Using Interns To Build A Pipeline Of Talent With John Aikin

Feb 15, 2023

John Aikin of Web Canopy shares how team performance, core values, and professional growth creates a pool of talented individuals in their company.




Many of us Founders and CEOs struggle with cash and paying our people enough. While pay is extremely important because we don’t volunteer for work, I know it’s not the only reason people come to work. We can create cultures where people feel like they belong. Treat them well and pay them decently and that can be enough to keep employees longer than giving them tons of money and not caring for them.

My guest has experienced this for the last several years. John Aikin is the CEO and Founder of Web Canopy, a top HubSpot partner and marketing agency. He’s located in a small town and when he started in 2010, he had limited access to talent. He’s found unique ways to bring people into his company and more importantly, keep them. John Aikin, welcome to the show.

Thank you so much, Kendra. I appreciate it.

I’d love to hear a little bit more about some of the journeys you had in the early days. I heard another podcast that you did where you talked about leveraging local universities. Tell us about the early days of your company and how you built your team.

A lot of where we built our name in what we do, revolved around a lot of website development, specifically inside of people using HubSpot. HubSpot has a CMS website platform. In the earlier days of that platform, there weren’t a lot of people getting involved in it. HubSpot is a marketing automation suite and is an amazing CRM and beyond. The CMS or website functionality has been evolving as well. Back in those earlier days when I started the company, it was just me and I was doing things on my own.

I wanted to be my own boss and not have to go back to get a corporate job somewhere. I was living in feast-or-famine mode and brought in a lot of projects. I’d sit there and work on all those projects. The projects would be done and I’d be like, “I have to buy food and pay my bills. What am I supposed to do?” I got into the situation of I’m slammed with work or I have no work. I knew that I couldn’t continue in a system where I was managing everything by myself. When it was time to bring somebody on, I enjoyed talking to people.

I enjoy having conversations all the time, giving advice, coaching and all of that. I would probably do most of the sales in the initial part. I wasn’t looking to bring on a ton of salespeople or anything like that. We started on the developer side. If I could help offload some of the extra work that I was doing, that would be a good start. I had some great experiences with some people that I had known and did some part-time work for me. Where it started to take off and the example you shared was looking at leveraging a local community college.

I was working with their students in an internship program. I was creating this 3 to 6-month process inside of our company where I could hire an intern, coach them and train them on the systems that I was trying to help lift, evolve and build out. Not only for our company and our clients but for the developing HubSpot community as well. That program was successful because essentially when I built that relationship, I leveraged that local relationship.

We’re able to have this person come on. They’re training with me. They’re fully bought into what we’re doing and trained by the time they leave to be exactly what I would want in an entry-level employee. We were able to then start hiring the people that were graduating. I might pay them hourly while they’re finishing their senior year or something like that and give them beer money in college. They would have essentially a full-time job waiting on them when they’d wrap up. That worked very well for us and we still do it.

I hear many people complain about this incoming generation and I don’t agree with that at all. I have a couple of Zoomers on my team that are amazing. How have you navigated that? What’s been your experience with the incoming generation?

There’s a mix. Like in any generation, you’re going to see people who don’t want to work and who do and they’re looking for what they want to do next. It’s tough. I’ve had a handful of interviews with people in college or who are graduating college and looking for a job. I’m like, “I probably see you here for three months before you’re done and you go somewhere else.” I’ve had a nice background of experience in talking to people who come in and they’re phenomenal. They’re ready to give their all and are pretty hungry for the work that we’re doing.

To me, though, it’s about the way that I position our company and how I treat them. I was an intern too when I was in college. Although I have a great relationship with the people that I interned with, I was a peon for this company to do anything that they needed. I was a courier to run things around town. I was getting coffee for people. I was printing documents and doing all of this stuff. To anybody else in this 50-person company, they never looked at me twice. That is not what this younger generation wants to see. They want to be a part of something. They want to contribute to something.

Talent Pipeline: The younger generation doesn’t want to act as couriers, get coffee, or print documents. They want to be part of something bigger.

