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How to Sustainably Grow a Creative Agency with Humble Experts and Utilization Spreadsheets (feat. Arianne Foulks)

Jakub
Jakub "Kuba" Grajcar is the Content Marketing Manager at ZenPilot. His obsessions include interviewing smart people; productivity methods; project management; and playing bass in a progressive metal band.

“We all consider ourselves humble experts. So we all know that we're good at what we do, but ego does not get in the way around our workplace.”

 

Arianne Foulks, CEO and founder of Aeolidia, a one-stop shop agency for creative ecommerce brands with 20+ years of market presence, was our recent guest on Agency Journey.

If you want to build an efficient, adaptable agency that builds strong relationships with clients and employees—this episode will be perfect for you.

 

Arianne talked about:

💡 Transitioning from a solo operation to managing a 20-person creative team
💡 The philosophy of nurturing a 'humble expert' team culture
💡 Leveraging tools like ClickUp for effective project management
💡 Arianne’s decision-making process regarding partnership with other agencies
💡 The evolution of Aeolidia's pricing and service offerings during the pandemic

 

Resources Mentioned:

📚 Aeolidia
📚 Arianne Foulks' LinkedIn
📚 "Profit First" and "Clockwork" by Mike Michalowicz for business management
📚 "4000 Weeks" by Oliver Burkeman for a perspective on productivity and time management
📚 ClickUp for project management and tracking

 

Check out the video recording of the conversation here:
 
 

You can also scroll below for a collection of Arianne's best quotes from the show!

 

On Aeolidia's Services and Story

Let's start with the background of both Arianne and her agency, Aeolidia.

"I have been doing this for 20 years now.

It used to just be me sitting at my laptop, but now I have a whole team.

There's usually about 20 of us, including our long-time contractors.

We work with businesses where usually the owner is the designer or an artist.

When I started out, I was working with Etsy-type businesses

Now we work with people who have outgrown Etsy, and maybe they've got a factory or a warehouse or a whole big team, but still usually a product designed by the founder.

We do jewelry, we do some bath and body, we do a lot of stationery, home goods, kids and toys, clothing...

But that connection is just the people that we work with are really invested in what they're working on because it's something that they came up with creatively.

So, lots of creative businesses, which is a fun challenge for us because creatives are very particular about every little thing.

So, we've gotten really good at being creatives, working with creatives and getting everything just as beautiful as everybody's imagining it.

The main thing we do is Shopify design and development.

We support that with brand identity design as well as brand strategy, and we have been doing a lot of email marketing using Klaviyo over the last few years."

Adding email marketing to the mix was fairly new to Aeolidia, so Gray prodded what brought the change about.

"Helen on our team who's our E-commerce Strategist was thinking, 'Hey, we should really get into this.'

We don't consider ourselves a marketing agency, but we feel like...

Email marketing is kind of the same messaging as the website.

It's telling the story of your business, it's your own content.

It's an extension of the website.

And so, we put together a whole strategy for doing that.

And it's a great project because you can see the money come right back in.

It's a nice one for saying: 'Hey, you weren't doing this before, now you are, here's the money.'

It doesn't feel as nebulous as branding might."

 

On Building an Empowered Team of Humble Experts

One part of the conversation that stood out was Arianne's focus on building a culture of humble experts.

It's what keeps the Aeolidia team so tight-knit, and fuels their teamwork.

Gray asked Arianne how she manages to create such a high level of trust and empowerment on her team.

"That's a good question.

My best guess, and this is a thing that is both a blessing and a curse, is that when we hire employees, we're kind of like:

'Here's the job, here's what it's all about. I know you're perfectly capable. Have a nice time!'

We kind of drop them in the deep end!

So we don't really do a lot of micromanaging."

She then moved on to explain the importance of their value of "humble experts".

"We developed our core values together as a team maybe five or six years ago.

(...)

One of our favorite ones is that we all consider ourselves humble experts.

So we all know that we're good at what we do, but ego does not get in the way around our workplace.

And I've noticed if we hire somebody and they come in and they feel like their ideas are very important—other people's maybe are not as important...

...they're not a good fit and they don't stick around for long.

Or sometimes we will find people where they never take responsibility.

Like there's always a reason something went wrong or it was somebody else's fault.

And that sort of person doesn't fit in on our team either.

So I think just having that atmosphere where everybody recognizes that the other person is really great at what they do, but we can also be humble and curious and open to learn is what makes our team work really well together.

Just having that whole atmosphere together where we just trust each other and we know we can do a good job, but we're always open to learn something new."

Personally, I think this is an excellent mindset to have in general, and instilling a culture like this in Aeolidia's team is definitely a great achievement on Arianne's part.

 

On the Importance of (and Conflicting Emotions About) Aeolidia's Utilization Spreadsheet

Next, Gray decided to dig into some of his favorite things: metrics, utilization, spreadsheets, and building solutions on top of ClickUp.

He asked:

"You were showing me this spreadsheet that you've got that you've built on top of ClickUp.

And I love it.

How did that come about? Who owned that? What's the outcome?

If you could just describe what that looks like."

Arianne shed some light on it:

"We have two magical spreadsheets.

(They're not magic, but I was not involved in making them—so they feel like magic.)

Our accounting and bookkeeping team are extremely big on utilization rates and time tracking and profitability and all that, as they should be.

And they have talked to us into tracking our time for many years, which is the one thing we do that feels un-Aeolidia to me.

It feels a little corporate.

