Season 2, Episode 4: Carl Smith from Bureau of Digital

Kristen G: Hi, welcome back to Up Right & Better, the podcast where we talk about growing businesses up and to the right, and up and better. On this show it’s not just about scaling for scaling’s sake, it’s about making organizations that deliver value to everyone involved. I’m your host Kristen Gallagher.

All right. Welcome back to season two, episode four of Up Right & Better, and I’m super excited to have Carl Smith from the Bureau of Digital here. Carl and I actually haven’t met in person, but he’s been gracious enough to listen to me yammer at him a couple of times, maybe, over the last couple of months. I’m really interested in what he’s working on. So, I will just go ahead and introduce him. Carl was a theater major who decided to act like he understood business, which I can relate to. Not a theater major, but… Carl spent 14 years in advertising before launching his digital agency in nGen Works in 2003. nGen went on for 12 years and constantly experimented with different models of management and team structure, including the Jellyfish model, which was flat before flat was cool. Toward the end of nGen’s run, Carl attended the very first Bureau event and fell madly in love with the concept of building community in the web industry. So much that a few years ago he later closed nGen to take over the Bureau in 2016. Now Carl spends every day connecting digital professionals to give them the support they need.

So that’s a correction to something I said earlier. Carl bought out his partner in the Bureau of Digital, and sort of now runs it full-time. Welcome Carl. Thank you for being here.

Carl Smith: Thanks for having me. It was fun to listen to all that. It was a trip down memory lane.

Kristen G: I haven’t heard about the Jellyfish model. Can you just start with that?

Carl Smith: Sure. I’d be happy to. So at nGen, we got to this point where we were successful. We had as much work as we can handle. We were about the size we wanted to be. We’d gotten around 30 people, and we were fully distributed. So, we did have an office. So purists would say we were located distributed, but nobody had to go in there. It was just something that the team voted on to keep. We got to this point where I was talking with one of the people who’s managing projects, Rachel, and she was like, “What is your vision for how we should work?” And I said, “Well, for me, I would love it if everybody got to choose what they worked on, and if clients had to pitch us on why they were the right fit for us instead of us having to pitch clients with four other people chasing them.” And started talking about human nature, and how if we get to select what we want, then organically we’ll start having the work we want, and we just get better because we’re passionate about what we’re doing.

The next day Rachel called me. And I’m in Florida, she’s in Vancouver. So about a three hour time difference and she said, “You’re talking about the Jellyfish. You’re talking about Jellyfish. That’s what you’re talking about,” and I was like, “You’re drunk. I have no idea what you mean.” She said, “No, Jellyfish are transparent, and we’re transparent. We’ve always shared exactly what’s going on.” If anybody wanted to know the numbers in the bank account I’d make sure there was context. If somebody said, “How much money?” I would say, “Okay, there’s 400,000 dollars,” but what I would really say is, “We’ve got three payrolls.” Right?

Kristen G: Right.

Carl Smith: I had to put it in a context they could understand. She goes, “We’re transparent.” She goes, “You know what else? We are totally at a point right now where we choose what it is we want to do, and that’s what Jellyfish do. When there’s a problem they grow to the size of it to fix it. So, we kind of expand out.” One of the things we had going at nGen was, if two people on the team want to do a project but nobody else did, they could supplement the two of them with freelancers. Although, we call them friendgeneers because I thought freelancers and contractors is horrible, and they got paid every two weeks just like we did. There was never a when you’re done with the project you’ll get paid. But two people could expand the team, just like Jellyfish would, and when the project was done those two people who had worked on that project would know that their time with nGen for that time period was up. So it wasn’t like we were going to constantly grow. We were going to expand when there was opportunity and we were going to shrink when there wasn’t.

Then sustainability was a huge one, and that was one of the things Rachel said. She was like, “Jellyfish have been around forever, and they are in the coldest waters, and they are in the warmest waters. They are totally adaptable.” So we just started thinking about it, and it just made total sense. So we kind of inverted the normal sales cycle, and when somebody would contact me and say they were interested in nGen pitching the work, I would basically tell them, “Look, here’s how it works and if it is not a fit for you we totally understand and it’s not a problem, but what I’m going to do is ask you some questions so that you can tell me what you’re looking for, and if we are a fit and if I think, ‘Hey, this is in organics, or it’s in fantasy sports, or it’s in this sort of thing,’ then I’ll say, ‘Okay, I need you to write me a three or four paragraph pitch to sell the team because if they don’t select your project, then I’m going to call you and tell you the teams not interested and would you really want to work with a team that’s not interested? No. But if they are, wouldn’t you really want to have a team that picked you instead of one that got a project slapped in their face and told to do it?”

And it just worked magnificently. It was amazing.

Kristen G: That’s amazing. My business is only three years old, but gosh, I want to do that. That’s so exciting.

Carl Smith: I do have to say, you have to have a decent pile of cash to stand on.

Kristen G: I think so.

Carl Smith: So that you’re not scared.

Kristen G: Yeah. More scared than the regular scared.

Carl Smith: Exactly.

Kristen G: Gosh, I love that. I think that’s really interesting. I kind of want to segway a little bit from the agency life. You decided to close nGen to go and run Bureau of Digital, or work with … At that time I’m assuming that you had somebody that you worked with.

Carl Smith: Yeah.

Kristen G: Tell me about that decision, and why’d you do that?

Carl Smith: So, the Jellyfish model worked great with one fatal flaw. There was nobody out there looking for new business. So, for a while the model itself acted kind of as a marketing stream. So we had articles that were written up about it, certain clients. We actually had a client that wrote an email to his team – “They said yes.” So these things started to happen, but then we said no so many times that people stopped asking. I kind of checked out for nine months, which sounds horrible, but I will tell you it was glorious, and I apologize to no one.

I took nine months. I shed 30 pounds. I learned to cook a little bit, but I also went to the first Bureau event, which was at the time called Shop Talk, and Greg Hoy and Greg Storey, collectively known as “the Gregs” at Happy Cog invited 20 plus, I think it was 24 of us, to get together in Portland, believe it or not, at the Kennedy school. And basically they said, “We’re getting these people together to talk about what’s going right, what’s going wrong, and just how we can help each other because none of us are business majors.” And I said, “Okay.” I didn’t know they knew who I was. I was a little freaked out. Actually, I was like, “I’m getting called to the principle’s office. I don’t know what happened.”

So I replied back with a very short email that said, “Why me?” They replied back we’d been reading on the Jellyfish model, and either you’re onto something or you’re totally full of it, and we want to know which one.” And I said, “All right. I’ll be there.”

Kristen G: That’s awesome.

Carl Smith: So I went to the first one and to this day my absolute best friend was in that first one, and we text each other every day. It’s one of these things where he was a lawyer, and he’s my lawyer, and now I don’t really need a lawyer, but we just connected on so many levels, and that was it. I never quit going to these events. I was speaking quite a bit at the time on the Jellyfish model, and it got to this point where I just became so addicted to the concept of being in a room with other people, and sharing everything, that I couldn’t stop.

Kristen G: That transparency is such a resonate concept for me because I’ve never quite understood why I wouldn’t share something. Right?

Carl Smith: Yeah.

Kristen G: I think it’s an orientation. I don’t believe that people are going to hurt me with that information or hurt my business with that information. So, I’m going to share what I learned, what I failed at, what’s been kind of interesting but didn’t quite work. All of those things, and I’m curious if that’s something you share.

Carl Smith: Absolutely. I think that, from the very first one to the last one we just had in Santa Fe, it’s one of those things where I’ve never worried about it. Now, there are things like oversharing.

Kristen G: Oh, yeah. For sure.

Carl Smith: If there really is no point, and you just keep telling people about your troubles at home or whatever. You’re like, “Okay, this is not helping.” But, when it comes to the trust that’s established. You can tell. We’re animals. We still have our instincts. We kind of sense when something’s off, and I’ll pull back a little if somebody doesn’t seem legit in what they’re sharing, but overall, yeah. So, as long as you’re not going to hurt anybody, I think sharing anything that helps others is just going to help everybody and that’s the nature of the Bureau. That’s why I had to take it over.

Kristen G: I think that’s really interesting, and two things happened to me recently that are very counter to that idea, and it’s so interesting that you mentioned instincts because I think that there are people who run their business or their organization by that sort of gut feeling, and they’re willing to take those risks if the gut kind of backs up the risk, and then there are others who are maybe motivated by something different. I won’t go into excessive detail, that would be oversharing, about two of the things, but basically the jist of one of them was that this person had started a business that actually would be a competitor of mine in a different state, far, far away, and he was basically asking how do you do this work? We hadn’t established any trust, at all. Right? I just met him five minutes ago, and it was totally sort of phony, and I was like, “I can’t tell you right now because I feel really … I actually do feel kind of threatened right now.”

The other instance — somebody who I kind of thought that we shared the same set of values, and then the way that she came about putting an event together made it really clear that it was actually motivated financially, which … Money’s important, right? We all have to put food on the table, but that’s so counter to how I run things and what I focused on, that I was just like, “Oh, this is a weird taste. I don’t know how to handle this. I’m going to go now, and leave them.”

So, it’s interesting how that sort of … people sort of self-select into that community or out of that community, or that community sort of welcomes them or doesn’t.

Carl Smith: Yeah. I mean, that’s something I’ve seen. We’re coming up on 2,000 digital agencies who are kind of part of this community.

Kristen G: Wow.

Carl Smith: And 5,000 digital professionals and all this stuff, and one of the issues is scaling intimacy, right?

Kristen G: Right.

Carl Smith: Intimacy is about a small group that has something in common that’s familiar, that’s willing to make itself vulnerable so that others feel comfort because trust is based in comfort and familiarity, right? It’s in knowing that somebody else has kind of let down their guard, and they’re inviting you to do the same. Well, when you suddenly have a whole lot of people you don’t know, it’s not the same situation. It’s hard to do, and then you get to this concept of borrowed trust. Well, if so and so knows you and thinks you’re cool, right, which is the whole premise of LinkedIn, which is kind of bastardized now.

Kristen G: Yeah.

Carl Smith: But it was just that idea that, “Well, okay. Carl’s friends with you and I think you could help me out, and so I’m going to try to figure this out.” I think for me the community now polices itself, and if somebody seems like they’re doing something that’s not quite right, I get a call. It’s really kind of weird. But to your point, when you have somebody who has taken that trust from you, it could be that you shared something, and then they set something up financially. It’s not that they shouldn’t, it’s they should let you know. Right?

Kristen G: Right. Heads up. Yeah.

Carl Smith: Just reach out. And it’s funny because I’ve gotten … Every day there’s somebody putting on a new event that is trying to help people. And almost every time I get a message, “Hey, so and so is doing this.” And after I reply back, “Look, I’ll reach out to them,” but it’s a good thing. The more of us that are trying to help each other, it’s a good thing. Then I reached out to the individual and say, “Hey, some people in the community are a little cranky because you’re doing this, and I want to support it. Can you just tell me what it is, and then I can go in to the Slack channels and say, ‘Hey this is great. This is what’s happening.'” But it’s funny, and I don’t know that it’s people are worried to say it, but … My mom taught me to trust people until they give you a reason not to, and then look at them sideways every time.

Kristen G: Yes.

Carl Smith: So for me, I always like to think that nobody did anything intentionally, and I like to reach out as soon as I see it and ask how I can help. It takes people off guard. It’s like waving to somebody who gave you the finger in traffic. They don’t know what to do. Hey, good to see you. It’s a struggle, right? It’s always going to be a struggle.

Kristen G: Yeah. Something that can be learned, I think. We’re sort of talking about this in a sideways way, in a better sense, but have you learned some things, I’m sure you have, along the way about building better organizations, better businesses, and what does that even mean to you, that word better?

Carl Smith: Yes. So, better. That’s an amazingly good question. I think amazingly good is also known as great.

Kristen G: Well, thank you.

Carl Smith: It’s a great question. I think, better for me when it comes to an organization is something that strengthens it holistically. It’s not about profit being better because that can come at the expense of culture, and it’s not about something getting done quicker because that can come at the cost of quality. So, I think it’s about a holistic improvement, which has to start with the way that people feel, and obviously there can be things that are being done from a process situation that are bad. There’s this great example. This was a research experiment that was done with five monkeys, and I’ll give you the short version.

So, these five chimpanzees in a room. Pole in the middle of the room. Bananas at the top of the pole. One of the monkeys climbs up, touches the banana, and the whole room gets doused with cold water, right? Monkeys freak out, they don’t go near the pole. Next day they take one of these monkeys out, they bring in a new one. That monkey walks towards the pole, the other four grab him and pull him back. And he’s like, “What is going on?” They’re like, “Trust me, the bananas are a lie dude.” Then they go through this every day until finally there are five monkeys in there that have never been doused with cold water, and they don’t go near the bananas because that’s what they were told when they came in the room by everyone else, and I think that is part of what happens in an organization, as well, is why do we have this meeting on Tuesday mornings when all we seem to do is sit there and delay everybody?

Right? Oh because we always have. So, I think that’s part of getting better is looking at, those legacy things and asking yourself, does this even matter anymore? Right?

Kristen G: Mm-hmm.

Carl Smith: Anytime you bring in somebody new, don’t just shut them down. Listen to them asking why, and then ask yourself why. I think that’s a lot of what happens when you get a lot of people together who have made up how they do things, which is a lot of what digital agencies are.

Kristen G: Right.

Carl Smith: They just create because they were musician or they were a writer, or maybe they came in as retail, and they’ve never done marketing before. But when they all get together and share their unique path, I think it starts to expose that there are ways you are doing things because you thought you had to, and you start to realize that you don’t. The other thing I’ll say that’s been the biggest epiphany for me is when I’m in a room, and somebody says, “I’m the wrong person for my job.” Right? A lot of time it’s the founder.

Kristen G: Yeah. Yes.

Carl Smith: They realize, I got us to here but I can’t get us to there. That’s the struggle I’ve been having. I’m holding onto everything I know and understand out of fear of being found an imposter, right? And if I just let go and bring in some other people to lighten the load, everything is going to get better.

Kristen G: I love that, but what you’re talking about takes so much vulnerability and trust on the part of that founder. Having worked for a person, actually two people in that situation and wishing, just hoping that they would say, “I need some help. Somebody help me with this,” or, “We’re all going to take a two-day kind of time to think about what work we’re doing and why we’re doing it,” but it never came. How do you get to that place?

Carl Smith: I mean, I think you have to have, first of all, a strong number two. You have to have somebody in that position who will call you out, and I’ve only had one boss ever in my life, and that was at the advertising agency I was at. Her name was Melanie, and she was amazing. It ruined me for any concept at having a boss after that, and I remember we went to this event, and this person was talking about founders needing to let go, presidents needing to let go, all this kind of stuff, and one of the things they said was, “You have to be okay with somebody getting 80% there. They’re going to make mistakes. That’s how they’re going to learn. As soon as you see them making a mistake, you can’t grab them by the scruff of the neck, and say, ‘You’re making a mistake.’ You have to let them feel the pain of what they do.” And it was funny because after that I looked at Melanie, I said, “I never start until you show me how to start. We need to start where you just tell me what to do, and I take off.”

And she was like, “But you always take off in these weird directions.” I’m like, “I know because I don’t know what to do, but let’s just see where I end up.” So we started changing it, and you know what? She would come in and say, “I saw that you were doing this.” I said, “Yeah, yeah. I gave up on that. It’s not going to work because of this reason.” And she goes, “Oh, okay. Right.”

So, it’s beautiful. The other thing I think that founders really need to understand is that they tried something once and it didn’t work, but they tried it. Somebody else tries it, they may try it a different way, or it may be that time has changed. Right? We’re not using, like, Netscape Navigator anymore. I mean, there’s a lot of things that have happened just in 10, 12 years. So, let people try the same thing you tried and just see if maybe it does work, but it is a lot of letting go, and actually, I’m plugging my own thing, but I wrote this post called The Irrelevant Strategy, and it’s just about how I started trying to make myself irrelevant when I was running my agency, and I would just ask everybody three questions. The first would be, what’s going on? The second would be, what do you think we should do? And then the third was, try that and let me know how it goes. Right?

Kristen G: Yes. I love all three of those questions.

Carl Smith: After a couple of weeks, they stopped telling me how it went and then after two months, they stopped telling me what the problem was. They just started doing it, and it was great being irrelevant, but another thing I think owners struggle with is I started losing a sense of identity because I had so been, this is Carl, he owns nGen works. So when that suddenly wasn’t there, I had to reestablish who I was to myself, which sounds ridiculous.

Kristen G: No.

Carl Smith: But it’s so true.

Kristen G: I think that happens often, right? Or let me rephrase. I think it could happen often, and it could be really healthy, I think. The idea that you aren’t that monkey situation to yourself. Right? That you kind of constantly question, why am I doing this? Is this who I want to be? Is this who I am? Am I giving my highest and best to this world? And I love the Irrelevant Strategy. The idea, and my background’s in non-profits, so a good non profit should be trying to make itself irrelevant, right?

Carl Smith: Right.

Kristen G: I’m also a realist. So, I know there’s always enough problems, right, to try to fix, but what would it be like if you did reach your mission, and you were so good that you did reach it and you enabled other people to get there too? What’s the next problem that you can work on?

Carl Smith: Yeah. That’s it. Absolutely. That’s when nGen, I realized, I didn’t have the energy or desire to reboot it once we hit a problem. I was just like, “You know what? Let’s just let the old girl lay down. I think she’s tired. I’m tired.” It’s interesting because you said healthy. There was a study, I think it was called the White Hall study. It was done in the UK around … They had 500 government employees, and they were able to research who was healthy and who wasn’t because they had public medicine, and they could always see who went to the doctor, who didn’t. And what they found is people who defined themselves outside of their role at work were much healthier. So if you ask someone who they are and they start talking about a softball team that they’re on, they’re going to be healthier than a person who says, “I’m trying to get my bosses job,” blah, blah, blah because they’re defining themselves based on this one structure. I started trying to define myself more as, I’m a slow runner but I can run far, and trying to do a marathon or trying to do an ultra.

And also defining myself as, I really love video games. Right? Instead of just one thing, starting to spread it out and realize these things aren’t arbitrary, they’re kind of innate.

Kristen G: Right. They’re definitely not arbitrary, and what’s interesting about defining yourself in multiple capacities or multiple functions even is that you open up to different worlds, right? Because people who love video games, that’s a world. Right. People who run, that’s a world. I like being a person– One of the reasons I love working with engineers is I don’t code very often, but I knit, and knitting is like code. So we can talk about the sort of structures behind these things, and have kind of shared conversations and you start to learn somebody else’s world and what’s going on for them, and they can learn about that for you.

Carl Smith: That is really cool. I never thought that. About knitting and code, and the similarity.

Kristen G: There’s some amazing engineers actually, one of whom is in Portland, that actually writes code for knitting patterns. It’s pretty amazing. Yeah.

Carl Smith: That’s awesome.

Kristen G: And very cool. I am not actually that great of a knitter. So I like to knit very simple things, but there is some math behind it. So, as we sort of wrap up, I’ve really enjoyed this conversation. I kind of want to know, is there one or two short cuts that you took that you wished you didn’t take in building your business, or shortcuts that you wish you took in building something?

Carl Smith: That’s a very interesting and introspective question, right? I’ll say there was a shortcut I took in trying to reboot my business or in trying to get something out of the years I put in it, and I tried to sell it to somebody, and ignored my instincts and as a result I got into some trouble. Now I own the trouble. I let what happen happen, but I also acted out of fear and greed, and those were two things I always tried to avoid in my whole career and I kind of gave into them. I was scared what people would think if the company failed, and I wanted to get paid. You know?

Kristen G: Right, right.

Carl Smith: I had put 12 years worth of stress into that and the Bureau and nGen actually just merged about a week ago, which is kind of fun. nGen still existed as an entity, even though it wasn’t doing anything. Then in terms of ones I wish I had taken, I wish I had relaxed sooner, and I don’t know that it’s a shortcut, but I wish maybe in the sixth year or seventh year, I had trusted everybody I worked with a little bit more to do more.

I explained to another owner of a digital shop at one point that I think when I relaxed and left the room, it gave everybody a chance to grow, and I’ve told a lot of owners, you’re a big Oak tree and even if you tell people to do stuff, the shade in the room is not going to give them what they need, but if you leave and don’t even necessarily tell them what to do, if you’ve got the right people they’re going to figure it out.

Kristen G: Yeah.

Carl Smith: Yeah, and maybe you’re called an absent owner, but what you’re doing is giving them room to grow and figure out how to run the company without you, and that is gold. So, I think if I could have done that sooner, who knows, maybe I wouldn’t be running the Bureau, which is what I think I was actually born to do.

Kristen G: So not necessarily a bad thing.

Carl Smith: It would have been a nicer run towards the end there, I think.

Kristen G: That’s such good insight. Well, Carl, thank you so much for sharing all of this with us. I’ve really enjoyed it, and I can’t wait to hear what people think about it. Thank you so much for being on.

Carl Smith: Thank you Kristen. It was amazing, and now I feel so good because I’ve had this introspection.

Kristen G: Oh, good. Good. Little mental health in the morning.

Carl Smith: There you go.

Kristen G: All right. Have a good one. Thank you.

That’s it for today. Thank you so much for joining us for another episode. If you’d like to ask a question or suggest a guest, email me at Until next time, grow better.


Season 2, Episode 3: Dan Szuc and Jo Wong from Apogee and Make Meaningful Work

Kristen G: Hi, welcome back to Upright and Better, the podcast where we talk about growing businesses up and to the right, and up and better. On this show, it’s not just about scaling for scaling’s sake. It’s about making organizations that deliver value to everyone involved. I’m your host, Kristen Gallagher.

I’m so excited to have another episode of season two today. We’re on episode three with Dan Szuc and Jo Wong from Apogee and Make Meaningful Work. I want to introduce them just a little bit. Dan is the co-founder and principle at Apogee and co-founder of Make Meaningful Work, and he’s the co-founder of UX Hong Kong. He’s been involved in the UX field for 25 years and has been based in Hong Kong for over 20 years. He’s lectured about user centered design globally and has co-authored two books including Global UX with Whitney Quesenbery and The Usability Kit with Gerry Gaffney. I also have Daniel’s business partner, Jo Wong, who was also co-founder and principle at Apogee, Make Meaningful Work, and the co-founder of UX Hong Kong. Jo grew up in multicultural Hong Kong with a Chinese Burmese father and Chinese-Indonesian mother. She collaborates with global teams conducting research in Cantonese, Mandarin, and English. Jo is passionate about the environment, political and economic systems, and how we can live healthier and happier lives while not adversely impacting less fortunate people. She’s co-founder of Apogee and joins us today.

I think I first met Dan in person at a Refresh Portland event hosted by a mutual friend, Matthew Oliphant in maybe … was it mid-2017 or early 2017? When were you last in Portland?

Dan Szuc: You probably remember more than I do, but I think it’s the last couple of years. Yeah. That sounds about right.

Jo Wong: Last year.

Dan Szuc: It was last year. Jo … see Jo’s helping.

Kristen G: Well, you go all over the world it seems.

Dan Szuc: Yeah, we do travel quite a bit. I feel like we’re reminded how much we travel when we meet friends and they say, “Well, you travel a lot.” It often doesn’t feel like we travel a lot, but I guess we do.

Kristen G: Well, do you like traveling? I think that’s probably the first important thing.

Dan Szuc: Yeah, I think we both do. I think travel has a number of benefits to it. Well, I guess if I connect it to the core elements of what we call our bedrock to make meaningful work or effectively to create a bedrock to make meaningful work, it’s made up of four core elements that have come about over the last five years of thinking about a framework to help answer the question of how we can make meaningful work and research.

The four elements are … and they intersect. The first one is character; to be able to understand yourself as an individual and also others, but you could also use character as a way to describe the character of a context or an environment or other objects. Character, as the first circle intersects with perspectives. So, the idea of perspectives as it says is to be able to grow a perspective and gain a perspective and tap into practices to help open up your perspective hopefully as one gets older. Then, perspectives is intersecting with the third circle, which is identification, clarification, and I guess, an iteration through practice with meaning determining what things are important to you, why you work on what you work on, and why you pursue the things that you do in your working life. That is intersecting with impact.

I’m presenting all those four circles not just as an introduction to create bedrock to make meaningful work but to also focus in on … and not solely on perspectives. The travel question is related in a way to all four circles. Not that we have to pick one but if I were to pick one where it sits really nicely, it’s perspectives. Travel outside of what we would describe as your own comfort zone is a way to … travel’s a way to check in with your own biases. Travel is a lovely way to check your biases as related to your assumptions about people and places. It’s also a nice way to check in on what’s described as boundary objects or effectively boundaries to be able to say, “Well, what is over a boundary? What lies just across the other side of the boundary or other side of the fence and then, what lays across the horizon and things you might not be able to see?” Travel’s a lovely way to grow perspective, to remain open, to speak to one of the practices of zooming out, and be able to see that it’s a pretty interesting, diverse, and colorful world out there. Travel does that really nicely.

There are, of course, some downsides to travel as well. I’d say if I were to connect this to what Jo is in part passionate about, I’d say the major downside is just the emissions of doing plane travel and especially long haul travel. That’s probably the biggest downside of it I would think but otherwise, I think we both enjoy it. I’m looking now across to Jo, and I can ask Jo the same like what do you enjoy about travel?

Jo Wong: The most enjoyable is, I think, meeting people; people with different backgrounds, different cultural backgrounds, different locations, and I think, help me see things clearer and help me to reflect as well. That’s what I enjoy most about travel.

