Can a Company Have a Calling?, with Madeline Reeves
On this episode of THRIVE — sponsored by Workamajig — Kelly and Madeline Reeves discuss how we, as business owners and leaders, can create a company that is aligned with our greater purpose and the equity we want to see in the world.
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Episode 93 Links
Fearless Foundry: https://www.fearlessfoundry.com/
YouTube Channel: youtube.com/channel/UCboltXvff1KfeCHpQbY_8PA/
Vimeo Channel: vimeo.com/agencyscaler
Archives + Show Notes: agencyscaler.com
EP 93: Can a Company Have a Calling?
Kelly: So welcome to Thrive, your agency resource. Today, we’re talking about greater purpose and equity. My guest is the incomparable Madeline [Reeves], Founder & CEO at Fearless Foundry, which is a creative consultancy for entrepreneurs who believe that the purpose of their work in the world is to rebuild it for the better. Madeline, thank you so much for joining me. I’m super excited to have you here.
Madeline: I’m super excited too Kelly. It’s a great way to start my day.
Kelly: Absolutely. Tattoos and everything. So we’re talking a little bit about, the theme here, like can a company have a calling? I know you and I would answer that as yes. There are a lot of people for whom this would be a new theme or a new topic of conversation so just curious–how did you personally discover your calling for your company?
Madeline: So it was an interesting kind of recurring pattern that happened in my life. Prior to starting my company, I was in the world of FinTech and I was doing a lot of global business development work, traveling a lot, and my joke is that like I would be in all these different situations. I would be in a spa sauna. I would be waiting in line at Starbucks. I would be just anywhere around and doing my life. And a woman I completely didn’t know would walk up to me and say, “Hey, I’m thinking about starting a business. Do you know anything about that?” And then she would just like pitch me on the spot and it was the weirdest thing that would continue to happen. I had a lot of friends at the same time who were kind of starting to approach the idea of building their own businesses and I was constantly being pulled into these conversations of, “Hey, I’m thinking about setting up a website. Do you know how to use Squarespace?” Or “I want to be able to do appointment booking on Instagram. Do you know how to integrate that?” And what I recognized was there was this consistent confidence gap as women were venturing into entrepreneurship particularly around marketing and branding and tech. And although I love my work in the business development world, I was like finding myself all day just kind of dreaming about what would it be like to build a business around helping entrepreneurs build companies of their own. And so, I spent about a year and a half like sketching out these ideas in a notebook and slowly realized over time, “Wow, there’s something really valuable here.” And it’s all I can think about. So about two years after this conversation started, I rolled into starting the Foundry.
Kelly: Amazing. And there’s something that you say that really, right now is the right time for business owners to kind of bring forth their true brand. What do you mean by that?
Madeline: So what I think happens a lot when we approach the idea of starting a company is we consider, what is the safest plate we can make. We think that in order to be accepted in the business world we have to kind of fit into a really narrow box. I see this a lot because I have a background like I said in FinTech in accounting and so there’ll be people who will just follow the model of what they’ve seen other businesses do. It’s going to be so and so and so and so. And they’re not going to embrace the brand identity that really speaks to who they are or who they want to serve because they feel like I’ve got to just be open to whatever comes my way so that I can pay my bills. And what I think happens in that instance is you start saying yes to everybody and you really lose sight of why you got into business in the first place. And so, it’s really important for event brands and businesses and leaders to look at who are the people that I’m really here to serve and how can I build a brand that speaks directly to those humans. And the thing that we see because we work so much in this space is that when people step boldly forward and put themselves out there with a brand identity that really speaks to their ideal client, suddenly all of that noise falls away and you’re able to have a conversation really directly and call in the people that you’re meant to work with rather than wasting your time on people who are ill-aligned or don’t really value what you do in the first place.
Kelly: Yeah. I think that that’s extremely true and it’s not that different from when we talk about like positioning messaging and making sure that you’re focusing on who your ideal clients are and what you actually do in the world and not making it so generalist that it says everything to no one. But what you’re talking about is actually deeper from the brand identity standpoint. You’re talking about actually like making your mark in a way that’s very differentiated from everyone else in the space and doing that from a place of authenticity, right?
