Tagged: Starling Social
- by Alyson Shane
(Right around the time I started freelancing, in 2014. Photo via Rachael Hosein.)
I've been thinking a lot about values recently.
Earlier this week, I got an email stating that Starling Social was awarded the title of "Best Boutique Social Media Marketing Agency in Winnipeg" by the Canadian Business Awards, and it's been making me reflect on what that means to me. Not just in the quality of the services we offer, but about my business in general and the kind of boss I strive to be.
I didn't want to become a businessperson. Hell, even after I started freelancing full-time I was very resistant to the idea of running an agency. I'd worked for a few agencies, both big and boutique, and every experience I had left me with a sour taste in my mouth in one way or another.
I worked at a big agency right out of university. I was over the moon about it even though I struggled in my role.
(Anyone who knows me knows how much I rely on process + documentation, and this job had none of that structure.)
Despite this, I was happy to come in at 7 AM, an hour and a half before my day started, just to stay on top of everything we had going on.
One morning the President of the company walked by and noticed me working away by myself. We started talking and he said he'd noticed me coming in early and he was impressed with my work ethic. We talked about my future in the company, and I asked if he would mentor me and he said yes.
The next week I was fired. I don't even know why — when I asked, one of the people in the meeting said I'd "made a mistake that cost the company $1000" but when I asked what it was, he said he couldn't remember. I'd been there for over a year and they let me go without providing any documented or legitimate reasons.
(Told you there was no documentation there.)
Losing my job was devastating, but what felt worse was knowing that there was such a huge disconnect within that company that the President of the company saw me one way, and middle management saw me in a completely different way.
After that I started freelancing for a small, boutique agency. I loved that job, even more than the agency job because I got my first taste of remote work and having the flexibility to "work from anywhere". The owner seemed like a cool, interesting person and even though the pay was garbage, and ad-hoc, I trusted that they had my best interests at heart as a member of their team.
Then one day I logged into a client's Twitter account and noticed that there were a bunch of posts and replies that I hadn't written. I followed up with my boss, and here's what he said back:
That wink turned out to mean that he'd hired someone new to manage the account and gave them the go-ahead to start without notifying me. When I asked for payment for the time I'd worked, I was told that the last few week's worth of work I'd done wouldn't be compensated.
I was told "I'll give you $60, which should be enough to buy a few 12-packs of beer" and shown the proverbial door.
A few years later as my freelancing business was starting to grow, the owner of a local agency called me up and asked if I wanted to join the team at a management level. It sounded promising, but I took issue with how the workload (and budget) were divvied up:
Essentially, there were only so many paid hours available per project and since everyone was a freelancer they were all competing for the same narrow pool of hours/money. I'd be coming in at a senior level, which meant I'd be getting a guaranteed retainer that would be taken from the pool of money otherwise allocated to the team actually doing the work.
When I brought this up, the owner said "the girls will figure it out, don't worry about it"
(did I mention this was an agency run by one guy who seemed only to hire pretty, skinny women? Ick.)
Needless to say, I didn't take the job. I wasn't comfortable being complicit in screwing over these other women and working with someone who cared so little about the people he employed.
By this time I was already working for myself and starting to scale up a team to help me manage my workload. I know I wasn't great at managing people at first, but the experiences I'd had showed me a lot of what not to do and I was able to start being the kind of boss I'd always wanted to have.
I got to become someone who goes to bat for my team and puts them first. I fired our first "big client" out of NYC and lost us 1/3 of our monthly revenue because he was being abusive to my copywriter. That was a blow, but I'd do it all over again and probably sooner if given the chance.
(Nobody messes with my team.)
I got to become someone who put effort into supporting the people who work for me. I remember how lost I felt at the big agency, so I obsessively document every step of everything we do; internally, and for our clients. I make myself available for support, clarity, and advice, but my team can work confidently on their own because they have a documented framework that helps them be better at what they do.
(Protip: giving people a framework for success is how you guarantee a high degree of quality and attention to detail.)
I got to become someone who leads with their values. I'm honest with my team, whether it's good or bad feedback, because I remember what it felt like to have the rug pulled out from under me when I thought everything was going fine.
(Trust in your people and they will trust you, in kind.)
I'm not perfect — hell, nobody is — but the reason my company does such good work is because I'm value-driven, and leading with my values has attracted people who share those same beliefs. We believe in going above and beyond for our clients, in being data-driven and process-focused, and most of all we believe in each other and in our collective ability to raise the bar on what a digital marketing agency can be.
Every day I feel lucky as hell to run this business and to work with such amazing people.
This award recognizes my agency, but I want to end this (somewhat rambly, stream-of-consciousness) post by saying to my team:
I see you. I see your hard work, your dedication, and your passion, and I feel privileged to work with you. I've become a better person for it, and I appreciate the opportunity to build a company that's built such a strong reputation for creative, high-quality work with you.
Thank you, from the bottom of my heart.
- by Alyson Shane
What did you want to be when you grew up?
