s get into that, the nitty gritty of how you guys handle your finances.  So first, let’s talk about schedule.  What kind of schedule do you have in place for reviewing your finances, the business’s finances, internally?

Corey:  Yeah, so Parker and I, we review our financial reports once a month at the minimum, and if something comes up that needs both of our attention, I’ll ping Parker, or you know, we’ll get on the phone and talk.  But I’m pretty proactive without Parker.  I’m constantly looking at our numbers and thinking about our goals, and what sort of … what we want, where we want to be kind of stuff, and Parker’s a really good … He helps me.  Since we’re obviously consistent with that monthly call, but I obviously, throughout the month, I have random thoughts that come across my mind that I’m like, “Hey, Parker, what do you think about this?  What do you think about that?”  So I think the schedule is pretty, you know, it’s once a month, but it really is we talk all the time.

Parker:  And we do … we do schedule it for the first week of the month.  Corey will typically make sure the books are done the first week of the month so that way, we can take a look.  Now, with our business, because we are a service-based business right now, a big part of that, you know, is just, you know, making sure the clients have all paid.  They’re, like Corey said, he’s proactive with a lot of stuff, so there isn’t … there’s not a lot of, like, sales revenue conversation or anything like do we have to have a new promotion or anything like that, because, you know, it’s a fairly steady business, but it is, regardless, still a really good opportunity for us to see what’s actually going on, and see if there’s anything we need to do to change the numbers we’re seeing on the P&L.

Tara:  Fantastic.  Okay.  So you mentioned the P&L.  That’s what the next question is.  Can you tell me what reports you’re actually looking at?  Because you know, my clients hear from me, well, track your numbers, look at your numbers, watch your numbers, use your numbers, and we rarely talk about what that actually means.  So can you talk about the different reports that you guys are looking at, how you kind of parse them out, and yeah, just how you start using those reports in your business?

Corey:  Yeah, yeah, for sure.  So we … I review every month with Parker the … sort of the foundation of our call that we have is to go over the profit and loss statement, and actually, in fact, all of our clients, that’s the foundation of our call, and then conversations come from that.  That, you know, kind of sort of brings up other things that happen in the business and all that jazz, and then we also … we have … a lot of our income is reoccurring, and so we have to talk about accounts receivable, so we review the accounts receivable report.  We also have a cash projection spreadsheet, which goes out for 60 days, and it basically shows us the ins and outs of our cash on a daily basis to see, you know, if we’re ever going to have a cash crunch.  And then we’re also looking at our budget.  We’ve built a budget that we basically use to do … to incorporate our projections and then we look at it for variance purposes.

Parker:  And to set goals, too.

Corey:  Yeah, and to set goals.  Exactly.  And I … sometimes, I randomly will create reports from these conversations that we have on a monthly basis that sort of help us, guide us, and things like looking at our client attrition, how efficient is our labor, how profitable is Parker, how profitable am I, how profitable is my wife, who is also an account manager.  So that’s really … the core, though, is really the monthly P&L, accounts receivable, and then the cash projections.  So that’s … that’s more or less what we’re looking at.

Tara:  Perfect.

Parker:  And what I will … what I will say is Corey is an advanced report creator.  He’s kind of … he has a … just because of the nature of what we do, he has more skillsets than I’d say probably most of the people who are listening would have in the financial realm, but the P&L is a really, really easy report to put together if you are doing your bookkeeping, and we could still have really, really good conversations every month just with the P&L, but because we’re both numbers nerds, we do get into it a little deeper probably than most businesses do.

Tara:  Yeah.

Corey:  Yeah.

Tara:  Totally.  So let’s actually go a little deeper on the P&L specifically, because I think people hear it, maybe they hear, ah, corporate job, maybe they hear, ooh, scary.  Can you tell me exactly what a profit and loss report is and what you’re looking for when you’re looking at it?

Corey:  Yeah, profit and loss statement really is … it’s really quite simple.  It shows your income, how much money you made, and shows your expenses, how much money you spent, and then at the end, it shows you how much profit you made, after expenses.  So income minus expenses equals profit, and when we … when we look at our P&L, the number one thing I think we’re looking at is really the profitability.  I like to look at it on a, like a monthly basis for however long we’re into the year.  So we might look at six months of profit by month, and just see how things are fluctuating, and the things that we look for as well are like expenses that might be more than normal, although our business, like Parker said earlier, it’s really quite structured.  There’s not a whole lot of fluctuation in our spending.  Our main expense is payroll, so we don’t have huge fluctuations in marketing, for example, but that might be something you want to look at is, you know, why is marketing so much higher this month?  What’s going on there?  You know, is there some ROI that we need to be looking at.  Return on Investment.  So that’s more or less what we’re looking for on our specific P&L, though.  And Parker, is there anything else that … anything else you think …

Parker:  Yeah, I mean, the P&L side of things for us, even though our revenue should be really consistent because we have X amount of clients, those clients pay us on a monthly basis, but anyone who invoices their clients for a living knows that it’s not always that simple, so a big part of it is for us to see was one month did we have less revenue because a couple clients paid us late and it went into the next month?  And then did that next month end up being a lot higher from a revenue standpoint just because of the way people were paying us?  Or sometimes, we might have a new client that comes on, and we have to do some back work for them, we have to catch them up for the year, so that’s an influx of cash for us that we also try to take into consideration and try to track on our P&L so we can see, all right, how much money are we making from reoccurring revenue from just building our regular clients versus where are we getting opportunities to get some influxes of cash because of back work projects, which again, it’s just catching up people who are getting started with us in the middle or at the end of the year, and they need to get all, you know, their books caught up. 

So that’s really what we’re looking at from a revenue standpoint, and then when it comes to expenses like Corey said, our expenses are fairly consistent, because it’s our labor and it’s our software, but you know, there’s inevitably things that are going to pop up.  You know, sometimes we, like microphones for this podcast, or you know, getting, like recently, we just purchased stand up desks for two of our employees.  So there’s things like that that we’re also kind of talking about, going all right, we have money, you know, in the bank, you know, can we cover a cost if we need to, and it’s just these little conversations that sound totally boring as I explain it to you, Tara, but you know, when you’re running your own business, these things are important, and I think for a lot of businesses, it’s just too easy to just see money in the bank account, and just kind of spend it, because it’s just easier to do that, but I will say is I think the reason the business has stayed so stable for so long is because Corey has paid attention to this far before I ever got involved in the business, so there’s very rarely any surprises.  As with any business, sometimes, you lose clients, sometimes you have unexpected expenses.  That’s just the nature of the game, but because we’re looking every month and we’re doing some forecasting ahead, there’s never really any situation that’s going to come across … come across as that we’re not going to be prepared for or aren’t going to be able to handle.

Corey:  Yeah.

Parker:  Aside from all of our clients leaving us at the same time, which is everybody’s nightmare, but we don’t really plan on that happening.

Corey:  We don’t think about that.