Madeline: Yeah. And I think the thing that we’re all scared of is showing our true selves and this is what this process is about. And one of the things that has been such a delight in our business and in the work that we do is helping people uncover that true identity and then embrace it in a much bigger way. I think business gives us an opportunity to really step into the qualities or attributes that maybe we’re even diminished or we were told like for myself I grew up being told you’re too bossy and you need to just sit in your place. Even in the corporate world, I was a little bit of a rule-breaker because I had all these tattoos and like I spent all this time hiding who I was because I was told by like the traditional powers that you can’t be this way in business. And what I found in stepping into that role myself is I’m able to work with people that I love, every single day I’m able to attract clients that are curious and excited about those sides of who I am. I’m able to run a great team because I do have a clear vision and direction of where I’m going. And so I love being able to be that self all day long and I love being able to help other founders embrace it in their work.
Kelly: Yeah. And I think it’s important because what you’re touching on is like the fact that you and I have talked about this before that you’re not actually siloing yourself. You’re not saying like here’s who I am at home and the audience is used to me saying this, but here’s who I am at home and I put different clothes on and therefore I’m like this other persona in my business or professional world. I think that there’s so much fear still around being able to do that, to take that step. So what you’re talking about is like being on the other side of it as I am as well, just owning who you are, being unapologetic about who you are, what you’re actually doing for your company, for your team, for your clients, is essentially like putting a sign out there that says this is who we really are, if you believe what we believe come on board. And so, there’s no time or effort or energy spent on anything other than authenticity and by extension you work with the people who get you excited every day, not people who are just their like paying your bills.
Madeline: And you build stronger relationships too, like this is the thing that excites me most is like I genuinely say to clients, coaching clients like love you, take care of yourself, or just the teams that we get to work with and some of our client organizations. We have these great rapports because there’s no pretense. There’s no façade. We’re not like I say putting on your business pants and pretending to be somebody else and particularly right now during kind of this COVID climate I think that that’s really transformational for people. I remember this moment early on in the pandemic I was collaborating with one of our clients team members and he has five kids at home. They’re all running around and he was visibly flustered during a call we were having and I could just see that disconnect where he was still trying to be like, okay I’m my business self here, I’ve got to be professional, and all hell is breaking loose in the background. And I was just able to say, hey man, just take a second. And that’s always what we say. We’re like just take your moment, like take a breath, go handle those children, like if anything they’re a delight to all of us, we’re smiling but like don’t stress yourself out even more. Just handle what you need to handle and then get back and we can get back to work. And it was really interesting to just watch the psychology shift from like suddenly his shoulders dropped and he was able to take a deep breath and it was this realization of I don’t have to worry when I’m in an interaction with you like this is not upsetting you and I think that that has continued to evolve over the pandemic. But still for a lot of us, there’s this pretense that that we’re playing for zoom and so I hope that that by showing up in the way that I do every day that I can kind of help other leaders start modeling that behavior so that people can just learn to kind of embrace a little bit more of who they are every single day.
Kelly: Yeah. One of the other things that you say that I really love is that entrepreneurship is the true path to equity but entrepreneurship has also been extremely glamorized so I want to talk a little bit about that because I think that that’s an important topic to cover as well.