Kristen G: I so appreciate the connection just from a simple perspective — travel to make meaningful work — but also from the reflection that you did just then and there. You called out a couple of things I find very interesting; that travel specifically outside of your comfort zone allows you to check biases, to cross barriers, and to challenge assumptions. So much of what I’m trying to do with this podcast and with the guests that I bring on is to ask those questions, how might we do those things, and I’m curious if there are specific places or times that you’ve traveled that have been challenging for you that maybe were outside of your comfort zone.

Dan Szuc: I’ve got some thoughts on that, but this time I’ll let Jo go first.

Jo Wong: I can think of two occasions I think I find it hard. I think it was either 2008 or 2009 when the financial crisis is happening around the world, we were in Paris. We walked past this park and there are quite a lot of homeless people camping there, so we put some food outside one of the tents. There was this guy. I don’t think he was living in that tent. He already spotted us from far and asked us if that’s food. We said, “Yes,” and he said can we give it to him? We said alright. The way he was just eating the food right away, and it really makes it hard to see that.

There was another occasion in San Francisco was very similar. We were just like two streets away from a friend’s place, and there were so many homeless people around. Yeah, it’s very difficult to see that type of things when you travel in countries or cities that are meant to be quite developed. I’m not sure if this is right word … That people are not getting helped from others that are much more well off. Yeah, that’s things that’s hard for me … versus we were in India a few years ago too, but it seems like people are much more happier. I don’t know. Yeah, it’s just the different things that you see from different places kind of give you perspectives and I don’t know … give you more angles to think about things.

Dan Szuc: As I was listening to Jo, I’ve got a couple of thoughts. This was more so when I was living in Australia I guess, and perhaps it was because of geography as well because Australia geographically positioned is a very different geography to say living in Hong Kong in terms region, in terms of place in the world. For Australians, maybe with the exception Perth and maybe with the exception of some of the east coast cities … depends where you’re flying. If you’re flying to New Zealand, it’s not so much of a stretch from the east coast. It’s further if you’re traveling to Perth. If you live in Perth and you travel to say Asia or to Hong Kong, it’s actually not such a long flight but in general I would say to get from anywhere to Australia say to Asia in general or to Europe, it’s a long way. It’s a long way to travel, so I would often hear people say when they return and if they go to a place that is … and this is not to focus on differences but rather touch on it to say if they were to travel from Australia to another country, that feels to them on the surface wildly different across a number of different dimensions including social and economic, perhaps even related to education and literacy and so on and so forth.

It’s very easy to go to those types of countries and simply look at it from the perspective of the presentation layer or what’s just happening on the surface, and then to come back home, to immediately compare those points of reference, and see a huge gap in between. Something that Jo and I talk a lot about in Make Meaningful Work as it relates to frameworks of thinking and models of thinking, if you take that story, it’s easy to compare what seems like one absolute to another absolute and draw all sorts of conclusions. One of the conclusions might be related to … and this is what Jo’s stories reminded me about. It might draw some conclusions around poverty and to be able to say through the eyes of a western construct … and I know that’s a very general term as well. It might be easier to go to another that seems very different on the surface and through a western filter, I’ll be able to say, “Geez, they’re really poor.” On the surface, “Geez, it was hard. I found it difficult. It was so different to home, and I really feel sorry for those people.”

What’s interesting with that is that I understand those feelings, and I don’t necessarily critique those feelings, but it’s also, at times, I feel a very surface layer way of seeing things. Also, at times, somewhat of an arrogant perspective because you’re comparing one absolute to another absolute and you’re drawing conclusions to be able to say … It’s almost like you are implicitly looking down upon people before understanding first where you are without having to compare. Poverty’s interesting because … back to Jo’s story, you go to a place like San Francisco that is contextually very close to probably one of the richest places on the planet as described by Silicon Valley, yet you still see poverty. I’m not talking about just poverty on the streets, visible poverty about homelessness, I’m also talking about poverty of thought.

Poverty of thought’s an interesting one because one might ask what are the contributors to that? If you bring it back to the idea of what’s at the heart of Make Meaningful Work as described as bedrock and be very deliberate to name it bedrock as came out of a conversation with one of the advisors and part of the bedrock core team, Michael Davis Burchat. He mentioned that term at the end of 2017 while we were enjoying a breakfast together in Toronto. I can get into that story a little bit later, but the idea of thinking about character, perspectives, meaning and impact as a contributor to defining bedrock also implies that you are in effect letting go of some of your preconceived ideas of the world. Also, what you’re doing is your contributing, one would hope over time, to multi-modeled and multi-framework ways of thinking to then contribute to, “Well, what could the world look like?”

I guess I’ll conclude this by saying, it’s very easy to go into different contexts and make judgments about it as it pertains to models that you’re used to, and I get that. I really do, but if we can practice letting that go a little bit and then rethinking about it in reference to what we want the futures to be as it pertains to the question of how we can make meaningful work, which really isn’t necessarily about more work. It could in fact be about less work, or the question could be about what is that we can let go of completely and effectively start again? What would that mean? What would that mean for a richer … and not richer necessarily in the financial but a richer sense of body, heart, and mind. Just some really quick thoughts based on Jo’s story.

Kristen G: There’s so much that I would to be able to dive into in so many of those topics just part of the travel and perspectives that can be challenging to take in, but also the kinds of poverty of thought. I can completely understand and relate to that. I also wanted to say this is big stuff and probably quite challenging to a person who thinks or has allowed themselves to be comfortable in a very specific realm, a specific ecosystem of building businesses and working in a “traditional capitalist model.” The kinds of things that make meaningful work might engender could completely change those models, could completely change how work and money and interactions happen. I wonder have you met with some of that feeling from people?

Jo Wong: I think that’s almost the unique proposition of make meaningful work, which is start with the individual. Like the story about these people that you saw on the streets that obviously need help, people started to become numb about things, so I think it’s the same with workplaces. If you see the little things are not right and you don’t say about it or you don’t do something about it, people started to get numb. It’s almost like a blind spot. You don’t see it. It’s the same thing … I’ll give you another story like yesterday, we were in a coffee shop in Hong Kong. It’s a financial district, so most people go to that coffee shop with [inaudible] financial institutes. This person took a coffee from the counter and dropped the receipt on the floor. I don’t think he meant to do that, and he didn’t notice it, but the person next to him, obviously because I was sitting behind, I was observing that situation. I can see him saw that happen, and his body language was telling me that he knows that was happening. The rubbish bin was right next to the counter, and he didn’t pick it up. He pretend not to see it and just walk away.

[inaudible] straight to me that these things happening a lot whether to yourself, your team, to your family, to your friends that the numbness or numb yourself to not seeing these things happens every single day, every single hour. That’s why we trying to use character card to get people to think deeper about themselves, get in touch with how they feel, get in touch with who you are, and do some reflection. I think this is already affecting people’s health, which is one of my passionate area; people’s wellness. If you’re so numb, you don’t feel, you don’t know that you’re not well basically. That’s why when people started to get numbers from all these tests, all of a sudden, you’re sick. Most of the times people don’t realize that these sickness are accumulated of all these negative things that’s tracked inside their body on a cell level. Yeah, I think that’s one of the things that we would like to start with this individual instead of changing the system because we’ve seen so many these change management at the process level or that type of level. It doesn’t work that well.

Jo Wong: Yeah, we tried to kind of work on one person at a time level.

Kristen G: I love that idea. The concept that you just shared; that these almost little pieces of debt and micro-aggressions and things that build up in your body almost in a biological sense … I don’t know the research, but I’d be willing to bet that there probably is research suggesting that there are biological components about built up stress and anxiety from work and from our behaviors. It does seem for somebody who … I work with companies on process, learning and development, and all of these things that are systematic. It’s almost refreshing to think maybe we could just do this individually and change one person at a time, and that would have this cascading, domino effect.

Jo Wong: Yep.

Dan Szuc: Yeah, exactly. What both of you said resonates strongly with me. I guess that coming back to your question … see if I can stitch a couple of things together is that … agree. The starting point of character as the four elements in describing dimensions of character and potentially a multilayered view of character says that a person has an opportunity, hopefully at multi-stages in their life, to be able to say, “Who am I?” and “What am I about?” and “What do I believe?” on that adventure. The idea of helping the individual’s end or individuals as part of teams and communities is important. Thinking about this from what positions you want to start that from, I think there’s something interesting that says that it doesn’t have to start from a point of change.

I’ve been thinking about that a bit. You read articles that talk a lot about change. They use the word “change.” I think Jo just said transformation as a starting point or as a centerpiece to learning. I’m not critical of it yet, but I’m curious about why that has to be or if it is indeed my assumption that it has to be the center piece or the focus. What I think is a nicer way of thinking about it is to say that you should always be learning. If you can exercise your brain, your heart, and your body to always be learning, what might be described in some respects as flow, then you might be in a better position to feel better over time as Jo was describing by wellness, which I think is an admirable thing to be doing every day.

A couple more reflections is it also got me thinking about systems. As much as we think about the individual as described like character, perspectives, meaning, and impact, but we also think about the team as described by character, perspectives, meaning, and impact. We also can’t ignore the organization by character, perspectives, meaning, and impact. Whether we like it or not, we all are part of systems at play. It lends an interesting question to say if you can help the individual get better at being, as Jo said, in part more reflective about themselves without it being selfish, without it being individualistic and by the way, without it having to feel too new age, to actually make it feel … You can borrow a lot from new age thinking, but you can also just see it as one data point … but to also make it very pragmatic and practical for people.

It then suggests that if you can do that for people and open up their mind and heart and give them safe ways to do that with bold, underlined safe, trusting ways, and open ways to that because that can be difficult for some people. It also might suggest that then once they’re starting to do that, they might become more hyper-aware of the systems that they work in. If I think about the coffee shop example that Jo said, and I assume that person did see that piece of paper being dropped on the floor, that person then might say, “Hey, I can see why I need to pick that up,” and they can also connect it through perhaps, “Why are they using paper?” They might connect that to, “Where does paper come from?” and then, they might connect that to trees. Then, they might connect that to nature and so on and so on and … so the cascading effect that you’re describing is very much about a person placed within a system.

Then, the final piece is to say that I thought about templates. Doing this project to create bedrock to make meaningful work is by its nature not easy. One framing might be as you described, the idea of a step at a time shift away from templates and systems that might be in place right now that are clearly evidence-based, clearly hurting the planet. Two days ago, literally two days ago, in Hong Kong you could hardly see 500 meters to 1,000 meters ahead on the horizon because of pollution. We were getting throughout the day alerts about the air quality. You think about that. You think about here we are in some form or instance of the future called 2018, and we’re dealing with a situation of living in, at times, subpar air quality. Now, that’s not a criticism at all. It’s not a criticism of mainland China because the president of China is in Davos, and he’s publicly … and he has been committing to improving the environment in China and improving infrastructure that takes us to sustainable futures, which is marvelous. It will take some time for it to get there.

If you don’t look at this as, “Oh, the government needs to do this,” or “The larger x, y, and z needs to do this,” you just simply bring it back to the person in the coffee shop and say, “What is it that we could do to help a; look at the templates in how we work and live and in b; if you feel or you see there are certain things that just don’t feel right then practice how to either voice it or how to either reflect on it,” and say, “How could I just do that a little bit better? Just do that a little bit better?” That’s the way I see it. I see that the individual and the system are both at play, and I also see that as it relates to your question, creating bedrock to make meaningful work is absolutely about a move from an industrial age way of doing things towards something else.

Now, if I may, the other piece to it, and I do promise this is the last piece of the question, is that it’s too big of a question for Jo and myself to do on our own. Nor do we want to because two brains and two hearts and two bodies are just simply not enough to answer such a big question. If part of the question infers that we’re asking about could there be alternative models to growth at any cost, could there be alternative models to profit at any cost, could there be alternative models to consumerism at any cost, as just a couple of examples, and I’ll tell you there’s enough momentum now in the world saying … and much smarter than us … people saying, “Yes, there are across political, socioeconomic, philosophical, psychological as it relates to cognitive, a whole range of topics that can contribute to answer that question of how can we make meaningful work, which is really saying how can we rethink the way we live and work as templates today and what we want those templates … or maybe we don’t want them to be templates.”

It then suggests at some point in the next couple of years, we’re also going to be thinking about some form of bedrock event, which will then, by its nature, invite people across a number of different domains, topic areas, and thematic of thinking about this and to open up that discussion. I think the minute you open it up, just as we’ve been doing it for ourselves the last five years as a self-imposed learning or PhD, we now over time slowly want to open it up to other people, so we can get other people thinking about this as well and then turning that into some form of action. Just as we’ve met and how it’s linked to these podcasts, it all helps. It all contributes to that forward movement because what we don’t want to do is we don’t want to go backwards. When you recognize something is not the optimal way of doing things, I would rather just stop doing that and in effect … It sounds a bit dramatic but in effect, just let it die and then work with other people on working out what is the more optimal way of doing things and being open to that discussion with more people.

Kristen G: Oh my gosh. All of that resonates with me for so many reasons. What you’ve just said and not to be dramatic but yeah, maybe we should let some of those things die. Maybe some of them are old templates. Some of them are old ways of thinking. I think that we can’t afford to go backwards. We can’t afford to not build businesses and build ways of working and rebuild sometimes our organizations so that the planet and people are more healthy and are more taken care of. I think this way of thinking is a route to that. What I think that I’m hearing from you is that there could be many routes, and that many people need to contribute to this thinking and to this sort of body of knowledge; as you call it a PhD idea.

I was going to ask a question of what is one step that a business founder, an owner, someone in an organization might take, but I think that you actually stated it, which I thought was wonderful. How might you notice the smallest of things that, “Oh gosh, I have this piece of paper, this receipt. Why do I even have to have paper? What can I do to not have to have this extra paper and then what would I do with this paper when I throw it away? Where does it go? Where did it come from? What was it made out of? Is it actually toxic? What happened to the people who made the paper?” That just builds out into these networked questions that allow to make choices I think; that you can then be much more transparent and much more intentional about the way that you operate in the world.

Dan Szuc: Exactly.

Kristen G: I love that. Well, I so appreciate both of you taking time to talk with me today. Is there anything else that you wanted to add and share with listeners?

Dan Szuc: I’ll suggest something and then, I’ll hand over to Jo if she wants to offer up something. This question of creating a bedrock to make meaningful work intentionally implies that it helps, I think, to have a foundation. Part of the hypothesis is as we continue to research this is to say for the individuals and the teams and the organizations, the ongoing research will be to ask does the bedrock or foundation exist? If it doesn’t exist or if it partly exists, what are the benefits and/or the harm of that? If it absolutely doesn’t exist at all, what’s the harm of that? If people are open to creating it, what would be the benefits of it? We still have some research to effectively prove the benefit of having a bedrock.

Related to that is the question in an organizational setting is to say do we want work just to be about production? Is there an opportunity within work to say that when people, for example, answer the question of, “How is work? How’s work going?” do we want the answer to be “busy” or do we want the answer to be something else or a range of things beyond just busy. In other words, do we want work to be something more than just head down, churning away, being busy, hitting targets, and delivery? Maybe what we also want work to be is … and this is a very important part and not unique to the make meaningful work framework and bedrock itself as a platform. We also want work to be a place that we can go and learn but not learn by just doing the production work itself but having opportunities within an organization to practice, and to have explicit programs in place whereby there is peer to peer learning happening; to constantly iterate on bedrock and continue to define it.

Now, what’s interesting is we’re doing that for ourselves, so it’s one thing to talk about it to others, but it’s another thing to also test it on ourselves. It’s going to be interesting for us over the next couple of years is as we head towards something that we’re describing as a bedrock institute, we’re testing this on the workshop called bedrock. We’re testing it on what the digital portion of that could be as it pertains to person to person learning and what that might look like. We’re also testing it with creating an event at some stage to be able to invite other people to talk to, in some respects, what work of the future could look like. I think that’s gonna be very interesting for us, but I’m happy to say and to report that since Michael mentioned bedrock at the end of last year, something shifted. It shifted in a really positive way to effectively give us a nice focus. Make Meaningful Work is a beautiful way to describe framework and a nice way to create a question in a journey that we sometimes describe as from sleepwalking to sparkle, which isn’t necessarily linear. It’s more of an iterative practice.

We have a practice tree. We have the four elements of it of character, meaning, perspectives, and impact, but when Michael mentioned bedrock, something clicked. It gave us what is described in some articles talking about strategy as a North Star. I felt it was the missing piece, so now that we’ve got that, something has accelerated. It’s gonna be really interesting as we now think about product to look at it through the eyes of a workshop, a digital portion of that, or a digital experience within and also an event, and think about that within a possible curriculum of a bedrock institute. To connect that all, and this is the really key part of it … to connect that to the idea that we want people to fall in love with the idea of life learning. Whether that’s as an individual outside of an organization or an individual within an organization or an individual working within a team, there’s something really nice about doing activities, exercises, or tasks that contribute to just being that little bit smarter about things and as we go back to the very beginning of the conversation, opening up your character, your perspective; certainly your perspectives and your meaning and impact.

It’s interesting because I feel like it almost becomes … in a good way and maybe this is not the best word, it almost becomes addictive or intoxicating that the more that you learn and certainly you can’t get away with it, you have to read. You just have to read. The more that you read, the deeper that you inspect things across a diverse set of topics and things. It’s absolutely intoxicating because you then begin to connect with other people who sink into a portfolio of ideas that you have that we call a learning portfolio. You start to be part of a larger conversation. I enjoy that personally. I enjoy that every day with Jo; pretty much every day. It’s lovely to have a learning buddy in that. It’s an extra bonus to have a life partner to do that with, but I think what we also want to do with bedrock is to help people connect with other people that can help guide that type of learning journey for them as well.

That’s sort of gives a glimpse as to what we’re thinking about with the program, what we’re thinking about digitally, and what we plan to do with event and certainly bedrock institute. It’s really gonna be an interesting couple of years ahead, but boy oh boy, if I were to share with whoever’s gonna be listening to this, it’s worth the effort. It’s really worth the slog and the effort to really arrive at a sense of your own make meaningful work. I hope, through our study certainly over the last five years on thinking about this project, through meeting people, talking to people like this or workshopping with people, we can help at least take a first couple of steps to identifying what the bedrock would be for other people as well. I can only say as I’ve come out slightly at the end of this, kind of the other end of it having been stuck a little bit at the end of 2012, learning and being open to learning is a really nice and easy way to create that sense of movement. Eventually over time, if you’re doing it and you’re getting some guides along the way to help you clarify it, you will then begin to arrive at elements that relate to character, perspectives, meaning, and impact that will give you a sense of your bedrock.

That’s been some of my final thoughts on this. Jo, what about you?

Jo Wong: I would like to throw in a little bit of Chinese wisdom into this. Most people are busy and have to work in speed like really fast, so the Chinese character “busy” is made up of two things. One side is heart and the other side is death. For “fast”, one side is heart, the other side is break or dismantled, so all these mode that people have been in are damaging to their heart. That’s why I mentioned about how people are numb. I hope the bedrock project that we have can facilitate to almost put a spark on people to have a little bit of awakening on what they have been doing or the path that they’re on because I think individually, you can do a lot.

I’ll share a final story with you. Last year, we were in Shanghai and after a conference, we having dinner, sitting and talking with people. This lady sitting next to me, she’s working in almost like a innovation lab for a very big Chinese tech company. I don’t know why our conversation start to talking about environment because I think probably the air quality wasn’t that good, and I was talking to her about all these environmental things. You know my thoughts about those things, and I said to her … Her son is eight year old, and I said to her, “Can you imagine that your son since he was born, he hasn’t breathe in fresh air that we were … now, it’s almost like a privilege to breathe some clean air into your lung.” She was in tear. I said, “As an individual, everybody can do a lot.” I said to her, “In your job, you’re in charge of all these future innovations. What kind of materials you choose for your products? What kind of … ” What do you call it? “… circular economy thing that you can do to have a closed loop for your products that you can do?”

There are a lot of things you can do on a daily basis of all these decisions you’re making. As simple as going to a 711, do you buy plastic bottle of water or you just bring your own? That’s as simple as that. You’re talking about we have seven billion people on this planet; … and do something.

Kristen G: I really appreciate that wisdom, and I think it is just that. The concept too of something being life and death and really, actually the way that we work contributes to that death. It’s changeable, right? We can make a decision about whether or not we want to continue to work that way, to behave that way, and what choices we want to make.

Gosh, Dan and Jo, this has been a very enlightening conversation for me. I wish I could continue it for hours. I know that we will many other times, but I just want to say thank you again for your time. We will continue to see you out in the world making meaningful work.

Dan Szuc: Thanks for having us.

Kristen G: That’s it for today. Thank you so much for joining us for another episode. If you’d like to ask a question or suggest a guest, email me at Until next time, grow better.

Season 2, Special Episode: Elise Raher

Kristen Gallagher: Hi, welcome back to Up Right and Better, the podcast where we talk about growing businesses up and to the right and up and better. On this show, it’s not just about scaling for scaling’s sake. It’s about making organizations that deliver value to everyone involved. I’m your host Kristen Gallagher. All right welcome back to Up Right and Better. This is a special episode. We’re doing this episode for human school, which is the conference that is coming up in just a few weeks. Unfortunately, in this episode we have a little bit of glitchiness on our tech end. You’re going to hear a little bit of that poor network connectivity. I think that overall we got really good stuff from her. Elise has a background in communications, human resources and employee engagement. She’s currently at Mammoth HR here in Portland, Oregon. She’s combined these skills and is now practicing organizational development and helping organizations and employees thrive in times of change and rapid growth, which is really apropos for the times that we’re in these days plus human school.

When she’s not working you can always find her enjoying the incredible coffee, donuts and beautiful running trails of Portland. It’s important to note she doesn’t do all of those at the same time, otherwise she would be an Olympian. Thanks so much for being here with me, Elise. I’d love to open up by just asking you what it’s been like to participate in Mammoth’s growth over the past two years. I know that it’s been a pretty intense level of growth.

Elise Raher: Yeah, absolutely I’d say over the last two years we have experienced a lot of growth and change, which has been very exciting but also has obviously come with its challenges. I’d say from a people operations standpoint it has just provided me so much opportunity to be able to re evaluate where we are as a company, to look at the systems that support our employees, to go through a couple different office relocations and changes and really work with employees to make sure that we’re maintaining a culture that’s true to our mission and values as we experience such rapid growth, a really exciting time.

Kristen Gallagher: How are you adding in the new OD work that you practice now? I know that you have a really interesting background especially with working with students I think.

Elise Raher: I do have an interesting background.

Kristen Gallagher: There you go, you should own it. I think it’s really cool.

Elise Raher: Yeah, I got my masters in counseling. I thought I wanted to be a marriage and family therapist. I was doing that while also working at a large university in the bay area and doing a lot of student engagement and community building there. It actually was a really a great experience to have coming into the workforce that I work with now because I work with a lot of employees who are fresh out of college. I feel like it prepared me for that experience pretty well. I would say that from my people operations chair, that my focus was a lot around people, around our employees and reacting to a lot of their requests and feedback that they had to try to create a really great work place for them.

Although I absolutely take that lens with me now in my OD role, I also gained a lot of appreciation for the value of process because even people, the best people with the best intentions and great skills, if there aren’t processes in place to support them, it’s really hard for them to be successful, especially for a company that’s trying to grow and scale and is experiencing rapid change. In small companies often people, there’s a few people doing a lot of things. That’s only sustainable for so long. The processes that we’re trying to implement right now at Mammoth are allowing people to operate with a little bit more clarity and clear expectations so that they can really be successful and we can measure that success.

Kristen Gallagher: That’s wonderful. I would love to see or hear about some examples of what those processes are. You talked about the process is really designed to allow people to operate with clarity. I think that’s a really great phrase that we’re not trying to, I’ve had leaders tell me process is like concrete, it doesn’t help me, it hurts me. I would agree with you that the reality is that if you have these opportunities, these sort of road maps labeled as processes, it allows people to do better work faster and iterate more frequently.

Elise Raher: Yeah, absolutely and also to have a baseline understanding of where you’re starting and where you’re trying to go. I think a very prominent example that we’re trying to do right now is make sure that every employee knows what the key performance indicators are for their role. We are working with employees to say their ideas on the company’s goals and the strategies that we’re using to get there, what are some things that you can do in your own role to measure how successful you’re being at your job. By individuals being able to connect what they’re doing at their desk with the strategies of the company, it really allows for better alignment so that we’re all swimming in the same direction. That’s a process that we didn’t have in place. We knew that we had great people that were all working really hard. We didn’t have a way to measure and then celebrate the success that they were having, the contributions that they were making in a way that felt really meaningful and also very clear.

Kristen Gallagher: I really appreciate that perspective that it’s connecting what people are doing day to day with the mission of the company and where we’re all going together that you and I may do different things on a day to day basis but that we’re contributing to the same overall goal.

Elise Raher: Absolutely.

Kristen Gallagher: I’m curious how does Mammoth help small companies? It’s kind of cool to be a small company who’s going through some of these things, who could also lend that expertise and that advice to other companies.

Elise Raher: Yeah, absolutely. I think a big goal that we have and the way that we approach our relationships with small and medium sized businesses is to meet the client where they’re at. We work with anyone from the office manager to the CFO to the CEO depending on the size of the company. At small companies or medium sized companies sometimes the CEO is doing everything including human resources. We like to meet the client where they’re at to hear what their goals are and where they would like their organization to be going and then help them to build the strategy, put the processes, understand the regulations and the compliance pieces that need to go into place to really help them thrive.

Kristen Gallagher: I think that is exactly what the attendees of human school are experiencing right now. They’re coming from smaller but growing companies, mostly under a hundred employees where it is likely that they’re either fresh in that job or they’re the only one thinking about HR, thinking process or maybe even organizational development although probably not. It can be scary and isolating and confusing. Do you have any advice for newer HR professionals about how to change manage through that rapid growth especially if that’s not their background?

