How do you create growth that is sustainable? And as your team grows, how do you effectively manage a distributed team? Join Speak Creative's VPs and CEO, Jacob Savage, for an off topic conversation about what you should consider as your business expands.
Adapting To Grow | Episode 5
David: Hello everyone and thank you for joining us once again. You are listening to A Little Off Topic, one agency's water cooler chat on digital marketing, business, and all the things that get in the way, presented by Speak Creative. So on the heels of a very successful episode with our very first guest, Ty Stinson from Speak's video team, we've gone back to the well and grabbed another guest from around the office. This time it's the man who, without him, there would be no A Little Off Topic podcast. That's right, I'm talking about the founder and CEO of Speak Creative himself, Jacob Savage. Jacob's been at this for more than two decades, going on 22+ years, I believe. During that time, under his leadership, Speak has grown from a passion project to a full-service digital agency with a Nashville satellite location, as well as a remote team scattered around the globe.
With that in mind, our theme for today's episode is growth and adapting to growth in your business. Per usual, my name is David Caffey and I'm Speak's Digital Marketing Manager. In addition to Jacob, we'll be joined by the Speak VP trio. Kindra Svendsen, VP of Client Partnerships. The first of our two Matts is Matt Roberts, VP of Marketing and Sales. And finally with us again, is Matt Ervin, VP of Creative Services. So we'll start today's edition with a Q&A with Jacob. We'll talk about his background, what led him to the agency world, and his thoughts and observations on two decades plus of leading and growing a business. After the interview with Jacob, we'll expand our topic with a conversation on how growth has affected the other leaders at Speak. We'll also talk about when it's time to push the gas on growing a business versus finding efficiency with the resources that you already have. Finally, we'll share some of our favorite moments and stories from the 20+ year history of Speak so far. It's a big episode today. Let's get right to it. As always, thank you for taking the time to listen to our show today and I hope you enjoy today's episode of A Little Off Topic.
Thank you guys once again for joining us on a hot summer day, I think they're telling me it's hot outside, maybe? It's the middle of summer. We've got a hot episode today for you guys. We had such a great success with our last guest, we scrounged around the office to find another guest. But as always, we have the VP trio. Kindra, how's the summer so far? It has been eight days of summer officially, how's yours so far?
Kindra: I just bought a fan for my desk. So yeah, it's hot.
David: Desk fan. I support it. Matt Ervin, the first of the two Matts. Thoughts on the season?
Ervin: On the season, it's hot. It rained for like 30 seconds here and now the sun's back out. So it's like a steam room outside. It's hot.
David: Can't argue with that.
Ervin: I'll take it over winter cold and gray any day.
David: That's true. Finally, the other remaining Matt. Matt Roberts, how's summer been so far?
Roberts: Pretty great, man. Just got back from the beach, enjoying the climate-controlled office situation and also drinking hot coffee.
David: I've been enjoying that climate-controlled situation since February and it's great. I love it so much. Finally as promised, we have a big guest today, our second guest. Unfortunately, you can't go down in history as the first guest. But we have the founder/CEO/the man that has the keys to the office building/our landlord in the office. Jacob Savage. Welcome, Jacob.
Jacob: Thanks David. Hey guys.
Ervin: Hey Jacob.
David: So I think one of the things that always stands out with you and Speak is that it's been 22 years now we've been around. So my first question for you is how'd you get started and what led you to this business in the first place?
Jacob: Oh man, I should have prepared for such questions. I got started by fiddling around with what was back then called desktop publishing for family and friends, my church, and different organizations like that. One project led to the next and pretty soon after a year or so, got busy enough to start building this thing into a company. So this was straight out of high school. I was doing this and going to classes at the U of M in between. I eventually got to a point where enough was enough. I wasn't doing either one very well and decided to just do the work thing for a little bit. I don't have a family to take care of or major expenses. So that's what I did and the rest is history.
David: Very nice. So that's how you started and leads us into why you're still here. So what do you think has been your secret or why are you still here? What's your secret to longevity and the success you've had leading up to the past 22 years?
Jacob: Wow. Tough questions, David.
Roberts: David is known for his hard-hitting questions.
