EP 55: Peer Support for Agency Leaders, with Carl Smith
On this episode of THRIVE—sponsored by Workamajig—Kelly dances with Carl Smith of Bureau of Digital. They talk about his discovery about getting out of his team’s way, the realities of agency ownership, and the importance of community, shared experiences and peer support as leaders.
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Episode 55 Links
Bureau of Digital: bureauofdigital.com
iTunes / Apple Podcasts: itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/thrive-the-agency-scaler-podcast/id1370205729
YouTube Channel: youtube.com/channel/UCboltXvff1KfeCHpQbY_8PA/
Vimeo Channel: vimeo.com/agencyscaler
Anchor, Google Play Music + PocketCasts: anchor.fm/agencyscaler
Archives + Show Notes: agencyscaler.com
EP 55: Peer Support for Agency Leaders
Kelly: So welcome back to Thrive, your agency resource. This week I am super stoked to be joined by someone who is so well known and so well respected in the community, Carl Smith from Bureau of Digital. We’re going to cover a lot today. We’re just going to have an awesome conversation and the takeaway is really going to be about the importance of peer support for agency leaders. So Carl, let’s just kind of get off to the races. I mean, thank you so much for being here and I know we’re going to have a great talk.
Carl: I appreciate the invite and it’s so much fun to do video.
Kelly: Yeah, right. I love it. So you and I have been having like some really cool discussions over the last month or so and obviously we feel a little bit of a kinship, I guess you could say. I’m glad to be connected. One of the things that you covered or you talked about at some point was this whole house fire that you had when you had your agency.
Kelly: And what was really interesting to me about that, is that, there was sort of this let’s call it a crisis moment where you kind of had to step out a little bit of your agency and start trusting your team and I just want you to start talking about that experience and like what that led to.
Carl: Yes. So first of all, it was insane. I was way too busy at the time and one of the things that was happening, I worked from home almost exclusively and I ended up getting a call from a client who was based in Chicago and they wanted to meet for lunch. They were in Jacksonville for some reason and I was like, I don’t like leaving the house. I just work from here, blah, blah, blah. It was raining, all this stuff. And so I was like, all right, fine. I’ll come see you. So I go meet them for lunch, have lunch. It was great. Come back and as I’m driving up to my house, I’m on the phone with another client, and I said, I have to go. And he was like, why? I was like, my house is on fire.
Carl: He was like, what do you mean? And I was like, I mean, like my MFN house is on fire. And so I did, I saw smoke coming out. I rushed in, maybe just to get the fire out, which was ridiculous and I never picked on my kids and my wife again for leaving half-filled cups of water or Coke or whatever. So like I ran and just started grabbing all these things and throwing it on this fire on the counter. It was just ridiculous, right? I got the animals out, all that kind of stuff. But as a result, I ended up really for about two weeks, I was not functional at work at all.
We got moved down a house into an embassy suites hotel then get shut down because somebody’s running a meth lab in it. After we replaced all our clothes and everything, then they all got sequestered because they could have had the meth stuff on them. Right? Then we had to move again. An employee of mine who’s a dear friend found us this apartment complex that had no pet deposits. You could bring all the pets you wanted. So it was like apartment complex for dogs, kind of thing. And while we were there, I just told the team, I can’t function. I’ve got to deal with insurance. I’ve got to take care of my family. Got to figure this thing out. Just make the best decisions you can.
And that happened for two weeks. I would occasionally check in, but then at the end of those two weeks, it ended up being the best two weeks in the company’s history, which was awesome, but it also felt horrible. I was like, I didn’t know I was the problem. But I hired really great people and that’s a skill too. But I put these people together and gave them enough autonomy that I actually found we had two companies at that point. We had a more established, seasoned, slightly older team. It was really good at handling the financial staff and doing traditional corporate stuff. Then we had a young energetic team that wanted organic foods and they wanted fantasy sport and they want all the fun stuff and it turned out, they both kind of found their niche and I was able to step out of the way and let them grow these two independent companies together. It was really pretty phenomenal.
Kelly: Yeah. Yeah. Such an amazing story. And I think the takeaway here is that sometimes, it doesn’t have to be something as catastrophic as a fire, but literally kind of taking that time whether it’s imposed on you or something that you volunteer for, like moving out of the way sometimes is the way to get everything done, maybe a little bit more effectively than the way that you are leading. So I’m not saying that that was necessarily, and maybe it wasn’t the, or it’s not the case for everybody watching and listening, but just the consideration that it could be or might be, is just sort of stuff in that direction.