When I was small I wanted to be a golfing farmer. Then I wanted to be an artist. Then I wanted to be a writer. Of course, nobody took the first one seriously, but pursuing a career in a creative field was strongly discouraged. "There's no money in creative pursuits" I was told, over and over again.
So imagine my surprise when I found myself sitting on the Roost rooftop patio a few weeks ago celebrating my second anniversary as a full-time business owner.
Not only do I get to do the creative work that I love to do (writing) every day, but I get to leverage the thing I love to do another thing that I love (helping people) while building the life that I want for myself. That's pretty incredible.
So with that revelation in mind, I wanted to touch on a few things that I've been reflecting on over the past few days as I ponder what got me here, and how things have changed in these past two years:
Outgrowing Corporate Life
The advice I got the most often when I was growing up was "find a job and keep your head down" which - in case you haven't met me - is the polar opposite of who I am as a person.
I'm not a lady who keeps her head down and her mouth shut, and it always proved challenging in work environments where I didn't have the control or opportunities to experiment, try new things, and get creative with problem-solving.
For a long time I thought it was character flaws that were keeping me from being a happy employee. Why couldn't I just fit in? Why did I have to challenge my supervisors when I thought I knew of a better way to do something? Why did I continue to lose motivation after the first few months of doing the same tasks day in and day out?
Mostly I wondered: why did everyone else not seem to have these same challenges?
It was crazy-making, and it wasn't until I started freelancing in 2014 that I started to experience the kind of control and freedom that I'd been looking for and failing to find in my corporate life.
I realized that the problem wasn't me, it was the work I was doing and the places I was doing it.
Let me be clear: there's nothing wrong with a corporate job if that's what you want, but for some of us it feels like trying to fit a square peg into a round hole every day.
It's nice to not feel that way anymore.
Finding Amazing Opportunities
The one thing that I don't think I was prepared for was the amount of opportunities that being a business owner afforded me, and how much those experiences have enriched my life.
I used to wile away my days at my desk, watching people on Twitter share talks and presentations and workshops and all these fun and exciting-looking opportunities. I wanted to be doing those things, but I didn't know how to get there.
Here's the thing about being a business owner, though: in order for your business to be successful you have to put yourself out there.
This is where that whole "being unable to keep my head down / mouth shut" aspect of my personality really acts as a blessing: I'm comfortable putting myself out there and getting up in front of people, so I'm comfortable with the hustle associated with promoting and building a business.
These days I write articles, run workshops, speak at conferences, and I even have my own print column. While, yes, I could have certainly leveraged my personal brand to find these opportunities, having a business gets me in front of other professionals in a way that being an employee at someone else's company didn't afford me. And honestly? That's probably the coolest part.
Learning to Manage Others
In 2016 my business grew enough that I began working with outside contractors to help manage my workload. By the time I rebranded and launched Starling Social earlier this year I'd already been working with contractors for a while, but formally announcing that we have a team felt like a huge accomplishment. Looking at our About Us page and seeing more faces than just my own is still a bit mind-blowing, and I'm so thankful to work with the passionate and dedicated people that I do.
On one hand, having someone help you manage your workload is a huge boon. On the other hand, sharing my thoughts and developing the processes needed to effectively on-board others was scary. My anxieties make me afraid of failure and "being wrong" and it was intimidating to open my business up to other people and let them in.
That being said, being forced to take a long, critical look at how and why I did things helped me gain a much deeper understanding of the value of using the right tools, processes, and documentation to run my business and serve our clients.
They say the best way to understand something is to teach it to someone else, and that applies in business, too.
The single biggest change in the last two years is the confidence that I've developed as a result of being a business owner.
I can feel it permeating every conversation I have; there's a security, a solidarity in my sense of self that just wasn't there a few years ago. Of course, I still have moments (or days, or sometimes even weeks) of doubt and struggle, but overall working for myself and managing both clients and contractors has helped me grow into a significantly more confident person, both personally and professionally.
I have anxiety, and until recently I was seeing a therapist who was helping me work through some traumatic childhood experiences that contributed to those feelings. While therapy was invaluable (really, I can't recommend it enough if you feel like you need it) it was the daily practice of getting up, working by myself all day and facing my problems and challenges head-on, and reflecting about those challenges in a safe space that really contributed to my increased overall sense of well-being and confidence.
I really do believe that being your own boss is one of the best things you can do to build up your self-confidence. It pushes the boundaries of your comfort zone in so many small ways every day.
Business is growing and these days it feels like I have more stuff to do than hours in the day, but that's okay. I'm learning to develop and maintain a work/life balance, which can be hard sometimes when your work is the thing you love to do.
I believe that people create their own luck, though to be perfectly honest most of the time it still feels like I stumbled into this amazing, stressful, and challenging opportunity even though I can look back and see the years of work and dedication that it took to get here, even if I didn't know that this was where I was going. And honestly, that's the coolest part: not knowing where this adventure is going to take me.
I'm really excited to see what the next few years bring my way.