Tara:  No, no, no, no.

Corey:  And then one thing I forgot to add that’s really actually quite important that we do is every month we look at the P&L, look at the profit, and then we set aside a certain amount of money for taxes.  We take basically a percentage of our profit, and that gets pushed into our tax savings account for when we go to pay our quarterlies, and so that’s sitting there, ready to go, stipend set aside and not even worrying about it.

Tara:  Perfect.  I’m glad you mentioned that, because that is something that we sometimes all forget to do.

Corey:  Yeah.

Tara:  Or forget the importance of, and that creates problems later on down the line.  All right, I’d also love to hear about how you guys do your cash projections as well, because I think while it might be something that is perhaps a little bit more advanced or takes a little bit more of a financial skillset, I think it’s probably something our listeners are going to be really intrigued by.  How do you know, or how do you have an idea of how much cash you can expect to be coming in at any given time?

Corey:  Yeah, so again, with our business, it’s pretty straightforward, because we have a set amount of billing every month that we can rely on, for businesses that have huge influxes of cash, it’s a little bit more difficult, but definitely still possible, so we use a … I mentioned it earlier, we use a 60-day cash projection that basically shows the ins and outs of all the cash in the business on a daily basis, and you can … we typically, in my business, we use it to … we use it to just make sure we don’t run out of cash, but if you wanted to, it’s something that you could very easily experiment with and say, hey, I think I’m going to do this much, I’m going to make this much money in the next 30 days, if I do hit that goal, how is that going to change things for me for this month?  And then what expenses are associated with generating that extra revenue?  So we’re obviously using Excel, that is all formulated, and it’s actually not that fancy, to be honest.  It’s actually pretty straightforward, and really, I think anyone could use it.

Parker:  Well, it’s straightforward to you, Corey.

Corey:  Yeah, I know.

Parker:  Because you’re a spreadsheet guy, but what I will say is the concept behind it isn’t super difficult.  It’s essentially, you know, a spreadsheet where you plug in when you think you’re going to get your money on which days, and you plug in when you think you’re going to have to pay bills on specific days, and so it’s something if you did a little research, you could put together.  What I will say is our course that we’re launching in October, part of the course that we’re launching is going to have this spreadsheet in it, and we actually will teach our students how to utilize this spreadsheet in their own business, because the concept in general isn’t difficult, but it’s … it’s just you need to take the time to do it, because you do have to go through and see when you’re invoicing people or when you’re expecting to get revenue, and then you also need to, you know, actually go and dive into your expenses, and see when you’re planning on paying people, and I think if you’re willing to go in and do that, especially if cash flow is an issue for you, it’s definitely worth it, because it’s been really valuable for us, and once you kind of set it up, it becomes easy to maintain.

Tara:  Yeah.  That sounds like an amazing tool, and I’m … So I know you said that you’re going to have resources where this is better explained, but just so I’m making sure I’m wrapping my head around it right now, I’m assuming you could go into your bank statements, your credit card statements, your PayPal account, your Stripe account, wherever the money’s coming in or going out, and actually look and see historically over say the last month or the last 60 days when the money’s come in, when it’s gone out, and whether that’s going to reoccur in the future.

Corey:  Yeah.

Tara:  Am I on the right track?

Corey:  Yeah.

Parker:  Yeah, exactly.

Tara:  Okay, perfect.

Parker:  And if you do have your bookkeeping up to date, it can make that a heck of a lot easier, because then you’re just going into your QuickBooks account or whatever and looking at, you know, you can generate a report, and it’s a lot easier to click and find transactions, versus trying to just go through your bank statements and your credit card statements.  It’s still possible, but I know it would make things a heck of a lot more difficult for us if we had to do it that way.

Tara:  Yes, exactly, that’s what I was thinking to myself is like I have all of this information readily available to me, I really should have this report, you know, sitting on my desktop.  That’s kind of brilliant.  And then you’re also … are you balancing that against, then, cash in the bank?

Corey:  Yeah, exactly.

Tara:  Okay.

Parker:  So the first transaction that we have our clients, and the product we have that we … in the tutorial, is we … you enter the bank balance.  Whatever bank, whatever your checking account balance has in it, that’s the first thing you do, and then you go through the income, then you go through the expenses, and then make decisions based on the data that’s showing up.

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Tara:  I think Parker mentioned QuickBooks, which is what you guys have me using and I absolutely adore it, is that what you guys use internally as well.

Corey:  Yeah, we use QuickBooks exclusively with all of our clients, including internally.

Tara:  Awesome.

Corey:  Yeah.

Tara:  Is there, are there any other tools that we should be looking at?  Or just, you know, stick with QuickBooks?

Corey:  QuickBooks is really great.  Their customer service is terrible.  Intuit is a very, very large corporation, and nobody, nobody knows what they’re doing whenever you call, so if you don’t have a whole lot of experience with QuickBooks, you either have to get, like, formally trained by someone, maybe take a class or something, or there’s a really great software out there, it’s called Xero, X-E-R-O, and that is really something that a lot of bookkeepers are moving toward, but it’s obviously, it’s a whole new process.  It’s a whole different interface.  So it’s quite a big investment of time, energy, money, all of the above to make the shift, but it’s something that we’ve actually considered, just haven’t executed on, yet.

Tara:  Huh.

Parker: Well, and this is what I’ll say, QuickBooks is the standard.

Corey:  Yup.

Parker:  So if you’re trying to get set up for your business and you want to maximize your ability to transition over to a bookkeeper, or to have your accountant be able to access your information, QuickBooks is it, because it can do everything, and we actually use QuickBooks online for both our own business and our clients, and it’s something that they’re improving much more regularly versus the desktop version, but if we weren’t bookkeepers, we would hire someone to do our bookkeeping for us, because a lot of the times, it’s a very specific skillset, knowing how to do your bookkeeping, and obviously, we are extremely biased, because we have a bookkeeping business, but every new client we’ve brought on who was doing their own bookkeeping, it ends up them doing a lot of work that doesn’t really provide a whole lot of value or make things easier for anybody.  So if you are going to get QuickBooks online or get set up with something like that, either do some research, take a course, take a class, do something if you’re committed to doing your own books, but otherwise, again, maybe we’re just supporting our industry and you think we’re full of crap here.  As soon as you can afford to get a bookkeeper involved in your business that knows what they’re doing, it’s going to … your accountant’s going to thank you, and you’re going to be so much happier knowing someone who actually does this for a living is managing your finances for you.

Tara:  Yeah, I couldn’t agree more.  I wish I would have done it sooner.  So let’s talk about decision-making now.  What are you looking at in your financial information with your, you know, financial knowledge, when you’re say, looking, thinking about hiring someone new or when you want to go buy, you know, standing desks for the office, or maybe you want to attend a big conference, how do you decide whether you can afford it or not?  Whether that’s a good business decision or not?

