How a creative agency used a social media platform to build its empire.
Whether or not we care to admit it, in today s world, looks are pretty much everything. The way we are perceived matters, and that s the bottom line.
It s time to embrace this reality and start building your business around the idea that at any given moment, you and your business are being judged by your “cover”.
In this 40-minute episode Bill Kenney and I discuss:
Listen to No Sidebar below ...
Brian Gardner: Well, I am in a closet. It’s 95 degrees in here. My wife and kid, they’re hanging at the pool.
Voiceover: One, two, three.
Brian Gardner: Hey, everyone. Welcome to the No Sidebar podcast. I am your host, Brian Gardner. I’m here to discuss the struggles around being and becoming a creative entrepreneur. Together, we’ll identify what stands in the way of you building and growing your online business.
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Hey friends, welcome back to another groovy Wednesday. Last week, I gave you a behind-the-scenes look at the growth and the rebranding of No Sidebar. I talked about the first four months of the newsletter and why I decided it was time for a redesign and gave a window into the rebranding process and the new content strategy for the website.
Today, I have the privilege of talking to the guy, the mad design genius who is beyond the new-look No Sidebar. I also consider him a friend. It’s been really fun getting to know him and talk shop over social media, Skype, and so on. Here we go today with Bill Kenney from Focus Lab.
Bill, welcome to the show.
Bill Kenney: Thank you very much. Very happy to be here and talk candidly with you.
Brian Gardner: It’s funny, as creatives, we get into these ruts where all we want to do is create, create, create, and zone everything out. Once in a while, it’s good for me to step outside my routine and my comfort zone. It’s also good to talk shop with people who are like-minded. I’m definitely glad that you took me up on this.
I want to jump right in and talk about working from home, because when I first asked you about being on the show and asked if you had a headset and a mic, you said, “Yeah. No problem, but my kid’s going to be home,” right?
Bill Kenney: Right.
Brian Gardner: We were like, “How’s that going to work with the kid upstairs making noise and stuff like that?” I thought it would be a fun way to break the ice and talk about what it’s like for you as an entrepreneur, as a guy working from home, how does that go for you? I know that most of the agency that you run, which we’ll talk about later, most of them are in the office, but you’re off in your own little world in the basement, right?
Bill Kenney: That’s correct. I work in the dark, cold basement. I think it’s probably natural for me, this whole working-from-home thing, because I freelanced for so long and got comfortable with working out of my bedroom at that point, before Focus Lab officially started.
I d started to do freelance work for clients in Savannah. I did that for a couple of years, and I got comfortable doing that. My routine was basically wake up at whatever time I wanted at that point and start grinding through the day, but I did my best work at night. I would work long hours through the night, again, in my bedroom.
Eventually, I met Erik. We started a legitimate company. I no longer worked from my bedroom. We worked in the office. We’ve grown that now for five years.
But now that I ve transitioned back to working from home, it feels normal for me, I suppose, because I started that way. It definitely has its pros and cons, but it doesn’t feel like a huge departure from who I am. And as a designer, sometimes it’s nice to be in a little bit of a cave and just do your thing.
I’ll certainly talk a little bit about what works and what doesn’t. That’s kind of my evolution through that in getting back to this.
Brian Gardner: You started out as a freelancer, and you were doing projects working from home. You met Erik, and you created what’s now Focus Lab, the company. Remind me — you were still in Savannah at the time, and you formed the company. For you, you had an office there in town, and it wasn’t quite so much stay at home and work, but you were in the office for a while. I think, what, within the last six months to a year, maybe, you’ve moved up north?
Bill Kenney: That’s right. Yes. When we started the company, I would consider the birth of the company when we moved into that office. Erik left his job. I was full-time freelancing. We both started doing Focus Lab as a full-time job the moment that we signed for our first office. We did that. I was there almost 5 years. I only just left. When I was there, I went in every single day. I thrived off of going into the office, being around team members.
Just recently, while living in Savannah, I was introduced to a beautiful young woman. Right away, got engaged, got married, and now I live in New Jersey. The office, the headquarters, if you will, of Focus Lab, which houses the majority of the team, is still in Savannah, but I’m now a remote employee, a remote boss, if you will.