Madeline: Yeah. So I mean I think that this comes out of the world of Instagram and maybe like a small dose of shark tank but it was like something happened post 2010 where everybody was talking about like oh my gosh I’m an entrepreneur as I called it, like entrepreneur because unless you’re actually making revenue it’s not really business. But there is this idea that being an entrepreneur is the most amazing thing in the world and in many ways it is but I also don’t believe that everybody is cut out for it. There is a lot of stress. There is a lot of burden. It is a proverbial roller coaster every single day and without mental toughness and the ability to dedicate time to your own personal development as a leader, you’re not going to survive. And we see this like many small businesses fail and so what I believe is that we really have to look at ourselves prior to going into business and say am I cut out for this, do I just have a great idea or do I have the wherewithal to really build a business around it. And for me the thing that I want to see shift in our world is innovative business models that are designed to do something differently, solve a big major problem, systemic inequalities, take action toward social justice and those are all amazing causes that we can each individually care about. But unless we have longevity and business models behind them, it’s not going to make an impact and the biggest lesson for me this past year really was seeing the way that traditional business has been built doesn’t really work for a lot of us. And so for me and particularly identifying as a woman, watching so many women have left the workplace like it has been such an indicator that the traditional model of business is broken and so if we want to get to a more equitable world, we need to step out of those corporate environments and start new companies that allow for us to reshape. And even in my own business, it’s things like offering flexible leave offering. We do something around flex holidays so that if you practice a particular religion or have a spiritual belief that requires you to take different days off than the traditional 12 holidays, we have something built into our business model around it and what I see is it’s going to take a lot of time for government and large corporations to create those different systems in business. But in entrepreneurship, we have the opportunity to write the roadblock so we can come in and say no, this is how we do things and build business models that are better for everybody in the long term.
Kelly: I love that, and the holidays are a great example of how you’ve actually taken that to heart and really imparted that in Fearless Foundry. What are some of the other ways that you’ve kind of like really embodied that in your culture?
Madeline: It’s been interesting because everything has been in a process of disruption because it started when we were building our first employee contracts and I did what anybody would do, you go out on the internet.
Kelly: Search for free templates.
Madeline: Yeah, here’s the template for a hiring agreement and you download it and you look at it and you go, well, I don’t agree with that and I don’t agree with that. And so one of the first glaring ones was developing maternity leave policy. We had several employees who are younger women who plan to have family someday and that was a really key part of the negotiation process and like half the templates we looked at didn’t even have that and then the ones that did had language where it was clearly written by a human who’s never encountered children and it was all based of government paradigm. So like you get six weeks of unpaid leave and then it’s up to us, to do what we want with your job. And having been through that construct myself, had a baby in a corporate environment and just feeling completely screwed over by the system, I was like this is not the way we’re going to do things. And so, it was an opportunity for me to reflect as a leader and shape a policy that I think is actually supportive and encouraging of our team to grow their families and also to be excited to come back to work after six months of paid leave. So that was one example. The other one we’ve been navigating more recently which has been super interesting is 401k. I’m a really big believer in investment and empowering women in conversations around money and 401k is a great vehicle to kind of get people to do some early investing, particularly when I was young I was part of a corporate environment that just like really pushed me to co-opt in and now I have this nice little reserve of money I never would have had if it wasn’t for that. But when we started researching 401ks, it was like total old paradigm. It was like we’ve got this provider, they’re gonna pick your mutual funds, take it or leave it kind of thing and so we had to do all of this hunting to find a provider that would come up with plans that match our values because so much of our company ethos is around sustainability, it’s around gender pay equity, it’s about being supportive of the LGBTQI community. And so we knew that if we created a policy and a plan that didn’t reflect those values, nobody in our team would opt into them, and so it’s been harder for me as a leader. I haven’t been able to just like click a box on our payroll company but I also being able to like proactively seek out those resources, that we now have a complete green retirement plan that reflects our values, and that all of our employees are excited about participating in because they know their money isn’t going somewhere that they don’t agree with.
Kelly: Right. Zooming out for a second, I almost like can hear people in the audience saying like, this sounds great Madeline. I would love to put all of these things in place. It sounds great. How do you balance that with turning a profit? And how do you sort of like, in your mind, make the mental shift? Because that’s actually what it is, the mindset shift that these are not opposing things on a spectrum, right?
Madeline: Yeah. So I’m gonna say something slightly controversial. But what I don’t believe the purpose of a business is to just make money. I think the purpose of a business is to be a vehicle for growth for the individuals inside of it. And so as long as our company is able to pay everyone a great living wage, as long as it’s able to continue to grow me as a leader and support clients that we love, as long as I can pay my team really well, like those are the things that matter most to me. And I think that when we get into business, the mindset is, grow the revenue, grow the revenue, grow the profit, grow the profit, but it doesn’t look at, is the system inside of this business healthy. And one of the things that I think about all the time, and I can’t remember if it was you who shared this with me or someone else, but is this fact that businesses today, the average lifespan is like 15 to 17 years, where previously, it used to be like 60 to 70 years. And I think it’s because they’re unsustainable on the inside. And so if you take a system, and it’s getting sicker and sicker over time, it’s going to die. And so I think that the most important thing inside my organization is the people with it. And so in order for my business to grow, I know that I need to invest in them. And I’ve been a part of organizations that didn’t do it, and watch how that turnover and just disrupted culture and destroyed people and caused infighting. And it’s like, that is the opposite of what I’m looking to build here. And so it is a huge mental shift, but I see the people inside my company as the most important piece. And so investing in them just has to be a priority.