Corey:  Yeah, this is something that I think Parker and I have different views on.  It’s actually, I think, one of the things we struggle with most as a partnership.  I am much more willing and quick to invest in things, like standing desks.  Not to throw you under the bus there, Parker.

Parker:  That’s okay.  I can be … I can be a cheap ass sometimes.

Corey:  Yeah, yeah, and Parker is much more analytical.  You know, he thinks things through, and it’s a really good balance.  Luckily, I don’t have to think about things, I just tell Parker, “Hey Parker, can we do this?”  And then he’ll interject and say yes or no, or he’ll say no, and we’ll have a discussion about it and go from there, but generally speaking, we don’t really have an issue of should we invest in this, should we invest in that.  We pretty much most of the time, we just do it.  We don’t really have to … we have the luxury of not having to think about it.  Now, I will say with this product, that was a lot more difficult, that was a tough call, and obviously, hiring people, it’s a tough call.  We, with hiring, with regard to hiring, specifically, we typically, we like to have a huge, a very large amount of prospects in the pipeline that we could potentially execute on if we hired someone.  So that’s how … that’s more or less how we decide to hire more people, and then with regard to the product, that one was, you know, it’s basically a year of investment and time and money, again, and energy, and so we also had to slow down our engagement pretty dramatically to take on that level of work.  In the meantime, my wife also had twins, so we had a lot going on when we were trying to make the decision about creating the product, but ultimately, I think it’s going to … it’s going to pay off.  It’s a huge gamble, though, no doubt.

Parker:  Well, and the one thing I’ll say is, you know, again, because we are a very steady revenue type business, we only have a certain amount of leftover money every month, unless, you know, because our … our revenue is definitely, like since I came on in the business, our revenue has increased dramatically, but we’ve also taken on my salary, we’ve taken on another bookkeeper’s salary, so it kind of balances out all the extra money that comes into the business.  So for us, we have … it’s not like someone who’s launching products who all of a sudden has an influx of cash and goes, “Oh, I have all this extra money, so I’m going to go spend 10 grand and go work with this coach I’ve wanted to work with,” or buy, you know, new equipment and new computers for everybody or something.  It … again, because it’s so steady that, you know, when we do make an investment, it’s typically not going to be a massive investment. 

If we need to get a new computer for somebody, we can cover that.  If we need to get the desks, we can cover that, because as much as Corey is making everyone think that he just spends money whenever he needs it, we also … He’s also done a good job of making sure there’s always kind of a buffer in the business to cover that, because to us, a buffer is really important.  Having some extra cash every month that sits there and builds up in a reserve, and it’s something that we’re … we want to build to be even bigger, because it allows … that buffer allows us to make these investments when we need to, and it also allows us to not stress out if one of our clients has to leave because their business is struggling or something along those lines, then we’re not stressed out about having to replace that revenue so quickly. 

So that’s the one thing that is very important to me, and I think Corey feels it’s really important, too, is just trying not to spend all the money in your business every month, because especially, I know a big struggle when you’re starting a business is making sure you can pay yourself, and that’s something Corey and I, you know, we have set amounts that we know we want to be making every month, but you have to … I think in order to run a stable business, and at least this is the way we’ve been doing it, is you just have to be ready to make sometimes sacrifices on your own payroll if you need to build that buffer or if you need to cover maybe a larger expense one month versus another.

Tara:  Yes, awesome, thank you for sharing that, and you … I forget which one of you said, you know, you have the luxury of being able to cover these different expenses.  You know, maybe not that giant $10,000 coaching package or whatever it might be, but these things that come up on a regular basis that you just want to be able to pay for, you have the luxury of being able to do that, and I think I want to make the point to people listening that it’s less that you have the luxury to be able to do that because your business is so successful, and more that you have the luxury to be able to do that because of everything you’ve described to this point.  The fact that you are checking your numbers, the fact that you know what your cash projections are, the fact that you know how much cash is going to be in the bank from day-to-day.  I think that’s where the real luxury is, right? 

Corey:  Yeah, yeah.  That’s a really good point.  Excellent point.  Yeah.

Parker:  Yeah, and that’s … and that’s where I think Corey and I definitely both agree.  As much as I think Corey doesn’t worry about spending as much as we do, we both feel very strongly that planning and forecasting and looking ahead and trying to stay ahead of our business is really, really important.

Tara:  Amen.  All right.  Let’s talk … so I want to talk more about the impact that developing this program has had on your business, but there’s one more question I have just sort of on the general financials that I want to get to, which is how do you guys set goals for sales or for new clients?  What are you looking at?  What are you basing those kind of goals on?  Because this is a question that I get asked all the time, and I want to have a better answer for it.

Corey:  Yeah, yeah, so we have, Parker and I have an agreed upon goal, a monthly goal, for client attraction or engagement, really, and that’s 2.  So we try and engage two clients a month, and if we have a client leave, we just simply add that to our goal.  We don’t meet it every month, and that’s fine.  We do our best to meet that goal, though.  So that’s … that’s … that’s our main goal, and then obviously, we have … we have other … other goals in the business, like I just had one top of my head, what was it?  I can’t remember.

Parker:  Well, in general, and you know, one thing I want to add, Corey, is the fact that we’re wanting these two clients a month because we do have a monthly target that we’re working towards getting, because when I started in the business, we had a much smaller goal, and as I got more skilled and we were taking on more clients, and we had a better idea of what both Corey and I want to be making and what we want to be paying our employees.  That’s a goal that we’ve essentially hit, but now, we’re looking to get a goal that is going to make sure that everybody on the team has plenty of work to do and is fully maximized, and then also making sure that we have the target amount we want to have extra every month, because we have some months where we will have some extra money we put in the bank just because of, again, those back work projects where we might get an influx of cash outside of what our clients are paying us on a monthly basis, and some months, because a client’s paid late, we might get an influx of revenue that gives us a little extra profit at the end of that month, but we want to work towards getting our monthly revenue to a place where Corey and I are making what we want to make, our employees are making what we want them to make, and we have a certain amount of extra, again, savings. 

I always call it buffer, it’s kind … just because it’s that extra money that just you can put into your savings and just know that you’re building a buffer or cushion for the business every month, and we do have an ultimate goal of what we want to build our savings up to, just to … to make the business even more stable, but you have to start somewhere, and the best way to start is to get your monthly target, hit that monthly target, and then stick with it every month, and just try to maintain it.  Which, you know, there’s ups and downs of every business, but I’d say so far, I think we’ve been, you know, we’ve been working towards that target pretty successfully.

Corey:  And then if I could just add one more thing, Tara.

Tara:  Yeah.

Corey:  Real quick.  I just remembered what it was.  Another really big aspect, I know you asked about specifically sales or new clients, but a big aspect of sort of our goal setting is surrounding customer service.  We … we … I think there’s an untold truth between me and Parker that our clients take priority above all, and so obviously, it’s very expensive to lose a client, and it’s also very expensive to acquire a client, so keeping our clients happy and doing everything we can to support them really is our number one goal, because once they’re in the door, then you know, we want them for life.  We don’t want them to leave.  And that’s actually, I pride myself about that.  We don’t lose clients.  It’s very rare.