Elise Raher: Yeah, absolutely I would say, which would come to no surprise but communication is key. If you don’t give people the information then they will fill in the gaps with their own stories, which can lead to a lot of inconsistent messages and confusion. I would say help people understand why. Why are we changing? A lot of people feel things are great the way they are. Why do we need to change them? Most organizations are not growing just for the sake of growing but really to provide themselves and also their employees with more opportunities, more opportunities for growth and also so that they have more resources to be able to invest back in them and really continue to make the organization better.

I would say another thing is just as much as you can set really clear expectations for people and like we talked about with the structure for measurable results, so that you can demonstrate the positive impact that changes are having on them and on the organization and really connect it back to their lives. Then another thing I would say is try to have it not always be from the top down. If you have leaders, you have informal leaders help to engage them in the process. If you are going to put a process in place that really impacts somebody’s role, allow them to create the process. You can give them the vision but they know their job better than anyone else knows their job.

They’re more likely to buy in if they’re part of creating the process that they’re going to have to carry out. Then probably last but obviously not least, maintain an open dialogue. Instead of always downloading people and information and vision and the things that you want them to know, make sure that people have the opportunity to provide feedback on how it’s going, that they can have a real conversation and keep the human aspect to it because the organization is nothing without its people. It’s really important to keep a pulse on how people are doing with the change and either slow it down or speed it up based off of the feedback that you’re getting.

Kristen Gallagher: I think that’s such good advice that it can be hard to remember when you’re going through things so quickly and you want to give information here, here’s all the communication that it’s a two way street and that often it is just coming from us and not, we’re not necessarily always listening and taking back that feedback as much as we really should. I also love what you said earlier about the fact that people will fill in gaps with their own stories. I think that’s so true. It’s sort of, you end up with the need to come back and kind of clean up messes when that happens. People make assumptions. Their expectations aren’t aligned with what was actually going to happen but what was going to happen was never communicated or we made assumptions that somebody knew something. Do you have any sort of funny examples that you can share about that or any sort of lessons learned you can share about people filling in their own stories?

Elise Raher: I mean I think we see it on a pretty frequent basis or at least we did early on. In part, I think this is another challenge of growing is that when you are a small company who is trying to do something you’ve never done before, you don’t always have all the information of what it’s going to look like when you change. I think it’s also about defining what success looks like or what growth looks like. It’s important to allow employees and say okay I know that we’re talking about success and we’re talking about growth and we’re talking about change, remember that the principles that are going to guide us and are going to stay consistent along the way are our values and our mission. If we’re staying true to those two things then it’s easy for us to change but still have a lot of things that are very important to us and that guide us to remain the same.

Kristen Gallagher: That’s I think perfect advice and a really good place for us to kind of stop so we can prepare folks for human school, which is coming up in just a few weeks. I think that that advice is so important for not just the leaders that accompany and the HR individuals that accompany but every individual that sometimes we’re doing things in our day to day work that we assume that they did get communicated or we assume that we did share that information and it didn’t and so it can cause a lot of fear and reactivity rather than proactivity.

Elise Raher: I would just add to that, people’s emotion and reactions although they’re not always exactly where we hope that they are as people who are leading some changes in a company, it often stems from the fact that they’re really invested and that they are coming from a company where they know that they have a lot of impact and where they feel really passionate about the company and the direction of it. Although at times I think from a human resources seat it can be uncomfortable to manage the resistance, I think it’s always better that people are passionate whether they are resisting or excited about the change because it shows how much they care, trying to keep that lens as well when you’re working with employees that may not be at the same stage of change that you’re at or that you’d like them to be at.

Kristen Gallagher: That is such a golden piece of advice that people do respond because they care. If they didn’t care, they wouldn’t say anything, I think is important to remember. Elise, thank you so much for your time. I really am excited that we got to do this little special episode right before the conference. We hope to see everyone there. I hope that you enjoy everything that Elise had to share with us.

Elise Raher: Thank you so much, Kristen.

Kristen Gallagher: That’s it for today. Thank you so much for joining us for another episode. If you’d like to ask a question or suggest a guest email me at hello at Up Right and Better dot com. Until next time, grow better.

Season 2, Episode 1: Self Care & The Human Resources Professional

Kristen : In the past year, there’s been such an incredible movement to building sustainable businesses instead of exit ready businesses. As always, Up Right and Better is here to bring brilliant guests to the table and help you explore ideas, strategies and real life examples of businesses built with people at the front. Thank you for tuning and sharing your time with me. As you know, you can reach out to us with questions, guest ideas, or comments. Just find us on the web at

Before we begin today’s episode, I want to tell you about an event like no other. On February 27th and 28th, right here in Portland, Oregon, Edify is hosting the first ever human school. Do you feel like you don’t know what you don’t know? If you’re the people operations person at your startup, you need human school. You might be an administrative assistant, and office manager, or an operations professional. You might even already be an HR professional. You might also be the founder and you haven’t hired HR yet. Human school is for you too. Human School is the only development focus learning experience designed for people, operations people, official or unofficial, in growing startups. It’s unlike any conference you’ve ever been to before. You’ll experience two high intensity, high value days of learning and applying experiences to create your own, full fledged people operation strategy. We are thrilled to have diverse expert set of speakers for Human School. Few of our speakers come from traditional HR backgrounds. You’ll be sure to be in for a treat when it comes to thinking about a human focused people operations strategy.

Each and every workshop is packed with immediately useful tools. You and your peers will create the community you’ve been looking for. Right before you leave, you’ll gain new skills and negotiations so you could head back to work ready to advocate for your vision and strategy. You’ll leave the conference with an actual usable people operations strategy ready to go. You can find your tickets for Human School at and if you use the code BETTERPOD you’ll get $300 off your ticket. Now on with the show.

I’m so excited to kick of season two of Up Right and Better with Reini Chipman. I’ve known Reini since early 2016 and have learned so much from her in that time. Without further ado, let me introduce you to Reini. In college, Reini studied psychology and social work and always envisioned helping, supporting and being involved with people. Like may HR folks, HR fell into her lap. Overtime, she’s noticed it’s become interesting and complex and every organization has some form of it, so she’s leaned into it for the last 18 years. Over her career, Reini has supported many different types and sizes of organizations in human resources, operational and executive roles. She’s worked with thousands of talented individuals, hundreds of teams and several companies who are recognized as best places to work. Through these experiences, she’s learned that although every organization is unique, there’s some very powerful strategies that can be applied din almost any organization to increase engagement and performance. Now, Reini’s a coach and mentor and continues her HR work in the Portland tech ecosystem. Help me welcome Reini.

Kristen : I’m super excited to have Reini Chipman on the podcast today. I’ve known Reini since, gosh February 15.

Reini: That sounds right.

Kristen : Brand new to Elemental, somehow we talked and we had coffee in northwestern Portland and I just loved her immediately.

Reini: And I loved you.

Kristen: That’s the best. That’s the best. I just remember thinking oh my gosh, I have not met HR person that I actually liked, ever and there we are, and here we are today. I’ve actually had the luxury of spending some time today with our guest already, but you all get the chance to spend some time with her now. So just want to say welcome and thank you for being here.

Reini: Thank you so much for having me. I’m flattered and honored and looking forward to having conversation.

Kristen : Good, good. So excited. You’ve to a great, long career. It’s 18 plus years deep and you’ve worked for companies like Simple Finance, Simply Measured, Geo Cacheing, even the experienced music project in Seattle, and I’m curious why do you do the work that you do and do you still love it and if so, why?

Reini: Yeah. Why do I love it? I do still love it. Why I love it is because I find that many, many people don’t love what they do and aren’t happy at work. In fact research shows that’s about 80% of us, which I find appalling and heartbreaking. And even back to my first job, which would have been back in the 80s probably, when I was about 14 or 15, my first job was detasseling corn in the fields of Ohio. It was a really fun job because we would ride pickup trucks out to the fields and we unload and we would go de-tassle the corn.

Kristen : I didn’t know that was a thing because I actually, as a kid, and still today, I eat the tassels. I really like them.

Reini: You eat the tassels?

Kristen : They’re so sweet. They’re really good. I’m sure I’m the only person in the world that does that.

Reini: I don’t know if all those hours in the field, I don’t even know if I even ate a tassel. So interesting, good question.

Kristen : Next time you have corn, try it.

Reini: I will. You know, even having that first work experience, I looked around and I remember people grumbling or not being happy about it, and I was super stoked because, even though I was only making three dollars an hour, I felt like it was very tangible work and I was going to be able to save up for something I wanted to do and I was just kind of psyched. From there, I had many, many different jobs but throughout almost every experience, I noticed that here in this place where we spend most of our waking hours, which is work for most of us, whether we get paid for it or not, 80% of people are not loving it. So from my perspective, that’s a huge opportunity to have impact.

Working in human resources, working as a business leader or within a for profit, or not for profit for that matter, we have a chance for people to feel safe, feel connected, and have a sense of joy in what they’re contributing in their career or in this life. So that’s what keeps me kind of back.

Kristen : That’s so good. I so appreciate that because some of those reasons are the exact reasons I quit my job and I decided to go to my business full time, now almost three years ago, and so much of it has to do with toxic workplaces and people making other people feel sad because they fell sad, and angry, and frustrated. I think this bleeds into our culture as human group. It’s not just at work that you feel this way, but if you feel that way at work and you come home, how could you be a good family member or how could you be a good citizen or good global citizen. I mean, I’m not sure you can be if you are struggling with these kinds of things at work.

Reini: Yeah, I agree. I haven’t done a ton of research on this but I know even from sources like Gallup that did some work around wellness in the work place, what they found is individuals in who like what they do, or love what they do, are more than twice as likely to be thriving overall in their life. So that’s really compelling statistic and if I’m going to focus my time on getting the most ROI on the hours that I put into work, just seems like a no brainer. No brainer.

Kristen : Yeah, you would want it to make sense. You’ve noted in the past that there are many ways to measure success in an organization but it’s pretty hard to move the needle if you don’t make employees your top priority. Do you think that organizations need to be doing this to become better companies? What’s the impetus to do this and can you tell me a little bit more about that, moving the needle to become employee centric?

Reini: Yeah, absolutely. So, and I will also say that my perspective on this theme on this topic is continually evolving which is really fun. But I do still stand by that statement that you can’t move the needle without making people a top priority. That said, different businesses have different priorities over time for good reason, and I do believe that it’s always important to have one top, top priority. Many teams will have ten top properties and we all know what happens when that’s the case. And businesses also, I’ve noticed, can also really suffer when they can’t decide what the top priorities are and really, really stick to them.

My perspective is evolving but the one thing that I think … well there’s two things that I think the best organizations do. First of all, they ensure that they have a solid business model, right? This is back to basics, debits and credits, can we pay the bills, are we delivering enough value that we have the revenue we need, whether that comes from bootstrapping or whether that comes from outside funding. Can you create a business model that’s working? Because if you don’t have money coming in the door, you’re dead in the water and you’re no good to anybody including your customers or employees. So having a solid business model is one of two things I think the best businesses do. And the second thing is you back that up by having an inspiring and committed and capable executive team who will do what ever it takes to win.

So winning can look like a lot of different things depending on an organization but the question is how are you going to measure your success. You can look toward your company vision, your mission, your values as ways to create your metrics on what success looks like. You also, I think, need to look at what promises have you made to your stakeholders, right? A lot of companies nowadays are saying, we’re mission driven and so come work here because we’re mission driven. But for for-profits, we’re actually stakeholder driven. So yes, there’s a mission but the promises we’ve made are to our stakeholders for most organizations. So there needs to be a way to measure success on how we’re delivering on those promises, in my onion, because once you stop delivering on your promises, depending on your funding model, your stakeholders can really put some pressure on it, it gets uncomfortable and of course people stuff is the first stuff to get impacted from those companies.

Another way that I think companies need to look at how they measure success is, what are the promises they’re making to employees, right? You’re establishing what you hope to be an authentic brand and you make promises along the way and studying whether employees believe you’re delivering on those promises and staying in integrity as a company is another way to measure success. And then finally, what are the strategic priorities? Employees love to be part of something where we establish a big hairy goal strategically, and then we nail it, or we come close to nailing it or we exceed it. Generally people want to be part of a winning team and for many people, I think it could be even more important than pay, frankly. These are things that employees are looking for and also just basic good business.

Kristen : It’s true and I can’t remember exactly the study I was reading about in a article recently, but I believe that the research supports that. That people want to be part of a team and how the side benefits that can come with that, over the pay. And we all know that the pay is not going to keep people most of the time. If you really have a toxic team and you just offer 10,000 more, that might keep them for another two months or another year, but their commitment to you is going to be lower because you made it financial transaction rather than, what I think, you’re talking about and we’ve talked about in the past. I’m actually giving you part of my soul and my work and my day to day. I’m spending more time in this space, whether it’s a remote space and I’m spending it in my basement or I’m actually showing up to your office, but I’m giving you that and I need something in return for that and it’s not just so I can keep the lights on in my house.

It’s different, if you want to talk about blue collar work and white collar work, but I think that’s something we need to be especially mindful of as the world of work is changing and I think we’re still in kind of a challenge of finding the right talent and the right people for most of our companies, but also, how do we nurture the talent that we have and how do we continue to build them up so that they can feel like they’re actually part, and genuinely be a part of the company’s mission in those promises you’re talking about.

Reini: Yeah, absolutely. I think the employees of the future are really going to value flexibility. Flexibility in terms of hours, spaces, those kinds of things. That’s going to be more and more important. And I also think people are going to value feeling that they are joining an organization that’s taking steps to become more and more equitable. Another thing that I think the best executive teams and leadership teams do is to vigilantly audit and correct and structural and leadership processes and practices that prevent a sense of safety and equity. And why I bring this up is building equity in an organization should not be a function of just a people team. If you don’t have an executive team that’s committed to this and committed to doing that work and getting real uncomfortable themselves as individuals and as a team, it’s harder to create as much change as you want to create in the time you want to create it.

And when you are able to do it. When you’re really able to get this group committed to auditing structure, right, this sounds kind of boring. Like applicant tracking systems, pay ranges, job descriptions, so those kinds of things. Those structural things can really impact the equity within the organization and when you do that, you start to build a virtuous generative cycle instead of more vicious cycles that break trust. What I mean by virtuous generative cycle is you’ve got this foundation of safety, which impacts trust, when you add to that as executive team, awesome clarity and alignment about where are we at, where are we going, people feel more clear, they feel more engaged, they feel safe. Then that entails them to grow even more and build more capacity and develop as leaders, then the team performance improves. Then the customers are realizing it and excited. Then you experience more financial abundance and sustainability and so on and so forth. Back to that audit, make sure the safeties righty and just keep that generative cycle humming. That’s the commitment that’s needed, I think, by leaders.

Kristen : I so agree with that. I always like to ask guests if our choices are up into the right and we know that we have to make trade offs to get to that up and right position, and those trade offs, like you said, they’re almost… hard to watch because you know that it’s the people that will eventually bring you the financial stability that you’re looking for in your company. It is the employees that tend to your customers. It is the employees that help make sure that structures are sound and you can build upon them, and without that, I don’t know that you’re actually going to get to the financial stability that you want.

So it’s really hard to watch those things be cut or to never be invested in, in the first place. I see a lot of young founders for, whatever reason, have had negative experiences with HR and they think it’s just a risk function and they think I don’t need to hire one and finally their CFOs I’m not doing payroll anymore and so they hire a generalist. Sometimes it’s an office manager and I’m really concerned about how we build up our people operations people and how we make sure that they’re getting the care and the feeding in a way that they need to become leaders of people and not just, oh I think we should do these benefits over these benefits, but really strategic, really core elements of the business. I’m curious what you think about that.

Reini: How to build up the HR folks?

Kristen : Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Reini: Yeah, I love this question and my answer is always very quick with my first bit of advice, which is ensure that your … anybody whose in the business of people, whether they’re in a people team or they’re a manger of souls, a manger of people, we need to encourage, demand, and support them in prioritizing self care. I’ve noticed time and time again that when we can create enough space for individuals and for teams to take of themselves, put that gas mask on, then when they come to a conversation or a project and their buckets filled up, they’re just going to be in a much better space. People that are in the business of people, whether it’s customer relations, customer service, HR folks, it’s very easy because it’s people and there’s so much that the stakes are high, right?

When you’re in people operations, you are impacting people’s pay. You are impacted their career, you are impacted their health and privacy. The stakes are high and sometimes it’s very easy to get swept up in that and over function, over commit, and then what happens is that you’re not doing anybody any good, especially yourself. So as counterintuitive as it sometimes seems, it always works when people take a step back and make that time for themselves.

I also encourage people operations folks to think about who is on their own personal board of directors. This can include a manager, or maybe not. This can include a mentor, or a coach. Just like most therapist have some sort of counselor to support them in the work they do, I think people that are in HR or the people business in general, can really benefit from ongoing consistent coaching. And those coaches can be formal, informal, they can look different over time but it’s always good to have some sort of coach in your board of directors. So building up kind three to seven folks that are there for you that you can bounce things off of because people are messy and chaotic and sometimes you start to wonder if you are sort of out of your mind on things. And you just need that board of directors to bounce things off of and help you feel.

There’s two more things that I encourage people to do when they’re in the people operations world. The first one is model loving your work, right? Model resonance with what you’re doing. A very simple at approach that is to decide, what are your four cornerstones for this job that you’re in? What are the top four deal breakers or deal makers that you need to be happy and thriving in your work? And sometimes you create those four cornerstones and you look at your current job and it’s not the right fit, and when you’re in people operations, you need to go. If it’s not the right fit and your corner stones aren’t at least closely being met, you need to model finding a place where they are so that when you’re coaching other employees, you can really feel confident that you’re walking the talk there and even story tell about your own struggles and gain some credibility.

And then finally, just basic skills that you can never go wrong. Developing coaching skills, develop your communication skills ongoing. We’re never ever done developing communication skills. The people that are committed to constant development with communication skills are the people that get promoted and who experience the most abundance in their career, I’ve seen it time and time again. And finally, business acumen, you know, just understanding the business you’re in. Set of the different functions. Make sure you understand how things work so that you can be a strategic partner instead of a reactive order taker.

Kristen : That is pretty much the elevator pitch for Human School.

Reini: Which I feel like I should be attending.

Kristen : Yeah, I mean, you should probably just be running it.

Reini: No. No. Not going to do that.

Kristen : No, no, no. But I love that there is a minimum, at least two different gears that you have to be in. You have to be in the daily firefighting mode and have supporting employees in a very real, very emotional way very often. Having been somebody who actually wasn’t … I’ve never been a human resources professional. I’ve always been a learning and development professional but being associated with HR means that you get that too, because not everybody understands that. And just seeing the little tidbits that I’ve seen and getting the coaching request and in the hallway craziness. You know people requesting advice on something that you’re completely unqualified to give advice on.

But clearly seeing them in an emotional place and needing to find them some support, that draws so much out of you and I think I’ve never seen the advice that you shared, that you need to fill back up your well before you can go back out again. Which I’m going to be a little critical here and I wonder if people have negative experiences of HR, is it because those HR, those people operations professionals are at their wits end. Maybe they haven’t filled back up and you’re continuously burying out. You’re showing up at work burnt out for years and that would make you maybe not a great person, a nice person to interact with or it would maybe make you fall back on the risk and the compliance elements of the role. So I really appreciate hearing that from you.

Reini: Yeah. I think one thing you’re touching on really astutely is when you’re in an HR function, you have assumed power. HR people are kind of scary, even to senior people in the organization because there is assumed power there. So I think the reason that a lot of people have poor experiences with HR folks is powers in the mix, they are right, powers at play. And so if you add on to it someone who either isn’t on the career tracK for themselves and shouldn’t be practice HR, or hasn’t filled up their own bucket, it’s just a recipe for disaster. It is emotional work and it can be very, very intense.

Kristen : It’s so true. So as we wrap up our conversation, I know that you have been engaged in some really interesting projects in the last couple of months and I’m curious, what’s next for you? What do you think you want to work on in the world of people?

Reini: Great question. So speaking of self care and creating space, I am currently on a sabbatical so I’m creating some space to really get introspective and think about my next chapter. It’s been 16 years since I’ve had break. I recommend not waiting that long. I have a change to take a break and think about it. There’s a couple different things I want to be doing. I’m working on writing a book, which should be a fun journey. I’ve never done that before so I’m coming to that with a beginners mind and just enjoying the craft process. I’m also speaking with some female CEOs. So I’ve spend about 20 years supporting male CEOs just sort of coincidentally and I want to get really intentional about, there’s some really inspiring female CEOs coming up now and I just to help them be successful and build their business and I think the world needs that. It needs the ladies to be successful in the business world, and that’s not exclusive of all groups, but I happen to be a lady and so I think I can provide unique niche coaching to them and mentorship to help them be successful.

Kristen : I think, I completely agree with you, that the ladies do need to be successful and I think you’re one of the most perfect people for it.

Reini: Thank you.

Kristen : I just want to say thank you for sharing all of that with us and I look forward to seeing your book sometime soon.

Reini: Well, thank you for that. It might be five years but it will happen.

Kristen : Soon, in the grand scheme of the world.

Reini: Thank you so much.

Kristen : Thank you.

That’s it for today. Thank you so much for joining us for another episode. Until next time, grow better.


Season 1 finale: A Conversation with Stephen Green, Luke Kanies, and Mara Zepeda,

[00:00:05] Kristen: Hi welcome back to upright and better, the podcast where we talk about growing businesses up and to the right and up and better. On this show it’s not just about scaling for scaling sake, it’s about making organizations that deliver value to everyone involved. I’m your host Kristen Gallagher.

[00:00:28] All right good morning everybody. I’m super excited to have Stephen Green, Luke Kanies and Mara Zepeda here with me. All of them have been interviewed on the podcast before. We’ve all had actually a pretty long episode. I think it correlates all of you have had the longest episodes too. So that should say Something.

[00:00:47] Luke: If the goal is being short or probably…

[00:00:49] Kristen: Probably not going to work out. Yeah I’m sure it’ll be fine though. Well we’ll figure it out. But I don’t want to introduce you the same way because everybody has probably heard about you so I want to hear what you have been up to lately and we’ll take a volunteer who wants to get started first?

[00:01:04] Luke: I’m happy go first because it’s easy for me and it’s low pressure. So I spent the last year or so it was just around a year ago that I stepped down from puppet and I spent most of that last year doing personal R&D and investing in really understanding what I care about. And I… as part of that I spent two months traveling the U.S. park system with my family in a converted sprinter van and the reading I was doing around that and thinking I was doing really helped double down on the question of like what really matters to me. And if I were to say I have a passion for something what would it be? What am I willing to or able to commit to another decade of my life at? And that question is… it’s answerable in very different ways at different stages of your life. If you’re a person who has no cash and no relationship and no equity in any real sense.

[00:01:53] Kritsen: Can do anything you want.

[00:01:54] Luke: Well the answer to that question you know in some ways has a lot more valid answers and you don’t have to dig as deeply. But when you replace words like well OK I’ve got actually a lot of relationship equity, I’ve got a lot of opportunities, I’ve got a platform that I certainly didn’t have when I started puppet, and it’s not perfect infinite platform to do anything but it’s something that allows me to do way more than I could before. And so the question of what can you do what should you do, In some ways it’s harder to answer because the opportunities aren’t… It’s not necessarily obvious what the opportunities are right when it’s like oh no I need to eat. Then you’re like OK kind of limits what I what I can focus on but what it’s like OK well I know I need to eat but I have other things I could do. That’s the thing that I’ve been really delving into and I certainly don’t have an answer but it’s been an interesting study.

[00:02:40] Kritsen: Yeah. Hey we can talk a little about it this episode.

[00:02:43] Luke: That’d be great.

[00:02:45] Kristen: Mara?

[00:02:46] Mara: I have been…

[00:02:50] Luke: Embarrassing all of us pretty I think.

[00:02:54] Kristen: Pretty much.

[00:02:55] Mara: I suppose that if I were to think about what I’ve been up to logistically you know it’s just keeping up with everything. But what I’ve been up to see thematically is thinking a lot about scale. Just it’s almost like going through whiplash. The best way to describe it every day and some days it feels tennable and other days it feels like it’s coming apart at the seams. I think everyone probably feels that. You know I think you go on the Internet and there’s this sense that you’re just drinking from a firehose of other people’s emotions and that can become… you can just end up getting infected by this feeling and how your day, your day can get totally derailed.

[00:03:33] And then on the other hand it’s been getting really clear and identifying the type of work within the community that I find gratifying and soul nourishing and important and validating and that it’s making a difference. And that scale is just tiny it’s tiny. It’s like dozens of people maybe. And Portland is such a special place for having the opportunity to create, that community is here I call it sort of… my husband and I lived in Florence and living in Portland feels like living in Florence during the Renaissance. I imagine the people here are just incredible. So I think for me thing magically it’s been toggling between this micro-scale of this incredibly affectionate, motivated, talented community where we can get so much done and there’s so much potential in Portland and also in the state of Oregon and then switching to this kind of macro scale that is completely overwhelming and unsustainable on so many different levels.

[00:04:30] So that going back and forth between the big and the small is something that I’ve been grappling with at all the projects that I’ve been working on right now.

[00:04:38] Kristen: Stephen?

[00:04:39] Stephen: So for me I think you know I think it’s been about probably 90 days since I did part of my podcast episode and life happens. There’s been some tremendous ups some tremendous downs.

[00:04:53] You know and just the last 90 days laid off from my job an amazing you know community that in pitch black and seeing people come together.

[00:05:03] Luke: It was so shocking to have the awesome pitch black followed almost immediately by the Exclamation Point laying off.