It's not fun. It's not relaxed. It's not creative.

I'm sitting here and punching into the time clock.

Nobody loves it.

But we all do it and we've been getting really good data for a while.

And so one of our project managers, Melissa, came to us and she's like, I've put together this spreadsheet.

And it tracks our utilization rates and it also has profitability per client.

And so now we can look at this spreadsheet.

We can see exactly how busy everybody on our team is forecast to be in the future because in ClickUp we've got all those task estimates put together.

We can see how busy they are this week and next week and all through the next few months.

So we can decide where to schedule projects.

We can see how much time each person has been spending on client work versus internal work.

And then we can also look at every single project that we have and we can see how profitable that project has been.

We can see the exact hourly rate we have made on past projects and try and figure out if there's a type of project that's working well for us and a type that's maybe never profitable.

And we can also check ourselves midway through projects and see if we're already over time on somebody or if maybe we're whizzing along really fast and we could give them something extra.

So that's super helpful to have."

Having this data informs Aeolidia's long-term strategic decision making, too.

"We have a quarterly leadership meeting coming up next week.

And I think that spreadsheet, now that we have it, is going to factor heavily because we are currently rethinking our pricing.

We're rethinking the projects we offer.

We're trying to figure out what the minimum should be for working with us because right now, we are definitely doing too many smaller projects.

So we need to figure out how to get our team a little less overbooked.

Having all that data is gonna make that decision less of a hunch or a gut feeling and something we really can just take a look and say, here's what we should do."

 

On Books, Inspiration, and Enabling 4 Week-Vacations

Gray also asked about where Arianne gets her inspiration, which led to an interesting discussion on building a strong company where team members can easily take longer vacations.

"I read a lot.

We've gotten a lot of our ideas from books I have on my shelves.

Profit First was really big for us.

And then what I just read recently was a book called Clockwork, about how to make your business run by itself.

So my next big goal is to get each of us on our leadership team, there's three of us, to be able to take that four-week vacation that he talks about in the book.

Not just because it's fun but because it shows that you've got a strong company, and you've got some backup for different things."

As part of ZenPilot, I can obviously get behind building a resilient business with documented processes where teams can be happy and productive.

 

On Arianne's Changing Views on Sustainable Growth

As is tradition, Gray asked Arianne about her #1 tip for agency operators. Her response was very interesting, and characteristically humble.

"Okay, my number one tip.

I have been thinking about this a lot recently.

Obviously the pandemic was very interesting for a lot of businesses.

So my number one tip is it's fine to grow very slowly and steadily.

Because occasionally I would compare what I had built with my agency to some other people where they'd shot way up and gotten enormous, or they had these super impressive clients, or Shopify was calling on them to do all this stuff with them.

I'm like, hey, they've only been around for a couple of years. I've been doing this forever.

And then I would feel like maybe I'm doing this wrong.

But then these other businesses did not make it through the pandemic.

Some of them went into debt. Some of them had to fire their team.

It just didn't work out for them.

So I feel better now just about very slowly and steadily doing what we do and trying to serve our clients.

And quite a few years ago, I definitely was of the mindset when I first started hiring people, like:

'I'm gonna grow this business!'.

'How can we get bigger?'

'Let's add more teams and get more clients.'

But now I just like to think:

If we are growing, if we're hiring somebody or adding on to the team...

...I only wanna do it if it's serving our clients in some way or serving us in some way and not just for the sake of growth.

So that would be my tip."

To finish up, Arianne expanded on caring less what other people think and finding her sweet spot running a smaller company.

"The times when our company has gotten a bit bigger, I've started to feel like, hey, I don't know what's going on with everybody anymore.

I don't know what's happening in their lives. I don't know what projects they're working on.

And I like being a smaller, comfier company where I know everybody and what they're up to and have a general idea of what we're all working on.

I feel like the bigger it got for me, the more divorced I felt from the day to day and what was actually happening,

Which felt weird to me, and not in a good way.

But I think I've never really cared what other [companies] are working on.

We really keep our eyes on our own paper and we're just working hard on all of our work all the time.

We just have those moments where [we're] like, hey, how'd they get that deal? How are they doing such a thing?

Am I supposed to be doing more here?

But seeing that that looks really cool but doesn't always work out is a nice affirmation that being sustainable is more important than being flashier or growing too fast."

I think that's excellent advice, and extends to more than just the world of business.

 

There's More You Can Do to Help Your Agency Grow

Whether you plan to grow slow or grow fast, you can't build a resilient business like Aeolidia's without first making sure your project management is airtight.

To achieve that, you need to take care of the 3 keys to gold-standard operations:

  • Processes
  • Tools
  • Habits

Lucky for you, you now know about ZenPilot.

We've helped over 2,700 agencies revolutionize their operations and nail the 3 keys to implement repeatable processes, give team members clarity on what they should be working on each day, and build strong profit margins.

We do that by helping them implement the ZenPilot System...

...which is a fancy way of saying we've discovered the best way to set up ClickUp for agencies through years of hard-won lessons.

Grab our ClickUp for Agencies Guide for a full walkthrough of how to build the next chapter of your business on top of ClickUp.

If you want to surface more data about what's happening in your agency (and be able to make data-driven decisions like Arianne), you should have a look at our Profitability & Utilization Reporting tool.

Or if you'd prefer to implement repeatable processes and productive habits the easy way, just book a call with us here and we'll guide you.

Don't forget to subscribe to Agency Journey for more insightful episodes.

See you in the next one!

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