Tara:  Kind of go back to what Parker was saying, too, it sounds like your sales goals are based on sort of an almost like an ideal P&L that you kind of have set in terms of targets.  Like this is the profit you want to have, this is how much of that profit.

Corey:  Yeah.

Tara:  Yeah, and then that I think is …

Parker:  That’s perfect.

Tara:  I think that’s like a gamechanger for a lot of people, because I think the first place we go is how much of this do I want to sell, whereas if we’re focused on the sort of the supporting financials of that, how much do I want to have in the bank, how much do I want to pay myself this month.  That helps us create much more informed goals that have meaning to them.  It’s not just a sales goal that’s out there sitting and doing, you know, that means nothing to us.  It has real substance in our businesses.

Corey:  Our budget … our budget, actually, that’s exactly what we do.  That’s how we know what our targets are, because we have an ideal P&L that we were sort of working toward, and that’s … so that’s how we know that we need two clients a month.  So that’s what we’re working toward.

Parker:  And that’s not something we’re necessarily looking at every month on our call, but we do look at it fairly regularly, just because again, we … because we’ve been doing the bookkeeping for so long and we have lots of historical data, it’s really easy for us to pull up an average P&L of what our business looks like every month.  So for us, it’s very easy to just go, okay, let’s change that revenue target, let’s change any expenses that might go up with that revenue target.  For instance, if your revenue goes up, your merchant fees are probably going to go up, but just make some little adjustments there, and then it becomes very clear what we need to work towards, and it’s very difficult to do that if you don’t have any financial organization set up in your business whatsoever.

Corey:  Yeah, and Parker and I have a sticky pad on our desks that’s a goal, it’s a number, and that’s what we’re working toward, and there’s actual hard data behind that number, it’s not just some … something we’ve pulled out of thin air and decided okay, this is a goal.  There’s actual … there’s actually a path that we’re trying to … that we’re on to try and hit that goal by a certain day.

Tara:  Love it.  Love it, love it, love it.  Love goals, especially sales goals.  All right.  So you guys have talked about the kind of do it yourself program that you’ve created, and you’ve also talked about how that really required investing basically a year’s worth of time and energy.

Corey:  Yeah.

Tara:  And you know, maybe hiring some additional contractors, hiring some help.  Can you talk about both the impact that’s had on your financials so far, and the impact that you expect to have on your financials in the future?

Parker:  Yeah, so this has been, this is going to be a gamechanger for us, because as we’ve just talked about, we have a steady business, and I think, Tara, you’ve probably been in this situation yourself, where you have a steady client base, and that helps to create a somewhat steady revenue stream, but to us, a stable business is a business that has multiple revenue streams.  It just helps to protect the business if, you know, some clients leave, well, you know, we’re doing well with the product, so that’s building up our savings.  So for us, it was a no-brainer, and it’s a big reason why I, you know, Corey and I decided to work together, because … because of my background, the product creation was right up my alley, because I have experience with video and video editing and audio and audio editing and I’ve done a lot of presentations and put together PowerPoints and so, and that’s something Corey just didn’t have as much experience in, but as Corey eluded to earlier, you know, in doing so, we … we kind of slowed down.  Like, you can only focus on so much in your business. 

I think it’s something everybody experiences, and we definitely experienced it this year, is you can’t … you can’t do everything.  You have to figure out what’s the most important thing to your business, believe in that, and then take action towards it, and we knew we could continue to grow our client base, but there just gets to be a certain point where we’re going to max out, and you know, we’re going to have to hire somebody else, and it’s just a slower process.  It’s something we don’t mind doing, but we felt like if we could say, hey, we’ll slow down taking on some clients right now, so it would free me up to have a little extra time to work on the product every week, and even though we did sacrifice some potential revenue during that time, we feel like it’s going to be so much more worthwhile, because we can get back to growing our client base, and when we launch our course in October, it’s going to not only be a promotional tool for us, but it’s also going to be an extra revenue stream, and that’s going to open up so many more doors for our business, because now we’ll have the consistent revenue from our clients every month.  We’re still going to be focusing on servicing our clients every month, but now we’ll have this … this product that’s going to generate revenue that doesn’t demand our individual time.  Like I think, Tara, you call it, like, hours for money, or however …

Tara:  Yeah, time for money, yup.

Parker:  Time for money.  That’s going to kind of be working for us.  Now, obviously, I still will need to be, you know, working on it and supporting the customers that are happening there.  Like, there’s no question that’s going to happen, but it’s just going to … it’s going to generate revenue for us that we just couldn’t generate by just taking on clients every month, so that’s going to allow us to build up our savings a lot more and stabilize the business, and it’s going to allow us to invest in our business in new and different ways that we just wouldn’t have been able to do so before.  So we’re really excited about it, but for us, either way, however successful the launch is and however successful this product is for us, it’s still just icing on the cake for us, and that’s where we feel very lucky that we do have a stable revenue stream right now, and whatever we do with the product is just going to add on top of that steady revenue stream and make the business more stable.  It’s not something where we’re going to have to rely on the revenue from the product to cover certain expenses or pay ourselves from.

Tara:  Brilliant.  Brilliant, brilliant, brilliant.  Thank you so much for sharing that with everyone, because you know, everyone out … not everyone, but a lot of people out there are, you know, trying to build a business based off of a passive income product like that when there is a clear path to profitability with a service or with something that’s more hands on, something that’s done for you, and what you guys have just demonstrated with that is that there is this huge, potentially a much bigger opportunity to create an income stream in your business that is icing on the cake, and that is, I think that’s great.  I wish that for everybody.  I want to see more businesses built with that kind of model in mind, because I think it’s just so smart.

Corey:  Thank you.

Tara:  Yeah. 

Parker:  Well, and I think, and I just one thing I wanted to add on that is I think there’s a little bit of so many business owners go I don’t want to have to, I want that passive income, because I … I don’t know if it’s just a matter of not wanting to work so much or if there’s just the time for money scenario just isn’t as appealing, but I know for us, stability is really important.  We’re both married, Corey has a family, we have mortgages, so for us, that stability means the world to us.  So even if we might, if we may have sacrificed some opportunities in the past to generate some influx of … influxes of cash, and as nice as that would have been, we would never sacrifice a launch or an influx of cash, we would never sacrifice that for the stability we have in our business right now, and that’s just the way we look at it.

Tara:  Awesome, awesome.  So real quick, can you tell us what the product, what the program actually is?

