Many of you have heard me say over the years that I believe we give up the finest hours of our day and the finest years of our lives for work, and I think it shouldn’t matter. Fundamentally, we all believe that the work should matter. After all, it’s sunny outside. It’s gorgeous. I have tons of energy right now. I’m young, spry and able-bodied. I’m working these years because I love what I do now.
Many people don’t love what they do, and most of us founders and entrepreneurs don’t know how to create the conditions in our cultures where people can thrive. Our guest in this episode has put people first. Kelsey Raymond is the CEO of Influence & Co., a content marketing agency based out of Columbia, Missouri, and they have put people first as their priority since their inception in 2011.
She’s also acutely aware of her own strengths and how to surround herself with people to augment where she’s not as strong. I’m so excited to have her as a guest to talk to her about how she’s grown her business from $0 to over $7 million. How she’s grown from her and two other cofounders to now 60 employees and how she’s done it in a way that’s helped her employees stay engaged.
Kelsey Raymond, welcome to the show.
Thank you so much for having me. I’m excited to talk about this topic. I think it’s exactly what I’m most passionate about when it comes to business.
I want to hear more about your business. Tell us about your team. What do they do, and who does it with you?
As you mentioned, we have about 60 employees. We’re mostly in Missouri, but now we do have a few remote employees of people whose lives were taking them elsewhere, and we wanted them to keep working with us. What we do for clients is help them with all written content online. Anything from their email newsletter and company blog to earned media like getting a guest contributed article published in an online publication or more digital PR.
Everything that we do has a foundation in search engine optimization. As a content agency, we’re helping businesses accomplish their goals through content marketing. The team that works on that are a lot of people that are way better writers and editors than me, to your point, of hiring people that have those skill sets that you don’t. We have a lot of people that are former journalists who went over to the marketing side because content marketing is probably the closest type of marketing to journalism. We have a diverse group of people that work with us, and we hope to continue to make our team even more diverse over the years.
When I was researching you, I realized how many similarities you and I have. First of all, we both opened up our businesses many years ago. Who would have thought that we would be where we are now? Also, it sounds like you’ve always had a pretty flexible environment. Tell me more about that because I run Turning the Corner the same way. People come and go as they please. I have no idea where anyone is right now, no clue. I don’t need to know. It’s okay, but why did you do that for your business?
I think we realized early on that it could be a competitive advantage to hire smart people and trust them. That seems so basic, but what we realized is that so few companies were doing that. If you looked at all of these policies that companies had in place, whether it was the hours that you had to work like, “You have to be here at 9:00 and leave at 5:00,” or where you have to work like, “You have to be in the office and in the seat,” or a dress code or things like that, they all come down to a lack of trust.
One of our core values from day one has been to treat others with trust and respect. From my perspective, the best way that you can do that is by truly giving them autonomy. We’ve seen that if you hire the right people. You put some expectations and parameters in place and help them see what the end goal is, you don’t need to have policies for everything.
Sometimes I use a silly example. We don’t have a dress code policy at our work when people do come into the office, but nobody shows up naked. If you hire smart people that you can trust, you don’t need a lot of that. It attracts people as well that want to be autonomous, driven, and have ownership over their career. Those are the type of people that we love working with.
It makes so much sense, and it’s amazing how few people do that. I’ve worked with clients in the past that have had these very strict requirements for arrival and departure times for no reason. It’s not like it’s a retail shop that has to open and let customers in. Even a manufacturing environment where there are maybe shift teams, and there’s no logical reason for it.
As I dug in, it was always about trust. Generally, they didn’t even trust themselves to do things the right way. It’s become this mindset issue with people. I appreciate that you’re doing that, and I agree. It’s attracted the most incredible employees to my company by honing in on that flexibility. What are some other things you have noticed that you do differently than other businesses?