Jacob: I can appreciate that. I'm going to steal a phrase that Matt Roberts likes to use all the time, but I think that we're here still today because we don't get out in front of our skis very often at all. The way that we do things around here is that we're pretty methodical. Slow and steady wins the race. So through the years, I have chosen specifically not to take on debt or special investments or partners. We pay a lot of attention to the financial stability of the company to make sure we can make good every year and support the team that we have. So the recent craziness that we're going through with the lockdown and the craziness in the market we've been very fortunate to take it in stride. But it's not our first time. We've been through this back in 08-09. Before that it was September 11th. All of those lessons along the way have affirmed for us that we just need to take it slow and just do a good job daily. I think that's made us a nice strong company.
David: You hit the nail on the head there. The last 20 years, there's been a lot of very eventful things happening in the business environment and in the market, and the world. So outside of that what are some of the other challenges you've faced in these 20 years in terms of running, operating, and growing an agency?
Jacob: It's all just people. That's the main recurring challenge of most businesses, especially a service-oriented business like we are. I've been asked the question many times along the way, back when we were about 5 people, do you ever think you'll grow to 10? Then, when we got to 10. Do you ever think you'll grow to 15 or 20? At this point, we're in the mid 40's and it's something you get used to, but it is a lot to deal with. It's a challenge to bring together 45 individuals to come together as a team to all pull in the same direction in order to solve problems and get results for our clients.
As long as we continue to operate that way, I think that's always going to be our challenge. What's made the difference for me personally, is giving up on trying to get it done all by myself and bringing in leaders to help. A quick nod to Kindra, Roberts, and Ervin, as well as our other leaders on our team that has come in and really our day to day, runs pretty independent of me, which is great. I can focus my time on the overall direction of the company and solving big problems in addition to repping us with different client opportunities and speaking opportunities, things like that, just go out there and help build a bridge between Speak and the folks that are out there in the world.
Ervin: I'm pretty sure at one point, I think it might've been the first time I heard somebody ask you the question of if you ever think you'll get to 25? And you said, "man, I hope not."
Jacob: And if you asked me today, do you ever think you'll get to pick the next round number around Number 75? My answer is I hope not. That sounds awful. I'm sure it'll sneak up on us like the current number has.
Kindra: I'm interested to hear from Ervin and Roberts here because you guys are in your teenage years with Speak. You've been here a while and I'm interested in how you've seen that happen. So when Jacob was in the day to day to now, where he's not in the day to day, and you are, how has that shifted, and have you seen positive change from that?
Roberts: The thing that I think has been instrumental in our growth and in our ability to continue to grow and sustain our business has been in understanding the value of people with very specific expertise. To find the right people, to not feel like you have to wear six different hats but to really understand that each person on this team has a particular set of gifts and talents and knowledge that bring value to the team. Then it has been instrumental really for I'm sure for Jacob, but for me as well to really look for opportunities to empower those people and get out of their way and support them. When I start to try to get too much in the middle of what they're doing then I see that slowed them down. Then that out of course has a knock-on effect to the rest of what we do. So I've seen that certainly as Jacob has gotten the opportunity to just spend more of his time leading us in a direction and providing this powerful drive to do things well, that's been really great. Some of the day to day stuff falls away so that he can spend more of his time on stuff like that. I see the same really for a lot of us as we have been able to grow and think through our architecture to really get the best out of everybody here.
Ervin: Yeah. I think it definitely was a change for me too, because if you look at my skill set, especially when I started working at Speak it was very general. I'm certainly not an expert in any one thing and definitely wasn't at the time. So you have to manage your people differently when you're managing a team of experts who are specialized in what they do. I had this realization recently that "Hey, you know, why don't you just jump in there and do this?" And it's like, Oh, because you don't know how to do it. So your skillset lies elsewhere. It's definitely a change in how you think about what you do, how you apply assets to a problem, or to a project.
David: So you hit on the transition. I'm pretty sure this is common for any small business owner of stepping back and allowing others to take some responsibilities on. What would you tell other founders or other small business owners that are trying to decide if it's time to do that and how can they let go and stop? We've talked about cliches in this podcast, but that whole working on the business versus working in the business. How would you guide someone into making that step like you did?