Parker:  Yeah, so because we work every day with … with entrepreneurs and primarily online entrepreneurs, that’s our niche, we just have, we realized a long time ago that there’s just not enough information about what do you do with your money in your business?  How do you create stability in your business?  How do you create systems in your business that just make sure you’re doing everything you can to protect and grow and nurture your business?  And I think, for us, we always felt like what we do isn’t particularly sexy, but as soon as we bring on a new client and they see what we do and they start to learn really what it takes to stabilize your business and put good financial practices in their businesses, it demystifies things, and I know, like, with you Tara, when we first started, you didn’t feel like you were that numbers, finance person, and now, it’s like you’re a P&L pro, and that’s the stuff that we … we love to see, because we know the difference it makes in our business, we know the difference it makes in our client’s business, but you know, not everyone can work with us.  There’s only, you know, Corey and I can only take on so many clients. 

So that’s, I think it’s a typical story when it comes to the reasons behind wanting to develop a course, but we felt like we just got so much feedback from people saying, “I just wish I understood this part of my business more,” that we just said there’s a huge opportunity for us to educate the online entrepreneur community, and do so in a way that’s not intimidating, and gives every entrepreneur the opportunity to learn the basics that every business owner just should know about their business, you know, why they should have a business entity and the relationship they should have with their bookkeeper and what their accountant should be doing for them and how they can set up their own budget and how they can set up their P&L the way we set up the P&L for our business and for our client’s businesses.  It’s again, kind of these tactical things that are really second nature to Corey and I now, and I think fairly second nature to most of our clients, just because most of our clients have been working with us for at least a year, two, three years, but for so many entrepreneurs who aren’t exposed to this, it’s … it’s game changing.  So that’s where this course that we’re launching in October is just going to allow us to give every entrepreneur the opportunity to learn the basics of what they should be doing in their business to set themselves up for success and to manage their finances in a way that other successful businesses are managing them.

Tara:  Awesome.  I love it.  Guys, thank you so much for joining me.  This has been absolutely fascinating to me.  I hope it’s fascinating to our audience, and we’ve said game changing a couple times, but I know that this interview’s going to be a gamechanger for a lot of people out there.

Parker:  No, thank you for having us.

Corey:  Awesome.

Parker:  We just love the opportunity to talk about our nerdy numbers stuff.

Corey:  Thanks, Tara.

Tara:  Thank you. 

Find out more about Corey, Parker, and Evolved Finance at EvolvedFinance.com.

Next week, I talk with Nicole Stevenson, cofounder of popular maker conference, Craftcation.  Nicole and I talk about how she works with event sponsors, how she prices the event, and the unexpected challenges that ultimately arise producing an event of Craftcations magnitude.

CreativeLive is highly-curated classes from the world’s top experts.  Watch free, live video classes every day from acclaimed instructors in photography, design, audio, craft, business, and personal development.  Stream it now at CreativeLive.com.

This has been Tara Gentile.  Discover how to accelerate your earning as a small business owner with my free class, Revenue Catalyst, at QuietPowerStrategy.com/PPP.

That’s a wrap for this week’s episode of Profit. Power. Pursuit., a CreativeLive podcast.  Download more episodes of this podcast and subscribe on iTunes.  If you appreciate this kind of in-depth content, please leave us a review or share this podcast with a friend.  It means the world to us.

Our theme song was written by Daniel Peterson, who also edited this episode.  Our audio engineer was Kellen Shimizu.  This episode was produced by Michael Karsh.  We add a new episode of Profit. Power. Pursuit. every week.  Subscribe on iTunes, Stitcher, or wherever you love to listen to podcasts so you never miss an episode.

Why You Must Consider Your Personal Brand–Even If You’re Building a Company


Personal brands aren’t just for celebrity entrepreneurs.

Take my friend Amanda Steinberg.

Amanda has built 3 companies, including DailyWorth which delivers financial advice to over 1 million subscribers every day.

She has poured her heart, sweat, and tears into her brands. But for her latest project, she needed to consider a new brand…

…her personal brand.

Amanda, as we discussed when I interviewed her for Episode 16 of Profit. Power. Pursuit., is writing a book called Worth It.

Companies–and the brands they embody–are great at fulfilling a message.

But when it comes to sharing a message, keynotes, books, and op-eds rule.

Company brands don’t give keynotes, write books, or pen op-eds. People do.

And, if you want your message to have the chance to be heard, you’ll want to work on your personal brand, as well as your company brand.

Your company will give you credibility but your personal brand will share the message and make it human.

Contrary to what many believe, personal branding is not a popularity contest.

Even Amanda said, “the personal brand marketplace is getting crowded inside a torrent of social media one-upmanship.”

Your personal brand isn’t about having the best looking office on Instagram or the most popular hangouts on Facebook Live. It’s not about who can be the pithiest on Twitter. It’s not even about who can drive the most traffic to their blog.

Your personal brand is what makes you most compelling, most effective, and most unique.

That’s your Quiet Powerto use my own parlance.

Your personal brand and Quiet Power inform your company brand, too. So working to understand what your personal brand is all about will serve you very well in the long-term of growing your business.

You have a message that needs to be heard, an idea that needs to be used, or a movement that needs to be started. One of the key ways you can do that is to be recognized.

  • Amanda wouldn’t have been able to tell her story and be preparing to change the money lives of so many women through Worth It without cementing her personal brand.
  • Being Boss wouldn’t be such a beloved podcast without Kathleen and Emily having strong individual personal brands.
  • Heck, Apple wouldn’t be the kind of brand it is today without the personal brand, message, and collective work of Steve Jobs.

So what should you do if you want to better understand your personal brand and how to use it to your advantage? Answer these questions:

1) What really makes your blood boil?

The things in which we most passionately believe are the language in which our brands are written–to paraphrase the inimitable Anne Lamott.

Tap into what gets you ranting and raving and you’ll be well on the way to discovering a key piece of your personal brand.

2) How would you want people to introduce you to someone else?

The words you want them to use point to your most deeply held personal values. Those values shape the message behind your personal brand.

3) How do you want to make people’s lives meaningfully better?

Forget the work you want to do. Forget the value you offer.

Hone in on how what you do or the value you provide makes people’s lives meaningfully better.

Once you have the answers to these questions, make sure you’re utilizing them. Sometimes, you can do it explicitly–like in an About Page. Other times, you can hook people in and help them get to know you more covertly–like in the opening story to a talk or webinar.

Just knowing your answers and keeping them top of mind while you’re crafting content, being interviewed, and sharing your perspective will help to solidify your personal brand…

…and give you the platform to deliver the message you most want to deliver.

Another person who has worked hard to build her personal brand–in addition to playing a key role in the growth of many companies and organizations–is Debbie Millman–my guest this week on Profit. Power. Pursuit.

Debbie is the host of the first and longest running design podcast on iTunes!

She’s interviewed some of my personal heroes like Seth Godin, Dan Pink, and Alain de Botton.

We talked about how she’s used podcasting to build her personal brand and create a platform for her best work.

We also talked about the 10 to 12 hours she puts into interview prep, how she started with just a phone line back in 2005, and the opportunities that have come her way thanks to the podcast.

Click here to listen to the podcast or read the transcript.