[00:05:08] Stephen: It was like it was literally 48 hours later and all the while like we you know my wife and I dealt with the cancer scare and you know to face that 90 days where you’re… you know I tend to be a pretty forward thinking positive person and thinking about you know five years or two years ahead. What’s the game plan. And to get a call or to get an e-mail one day and think that you know you may be thinking six months or eight month chunks. It is shocking. But also I think being on this side of it reinvigorating and I really value the relationships I have with people so much more now and I think I think I valued them prior to that. But now especially I just I think I’m I’m super duper present and my North Star has never been more clear than now. And so you know I’m excited about what the future holds and I know it’s going to be something around pouring in to community doubling down on community and really strengthening the fabric of kind of the things that bring us together here in Portland in the region.

[00:06:17] Luke: And on that note actually on the note of perspective you know one of the things that’s affected me and most people I’ve talked to is the loss of Sam Blackman who was somebody who most of us or all of us knew and you know he looked up to in various ways but also saw as you know I certainly took for granted the assumption that he was going to continue to continue to contribute and change his contribution over time and to have that change suddenly both left this gaping hole in the political landscape, the technology landscape, the leadership landscape, but also a lot of people’s personal landscapes and I know everyone I’ve talked to it’s caused a huge amount of reflection because he really was at his peak at the point where he could do so much more. That’s again the platform he had was it was fantastic.

[00:06:58] So you know on that note of perspective it’s it’s been it’s been a heavy input to that for the last couple weeks it has been and I think what I’m hearing common in all of your and all of your voices is the questions of what are the big questions and what are the little questions and maybe we swap that definition sometimes that though the bigger questions are actually how do we work with a dozen people or the community. How do we use that platform a little bit better especially given the political landscape that we have.

[00:07:28] Kristen: Knowing that you know not to be defeatist but we may not be able to make changes that are, you know the top scale changes we may be able to make the changes at a smaller scale which interestingly may have more effect to us so I think that’s what I’ve been learning a lot about in my own business and in my own community involvement. The past 90 days past you know six months.

[00:07:52] We started this podcast and in early 2017 so there’s been a lot of growth and it’s been very interesting to have different voices in my ear every other week and learn about how they’re asking these questions because the the goal of the podcast is to question whether or not we’re going up and to the right the right way. And in what ways are we supposed to be according to the kind of startup canon in the business canon. In what ways could we do that better and better mean so many different things to people. And it can mean on this community level.

[00:08:25] I think what I would like to know too from you all is is as you reflect about this past year what do you think a better business is these days what is a better business in terms of people and scale and profit as you’re trying to build something or whether it’s a business or an organization you’re trying to build that thing. How do you build it better?

[00:08:48] Mara: Something that I’ve been thinking a lot about is seasonality. And seasonality isn’t really accounted for in the startup mindset. So this notion that you’re going to have exponential growth month over month. You know month over month revenue and growth as the month is what you’re always talking about.

[00:09:05] My businesses is in higher education. And so that means that you have to look at the calendar year in a completely different way and it’s very seasonal so spring you know is this time where you’re kind of coming out of the muck and you’re growing and there’s this sense of you know this full push to the end of the year and then you have summer where you know people want to be outside and they want to explore and then fall where there’s this time of sort of reaping what you’ve harvested in spring and then winter of this time of contemplation and some of the reading that I’ve been doing around sustainable business.

[00:09:36] You by definition build in and start to account for times of contraction and reflection. So there’s this notion that you’re going in and out of sort of external outward push energy and then internal reflective energy and businesses that I look up to and sustainable businesses have this model of expansion and contraction and the contraction is equally necessary for expansion and that seasonal metaphor and the reflection of those two different energy types is something that I am now thinking about constantly because it’s just not, it’s not talked about. I mean the notion of contraction in business is anathema, right.

[00:10:15] You would you would not be killing it if you were doing that, but you might be caring for yourself and your team and your community and so much else in the process of that reflection.

[00:10:25] Kristen: That’s so top of mind for me right now because the way that my business has grown in the past nine months is expansion expansion expansion. But I haven’t necessarily paid, for all that I talk about and ask people about on this podcast, I haven’t necessarily paid attention to that seasonality or paid attention to you know for lack of a better term the care that it takes to run and feed and manage the, not just the people in the business, but the clients, and the family, and all of the people around it.

[00:10:56] Not, just to mention that you know service based businesses are seasonal people have fiscal years and things change and they need to get rid of budget or they don’t have any budget or you know even if you’re trying to constantly move forward without paying attention to that then you are almost forgetting why you’re running into certain barriers. You’re like, “Why is this happening?” Well if you had paid attention- I’m saying this almost to myself if you’d paid attention to what was going on in the business ecosystem then maybe you wouldn’t be doing that or maybe you don’t have to work so hard over and over again to jump a barrier. You could just wait a couple of months.

[00:11:34] Luke: I find the concept of a better business is challenging and a lot of ways. And I think, I’m, I think that I’m mentally broken in a couple of strange ways and one of them is that I struggle with ever accepting a definition of good or better or things that smell of altruism. I because I grew up in a commune because I grew up with a huge amount of useless lefty people and I’m incredibly lefty, but at the same time I am allergic to anything that doesn’t that I can’t say here is the concrete effect it will have and anything that doesn’t feel like that is essentially a philanthropic donation in my mind as opposed to in and I’m not saying this is rational or good I’m just saying I understand my brain well enough to recognize this behavior. And I’ve I’ve worked on a lot. But it’s still there.

[00:12:26] And so when I think about a better business I always what I have found as a tool for me is there are if I look at the world through the lens of the rest opportunities and say How can I build a business that does its people right that does all of its constituents rights or does its investors right, of course. But more important does its employees right. Because of those those do have to be your first constituent, does its customers right, does the community around it right.

[00:12:57] But as a business how can I build a business that is addressing, through the opportunity its chosen to address, can have a more positive impact in whatever ways I define matter than other ways and for me at least there are a few things that I have gotten to the bottom of that question of what matters to you? And the things that matter to me most I know now are I have to help people improve their personal lives.

[00:13:26] I dont I don’t get any satisfaction from making an executive or a managers team perform better. It does nothing for me but if I talk to the individuals in the team and they say I’m doing work I’m doing better work that makes me makes me happier and I’m more relaxed at the end of the day more fulfilled in the day than that makes me happy. I look back at puppet it and say the things that made me happiest were never selling to executives. It was selling as this happens and this just happens. I have a job today because of the software you built. I stayed in this job and I shifted who I was and what I did because the work you do.

[00:13:59] So taking people at the front line improving their work product and as a result improving their life satisfaction. And when you look around the market and say how many people out there who could be more valuable and not because their work is more you know but you invest in them and you allow them to invest in themselves you build tools to make them better to turn them into super users and there’s the answer is there’s a ton right.

[00:14:25] Look at what are the unaddressed economic opportunities in our world today where there are people who are fantastic people who haven’t been unlocked and especially the world of software, those people don’t exist that way as well and not if you ask the world of software as the role of venture capital. Janitors don’t exist right the entire cleaning staff the entire construction staff. You’re like you know how much work is, right, all that stuff doesn’t exist right? There’s no, there’s no value, there’s no software opportunity in that world if you ask the world of VC.

[00:14:54] But in my opinion almost by definition of both how many people are there, and how great those people really are. Because it’s not like they’re worse people because you know it’s not that they’re not there because they’re limited in some way. They’re mostly limited in opportunity or because they love what they do and a lot of cases you know mention the kitchen. And also it’s a great opportunity because everyone thinks it’s boring. And to me the best opportunities are those that everyone else thinks are stupid.

[00:15:20] And I like it because it means you’ve got about five years before the market realizes it’s a good idea. So that’s really when I think about a better business it’s one where you can build a great business where you can also build a business where all the constituents look up and say I’m thrilled to be associated with this business in some way.

[00:15:36] Kristen: It makes me think about something that a friend of mine here in Portland Amelia Bray who talks about a lot which is the ethics of care and that we don’t have care in the, I use the term startup canon earlier, but if you are building a startup that’s not, you know there’s no part on your business plan- There’s no question that your investor is going to ask you about how much you care about your employees or the people who make the food that you spend a lot of money on for your employees.

[00:16:06] Luke: There was an amazing article in The Times recently about two janitors one working at Google and one who had worked at Kodak I think. And and she’d be the one at Kodak was an employee and direct promotion through the corporation became the CTO. And the one at Google of course is like three steps removed from being an employee of Google. That person is an hourly worker at an agency that Google probably doesn’t even directly contract with they contract to a third party. That contractor is never going to get a fulltime job. Google much less a full time job at an executive role.

[00:16:37] Kristen: Right. And that’s their way of limiting how much health insurance you have to pay for and how many other things that you can slim off of your bottom line so that you can continue to seek the revenue that you seek rather than to care for the people that are building your revenue for you.

[00:16:54] Stephen I’m curious what’s been on your mind lately.

[00:16:58] Stephen: You know being someone who is a recovering banker and venture capitalists I’ve always I’ve always been fortunate that my financial career I’ve always been able to sit down with you know really successful and sometimes not successful entrepreneurs and hear about you know from 20 years downstream. What’s really important. And people always share two things. One is balance. I would give up a third of this company right now to have been there for prom football games all of those things.

[00:17:27] Luke: Do you to get to the kids proms, isn’t that creepy?

[00:17:30] Kristen: That might be weird…

[00:17:41] Stephen: That’s a bad analogy, soccer games!

[00:17:41] (crosstalk, laughter.)

[00:17:41] Stephen: And then the second thing I always hear is people said they wish they would have started earlier. “I wish I hadn’t have gone the proper route and done a full career.” “I wish I would have taken that idea that I had at 18, and I didn’t put into action until I was 38 or whatever and done something with it” and the power of showing up.

[00:18:00] Luke: Just starting right?

[00:18:02] Stephen: Right! I mean that’s ninety nine percent of being a founders is managing- You know just fake it till you make it. And I always say that being an entrepreneur means you’re smart enough to know something is a good idea but dumb enough not to say no. And that’s what it takes to enter the door. And you know we we all get help along the way. I think one of the things that dawns on me as I talk to early stage founders is no one starts a business saying oh I want to manage a team of people, right? My goal is to be a leader, right? And they never do. Solve a problem, be smart, or whatever

[00:18:37] Kristen: We’re all product people.

[00:18:40] Stephen: Right. And so it’s fascinating to me to see that’s where people really really struggle is the people side of things. I have a friend and in venture capital down in the Bay Area and whenever they interview teams for foreign investment they bring them into the office and they actually have them interact with either the janitor or someone low level that it shouldn’t be important to them at all. Right. The classic go to meal and see how they treat you how they see how they treat the person that they don’t have to treat well. And I think that says a lot about someone who is a leader of a team of how you model that stuff. When you’re when you’re talking to the janitor when you’re talking to someone you don’t have to be nice to.

[00:19:21] Luke: I always relied incredibly heavily on my assistants perspective and she always surveyed everyone around who interacted especially executives because executives are really good at managing up and there are a bunch of them who have never had to manage down they’ve never had to figure out how to make people who again, as you put it theoretically it shouldn’t matter to them shouldn’t have to matter. And being able to have somebody observe all that and who is trusted by all the people to go get opinions and then you know really using that to trim who you bring into your organization. It’s a huge task.

[00:19:53] Kristen: I have thoughts on some of the stuff that Stephen said and thought and stuff Luke said. But there are two two assistants and operations managers and clients that I have that I got if I could hire them immediately I would because they’re they know everything about this business and it’s a huge business and you know it’s like that’s where the truth is going to come from from the people that take the time to talk to every single person on their team and to understand why they’re about to quit or what’s going on. So I think that that test of you know how do you treat people that that might not technically matter to you or shouldn’t matter to you is a really good one.

[00:20:34] Luke: Actually on that note, real quick one of the things that I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about. And honestly I think some people in this room helped spark this thought but also Malia and I spent a lot of time talking about how why why do something businesses have to fail in the venture capital model. And I’ve been because one of the things that I’m I’ve concluded is I’m much more likely to start a finance company than a software company. Meaning I want to start a company that build software companies and so one model that is a fund but there are other models too. And I’m leaning towards what apparently is called a studio model where you know I’m finding a small piece but really it’s about generating companies.

[00:21:09] And I’ve been thinking a lot about how you instead of moving from a world where in nine out of 10 fail or seven out of 10 fail and two out of 10 return money and then one out of ten is your big win. How do you what happens or what options what tiles exist to help move to world where probability is a failure is lower but overall returns are either the same or close to the same. Because I think we always say oh well you have to have this number of failures to get the returns but that’s not really the case. It’s just the model that’s that’s evolved over time.

[00:21:36] And one of the things that’s really stuck out I know two women locally who have sold significant portion of their companies is to Vista equity and I’ve been talking to them about Vista’s model and Vista has what appear to be two really significant things they invest in when they walk in the door the first one is we assume that you’re young growing company is not good at operations which is absolutely the case with pretty much everyone. Partially because I don’t think our modern business understands what operations is. I don’t think anybody I’ve never talked to somebody who is really good at it in a growing business.

[00:22:07] But the second so they come and they say we’ve got a playbook and you can run this playbook and we’re going to do most of it for you so you don’t have to even become an expert in it we’re just going to walk in and we’re going to make you ten times better operations out of the gate. Which is amazing. The second thing is they invest heavily in people. And what they mean by that isn’t the standard we’re going to send you to a lot of training and blahblahblah. What they mean is they consider the success of the people involved in the organization as critical to the success of the organization and they invest in that the same way as if you said hey this product is critical for us. How much money are we spending on it right. If you say my people are my best asset but how much money are you spending. How what are you doing to ensure they are the thing that succeeds. Right if you consider them failure modes.

[00:22:46] And so one of things I’ve been thinking a lot about in terms of building that better business is how can a model built on the assumption that we don’t want you to fail right. We want to help you succeed. But because we know that you’re an ignorant entrepreneur who has a you know a bright shining light you’re running out but not much else to go for. How can we help ensure that you will succeed and surround you with skills and assets and playbooks that work on yes on operations yes on how to build a product and how to ship technology and how to sell and build a marketing and sales funnel.

[00:23:21] But also on how to build a team and how to think about the team and how to interact with your founders if it founders no longer getting along as one of the major sources of startup failure. Isn’t that a thing you can manage. I’ve had it. I’ve worked with many big investors. I know a ton a ton of founders who have. I’ve never heard of one who said oh yeah they basically put us into like a six month coaching program that we had to spend 10 percent of our time on to ensure our success because it gave us $10 million shouldn’t. You know I’ve never heard of it. But to me you look back and you go in that like the most obvious way of ensuring success. And so you look at the fact that investors don’t invest in that again.

[00:23:57] General (indistinct) and it makes a really clear statement about their business model which doesn’t mean their models are wrong but it does present an economic opportunity to others who want to build a different model.

[00:24:07] Kristen: Steven you and I talked about this earlier this year I said you know maybe I should sell Edify’s services to investors right because investors want their companies to succeed and I can quickly draw the line between OK if you want better sales quotas failed then how about you enable your salespeople. Right and if you didn’t enable them with training what else can we enable them with. Right. But that and I draw you know a b c but it quickly goes from A to Z in most investors minds. And I you know I quickly put the brakes on that idea that you and I talked about. Maybe that’s the network that I need to be building rather than the CEOs and VPs of engineering because you know it just wasn’t making sense right.

[00:24:49] Luke: They say they care.

[00:24:50] Kristen: They say they care but you know you want to spend a measly ten thousand dollars on building up you know your engineering teams onboarding and they suddenly freak out. But you also want to remind them that they’ve got a 25 percent attrition rate you know I mean the money you said earlier you know how much money are you putting in to your people. You know if I tried to pull an H.R. budget from most of my clients it wouldn’t exist because they don’t have budgets. But if you go pull their marketing budget it’s multiple millions of dollars. Right. So you’re definitely working hard on something but it’s not your people.

[00:25:24] Stephen: Well I think the other thing is people always think you know pouring pouring gas on anything makes it better. Right so if we can just put money into it then it ought to get better as opposed to when you take a look at you know I love Dan Pink’s book Drive and he talks about what motivates people post the industrial revolution and that’s it’s not money. You actually get worse results when you try and pay people more.

[00:25:47] Luke: Try telling that to a sales leader though right.

[00:25:49] Kristen: That’s the different nut. I think there’s like something with no sales leaders listen but there’s like something wrong with that. It is.

[00:25:56] Stephen: But what I would say that the sales leader is you’re quantifying the wrong things and I agree that you should try and quantify because things that get measured get done, right?

[00:26:05] And I think there’s other things that you should be focusing on beyond just those unit metrics that you’ve you’ve been sold are the the the only way to go. And so you know I think about I got to listen to Barbara Cochran do a talk one time and she talked about growing her real estate business and she had one of her best performers this woman that went on to pick you know be worth hundreds of millions of dollars and she went to go visit her one day in her big office right by Central Park and as she walked in you know she’s looking at a $30000 table and all this great stuff.

[00:26:40] And behind this woman’s desk in this amazing ornate cabinet was this $5 award that Barbara gave her when she worked for her. And Barbara was like I wish I could have paid her more which didn’t have the money so I can put this cheesy idea of these awards for the people that were you know the leaders in the shop every quarter and here we were 15 plus years later and this woman’s got this cheesy award right there. And so you know just acknowledging people and saying the words I want to see grow and be better. Sometimes that’s better than putting them in the five day long class or training or whatever because most people never hear that.

[00:27:24] Kristen: Simply flipping your I mean to me one on one is the easiest way out rather than sending somebody who is training. I say how much do you talk in your one on one with your person. Oh wait you don’t have one on one. OK so that’s your first problem. All right step one- one on one. Step two if you’re talking 70 percent of the time you’re doing it wrong. Right.

[00:27:43] And so there’s there’s time for you to talk too but questioning the manager who probably also is freaked out of their mind to have to manage people because nobody ever taught them how to manage people in all of their managers were probably bad. I mean there’s some serious emotional baggage that I think we forget that people bring into the workplace and how are we offering people that opportunity just like I believe in you I hired you. I know that you can do this work. Let’s let’s go do this work how can I help you do it. So with that we’re, I want to wrap up a little bit but the last question I want to ask you is what’s one thing that you are going to take into 2018 from what you’ve learned this year.

[00:28:24] Luke: I can’t conceive of not taking the whole thing. I mean it’s it’s been a super weird year right? I think for probably for everyone at the table, it’s been a pretty weird year. Sounds like it’s been an inflection year for you and a lot of ways.

[00:28:37] It’s been a strange year for me because it’s felt kind of like retirement. But I know that I have to keep working but I’m afraid to start working again. And so I think the thing that I have to take in… the thing that I thing that I have to develop for next year is is not a direct answer to a question but I’m going to have to build up and carry into the year as opposed to think that I have is I have to, I always describe myself as the laziest person around. I don’t I like doing the least amount of work possible and I don’t really have a work ethic of it I don’t want work. I basically can’t.

[00:29:11] So I have to find that that clean line from where I am and what I’ve done and what I have the opportunity to do into a thing that I can invest in for a long time and that I think can make a difference in ways that will motivate me because I think a lot of things that should motivate me don’t. And so I have to find the things that do actually motivate me and will convince me to spend time away from our new kittens and my kids and my wife and my house and things like that.

[00:29:35] Stephen: You know if I’m talking to you know a founder or somebody is thinking about being a founder I guess there’s there’s really two things. One my life changed when I made a contract with my wife when we wrote down: These are the things that are untouchable no matter how busy we get no matter how we don’t miss these five or six things right and they don’t have to be big things whatever. And two great things happen when you pour into other people.

[00:30:01] I’ve been floored by the support that’s happened. You know losing my job. But also with pitch black people people get a lot out of helping other people and they want to do that. And and it’s, I hate seeing founders go and think they have to wear all the hats and do all the work and show that they’re the lone wolf when in actuality no one gets anything done by themselves even if they think they are they’re not they’re somebody removing a barrier for them somewhere and other people get a lot out of just helping you move down that path. And people shouldn’t be afraid of that. They should embrace that and find time while they’re really really busy with their startup to do that for other folks.

[00:30:39] Mara: Yeah I think to piggyback on that when I was at pitch black I was so blown away. I mean Stephen has just accomplished so much with that whole event is just beautiful just like so so beautiful. My God. And I think you know I had a really big mentality shift because suddenly you know these 12 or 13 black founders that were pitching and it became very clear that like the opposite mentality of what we’ve been holding had to apply for us to move forward which was we can’t afford for any of these to fail. You can’t afford churn anymore. You can’t afford this mentality of disposability, you can’t afford to treat people like trash and assume that there’s just this endless pipeline and pitch black was… just embodied this completely opposite ethos.

[00:31:29] And what I’m seeing and I think but I’m feeling is every opportunity that we have to care more and to support one another and to really show up and to be there for each other is what we have to be doing in this time. And so it is the total opposite of the ethos that we have around that disposed around just the cadence of everything that surrounds us. You know how fast your Twitter feed goes how disposable things are. The culture of disposability has to be countered by the culture of care and that work takes so much self awareness and introspection and work on your self in order to actually manifest that into the world. And it’s it’s just work you have to do on yourself concurrently to trying to create this repair in the world as well.

[00:32:17] Kristen: So the big takeaway is everyone needs more counseling I think.

[00:32:21] (Laughter)

[00:32:21] Kristen: But I’m actually serious.

[00:32:23] One I think I also think people need to understand the scale of what they do. I was lucky last week to sit down with a former Marine and he talked about you know the most powerful thing in war is a grain of sand. And I was like what? And he was like All it takes to stop a weapon of mass destruction is one grain of sand. And it was a really powerful metaphor for me as he went through like you know if you get a grain of sand in your rifle or whatever you can do anything with it you’re done. You’re stripping down you’re doing all these other things just for this one little grain of sand and so it’s a really powerful thing when I think people feel like oh I have to be doing big stuff. No. Like just be that one little green and say and do one thing like say hi to somebody today give something you know show up at their event even if it’s for five minutes because you’ve got a ton things going on.

[00:33:14] Luke: And climbing that huge cliff in front of you is usually too frightening for people to step up and it’s too big of a thing to take. But if you can build a path of small steps then you can do way more. And of course because it’s small steps you need help and because you’ve got help you’re a bigger movement and all these things cascade in a way that just looking up the steep cliff and saying I can’t climb that you know.

[00:33:35] Kirsten: And I think as we close one thing that I’ve learned from all of you and especially some of the work that you’ve done Mara too is being patient and knowing too that not you won’t climb that mountain today. It will be a couple of years potentially or months or whatever the timeline is. I think there is an ethos that wants you to climb tomorrow and but knowing that you’re probably going to break your back and also ruin your relationship and all of these things will fall apart for you if you try to do that. So I think that’s sort of swimming the opposite direction can sometimes help in this. So with that I just want to say thank you again. And I’m so lucky that I get to live in the same city with all of you but thanks again for being here. We’ll talk again soon.

[00:34:24] Everyone overlapping: Thank you.

[00:34:28] That’s it for today. Thank you so much for joining us for another episode. If you’d like to ask a question or suggested guest e-mail me at Till next time. Grow better.

Episode 12 – Better Systems

Kristen: Hi welcome back to upright and better the podcast where we talk about growing businesses up and to the right and up and better on this show. It’s not just about scaling for scaling’s sake it’s about making organizations that deliver value to everyone involved. I’m your host, Kristen Gallagher.

Kristen: I’m very excited to talk with our guest today. But before we dive in I want to tell you about something that I’m working on called human scale human school is the conference for people operations people and it is February 27 and 28 here at Portland Oregon’s own Mark Spencer hotel and it’s just a little conference for about 100 people. We’re going to be talking about people it’s how to have a more human human resources operation. And it’s really about the knowledge the context in the community that you need to really be a people we’re in the people operations and human resources arena. So if you’re the type of person who is the people operations person either unofficially or otherwise at your company you really need human school. If you’re feeling like you’re behind the curve or you don’t really know what you don’t know about people operations human school is definitely for you. So we’ll be taking a practical approach to learning human resources so everything from all of the employee lifecycle from start to finish. And that’s not something that you’re going to see at most H.R. conferences so this is very hands on. It’s a one track conference you’ll leave with an actual people operation strategy that you can use in your own business. The very next day and we’re going to be talking both philosophy and tactics so you’ll know that you’ll walk away with something really really useful.

Kristen: So earlybird tickets have closed now but tickets are still open and pretty affordable so if you go to w w w dot human dot school you can find out all the details are amazing speakers and what workshops we have in store for you. And that’s again it’s human school and we look forward to seeing you there in February. Now let’s get into the episode. So my guest today is Kuranda Adair and she helps entrepreneurs who are ready to stop spinning their marketing wheels and get serious about creating an online marketing engine for their businesses. She’s the founder of KARVEL digital. She’s a proud Portland native and she’s a recovering WordPress developer. Crondall became a programmer at 34 and has spent the last few years really learning what makes Web sites profitable and rescuing business owners from ill informed technology decisions. But most recently she’s been kind of a fanatic about systems in her business as you’ll see from her conversation. So she hopes to craft online marketing experiences that capture clients attention. Introduce them to the brand and turns them into customers. And that’s something that businesses that are growing need. Obviously we need to talk about profit not just systems on this business. So if you don’t find her busy building these amazing systems and these funnels you’ll probably find her on one of her five bicycles reading a book or trapped under a can. So if you’ll help me welcome Corunna.

I’m so excited to have Kronda Adair from KARVEL digital has today tried to tell us how you are today.

Kronda: [00:03:30] I am having an interesting day filled with interesting challenges.

Kristen: [00:03:35] It sounds that sounds like the life of a business owner.

Kr: [00:03:38] Yes I will start ranting if I get into it.

Kristen: [00:03:45] Well I sure will get into a little bit of it because you and I have talked to you cause you are pretty much making sure that I don’t screw anything up royally with Human.School’s website teaching me pretty much everything I ever needed to know about WordPress along the way. And part of what you’re doing though the work we’re doing is letting me see a shift in your business and so I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about what you have been doing and what you’re doing now and why you shift it in.