With the interns that I have, we had one over the summer. I had a kid. He graduated college and was looking for an internship. I brought him on and said, “Work for us for the summer. In three months, we’ll pay you and see how it goes. If it’s something that you want to explore beyond that and it’s a good fit for us, we’ll continue the conversation. If not, you at least have something nice for your resume.”

We brought him into meetings right away. We’re in the world of marketing and website so I want new ideas. I want what’s trending and happening. No one’s going to know that better than people who are the target demographic of this thing that we’re doing. We gave that gentleman a job once his position was done as an intern. He’s a full-time employee for us.

We’re based out of Boulder, Colorado. We’re surrounded by many universities and I like this idea. I want to think about how I could do it with my company. How many employees do you have, about fifteen?


Tell me a little bit more about the kinds of people that you prefer to have on your team.

It’s been quite a mix for us, especially since the pandemic. I started the company in Indiana. My family and I moved to Traverse City, Michigan in 2017 and we love it up here. It’s a beautiful city. It’s a great small community. Pretty much all of the team was in Traverse City when the pandemic hit. I thought we would be an in-office company only.

My entire life, that’s what we were going to do. When the pandemic hit and we all went remote, we had to figure something out because we weren’t going to be in the office anymore. I thought it was going to be a short-term thing. We would all come back in 3 or 4 months or something like that and we didn’t. We still had the office. People enjoyed working at home.

My staff was doing great and I enjoyed being at my house as well. We kept everybody remote. When we made that shift, it opened up the doors for us because we weren’t confined to bringing people to Traverse City to be an employee or working with just the people in Traverse City who are already here, which is amazing. The people here are great and we were brought on some amazing stuff but it expanded and opened the doors to whom we could communicate with and bring on our team.

We have people that work for us in Europe. Our Director of Operations is in Portugal. I have staff in Hawaii. I have staff all over. That has been phenomenal and went on a side tangent. To answer your question, the kind of people that I like to bring on, the people that are a good fit here, are good and genuine people. I don’t know your policy on this show. We have a no-assholes policy in our company.

It applies to clients that we bring on. If I or whoever’s in the sales process gets the vibe that this is not a good fit because of an ego or an attitude, we’re like, “I have references that I’d love to send to you. This is not going to be a good fit for us.” It’s the same way for our staff too. The core values, the way that we hire and train and that we look for our staff to develop over time are built around who these people are and how they communicate and treat each other.

We have the same policy too, no jerks. It’s been powerful to have it be applied to both the team as well as the companies that our customers. I’ve walked away from customers that I knew were not going to be good fits for us because of that. I don’t want to put my staff through that. I don’t want to work with those people and ask my staff to do that. I’m with you on that.

It’s important. Too many people see dollar signs and want to go after them because it’s money. We’ve had massive deals that I couldn’t do or we went through an initial project with somebody for three months and then we’re like, “We got to stop this. Wrap it up. Finish it up. We’re out.”

Ultimately, you end up losing so much money on those projects generally. You can’t serve those customers. Tell us about some of the unique things you do to keep these fifteen people in the community together, especially if they’re all over the world.

We have a success profile and this is relatively new. It’s evolved. Over the last several years, we’ve gone through a lot of different models. We’ve landed on our system but we have a success profile for each of the positions in the company. The success profile looks at things like, “What are the top five responsibilities for this position, not this person?” This position should maintain these top five responsibilities. We have core values that can be so fluffy and people are like, “We have these core values.” “Do you live and breathe by what these core values are?”

We list those core values. On the success profile, we look at the characteristics or the skillset that we’re trying to hone in on and constantly develop. The way that we like to evaluate this is to have quarterly reviews. We’re going through this with the staff member as well as the leadership team. We say, “For this position, we have this person. Let’s evaluate on a scale of 1 to 3. 1 to these 5 different core values or responsibilities. 1) They don’t exude that core value all the time. 3) They do it almost all the time. Two is in the middle. We used to do a broad spectrum of 1 to 10 but how do you tell the difference between a 6 and a 7, honestly?’” It’s ambiguous. That’s been powerful because the staff member has to do an honest and clear self-evaluation of where they’re at.