Growing Your Personal Brand with Podcasting with Debbie Millman

Growing Your Brand With a Podcast with Debbie Millman on Profit. Power. Pursuit. with Tara Gentile

I think a good interview is like a game of pool.  You not only want to have a good question and a great answer, but know where that answer might end up, so that you can prepare where to shoot next, so to speak.

— Debbie Millman

Tara:  Welcome to Profit. Power. Pursuit.  I’m your host, Tara Gentile, and together with my friends at CreativeLive, we talk to powerhouse small business owners about the nitty gritty details of running their businesses, making money, and pursuing what’s most important to them.  Each week, I deep dive with a thriving entrepreneur on topics like time management, team building, marketing, business models, and mindset.  Our goal each week is to expose you to something new that you can immediately apply to growing your own business.

My guest this week is Debbie Millman, host of the first and longest running podcast about design, Design Matters.  Debbie is also an author, educator, and brand strategist.  She’s the chair of the School of Visual Arts Masters of Branding program, the Chief Marketing Officer at Sterling Brands, and President Emeritus at AIGA.  She’s interviewed superstars, and some of my personal heroes, like Malcolm Gladwell, Dan Pink, and Seth Godin.  Last year, iTunes named Design Matters one of the top 15 podcasts.  I wanted to find out how hosting Design Matters has impacted Debbie’s life and career.  We talk about the 10 to 12 hours she puts into interview prep, how she started with just a phone line back in 2005, and the opportunities that have come her way thanks to the podcast.

Debbie Millman, welcome to Profit. Power. Pursuit.  Thank you so much for joining me today.

Debbie:  My pleasure, Tara, thank you for having me.

Tara:  Absolutely.  So you’ve been running the internet radio show and podcast Design Matters for over 10 years, which is a long time in any internet pursuit at all.  Can you tell me how the show got started and why you decided to incorporate this, you know, at the time, fairly new media into your design and branding career?

Debbie:  Absolutely.  Well, I should clarify in some ways that the show didn’t start out as a podcast, because there were no podcasts back then.  The show actually started out on an internet radio network called Voice America, and it was a little operation that ran out of Arizona, and I believe they’re still in business, but at the time, it was a really fledgling enterprise, and working with them was a little bit like working with Garth and Wayne on Wayne’s World, but they were really wonderful people.  I actually got cold called from them about doing a show on design and branding, and at the time, I was really honored and thought that they were offering me a job, and what I later came to find out was that actually, they were cold calling me to be a host, which would require my paying them to pay for the production and the air time, but at the time, this was 2004, I had just begun to start doing  personal work again after essentially abandoning all my personal work in an effort to build my branding career for the previous 10 years. 

And the call came at a time when I really felt like my creative soul was perishing and had just begun to start writing again.  I hadn’t begun to start doing any of my personal illustration yet, and I felt like I needed something to buoy my creative spirit, something that didn’t have anything to do with marketing and positioning and market share and research, and something that required … I didn’t want to have to be selling anybody anything in doing this, and here was an opportunity that I had never, ever gotten before, and thought why not invest a little bit of money in myself and my desire to try something new, and Design Matters was born, and I often say now that it was born with a wish and a telephone line, because that’s how I did the show.  I would use a telephone handset to do my show, and my guest would be on the phone with me.  Often, my guest was in front of me, and so we were both on handsets, and so I don’t know if you’ve ever picked up a landline while somebody else was on the same landline in your vicinity, but you often get an echo, and so that’s how I did the show.  There was always an echo going on.  My listeners didn’t hear the echo part, but it was really distracting. 

I had really, really goofy ads that ran at different times during the show, but it gave me an opportunity to approach the people that I admired most in the design business and interview them, and essentially, I was given carte blanche via the use of an interview, or the excuse of an interview, to ask all of the questions that I was curious about, and I had a million questions, and so I did the first 100 episodes on Voice America, and then in 2009, the late, great Bill Drenttel, the founder of Design Observer, invited me to bring the show over to Design Observer, with the proviso that I improve the sound quality.  And he introduced me to Curtis Fox, who is a producer, and at the time, he was working at the New Yorker and the Poetry Foundation doing their podcasts, and so we started working together.  The School of Visual Arts was very supportive.  That’s where I have my branding program, and we were first building the studio, and so they incorporated a podcast studio into my space, and so since 2009, I have been recording the show live at my studio at the School of Visual Arts in front of my students, live student audience, sort of like Inside the Actors’ Studio, and then my guests, when they’re finished with the interview, they come out, and they’re asked questions by my students, which is really, really fun for them, and for the guests, and I’ve done I think about 260 or 70 episodes at this point.  So the show won the Cooper Hewitt National Design Award in 2011, which Bill was really, really involved in helping me win, and then last year, iTunes named it one of the top 15 podcasts on iTunes, which was a dream and a miracle.

Tara:  That is so awesome, and I totally missed that you recorded live in front of your students in my research, and I find that fascinating.  Can you talk just a little bit about how that works, and like what your students get out of it, why you decided to do that?

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Debbie:  Absolutely.  One of the gifts that I could provide to the students was access to these incredible minds, and what better way for somebody to learn through listening to somebody talk about their life, and to be inspired by their trajectory.  And the show has changed a little bit over the years.  The show really began, initially, as a show very much about design and branding.  The show now is really, it’s still … it’s still very much about design and branding, but the centerpiece of the show is really for me to talk to my guests about how they design a life filled with creativity and purpose.  And so for students, and these are my graduate students, although my undergrads can also sit in if they like, they are given access to the journey that the artist, the writer, the designer, the creative soul has created their path.  What decisions did they make?  What obstacles did they face?  How did they design the arc of their life to date?  And I think that it’s become a really meaningful component to the program that I have at SVA, the Master’s program in branding, because it teaches people how essentially my guests have branded themselves, and how they have created a life that stands for something, and that’s really, in my mind, what branding is.  Deliberate differentiation, and how do you stand for something that you believe in. 

And so I think the students get a tremendous amount out of it.  They’ve gotten jobs from some of my guests and have learned an incredible amount and have read incredible books in preparation for their own questioning, and so I think it’s a really signature part of the program now.

Tara:  That is so cool.  I will be filling out my application after this interview.  No.  Seriously, though, Michael and I, my producer and I were just talking about this yesterday, how hosting a podcast is very much like having sort of a private but public mastermind where you just get to pick other people’s brains and find out how things work, and I just … I love that you’re involving your grad students in that as well, and I think that’s such a powerful tool for them, and I just can’t even imagine how powerful that experience might be.

I do want to rewind a little bit as well back to your first answer, and ask you a little bit more about, you know, you said you were just … when the podcast started, you were just starting to write again and you hadn’t yet starting doing illustration again, and you know, you needed to flex your own creative muscles some outside of the business world.  Can you talk about how your personal creative pursuits have informed the way you’ve, you know, molded the podcast, or even just molded your career in general?