Carl: I think just real quick, there’s also a difference between telling people that you work with. When you own something, when you’re, I mean, my name was on the wall. It wasn’t that kind of an ego trip, but when somebody comes in to your company, it’s like a guest coming into your house. And you may tell that guest, hey, make yourself at home. Get whatever you want out of the fridge, but they’re still gonna ask you. They’re going to open the door and see that there’s only one Coke left. Can I have this? I told you, do what you want, but if you’re not in the house and you told them to make themselves at home…
Kelly: They’re just going to take it. Yeah.
Carl: And so that was what I found. I could tell people all day long, but until I wasn’t there and they had to do it, just wouldn’t gonna happen.
Kelly: Yup. Now, it’s a good lesson. So along those lines, you said something to me last time that really, really kind of struck me. I kind of had that little gut moment. You said, I told everyone to stand in the sunshine, but I didn’t realize the shade I was casting. So I want to hear a little bit more about that little self-realization moment for you.
Carl: Well, I think a big part of it was that as much as I thought I was empowering them, I was constantly around. And I would ask how things were going or I would do, any of a number of things. And that just encouraged their behavior of not taking control or not doing what they needed to do. But when the house fire happened and I was gone, and then you see them all stand up and just start doing great stuff, that was when it hit me, there was only one change and that was that I wasn’t there.
So you see that and, and honestly it was a little bit of a mourning period like I was super sad because I wanted to be part of the team. But then it became this realization that I can go do whatever I want.
Kelly: That’s an aha moment.
Carl: Oh my God. And so I did and I let them kind of take over and there was infighting and all these things, but as long as there was no blood or exposed bones, I just kind of let them go. They have to figure it out.
Kelly: Yeah. So let’s get into what you kind of felt like was your purpose in starting Bureau of Digital, because I know that there’s so many people that are watching and listening that either know about it, it’s been on their radar. They might already be members or involved in some way, but would love to hear more about like, why you felt like this was something that needed to exist.
Carl: Well now, honestly, I was an attendee first.
Kelly: Oh, okay. I didn’t know.
Carl: Yeah. So I got an email from Greg Hoy and Greg Storey who were running independent Happy Cogs, which is hilarious. Two happy cogs, separate companies. Jeffrey’s Zeldman had licensed them. It was this whole thing. It was hilarious. So they contacted me about coming to an event where they were inviting 25 owners of digital shops and I sent an email back asking why me? And they said, we’ve been reading your blog, we’ve been reading about your business model and either you’re totally full of crap, you’re onto something and we want to know which one. And I was like, I will be their.
Kelly: Challenge accepted.
Carl: So I did. And it was unbelievable because I had no, I mean I had peers. It’s not that I have no peers. No, but it was more like I just didn’t know them. Like I’d reached out to local people, but they weren’t doing what we were doing. I mean, we made it on a national scale, we were starting to get global with some of the work, but then these people had written books and coined phrases. But what you find out when you spend three days with that number of people and you break into these small groups, the people you thought we’re crushing it are holding on for dear life. You’re not doing as bad as you thought. And people start writing down stuff that you’re doing and you start writing down stuff that they’re doing.
And before long, this is not, by the way an African proverb, it is, I think Snopes has said it, but that whole idea of if you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together. It’s been shown again and again, it’s not any kind of proverb, but it should be. So that was kind of it. And then once my company started doing really well, once I was out of it, I had to figure out what to do.
So my youngest daughter, who at the time would have been 12 came out in the backyard. I work outside most of the time unless it’s a thousand degrees outside. And she came out and she said, how do you want people to remember you? And I was like, what do you mean? And she’s always been a dark soul and she said, when you’re dead. And I was like, let’s figure this out. So I told her, I said, I want to be remembered as a nice person who didn’t have to hurt anybody to be successful.
And she was like, okay, how do you measure that? Now really is, this was a shop owners kid, right? I would ask her these things when she was doing her stuff. And she goes, how do you measure that? And I said, by the number of people that I help. And then she said, okay. And the question was bound to come. How does that scale? 12 years old throwing me back at me. I was like, I can’t, I don’t know. Just please stop.
Kelly: Go back inside.
Carl: Yeah, daddy’s working. But then, a day later, I realized, I don’t need to help anybody. I just need to put people in touch with other people. I need to connect people who can help each other. And that totally scales. And that was when I was writing an email to Greg and I realized I think it’d be part of the bureau. So then long story short, I bought in as a partner. The two of them wanted to go off and do other things and now I got my baby.
Kelly: It all came full circle.
Carl: It did.