Kronda: [00:04:19] Sure. So I started out almost five years ago as a WordPress developer. Freelance work Press development. I would basically make a website for anybody who wanted work and had some money.

Kronda: [00:04:33] And as the years went on I started learning more about marketing and what makes Web sites actually profitable and useful to businesses and so that sent me on a quest to try to find clients who really needed those things who work. You know because it’s it’s always more gratifying and more exciting to work with someone and feel like you actually made a positive impact on our business. Not that that you know giving people new Web sites doesn’t do that but that’s just the starting line at this point in time. You know it used to be like getting a web site. You slap it up there and you were dead.

Kronda: [00:05:11] You existed on the Internet and that is so the case and are so much more required if you want your website to actual work as a marketing and sales tool 3 which is there all the time so you might as well make it work as well as it can. And so yeah I’ve been making a sort of public shift via my weekly e-mail newsletter over this year from being a development company and more a digital marketing company and becoming really more of an agency. And so that’s necessitated. You know losing some clients who really weren’t interested in that or couldn’t afford that which seemed kind of backwards to say I’m not interested in marketing but I can’t afford you like those things seem related to me but I think they are. But you know everybody is in a different place with their business and what they want to focus on. So I’ve just been really really more intentional about who I work with and trying to get a good match because when it’s not them it’s just it’s frustrating on all sides. People aren’t getting what they want and you’re not getting to know actually do things that will move the needle for them. So it’s been it’s been a year of sort of holding pattern while I have this business identity crisis and try to figure out really what are the few things that I want to focus on doing well. And so I’ve settled part you know marketing and marketing funnels meaning not just the Web site but how now the content for the Web site and landing pages and email marketing. I really like e-mail marketing as a tool.

Kronda: [00:06:52] And a lot of people sort of have negative connotations or skeevy associations with it. And I really enjoy it because it’s really just communication.

Kristen: [00:06:59] I really appreciate how holistic your view is business. It reminds me of some feelings that I had in profit sector where I felt like we were not just now in some cases was not actually supported by the work that we were doing on the role of the work doing was supporting the mission you all of these little pieces that weren’t actually talking to each other and we needed kind of a bigger picture of how we are going to all move forward in this direction together. And I think that that’s what you do from the outside. You know it you think that’s what you’re doing with your business. You’re not going to be able to have a successful business for such if you can’t tell people about it and if you can explain it to you. Wow.

Kronda: [00:07:56] Exactly. And I’m a writer by inclination and experience. So that’s you know I’m basically trying to shift it so that my my role in the company is more about you know creating my own marketing content and really the community the communication aspects of marketing which is which is the most important piece. And so getting away from you know having conversations with clients about Logos and colors and you know things that are are important but not necessarily the most important to them. Earlier today I was thinking I was thinking about what this week’s newsletter because I haven’t written that yet. I was thinking what would happen to your what like what would people’s Web sites look like if they just stripped everything away except the words.

Kristen: [00:08:49] I think I’m kind of terrified right.

Kronda: [00:08:52] But that’s really I mean the great. Yeah. So I don’t know I think it’s a good exercise and a good thing to think about and I just rebuilt my web site because it was you know vastly outdated and not not really putting forth a message based on what I want to be doing in the future and so I recently relaunched it but I’m probably going to you know go and play around with some different things and maybe scale it back even more. We like OK what is you know what’s the least amount of fluff I can have here. And so communicate exactly what I want to achieve.

Kristen: [00:09:31] I think it’s a very interesting exercise. You know what if you take away the crutches that you’re meaning. I hope this isn’t too too much of a leap but I think that as we grow companies and organizations we lean on crutches is something you and I have been talking about a lot lately just fine. The systems are busy. You know you have been in business much. You have reached a scale already where you know you’re not the only person. In order to do the work that you want to do you have to put in place just makes sense. I wonder if you can you know talk a little bit about when you realize that in order to grow a sustainable business you have to think in systems and what you’ve done.

Kronda: [00:10:22] Well I think I realize that probably over three years ago I mean I’ve I read a book called Traction. Get a grip on your business by Gino Wickman. And that’s an awesome book and I actually have a blog post called wire freelancer’s so flaky. And it talks about it talks about us and I compare it to. We recently had a fence built -it’s an enormous fence we called the fortress of solitude. It’s a seven foot fence with six foot by seven foot gate. And we hired a very expensive fence company to build the first section of this. And they were totally on top of it. Like if they said we’re going to send you a quote. They said the quote if they said we’re going to be here you know at this time the sales rep showed up at that time and the day before they started the sales rep said something about their Wednesday meeting and the issues list which is a very us traction term and I said Oh. Has your boss read this book. He’s like oh yeah that’s how we operate our company. I said oh that’s why everything is so together.

Kristen: [00:11:35] Can you define EOS in case it’s unfamiliar.

Kronda: [00:11:40] Sure. It’s entrepreneurial operating system. And so we’re interested in that and the book and its iOS worldwide dot com is the Web site and so gives you a framework for running and scaling your business. And as soon as he said that I just instantly knew like that’s why you charge what you charge and that’s why your organization is so good. And you know if you if you’ve experienced hiring contractors for your house that gets it’s not that way usually And you know the person we hired to actually execute our landscaping plan like it’s definitely not that way. So it makes a huge difference. And so I realized that a long time ago as far as like when I started doing something about it that’s. In a serious way probably in the last like three to four months and months. Mostly a question of you know not having the resources and having been taken up with a lot of client work and things like that you know cobbler’s kids and all that kind of stuff. So the other book that I read that was sort of life changing is called warped the system by Sam carpenter. And you can actually download that for free at work the system dot com.

Kronda: [00:12:53] And I sort of had I keep telling people I had a religious conversion because now I just go around asking business owners like have you accepted documentation… Yeah exactly. That’s me. I’m like I’m this close to going like business to business and being like no seriously have you seen this like this is how you get freedom.

Kronda: [00:13:32] Because imagine imagine any any company with like you know 10 employees or even or 50 or 100. How you know most small business owners are. We’re doing everything ourselves. We’re running around like chickens with our heads cut off. We’re fighting fires all the time. Imagine multiplying that by 50 people who can’t do their jobs unless they’re checking with you all the time about what to do. You have to. You have to write things down. You have to systemize so that you can have people help you you know run your company. And it seems so obvious when you get it and yet you know 99 out of 100 small business owners either don’t get it or they get it but not enough to actually do something about it. And so I recently hired my first dedicated part time person and all he’s doing right now is taking the systems that already existed and putting them in one place. And then we’re sort of this bull terriers and say OK what are the things that need to be worked out first. What are the high priority things. And so even you know even the weekly newsletter that I did that was the first thing I had to create a system for and what I did was record myself doing the task just in a like screen flow video. And I sent that to him and to him right the process and then we went back and forth a little bit with we giving him feedback and critique and making changes until I felt like OK this is a good representation of how this thing is done.

Kronda: [00:15:07] And then after that I handed after him I said this is this is yours now you own it like I’m going to write the newsletter. You’re going to you know imported into the email marketing tool and spell check it and tested it and you know make make sure the links work and schedule it. That’s your thing. So that’s that’s an hour that I get back a week. And then it’s like compound interest. We’re just going to repeat that cycle until I get more and more of my time back think and do more of the higher value tasks.

Kristen: [00:15:38] I really appreciate what you said just a minute ago. He’s basically taking something that you know you you have been trained to he probably read too much time. Your time is fascinating. And I think you know I think your direct quote was my business major to get it or they don’t want to get it or they don’t get enough to actually do anything about it and it’s something that I see a lot in the works that I do with onboarding where you know a lot of the time the answer is well everyone will be fine just picking up in the water. Right. But I think businesses like yours mine and many other businesses. Truthfully under other people you can’t take it up and it has to come from some other human who tells you these things straight and you know be on the receiving end of that when there’s no system. No not really stressful experience. I mean I would I would argue that it’s a negative way to bring in a new part time work. I’m curious and that’s something that you guys used to use.

Kronda: [00:16:55] Yeah. So I mean one of the things that will be higher priority is you know since this is the first time I was hired someone had a little bit of onboarding mapped out. But you know the way the way to actually make this happen mechanically is that. Once you make the decision like yes I’m going to create this process and document how things are done. Then everything that you do if it is not already documented and you know it’s going to have to happen again then you should be documenting it as you do it. And so you know as I’m onboarding Dylan I’m writing down the things like OK he needs these passwords he needs access to these things he needs to review the company’s strategic objective like you know I’m dumping all of that into the into the software that they use to create systems and then he and I you know will meet and I’ll get his feedback on it. OK what was good about your onboarding process and what would you what do you wish you had had sooner or had access to or you know what resources would have been helpful and will improve that process so that the next person that I hire they’re going to have a better experience and then they’re going to improve the process. And you know as you bring people on you know you’re not necessarily treating all these procedures yourself. The people who do them should be the ones who are treating them because then you get by because the other half of the equation is that people who actually have to follow the processes or they’re no good.

Kristen: [00:18:26] Right exactly.

Kronda: [00:18:27] And I think that’s really what the interesting challenge is to write it rationally leveraging resource elsewhere in the business. Somebody who can actually do that again for you or me. It’s something I tell my clients. You know once you’ve built this process first time your technical team like Do you ever have your new hire being what you got every corner with you and bring bring in new people to the process and have them critique it and have them up to it. They’ve got fresh eyes right and so similar exactly the same. I think it’s in that space of systems.

Kronda: [00:19:08] Yeah absolutely.

Kristen: [00:19:10] So you happen as you talked about this and as I kind of watched your business change even in the last year I can’t help but think that you are trying to build you know quote better business. And I always like to ask people what they think better means the price. You know with a great inventor there’s a perspective that we have about how we’re building businesses. And so I’m curious what does better mean to you and for you. Are there personal implications or social implications in that.


[00:19:43] Good question. Better means a lot of things for me right now it means more profitable because that’s really been an issue for the past year and a half or so. Thanks to you know just the trials and tribulations and the hard knocks and you know wearing some expensive lesson was part of it. And also you know not having the right clients and not being able to charge you know what I needed to to really get them results. And so that’s that’s definitely part of it. And then better also means that that me and my team don’t spend time fighting fires. We spend time improving systems because as you said like once you once you actually have created a system the first time then you can just continually improve it.

Kronda: [00:20:38] And as long as everybody is following that that documentation then you’re always doing a task in the best possible way that you know how to do it. Because if you find a flaw in it you can improve it immediately. And so that compounding interest comes in when you get to the point where things start to run really smoothly. And I’m not spending my day fighting fire. I’m spending my day you know improving systems or you know thinking about strategy for my clients and how I can you know improve their systems. And you’re also leaving your clients better because the kinds of things I’m doing now like I try to document as much as possible if I do you know like we created an e-commerce store so we’re documenting for the clients internal team. Here’s how you create a new product. Here’s how you added new products. You know the things that they’re going to want to do where they don’t necessarily want to have to call us you know call the developer Every time to do these small tasks. And so if those are written down then you’re just creating you know quote unquote machines that that can run themselves while you do other things.

Kristen: [00:21:51] I really like the idea of creating you know basically templates can be pulled and reused and continually updates.

Kristen: [00:22:02] And I think you know as I think about the kinds of businesses that are looking to build something that is more than just for traffic it has some positive social implications some impact actually. I can’t help but think that existence building systems is actually no don’t reach those goals. Yeah because you know as a business owner if I’m spending all my time fighting fires then.

Kronda: [00:22:31] That’s you know a lot of people come to me and you know want me to mentor them right. They want to quote unquote pick my brain which I hate that phrase. You know but they want. They want to know like you know how did you get where you are. And I can’t I don’t have time for any of that because I’m completely focused on OK I have to get the business you know running well and profitable because I don’t you know what I think when people have jobs and they know like oh I’m getting this paycheck every two weeks. Sure you can give away your free time to people who are up and coming in the industry and that’s fine. But I can’t do that until I get this all figured out and I’m running well. So I really like helping people but I literally had to put a pay wall around my life and say nobody gets my free time because it’s not free.

Kronda: [00:23:20] That’s you know that’s my business is consulting and teaching people so until until that is sustainable I can’t give away my time even to people that I you know would normally want to help or not. A It’s not a place I enjoy being. I really like helping people.

Kristen: [00:23:38] That is so true. And I you know if you can match this you can invest time that I. You are one of the people that taught me about that taught me about value. And I started to see it in my own business where you know some of want you to review their resume or are you you know point them in the right direction and you probably said that they could do by looking at your door you know doing some research around. And it’s a good balance because you know on the one hand I keep thinking I want to be generous with my time because people were generous with me. But if I think back to the people that were generous to me and I don’t know if is true their business is worse successful. Right they has to deal with. And they have gotten to places too I think about when I get on the airplane my safety is put on your mask first.

Kronda: [00:24:37] Helping other people save those. All right.

Kronda: [00:24:41] I say that like weekly. Yeah. Put your own mask on first.

Kristen: [00:24:46] Right. So because I don’t think we’re going to be able to reach sustainable scalable business. But how do you and reaching a sustainable scaffold business means that we will have an extra you know maybe some money to do philanthropy or some time jaunt here. You know everybody is totally free to do what you want. For example I completely disagree with what you said.

Kronda: [00:25:11] Yeah and that’s been nice since I started also to focus on the edge as an educational piece of my business. Well I recently admitted that I have two businesses so the is the second one is more of an educational thing and and with that model I’m able to reach more people because I’m able to create things that scale and actually just this week I’ve been talking to Mercy Corps about teaching a class for them teaching or marketing online working class. And so you know that’s part of better business. Right. And you know because I’m still going to get paid for that. But it’s also helping you know brand new women in business in particular to hopefully avoid some of the pitfalls that I’ve seen with a lot of my past clients.

Kristen: [00:26:00] I look for just one thing and I want to also ask you to get into how you actually skew your business. What advice do you think people should know about your business. So we cannot try sustainability. There.

Kronda: [00:26:21] Yes. So I have a lot of mentors. And the thing about all the mentors they’ve had is that is that I’ve paid most of them. And that’s you know. So when people come to me and the like oh give me all your free time I’m like No no I learned all this because I paid people who made it their business to you know to try to help help people. So there’s a there’s a real commonality with all my mentors and it has to do with that system’s mindset. And and. Being able to envision and look at your business as something that’s separate from you because when you start out especially when you start out freelancing or doing kind of a service thing where you know certain you are the business if you’re going to scale an F scale to you means bringing in other people then you have to change your mindset and view the business as a separate entity. And so one of my mentors actually builds a course called How to how to build a business that runs without you. And he sort takes you through getting that mindset thinking about if you couldn’t do anything with you know you physically like can’t do anything to run your business then what are the roles that you need to fill and where you know where the responsibility is going to lie and so that’s a mindset that it generally takes awhile and if you if you’re listening to those and you’re about to start a business or you want to start a business and you can somehow get that mindset from the beginning. Wow.

Kronda: [00:27:53] How magical Would that be. So I think that’s that’s one of the big things and then the other thing about scaling is just thinking about. A business model that’s sustainable. So the reason I sort of now have two businesses that I really want is to create an educational product. I wanted to create an online course that you know I could promote to as many people as possible and that getting a new customer and then mean oh I have to work another 20 hours a week because that’s not scale more sustainable. So you know getting getting knowledge out of my head getting it into onto the Internet in some form and being able to share that with people was really important to me and so. So there’s that’s you know sort of two sides of that coin is one you can have a product that you know you can just sell as many as you want then it doesn’t require any extra work for you. Or you can set up. You know systems using other people or even if you’re solo you can still you can still set up systems that make you more efficient. And that’s a way and you can still one thing Sam Carpenter the work the systems author talks about all the time is automate delegate and delete. So if you think of every task that you do and ask yourself Can I automate this. Can I delegate this or do I even need to be doing it. You know you could buy back a lot of time that way by by running running your week through that filter.

Kristen: [00:29:22] I should probably be doing it.

Kronda: [00:29:25] Well I’m delegation as you know for control freak business owners like delegation it’s really hard to get good at. And that’s that’s one of the other things is you know I’m still in the first month of having this dedicated person. And so when when I’m reviewing some task and it’s not quite the way I wanted it like the instinct to do just be like OK I’ll fix it because it’s just doesn’t take me any time and. And you can’t do that because that’s not the way to scale. You have to go back and say OK here’s the feedback here’s why I need it to be this way. You know let’s fix the process if necessary. But you you have to give up that control and you have to start empowering other people.

Kristen: [00:30:10] That’s. I think there’s something hey it’s a little bit of backtracking. But you said something I want to do just a little bit that you do matters. And I have gotten to a place in my business this year where I could do the same and I just feel so much better about it when I’m asking people for help actually exchange value for their time providing you know that exchange. And I also think and wonder if having a better business involves you know paying people families for what they’re worth and what they bring.

Kronda: [00:30:51] Absolutely. Yeah I mean that’s that’s essential if you’re just sort of take take take that’s not. That’s not equitable and it’s not it’s not sustainable because. You know if you’re doing that then how is that person supporting themselves if they’re already have a successful business and they’re just want to volunteer. That’s one thing. But if you’re talking to someone who’s let’s say in the first you know five years in the business chances are either they’re still figuring it out and them and so yet having that sustainability and you know in my early part of my year was filled with people of telling me telling me how valuable I was without actually offering me any. And so I I kind of developed the trigger about it. Yeah. So yeah I’m just much more appreciative of people who do understand that the importance of that and what.

Kristen: [00:31:46] It’s essential. Yeah I think what you’re. It seems like what is underpinning is respect and mutual respect and that if you have shifted your mindset to a place then your interactions with people won’t be reminded of something I saw this week. You know I don’t know that story but long story short a UK tourist was all I was trying to haggle. It was not always coming downforce Eugenius you wanted to buy a policewoman was rightfully area said about it. You know I just kept thinking Why. Why couldn’t you just buy you know.

Kristen: [00:32:37] Yeah yeah.

Kristen: [00:32:38] She just come home. So it’s not like she couldn’t spend a couple more hours you know their fundamental problem with that situation is a lack of respect for that person.

Kronda: [00:32:51] Yes and I’ve had situations where you know clients who are paying other other companies or other people to do you know sort of parts you know manage parts of their business would come to me and say well we’re not quite sure that they’re they’re doing this thing correctly like can you. You know what do you know about it. Can you take a look at it but then not want to pay me flag. And I know it’s not that you don’t have the money and so you know I think I think part of that is just you know who I am right. So would you be doing this if I were a white straight dude. Probably not. So I think that’s definitely part of it. And. And then I think there’s some aspect of people just they don’t really think about what they’re doing and how how it looks and how it how it feels.

Kronda: [00:33:41] Yeah. There’s one of the reasons I’m doing just talking with you and learning from you is that I don’t know if you caught this. To me it’s almost like this mindfulness that you have about the way that you approach your business your approach social events people in it. It seems to me that you’re really trying to be mindful of how you are right and wrong. And I think probably causes you to be really aware of how other people are not mine.

Kronda: [00:34:14] Yeah I think that’s true and I I definitely feel that after my you know my quote unquote religious conversion like you know it’s really really tough sometimes to watch other people flounder and struggle and try to say well hey have you heard of this other way of doing things and you know they’re not ready they’re not ready.

Kronda: [00:34:36] And then on the flip side like hiring people like this landscaping thing that I’m in the middle of where you know we have this great experience with the fence company and now we’re having just the total opposite experience with you know the actual building of our landscape design where the attention to detail is lacking the communication is lacking. And we’re doing every you know we’re doing so much product managing ourselves and it’s like we are is not what we’re paying you for. So yeah it really heightens your awareness. You know like oh well there’s always an element of you know everybody is kind of winging it and nobody really has all the answers none of them do.

Kronda: [00:35:22] But but you should be getting like closer to knowing what you’re doing is at 80 percent.

Kronda: [00:35:30] So yeah it’s it’s interesting when you have a shift like that and then to watch the rest of the world and through that new lens.

Kristen: [00:35:38] Yeah. You know this is the first year. I always try to apply it sort of almost never just because I get other businesses too aren’t there people which doesn’t include you know what systems you use and how you tell people how you do it you do whatever and so I had to start but it is just for him she is hired people and bringing contractors. And once you start it it is kind of like a religious conversion once you get back.

Kristen: [00:36:16] It’s almost like this lens. It seems so obvious. Well this is obviously the way to grow the business in a way that makes you pull my hair.

Kronda: [00:36:30] Exactly.

Kronda: [00:36:32] Yeah. I mean but one thing I will say about that is when you’re at the beginning of that process it does require a leap of faith because you know it. It reminds me of. There’s that book that the life changing magic of tidying up and opinions. Well OK so good but but the essence of any process like that is that before it can be better first you have to like to get all your stuff and dump it on the floor.

Kristen: [00:37:02] And that works too. Right.

Kronda: [00:37:06] And then you’re like wait this is chaos but you have to take it all out and look at it before you can you know compare analyze it and decide what to keep and what not to keep and so that you know like all this great talk right. But that’s the phase that I’m in right now is like it’s always darkest before the dawn but it feels like in my business everything is dumped on the floor and I’m literally spent. You know a couple of hours this afternoon just wrangling like random notes and text files on my desktop desktop that I’ve just said I’m like oh I need to write this down I’ll pop up a note and write it down not even save the file. So I was like wait what are these. You know 30 different text files I need to put these in a in the place where they belong. And so it there right now. But I’m OK with that because if I lose every day I work on or improve some process right. So even for example I talked about delegation and I listened to work the system also has a great podcast so I listened to one of their episodes about how to be better at delegation. And instead of just sort of listening that listening to that and have it go one ear and out the other. I took the process that they talked about and I created a procedure for it like this is how I’m going to delegate tasks so then I can say OK did I talk about the specific instructions.

Kronda: [00:38:30] Did I talk about the objective that I talk about you know any limiting factors. Did I tell the person who’s assigned this task how they can contact me if they have questions. So it’s called the sole method and it’s it’s those things specific scription directives limiting factors in discussions. And so that framework means that you’re going to have probably more important stuff when you first also freeze frame and they’re going to have a better understanding of what what is trying to be achieved. And so I made a process for that and that’s what I use now. Delegating like maybe they are to contractors or whatever I think what you’re talking about is price.

Kristen: [00:39:10] It really is ugly before it’s going to be pretty. And I think that’s something that you’re going to have to if you choose to accept systems as your Savior. You have to just you know know that it’s going to be like that.

Kronda: [00:39:27] Yeah. And and the trick is to figure out what’s going to give you the quickest win so that you have some kind of motivation to continue. And I think I’m really lucky in that I actually enjoy creating systems and documenting things but those are the case for most people. So I think if you’re trying to embark on this journey then figuring out what’s going to what’s the biggest pain point and what’s the quickest when that you can get from doing this is going to be the thing that motivates you and your team to be like oh OK this actually works this actually makes things better.

Kristen: [00:40:01] Let’s do more of it. Well with that last ice I just say thank you so much. It’s been such a good conversation as usual. I mean so much so I want to ask how can people find and remark on what you think.

Kronda: [00:40:21] So you can go to KARVEL digital dot com. That’s my main business and it’s client services model where we. My goal is to help companies doubled their revenue in 12 months. And so that’s sort of the business focus and then I have a personal blog at courante that comes when I read about me and what I’m up to and I don’t know I. I’m on Twitter. Carbo digital and at kerana. You can probably just google my first name and find out anything you wanna know about me public on the Internet.

Kronda: [00:40:58] So lots lots of ways to reach out and I would also add that you should sign up for around this amazing news. I get it every Sunday it’s every Sunday morning yes. So I would definitely. I just want to say thank you and we will look forward to hearing more about what your business is doing very soon.

Kronda: [00:41:21] Thanks thanks for having me.

Kristen: [00:41:28] That’s it for today. Thank you so much for joining us for another episode. If you’d like to ask a question or suggest suggested guest e-mail me at hello. At Till next time. Grow better!


Episode 11 – The Laws of Physics

In today’s episode, Caleb Dean and I ponder if big business is breaking the laws of physics, what sustainable business really means, and so much more. Caleb is Founder and Managing Director of Owl, Fox & Dean. He and his team work at the intersection of organizational design, change management, and leadership development to help bold companies and individuals increase their capacity to evolve and generate value for people and place. Join me in the conversation and read the full transcript at!


Kristen G.: Hi, welcome back to Up Right & Better, the podcast where we talk about growing businesses up and to the right, and up and better. On this show, it’s not just about scaling for scaling’s sake. It’s about making organizations that deliver value to everyone involved. I’m your host, Kristen Gallagher. Caleb is founder and managing director of Owl, Fox & Dean.

He and his team work at the intersection of organizational design, change management, and leadership development to help bold companies and individuals increase their capacity to evolve and generate value for people and place. His work blends the disciplines of systems thinking, design, business strategy, organizational development, sustainability, and storytelling.

Caleb is also the chief of staff and co-owner with his wife for their family’s 43-year-old business, Cambridge Naturals, a community health and wellness store in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He has a degree in environmental design from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst and an MBA in sustainable systems from Presidio Graduate School. Welcome, Caleb.

Caleb, you’ve got a pretty varied background, but the thread to me seems to be sustainable systems. I’m curious, can you talk a little bit about what sustainability as implies to business systems in particular means to you?

Caleb D.: That’s a really good question because sustainability has been this thread throughout my education and career that I’ve had a really hard time defining, but almost everything I’ve done has been with the theme of or filter of sustainability. When I was in high school, I went to a community college for the last couple of years of school and I first heard the term in a human ecology course. That’s where I became, I would call an angsty advocate.

I was at that point which was like 2001, and I had, let’s see … I was a senior in high school. I was taking this course and I knew that something was off with the world. I grew up in a rural place and I just… but a very liberal and environmentally focused place. There was something … I was looking for a term for why I was frustrated with capitalism and business, and I think I latched onto this trying to figure out why humans do what they do, and how we relate to nature, and how we relate to big environmental systems.