We have that same honest feedback from a leadership team. It’s never a situation where it’s like, “You are not this core value. You are doing a bad job.” It’s like, “Is something going on with this? In the last three quarters, we’ve talked about this. You’re in a good space. Something’s happening. What’s up? Do you want to have a one-on-one? Do you want to chat through this?”

Oftentimes, there’s usually something that’s underlying any kind of thing that would skew performance and it gives you a great path to move forward. That would probably be one thing, a continuous evaluation from a place of love and care, as opposed to a place of looking down at the staff on the factory floor and seeing who’s performing and who’s not.

I agree with you too about the values. One of the things we do is work with leaders to get clear on like, “Are they your values?” They can look great on a wall or sound great to a customer but if you’re not living them, then they’re pointless. If anything, it creates confusion for the staff because they’re like, “We said this but he’s doing that. Where is his heart?” People don’t like to feel insecure about stuff like that. We want to feel secure around it.

When I first opened up my business, I came from IBM. IBM was a great employer. I learned a ton there but they didn’t live their values. The value should have been making money because that’s all they focused on. I was so dubious of all that. Many people talked about it and I was like, “I’ll pay attention to it.” That’s when I realized that when you get clear around, “What do you expect from your employees?”

How I see it now is, “What do I expect from the team?” The values we came up with right away are the ones we still live by, which is amazing to me because I would’ve thought that over time they would’ve shifted a lot but they are our core values. Every person I’ve let go or has left, it’s because of a values misalignment. Has that been your experience?

Yes, trusting your gut too. We first explored this idea of core values several years ago and I looked at it from a gut-check perspective. We had other people join the leadership team. We modified core values because of group chat and group thinking and then at the end of the day, left the original intent of what we were trying to do in the first place.

I went back to the gut check and was like, “Something doesn’t feel right.” This is the core value. This is the intent of what this company should be. That gut-check personality inside is important to listen to. Let me ask you a question. When you’re working with other companies and expanding the horizons of core values, do you find that there’s a lot of resistance to that in other people? I’m curious.

We have to get over the idea that it is fluffy. The first barrier I find is that people like you and I are the same thing like, “Is this real?” Once you get to the place where the leader is owning it and feels safe with the saying, “No assholes or no jerks,” being able to say that out loud and live it, then I find that it catches hold. Some leaders are resistant to it too because they want to collaborate with their team, which I very much appreciate but at the end of the day, everything’s going to trickle down from that leader.

The leader doesn’t believe in it because she’s co-collaborated with their team and if they don’t ultimately feel that way, then it doesn’t stick. It doesn’t last. The other thing I see falling apart over time is when it hasn’t come from the leader. It’s tricky because I agree with the idea of collaborating to a point, though.

Input is good and we still have a leadership team. I rely on these people so much but at the end of the day, the inside of the core of the company, if something moves away from that, I’m going to probably step in a little bit stronger with my opinion on that but I try to not do that, in case, we have to.

How I did it when I first started exploring the values, I had maybe five employees at that point, was I wrote out a super messy paragraph around what I expected and then brought that messy paragraph as the outline and we modified it from there. There was still that chance for input and collaboration. Every year when we do our annual plan for the upcoming year, we review the values again and say, “Do we still feel this way?” It hasn’t shifted. It seems to be aligned.

With your staff that you currently have then too, with the folks you’ve got, what have been reasons or what have been things that have come up for you that people are asking for that you were like, “Hadn’t thought of that before?” Give us a little bit of an insight into the horizon and what you’re experiencing.

From a staff perspective, as far as benefits? What do you mean?

Anything like what are people asking for that’s been a bit surprising to you?

I don’t know. We’re open as far as what we allow inside the company. Everybody’s fairly autonomous. One thing that has been the most requested is more advice on situations of how to handle specific things as opposed to people that are like, “Free for all. I’m going to run my accounts and figure something out on my own.” Being able to let your staff be autonomous and know, “Here’s the goal. Here are the best-case scenario and worst-case scenario outcomes of what could happen. Here’s what I would like to see happen.” These are the guardrails.