Jacob: Yeah. I think it starts with deciding if that's something that you want. There are plenty of businesses where business owners or leaders are loving what they're doing as an individual or as a team of 5 or 10 or 15, and that's totally fine. There's nothing that says a company has to always keep growing and has to reach a particular size. I think for us though for me personally, it was part of what I enjoy about business is the business operation itself or the entity apart from the particular thing that we're doing. So I like the financial side. I like the strategy side of it. So the way that plays out or what that means for us is I like to see what the company can do. What is its potential and what does it mean for us to help the business reach its potential?
Jacob: So if somebody is listening and that's something that's interesting to them, they want to see where the business can go. They have to realize that it's only going to go so far with themselves as a limiter on the company. Or as Matt Ervin was just saying, even if you're an extremely talented individual, there's really only so much you can do. You only have so much talent and so much time. So for a company to scale you need to spread out that load. How far you spread it out depends on how much you want to scale. But you're never going to get there if you rely just on yourself or your skillset you're going to make a lot of people pretty frustrated because the team around you will see opportunities to grow. But you're holding the company back because you're not empowering those individuals to take the ball and run with it in those particular arenas where they see that possibility.
David: 22 years is a long time. I think I've heard of these stories before, and I'm sure Matt, Matt or Kindra can, can back it up, but what are some of your favorite or funniest memories or moments over the time you've been with Speak?
Ervin: Is there a limit on the number that I can mention?
David: Yeah. I know there's no shortage of them, I guess let's go with 3.
Ervin: One would be early in our operations technically we hosted a couple dozen websites out of some server that sat on a desk in my office that is in no way advisable. But back in the day, it certainly wasn't the worst setup around. We realized that if the power goes off, then the servers are going to stop working and the power goes off here. So we got an uninterruptible power supply that could run the servers for up to 60 minutes, and it was big and heavy. It probably cost 300 or 400 bucks, which again, back then was also a pretty good expense for us. Then we realized, what do we do if the power is going to be off for more than an hour? So what are we supposed to do? And so Jacob said, "I have a Honda generator at my house, so I'll bring it over here". So Jacob brought a generator and we put it in the alley behind the flower shop that we were next door to at the time. Also, there was a grill back there too, which was pretty funny. He decided at one point that everybody on the team should know how to help out in the case of a power outage. So he decided that he would conduct a power outage drill. So no lie, one day, he says "alright, this is it. Here's the drill" and I think you were banging on something, saying what do we do? What do we do?
Jacob: I flipped the breaker.
Ervin: That's right. Even better.
Jacob: A few people lost their work. They were not saving.
Ervin: Yeah. Learned that lesson. So, anyway, at the time we had a designer working for us who probably weighed 80 pounds. I mean, not a very big person at all and Jacob said: "alright, you have to crank the generator" and so she was out there and I don't think she could pull the cord. So eventually we call in a pinch cranker. That was a great one though. I think we only did the drill one time so that everybody knew what to do and unplug. Somebody get the extension cord and run down the hall from the generator to the servers and plug them in.
Kindra: I am 100% of imagining Dwight from The Office in the fires.
Roberts: That's exactly what I was about to say. All I can think about this whole time is the fire drill in The Office.
Jacob: And all I can think about is how effective the drill was because it's still emblazoned in your memory.
Ervin: Yeah, if the breaker went off, I'm going to get the extension cord.
Kindra: That's when Jacob knew he was destined for business operations.
Jacob: I think even now if the power goes out wherever Matt is, he always runs for generator.
Roberts: That's exactly what I was about to say. He's always got an extension cord next to him at all times.
Kindra: Muscle memory. That's right.
David: If we want to go back to doing drills of any kind, I am afraid of the security system at our office. So if you walk me through that one? Hey, I'm always ready to be prepared for any incidents.
Ervin: That ring.com is pretty intimidating. Are we sponsored by ring.com by the way?
David: We are as of right now.
Jacob: This may not be laugh out loud funny, but certainly in the hall of fame memories of Speak is a gentleman who will go unnamed, but he was quite the character. Lots of stories are told about him but as far as I know was the only individual ever in the history of Speak to fall asleep at their desk in their work chair not head down on their desk, like you might do in high school or something like that, but reclined back. Eventually, weight shifted and so did the chair, and out goes the chair and he hits the ground and wakes up and gets back to work after that. We were just dying.