I think I first heard the term of course in the environmental systems, and then sustainability became this thread. I studied environmental design with a focus on sustainable cities and communities in college. Then that translated into this early on career in community development and real estate development in my hometown in Western, Massachusetts. I think so many of the conferences I went to back then after graduating college in 2006, we would spend most of the time trying to define what sustainability meant and what it was.

I’ve grown to hate the term because I think so many people don’t … No one can come to a mutual understanding of what it means, yet I still use it. It’s this funny thing where I think a lot of terms are like that. I think we’re constantly looking for more and more terms like that and how to define what it is we feel really passionate about. The term itself is boring, but I think when put in context, that’s where meaning happens, that’s where we’re able to apply it.

I think sustainable systems when I went back to grad school at Bainbridge Graduate Institute which is now Presidio, they merged a couple of years ago, when I was able to apply the concepts of sustainability to systems thinking and then in turn to business, that’s when it became meaningful for me. To me, it’s really hard to define, but what it means to me is an ability for a business and it’s all of the systems that it is and exist within to continue to thrive in some way. I’ve heard the terms thrive ability. There’s all these abilities.

Kristen G.: Thrive ability. I haven’t heard that one.

Caleb D.: Thrive ability. Let’s see. Another one is like regenerative. There’s just all these things that people are trying to push, and especially in the business community. It’s something that I think … To me, it’s more of an awareness of the systems that you exist within. I think so many businesses, operate in isolation or their view of things is isolated. I think the practice of thinking about systems and their sustainability is what we’re looking for, and I think it allows us as businesses and organizations to see ourselves more holistically, and understand the ramifications of our actions.

I know this is really theoretical at this point, but that’s how I think of it. We need to understand the context in which we operate, and we can do that through the practice of systems thinking. When we put sustainability in there and all of the systems whether that’s environmental systems or economic systems, we can then create businesses that really allow for a realization of potential, and healthy communities, and healthy people and healthy systems. That’s how I would define it.

Kristen G.: That’s fascinating. I have so many follow ups to that. I’m not sure where to start, but I want to maybe start with this idea that you mentioned the holistic view and that if you were seeking as an organization sustainability or sustainable behavior, whatever that means to your organization, it almost is incumbent upon you to look at yourself in context. You said what are the systems that we exist within? I was just thinking about organizations that I know that they understand their market like the back of their hand, but they don’t necessarily see how that market intersects with other markets or how their business intersects with other businesses that are not necessarily in their profit line.

That could lead you to make near sighted  or narrow-minded vision decisions. That’s intersecting with the idea of thrive ability that so much of my work is asking the question how do we get employees to feel happy and to be healthy and to come back to work and to contribute and be fulfilled while contributing at that role. That’s one of the crux of the question, what is thrive ability?

Caleb D.: The term that I would use for that is health and wellness. If we can have healthy systems and a sense of wellness over time, that’s really what we’re looking for. I think what we often forget about is the variable of time. Everything is going to have a reaction at some point. There are externalities to everything. For everything that we do or make, at some point, it’s going to impact something else, right?

Kristen G.: Right.

Caleb D.: I think what we’re seeing now is this industrial economic system just playing out over time and having negative implications on the environment and on communities and on people’s health that I think it’s outside of most people’s day to day comprehension.

Kristen G.: Some of it is too vast.

Caleb D.: Exactly. That’s where I wonder like can we plan for these things and do we have to see it go … Not to go dark but get really bad before it gets better. These are the questions that I think about all the time, but I think to define … I think we’re just looking for health and wellness. If we can be happy and healthy and well in our day to day lives, and then we spend so much time at work, I do believe that it’s up to organizations and it’s in an organization’s best interest to provide the conditions or create the conditions that allow for people to be healthy and well.

I have the incredible fortune to be involved with my wife’s family’s business which is this 43-year-old natural products retail store in Cambridge, Mass called Cambridge Naturals. They have been around for 43 years, I would say doing it as best they can with these concepts in mind. The whole premise is community health and wellness. It started as a natural grocer back in 1973 and it’s morphed into this really complex operation where we have 24 staff, we have 16,000 skews, we have 500 people coming in a day.

This is very health and wellness lifestyle product selection. The joke I make is that no one would start this business. No one would be crazy enough to start this business as it operates. No, because we have a starting wage of $15 an hour. We pay everyone’s health 100% of their health insurance who work full-time. It seems crazy it a capitalistic model, but what it is as an organization, it’s been this thing that’s evolved over 43 years in a community with strong values.

I think some things need to evolve overtime and what happens is you set these intentions at the beginning. You can always course correct but it’s harder too. When you have these strong intentions from the beginning, you can … I don’t know. I think about in terms of what Amazon is doing having bought Whole Foods and that’s very much our industry. I think so much of where they’re headed is data to understand people.

I think there’s a scale issue there because they have to use technology and data to understand their customers because the people who are making decisions aren’t necessarily the people who are on the ground talking to customers whereas us at a smaller scale have known our customers for the last 43 years and we can have conversations with them on a day to day basis. I think health and wellness has to do with a certain type of scale and I think that’s been something that I’ve been trying to focus and work on throughout my career is like what is that right scale?

I was just at a round table with the Design Museum Boston for physically workplace wellness. It was a collection of designers and people and architects who are designing workplaces and people in HR roles and cultural roles.  The question that kept coming to my mind was there’s this small scale where people can know one another and respond really quickly. Then there’s this large scale where you have a lot more financial resources where you can do things like build meditation rooms and have these big initiatives and spaces.

I think of Google taking care of every single thing their employees need. I wonder what the right scale is for actual health and wellness. My background is in environmental design. I think about this thing I learned a long time ago which was Greek and Roman city states. They grew until they’re about 30,000 people and then whether intentionally or organically, people would move away and then started new city states. There’s something magical about this 30,000 people. I wonder what that is for business because right now, it seems like there are so many massive businesses.

Everyone wants to grow to become really big and I wonder if in the long-term our systems can support that. That’s really the question at the core of my career so far is like what is that scale, and how do we actually design things to be sustainable for people and healthy? How do we ensure that communities are healthy and in turn the environment around us is healthy?

Kristen G.: Those are such good questions. I, again, have so many things to ask about that. That question what is the healthy scale or at what scale, at what size can you sustain health and wellness and for whom? That’s a question for me is maybe your employees are healthy and well but are the people who make the products healthy and well? Are the people somewhere down the logistics supply chain well? Are the people who end up consuming it well?

Those are questions that I think you might not be able to answer if you answer to other … I’m trying to think. Answer to other pillars. If your pillar is profit and that’s your first purpose in business then you probably can’t hold in your mind the concept of health and wellness for everyone involved because something will break and you don’t necessarily want it to be your business, right?

Caleb D.: Right.

Kristen G.: That being said, this question of how big can you get is so interesting because for so many businesses that it’s incredibly hard to get to five employees and then 10 and then 30 and if you cross reference this with the rate of investing and what kind of investments are being made in businesses today and you watched what the scale is supposed to be that hockey stick scale equation, you do get these businesses that are almost too big to stand on their own feet. That may not be attainable but it also may not be … I’m hesitant to use this word, but natural.

You might actually be breaking the laws of physics in a way. those are some questions that I had at Amazon is are we breaking the laws of physics here and is something going to give at some point. What I found was that actually things give all the time, you just might not care. We see there a collision of values. It really is going to depend who you answer to and what your values are. This is so fascinating.

I wanted to come back to your note about whole foods and the data. I was listening to another podcast the other day about the rise of quants in investing, and quants as I learned are there are people that write algorithms for investments. There is this arms race in that particular sub market of people trying to leverage new forms of data and one of the examples they gave was trying to understand how long a customer stands in front of a particular product, at which part of the aisle, and at which height in the aisle.

That is what they’re trading on that they’re 3/4 of the way through the aisle at the major grocery store at the top of the aisle or top of the shelf, what does that mean is that commodity is suddenly more hot and everything else low. If we’re rigging our market that way, what are the implications there too from a sustainable system? What other producers are affected by that kind of guess work is my question? I guess it’s rhetorical although you might have ideas about it.

Caleb D.: I love it. Don’t get me wrong. I think data is really important and I think … I don’t know. I equate it to our financial systems and the different financial mechanisms and quote-unquote “products” that got us into the 2008 financial crisis. Are things moving at such a rate within very tight circles or a small part of the economy that just producers can’t keep up? Supply chains can’t keep up with that. I see it in the store all the time where we’ll bring in a really unique new product and then as they grow, we no longer have access to it because someone has bought up most of their supply and we can’t get it for a couple of months.

Then maybe they don’t exist after a year of that because they haven’t grown their internal organizations capacity to be able to withstand. You said something about laws of physics. That’s how I think about it. I wrote a blog post about this a couple of years ago, but I was listening to Neil deGrasse Tyson, and I love his show, StarTalk. It was a sci-fi episode and he had a comedian on. Someone called in or wrote in and asked a question of like, “If I wanted to blow up a planet, would the Death Star be a good way to do that?”

I loved it. The way he described it is like yeah. Planets are basically mass and energy holding that mass together. If you infuse more energy into that mass, it will blow up, or you take that energy out and it will implode. I see that happen to businesses all the time. If you get too much either business or you get too much investment and your organization can’t increase its capacity to withstand that energy… It explodes.

Likewise when you’re just running out of money and you’re running out of business and nothing is happening, you tend to just wither away and implode. That visual, I think it is physics. We live in the physical world. I think it is. The energy that it takes or the mass, it’s that balance between mass which would be, I guess in this case the organizational capacity and energy which is money and time and people’s abilities and that type of thing. I think we run into that all the time and it’s something that businesses just are constantly trying to figure out. That hockey stick growth to me, it seems kind of sick. I have a bias and that bias is small business-

Kristen G.: Same.

Caleb D.: … at local communities. I see so many startups creating these apps that I just don’t know if the world needs them. I just don’t know. I struggle with that because I love creativity and I think innovation is really important. I think we should try things out and see what’s valuable. I think there’s a human scale of things and I think we need to actually communicate with more humans to understand what those needs are and then solve those challenges.

It may not look like 10X growth over three to five years. It may look like a really great business that you run for a long time and that you should be doing because so many small business, you talked about profit which is a very important thing, many small businesses compete on profit margin, not product margin. When we look at retail, big retailers are competing on product margin. They’re doing everything they possibly can to lower or to increase product margins or sell more products to increase volume so that they compete with lower product margins so that it can increase their profit margin whereas a lot of small businesses don’t have that luxury. With bookstores, they can’t actually increase prices. I don’t know the way the industry works but I’m pretty sure you can’t increase the price of a book.

Kristen G.: If a publisher set the book, I think. It’s printed on the book.

Caleb D.: It’s printed on the book exactly. You can lower the price.

Kristen G.: That’s the only way, down.

Caleb D.: Local independent bookstores needs to compete on profit margin. When you have shareholders who aren’t intimately involved in the business, I get the sense that they don’t care and they’re not ready to make those decisions to decrease their profit for a while to be a better business. That’s part of that scale. I see lots of these small locally-owned businesses, family-owned businesses that have been competing on profit margin for a long time and that’s how they stay in business. I think that right now, it’s a really interesting time with these behemoths out there because small independent bookstores and small independent retailers like my family’s business, actually it’s almost an advantage right now because these big companies are beholding to shareholders.

They can’t compete on profit margin where smaller businesses can actually be scrappy and agile and take a lower profit for a couple of years. I mean bigger businesses can do it, it just looks differently, it looks different, and it behaves differently. It’s something that I think is important for small business owners to understand and manage overtime and actually use to their advantage.

Kristen G.: Certainly. Your point about the choices that you make, are you going to compete on … Which margin are you going to compete on and which choices are you going to make? I’ve always thought there are certain problems in organizational design and development and if we could just stop the presses for a minute maybe we could fix them.

This is a small one in the grand scheme but there’s a problem of knowledge management. Many businesses invest in systems to hold the knowledge that they create documentation, etc. The funny thing about that is that humans are fascinatingly unable to agree on a Lexicon and an information architecture.

The way that you organize your files is going to be different than the way I organize my files. If we don’t talk about it ahead of time and say, “Okay, Caleb. I’m going to put these things over here, in this theme, in this format.” Then what happens is that you have this parallel but different style of managing your information and so you get these companies, you have large software instances of their documentation management system and it’s complete crap. Everybody hates it, and nobody understands where to find something yet they’re paying 50 or 60,000 a year to maintain that system.

Everybody is frustrated, and it actually causes some in inefficiencies in the business but nobody is willing to stop and say let’s fix it. I can imagine where else we see problems like that but maybe are actually higher up the food chain in more pressing challenges or let’s say what if we wanted to make the choice that we were going to pay everybody a fair wage or that we were going to pay all healthcare for all full-time or if we wanted to make these choices, what are the trade-offs we have to make. I think those are things that we should be pressing executives and CEOs and shareholders to be curious about and questioning or at least I would want to do that.

Caleb D.: Absolutely. I think there’s … You’re touching on the … If it’s not sustainable systems so … I guess my … I tend to be someone who’s at 60,000 feet or way down in the DNA of things.

Kristen G.: One inch or 60,000. I teach this workshop around designing an authentic organization and that whole brand organization model. I think one of the things that I always start with is the Eames Power of Ten video. Do you know that video?

Caleb D.: I don’t. Tell me about it. I forget what year it came out. It was in the ‘60s I believe, ‘60s or ‘70s. It was Charles and Ray Eames, the designers. They created this video that basically … I bet you’ve seen this in elementary school. It starts with a couple having a picnic in the park on Chicago and it zooms out by the power of 10 out into, eventually to the point where you can see all of the known universe at that time.

Kristen G.: Oh, wow.

Caleb D.: Then in zooms all the way back in into the guy’s arm, into the atomic level where you’re inside a cell. That to me are all the levels that we need to think about organizations. Where I find, I tend to go… I’m someone who goes back and forth between super high level how is your business interacting with massive global systems and then what is that specific word that you can use at the right time to increase someone’s chance of understanding what you’re talking about.

I really like to bounce back and forth between systems thinking at a high level and then communication at a very, very small level because I think what you were saying before is exactly right where we don’t have a shared language or most organizations don’t have a shared language. I mean you see it every day. When there’s conflict, I think of the world as basically a series of understandings and misunderstandings.

If we can understand more than we misunderstand, the world will be a better place. I mean that’s my hypothesis. I think so much of what we see, so many challenges that we see, so many things in organizations are humans understanding other humans or misunderstanding other humans, I should say. So much of that is how we talk about things and what we call things. I mean even the word sustainability, someone probably has a much different name for it, “organization”.

Every word we use someone is going to have a different perspective on what that means to them. I see this happen so often and I saw it early on in my career where I was the youngest person in the room involved in these larger scale real estate development projects at the community level, and I’m looking at people. From what I could see were saying almost the same thing  but they were completely misunderstanding each other and then after a while lawyers were talking to lawyers and then the whole thing is falling apart.

I’m like, “What is going on here?” That’s been another thread for me which is like what can we do to communicate more effectively with one another to develop these systems of language that allow us to really have strong understanding and thus have strong systems and strong organizations that create health and wellness. Someone in a silo to create something. There’s not dialogue around this and the language is shared only with a small group of people and it doesn’t make sense to anyone else and everyone else is resentful about that.

Then it’s not used and it’s not effective. I see this all the time. It drives me mad but it also fuels me to keep doing the work that I do in the world because I’ve seen some businesses that do it really well. I recently had the chance to go out and visit Zingerman’s in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

Kristen G.: Very cool.

Caleb D.: I took one of their courses, an open book management course and they’re the real deal. It’s really, really fascinating to see because the level of engagement across the organization … I didn’t talk to all 720 employees but all of the interactions I had with people, they were really engaged. The customer service was a real thing. They do very good customer service, also really good pastrami. They are knowledgeable and engaged in the process of doing the work. I think we often forget about the work to do the work because from a purely revenue driven model, I mean a lot of companies don’t even go for profit, they just go for revenue which can be…

Kristen G.: [crosstalk 00:33:15] a number of customers or market depth or all these things.

Caleb D.: Exactly. Whatever number is going to get them the highest selling price. These guys know their … This way of managing which is open book management which they’re not the only ones who do it, but a lot of restaurants do it. Having employees understand the financial context of the business, people are a lot more engaged and there’s a shared language. What it takes is a lot of conversation. I see all these articles and blogs about kill your meetings and stuff like that.

First of all, I don’t want… flippant use of the word kill, but I also … I just think if you hate meeting, you’re doing it wrong. You’re also missing out because unless you’re building an app by yourself, launching it, letting it go to the world, you’re going to be working with other human beings.

Kristen G.: In which case, I will say about that development in a vacuum, it’s in a vacuum and then you haven’t talked to other people, so maybe it’s a piece of crap.

Caleb D.: Yeah, exactly

Kristen G.: You don’t need it or the world doesn’t need it.

Caleb D.: Exactly. I think most things of substance, you do with other human beings. A good friend, Tom Walters always said that most things of substance, we do with other human beings. What that means is like we need to engage with one another. The Zingerman’s model is really incredible because every team has this weekly huddles where they go over lots of numbers and measurements. There’s data there but it’s at a human scale. I think that’s what’s really fascinating or was fascinating to me but they’re constantly talking and they’re constantly figuring out what they need to do.

That’s something I advocate for a lot of my clients. My work has evolved from individual coaching into much more facilitation of groups and helping them design systems but really engaging them in a way that allows them to hear one another and understand one another and then take that understanding to develop systems that support the organization and support the brand and support the things they want to increase and do, and create.

I think it takes a lot of conversation. It really, really does. I just don’t know another way around it because we’re constantly misunderstanding one another. I mean I don’t know. I’m sure you and many of your listeners have been in a relationship before. We’ve all probably had these misunderstandings. We’re like how did that just happen?

That happens billions of times on a global basis every day in business. I’m like, “How do we solve that?” That’s what I think we can … Think about big systems where we can also talk about the right word at the right time and the right question. That’s something that’s really powerful.

Kristen G.: It is. It’s incredible. That concept that can actually get back to scale that what if we mindful of the scale of our communication and the rate of our communication that we sought to understand first rather than to be understood. Gosh that’s such a meditation on how can we … If you were just going to work today and thinking about how do I understand other people rather than how do I make them understand me? I wonder how your day would change.

Caleb D.: I love that. Do you know Ellen Langer?

Kristen G.: No.

Caleb D.: She teaches at Harvard and she’s written on mindfulness. I really like her approach to mindfulness. It’s not necessarily in a spiritual sense. I guess you’d probably say, “It’s not in a spiritual sense but she advocates for things like to practice mindfulness, go home after work and notice three new things about your partner. The way I try to bring that into work and the workplace, whether it’s at the store with my family’s business and with our employees or whether it’s with my clients, through Owl, Fox and Dean, it’s what’s one good question that you can ask in a meeting?

Just one good question. If you can think about that, what are you seeking to understand… because it forces … When you think about it in terms of a question, ideally that’s not leading somewhere. You start to think about the things you want to learn and that learning, I think is then contagious. I think people like to be asked questions and I think people like to share what they know and I think often I see it being reciprocated.

When someone asks a question, someone will also ask a question back. What I see often in a lot of organizations is that people are just talking at each other. They’re stating what they know and they’re posturing. There’s this scarcity mentality of I better get my thoughts out before someone gets their thoughts out. It’s this really interesting … I mean, it’s such a human thing and it’s not just in business that we experience this. It’s politics, it’s everything. I think… it’s family. It’s something that we spend so much time in business and business is such an important system globally for us that I think it’s worth really bringing these things into that system and into business and into organizations.

If everyone in the world asks a really good question one day like… how would the world change? I think about that all the time. What could we do? It just seems incredible, and it’s such a small thing. It’s such a small thing. It’s not a new app, it’s not this massive disruptive company. It’s like, “What if we all went in and tried to understand one another more?”

Kristen G.: Oh, gosh. Caleb, thank you so much. I want to just thank you again for this conversation. There’s so much that we could have dived more into, dug deeper into, but I truly appreciate both your wisdom, and your experience, and your ability to say I don’t know about things, sometimes.

Caleb D.: Thank you. This has been an absolute pleasure.

Kristen G.: That’s it for today. Thank you so much for joining us for another episode. If you like to ask a question or suggest a guest, email me at Until next time, grow better.


Episode 10 – Designing Businesses for Sustainability

On today’s episode, Ciara Pressler joins us from her studio in Pregame HQ! Ciara is dedicated to discovering the best business ideas & practices through the advising she provides to entrepreneurs, business leaders, and creative professionals. She has managed marketing and communications initiatives for clients from startups to the best-known brands in the world. She has been a guest expert on business, including segments for NBC, ABC, NPR, and The Huffington Post. Ciara is the author of two business/career optimization books, creator of entrepreneurial development courses, and a guest speaker for conferences, schools, and organizations. Today, we talk about designing businesses, burn out, what makes a sustainable business, and how to build a profitable, better business!

Kristen G: Hi. Welcome back to Up, Right & Better, the podcast where we talk about growing businesses up and to the right, and up and better. On this show, it’s not just about scaling for scaling’s sake. It’s about making organizations that deliver value to everyone involved. I’m your host, Kristen Gallagher.

I am so excited to have Ciara Pressler on the podcast today. She’s both a coach to me and a coach to many others in Portland both formally and informally, and I got the chance to meet her early on in February this year when I hosted a program for the Portland Startup Week events and she’s just a stellar speaker and I’m thrilled to have her on today to talk about her background in marketing and business strategy, and how she’s applied that to small business and so I want to go ahead and start there. Welcome, Ciara.

Ciara P: Thank you so much. I am excited to be on this podcast and I’ve listened to a few other episodes and already learned a lot from you too so thanks.

Kristen G: Good. I’m glad to hear that. Let’s start with your background. You have this extensive experience in marketing and business strategy, and I’m curious, why did you decide to leave the so called corporate world and start applying that knowledge to small business?

Ciara P: I’ve never been a corporate person. I’ve never thought of myself that way. I’ve always worked for small businesses other than a stint at Nordstrom in college, but I grew up with parents who are entrepreneurs and self-employed in different ways and so, I think that’s always been part of my makeup one way or another. Also, my first career was in the performing arts, which is bootstrapping at its best.

Kristen G: It is, yes.

Ciara P: Yeah, it’s in there. I started my consulting practice working with startups and organizations and creative professionals in 2009 as a result of a layoff in the wake of the recession and it really happened organically. I didn’t set out to start a business, but a lot of business landed in my lap as a result of the work I had done previously so that was the beginning.

Kristen G: That’s the best way to start, right.

Ciara P: Yeah, it really is and it’s funny because the landscape has changed so much. A lot of the things I did then to start my business from a just business mode or survival mode are the things that people are doing a lot faster now because we figured it out. Can’t think of a specific example, but we were talking this morning here at Pregame about how everyone’s a business coach now and so, when you say I have this extensive background, I don’t think of it that way. I just think I have a lot more experience than people who are doing business coaching or consulting of some sort. I spent a lot of time building up my reputation and legitimacy in my first years as a full-time consultant, but people don’t really have to do that now. They just need a really great photo shoot.

Kristen G: You’re so right. No, you’re so right and I remember my first year of business in Edify, I kept searching online for support and for help and ideas, and you can download 300 million different kinds of ebooks about marketing and this will grow your business 50 million times and it’ll be six figures in six months. It’s just like most of it is pure BS and I was listening to another podcast yesterday morning about the only way to really sustainably scale your business is to sell, right, and it’s to do the hard work that you’ve done and that experience that you’ve done. I’m curious, what are you doing now? I know you in the context of Pregame. How are you applying that experience to Pregame?

Ciara P: Yeah. I get a lot of the people who have done those courses that are sort of magic pill solutions, whether it’s an ecourse or an ebook or a conference or a coaching program. Often online programs do that because they have to keep your attention to get you to sign up. I get it. I get it. It’s good marketing, but I’ve worked with so many people at this point, so many entrepreneurs, leaders, founders, executive directors, artists, people who are leading a project or a business or a team at this point that I see patterns of how it works in the real world.

I don’t know. I think I am an optimist, or else I wouldn’t be in business for myself, but I’m a realist and I want to know what works in the real world. I like ideas and theories and trends as something to talk about, but the ones that I teach tend to be based on what is actually working and so, Pregame was my way of scaling that. I can only work with a small handful of people one on one at a time and I want to be able to work with more people so, I created Pregame as a way to be able to deliver these success patterns and what actually works to more people at once and make it more affordable for people who are just starting out.

Kristen G: Right. Exactly. You were just starting to touch on what a sustainable business is through that idea of these are not just ideas and theories, but this is practical knowledge about what can make a business sustainable and scalable so what makes a business sustainable to you in your opinion?

Ciara P: There’s this paradox, right, because the kind of person who’s going to be a founder or an entrepreneur, someone who’s creative enough and risk tolerant enough to start and run a business is going to have certain personality traits that make it more likely for them to take that leap, but those are the exact same personality traits that can work against them for what it takes to get the business to profitability and sustainability, right. You want to be creative. You want to be a good connector. You want to be a good sales person in terms of talking about your business and getting other people excited about it, but if you’re so high on the idea and the excitement of the newness and disruption and all that, it can become very boring to do the day to day work and that’s where I see people, they just get tired of their business. It’s like people who really love the act of falling in love, but they don’t want to do the long-term relationship work because …

Kristen G: It’s true.

Ciara P: Yeah, I’m like, “Sorry, this is not glamorous. Every entrepreneur I know …

Kristen G: Yeah, this is the ugly stuff.