Kelly: So running it as long as you have, I’m sure there have been sort of these moments, maybe it happens all the time. Maybe it happens at every event. Maybe you get emails on a weekly basis. There’d have to be a couple of like stories that stick out in your mind for one reason or another. Can you share a couple of examples or a couple of things that kind of made you feel like, man, I am like doing my work?
Carl: Yeah, for sure. I’ll say one of the first ones. I don’t think they would mind me sharing this. We take an oath before every event, not to share anything that people would deem.
Kelly: And you certainly don’t have to call them out by name or company.
Carl: But there was a shop in the very first bureau event at owner camp and they were on the ropes, the four person shop, really popular in a certain space, but they were just struggling. And there was some moment during a conversation that was being had, I think Kelly Go too, who was in the room, she’s so brilliant and she made some comment about following your heart is fine, but only if you can make money and survive. Right? And so it was this kind of, let’s, we’ll smell the hippy juice. We’re not going to drink it. Okay? And so there was just some sort of light bulb went off.
And that shop didn’t come back to bureau events for probably about four or five years and suddenly they showed back up and I was like, oh my goodness like, I can’t believe y’all are gonna be here. Yeah, things have really changed. Well, they took to heart what was said and shifted away from any business that wasn’t something they were passionate about. They knew they could make money, but they decided to go into anything that was more outdoors, adventure related.
These were people who love to fish, love to hike, love to go mountain biking, love to do all these things. So they shifted entirely to that, found ways to start an Instagram account, which was very seedy, not on their part. They actually bought an account and they had to transfer money while changing a password. The whole thing was just hilarious to me. But now they work with these amazing companies like REI, right? So they totally made that shift and it was because somebody said it.
Another one that was really amazing was, this was when we were in Minnesota and everybody was talking about how well they were doing, right? Well, not saying we’re doing great, but saying we’re doing okay, we’re doing well, we’re struggling. And this other person talked about how they were just so busy and they had 70 people on their team, but they couldn’t make any money. And somebody said, well, how are you charging? What’s your billing methodology? Well, we charge hourly. What’s your rate? $65. And there was this thought that you couldn’t raise it. And plus they had San Francisco office, they were like, woof. So somebody just said triple your rate and come back. And they didn’t, but they doubled it. And now the shop is just gold. And this sound like things that shouldn’t be, you have to go to an event to find out. But then we also have what I call bureau babies, right? They’re more like bureau of weddings, but we’ve had shops that have merged. And that’s kind of fun.
Kelly: That’s cool.
Carl: We have a shop that’s up in Montreal that merged with a shop in Charleston, South Carolina. They met at the bureau, and so these things just become amazing as well. And then I think probably one of the most powerful is when a shop’s in trouble and other shops show up to support them. We had a group in Florida that was about to have a layoff and was going let nine people go. But we were able to find a group in Seattle that was desperate for the type of talent that they were going to let go, but didn’t want to hire anybody. So they basically just used their bench. And now in the bureau channels, like if you’re in the Slack channels, you’ll see people say all the time, I’ve got four devs, a few specialized in angular on the bench this month. Everybody needs them. Right?
Kelly: Yeah. And that in and of itself is probably one of the greatest value adds. So I kind of want to dive into that a little bit more because I know that there are so many agency leaders or owners that are watching or listening and if they’ve never heard of the bureau before, I don’t know how that’s possible. But it’s possible.
Carl: It’s possible.
Kelly: If they’ve never heard of it before and this is the first time or they know about it, came across their radar at some point, but they just haven’t sort of like step the toe in the water yet. Maybe they attended one event and nothing else, whatever the situation is. I’d love to get sort of that holistic viewpoint of what are all of the value ad components of the bureau. What does membership versus just attending an event? Is that possible? Like just give me a little flavor for all of that. Cause I think that would be super helpful for a lot of people.
Carl: No, that’s great. And I appreciate you asking. So first of all, I’ll just say that it’s people over pixels, right? The more that you can be together in person is always better because that’s where you pick up on all the vibes. The reason you do a video podcast is probably because people can see the reality versus them just kind of, doing whatever. But when you come to the first bureau event, the thing we hear all the time is I found my people. They didn’t know. They might’ve been part of say a neo, right? Or they might’ve been part of some sort of other organization, but it was different types of companies. When you come into a situation where everybody does what you do, even though they’re gonna do it differently, you realize you can say something and people aren’t gonna look at you like a dog that heard a weird noise, they’re going to look at you and go, I know what you mean and you’re going to be like, you do?