Debbie:  Sure.  When I graduated college, I had a degree in English Literature and a minor in Russian Literature. And I went to SUNY-Albany, which was an extraordinary experience for me.  My on-the-job training really was as editor of the arts and features section of the school newspaper, and so when I graduated, and I often joke I have a degree in reading, I … my only marketable skill, in order to get a job that had some aspect of creativity to it was doing very traditional old school layout and paste-up, and so … and that’s how I got a job.  I was absolutely determined to live in Manhattan.  I wanted to live in Manhattan.  That was the only thing I can look back on the journey of my life and say that’s the one thing I knew for sure.  Everything else was very much how could I do this?  Am I good enough?  Am I smart enough?  Am I capable enough? 

But moving to New York required just the deep, deep desire to do it, and I had to figure out how to pay my rent, and so I really … I felt really bad about myself, and I didn’t have any confidence to pursue what I really felt in my heart I wanted to do, which was a combination of art and writing and music and a really creative life.  More fine art than commercial art.  But I only had my commercial art skills, and for the first 10 years of my life, I really floundered.  I had very little confidence.  I had very little experience, and just kept sort of going from rejection to rejection, and sort of failure to failure.  I quite by accident ended up in the field of branding, and because my background growing up included working in my father’s pharmacy, I had had a relationship with brands almost as early as I could talk and walk, and had spent a tremendous amount of time in his pharmacy, spent a lot of time at the cash register helping him out, and really had this innate understanding of brands and how people shop and why they buy the things that they do. 

His pharmacy was more of a general store than just a pharmacy.  It was a general store with a pharmacy in the back, and so I found quite by accident … and probably serendipitously, that I was very good at branding.  Almost as if it were a natural talent.  So the second ten years of my career were building this career.  Building this ability, and finding that I was really successful at it, and that began to help me build some confidence, and I talk quite a lot about how I’ve come to believe that confidence is really overrated.  Dani Shapiro said this once to my students after her podcast when somebody asked her about being confident in life, and she felt  that confidence was overrated and felt that most really confident, overly confident people, or very visibly confident people can often be kind of obnoxious, and felt that what was way more important was courage.  The courage to take that step before you have any success.  And I think all confidence really is, is repeated success at doing something over and over.  You’ve done it before.  You know it’s come out well.  You expect that when you’re going to do it again, you’re going to do it well again.  So what is really more important is courage.  To take that first step before you know if you are going to be successful at doing something, and then confidence is built from there.  But I think that because I started to feel somewhat more successful, and definitely more secure financially for the first time in my life.  I then had a little bit more freedom to begin to do all the things that I had given up in pursuit of my branding career, which included writing and painting and drawing and creating things with my hands.

Tara:  I love that.  I love the transformation, and I love the reframe around confidence and courage.  I know that’s going to be a big takeaway for people.

So shifting gears a little bit.  I listened to the Creative Mornings presentation that you did on their podcast, and you said that if you’re not making enough mistakes, you’re not taking enough risks.  So what are some of the risks and mistakes that you’ve made with the Design Matters podcast?

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Debbie:  Well, I think the biggest mistake that I made was underestimating how long I would do it, and I mean, I hope to be able to do Design Matters for the rest of my life.  It’s one of the things that I feel most important to me, and really helps … has helped give me a sense of purpose for being alive.  But when I started the show, I started it with this little fledgling phone line, and the sound quality was really terrible, so I had done these 100 episodes, and the sound is sometimes so bad, you can’t even listen to the show.  So those, so I wish that I had taken it more seriously from the start, but it’s very, very … it’s … this is something that I tend to do in my life. 

I don’t take things as seriously as maybe I could or should, just because I’m the one doing it, and so I wish that I had taken it a little bit more seriously or taken the effort more seriously, because those hundred episodes don’t really sound as good as I would like them to sound.  That’s the biggest regret.  Other than that, I didn’t have a logo for the show for the first … which is kind of ironic.  I finally asked Armin Vitt to help me do that.  I’ve never … I don’t think I’ve given the show my own sort of personal respect in the way that I probably should.  It took me a really long time to get my own website.  It took me a really long time to get my own logo.  Armin Vitt has been really helpful in helping me do that.  I … Maria Popova has helped me, my partner, Maria, has helped me really understand how to better talk about the show online and take the social media aspect of it a lot more seriously, because it’s a labor of love, and not something that I ever did to, for business purposes or to raise money or to make money.  I probably have not been as diligent about building the brand, so to speak, as I have in my other work.

Tara:  That’s fascinating, and very relatable.

Debbie:  Yeah.

Tara:  So, you know, you just said that you haven’t ever done this for business purposes, but at the same time, I’m sure the podcast has had a big influence on your career, maybe on opportunities that have come your way.  Can you talk about how the podcast itself has really influenced your branding and design career?

Debbie:  Well, I don’t have any empirical today to say that because I did this, this occurred, but I think that it was my entree into the design discourse of our culture, and that has, because this show tends to travel far and wide via iTunes and Soundcloud and Stitcher and so forth.  There are people that listen to the show that I never would have imagined would receive and be interested in it, and so I think that most of the invitations that I get to speak in different countries, most of the invitations I get to judge competitions come via people being exposed to me through the podcast, and so I think either that or my books, and both of those sort of happened consecutively, and so, or concurrently, rather, and so I think that … that it has helped introduce my thinking to the broader design community globally.

Tara:  I might be a professional educator and expert, but that doesn’t mean I’ve stopped learning.  When I’m ready to learn a new skill, the first place I go is CreativeLive.  Check out this great class.

Alex:  Anyone can benefit from learning to tell better audio stories.  Whether you’re a reporter on the radio, or you’re an entrepreneur trying to tell an effective story about your business.  In this workshop, what I’m doing is sort of unpacking what exactly is a story, how can you be effective in telling stories, and how can you lay them out in a way that they get maximum impact with your audience.  You’re also going to learn a lot about the art of the interview.  If you’re interviewing somebody, how do you make sure that the interview is engaging, is informative, has moments of emotional resonance?  I also have a formula that is actually, you know, it’s actually a mathematical formula that tells you how am I on the right track when I’m thinking about telling a story.  I’m Alex Bloomberg, and this is Power Your Podcast with Storytelling.

Tara:  So we really like to get into the nitty gritty here.  So I want to know how you personally prepare for interviews, because I know how I prepare for interviews, but I’d love to hear, you know, what’s your process?  When you’ve got a great guest, and you have had some amazing guests, what is your process for thinking about how you’re going to approach that interview, what you … what kind of background you want to know, what maybe you don’t want to know before you sit down with that person?