Kelly: Yeah, no, I love that. And obviously, I couldn’t agree more. I think that there are a lot of agency leaders who have that belief. And also, they have their own individualistic desires, right? Like they want to be able to retire, they want to be able to maybe exit the company at some point. And in their minds, the only way to do that is to like, yes, take care of the people almost secondarily. Yes, it’s important to them, but ultimately, it’s about growing the profit and the revenue. So this is a great conversation, because what you’re saying is like you’re starting to change, I mean, it’s like a giant wheel, turning, going up a hill, as kind of like the visual that I have. But it’s starting to change that mindset and that frame around, these are not competing things. What we have to do is actually really deconstruct the entire system that we’re playing in and decide whether we want to play that game or create our own, and essentially you’ve created your own. All the little pieces inside of your company are a differentiation from the way that business is done in at least in this country. So I appreciate that so much. I really, really do. I commend it.
Madeline: Yeah, and I mean, it’s not easy. I think one of the other contracts we’re still really up against in the agency or consultancy environment is that the historic trend to underpay creatives. Like I didn’t even plan to build out like an agency style model. Originally, I was consulting on my own primarily, but then I was also getting into all this execution work. And then I was hiring contractors to help me with that, because the work just started to grow and grow and grow. And what I saw was like this pervasive problem where creatives were just being completely underpaid for their work. And the interesting thing is, multiple members of our team now have been a part of other agency environments. And they’ve also contracted and it wasn’t any better in that agency environment. They still felt super exploited. They still felt like they weren’t really valued for their time or their work. And so for me, creating that different model is really important because it means that I’m going to be able to attract a different type of talent. And, maybe this is wildly ambitious, but my hope is to transform the way that people see creatives because I think that there’s been a lot of mythology around the starving artists’ sort of thing and even as we’ve stepped into the digital world, people don’t believe in the value of our work and our worth. And so by putting our model in place the way we haven’t, and we talk about it pretty openly too. We blog about it. And I talked like this some podcast about it. But again, we’re attracting a higher caliber of business that’s willing to pay more for our work because they understand the way that we operate as an entity, and know that the team that we have is really well taken care of. And from a work product perspective, it’s a better experience, because it’s not like, oh, yeah, we had that contractor you were working with, but now they’re not here anymore, because we were paying minimum wage, and they decided to move on. And so again, it goes back to that relationship building piece, we’re able to be closer with our clients because our team is so well solidified.
Kelly: Yeah. And you’re speaking to something that I talked about a lot, which is like the money follows value, right? Where you’re taking care of the team, they’re essentially taking care of you, taking care of the clients, they stay longer, the clients stay longer, the work is better. And, I think, again, this kind of goes to that, the gears turning in people’s mind, like, oh my God, if we take care of the team at the top of this, then the profit margin, and all the other things will just naturally flow as part of all of that. And I think we’re starting to see some shift around that, which is really exciting to me. And I think, you doing what you’re doing in the world right now and the fact that there is such demand for what you’re doing is a really, really good sign that this is where everything is going so. So as we start to wrap up, I would love to talk for hours. But will you actually share a little bit about the story of your rebrand, because I think that’s something that a lot of agency leaders can have some takeaways around, specifically within this context of equity and getting the team involved. How all of that happened for you?