So the number one thing is a feeling of acceptance and not being alone. Now the events, once you go to an event, you’re in the Slack channels with your individuals who were at that event as well, your other alumni, they’re about a thousand people who are active in the Slack channel, but it’s split up in all these different little private rooms. So nobody feels the pain except for me cause I see everything. But in there [inaudible] it’s asking me question. Answers will show up. And that’s another amazing piece of value. We have a shop that’s in Charleston actually, and they told me at one point they were in a leadership team meeting and they made a comment and somebody said, could you ask your owner camp friends cause I don’t think they’re going to agree with you on this.
Kelly: Oh that’s awesome.
Carl: So they went in and they popped it in the Slack channel and a bunch of differing opinions came back along with some that supported them and they printed it out and took it over. Right? So that was pretty amazing. But events can be expensive, right? I mean, the way that we do events is for the most part, all inclusive. When we do the camps we’re trying to get with the summits and these other types of events that are more traditional with breakouts, we’re trying to get that cost down a little bit.
The way we do that is through membership. So membership for us was a way to allow more people to come to the in person events. And what it allows is for you monthly to have a pure call. It gives you access to a library that’s been curated from all the conversations over the last seven years where we’re able to say, these are apps that people liked, these are books that people liked, these are videos that people liked, podcasts, whatever it is. And we put all of that into a reference library.
So you can go in there and find answers to almost anything if you’re not just going to be human and ask the Slack channel. And then also with membership, there’s discounts and stuff like that, but that’s not the real value. We also will promote for our members. So if they got something new that they’ve done that they want everybody to know about, we’ll step up and say, hey, we just want to let everybody know, they just finished this thing. It’s pretty awesome. Take a look.
So it’s kind of offering a humblebrag from a third party. And then also concierge service. So we will have people reach out to us and say, we’re looking for a shop who does this. So for our members, we’ll take care of that for them so they don’t have to go through the hustle because we have a spreadsheet right now that has pretty much all 7,000 of the people who’ve been associated at some level with the bureau. And that breaks down into all these different groups. So it’s pretty amazing.
But ultimately the value, it was funny, I was talking on Blair Enns’ Win Without Pitching and that stuff. I was talking about Blair about it and I said, well, the value is that you get this network of people. And he goes, Carl, people have friends. You can’t tell them that they’re coming and giving you this money so they can have friends. I was like, all right, Blair. And he goes, what do people do? What do they leave with? And I said, they leave with like 5 to 10 ideas that they can act on when they get back. And we’ll hear within a year that one or two of those changed their entire organization.
Kelly: That’s the value.
Carl: And he was like, that’s it. And so I think if you do it in person events or if you do it in the Slack channels or if you do it on the monthly calls, that’s what it is. As an individual, you maybe amazing at what you do, but you won’t have had near the collective experience of thousands of shops. And so that’s what it is.
Kelly: Yeah. It’s incredible. And I love the fact that there’s so many, the diversity of the touch points, whether it’s in person or through technology, whatever it is. I think people have different comfort levels with, maybe I’m not super extroverted and I don’t really love going to events like that, but to be a member and to get access to all those resources or to be able to pop a question into Slack, whatever it is, maybe that’s a little bit more comfortable for someone. So I like the fact that it’s almost like, we all have different learning styles but we also all have different behavioral styles. And the fact that you’re offering those things in a way that’s digestible, somebody could sort of come out into themselves a little bit by maybe being introverted and going to their first event being like, wow, this isn’t so bad. I could do this.
Carl: Exactly. And you find that you’re not that far off. Like a lot of times people are going cause they feel like they have nothing to add and then they realize they crack the code on something. What do you mean you haven’t heard of PEOs? It’s revolutionary, whatever it might be. And you see that aha moment and you write it down. One event, we did, one of our operations camps, somebody was talking about how they had done an employee onboarding guide and they were sharing it. So we’ll do this on the third morning of a camp. We do a show and tell. The only rule is you have to show something you wouldn’t normally. And you’re not allowed to just sit there. Everybody’s got to share something. But this person put up their internal employee onboarding guide and somebody said, do you have anything like that for clients? And everybody went, oh, so everybody suddenly write down client onboarding guides. So these are the things that just every single time there’s one nugget like that that even I walk away with and quickly share with everybody else.
Kelly: Yeah. Yeah. Well, this has been awesome. I could talk to you for hours. I think we both kind of are on the same page with that after the last couple of conversations, but I just, I really appreciate the time and everything that you’re doing for the agency leader community, super, super valuable. You really are impacting so many people’s lives, even if it’s just facilitating all of them getting together and sharing that information. It’s really incredible. So thank you for that. And thank you for being on the show today.
Carl: Thank you so much. It’s wonderful to get to meet your community as well.
Kelly: Thanks, Carl.