Ervin: Totally. The chair just dumped him on the floor.
David: I think we could probably do a whole another series on Speak memories, because I know there's a ton to go around.
Roberts: There are at least four people who would listen to that.
David: I want to ask you guys, not only Jacob, but the rest of our leadership team here a few questions about what growth has been like at Speak over the years, and maybe some helpful tips for other companies our size that are growing. So first of all, when you're seeing on the horizon that the need to grow is going to happen. How can you tell when it's time to either step on the gas and start hiring and start acquiring more resources, or to just try to weather it out until you can try to get to that next step?
Jacob: Good question. That's a question we have discussed a lot here because at least at our place, it almost always feels like we need some more people. There's always a lot of stuff going on. Lots of clients that deal with lots of people on our team and all of those things chew up time and you end up feeling like there's not enough time in the day to get everything done. Therefore, it must be time to hire. The problem with that is the numbers don't always agree with that story. A lot of business owners get frustrated by that because they want to hire more or they're hearing from their team that they need more people. But then you look at the profit and loss statement and you're barely getting by and you don't really know why. A lot of times you have to chase down all the numbers and figure out where you're spending too much or where you're just losing productivity. So it's, it's very difficult. It's often even elusive.
Jacob: We have to put in the time to really try to chase it down, but specifically as it relates to hiring, when we figure out whatever the metric is to measure the capacity of a team. So let's take our Digital Marketing team. We build those services on an hourly basis in a retainer style. That's probably the cleanest way to look at it and say, we expect that our folks can produce 30 to 35 billable hours a week and then multiply that out over time. What we want to see is that we bring on additional capacity when work demands it, when we can actually quantify it and say, "Okay we've sold this many more contracts and this many more retainers. Now we can, we can tally those hours up and say, yes we're over capacity. Let's hire." Of course, you have to stay diligent on that because you don't want to be late. You don't want to oversell it and then look up and suddenly now we decided we've got to hire, but we haven't even started taking resumes. So it's going to be a month or two before we fill the position. So we're always taking resumes. We're always crunching the numbers and we're trying to stay just ahead of the curve to where we can always deliver, but we're never having anybody sit around with nothing to do.
Roberts: Yeah, I think that's certainly a part of our overarching strategy. I think another thing that we're pretty good at is when we realize we might have a bandwidth problem, that's one of the dimensions that we look at. What are the skill sets that exist within our team? And is there somebody who can be grown into a position of need? So we, a lot of times will at least spend the time looking at our team and asking if we have the ability to fill this position internally without necessarily having to add to our total payroll. We make the commitment to that person to say we want to grow you and what it's going to take for you to be successful here, but we feel like you've got the raw tools to handle it. So that's one of the things that does set us apart is it's not a binary decision of whether we can add somebody or not. But there's always this evaluation of the overall business operation, and you'll hear Jacob talk about the puzzle and getting the pieces in the right places a lot. I like that analogy because it works on the assumption that we've got the right people here already. And then of course we realized we've just got to add somebody of this particular skill set and we don't have somebody that we can grow into it then yes, let's do that. But it's a very considered move for sure.
Kindra: I think it's a tension to manage, right? Because you live between whether you need more people or need your people to work at a higher capacity? Because a senior level person is going to work at a bigger capacity than a junior level. So if you focus on training or you look at tools and realize you can add $100 a month and get 20 more hours out of my employees because I'm cutting out a task that's taking way too long. There's always something that can be done there. Exhausting those before you bring on someone else and are now responsible for their livelihood is how I've been taught to look at it, so that is always a consideration as well. Do we need to grow or do we just need to do something a little different to make more room?
Roberts: Yeah, that's a great point.
Jacob: That's where we got to at the beginning of this year and planning for the beginning of this year. Last year, I remember sitting in my office with Matt Roberts and trying to answer the question because we do have continual, steady growth year over year. I think we probably average 15 to 20% YOY growth because part of that is because our business model supports retained clients. So it's a bit like a snowball. Certainly, we're losing clients and we're gaining clients but more stick than fall off, so the snowball gets bigger. And because we're a services company the bigger and bigger that snowball gets, the more people we require to service all those clients. So the question came up, when do we stop the snowball? When do we stop hiring because continuing on this trajectory, we'll be at that place where we're answering that question of whether we want to be 75 people strong or 100? I don't know that it was a true answer to that question, but at least one insight from that discussion was as Kindra just mentioned, we've got to invest more in our current team to get more out of our folks. Not that they were underperforming at all, but there's just so much more that we all can grow. If we pay attention to mentoring, training, and even internships, we can leverage all the options available to us to help our people grow. Then they're happier and stay around longer, which helps with productivity. But also, just in their day to day jobs, they begin to operate as a master at their skill, rather than as somebody who's still learning the ropes and making a lot of mistakes and wasting a lot of time.