Some of the things that I think we do differently, more companies are catching up with, and COVID has been the reason for that. In this competitive job market now, people see employees in a position of power. As an employer, how your policies, different ways that you’re recruiting, and things like that will have to change?It's a competitive advantage to hire smart people and trust them. Click To Tweet
There are a couple of things that we still do differently. One is we have a profit-sharing process with a lot of members of our team that has been with the company for a decent amount of time. We share the company’s profits with all of the employees on a quarterly basis. Again, this is giving people that autonomy but also empowering them like, “You contribute to this. When the company does well, we want you to do well.”
Another thing that we do is put an emphasis on mental health in our organization. This is because it’s something that is very important to me personally. I have multiple family members that struggle with different mental illnesses. Being able to say, “We don’t want that to be taboo in our organization,” we understand that so many people struggle with mental illness the same way we do physical illness. We want to create that environment where you can be open about it. We have resources and mental health policies to help people see that it’s okay to talk about at work and ask for help. Those are a couple of things that I think are a little unique, but I hope are becoming less and less unique.
You’ve been a CEO for many years. When you think back on those earlier days, what are some things you’re now embarrassed about?
There are so many. I think the big thing is that early on, and part of this was also a function of my age and other founders’ age. We were young, so the things that we wanted to do were tons of company happy hours. The only go-to bonding experience was a happy hour and realizing after a few years that it’s not as easy for people who have to pick up kids after work. Some people don’t drink. That’s not a great environment for them. It’s some things where I feel like we were unaware of making sure that the company was inclusive for all people. The other thing I think is that we lead the way too much with our perks instead of what the actual work was in a recruiting aspect.
We would be like, “We have all this flexibility. We’ve got a ping pong table in the office. You can bring your dog to work,” and all these fun things. What we realized was that we were attracting people who only wanted to work with us because they thought it’d be fun with all these perks. They didn’t want to work with us because they were excited about the actual work they’d be doing every day. That was a really big learning experience for us. Now, we lead with the work, and the perks are something you find out about more when you’ve already accepted the offer. You’re like, “This is cherry on top,” but we try not to lead with those as much in the recruiting process.
That’s an interesting lesson. I see that in a lot of mission-based organizations where people will be attracted to the organization because of the mission but not so much realizing that it’s a job. Some parts of it are, no matter how amazing the environment is, going to be hard. What keeps you up at night now about your company?
The things that keep me up at night are wanting to make sure that we can continue to be a financially stable company so that we can continue to give raises and bonuses and increased compensation over time. Especially right now, with inflation being so high, if we gave someone a 7% raise this year, that’s a pay cut when inflation is at 9%. In 2020, the start of the pandemic was a big wake-up call for us, with some of the things that we were doing that were not putting us into a stable spot.
To me, at the end of the day, if the company is not in a financially stable spot, then I can’t guarantee that everyone’s jobs will be here five years from now. That maybe is not the exciting part, but that keeps me up. It is making sure that we can continue to increase compensation over time. Because at the end of the day, even if you have a wonderful work environment where people feel respected and engaged and all of that, if they’re not being paid competitively and they can’t pay their bills in a comfortable way, then none of that other stuff matters.
We don’t volunteer for work. Let’s go back to your recruiting and hiring process a little bit. What is your process that means tactical?
We’ve changed it a lot over the years. I want to give credit to our Director of HR, Courtney Mudd, because she was the pushing force behind the changes that we made. She was pushing us to go more to a hiring committee model versus having one person in-house who was doing most of the recruiting. The reason for this is that she had done a lot of research and talked to different consultants about the hiring committee model being more effective for hiring a more diverse pool of candidates and ensuring that there’s less bias throughout the process.
Now, one big change that we made is that every job posting stays up for at least 30 days so that we can evaluate all the candidates once they’ve come in and have a much larger candidate pool. We used to post the job posting and once we felt like we had enough, whatever arbitrary number we were choosing, we would take down the job posting. By having it up for a longer period of time, we’re normally creating a larger pool of candidates. We’re also being specific on where we post job postings and contacts that we’ve reached out to in trying to make sure that we’re reaching a diverse group of people.