Madeline: Yeah. So this was such a fascinating process. And I think it’s something that a lot of agencies struggle with, rebranding themselves, because it’s like this huge dose of your own medicine, particularly if you claim expertise in this space. And for me, the desire for the rebrand came about because we had grown tremendously. So we went from like a team of like two and a half to now we have about 10 people who work for us. And in that transition, we were still kind of clinging to an old identity that was basically built when it was just me. And so we needed to embrace something that professed our unified calling to the world, and also was something that the whole team felt like they were a part of shaping. And what was really transformational about the rebrand was the way that we went about it. So rather than just me as the leader sitting in a silo coming up with a new name and a new construct, we got the whole team involved in the process. And it was a realization that we couldn’t do it alone. So we actually sourced in a team, which we brought in Emily and Justin from Root and River to lead a series of conversations with us to help unify the identity of what we were doing. And it was a maturation of a lot of the stuff that I had started out with in terms of core values, just kind of some growing up, that we had done as a brand kind of came through with the team. But the result that I didn’t quite expect, but was blown away by, it was how much it strengthened our culture. Suddenly, we all knew who we were as a business. Suddenly we all knew what our core values were. Suddenly, we all had the same language to talk about our brand. Suddenly, that website copy we’d been trying to write just came out like magic. And we were like, yes, this is it. And it was because we got everybody involved in the process. And so for me, it really changed the way that we think about brand building now. Because if you do have a team, if you want them to be a part of that shift and not feel left behind by it, you have to get them involved. And so we’ve really started to encourage the leaders that we work with, if they have a team that they can come bring on board to do it, because it’s such an amazing culture building exercise. And it allows for everybody to come on board and be a part of the new brand rather than feeling like, wait, what’s going on? Why are we changing? And so, it was a really fantastic process. And it took time. I think that’s the other reason leaders resist. You’ve already got enough client work on your plate, but to take the time was really worth it for us. Because now we’ve got a team that feels so much stronger in the new era.
Kelly: Yeah, I love that. And that’s a direct reflection of my experience with agencies. Because when I’m brought in, there’s not necessarily like a rebranding, from a brand identity standpoint, but certainly there’s some positioning messaging that needs to be sort of iterated and I always say that I won’t take the engagement on unless we’re doing intake sessions with everyone on the team from the CEO down to the summer intern because everybody’s voice matters, everybody has something to contribute. And then making that process really collaborative is so important because I think that you’re right, a lot of agency leaders have this idea that they are the ones with the vision, it’s their charge to make these decisions sort of in a vacuum, and then just communicate to the team. Oh, by the way, we have a new name, or we have a new positioning statement, or oh, we have a new website. And it’s just the wrong way to do it because they’re left with feeling so disconnected. Right? Whereas if you just bring them in, this goes back to everything that we’re talking about here. You bring them in, you show them that they’re valued; you have a stronger result at the end of it. So whether it’s client work, or your internal marketing and branding, it doesn’t actually matter. It is the strength of an organization, especially in the creative services field. It is the strength of everyone’s voice as part of that.
Madeline: Yeah, and the other thing that I learned in the process where I’m maybe I’m a little critical of myself, but if I could go back and do one thing better in the rebrand process, it would be to think about the way that the rebrand would be experienced by our existing clients. So it was one thing to rebrand and get our team on board. We thought a lot about what will the message be to new clients, who do we want to attract now, but that transformation has a ripple effect on the clients you’re already serving. And so that’s one of the things that I think we could have done a better job with, to also take into account there’s an energetic shift that happens when you change your brand identity. Our new identity was a lot stronger, a lot more progressive. And we needed to reach out to our clients and say, we’re changing, and we want you to be a part of that. We didn’t lose anybody in the process, but we did kind of feel a little bit of shifts of like, oh, wait, how does this going to work? Or people being like, are fees going to double now coz you look a lot better. And so that’s one of the things that I learned throughout the process. We got to look at how this is going to ripple effect. Everybody, we’re involved with our team, our existing clients, and then also the humans that we want to see that we serve in the future.
Kelly: Yeah, that’s a great takeaway, and something that I think a lot of agencies if they do go through a rebranding or repositioning process, they don’t necessarily think about. So super, super valuable. Well, you can find out more about Maddie at fearlessfoundry.com and thank you so much again for joining me. This has been a great conversation. I wish we had another two hours.
Madeline: Me too. Thank you so much, Kelly.