Jacob: Also want to point out that, you know, there is another option that's on the table for salaried employees and that is to work them to death. You know, when you need more capacity, you basically say I'm going to have to see you on Saturday. That's just never been our culture. I think that our approach there is that there are times when it's right to work over 40 hours. But most of the time, that's not the case. Most of the time the arrangement is that we're going to put in a really solid 40 hours and we're going to get home and see our families and do our own thing. As business leaders, it's our responsibility to not give in to the temptation, to go with that easy option.
David: So in 2020, remote work is like front and center now. Speak has had a partially remote team going back for years. So how do you guys manage that blended in-person and with the remote team? And as big changes happen, like for example, this year, how do you help your employees adapt and evolve over time?
Jacob: I've been quite entertained seeing everybody on LinkedIn and other places go remote for the first time. I'm fully aware that right now it's quite a novelty to be on zoom and see everybody's picture. It's funny that some organizations just haven't gotten there until now. But what I know is coming for groups, the novelty is going to wear off and the reality is going to set in that it is really hard to maintain culture when we're distributed. For us at Speak, we're specifically distributed through three major groups, a headquarter in Memphis, Tennessee, a satellite office in Nashville, Tennessee, and then another team that's about the same size as the Nashville crew that's full time remote.
Jacob: And the thing that I always end up saying when we're talking about this is there's not a single departmental team within our company that can meet all under one roof because of our distributed nature. So we're constantly separated and constantly having to bridge that through Slack and Zoom. It's maybe not our biggest challenge, but it's one of our biggest challenges generally in our company is being a service business and a people-oriented company, how do we create connection and just drive culture that way? So it's a huge challenge for us. But it's something that Kindra mentioned earlier. Is it a problem to solve or a tension to manage? For us, it's not a solvable problem because we've committed to those three venues, the Memphis, Nashville, and remote.
Jacob: So we have to accept that we're not going back, but we're going to have a little bit of tension in things ever feeling quite like they could if we were under one roof. So some of the things that we do is talk about that tension a lot. We recognize that having a birthday party for somebody isn't as fun on Zoom or it's a lot harder for us to say as the company owner, I'm going to take everybody to lunch today on me. Those are just things that we used to do, but we really can't do it effectively anymore. That happens you know, through individual offices or sometimes we'll do DoorDash credits to our remote team. But it's always going to be some notch or two less than what it could be if we were in person. The flip side of that is there's great flexibility and great positives that come from supporting remote work that we can get into, but we just have acknowledged that it's always going to be a challenge.
Kindra: As far as managing it, the things I've found that have been the most important are one to just create a space at the table, so that even if someone's coming in on Zoom screen and there are 3 or 4 people in the room that are sitting around it, making sure that person feels just as empowered to say that they have something to say. Then to just push past those little idiosyncrasies, we see that we're seeing all those people who are on Zoom for the first time, like “you're muted, Jim you're muted!" You know, just having them understand that this is their voice and it needs to be heard. So you've got to push past that and put your best face forward and just say what you need to say, but also leaving space to make sure that they have that room is important. I think that since they don't get that water cooler chat with people that isn't planned in an office space, just taking a couple of minutes to check in on people ask them how their animals are doing or whatever's important to them, that helps bridge the gap because then just communication feels more natural and you'll always get further that way.