Brian Gardner: This is something that just came to mind. It was not on my questions-to-ask-Bill list. You mentioned that you were there all the time in the office. As a creative, I think I know the answer to this question, but I will ask you anyway. My guess is that when you left the office, whether it was 4:00, 5:00, 6:00 in the evening, you went home, had dinner, and your work day — or at least your mental day or creative day — then ends there. I’m sure you had family time, but my guess is that late at night, you were there hammering away to get stuff done to then be ready for the next morning.
Bill Kenney: Yeah, absolutely. At that point, to be clear, there was no family. I was in beast mode.
Brian Gardner: You were a workaholic?
Bill Kenney: Yeah, I was really a workaholic. I know that’s a big topic that’s discussed these days. We definitely have a point of view on that as a company, but for me, I was totally fine working all the time. I was building and growing Focus Lab. It was really exciting for me. I had nobody else to give my attention to. I would go home, whether I was actually burned out for the day and I just needed to do nothing but watch movies, or I was really excited about a new project and I wanted to work all the way through until I couldn’t sleep. That was my mentality at that point.
Brian Gardner: I think we all struggle in some fashion. Again, this is probably multiple shows or maybe even an entire podcast, the idea of addictedness to the Internet, the ability to work endlessly.
I know that the job I had previous to what I do now, I loved it so much because of the fact, at 4:00, when I left, that’s all it was. There was nothing I could do at home. It wasn’t so interesting or I didn’t have such passion for it that I wanted to keep thinking about it when I was at home. It’s for sure the number-one reason why I wish — not that I have anything past this reason — I could go back to it.
Bill Kenney: We do the best we can to create a company culture that is like that. We make it very clear, let’s say, when you get off work, whether it’s 5:00 or 6:00, whenever you get your stuff done, you’re not going to hear from me. I’m not going to be calling you after hours saying, “I need you to do this. I need you to do that.” Worst-case scenario, I’m going to jump on and do what I need to do to support whatever needs to happen in the afterhours life of Focus Lab.
Even the type of work we take on and the different paths that we chose not to go down as far as services that we offer are all relevant and related to that decision. We don’t want this crazy, startup, you work 24 hours a day culture within Focus Lab. On the flip side of that, if you are energized about a project and you want to work at night, I’m never going to say, “No. I’m going to kill your mojo. You need to stop working because it’s time for your family.”
I want you to enjoy your family, but on your own terms. If you want to work, then work away.
Brian Gardner: We’re the same way at Copyblogger. The typical work week is 40 hours. Most of our people pull 50 to 60 hours, not because we require it, but because they love what they do. Sometimes, I’ve had bouts of 80-hour weeks. I have 20-hour weeks. As long as everybody gets the job done.
My guess is that those who work for you probably fall under that same rockstar-quality, actions-speak-for-themselves types of people. Let’s talk a little bit about that, the formation of Focus Lab, the company. There are companies, and there are really great companies. Everything that you guys do, whether it be audio, video, design, anything, and especially with your new project, Sidecar, which we’ll talk about a little bit later, everything you guys touch is just awesome. It’s not because Bill is awesome. It’s because Bill has built an awesome team. Is that right?
Bill Kenney: That’s exactly right. From the start, I’ve always told anybody that’s worked with us, “This is not about me and Erik. It’s not the Bill Kenney show, although Dribbble would like to tell you otherwise. It’s absolutely about the team. We should all be doing this for the same reason. We’re all feeding the machine that is Focus Lab, and we all benefit from it.
I sit in that outer circle. We call Focus Lab the nucleus there in the middle. I don’t feel like I am the nucleus. I’m part of the team that helps support and build this thing that begins to snowball and become its own beast in a way.
Brian Gardner: Sure. Just real quickly, how do you find, for instance, Alicja — how did you find Alicja? How do you find the people who work for you?
Bill Kenney: It’s pretty interesting. Although we’re very intentional with a lot of decisions, it feels like a good amount of the team members have come onto the team completely organically and even some of them arbitrarily.