Debbie:  I believe that my podcast, a podcast, any podcast that I do is successful when the guest looks at me and says, “How do you know that?  How did you find that out?  Did you talk to my mother?”  I do a tremendous amount of research.  I probably spend upwards of 10-12 hours preparing for the one hour interview.  I … if they’re somebody that has published books, I like to read everything that they’ve written.  If they have created work, I try to see everything I can possibly see.  I am vigilant, and I love researching.  I mean, how many times do we go internet surfing and feel guilty that we might be, so to speak, wasting time going into these little wormholes of research just for the fun of it?  Well, I get to do it as part of my job.  So I’ll start with a link, and that’ll take me to something else, and that’ll take me to something else, and before you know it, I’m, you know, at their birth certificate.  So I just do a tremendous amount of investigation, essentially, trying to understand the entire arc of a person’s life.  Where were they born?  What were they like when they were kids?  Where did they go to school?  What did they major in?  Did they get a graduate degree?  Where did they work?  Where did they … where is every place they’ve ever worked?  What is everything they’ve ever made?  And go from there.

Tara:  Ah, okay.  Do you think design thinking has influenced your, you know, the approach that you use to that research or to that preparation for your podcast?

Debbie:  Probably.  I use a lot of post-its.

Tara:  Awesome.

Debbie:  Yeah, I do think so.  I mean, part of what I do for every show is essentially create a script, and I have probably somewheres between 40 and 50 questions prepared.  And I think a good interview is like a game of pool.  You not only want to have a good question and a great answer, but know where that answer might end up so that you can prepare where to shoot next, so to speak.  And that’s what you want to do in a game of pool.  You want to not only shoot a ball into a hole, but you want to be able to shoot the next ball into the next hole, so it’s very strategic, and so for me, I feel most secure when I am doing an interview that any answer that my guest would provide, in many ways, I already know the answer and know where I want to take the conversation next, or if they surprise me, I want to be able to at least know enough about the topic to be able to ask an interesting question.  I never want to ask questions that my listeners would already know the answers to.  I want to be able to constantly surprise my listeners with information about my guests that they might not be able to get otherwise all in one place.

Tara:  Wow.  That is a game-changing answer for me.  I will be incorporating that for sure in my own process from now on.  Do you have a team helping you out with the podcast?

Debbie:  No.  I do everything myself, except for the production.  And the production is done by Curtis Fox.  He’s been my producer since 2009, and he has really helped me evolve the show to where it is now.  So he … his voice at the beginning and end of each episode, and he essentially takes what usually is about an hour to an hour and fifteen minutes worth of tape and edits it into usually about half of what I’ve taped for.  So if it’s an hour and fifteen, it’s half that.  If it’s an hour, then he ends up with about 30-35 minutes, and essentially, he edits based on what he thinks is interesting.  Am I getting bored while I’m listening to this?  Or do I feel like it’s keeping my attention throughout?  So he keeps it really snappy, really breezy, takes out all of my mistakes.  I often make mistakes, and takes out the ums and the uhs and the likes and the kind of sorta things like that.

Tara:  Fascinating.  And do you guys collaborate on that at all?  Or is that just, that’s his role?

Debbie:  That’s his role.

Tara:  Wow.

Debbie:  I do not … I do not listen to the edited podcast.  I trust him entirely.

Tara:  Wow.  That’s amazing and awesome.  Thanks for sharing that.  All right, so one more question about the podcast, and then I want to ask you about the class that you have coming up for CreativeLive.  How do you balance the needs of the podcast, and I know there are many, I mean, you said you prepare 10 to 12 hours for each guest, against the demands of the rest of your career, because you’ve got a lot going on as well with that, and you know, our listeners are always interested in, you know, how people balance things, how they manage their time, how they fit it all in.  So can you talk about that a little bit?

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Debbie:  Absolutely.  I don’t really believe in work/life balance.  I feel that my, almost all of my work is a labor of love, and I love doing it, and I feel privileged to be able to do it, so I don’t feel resentful of the time that I dedicate to doing, I would say, most if not all of my work.  I love doing it, and because it’s such a privilege, I … what I … I often say that I don’t find the time to do things, I make the time to do things.  And one of my favorite slogans is that busy is a decision.  You prioritize what you want to do in the order you want to do them, and if you don’t make the time to do something and say that you’re too busy to do it, what it really means is you don’t want to do it, and so I often urge my students to be really clear about what they say they can and can’t do because of busyness, because if they can’t do something because they’re too busy, maybe they should reconsider how much Game of Thrones they want to watch, or what they do while they’re watching Game of Thrones.  And so I spend a lot of time doing the things that I love and have been really trying hard over the last three years or so to only do things that I love.  I’m approaching my 55th birthday, and want to be really clear the older I get to only be doing the things that I truly, truly love, and then it’s just about joy and doing things with my whole heart.

Tara:  Nice.  Nice.  And yes, busy is a choice.  I love that.  So you’re teaching a class here on CreativeLive.  Can you tell us what we can look forward to with that?

Debbie:  Yes.  Part of what I discovered having that first 10 years of what I call experiment and rejection and failure, and then the next ten years really trying to make a career is how much how you feel about yourself influences your success, and so much of what we can and can’t do in our lives comes from how we edit, how we censor, and how we tell ourselves what we can and can’t do because of how we feel about what we can and can’t do.  So this is a class called A Brand Called You, and it’s very much how to position yourself to create a career that you love, to create a life that you love, based on what it is that you love as opposed to what it is that you fear, and so it’s very much about how to create a point of view, how to develop a resume and a portfolio, and your own personal marketing campaign to go after what you want and get it.

Tara:  Beautiful.  So important.  Absolutely love it.  Well, Debbie Millman, thank you so much for talking with me today.  This has been really great.

Debbie:  My pleasure.  Thank you so much for having me.

Tara:  Find out more about Debbie Millman at DebbieMillman.com, or find her podcast, Design Matters, on iTunes. 

Next week, I talk with Cory Whitaker and Parker Stevenson from Evolved Finance.  I turn the tables on them, and find out how they use financial reports and tracking in their own business to project cash flow, make hiring decisions, and set goals.

CreativeLive is highly-curated classes from the world’s top experts.  Watch free, live video classes every day from acclaimed instructors in photography, design, audio, craft, business, and personal development.  Stream it now at CreativeLive.com.

This has been Tara Gentile.  Discover how to accelerate your earning as a small business owner with my free class, Revenue Catalyst, at QuietPowerStrategy.com/PPP.

That’s a wrap for this week’s episode of Profit. Power. Pursuit., a CreativeLive podcast.  Download more episodes of this podcast and subscribe on iTunes.  If you appreciate this kind of in-depth content, please leave us a review or share this podcast with a friend.  It means the world to us.

Our theme song was written by Daniel Peterson, who also edited this episode.  Our audio engineer was Kellen Shimizu.  This episode was produced by Michael Karsh.  We add a new episode of Profit. Power. Pursuit. every week.  Subscribe on iTunes, Stitcher, or wherever you love to listen to podcasts so you never miss an episode.

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Tara Gentile is on a mission to turn the small business owners of today into the economic powerhouses of tomorrow. She's the creator of Quiet Power Strategy®, a business design system and entrepreneurial family. She's also the host of Profit. Power. Pursuit., which Entrepreneur named one of the 24 top woman-hosted business podcasts.