Ervin: That's one of the things I was going to point out too, is that this is a weird space for me, first of all. What you miss as a remote worker is being known. We all have a desire within us to be known. For some people, it's greater than others. Some people are okay being known by just one or two people, which is classic introvert. Some people want to be known by a lot of people. Part of what I try to do is try to make myself a little more known or knowable to other people. So I talk more about my family or what I'm doing, or what's going on in my personal life because those are the things you would say around the water cooler that gives somebody a chance to get to know you and know what's important to you or what you enjoy, those kinds of things. And then doing that as a manager draws out other people's desire or they feel comfortable doing that as well. When they see that Ervin talks about his dog and his daughter who is hilarious, so I can do that too. You don't have to be all work all the time, which is my natural bend. If it's working then that's great, but it's an intentional effort. I think it's not something that we're going to roll back at all.
Roberts: Yeah. I think another contributing factor is we've been doing it so long that I think that there are some best practices that have been in place for us so long that they don't even enter the first thought around this discussion. I think some of the concern of having a remote or distributed team is just accountability. Do you have systems in place to be able to ask who is doing what and are we making the right progress? So, looking at your systems that you've got, if everybody's under one roof, we can sit down at the table altogether every morning and go through a status check of everything. When you've got 45 folks flung all over the States, you don't have that capacity. Certainly, you can do a zoom meeting and you can do standups. But we also just have systems like CRMs and project management systems and just some of the other key components to just help us have visibility over how folks are doing and what they're doing. We've got the ability to check in on folks if we feel like we haven't been able to see progress from somebody this week. I hope they're doing okay, let me check-in. It's not about the progress that they've made. It's about how are they as a person and do I need to come along and support them in some way?
David: So, I'll close it out with one last question, and Jacob, I'll just direct this one to you to close it out on this note. Over the last 20+ years, over the growth and evolution of our team and Speak, is there anything that stood out to you or anything that surprised you, other than just the sheer headcount of what's changed and what's evolved over time?
Jacob: Man, that's a really interesting question. When you say surprise me, I don't know that I've got an answer there. But I think if the question were what's the big takeaway. To me, the thing that I've learned most is that I've got to loosen my grip on the reins for this thing to be what it could be and that starts with me personally. Some of the folks that have been around for a long time can attest. I hope some of my pretty significant insecurities and leadership style changes in me. The classic example was how I used to be that guy watching the door when everybody arrived in the morning and would get on people's case about rolling in 5 or 10 minutes late, and that is not at all the case now. This idea that people are who they are. I feel like there's room for change.
Jacob: I think especially business owners who have a right to be concerned about the company and a right to see what they spend to get a good return. There also has to be some freedom given to let the people that are under your charge to develop and to take ownership and leave things out in a direction. If we were to rewind 10 or 15 years, and you asked me to describe what we would look like in 2020, I'm sure I would have done a terrible job getting anywhere close to where we're at right now. I've always been against any sort of long-range planning just because I'm not very good at it.
Jacob: I guess it's so hard to know. But looking back, I can see steady progress, evolution, learning, changing things, sensing the market, making moves based on that, that has brought us to where we are today. If anywhere along the way, I had been too tight on the reins or too insistent on what I thought, I'm sure that I would have just driven it into the ground. So that's what I would encourage folks to take care of the business, pay a lot of attention to it for sure. But also let people in and be a part of the process because you never know where it's going to go. It probably can't go where it could without them.
Ervin: You know, in long-range planning. One of my favorite athlete quotes is from Mike Tyson when he said "everybody has a plan till they get punched in the mouth"
David: I'm thinking of a Wayne Gretzky quote that I can't remember.
Roberts: Oh, I was just going to say "you miss 100% of the shots you don't take."
David: Well, you definitely can't top that quote. The signature catchphrase of our podcast. Well, thank you guys for another as we say, "great ep" and we'll talk again soon.
David: Well, that's it for today. I hope you guys enjoyed it. Many thanks to Jacob for joining us and offering up some wisdom. Always enjoy hearing those stories from the crazy ride that has been the 20 + years of Speak history so far. If you want to learn more about Jacob and Speak Creative, head over to madebyspeak.com to find out more about our agency. While you're checking out madebyspeak.com, I'd encourage you to read the latest articles on our blog. Always something new and exciting there. So keep an eye out for even more updates coming up. As always, if you have feedback we'd love to hear from you. Speak is on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn, whichever you prefer. We're there. If you enjoyed the show, I'd ask you to subscribe and leave a review on your podcast platform of choice and from myself, our panel today, and all of us Speak, thank you for getting A Little Off Topic with us.
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