Ciara P: Yeah. The business nextdoor to mine last week during our heatwave, the owner of that business with a team of 20 was outside scooping ice into snow cones for the neighborhood, and I was like, “This is real entrepreneurship.” She’s serving the community. She’s out there doing it herself, not just making her team do it. I get on my hands and knees and clean the floor if I have to and whether that’s a metaphor or whether it’s literal, I think you have to have the humility if you don’t have the very long and deep runway of a bank account that can hire a bunch of people to do that for you. Even then, I’m not sure it’s healthy to outsource everything because I think you need to take responsibility for what you’re creating and know the nuts and bolts of things before you hand them over to other people. All that said, the characteristics of the founder or founders and how they manage their own personality traits I think is a really big deal, bigger than I previously thought actually.

Kristen G: I think it is. You see it in a lot of startup type businesses that are maybe funded before they actually have sales or market share to show for it and you do see that founder trait show up sometimes where they’re so excited about the idea and they can sell the idea, but then when it comes down to actually building it and building a team that can really deliver, then it’s called into question sometimes.

Ciara P: Yeah. I have this radar for that personality type, right. I always find these people and it’s very obvious to me right away because I’ve worked with so many of them and because I grew up in a family with that spirit. I work well with those people because I can help them figure out where the points to how to help them get excited about smaller strategies within the business, not just the whole business concept itself. If you want to be restless about something, be restless about your marketing and your sales because that’s the thing you’re going to have to be doing every day for the rest of the life of your business.

Kristen G: Right. I was just talking to a friend and fellow business owner yesterday about how excited I am for my vacation and she said, “Is it really bad? Am I going to be a bad business owner by telling you that I am tired and it is hard to do the day to day work?” I said, “No.” Of course, I think it’s important to admit, and you and I talked about this before, burn out and all of that, that it’s important to admit this is hard work, but that is what it takes to create a sustainable business.

Ciara P: That’s why you can’t do it by yourself. I don’t have a co-founder. I think having a co-founder or a team is fantastic. Of course, there are cons to that, you’re splitting up the pie. It might take longer to make decisions. It really has to be the right match, but even if you’re going solo, you have got to have a team around you. I call it your advisors.

I have a weekly call on Thursday mornings with a mentor who I can just vent to if I need to and I have other people I can call. Luckily, my brother helps me with finances. I have another friend who has a similar business to mine so we can bounce ideas off each other where we respect each other’s opinions enough to hear what the other person is saying. Not everybody should play that role because not everybody has good advice, but whether it’s some sort of peer accountability group, an actual coach or consultant, I think you need several people that you meet with regularly in order to stay healthy.

Kristen G: I completely agree. I think now in Edify’s third year of business, I’ve finally hit that stride of I have a weekly call with my both friend and accountability partner who has a similar business on the other side of the country, and we have in place now the team members who can be that owner of different parts of the business while also working together and providing that expertise and advice to you and challenging you, too, sometimes because I think you mentioned that some of the traits that make people really good business owners and not good entrepreneurs can also trip them up. I’ve known that very well about myself.

Ciara P: Yeah. You need someone to check your BS.

Kristen G: That’s very true.

Ciara P: Who has permission to call you out on it like, “Actually, that’s not true. Actually-

Kristen G: Yes, actually that’s false, yeah.

Ciara P: Yeah, but it’s funny. I had the idea for Pregame in some form or another for years, but the last piece of the puzzle that I didn’t have yet, which I learned from my personal life is that it’s so important to have an in person peer group. I knew that from my friendships, but I think it didn’t click until in the last few years, which is even if you have these calls, you still need to have the mirror neurons of being in person with somebody for human connection and normalcy because social media is the antithesis of that. You think everybody is doing well and that you’re the only one experiencing problems because you can’t tell that people are just writing about one kind of great thing that happened in their whole week while the rest of their week was a total mess.

Kristen G: Right. Exactly. I know. I remember my first couple of months after I had quit my job to run Edify full time, and thinking, “God, everything is so fragile right now,” right. It’s like it can be good one day and really bad one day and it’s less than 12 hours later and I remember walking down the street. I think I was on Hawthorne here in Portland and I was thinking, “Oh, my God, all these businesses are potentially so fragile,” right, but yet people keep coming to work every day. I’m also an optimist-realist so I’m not saying that in a negative kind of doomsday way, but gosh, it’s really hard, right, and you have to keep coming back day after day.

Ciara P: It’s just a different kind of hard.

Kristen G: That’s true.

Ciara P: I was raised in such a way that this kind of hard suits me. It’s hard to go to a big corporation every day where you don’t really have a say in anything and you have a very tiny role to fulfill in a massive machine and that would be very frustrating to me because I like to fix things and make systems better, and I’m very much of the school of thought of like if it’s not working, change it.

Kristen G: Yes, exactly.

Ciara P: If it’s not working anymore, change it. That’s why I love small business because you can actually do that, but what the recession did for us in 2008 and 2009 is showed us that everything is volatile. If a company stock drops, they need to unload 10,000 employees to make their stock more attractive, then you’re out of a job even if you work for like a blue chip company. I think that this surge in entrepreneurship that we’re currently experiencing was fueled by the recession and people feeling uncertain no matter what kind of business they work for.

Kristen G: Right, right. Speaking of some of those challenges, but opportunities at the same time, what do you think are some of the most compelling challenges and opportunities that are facing, I call them small, but scalable businesses today?

Ciara P: So many things. Everything seems to be changing so quickly especially because of technology, but one thing that’s really standing out to me right now as a potential obstacle for businesses is idealism. It’s when you get too stuck in how you think things ought to be in a way that is not appropriate for business. I think that’s great if you’re an artist. I think that’s great if you’re at a nonprofit to a point, but too much idealism will kill your business because you still have to be able to sell the thing, right.

Kristen G: Right.

Ciara P: If you’re in a hybrid creative business, it’s a little more clear. Like if you’re a graphic designer or an interior designer or a chef, it’s very clear that you can’t only just make or design what you want everything to look like, but your flair and what you bring to the project is very important. The way that relates to even like a technology business is you might need a piece of software to do X, Y, Z, but if your audience only needs it to do X, Y or if they only want Z, that’s what your business is. So you have to be, as Steve Jobs said, “Stay humble, stay foolish,” you had to be humble and foolish enough to not let your ego get in the way of what the market wants.

Kristen G: That’s a really interesting idea that you could actually hamstring yourself by focusing too much on what you think the vision is rather than listening to what the market has to say about it.

Ciara P: Yeah, basically, around the two-year mark when I’m working with an entrepreneur, that’s when they’re ready to give up on their own idea of what their business has to be. If people, if they insist, “This is our lead product, this is the product everybody wants,” but people keep calling them for a different product …

Kristen G: Maybe pay attention.

Ciara P: Eventually, yeah, eventually, maybe make that what you lead with because that’s what gets people in the door. I’ve made that mistake, too, but I think the solution is you either package all those things together or pivot your business, which is just …

Kristen G: Yeah, yeah.

Ciara P: Startup culture way of saying, “Be smart and use common sense.”

Kristen G: Exactly, yeah, all these coded words that really mean simple things. Speaking of coded words and simple things, things that we read about all the time, things like automation and AI and the pace of change, how do you think that those things play into the day-to-day work of small upstart businesses that might not be say a venture-funded company?

Ciara P: Yeah, I think you need to think ahead a little bit. First of all, stay informed. Be in the news. Go to conferences. Go to networking events. Know what’s going on so that you know what’s being developed because if you’re in a bubble, if you’re working from home and you never leave and you’re not talking to other people in your industry, you don’t know if somebody’s already 10 steps ahead of you doing the same thing. Then think ahead about where is the development of technology taking us? Is what I’m building or what I’m providing as a service going to be automated within a few years and then, I’ll be automated out of a job? I think we have enough information on our fingertips to be able to look into the future a little bit and decide what are things that software won’t be able to do in my place in a year or two or in five years?

Kristen G: That’s a really good way of thinking about it. How do you think that you would build a business that’s both profitable and better for the community? I’ll let you decide what does better mean to you.

Ciara P: Yeah, I was thinking about this idea of better. I think a healthy business is usually better in general, but for some businesses, better is providing jobs for the community and for other ones, it’s giving back more tangibly and directly to the community like having a triple bottom line. How do you do it? I don’t know. Every business is different. Profitable means you’re making money, you’re not wasting it and digging yourself into a hole of debt, but some people can afford to do that. Listen, not everyone who starts a business is doing it to make a profit. Some people are just doing it for fun. If that is your goal to maybe establish yourself or get an idea out there, just build an app for fun, go for it, awesome. If your goal is to make money, which is the goal of most businesses, that involves the humility that we talked about and paying attention to the numbers and being honest with yourself about what’s working.

Kristen G: I completely understand. I think that honesty is a good thing to hone in on. I think oftentimes, I see with businesses that have scaled really quickly, they’re not always honest with themselves about the hidden pitfalls that they could be running up against. What is that? You mentioned runway, what is the runway that I have to make this thing happen and do I need to make a change? Do I need to pay attention to what my community, what my market is asking me? How do I as a business owner define better and how close am I to that goal?

Ciara P: I love that. I love looking at this as a spectrum between profitable and better, and you just need to decide where your dial is going to be on that spectrum, what is most important to you. If it’s all the way over on the side of better, maybe it’s a nonprofit that you want to create or a B Corp. If it’s all the way on the side of profitable, maybe it’s not even worth it to you to own the business. You just want to go make money. I’m not saying one’s better or worse than the other. I’m just saying be honest with yourself about why you’re in the game so that you don’t self-sabotage.

Kristen G: That’s such a good point. That’s really good. As we wrap up, what pieces of advice would you have for listeners who are trying to build a scalable or a profitable or a better business?

Ciara P: When I first start working with somebody, we do a kickoff session and we spend an hour talking about their whole entire professional context and their goals, and starting to build a strategy for what they want to do or a game plan as it were. An exercise I keep coming back to in that is this quadruple Venn diagram and I ask people what do you love, which they pretty much know what they want to do all the time. Then the next circle is what are you good at? Now sometimes, people want to start businesses doing something they don’t actually have any experience in and I say, “Well, then you’re going up against people who have 10 years of experience doing X, Y, Z. Does that make any sense? Will people pay you for it?” The next circle is what will people give you money for, right? The final circle, what do people want? Finding something that’s at the intersection of all four of those areas I think is a really solid start to a business model.

Kristen G: That’s a very solid start. I wish that I had done that when I started. I think maybe it would’ve helped me see some things that took me a while to see, but given that, are there any other resources or things you want to share with listeners?

Ciara P: Oh, wow. There’s so many things out there. The number one thing I want to share with people is that you are the CEO of your own career, even if you’re not the CEO of your own business and if you are seeking help or advice, it’s up to you to vet that. I think a lot of times, we make decisions in a panic about taking that overnight magic pill ecourse or working with that person who promises us success in six weeks. Real life doesn’t really work like that.

The people who are successful in those things are successful in most things because they have these traits of discipline and a good attitude and a solid business model and being humble about the work that they’re doing. Work on that, but then when you’re evaluating like who are going to be my advisors, who’s going to help me build this business, please, please, please, ask the right questions. Develop questions ahead of time that you want to know. I’m going to be offering a list of those questions on my website that people can download. Be sure to comparison shop too so you know what’s available to you.

Kristen G: Such good advice. Thank you. Speaking of websites, where can people go to find more out about you and about Pregame?

Ciara P: Pregame’s website is and on social media, you can find us at that same hashtag, pregamehq and then, my personal website is

Kristen G: Thank you so much. Ciara, it’s been wonderful talking with you. I really appreciate you and look forward to talking again soon.

Ciara P: Thanks, Kristen.

Kristen G: That’s it for today. Thank you so much for joining us for another episode. If you’d like to ask a question or suggest a guest, email me at Until next time, grow better.


Episode 9 – When You Don’t Fit the Model, Break It

Today’s episode features Mara Zepeda, the co-founder and CEO of Switchboard, a founder of Business For a Better Portland and XXcelerate Fund. She also co-wrote the Zebra Manifesto which gave birth to the Zebras Unite movement and soon, the first DazzleCon. Don’t miss this episode, especially if you don’t buy into the “scale for scaling’s sake” zeitgeist! Listen along as Mara educates us about what’s really going on in the gender gap in startup funding, what many women are doing about it, and how she’s broken that model to allow her startup to succeed.

Kristen: Hi. Welcome back to Up Right and Better, the podcast where we talk about growing businesses up into the right and up and better. On this show, it’s not just about scaling for scaling’s sake. It’s about making organizations that deliver value to everyone involved. I’m your host, Kristen Gallagher.

Mara is the co-founder and CEO of Switchboard, which she bootstrapped by designing hundreds of calligraphy tattoos through her studio, Neither Snow. Along the way, she gave a TEDx talk about how the ethos of Oregon, that a quality over quantity and long-term thinking over short-term gains embodies the future we wish to see. She’s also a founder of Business for a Better Portland, a Chamber of Commerce for Progressive Business Owners and XXcelerate Fund, a revolving debt fund for women, trans and non-binary Oregon founders. She co-wrote The Zebra Manifesto, which gave birth to The Zebras Unite Movement and soon, the first Dazzlecon. I met Mara in 2013 when I essentially tried to figure out where in the Portland startup machine she would be and kept going there, eventually meeting her during office hours at the Multnomah Whiskey Library. It was quite possibly one of the most important meetings I’ve ever had because my life is constantly improved, inspired and altered by being near what Mara works on.

There’s so much I could say about Mara because her background is so fascinating, intense and filled with moments of contemplation, action and compassion. For now, I want to talk about connecting her work and the thread that links it all. Join me in welcoming Mara Zepeda.

Mara, I don’t know even where to begin because there’s so much that you’re involved with and so much that you have started with, but I guess we can start in just one place. Maybe that place could be Sex and Startups. First question for you there is why did you feel the need to write this piece? Then, I’ve got a follow-up for you.

Mara: Sure. Well, thank you for having me. Sex and Startups, we wrote in February of 2016. I wrote it about a year and a half ago. It was co-written by my dear friend and another startup founder, Jenn Brandel. I think we felt as though we were really being saturated in this metaphor, and metaphor had meaning. The metaphor that we were talking about and that we are talking about started this notion, and you know, I’m using the masculine and feminine here to describe broad archetypes and gender more than I am sex. You know, this notion that essentially, startups have this vernacular, so acceleration, exits, seed funding, up and to the right. Everything is oriented around hyper-growth and this really fast and unsustainable trajectory. As Jenn and I were thinking about the companies that we wanted to build and the change that we wanted to see in the world, it because very clear that we were after a different metaphor. It was something that felt slower growth, sustainable, Instead of disrupting systems, we were really excited to repair them, so I worked with education and Jenn works in journalism.

We just felt as though the existing startup culture wasn’t really describing the types of companies that we wanted to build and that there wasn’t even a tolerance for it. When you have an entire culture that’s set up for hyper-growth, what that means is you’re excluding a lot of founders with different ideas and different solutions that they’re trying to solve.

We wrote this manifesto called Sex and Startups. Basically, what it argued was that instead of thinking about this ejaculatory up into the right model, if we want to create more sustainable thoughtful culture, we have to come up with different metaphors. We have to invest in different types of cultures. That was the genesis of that piece. Since then, what happened was over the year since we’ve published it, we’ve heard from hundreds and hundreds of founders and investors and people in the startup community saying, “What you’re describing is exactly what I am, and it’s who I want to be. It’s the type of company I want to build.”

We unintentionally created this movement. The subsequent piece that we just published called Zebras Fix What Unicorns Break attempted to be another layer of synthesis in describing how we could create a more ethical, inclusive and sustainable culture that could give birth to and help these different types of companies thrive.

Kristen: I love it. I just love the language shift from disrupting and breaking and re-imagining the system. I think it does align with a masculine, at least in the English language and American cultural viewpoint, it does align more masculine than feminine. It’s such a more violent of a perspective. If you take a step back and you look at the way that the startup world works, to me, being a little bit on the outside but a little bit on the inside due to the companies that I work for… It feels a little violent, and it feels rushed and terse. It doesn’t take into account the kinds of cultures that we’re talking about here and in Sex and Startups.

The vernacular that I think you’re trying to put onto it is a completely different way of thinking about it. I don’t know that there’s a lot of people thinking about it in those ways, other than those of us who are trying to build zebra companies or maybe people have also been familiar with the B-corp companies, but not all B-corps would be zebras in my view. Not all zebras would be B-corps, perhaps. Maybe more zebras would be B-corps. Not sure.

What’s been the feedback that you’ve gotten or not so much the feedback, I guess, because you mentioned you’ve gotten so much good response? What resistance have you met with, if any?

Mara: I think a lot of people, I should first say that many of these ideas were deeply informed by the work of Jennifer Armbrust, so for those of you out there who haven’t heard of her work, she has a really beautiful creative mornings talk called The Feminine Economy. She has something called Feminist Business School. She’s been a dear mentor and coach of mine. It was Jen that first started to speak about and introduce me to these concepts. The masculine economy is one that has linear growth, that’s based on individualism and competition and this hierarchical myth of the meritocracy. Then, you had this other, the feminine economy, which is about interdependence, collaboration, generosity, resourcefulness, sustainability, care.

Jen was really the first person that started to speak about business in this way that really resonated with me.

I think in terms of the response, when it comes to the resistance, I think there’s a misconception that we are saying. It’s an either, or. We’re saying either it has to be a masculine economy or a feminine economy. Part of the work that all of us have to do is to recognize that both can and should have a place to exist. There’s a balance of the two. There’s like this yin yang marriage of the both of them and that we will not have a diverse entrepreneurial ecosystem without being able to create a culture that we want.

I think there’s a misconception that what we’re saying is we want to get rid of the masculine economy. That’s craziness because that’s like saying we want to eradicate capitalism. There’s no sense in trying to dismantle that model, but I think what we’re seeing more and more is the recognition that there is space in the world to accommodate a different type, different types of business models, different types of businesses.

In doing that, in opening ourselves up to a diversity of opinion in that way, we then make our entrepreneurial ecosystem more diverse. Diversity actually comes from respecting and valuing the values that these founders have and saying to them, “You deserve a movement of your own.” The world is big enough to accommodate it. It’s a both/and, it’s not an either/or. I think it’s too easy to page it in the antagonistic term. I think really, what it’s about is just creating a more diverse ecosystem.

Kristen: I want to come back to ecosystem in a little bit, but as we’ve all read in the news in the past six months or so, I mean you could really say the past 10 years, but really in the past six months, it seems like company after company is coming forward or somebody or some woman is coming forward from many companies. What it’s caused is this seemingly abrupt tide of mea culpas from the mostly male venture capitalist community to say, “I’ve done these things. I’m so sorry. I won’t do them again in the future.” Well, how is Sex and Startups and Zebras Fix What Unicorns Break related and intertwined to that behavior that we’re seeing in VC right now?

Mara: I think one thing that was interesting, so after we wrote Zebras Fix What Unicorns Break, we then announced this conference that we’re going to be hosting in Portland, November 15th through 17th. For founders that are interested in joining us, this will be a small conference of about 150 founders and funders to start to co-create a vernacular around this movement. You can learn more about that on the website that we’ll put in the show notes. I think it’s something I think about every day because it really comes down to power and who has it and if they’re sharing it and if they deserve it. Those are the questions that I tend to ask myself every day. You can have as many apologies as possible and as many mea culpas as possible or diversity trainings, but the fundamental fact of the situation is that women receive … Now, the most recent numbers are something like 10% of venture capital. That’s on a very high-end. Traditionally, it’s been around 4%, and 4% of bank loans.

If money is power, then essentially, power is being withheld from women and people of color. There are many things we can do to skirt this issue to say we’ll create a more inclusive ecosystem. We’ll have these equity quotas, but it actually requires funding women and funding people of color. It requires fund managers to be women and people of color. That tippy-top layer of power for under-represented founders and people to have access to that tippy-top layer of decision-making power is really the holy grail.

It’s the place that nobody wants to talk about, but it’s the place where the solution will be born. I find that it’s really frustrating because everything else is essentially men making decisions for women and people of color and lording… It remains an imbalanced power structure when men are assigned to “fix the problem.” It’s a very different dynamic when women and people of color are trusted enough to create the solutions that they need.

I think it just requires some pretty nuanced discernment to understand the difference between someone who is coming in as Mr. Fix-it. That hero role is one that is very appealing to the ego versus creating systemic change where it’s accommodating solutions by making space for those solutions to be created by the people who are facing the problems to begin with. That’s a much scarier proposition but something that I think we just have to, we can no longer avoid.

Kristen: Right. Well, it’s scary but also risky, right? It’s a risky proposition to say, “I’m going to gamble on the idea that I can make a difference in this huge, vast system.” You know, I think of Astrid’s work with Sfera, right? I mean the kinds of things that Sfera is trying to do, as well as Switchboard and many other zebra companies are such systemic work that people who are happy to stay in and have made their money in quick wins, and which, again, very, very masculine, maybe ejaculatory quick-wins are the easier way to go, right?

If you, for me at least, reading through Wired or Fast Company or GeekWire or TechCrunch, it’s always like, “Oh, the exit was three to five, maybe seven years after the company started,” when so many of the zebra companies that we know are seven to ten years in before they’re really seeing results because they’re willing to put in the sweat equity to do that.

Mara: Mm-hmm (affirmative), completely. Yes, we actually reached out to the reporter of the New York Times story that aggregated those women’s experiences of sexual harassment. Jenn and I both come from a reporter background, and we tried to say as clearly as possible, “Look. The news requires you to have these very viral stories,” so you have a viral story of six women or how ever many, six very brave women coming forward with their stories. We really encourage the Times to do a much more thoughtful investigation of an anonymized survey of women founders across the country that would share their experiences, not only around sexual harassment, which of course is a problem, but also around discrimination and any number or any other number of challenges that they face in the startup world, and that you would then have an aggregated data set that would tell a very different story of the problem. We could actually would help to inform so much, so much around funding and around business models and around the new type of culture that we needed.

I’m not sure what they’re planning to do with that, but unfortunately, I think that we can get lost in anecdotal details around the culture, and what we really need is a much more holistic 30,000-foot view of what women and people of color across the country are experiencing from a discrimination standpoint. Not so that we can call out individual VCs and finger-wag and bemoan the state of affairs, but so that when we think about the movement that has to come in to create something, that we can do it from an informed place and from a place of strength and unity. All of what I’ve just described around grassroots organizing long-form journalism, deep investigative reporting, reaching out to sources across the country, creating systemic change. Everything I’ve just described is completely antithetical to where we are right now as a country, in terms of meeting immediate gratification.

Kristen: You mean fake news wouldn’t help us there?

Mara: Yes, exactly.

Kristen: Yes, right.

Mara: Just the cadence of what you’re describing, absolutely. It’s not. It’s not sexy. Nothing about creating an alternative movement to something is sexy. Nothing about movements, historically, has been sexy. It’s just been back-breaking work over decades to try to create cultural change, so absolutely. I think you’re so spot-on that the cadence couldn’t be more stark in this time, between what you are able to vomit out in a tweet versus the type of life’s commitment that you have to make to actually creating systemic meaningful change.

Kristen: Right, right. It is. I don’t want to go too far down the rabbit hole, but when I see often male founders, CEOs up on stages talking about their commitment to diversity and inclusion or male VC’s apologies and their new found commitment to funding, or they’re going to actually start an impact fund, which I find very interesting, and we talked a little bit about that in my interview with Stephen green, that impact funding, that funding women and people of color is not impact funding. It’s actually just founding and funding companies that make money, but that, that is such a difference perspective. There’s sitting up stages and writing, writing articles and posts but haven’t actually committed to the life-long work that it will take to move their firm in a different direction or to move their company in a different direction or to really examine their hiring processes that a diversity training is not going to solve that problem, right?

Mara: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Kristen: You know, this could be naïve and certainly in a generalist case, but I just could imagine an economy made out of zebra companies. You wouldn’t have to have unconscious bias training. My hope at least is that you wouldn’t have to, but perhaps we’ll see that in 20 or 30 years.

One of the medium articles that you wrote, not super recently but this is the one about how the sausage of everything that is amazing about you and that you’ve done is made included 14 important lessons that you’ve learned. Although I love many of them, one of my favorites on that list is every museum is a temple to what is possible. I’m certainly biased because I have a background in museums and in thinking through human behavior as a collecting tool and a cultural tool. Can you talk a little bit more about this? Maybe I’m treading on a thread that’s too light, but how is it connected to the work you do with Switchboard?

Mara: I guess apart from just growing up in museums, I would say it’s been eye-opening to create a company and recognize the artifacts that we create that are not considered artifacts by any type of museum standards, but are still … There’s a material culture to companies, I suppose is the best way of putting it.

Kristen: There is, right.

Mara: If you were to take a step back and think of a company as a museum in some ways, you know, I’m constantly thinking, and I will be the first to admit that I could do a better job on so many different levels, but this is at least to say that it’s in the back of my mind. You know, what is the experience that your employees have when they first start? You know, the work that we’ve done together has been so integral in that. That is similar to when a museum is welcoming you. How are you onboarded into physical space is very similar to how are you onboarded into your company? What are the images that they’re surrounded by? I’ve always been very intentional about having flowers delivered every other week, depending or every week, depending how we’re doing.

Kristen: How we’re feeling.

Mara: Just to have that sense of seasons passing, so when the peonies are blooming, that is a signal to me that we’re in the height of the sales season. Then, when we have cottonwoods delivered, that signals something else. There are visual signals. I think also what the founders revere and we’ve seen time and again that just having our team feel that they have as much freedom and autonomy as possible, and so certainly when you’re thinking of that museum design experiences, wanting to be as the best ones, obviously, are the ones in which they’re such a playful experience of exploration and this encouragement to discover what it is that we are truly interested in, without being forced to be guided through one nook and cranny or another. Yes, I worked at the … The College of Physicians of Philadelphia is where the Mütter Museum is, which is-

Kristen: What an interesting museum to work at.

