secrets to scale

Secrets To Scale Podcast
001 - How A Web Agency in Vancouver Grows With A Team Of Freelancers

001 – How A Web Agency in Vancouver Grows With A Team Of Freelancers

Secrets To Scale is a marketing and entrepreneurship podcast that revolves around hearing the stories of successful entrepreneurs and uncovering their secrets to scaling their businesses. Music for every episode of this podcast was written and produced by Treycen Clausse.

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CONNECT WITH NATASHA:

This is the very first episode of secrets to scale. I’m so excited to get this thing out there. This week I interviewed Natasha Golinsky. She owns On Purpose Projects, a web design agency up in Vancouver, Canada. The way she scales her business is by utilizing a team of freelancers instead of your usual W-2 employees. Anyways, let’s just jump right in. I think you guys are really going to enjoy this week’s interview. 

Tanner:

Welcome to the show. I’m excited to have you go ahead and introduce yourself to the audience.

Natasha:

Tanner, thank you so much for having me. My name is Natasha. I run a full-service web team from Vancouver, Canada. We do everything from concept to completion, specializing primarily in corporate custom website redesign projects. I’m happy to share any ideas in the call today. 

An absolute accidental agency. 

Tanner:

Cool. One question I have for you is how did you get started?

Natasha:

Oh my gosh, we are the cliche accidental agency. I worked in the financial services industry for nine years. I was a financial planner and then I had three babies. I was home with three babies and I said, “Oh my gosh, I’m losing my mind. I need to do something.” And I evolved into nonprofit management consulting, believe it or not. So, I went from financial services into nonprofit management consulting, purely because I loved social enterprise and I wanted something I could do from home. And then it sort of evolved again where one of my clients, my management consulting clients, he said to me one day that he was running a nonprofit, but then he decided he was going to open up his own consulting agency. And he’s like, “Hey, could you find someone to do me a website?”

I’m like, “Absolutely.” And so I went on Upwork, found a guy in Bangladesh, no idea what I was doing. And we built up a website and then he’s like, “Hey, you know what? I’ve got this friend who needs a website.” And literally I had zero background in tech, like zero to this day. I could not build a website to save my life. And it just from day one, I’ve had a, my team and, and yeah, it sort of evolved like that. Then within a couple months I was like, wait a second this is way more fun than management consulting. And just at that point, within six months, I decided to do that full time. An absolute accidental agency, completely accidental. 

Tanner:

Wow. You really are the epitome of an accidental agency owner, right?

Natasha:

I know, don’t tell anyone that I don’t know what I’m doing.

Tanner:

Most people already have the skill and they get asked to do something, but, you, you went backwards.

Natasha:

Totally backwards, I know. And I don’t think my tech skills have improved that much. Even to this day, like if I had to design or develop a website, I feel like that’d be voted off the Island, like right away.

I know what I am and I know what I am not. 

Tanner:

Your background is in management, right?

Natasha:

Exactly my background is in management. In sales. I mean, I’ve got 20 years of direct sales experience. On my team, my job is management, marketing, and money. My job is not websites. So my team does very well. It was funny. One time I asked my team, I’m like, “Does it bother you? That I have no idea how you guys do your jobs?” And they’re like, “No, it keeps you from micromanaging us. Because you have no idea what we do.” And I just, you know, at that point I gave up trying to figure out what my team actually does every day.

I really attribute my success to my team.

Tanner:

I mean, at some point you have to realize that you should focus on what you’re good at and focus on your strengths rather than your weaknesses and hire people to work on those weaknesses instead.

So you said you’ve been doing this for about five years. How much have you grown over the years and what would you attribute that growth to?

Natasha:

I’ve been very fortunate that we did about – I think we did six figures in our second year. We went over the six figure mark our second year. This year we’ll probably do about $300K in sales. I would say honestly, it’s just kind of exactly like what you said: I know what I am and I know what I’m not. I’m a salesperson. I love sales. I’m excellent at project management, but I am not good at technology. I am not good at design. I have no idea how to do hosting migration. So I really feel like I attribute my success to my team, honestly. I’ve had essentially the same team since day one. I’m so, so blessed. We’re a hundred percent freelance team, but I’ve essentially had the same people for four years. I’ve had the same crew and the guy who designed my logo still works for me, like from the very beginning. So I feel very grateful. I would say if there’s one thing that I’m good at, it’s the ability to kind of put the right people in the right places and help the job to be inspiring and making sure that it’s rewarding so that they want to stay. Right? Cause they’re freelancers. They could leave like, no one’s on payroll, right? No, one’s under contract. They could leave at any moment.

Without my team I don’t have a business. My loyalty is to them, not my client.

Tanner:

Exactly. And even if they were on the books, they could leave anyways. But, that leads me to my next question for you, how do you keep them around? How do you keep them happy? How do you keep them productive?

Natasha:

That’s a great question. I mean, in my past life, like when I was working in the financial industry, a big part of what I did was I was recruitment.  I’ve hired and fired hundreds of people over my career. And when I hire someone, where I bring someone onto the team, I take a lot of time on the front end to figure out. Is what I’m looking for going to line up with their career goals? So let’s say, Tanner, that I was going to hire you. Before I even gave you an opportunity to be on probation, I would make sure that what I was looking for was somehow going to be meaningful and valuable to you in the long run. Because, if you’re just looking to make $500 and it’s like a gig and you’re a musician, you don’t really care about websites, you just want to make some money.

That’s not going to work for me. I’m looking for people who are serious and where what I’m doing is going to help them advance in their own, towards their own goals. I make sure that what I’m offering the person is invested in growing in that capacity for their long term career. It’s very important to me. Then I would say that I really understand like their schedule, their priorities. As freelancers, I respect that part of freelancing is the freedom, right? So I am very fair. No one works for free. I make sure everyone gets paid. I always make sure I have enough money to pay everyone right away. Same day invoices come in, I pay them right away. I feel like my goal with them is to give a lot of respect, respect their process.

If they make a mistake, I just pay, no big deal. I had this developer one time and he made a mistake on a job and it ended up costing me probably like $3,000 or $4,000. But it was one of my guys who worked there for three years and this guy was really good. I defended him to my client and , you know, my client was upset obviously. I went to bat for my developer and he said to me, “Wow.” He’s like, “I didn’t expect that you would take my side.” And I’m like, well, without you, I don’t have a business. My loyalty is to you, not to my client. My job is to protect you. Right? And I think he was surprised.

I mean, me, the female boss and him being the male developer, but I was like, no, if you’re going to work for me my job is to protect you and make sure that you are more important to me than my client. Because if I don’t have you, I can’t take clients because I can’t build a website. I need you. So my relationship with you is a million times more important to me than if one of my clients pissed off or not. I don’t know, I think that I just really make an effort to respect my team. If they want to take an afternoon off because they have something to do, no worries. I give paid days off. If I feel like my team is tired, like if I know that job was took a lot of stress, I give them a couple of paid days off. I pay bonuses if they did a really good job. I just really, I have to earn it. I’m well aware I have to earn that kind of loyalty. I don’t expect it. I have to earn it to deserve it. You know what I mean?

Every business owner’s fear is that in that ninth or 11th hour your team is gone.

Tanner:

I think you’re doing everything perfect. I think it’s amazing what you’re doing. I think a lot of business owners really lack in that department. I think they treat their employees like liabilities rather than assets. And let’s face it, if we’re not backing up our team and we’re not treating them like they’re more important to us than our clients, what’s stopping them from just jumping ship at the worst possible time and leaving you pick up the pieces?

Natasha:

Exactly. And that’s exactly what I’m afraid of. That’s every business owner’s fear is that in that ninth, 11th hour, your team is, they’re gone, or you need them and they’re not available. I’m so, so blessed. I’ve had people that I’ve fired come and ask to work for me again at a reduced rate because they’ve worked for other agencies and they were like, “No, we want to work for you.” I’ve had that happen where they just like begged me to hire them back. And sometimes I do and sometimes I don’t. It depends on the circumstances, but I feel very blessed by that. Like, you know, on Google reviews, I’ve had my team writing a review like, “Oh my God, best boss!”, I really respect the process. I’m very open to their suggestions. I look at it like a collaborative. I’m not a dictator. It’s like, “Hey, this is what needs to be done, I trust you to figure it out.” And they’re like, “Okay, cool.” You know, I try to give so much freedom.  I don’t really micromanage. I kind of give a deadline and leave them alone and check in. 

I make it very clear when I hire someone, this is what I want.

Tanner:

Yeah, I think that’s super important, especially when we’re talking about creative services like web design. You know, it’s hard to get those creative juices flowing when you have someone breathing down your neck or micromanaging you about small things. And it’s also important to let them work when they feel like they are in the most creative mood possible. Right?

Natasha:  

Yeah. That’s it right. I’ll tell them too, “I don’t care when you do this.” I need it done by this date. I don’t care if you’re in the morning or night, I need you to be online. For that one, I do have some criteria, like for example, my team has to be able to be online between 9:00 a.m. and 2:00 p.m. PST, at some point in that window. They’ve got to be on online at least two hours in that window. If they need me, if they don’t need me, then I don’t care. But I need them to know; okay, if you want my attention or you have a question, that’s when I work and I’m not working on your schedule. I would say as a boss, I can be very demanding, not in a negative way, but I’m very clear on what I want. Our work standards are very, very high and I will fire you if you do not hit the standard. I make that very clear when I hire someone, this is what I want. This is what I’m paying you for. And I will pay you a lot. This is what I want. If you can’t do it, I’m going to fire you. I tell them that right away. So, the people that I get – they work their ass off, you know?

I try as much as I can to make it worth their while emotionally, financially, logistically, creatively. 

Tanner:

Yeah. I’m sure they do. And I think it’s good that you establish that expectation up front and I’m sure that also weeds out the under-performer.

Natasha:

Yeah, exactly. Our standard is we follow it like a pixel perfect approach, right? With our website work, which is very hard. A lot of people can’t do it. A lot of developers cannot build pixel perfect. And so I’ve hired and fired many, many people because you just can’t do it. You can’t do the job. And I let them know, so the ones who do stay, they know that it’s hard. It’s very hard, but I also make it worth their while. I try as much as I can to make it worth their while, emotionally, financially, logistically, creatively.

If I have a team member, let’s say who’s done a lot of boring projects in the last couple of months. 

Let’s say they’re just doing one-page websites or nothing that’s very challenging. I know developers need a lot of challenge. I’m very aware to make sure the next job they get is hard. Just to keep them interested and keep it creative and keep them pushing themselves. Because I know for freelancers, if they don’t feel like they’re growing, they’re going to find something more challenging. So I try to make sure a balance of that. There‘s an energetic balance of easy jobs to kind of recover and challenging jobs to grow. And I’m very aware of who’s where, and then I obviously try to suit projects to skill. 

I come at it everyday like I have to earn that loyalty. 

Tanner:

You know, I think that’s a really good approach to try and balance it out because I think some agencies will hire freelancers and just say, “All right, go, go, go, go. Just keep going. We can’t stop.” And they just get burnt out. Right? So how do you go about hiring these freelancers?

Natasha:

It’s been a big mix, honestly. One of my team members has been a friend of mine for 10 years. One of them, a couple of them, I found on Upwork somewhere. Referrals. One person I hired through a co-op program at a university. It’s been a big, big mix. But again, when hiring, I really try to make sure that what I’m providing, the job I’m offering, really lines up what their long-term goals are. Because I want that loyalty. I want it to be their job, I don’t want it to be their gig. 

Tanner:

Yeah. And I think it’s also important to make sure that their values align with the core values of the agencies as well.

Natasha:

I personality test before I hire anyone. I make them do this strengths assessment quiz. And if I read it the results and it’s not really going to be a good fit, I just let them know. Again, as a recruiter, I just know my team’s culture. I know how we are and what we are. And I can just sense once I start talking to someone whether or not they’re going to get along with the team. So, I make sure that that’s there. Making sure that whoever I bring in is going to be a good emotional fit, because we do work in teams. My team is very self-directed. I’m really not involved in deliverables and process at all. Once I close the job, it goes to my web designer who then finishes, and it goes to the web developer, and then the web developer goes to the quality assurance, and the quality assurance goes back to the developer, and then the developer goes back to the designer, and then once it’s done, then I can kind of get involved again.

Then I look at it. But generally during my process, I’m not involved unless there’s a problem, I’m not involved yet at all.

Tanner:

Yeah,  I think that’s really good. 

Natasha:

Yeah, so they have to work well together. Right? That’s really important.

Tanner:

Yeah. I mean, culture in the workplace is everything. If you don’t have good culture, then employees are not happy. And if employees aren’t happy, then the business is not doing well. Right?

Natasha:

Exactly. It’s just like remembering birthdays. It’s like sending presents to them on their birthday. It’s just the little things. I really come at it everyday like I have to earn that loyalty. I do not take them for granted. Like every day that someone shows up to work, I’m like, “Oh my God.” Even now I’m still so grateful that they choose me, you know? Because they don’t have to.

Tanner:

That’s amazing. I really love that. I think anyone listening should probably take that advice and treat their employees the same way. I think the world would be a better place. 

I let my developers create the process. 

Tanner:

You mentioned something about your process. I’m sure you have a surface level project process of each stage and stuff, but as far as what they do when they’re working on their stage, so like let’s say the project gets handed off to the web designer. Do they have a process that they follow or is it pretty much open to them?

Natasha:

Yeah, we have a documented process. Like every three months I make my team, I pay them for their time, to update our process and things as we learn and grow. I have documentation for every step, so that we know. So that when I bring in someone new, they already know what we’re doing. But I let my developers create the process because I do not pretend to know how to design a website or best practice or all that about web development. I have no idea how you would do that, no idea at all. What I’ll kind of do – the way we start to create process is I notice problems as we go. And then I just make a note. We have a Slack channel that says; development improvement ideas, design improvement ideas, onboarding improvement ideas.

We’ve got these Slack channels, where as we run into problems, as we’re going, we just make notes and then they can incorporate that into their process. But you know, we document it. I make sure that we review it regularly. But what they do and how they do it is really up to them. I trust them to kind of do it that way, as long as it’s written down and I can sort of see what they’re doing, that’s fine. But I don’t micromanage. I obviously do my part. I have processes for my part but for their part, I just sort of stay out of it.

Tanner:

Yeah. I think that’s a good approach. As long as you have something to kind of guide them along, making sure they’re staying on task other than probably just a single deadline.

Natasha:

Yeah, and if I bring in someone new.  I’ll bring in someone new but they’ll be trained by someone who’s already old. So, if I bring in someone new, I checked. Before I bring in a new developer, I get one of my developers to vet this person. I don’t know how to hire a good developer. I don’t know, I know I can see from her personality and all of that, the soft skills, but in terms of their technical ability, I would have no way to know that. So, I talk to my team and say, “Hey, I’m trying out this guy, can you talk to him for me? Can you check his work?” And I pay my team to vet these people for me. It’s a collaborative hiring process. By the time I actually bring someone on board, they’re like, “Okay yeah, this guy is good.” And then that kind of creates buy in as well. I’m not just throwing someone in the pack.

My approach is really to kind of throw someone in the deep end and see how they are. 

Tanner:

Yeah. I agree with that approach. I think it’s important to involve the person that’ll be training that person for sure. How do you handle training? If you have a fully remote workforce, how do they train? Is it kind of just like give them a small task and then tell them what they could have done better, type of thing?

Natasha:

Usually my approach is really to kind of throw someone in the deep end and sort of see how they are. I’m very clear in the beginning about setting expectations. So usually, for example, when hiring a web developer, I will pay them to do one page for me. They’ll get a mock-up of a site that’s like quasi complex and I will pay them for, let’s say, 10 hours of labor to build the desktop version of this website. And then I let them know “Hey, we’re looking for pixel perfect.” I will show them the final version that’s already been built by a pixel perfect developer. I’m paying you to make it look like this. This is what I’m paying you for.

Then you will get one round of quality assurance because developers always miss stuff. That’s normal. You’ll get one round of QA. And if after one round of QA, it doesn’t look like this I’m not giving you the job. I make it very clear. And that really shows me that whether they have the tech skill to do it, and then once they’re done, then I get a developer to check all their code. On the front-end, it looks great, but if the back-end is a mess, if it wasn’t built to be editable, if the code is everywhere, if it’s not mobile responsive. A developer can vet the code component for me. I don’t know how to do that, but I’ll say, “Okay, it looks good to me, but I know enough to know that that is only part of it. Right? What it looks like.” Then once they check the code then I know for a developer, okay that person is worth trying and training. That’s sort of my beginning process. If they can get through that, then I’m willing to kind of work with that person. 

Tanner:

Cool, yeah. I think that’s really good to have something in place to kind of test them, see if they’re going to be a good fit. Not only for the culture, but just for their skills in general. But I think it also saves you a lot of heartache if you just bring them on board and then you find out three months later that all of their code is sloppy. And I think paying them to do small tasks for 10 hours is a much better option.

Natasha:

Yeah. Well, I’ve done that as well. Right? Where I was recommended to a colleague of mine to this one guy, by three different people. And I’m like, “Okay, this guy’s awesome.” And right off the bat, right out of the gate, I gave him my 20-page website project because he was recommended to me. But it was a train wreck. He did such a bad job and I regretted it. It cost me like $4,000 in cleanup because I had to have it redone by one of my guys and it was so expensive. And I just learned, everyone can talk a good game, right? But our team standard is very high and it’s hard, you know? Sometimes I wish we didn’t have this standard because it’s very hard to get the right people.

I’ll even ask my team. Do you guys know anyone? Who do you know? And they’re like, “I don’t know anyone who’s gonna work like this, work to this level of detail.” And I’m like, oh. So even my team is like, “Oh my God, I don’t know. I don’t know who can do this.” It’s definitely an elite level. It’s hard, but if someone’s has the right spirit, I’m willing to train someone. My team and I met developers and that we’ve even talked about, do we create a program that pixel perfect Academy? Because we’ve trained all these people from scratch. My whole development team, none of them were front end developers, none of them. So, they’ve all learned how to do it and we’ve created our own process. We thought, “Hey, should we turn this into sort of curriculum?” How to do this? So it’s cool. It’s fun.

Scaling in the agency world is a lot different than traditional businesses. 

Tanner:

I think that would be a good idea. But you know, as, as business owners we run into issues that we definitely did not expect, right? We talked about your experience with that guy that you hired, that you had to pay $4,000 to fix his work. It’s stuff like that, that causes us to create a process or change our process, right? During the pre-show, we also talked about the fact that you are working in a niche. Do you think that contributes to your ability to scale?

Natasha:

I think so. I mean, it’s interesting. On one hand we’re right now actively working on scaling better. On one hand, I’ve really enjoyed being like a boutique agency that hasn’t really scaled that much. Because with three kids, COVID, and the crazy, I haven’t really wanted it to be busier than we are. Very intentionally, just from an emotional health standpoint, with five full time people and all of us full and all of us busy. It hasn’t been as much on the top of mind to really scale in the traditional sense of scaling. 


Tanner:  

Yeah, I mean, scaling in the agency world is a lot different than traditional businesses. I’d say once you’re at the five employee mark, I’d still consider that scaling. Just because of the dynamic of the workflow and everything. Because everything’s so custom and there’s so much back and forth with clients and even just keeping everyone busy is a beast in itself. There’s just, there’s so many moving factors. 

Our job as agency owners is to, first and foremost, protect our people.

Tanner:

Well, this has been really great Natasha, is there anything that I did not ask you that you think might benefit the audience?

Natasha:

I would just say the approach of not looking at your people like a commodity is, because I get asked that a lot. I really do get asked that a lot by my colleagues who run agencies and are like, “How do you keep people? Like, are they on payroll?” How do you create that kind of loyalty where they’ll work a weekend, if they’re on a deadline, you know? How do you do that? I just feel like as agency owners, our job is to really like first and foremost, protect our people. Go to bat for our people, really be worked for them. I look at it like, I work for you. My job is that I get the work in the door on the sales, but I could not do my job without you. It’s just a sense of, I know for me, like every day. A half an hour before I’ve signed off for the day, I’m like, “Hey guys, I got to go. Anybody need anything? What can I help you with? How can I make your job easier?”

Tanner:

Yeah, exactly. That’s a question I always ask, what can I do to make your job better? What can I do to make things easier for you? 

And you know, there’s probably something that you can do that they just don’t want to tell you. And by asking, it could be something simple. Like, “I would really like to use this type of software for this.” It would save them a ton of heartache, cost you $20 a month or something like that, and that’s really all you need to do sometimes.

Natasha:

It’s kind of like letting your team know that they can fail and it’s not going to affect their job. I know for me, I’ll take jobs that I know my team doesn’t know how to do. I’ll close jobs that my team’s like, “Holy shit, I don’t know that.” But I’m like – you’re smart. You’ll figure it out, I’m not worried at all. Honestly, we’re doing this $50,000 e-commerce project right now. And my developer had no clue how to do any of it, none of it. But he’s smart and he’s a backend developer. So I’m like – you’ll figure it out. You’ll be fine. He’s done, he’s killed it, but all the way through, he’s struggled and he’s like, “Oh my God. Oh my God. Oh my God, my God.” I’m like – no, no worries. I’m here. How can I help you? What do you need? What can I do to support you? And he’s just like – thank you for the trust. And that, that is so valuable, right? That you trust your people and obviously I got his permission before I closed the job. He was involved in planning it so he knew what it was, but he was terrified. 

Tanner:

You know, I tend to take the same approach. I like a good challenge. I like to just sell something. And the alright, how are we going to do this?

Natasha:

Yes. What’s Elementor. Who the hell knows? Doesn’t matter, let’s do it!

Tanner:

All right well, I really appreciate you joining me, Natasha. What is a good way for anyone listening to get in contact with you?

Natasha:

Yeah, just any way. On Facebook, it’s just Natasha Christine. It’s just there. And I would say that’s the best place or through the podcast you can put my email in the notes or whatever.

Tanner:

Yeah, we’ll put a link to your website and Facebook profile in the description.

Natasha:

Great. Well thank you for having me, I appreciate it.

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