We interviewed Anika Lehde, co-founder of the Seattle marketing agency Projectline, about challenges in growing a marketing agency and why it is a good idea to put happiness before profits. Projectline was named by Inc. Magazine as one of the fastest growing private companies in America on its annual Inc. 5000 list.
Cool Marketing Stuff: Can you tell us about why you started Projectline and summarize what you do?
Anika: My business partners (David Jones and Mike Kichline) and I started Projectline because we all had experience with other marketing firms who treated their employees poorly, were ungrateful to their clients, thought short-term, and had a pretty low bar for quality – but were STILL getting projects. We thought, “We can do better. We can do A LOT better.” We saw that if we always did what we said we would do and we’d be beating out much of our competition. It isn’t quite like that now, but when we started, the bar was terribly low for what it meant to be a good marketing consultant. What I do at Projectline is head up our Customer Engagement Marketing division which covers marketing practices focused on customer programs. Think: customer evidence and reference programs, online communities, technology adoption programs, social media audits and management, customer advisory boards, customer research, etc. This division also houses our in-house team of content strategists, writers and editors. In addition, all three of us owners work to move the business forward, focused on new offering development, geographic expansion, leadership development, etc.
Cool Marketing Stuff: What were some of the biggest challenges that you faced in the early years of building your agency?
Anika: In the early years the biggest challenge was keeping up with growth while staying true to our mission to have a positive impact on each other, our clients, and the global community. We had some pretty voracious clients between 2005 and 2008 that sometimes wouldn’t take no for an answer. It was hard to balance creativity, quality, and morale while growing at a rapid pace. But we weathered this challenge by never taking our eye off the ball, which was not about a revenue number or profit margin, it was about being happy. Always asking, “Will this make us happy? Will this make our employees happy? Will this make our clients happy?” If the answer was “Yes” than it was worth the pain of moving ahead. If not, we changed tactics. All three of us owners care much more about being happy and loving our job than about getting rich quick.
Cool Marketing Stuff: What are some of the most important things you have learned about building a successful marketing agency?
Anika: There may be many paths to success, but ours was really the focus on people and being real about why we were in business. And when I say “people,” I mean ourselves (the three owners), our employees, our clients, our vendors, AND the wider community that we work within, including the marketing industry. It is cliché, but if you hire amazing people who share your values, this comes through in the work – clients want to be around people who are smart and nice. It’s not complicated in theory, but it takes immense amount of time and being very deliberate and patient in the hiring process. We want a team of people who are kind, patient, and supportive of each other. This makes doing the grudge work tolerable and makes doing the creative work totally amazing.
Cool Marketing Stuff: What were some mistakes that you would advise others to avoid when building a marketing agency?
Anika: I think every time we tried to move too fast, we made hiring mistakes. Looking back I would rather have given up opportunities to our competitors than hired the wrong person. It all comes back to who is on your team. Candidates normally interview with 6-7 people during our hiring process, and then I ask the Projectline folks who interviewed them, “If this was YOUR company, and you had to pay them out of your own pocket, would you hire them?” It helps get past the superficial stuff about learnable skills and focuses on attitude and aptitude, which are much more important long-term.
Cool Marketing Stuff: What keeps you up at night and what gets you up in the morning?
Anika: The same thing that keeps me up at night gets me up in the morning! It is the risk that is inherent in managing a business. Knowing when to take a leap, when to stay the course, when to flip 180 degrees, when to keep cool. If I pass on an opportunity, I think, “Am I being patient and discerning, or conservative and overly causes?” If I jump on board with an idea that will take significant time and financial investment, I think “Am I being brave and innovative, or brash and unwise?” All we can do is follow our gut and hope our instincts are right more often than they are wrong. So far Projectline has a good record. But it is this daily risk that is the joy in my job and potentially the face of my insomnia (although, I have to admit, I am a really great sleeper these days).
Cool Marketing Stuff: Why do you stress the well-being of your people and happiness of clients and not just focus on maximizing revenue?
Anika: This is a funny question that seems so obvious to me, but I get it a lot; I don’t know why other companies don’t make happiness their focus too. I think we’d all agree that happiness is more important than wealth, right? But I guess it comes down to whose happiness you target? When Mike, Dave, and I sat down to write our mission, we decided to be really honest about why we were in business. All three of us distilled our desires down to being happy ourselves. Then we realized, would having disgruntled employees make us happy? Uh, No. Would having unsatisfied clients make us happy? No, again. Would being isolated make us happy? A big No to that one too. So really, Projectline is just a selfish project to keep the three of us satisfied. It is just luck that being around people we like, delivering quality work, and giving back to the community happens to make us happy. Heh.
Photo credit: Rebecca Bolte