Alicja, gosh — that was probably about three years ago now, maybe even a little bit more. Erik knew her. Erik led the dev team at a local church, a pretty big church there, so there was a lot of need. He was the key dev member on that. If I remember correctly, she actually ran the graphic design side of that church, which is funny to think about. I can even speak more to this. A lot of our team members, even if they’re not in the design role, have design backgrounds, so that’s also awesome for us.
That was the relationship that led to her reaching out to Erik, saying, “I see that you guys are doing awesome things.” Then Erik had left, started Focus Lab with me, and she said, “I’d like to come join you at any capacity. I’m about to move back to Savannah. I think I could be a good project manager for you guys.”
At that point, we didn’t know exactly what project management was or how much we could benefit from having proper project management. Me, and Erik just stilted everything. You managed whatever clients you built the relationships with, just that early-bird stuff.
She joined the team, and the rest is history. That helped tremendously and shaped what PM and those types of roles started to look like for Focus Lab so that people like myself and Erik could just focus on their craft.
My biggest value in Focus Lab, or one of them, the majority, would be just focusing on design. I don’t need to be caught up in the day-to-day businessy-type things. Although I’m very in tune with them, my biggest value is still the design side.
When you start to think about adding team members like PM or sales or anything like that to allow me to focus, it’s extremely valuable — and for other team members to focus too, not just me.
Brian Gardner: You bring me back to the days when I started StudioPress. I remember I was doing everything, whether it be designing, developing, or answering questions. I remember very specifically, one Friday evening, I was in a tent. I was participating an event called The Breast Cancer 3-Day, which was a 60-mile walk from Wisconsin down to Chicago.
Bill Kenney: Wow.
Brian Gardner: I was in my tent, on my phone, activating forum accounts, because I was the only person who could do it.
Bill Kenney: Right.
Brian Gardner: I was like, “It’s time to scale. It’s time to grow and delegate.” A lot of times, that means a little bit of risk, because you ve got to hire people.
Bill Kenney: Sure.
Brian Gardner: Man, scaling a team is tough, but it’s also extremely necessary.
Bill Kenney: Yeah. You get to this realization point to where it s scary: We’re actually going to hire somebody. That’s scary. I ve got to think about how we’re going to pay for that, all those things.
But once you do it and you get past that hurdle, you realize, “Wow. That was extremely beneficial for us to do that,” and think, “Thank God we weren t so scared that we took longer to make that decision.” You open your eyes a little bit more, going, “What else can we change or add?” At that point, it becomes a lot easier to make all those decisions, and then things start to work themselves out.
Brian Gardner: For me, what it came down to — and I see this probably with you — is, like you said, you were doing things that were not so much in your wheelhouse. They were monotonous duty-type things, and you’re a creative person and a genius. I will call you a genius and anoint you as a creative genius.
Bill Kenney: Stop that nonsense.
Brian Gardner: I was in my own way, too.
Bill Kenney: I think what’s important to remember about that is it’s not that I think or anybody should feel like they are above a certain role within the company. It’s actually that I wasn’t even doing it well. I’m not even serving the position well, and I’m not doing it as good as other people could do it.
I think sales is a great example. I hate even using that word within our company, so we do new business. For a long time, me and Erik were the salespeople. We took all the incoming calls and did all that. Some people can look at that position as, “Well, you see the sales guys. You need some guy that gets on and rambles on the phone and tries to lock up new jobs. But for us, it’s not like that. It’s much different.
It wasn’t until we hired Will, who just started in January — Will Straughn is an awesome team member — that you realize how much better they are at that job. Like, yes, I started the company. I should know the most, the ins and the outs, but that doesn’t mean I understand all the little nuances when you’re speaking with somebody, especially when you have that type of interaction: having the time to follow up appropriately, personality, all these things. He does an amazing job at that.
I feel like I’m much better suited to be a designer. That doesn’t mean I’m better. That doesn’t mean because I’m the boss, I shouldn’t have to do things that might seem monotonous....