Mara: Yes, and so that was right downstairs from some work that I was doing there in Philly many years ago. Yes, so just to be informed by physical spaces and then to think of companies as, yes, creating these cultures. That was something that I didn’t entirely understand but that I’m so grateful to have learned, is that a company is very much a culture. People say company culture, and that never really resonated with me abstractly, but when I think about it more in terms of something like museum design, that’s where the cultural experience becomes a lot more real.

Kristen: I’m feeling like there’s something I need to write on this because this part of our conversation is especially fascinating to be, because I hadn’t been thinking about it this way, but that concept of material culture is pertinent because it is just … Even, it could be digital material too, right? The logos that you transition through, maybe the first one that you started with, and I’m struck. I’ve been in the Switchboard office, and there’s the shrimp logo. I know there’s a story behind that, and there are the books that you share and the notebooks that you share, and all of these things that come together to form a company and the knowledge that is created is material culture, right? The other thing that I’m thinking about as I listened to you talk about that is the intentionality and the care with which you’re thinking about these things, and that I wonder if that’s not indicative of a zebra company, right, of a company that is paying attention to the way in which it interacts with and within the world, right?

Mara: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Kristen: You’re paying attention to how you create things and how you align objects, both digital and physical and metaphorical to create an organization in the world.

Mara: For sure, yes. Some reading that I would recommend on that is Ari Weinzweig who’s the founder of Zingerman’s Deli, who will hopefully be coming to our conference, Dazzlecon, is really my mentor in this way. He has a series of restaurants and roadhouses in Ann Arbor and has written a phenomenal series of business books. Really, the only ones I recommend is called the Lapsed Anarchist’s Guide To Being A Better Leader, Managing Ourselves, Building a Great Business and Beliefs in Business.

He talks about this process of anytime he’s about to come up with a new idea, he’ll sit down and write a visioning statement. He will go through the senses, so what’s the sensory experience that the customer is about to have? They walk into the roadhouse, and immediately, they smell coffee, incredibly roasted coffee. They’re greeted by someone at the cash register who is friendly and smiles and makes eye contact. He will just go through this incredibly detailed … You know, the napkins that they’re touching are soft and cotton and heavy. He will go through this descriptive process of the material culture that he’s thinking about, which is the experience.

The hospitality industry actually has so much to teach tech in this way because they are much like museums. They’re thinking so very much about the experiential aspect of the process. Absolutely, I think, and to your point about zebra companies thinking in this way, in startup culture, this is an ananthema, right, because you’re just trying to crush it. You buy a ping pong table. You source a keg. You print out t-shirts in China, and the disposability is inherent in an exit strategy. I remember joking with a friend of mine. One of the startup companies in Portland had all of these t-shirts printed. Then, they folded. You just see, and they brought them all to the local homeless shelter. You would just see people in Downtown Portland –

Kristen: Oh my gosh, how interesting.

Mara: With these t-shirts printed in China about VC-backed company that had totally had gone belly-up. What an interesting-

Kristen: An interesting investment in the community.

Mara: Exactly like, “Okay, this is how it’s all going to end-up.” Yes, when we’re talking about when to buy, where we buy snacks across the street from them, and I’m looking at it. It’s the local vegan grocer, and so we buy our snacks from the vegan grocer. That takes an additional 10 minutes out of my week or our team member’s week versus buying it on something like Amazon. A company is made of so many of those micro-moments that …

Kristen: Right, decisions moments.

Mara: For sure, zebra founders are just thinking about it in a really different way.

Kristen: I love it. I feel like I could continue this mental, just exercises on what is a company like this? As we wrap up, what is something that you might say to, let’s just say, a tech founder who might not currently be building a zebra company but is curious about it? How would they enter into that world and try to become more like a zebra company?

Mara: I think for me, I would say it’s just being able to find heroes who are doing work in a really different way. Then, figuring out what it is that they’ve done and just using other founders and other industries as a guidepost. One of your guests, Jill Nelson really taught me this lesson as well when we’re talking about just the care that can go into a company. She has an entire … I forget what it’s called, but it’s basically just this entire corner of their office that’s-

Kristen: Oh, yes. The gifting station?

Mara: The gifting station.

Kristen: Something like that.

Mara: Yes, exactly. I would not know how to do anything that I am fumbling along doing without mentors and people to emulate across industries. I mean they run the gamut from artists to authors to intellectuals to other startup founders. I wouldn’t even call it mentorship, so I would just say I think it’s almost impossible to learn information abstractly and to be brave about seeking out the people who are signaling that they’re doing work that’s resonant with you and establishing authentic relationships with them and just being able to observe them and to apprentice yourself to them as much as possible, has been something that’s been so profound for me. I was lucky enough to be accepted to Portland Incubator Experiment, our company was, and just being in the orbit of Rick Turoczy and all of the community-building that he does in such a quiet, thoughtful, selfless way had a huge impact on the culture of our company. That’s one example.

I suppose that’s what I would say to begin with. Then, for the books, they’re really starting with books like Ari’s book. There’s a woman that I’ve recently become very enamored with whose name is Mary Parker Follett, F-O-L-L-E-T-T. She has this book called The Creative Experience that I’m reading right now. I’ll send you some information, but she was a turn-of-the-century … She was writing in the 1920’s about management and business, and what she has to say is just blowing my mind.

Kristen: It must be very … I just can imagine, if you’re enamored of it, it must be very anti-tailorist.

Mara: Yes, I’ve never read anything like it. Peter Drucker called her the prophet of management. She’s a woman that I have never come across in my life. She really argues for this notion of power isn’t something that’s given. It’s not something that’s taken or given. It’s just it’s like this exponential increase of capacity that all of us should be helping each other to fulfill. What she has to say about power and organizational management is just really something.

Kristen: Wow. I’ll have to take a look, and we’ll link it on the show notes. Well, is there anything else that you’d like to leave us with?

Mara: No. I mean gosh, it’s just such an honor to speak with you. I think that all of us are on the same page, right, of just wanting to create a more humane and ethical and inclusive space, and so to be able to be alive together, to all do that work is something that’s such an honor. I just feel grateful for the community in Portland and for the work that you’re doing and for the people that I’ve learned from every day. Very excited to connect with more folks, thanks to your podcast.

Kristen: Well, thank you so much, Mara. I can’t say how happy I am enough that you are on the podcast. I think that this is probably the most explicit interview that really speaks to the name of the podcast, Up Right and Better. You used the phrase earlier, up and to the right, and I was very inspired by our conversations, and many others with people that I want to emulate too, to try to help us find a way to build these companies that are profitable and are good for the companies and the people in them and the employees and the environment all around, so that they’re up, right and better, not just profitable. Thank you for your work in that as well.

That’s it for today. Thank you so much for joining us for another episode. If you’d like to ask a question or suggest a guest, e-mail me at Until next time, grow better.


Episode 8 – Visualize this: Your strategy, better

Today’s guest is Nitya Wakhlu, a personal friend and a professional collaborator of mine. Nitya is the founder at Drawbridge Innovations, where she specializes in using visual thinking and experiential learning to create whole-brain experiences that support group learning, innovation, and change. Nitya has a Bachelor’s Degree in Engineering and an MBA focused on Human Resources and Industrial Relations. Nitya’s best known for her work as a graphic recorder and visual facilitator, and she brings over eight years of experience working with corporate, government, and nonprofit groups from across North America, India, Africa, and Europe. On the podcast today, we’re going to talk about the difference between graphic recording and facilitation, putting a more human lens on human resources, and learning how to start your graphic recording process!

Kristen G.: Welcome back to Upright and Better. The podcast where we talk about growing businesses up and to the right and up and better. On this show, it’s not just about scaling for scaling’s sake. It’s about making organizations that deliver value to everyone involved. I’m your host Kristen Gallagher.

Today’s guest is Nitya Wakhlu, a personal friend and a professional collaborator of mine. I was trying to remember how we met, so I looked up the first email I sent her, and I realized that I emailed her after seeing her at a festival in downtown Portland. She had a table there with the library and was hosting a visual thinking exercise, which we’re actually going to talk about.

Let me just tell you a little bit about her. Nitya Wakhlu is the founder at Drawbridge Innovations where she specializes in using visual thinking and experiential learning to create whole-brain experiences that support group learning, innovation, and change. Nitya has a Bachelor’s Degree in Engineering and an MBA focused on Human Resources and Industrial Relations. Nitya’s best known for her work as a graphic recorder and visual facilitator, and she brings over eight years of experience working with corporate, government, and nonprofit groups from across North America, India, Africa, and Europe. I’m so thrilled to have Nitya on the podcast today.

Welcome Nitya. I’m so glad you’re on the podcast today. I’m really excited to have you here because we have worked together in the past, and I think we’ve known each other, gosh, at least two-and-a-half years now, right?

Nitya Wakhlu: Yeah, that sounds about right, and thank you so much for having me on your podcast Kristen. I am a huge fan of the show and really, it’s a privilege to be here.

Kristen G.: I’m so excited. I’m glad to hear that. So I want to dive into something that I don’t even know the biggest difference between. Maybe you can talk to us a little bit about the work you do in graphic facilitation and graphic recording, and how are they different, and why do you use those things?

Nitya Wakhlu: Absolutely, and yeah, thank you for asking. This is something that a lot of people want to know more about, but also are not sure of the distinction. I’d love to talk about that right now.

Very often I get hired to do work with clients as a graphic recorder. As a graphic recorder, what I do is I go to meetings of all kinds, so that could be a strategic visioning workshop, or brainstorming session, or a board meeting even. And what I do in my role there is listen very deeply to what’s being said, and distill the key information from that huge conversation. Then I use words and pictures to capture that information visually in real time.

Typically, what it looks like is I have a few large 4×8 sheets of paper up on the wall, and I’m really focused on capturing the key ideas and the key insights and using words and pictures to put that up on the charts. That is an example of what graphic recording looks like.

Kristen G.: Okay. I think that’s a fascinating tool, and I can see that being very useful for board meetings with nonprofits, with committees, but also with tech companies and startups that are maybe having trouble accessing their deeper thoughts about the brand or where the product is going. Have you done that kind of work before?

Nitya Wakhlu: Yeah, I think graphic recording is a tool that is applicable and very useful, you know right across the spectrum. I’ve worked with groups of three people in a startup in their early stages of brainstorming. I’ve often worked at conferences with 300 people in the room. It’s a very useful tool in a wide range of scenarios, and it does a couple of things.

First of all, as a graphic recorder, we bring a quality of very deep listening into the room. And when we do that it makes sure that every voice in the room feels heard and validated. And I think that when people realize that there’s someone really listening to them deeply, it helps them feel more engaged. It helps them feel more collaborative, and then that really changes the shape of the interaction in the room. That’s something that I love about graphics recording.

Then of course the fact that we use words and pictures is a very deeply integrative process, so you have both sides of the brain being stimulated. It also helps people tap into a realm of imagination and of visionary thinking that they couldn’t have with more traditional processes. Of course, once you’re done with the meeting, the visual shots are an excellent artifact for you to take back with you to not only remember what happened, but also share with the rest of the organization.

That was a little bit about graphic recording.

Kristen G.: That’s helpful, but how is it different from graphic facilitation?

Nitya Wakhlu: Great question. As a graphic recorder, you show up into the room on the day of the event, and you might be a little involved before the event to understand what’s happening, but it’s mainly focused on the day of the meeting or the days of the meeting. But as a graphic facilitator, my role begins much more upstream. In this role, I will work with a client to understand their needs. Very often the call comes to me when people kind of know what they want but aren’t fully sure. So I will kind of go in, and then have a conversation with them and truly understand what their needs are, what the challenges are, and what their objectives are. Then I design a facilitative engagement and actually lead the facilitation.

What makes graphic facilitation unique compared with other methodologies you might have seen or used, is that we use a lot of visual tools in our work. For example, if I’m going into a strategic visioning session, I might, as a facilitator, come in with a pre-drawn history of what the organization looked like over the last 10 years, including the peaks and valleys. I might come in with a set of empathy maps or blank visual worksheets and templates for all the participants to draw in and fill out. I might bring in visual card decks. So basically as a facilitator, you’re in charge of designing the process, facilitating the process using a lot of creative visual tools, and it is your job to make sure that the group reaches it’s desired outcomes.

Kristen G.: Can you share an example, of course client names redacted, of you doing graphic facilitation?

Nitya Wakhlu: Absolutely. Recently, a large organization that I work with gave me a call, and they had an interesting challenge. They were at a point where it was a group of about 150 people, employees in that group, and they wanted to explore reevaluating the strategic vision for that group over the next 10 years. I don’t know what’s your experience been with groups that do this because what I’ve noticed is that traditionally leaders will go out into a resort or a spa or something like that for five days and close themselves there, and work on totally redesigning the vision. Then coming back to the organization and basically handing it to them. Is that something you’ve noticed that happens quite a bit?

Kristen G.: I’ve definitely seen that, and it’s challenging when you have a group that has done that, and they feel really excited and proud about it because you want to let them down easy, but you also want to tell them … And I’m sure you’ll speak to this, but I always want to say, this is most likely not going to be as successful in adoption from your own employees or your stakeholders because it was not co-created, and they might not buy into it.

Nitya Wakhlu: Exactly. Thankfully the group that called me, the leaders had the vision and foresight to tell me that they didn’t want … I think literally there was, we don’t want a poster to put on the wall. We don’t want something that we created and looks nice, and we give to the rest of the organization. We want something that each one of our 150 employees has helped co-create and helped shape. Once everyone has their fingerprints on the vision, that’s when we know that we’ll get ownership, and we’ll get buy-in. Then it becomes something that we can all align towards, and we can all strive to.

That was sort of the brief that they came to me with, and I loved that experience. The way I approached it was we brought in a team of three other graphic facilitators in addition to me. Then broke this group of 150 up into smaller teams and had really deep conversations helping each of these small hubs imagine what they wanted the future of their organization to look like and really getting granular in asking them to visualize that and give us some really good information about what the future looked like.

Imagine a room of 150 people generating all these images for what the vision is, then of course, we took these images and all these ideas through a set of filtering processes and distilled them and polished them up. But at the end of this, we had a beautiful visual map that was a reflection of this co-creation, a reflection of this really collaborative process, and we ended up with a vision that people recognized, people owned, and now it’s with each employee. They look at it every day, and think it’s a beautiful north star for them to shoot towards. That was certainly something that I really enjoyed working on. It was also great leverage of the visual tools that I was speaking of.

Kristen G.: Definitely. One thing that is striking me about graphic facilitation is that it is such a human-centered process.

Nitya Wakhlu: It is.

Kristen G.: You and I have worked together on a couple of different human-centered design things, but I want to connect it … Before we dive into to… because I do want to talk about stuff we’ve done together because it’s fun.

Nitya Wakhlu: Right.

Kristen G.: I want to also connect this, and I’m maybe even thinking there’s a little bit of irony in that your background is in HR and organizational development, which ironically it’s not a traditionally human-centered field.

Nitya Wakhlu: I know.

Kristen G.: But you’re using graphic facilitation as a human-centered methodology to bring groups together, to move them forward, to galvanize them to action. Can you talk a little bit about that? Have you seen that irony? Is that just my cynicism?

Nitya Wakhlu: No it’s not yours. I wish it was, the cynicism, but honestly-

Kristen G.: Me too.

Nitya Wakhlu: It’s the sad reflection of a lot of the current state. People come into graphic facilitation with all sorts of backgrounds. I think each one of these paths have their own unique advantages and disadvantages. I’ve seen people come in from illustration, and people come in from IT, being a business analyst, etc. I have noticed a few things, since I come at this work from a background in HR and OD. I have noticed that … You know one of my core principles, and I know that both of us shared this, is that the learner is the person that we put in the center of everything we do, or the employee, or the participant.

Every process that we bring to the table or every intervention that we design is focused on acknowledging that the wisdom already exists in the room. Our role as facilitators is not to come in and tell people what to do, but it’s to work as a crucible or to hold a space for that inherent wisdom to really emerge and reveal itself. I think that’s something that we both share, and I have noticed that traditionally HR is much more of, hey, this is what we think your problem is. This is what the solution is, and here, this is what we’re telling you to do.

So it’s much more of a diagnostic model, and I think the shift … I am seeing it shift a little more now, more recently to a more humble and to a more dialogic model were you invite people to have conversations. You really listen to what people are saying, and you don’t go in with any sort of a preconceived answer. You sort of go in with a good process, and you go in with big ears and trust I think.

I think I do see that evolution happening recently, but unfortunately, I feel like traditionally HR’s been much more of a prescriptive sort of a model, and that is incredibly ironic, for sure.

Kristen G.: Yeah, it is. I love what you said, that your job is to be a crucible and to hold space. I’ve never thought of myself as a crucible, but I so resonate with that, or your words resonate with me about holding space for this to happen because one of the things that I’ve always believed about my work, and also, I think I see it in your work too, is that people have the answer. They can get to it. It’s just that there is a lot of flotsam, a lot of just I’m kind of in the way. And our job is often to help them peel it apart, and that the juxtaposition you made with kind of being a crucible and holding space, versus a diagnostic model makes me think of almost the sick care.

Nitya Wakhlu: Exactly.

Kristen G.: You know we don’t have healthcare in this country, we have sick care. I think people can have, especially a lot of executives and founders I know have a pretty visceral reaction to human resources, and I think if you press them, they might think of it as sick care. But I think what you’re doing is trying to bring an organization to that well-care. You know, how can we build trust with each other? How can we lean on one another and have a dialogue that is authentic to this organization. I love that. That’s amazing.

Nitya Wakhlu: Absolutely. I think this is something I learned from you, which is going in with a spirit of humble inquiry really changes the outcomes, and sometimes it is difficult when you talk to clients, and they want a really prescriptive agenda or session design for the day, so sometimes it can get a little challenging to say, hey I’m going to go in prepared and trust the process, and I might throw away my agenda during the day. That happens to me very often because I believe in just being in service of the group.

But I found that that’s the most effective methodology, and very often, I’ve worked with clients maybe have had hosted discussions for example. Again, we had about 150 employees in the room, where the brief was, let’s find out from them how we might shift organizational culture. What can we do as employees to make that shift happen. And we’ve taken these 150 people through a series of hosted café-style conversations. I think the stuff that’s emerged from these discussions, I think it’s powerful, and it’s something that could not have emerged from hiring consultants to give you a report or something.

Kristen G.: A report, yeah.

Nitya Wakhlu: Exactly, so yeah, that’s been pretty powerful I’ve noticed.

Kristen G.: It is. We’ll come back to that in a little bit because I want to ask you about some of your big goals, but I do want to connect to some of the work that we’ve done. We’ve worked on some human-centered design workshops, and one we’ve done for actually HR practitioners, and I’m curious. What are your thoughts about those workshops? Do you think that they were useful for the participants? How might we build on those kinds of things?

Nitya Wakhlu: I think so. Human-centered design is a process of again putting your customer in the center, and for HR groups of course, that’s most likely the employee. Again, I think to a point that we were talking about in the past, one ironic thing that I have noticed within organizations is that while a lot of the innovation teams use human-centered design, the HR teams hardly ever do that. A few organizations where I have seen the HR teams leverage human-centered design, I think it’s been transformative for them and a huge breakthrough in the way they work. So I definitely think that this is a methodology that is not only helpful for HR, but I think it’s essential in the way they work and in the work they do.

Very recently, for example, I was invited with a team to help them redesign their non-compensation reward system. This was a taskforce that was put together, and they were told to … You know for example, very often, organizations as a reward, as a recognition, they give people like a little certificate or like a little gift card. This company wanted to really find out what is a reward for employees that is actually meaningful, and that really makes a difference.

So this task force went out and did some research and listened to employees. Then came back, and then we went through a two-day process that I helped them facilitate, where they shared the insights from the employees, and then we used a bunch of visual tools. We did empathy mapping. We did a lot of ideation, a lot of live visualization, and came to a really robust place of this non-compensation reward system that was something that really made a difference to their employees.

That’s an example of how using human-centered design can help shape HR systems and processes, and that could be onboarding. It could be redesigning managerial training programs. It could be compensation, even performance management. So I certainly think, not only the methodology, but even the basic mindset of human-centered design, which is whatever I do, I’m going to put my employee front and center, and I’m going to design something tested with that employee, and then help that feedback shape my design.

Kristen G.: Right. I think that’s incredibly powerful, the mindset of human-centered design. I actually recently taught a couple of versions of the work that we did together to learning practitioners, to other instructional designers.

Nitya Wakhlu: That’s interesting.

Kristen G.: It was interesting because I kind of thought that it wouldn’t be new, but both of those workshops were flooded with people, which is flattering, but it was such a shift. Even for people whose whole business and way of working is supposed to be centered on the learner. Trying to help them see the value of creating a persona, and understanding, and actually going out and interviewing that person, and trying to develop empathy for their environment and their situation so that you could better design a solution that you could then prototype and test, that was a very big shift for a lot of people. I think one of the bigger things too, not just the persona and the empathy, but the testing mindset, this prototyping mindset.

I don’t know how I would survive without that mindset. I mean that’s how I run my client projects. That’s how I do pro bono work, all of it. I think I even do it in my own personal life. It doesn’t make sense anymore to go away for a month, six months, 12 months, and kind of seclude yourself and produce something that’s very shiny and beautiful, but then at the end doesn’t work because you didn’t test it out and try it out.

Nitya Wakhlu: Absolutely. In fact, that’s one of the reasons I love visual tools is because I think visualizing an idea or visualizing a problem or a complex solution or a complex current state, is a really powerful tool to bring something to life. For example, if I wanted to build a low-fidelity prototype for an idea, I think instead of trying to go to people and giving them a PowerPoint deck or trying to explain my way into their minds, I think creating a visual really helps people get it faster and align around it quicker, and get feedback, which is why I love consumer journey maps. I love sketching, and I think whiteboarding as a tool to get into that really quick iterative prototyping and testing work out.

Kristen G.: Definitely, well this brings me to a different question, which is what are the big goals that you have for the organizations that you work with? What do you hope from kind of a 50,000 foot standpoint that they take away from their work with you?

Nitya Wakhlu: From a 50,000 foot standpoint, I think what I would love for every organization I work with is to see and embrace the fact that there’s another way to do things. There’s another way to run your meetings. There’s a new way to determine your strategy, to redesign your processes, come up with new ideas, get your employees into the room, create a space where the employees can shine, use visual tools to make complex ideas simple. Then I think by doing that, my clients and organizations will see that work becomes much more productive because you have people aligning around ideas quicker. You have people making decisions faster. You have ideas living for much longer than they normally would. So work not only becomes more productive, but it becomes more fun. And I think we can all use a little bit of that within organizations.

Kristen G.: I completely agree. A little bit more fun and a little less taking yourself so seriously.

Nitya Wakhlu: Absolutely.

Kristen G.: As we go, what are some ways that somebody could use some of these techniques without being as talented as you are. Obviously, they could hire you, but what might you give to someone who wants to try this in their basement or their backyard.

Nitya Wakhlu: Absolutely. Also, just to put this in context, I’d say that I have absolutely no background in art. I went to engineering school and business school, then worked with G.E. Then ran my own business, so I don’t come from an artistic background. So I tell my clients that if I can do it, anyone can. It’s about 10% talent and 90% practice. And interestingly Kristen, a lot of my clients are now inviting me in to teach them the basics of visual thinking, so that they might start using this visual language within their organizations.

To someone who wants to get started, the first thing I would do is tell them to just practice. One of the things, a best practices to put up, a flip chart in your office or your room, or your workspace. Start thinking of the ideas that you hear of very often in your work. That could be innovation or growth or human-centered design, and start practicing very simple icons that help you depict these ideas. That’s one good way to get started.

The second thing that I tell people is that if you have an internal meeting, or you know three or four people brainstorming around the room, and if you’re the person who’s drawing and taking notes in your notebook. Instead of doing that, stand up and start using a flip chart. That’s a good way to bring in visual thinking into your meetings in a low-risk way.

The third thing Kristen, is that I don’t think people even need to draw if they don’t want to. For example, a lot of the tools that I use aren’t even about me drawing. I bring in a lot of visual templates, visual frameworks that people can write into. I use a lot of photo cards. I use a lot of collage images from magazines. Get creative in the ways in which you can leverage visuals and that doesn’t even have to be about drawing at all.

Kristen G.: Yeah, I love that. I think those are really good tools. And we can probably link to some of them in the podcast notes.

Nitya Wakhlu: Absolutely.

Kristen G.: Where can people find more information about you?

Nitya Wakhlu: My business is Drawbridge Innovations. You can email me at, and we’ll put that in the show notes. Also, visit my website and listen to a five minute Ignite talk that I did about graphic recording. That’s That’s a good place to find me and hit me up in case of any questions or anything you want to know about this.

Kristen G.: Definitely. We’ll link to all of that, and Nitya I just want to say thank you so much. I’m so happy to have you on the podcast and can’t wait to have you on again.

Nitya Wakhlu: Thank you so much Kristen. It’s a great privilege again to talk to you but also to all your listeners and to your tribe. If there’s one thing that I want to make sure that people know about the world of graphics recording and graphic facilitation, it’s about ideas, not art. So don’t let the names fool you. It’s about making complex ideas simple. Anyone can do it, so I invite all your listeners to go ahead and give it a shot themselves.

Kristen G.: Definitely. Thank you again. I appreciate it.

Nitya Wakhlu: Thank you so much. Have a great day Kristen.

Kristen G.: That’s it for today. Thank you so much for joining us for another episode. If you’d like to ask a question or suggest a guest, email me at Until next time, grow better.



Much gratitude to David Sibbet, who has given our field a rich shared lens and language to talk about our work.

Resources I recommend: