In this interview you will discover how Tara Brouwer CEO & Creative Strategist at Shovel Creative Inc went from working 80 long hours a week and being stressed to having her employees run her company successfully without her involvement.
You will also discover the process she went through to get her employees to use systems, how she was able to find the right people to hire and how as a result of systematizing her business she was able to land one of her biggest clients yet!
OWEN: My guest today is Tara Brouwer and she is the CEO and creative strategist at Shovel Creative, Inc. Tara, welcome to the show.
TARA: Thank you for having me.
OWEN: The reason for this show is to go out there and look for entrepreneurs and who have been able to systematize their business so that it can run successfully without them. And in your case we brought you in here to talk about how you were able to do that. And before we even talk about how you’ve been able to systemize your business let’s give the listeners some of the blind blowing results that you now experience as a result of systematizing and automating your business?
TARA: Sure. I love to answer that. I would say, there’s two different sets of results. There’s internal results so that I can actually take a step back and not feel like the weight of the company and the quality of our work fully rest on my shoulders. That’s a huge burden taken off me. And then second, we’ve just been able to get better results for our clients. We’ve been able to put out better quality level of work. And just very thorough work that really sets us apart from other agencies with these checklists that we have in place and with our systems. Now, we’ve been having the best quarter ever. It can be scary especially when you’re a small business and all of a sudden your workload triples.
OWEN: And basically with the systems now it sets off a growth mode, right?
TARA: Exactly. Because we have our processes in place it’s much easier for me to higher our part-time contractors for example. With the systems they can follow the system, they can follow the checklist that we have in place. And so it also takes a lot of time away off our shoulders for training as well. And there are still some training but it’s not as intense, starting from scratch every time.
OWEN: How will you say your company has been transformed as a result of systematizing your business?
TARA: I would say that everyone knows what they need to do. Everyone has their role. And then the quality of stored aspect goes out, it’s just so much higher and our clients can see it. We get so many referrals from current grants and…
OWEN: During the pre-interview you mentioned something that I want to actually get a closer listen. You said how systematizing your business you have gone from a freelancer to an actual company. Talk about that.
TARA: Yeah. As a freelancer, I think that’s how a lot of business start out. There’s something that we’re good at. The book The E-Myth talks about this. Then we get really busy. This is how I started. And so you just start practically hiring people. But as long as, again, there’s no systems in place and as long as I felt that I had to do everything or I had to micromanage everyone, I don’t own the business, the business owns me.
TARA: It’s actually, for me it was 100% more stressful, even though I thought I had freedom, I could create my own schedule and I’m my own boss, when in all actuality I can be further up front because I was working 80-hour weeks and running around hysterically.
OWEN: Yeah. We’ll talk about some of the pains that you struggled to deal through back then before you systematized the business. And so, you also mentioned how the company has transformed because now as a result of systematizing it you’ve been able to bring up one of your biggest clients so far.
TARA: Yeah, absolutely. I would say the size of the site we’ve done in the past is maybe 20,000 and we took on a $60,000 client just in the past month or so. The crazy thing is in the middle of it all I just got back from a week-long trip to England. I checked in every day but I wasn’t there in person. And works still got done, and the client so far is just very impressed and blown away. The client even said to me, “Honestly, building a website with a team is a really big deal and can be really stressful. This process with you is the best part of my day because it’s stress-free on my end. I have all these other things to get done, but the website I’m not worried about because you guys are so organized.”
OWEN: I like that. You’re getting into some of the things in terms of your personal life like what are the benefits that you’re getting from systematizing the business. I’m curious, since the business is what it is now where it can run without you, what’s been the longest time you’ve been away from it?
TARA: Two weeks, I stepped out… A couple of years ago I went to Thailand and Vietnam, and I was gone for two weeks. Since then I was also in Panama for 10 days and I was able to step away. And even when I was in England I still checked in every day but I really didn’t have to, the business wouldn’t have fallen apart if I didn’t. I think I probably could step away more and it would probably be better for me team if I did.
TARA: …so they could make their own decisions.
OWEN: Definitely. Let’s give the listeners some context as to what your business is all about. Because we’re telling them how you systematized your business but we actually gave them context as to what you actually do so they can see the transition, all the chances you’ve made, and why even had to go through the steps you did. What exactly does your company do and what big pain do you solve for your customers?
TARA: We’re a graphic design, branding, and web development agency. We are heavily focused on our website conversion, meaning that we solve the problem of once people come to your website we help those visitors actually become leads. We’re really focused on user experience, the journey from taking someone from landing on your home page or landing someplace on your site and then converting into a lead, be it leaving your contact information or whatever we deem that conversion.
OWEN: During the pre-interview you also mentioned how you guys also focused on design psychology and also the demographic of the visitor, talk about that.
TARA: Absolutely. We do our homework up front, so really getting into the mind of the consumer, what’s important to them, and really being benefit-focused for the web visitor.
OWEN: I like that. How many full-time employees do you have at the moment and even part time as well?
TARA: Yeah. So it’s three full-time, two part-time, and I still have other contractors that we can pull from.
OWEN: Is the company profitable?
OWEN: What was last year’s revenue and what are you trying to do for next year?
TARA: Last year was roughly 350 k and I would say 10% is roughly our profit. This year we’ve already done close to 150 and we’re not even quite finished with the first quarter. We’re on track this year to do 600, which is really exciting. I feel so blessed, and it’s even more important we have these systems in place because when you grow that fast, it’s really easy to let quality go out the window.
OWEN: You’ve shared some of the benefits of what you’re enjoying right now as a result of systematizing, and how it’s affected the business, and how it’s also improving your personal like. But take us back to when the business was not systematized and automated like it is now. What was wrong with it at that time?
TARA: When you say this, in the world of web development there are so many things that can go wrong. There’s different testing issues that can come up with browsers. Now, everything we do is mobile responses. So that brings a whole new set of problems. There’s just so many little details and little things that can go wrong. Like does the developed site match the approved design that the client gave approval on. For me it was just really stressful to manage that. Even at the time when I first started out I didn’t have an in-house web developer so I was also starting to manage web developers who are working remotely, which is very frustrating, trying to wrap myself on the quality control. I felt like I was on a hamster wheel. I was working 15, sometimes 20 hours a day, sometimes pulling all-nighters, and yet still stuck with going out of mistakes in it. The client was frustrated, I was frustrated, and I felt like everything just rested on my shoulders. It was a really bad feeling. Looking back on it I’m like, “How did I get from there to here?’
OWEN: Let’s dive into that for a little bit because my listeners really like it when we can get you to be a little bit vulnerable. What exactly was that like in your mind that you feel that way? What was that like?
TARA: I felt helpless, because I’m a perfectionist and I don’t want stuff to go out that isn’t of the highest quality caliber. I felt like everything rested on me. My personal life really struggled. I literally had no extra time to hang out with friends. My family is all back in Michigan, but even talking to them on the phone was difficult to find time for that. I actually remember my family coming to visit me for a week from Michigan. I didn’t even have time to spend with them and they were here. I spent a little bit of time with them. But that for me was a turning point when I realized something needs to change because my family came here all the way from Michigan and I can’t spend time with them. That was a wake-up call for me.
OWEN: You also mentioned even then you were seeking out business coaches. I think they push you in the direction of creating a process checklist for what you did. I think during the pre-interview you mentioned how you even started writing out everything. But there were still some challenges at that point too with getting your employees to get on board. Talk about that.
TARA: Yes. I did have a couple of different business coaches and for the first time they told me to write down my process and to get things in writing so that people could follow it. So I did, I sat down and I literally, maybe 20-30 pages or more just writing everything from what happens when I have a prospect client all the way to what happens 6 months after the project’s been launched, like how do we follow-up with them. I had it all taped out on paper, like 20-30 pages, probably like 10.5, no double spacing. I would hand it to my contractors and I’d be like here. But the challenge was when we’re in the thick of things they’re not going to sit there and read through a 30-page printed document. I think the biggest challenge was how do I get people to follow those systems. Do you want me to talk about a little more?
OWEN: Yeah. Before we talk about the challenges, I think we even went a step forward. I want to go back to the steps you took to actually start trying to solve the problem. Talk about the breaking point where you finally came around and realizing you don’t have time for your family that traveled to visit you. That was just the point where you said, I got to make this change. And then you started by writing things out and you said you had a 20-page documentation but your team were not following it. During the pre-interview you mentioned something about using a WordPress website. Why don’t you talk about it?
TARA: Yeah. I realized, we’re that company. Why would I expect my team to go through paper when we’re that company. I actually had a developer build a WordPress site and there was a table of contents and all I got to do is just click on the part of that system, like invoicing or starting up a new project. You’ll click on that and then it would auto-extend down and give the point. That works, but it was just one more site that my team had to all gone too, one more thing to look at. I still didn’t know if they were actually following it. There’s no way for me to…
OWEN: You created it for them reference but you couldn’t really tell if it was really being used as part of the daily… “I see that as a problem.” Was this at that same time when you started using Basecamp or was it later on? I’m just making sure.
TARA: It was around that time. Pretty early on I started Shovel roughly 5 years ago. I would say 4 years ago we started using Basecamp.
OWEN: I’m trying to find out what are the steps to systematize and you mentioned during the pre-interview that you started creating job roles and making sure everyone knew what they were responsible for. Talk about that.
TARA: When we started using Basecamp that’s when I decided we’re on Basecamp anyway, I should just have our checklist be in Basecamp. They’re just a part of every single project that we set-up. It’s like part of our project template.
OWEN: That was solving that problem where on one hand you have the reference for them to see what they need to do. But this now gives you the ability to know they’re actually doing it.
TARA: Exactly. Because you can actually check it off. Getting back to the roles, there’s a checklist for each role. For example my project manager, there’s a checklist on how to set-up the project, how to get the proposal signed, how to put the calendar together for the project, graphic designer, they have their own checklist on this is how we did a little bit of print works. So if you’re doing a current project this is how you set it up, and these are the little details to look for what you’re going through. This is how you export the project for it to make it print ready. For one these are the dimensions of a site that you set-up. This is how you create your layers and how you create your navigation. And then they can just go through and check those items. So I know it’s getting done, our project manager knows it’s getting done, and same for our web developer.
OWEN: You also mentioned that at the end of every project that you would ask your team what could you have done better. How did that help with trying to improve the processes that you were creating?
TARA: Absolutely, I have an open policy with my team and I say, “You guys, we can change the process just as long as we change it on our checklist and we do it the same way we report. I always say if there’s something that just isn’t working or isn’t gelling we need to fix it, as long as we’re following it. Actually I sat down with my team a few weeks ago after our project and my web developer have really good insight. He said, “Why are we doing the photos on websites different every time?” Because it would save me 5-8 hours if by now we’re doing a custom floor every time.
OWEN: Yeah. I can see why it’s probably important especially I guess just kind of trying to see how much production that person, and you can use that design to produce more, right?
TARA: Exactly. It’s things like that where in the past it would’ve been like, “That’s a really great idea. But then it would’ve never been documented. So now it’s like someone comes up with an idea after a project. And now that’s added and integrated into our checklist…
OWEN: And then part of the workflow as well. I get that. At that time back in the story when you were actually trying to systematize the business and you’re writing procedures and all that for it, how did you even prioritize the other steps to take. How do you decide which systems to create first and which system to create next and so on?
TARA: I think for me when you try to do it all at once it’s really overwhelming. So for me, what are the areas that are the most dire right now. For example, when I first started I literally wrote everything down.
TARA: But then moving forward, moving everything all on Basecamp, I guess I did okay. Right now the most important thing is getting quality products out to our clients.
OWEN: Quality assurance, right?
TARA: Yeah. The most important checklist for us to create right now are like pricking checklist and quality checklist before things go out. And then after that now we have that down. It’s always a work in progress of course. But now we need an assistant for setting up projects.
OWEN: Specific roles, right?
TARA: Specific roles, yeah. And that’s part of the project checklist. I guess specific roles to studying that on how to use start-up projects. How does a project manager set-up the projects, how does a graphic designer set-up a project, how does the web developer set-up his project. The actual workflow is probably what came next after a quality checklist.
OWEN: Just so the listener really understands the difference because there is a difference and I want to see from your standpoint. The checklist itself and then the workflow. Because in your case you started by writing everything out as much as you could. And then you realize that the best thing would actually start by figuring out writing checklist for quality assurance. Before something goes out it’s quality proofed by maybe or something and make sure it’s the right thing to go out to the client. After you have the quality assurance checklist in place then you started going to each individual role. The graphic designer’s checklist, developer’s checklist and project manager’s checklist. So that was the third step. Then you realized that you had to focus on workflow. But I want to get the listeners to understand the differences between a checklist and a workflow.
TARA: Sure. The word checklist, so even the workflow is in the form of a checklist. The checklist is the what so to speak. The proofing checklist and the quality assurance checklist was at the end. Again, that actually was also set-up by roles because for example the web developer went through his checklist, but then the project manager goes through her checklist and then sends it back to the developer. And then I have my checklist whoever the creative director is at that moment to go through it. Even the quality assurance checklist are still set-up by roles. And then the workflow is obviously still a checklist and it’s also set-up by roles. Again, how do you set-up a project? Each role has their checklist.
OWEN: Let me see if I can get that. Is the workflow kind of like saying when the work is being done… It’s like traffic, you’re moving through the next stops. One stop at the traffic might be the graphic designer, the next stop will be the developer, the next stop would be the project manager, and next stop would be the QA. That moves through the different steps in that road. That was you putting the workflow. That is the workflow, right?
TARA: Yeah, that’s the workflow. For example when the checklist for setting a project up, but maybe the very last bullet or the very last thing to check off would be message, the project manager and have her proof it.
OWEN: Okay. You mentioned it now, the last couple of months that you’re now focusing on your sales pitch and the process for that. Talk about that.
TARA: Yeah. After we had our workflow in our quality assurance dialed for the most part, I realized we don’t really have a system for pitching the projects. Again, it was written down somewhere. We’re following it. We now put together from the last 6 months or so a pitching process. We get a lead. My project manager knows the right questions to ask where she can filter out if they would be a good fit for us on both sides. She gets enough information from them and then schedule as a meeting with me if they’re potentially a really good fit. And then I have my questions to ask my deliverables to them, and so on and so forth. Through doing that, using that process is how we just got our biggest client ever, so it does work. Also, when I was in England, because everything was written out, our project manager actually took on approval in my role because I wasn’t available. She was able to…
OWEN: Follow this, I love that…
OWEN: Basically, you become replaceable.
TARA: Yeah. I know it’s sad but it’s true.
OWEN: Yeah. You might already allude to this when you spoke earlier about how you were documenting some stuff. I want us to really to go as much detail as we can. How exactly did you document procedures and processes for your business. What tools did you use?
TARA: Documenting, first we just wrote everything down, print it out , and then work at the WordPress site which seemed like a great deal in theory but it wasn’t. And so I say that using Basecamp and using the checklist in Basecamp have been the best for us so far because…
OWEN: You mentioned that you use InDesign. Is that that design tool?
TARA: I use InDesign for everything just because it works so well but I wouldn’t really advice that. I’m not a big Microsoft Word fan just because I don’t use it as much as I use InDesign. So even for typing it out like papers or documents I use InDesign.
OWEN: When I saw that in the notes I was like, “Wow, she’s using InDesign. That’s the tool designers use to design graphics.”
TARA: Yeah, it is. [Unintelligible 00:23:33]
OWEN: At the time when you were working on systematizing the business what books or mentors have the most influence on you and why?
TARA: Definitely the E-Myth. I think it opens up with a story about Sarah’s pies. I don’t remember if there is a [Unintelligible 00:23:50]
OWEN: Yeah, Sarah’s pies, the baker, right?
TARA: Yeah. I could just relate to that. Like business me and even when she hired someone and even my first hire I just thought I was just throwing random tasks to that person and they were getting frustrated and I was getting frustrated. That book just had a really profound influence on me and I thought that book was great. The one that I didn’t mention before, about the 4-Hour Workweek, of course, we all know that book. The fact that you can step away. That’s the dream and that’s what are systems are for, that you can literally step away and have a business making money without you being involved in it.
OWEN: During the pre-interview you mentioned three more resources, one of them was Mastering The Rockefeller Habits by Verne Harnish, Ultimate Sales Machine, and also the EO Celebrity Program. Can you talk about each of them?
TARA: Sure. The Rockefeller Habits, that’s a really great one for giving systems on how to have really good team meetings. How to conduct consistent and regular meetings with your team. That book is very insightful and gives them really good ideas. And it talks about the huddle. Because how many meetings haven’t we sat through and we’re like this was pointless.
TARA: …or a waste of my time. That book is really good about giving advice on how to systematize meetings so that they’re effective. The Ultimate Sales Machine is really good about talking about how to systematize sales and getting [Unintelligible 00:25:26] for that. That’s a heavy read and it’s a long road to get through. I read it now twice. It’s a very amazing book on sales. I’m part of the program called EO Accelerator. The parent organization is EO. To become a member of that organization your company has to be grossing over a million and I think there might be a couple of other [Unintelligible 00:25:51] is that you have to be the sole owner of the company. They started a sub chapter called EO Accelerator, and that’s where business owners who gross between a quarter of a million to a million. The goal is to pair you up with mentors from EO and put you in a forum with other EO accelerators, all those members to get your to that million point within three years. It’s all about of systems. We have 4 training days a year and whenever we talk to our EO mentors, all of their businesses are systematized.
OWEN: That’s good stuff.
TARA: That’s how they become successful.
OWEN: Yeah. Back then, because you are alluding to some of the challenges but now let’s dive into some of those challenges because if we just talk about all you did and just stop it there then we don’t really give the real picture of what exactly was going on back then. What were some of the biggest challenges that you experienced when you were trying to systematize the business and how did you solve them? I think during the pre-interview you mentioned getting people to actually follow the systems.
TARA: Yeah, definitely. Getting people to follow the systems was the hardest. It’s still 100% solved but at least now if someone’s like, “Yeah, I did that.” And I’ll say, “You didn’t check it off.” It’s much easier now that they have the checklist in front of them. It’s like their steps. It’s like 1, 2, 3, 4, this is what you do. Definitely we’ve come a long way in that. Getting people to follow the systems ?is probably [Unintelligible 00:27:36]
OWEN: Yeah mentioned one of the most difficult aspects of your business used to be quality control. How was this solved?
TARA: Alluding to that a little bit earlier as well, there’s so many moving parts to a website. Again, making sure that it works on every browser or making sure that the mobile version of the site works. Making sure all the content is inserted as provided. Making sure that the tracking and analytic tools are inserted properly. That’s a huge thing about the checklist for us.
OWEN: I think basically what I’m hearing from that is you guys just literally put in the checklist everything that would have to be part of that particular service that you’re offering the customer. As they’re going through it they’re literally seeing it in front of them so there’s no room for human error. And so you forgot, it’s part of the system.
OWEN: You also mentioned one of the other challenges that you faced back then was keeping your systems checklist simple enough to understand. Talk about that, and how you micromanaged them.
TARA: I know. As an entrepreneur. I know I make things way more complicated than it needs to be. One of our core values is simplicity because I think sometimes the most simple solutions are the best. It’s about balance. Like keeping the checklist having enough that the quality assurance is taken care of and things are getting done properly. But also not micromanaging to the point where my employees don’t feel like they have ownership of the project.
OWEN: Given that, how did you give them that ownership so that they felt they were part of creating the systems on one [Unintelligible 00:29:29] to do that?
TARA: Yeah, that’s a really great question. I think a big part of it is letting them speak and letting them give their own input on what sort of things they feel like are needed in the system. Like, “Hey, what’s you feedback? Do you feel like this works? Do you feel like it didn’t work.” Let’s change it. Another thing that has been really helpful for me and some different EO members have taught me this. When someone comes to me with a question I say, “Give me two solutions? What do you think?”
OWEN: It’s getting them to think about the answer and bring it to you. So instead come to me with a problem, come to me with a solution. Let’s figure out which is the best.
OWEN: Give them work to do.
TARA: Yeah. It helps them to think.
OWEN: Think like you would anyway.
TARA: Yeah. And sometimes their solution is not my solution but it’s more important for me to have that freedom and flexibility to step out and teach my team how to think so that I don’t have to be there.
OWEN: During the pre-interview you mentioned this story of your friend who’s a pilot. I don’t want to tell the story. You tell the story. Go ahead.
TARA: Sure. I live in Colorado before I moved to Southern California and I was an avid rock climber. A friend of mine was a pilot, and so him, I, and another guy flew to the Needle’s in South Dakota for a day of rock climbing, which is awesome. He was a flight instructor so I felt really comfortable in this tiny, little Cessna plane.
OWEN: How long has been a flight instructor?
TARA: He’s a fight instructor for 20-30 years.
TARA: So he’s very qualified. Something struck me when we took and when we landed. Had this laminated sheet with a checklist on it for take-off and for landing. He said even though he’s been doing it for so long he teaches this. He flies in his sleep, hopefully not.
OWEN: But he goes through it even though all these years. I just wanted you to share that with the audience because that’s important.
TARA: He goes through all the checklists even with all his experience. I do the same thing. I go through my print checklist. I’ve been doing this for 12-15 years. I’m human so I’m prone to error. I can make mistakes, my team can make mistakes so this checklist again are vital no matter how much experience you have.
OWEN: One last challenge you mentioned to us, trusting the systems you’re creating and actually being followed. How did you get past the issue of trust and they’re being followed?
TARA: Seeing the things get checked off.
OWEN: Oh yeah. Seeing is believing. I guess that the lesson for the listeners. If you really feel strongly about something, that you’re creating a system then maybe creating another system on top of that, that the role of that system is to make sure that the other system is being followed. That’s what I’m getting from that.
TARA: Yeah. And also creating a culture of responsibility. And I think that’s one thing that defines the leadership. This is something that I struggled and I still struggle with. People make mistakes, even with checklists we make mistakes. Stuff will go out with an error in it. When that happens, when something gets by your system, instead of scolding them…
OWEN: It’s an opportunity to figure out why that happened and fix the system.
TARA: As long as my team doesn’t blame that’s really big to me. It’s like saying, “Yes, I made a mistake. I own that. It’s my mistake and here’s what I’m going to do to correct it in the future.
OWEN: It’s a system problem, not a people problem is what you’re saying?
TARA: Yeah. Sometimes human error, we all make mistakes, no one’s perfect. There’s a perfect employee out there. I want to hire him, but I don’t think that exists.
OWEN: Yeah. Given all these challenges that we’ve talked through, what you did even while facing the challenges. Why did you even stay committed to the goal of systematizing your company?
TARA: I have seen it work. The most successful companies that I see are systematized. Especially being part of EO Accelerator I see hundreds of these people… There’s a lot of men. But these people who own these really successful companies that is in millions of dollars. And they’re going on vacation. And they have all this time to spend with their family, they’re starting other businesses in their free time. I know that the systems work. And I know that since we’ve systematized our business more our company is growing and our clients are happier, and our team is happier.
OWEN: At what point in time did you feel like you had systematized the entire business and they potentially run without you?
TARA: I would say our pitch process is probably the last thing that we will have to systematize. I’m still a part of the business. Right now I’m mostly still doing sales and creative strategy. But I now know that once we hit certain financial benchmark just follow pretty soon I know that I can replace myself and step out. I’m not just guessing.
OWEN: That’s good. You allude to what the sales process that you guys have in place now earlier on, but maybe spend the opportunity for you to share what it is for the listener. Because they’re probably interested in learning the different steps of your sales process that you built.
TARA: Again, it’s a lot of questions and they know what questions to ask.
OWEN: So like a qualification step?
TARA: Yeah. So there’s the qualification step, there’s a series of questions that my project manager will ask before that even gets to me. And if they’re a good it then she schedules a call with myself and then I ask a lot more questions and give them prospects and good feedback. And then move them into the proposal phase and the pitching phase, and all of that. If they’re not a good fit then we have different referral commission partners so to speak that take on smaller projects or projects that just really aren’t a good fit for us. And then we have a commission often. Not always but sometimes we’ll have a commission referral fee when we refer them to…
OWEN: …someone else, yeah. And so, after the proposal stage the proposal is accepted. Is that the client on-boarding stage.
TARA: Correct. And then we have our on-boarding system from there. So scheduling my first kick-off meeting, setting everything up, like in our project manager software like Basecamp, sending out the invoice, prep for our first meeting, setting up the calendar…
OWEN: What is the internal project process that you mentioned after the client on-boarding stage?
TARA: Sure. After the client gets on-boarded after initial meeting, we put together a creative brief and everything that we do gets approved by the client every step. And this is all scheduled out in the calendar. We schedule out when we will be getting items to the client but them also when the client needs to give us feedback to keep their project, help to that specific timeline. Creative brief, inspiration board, user journey map, creative detail wire framing process, and then initial design, development, testing, and launch, and then even testing after that. And then also putting together the content. We have some contractors. We don’t do content in-house, we typically work with marketing directors at bigger companies who have their own capabilities for content. But we still put together a content outline that we need. As far as once the project gets moving workflow would be… We have our documents, like our wire frames, our inspiration board, go over that with the graphic designer, and give them creative direction. They shape the bowl and run with that with the checklist that they’re given on how to set the project up and make sure that they’re meeting certain quality standards. And then they would then say, “Okay, I’m done.” They would hand off the message to the project manager. She proofs, make sure that all the content is there. Nothing was mistranslated. Make sure that the project hits the parameters as far as the size and what needs to be. She’ll give that back of any edits to the graphic designer. And then the graphic designer that finishes that and then hands it off. Right now it’s me, I still do a lot of the creative direction. So then I check it. And then we also have procedures in place for how to save out the file, how to export it, and how to save files. We use Dropbox right now, so how to put files out in dated folders, how to save projects, how to organize it, all of that. That’s just it, a quick insight into what our workflow looks like.
OWEN: I like how you just get behind the scenes of all the different steps that happen inside your company after you’ve gotten the customer. I’m trying to understand how you track and verify the results being delivered by your employees. I think you mentioned something about a dashboard that you guys use called Klipfolio?
TARA: Yeah, we do. We use so many apps.
OWEN: How does that play a role from the tracking and verification standpoint?
TARA: Yeah. We use Klipfolio. It’s a dashboard and you would need a developer to help set that up. Usually our developers set it up for us. We have three different key metrics that plan to say how our business is doing. So global hours, how many hours is our team billing…
OWEN: From my understanding, I just did a quick research on it. Klipfolio, is it a tool that takes data from all the different tools your using and integrates that data into their dashboard so that you can create reports. Is that what it does or am I wrong?
TARA: It can. For example FreshBooks is our invoicing software. I think there is an open API, it can connect directly to FreshBooks. We don’t have that set-up that way. We actually just have it set-up with a master Excel spreadsheet. So we just manual enter in what the billable hours are. I’m sure we could probably simplify that even more but that’s what we do right now.
OWEN: Okay. You put in the billable hours in there and measure capacity and stuff like that.
TARA: Yeah. We put in how many hours is everyone actually billing. We have a timer in FreshBooks that we keep track of [Unintelligible 00:40:40]. And then how many hours are we going under or over on projects. It’s huge. Because we can be billing a lot of hours but if we’re going over on our contracts it doesn’t really do us any good. Those are important, and then how much are we grossing compared to that. And then of course our expenses are important. That would be a fourth key metric. I would say those four things is what we mainly measure in Klipfolio. As far as results for clients, like I said early, heavily focused on conversion. We have different SEO partners we work with that purpose track that. But just really testing and saying, “This is what your site was doing before. These were the measurements before, and again, that’s all in our pitching process and our questions, trying to gather what was your conversion rate before. And then after launch 30 succeed days past, what is your conversion rate now? And we’ve had some really mind-blowing results. Job-willing conversion
OWEN: What I like about what you said so far is it just brings three main things to mind. You started out by systematizing the business and documenting every procedure for every role and every stage in the process. And then now you’ve been able to delegate work and see where everybody is in the workflow. Finally, as we’re talking about how you’re measuring, you have a system for measuring the results. So it’s systematize, delegate, and measure. I like that. Since you have all those free time which areas of your business you’re now focused on now and why?
TARA: Continuing to focus on our systems can maybe improved, that’s really important.
OWEN: You mentioned during the pre-interview that you focus a lot on strategy.
TARA: Yes. Strategy both for what can be focused on moving forward as a company and for people like conversion is something that we’ve… We’re focused on how can we be a quantifiable solution the creative industry that’s so subjective.
OWEN: I like that. So that not only are you saying that we know that this would work but as proof in terms of the data that is actually working in terms of the conversion.
OWEN: Okay. You also mentioned that you’re able to find more time to focus on where the creative industry is going. Talk about that.
TARA: Yeah. For me that has been bringing quantifiable results to the creative industry. I think it is very important because now when you stick hand out and you hit about 5,000 different creative agencies, everyone’s a graphic designer now, everyone. Web developers they’re pretty common now too. How do we differentiate ourselves. Freeing up my time and not having to be in the business as much has allowed me to really focus on what can set us apart, conversion. Okay, great. But conversion is a whole another industry and can of worms in and of itself. So it’s freed me up to research. For the last 6 months or so I’ve been able to spend 1-3 hours a day just researching and learning as much as I can about conversion and design psychology. And already that’s helped us get some pretty substantial clients in the last few months.
OWEN: That’s awesome. What’s the next stage of growth for your business. What do you plan to achieve next and why?
TARA: I want to continue to focus on conversion. We’ve been researching it for the last 6 months or so, and so I really want to become an expert in that. I would also love to get out and speak more on that. I would say probably the next hire for us would be a creative strategist replace me. Someone who’s really good at wire framing and UX design even better than I am.
OWEN: You mentioned during the pre-interview that you’re looking to the point where you’ll be grossing over a million dollars and talking about 10 or so big and strong clients like the one you have now.
TARA: Yeah, exactly. Right now we have 4-6 big clients and I would like 10, that’s the magic number for me. I don’t know that I necessarily want to be this huge agency. I think 10 people is the magic number. My vision is everyone in the company is making above the normal salary, everyone’s working hard but there’s a really great culture of fun and hard work at the same time. We keep things simple and we’re taking in clients who we share core values with, clients who we’re excited about, and just have a really good work relationship with them. That’s where I want to be.
OWEN: And to summarize the steps that the listener who’s been listening so far should take to achieve what you’ve been able to achieve, can you summarize what that will be?
TARA: Yeah. I would say number one, take a step back and write everything down. What happens when you get a prospect client? Write down your entire process. I know for me you have a lot of aha moments when you do that. And even just getting it all out of your head. I know so many business owners who say, “Yeah, we have a great process but it’s all in my head. I would say get it down on paper. After that people like digital paper, like in Word or type it, because writing it then you just have to back and type all your notes and that’s cumbersome. Type it out. At that point I think we’ll examine what is the best way for me to deliver this to my team, so that my team can actually see it, can go over it, and even letting your team brainstorm with you. Because you might think the process is one way and your team might be like, “Actually, we do it this way. This way looks better.” I think getting your team involved is really important. Number three, having a way that it can be followed in some form. I think checklists are great and I know that your app for example does that and does a really great job of that. I think it’s just examining what app can we use to make this happen that everyone can follow.
OWEN: Thanks for sharing that. Are there any questions right now that you were hoping I would’ve asked you during the interview that you feel bring even more value to this conversation? If so, post the question and the answer.
TARA: We’ve covered so much.
OWEN: It’s okay if you can’t think anything. That means we did a great job.
TARA: I think you did a really great job. I think you ask some really thought provoking questions. I think.
OWEN: Maybe even not systemization focus but whatever direction you want to take it. Feel free.
TARA: I will say this. Business is a living, breathing, and growing organism. One thing that I think I had always thought, once I get my checklist and system in place, that’s it, it’s done. I think it’s really important to re-examine it. It’s always evolving and changing. I think taking a step back and letting my team have as much input as possible is really important. And thinking of it like I don’t run this company, my team runs the company. And giving them ownership I found is really critical in thinking about systems.
OWEN: Also, what is the best way for the listeners to connect with you and thank you for doing this interview?
TARA: You can reach out to me. My email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Shovel Creative, it’s a pretty unique name, so you can also shovel like digging, you can dig. We dig deep is our tagline. You can find us on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. Just search for shovel creative and we’ll be there.
OWEN: Awesome. Now, I’m speaking to you the listener. If you’ve enjoyed this interview all the way to this point want you to leave us a review on iTunes. You can do that by going to sweetprocess.com/iTunes. And if you have an Android phone you can leave us a review on the Stitcher app by going to sweetprocess.com/stitcher. If you another entrepreneur who will find this interview useful please share with them. Finally, if you’re at that point in your business where you’re tired of being the bottleneck and you want to get everything out of your head so your employees know what you know, well, sign up for a free 14-day trial of SweetProcess. Tara, thanks for showing up and doing the interview. I appreciate it.