With the hiring committee model, we have a search advocate who’s the individual interacting with all the candidates through setting up interviews. They’re also reviewing all of the interview notes from the people doing the interviews and looking for anywhere where they feel like there could be bias. They might read the notes from two different interviews and say, “You scored this person an 8 and this person a 5, but their answers seemed pretty similar. What do we think could be going on there?”Even if you have a wonderful work environment where people feel engaged, if they're not being paid competitively and can't pay their bills comfortably, none of that other stuff matters. Click To Tweet
It’s their job to pose those questions to try to see if there’s any bias at play through the process. I’ll pause there because I know we have a very long process, but the overarching theme is that there are multiple people involved, and it’s not one person’s decision. We also use a scorecard and ask all the same questions to make sure that we’re creating that equitable experience throughout the process, which is very different because we used to just do more of, “Let’s have a conversation.”
It feels great at the moment because you feel like you’re being more natural and getting to know people, but then when you’re discussing candidates, and you feel like you’re comparing apples to oranges of the questions that you asked, you can’t make a great decision from that. Putting more structure in place was important to us in this change of process.
Another unique thing for the size of your business is that you have an HR person and they were able to bring in the appropriate process because the work we do is helping companies with their recruiting process, HR policies, and all that. Very few of them, I would say, are doing it at the size that you’re at. I applaud you on that.
I would have to look back to see how many employees we were when Courtney came on but my guess is it’s probably only about 25 employees. When I think back to why we’ve been able to create a company culture that I am proud of, I think that’s a big part of it because having someone that owns that area of HR and can wake up every day thinking about how do we create the best work environment for our employees? How do we make people feel appreciated, trusted, and respected? Having that role is incredibly important, and so many smaller organizations hire for that role way too late.
Another thing that we have in common is that we eat our own dog food. You use your own content marketing to market your company. We do the same thing with HR. One of our values is everyone has to love their job. It makes no sense to be a part of Turning the Corner and not love your job.
That would be a little confusing to your clients, I’m sure.
I love that you do that as well. Another area where we’re similar is that we both have adopted EOS, the traction model. Are you still using that?
Yes, we are.
For our audience, EOS is the Entrepreneurial Operating System, and it’s based on a book called Traction that came out about the year we both started our business, which is why I ended up reading it. I was like, “That makes a ton of sense. We’ll do this.” We self-implemented it from day one. What parts of it have you adapted though over the years, especially when it comes to the people chapter around Traction?
The one thing that we liked from Traction was this idea of the accountability chart instead of the org chart. The difference is that an accountability chart focuses more on what are the responsibilities that people have versus their job title. We joke internally that like, “We don’t care about job titles,” but we understand they are a signal externally so we need to make sure that people have the right titles. Internally, people are doing so many different types of work that the accountability chart has been helpful.
We use the planning process where we do the rocks and cascade those down. What we’ve seen that is helpful there is being able to communicate to the whole team, “This is the direction we’re rowing in the next 90 days.” Also, helping all of our employees see how what they’re doing each day plays into these goals. I’m always trying to relate our company priorities back to individual roles like, “Here’s what you can do to contribute to that,” which I think is valuable in helping people see their part of the bigger picture in the organization.
It’s absolutely essential, and it comes back around to trust. They’re trusting us as leaders knowing that we are all going in the same direction. If we don’t have those goals in place, it’s impossible for people to work, especially remotely or even in a hybrid environment.It is incredibly important to have someone who owns the area of HR and can wake up every day thinking about how we can create the best work environment for our employees and how we make people feel appreciated, trusted, and respected. Click To Tweet
One other thing that we do that answers one of your previous questions as well of what we’re doing differently, and it goes along with EOS. Each quarter, we have the leadership team that does the quarterly strategy meeting, and then we roll out the rocks to the team. I’ll put together a twenty-minute company overview where I’m giving updates on what’s been going on over the last quarter and what we’re looking forward to in the next quarter, but then we do an all-team ask me anything Zoom meeting. People can submit questions anonymously beforehand, or they can ask questions live in the meeting.
What we’ve seen this has done is build so much trust around getting everything out in the open, like, “Let’s have transparency. What are you worried about? What are you not agreeing with the direction that we’re going?” Also, giving people the option to ask questions anonymously opens that up. If there’s something that someone feels a little hesitant or a little nervous to ask but still wants to know the answer to. What we’ve seen is that over time, there are very few anonymous questions, and they almost all come during the meeting because I think we’ve built that trust where people feel comfortable putting their name, even to the tough questions, which is something that means a lot to me. I want to see it continuing to happen at the organization.
What have been some of the tougher ones?
We haven’t had any that I would consider super tough. We did have one a few years ago. We were working with a small part of Amazon. We were working with Amazon on a few small projects and we had a couple of employees on our team who disagreed with some of Amazon’s labor practices. They pose the question, “Do we feel comfortable working for a company that is doing some union-busting tactics, things that we feel like don’t align with our values?” It opened up a really good conversation around how we are vetting companies that we’re working with. What things would we say no to, and things are we comfortable with depending on the organization as a whole or who we’re working with? It was great that it launched that discussion, and now we have more of a framework for making those decisions.
Does that tie into one of your company values, too, in terms of how you think about employees?
Yeah, I think so. Our core values are to treat others with trust and respect. Create an autonomous yet supportive environment. We want people to have autonomy, but we’re not throwing them into the deep end to swim on their own. We want you to have that support where it’s needed. The last one is to evolve to continue to deliver value to our clients because we know that content marketing is always changing so we need to be changing with it.
It relates to all three of those in some way, specifically around creating that autonomous yet supportive environment. Where is that level of autonomy of you get to choose which clients you work on? We have some procedures that are in place now for that someone can raise their hand if they get assigned an account that they feel conflicts with their personal values.
One of our values is no jerks. We say that relative to our employees as well as to the customers. I’ve been challenged by that over the years, especially with customers. When we’re in a cashflow crunch, it’s hard to walk away from some of those bad customers.
We’ve had to fire a few clients because of misalignment of values or not treating our team with respect, thereby violating that core value. It’s absolutely difficult when you need that revenue coming in.
What’s next for you? What do you guys have coming up in the next few years in terms of vision?
From the client service side, I won’t get into that too much because that’s not the topic of this. From that side of the business, we’re looking to get more into analytics and show more granular results to our clients. On the people side, two big things that we’re focused on. The first is, what do long-term careers at Influence & Co. look like? We have one employee who’s hitting her 11th year in 2022. She was our first ever hire, and she’s still with us. She’s now a partner in the business, but we have other employees who’ve been here for 7 or 8 years, and they’re wondering, “What is next? What does that growth look like?”
We need to be focused on how we retain people long-term and create all those different career paths because not everyone wants to manage people. That’s not the right career path for everyone. On the other side, looking at being more open to having more people in more states. Right now, we still have an office in Columbia, Missouri, but there are probably about five of us that are there on any given day. It’s very slim, and most people are working from home full-time.
It’s made us think instead of just allowing our Missouri employees to move and support them and working remotely, should we start recruiting in other states and have a more fully distributed team? I think it’s what we need to do to be competitive, but obviously, there are a lot of logistics and red tape to getting set up business licenses and all different states. It’s a work in progress.
We did that through COVID too. We added a couple of remote employees. Now, about 1/3 of our team is all remote, and we don’t have an office anymore. We were able to shift that budget from where we were paying rent now to having great off-sites. Kelsey, this has been such a fantastic conversation.
I love what you guys are doing at Influence & Co. I’m feeling fired up right now to call you and get your help with what we’re trying to do in terms of marketing. We may be reaching out with another conversation. This content is hard, and it’s so hard to stay on top of it with digital marketing. Thank you so much for your time, and we’ll stay in touch and check back in with you in a couple of months. Thank you to our readers as well. Kelsey Raymond, enjoy the rest of your 2022.
Thank you so much for having me. This was a fun discussion.
About Kelsey Raymond
Kelsey Raymond is the CEO and Founder of Influence & Co., a content marketing agency with 60 employees and over 100 clients.