Here are the benchmarks of what? “This might look like a success. I was going to start this project. Here’s the direction that I would start to take it.” Essentially, as a leader, if you lay expectations, this could go for whether it’s client work or stuff inside of the company. It could go for processing. It doesn’t matter. Handing over that reality to them and letting them have autonomy in developing that has been a huge success point for me in managing people because, at the end of the day, they want to be led. They want to know how I can be a better person as far as a better employee and staff member. How can I have some personal growth?

If they’re told everything to do from left and right, “Here’s step 1, 2, 3, 4 or 5,” they’re just hands. That’s not how people want to be seen. They want to be able to solve complex problems. We have an important goal inside of our company around client retention and trying to maintain a 75% client retention rate. Most of the time, we have clients come on for a first project and our goal is to do such a great job on that project, give them such an amazing experience and make that relationship strong that they do either another project, sign a retainer and are working with us in a monthly format.

I am not a part of any of that now. The staff is fully functioning inside of that. To answer your question, the biggest thing that I have seen is that they are asking for more advice on how to handle specific complex situations as opposed to asking, “How do I do X, Y and Z? The actual, tangible processes individually.”

That’s interesting. I wonder why that is. Are these issues that you feel are unique that people are coming to you with?

In some cases, some could be repeatable as a process. Great example. HubSpot is always evolving. We work inside of HubSpot constantly. There’s a new feature or function inside HubSpot. We have clients that need to utilize that. HubSpot has a payment system. The payment system is phenomenal but it’s only been around for about six months as far as being super-adopted within the community, stuff that we can promote. It’s like the Wild West out there with integrating payment systems and people getting into QuickBooks and tying in their stuff into the different programs. HubSpot has come in and they’re like, “We’re going to make this a standard thing.”

How to implement that is not documented yet. Some people have been doing it, integrations and hacks and all these different things so we are leading the charge or one of the companies who are leading the charge as far as what that might look like when you’re integrating payment systems. My staff is in charge of doing that. I can give directions. I can give my advice for what I think would be at a high level but they’re essentially the ones who are coming up with a strategy.

Talent Pipeline: Leaders should only advise their teams. They must let them come up with their own strategies and solutions.

When it’s something brand new like that, they need more resources, guidance and ideas or people to bounce ideas off of. They have come to me or a leadership meeting or whatever it might be and we’re discussing, “How do we collectively solve this problem? Where do we go for resources?” We’re looking at it from the perspective of, “What we can do to empower you to solve this on your own.”

The reason I ask that is that it’s curious or it’s interesting and I would recommend you be curious about, “What has changed for them that makes them feel they can’t do some of this without my involvement? What has shifted?” Sometimes, people are a little insecure about what they know and want. Make sure they’re on the right path.

It’s always good, especially with someone who’s incredibly capable. Reflect them, “What would you do if you had a magic wand? Who else could you reach out to?” Coaching them through it instead of telling them how to do it. It doesn’t sound like you’re doing that anyway. It’s interesting. I’ve noticed for myself when I’ve got someone who’s on this path of feeling a little insecure about it. I’m like, “What have I done to create that? Is there anything I’ve done to create that environment?”

Great point. It’s something to think through. I like that.

This has been a lovely conversation, John. I’m so excited for you. What is next for you and your business? What do you think is coming up in the next years?

We’ve made a lot of interesting pivots, especially looking from a sales and marketing perspective, not necessarily a pivot as much as an expansion of what we can do. A lot of what we’ve focused on in the last several years has been a lot of upmarket, large sales and large transaction projects. Those are great. We continue to do those making up the majority of our business but we are expanding.

One of the things that we spend a lot of time and effort into is giving away free assets for HubSpot users, HubSpot marketplace and free themes. We’ve been doing that for years and we’re expanding that side of the business to start creating a very low barrier, low dollar amount transaction items such as migrations and a lot of interesting concepts.

It coincides with who knows what the economy’s doing and where we’re at and who knows, we might not be able to have these large deals as our primary source of business. Rather than keeping all of our eggs in one basket, we’re exploring and starting to create some other facets and lines that we can, 1) Help people with and number and, 2) Expand what we can provide from ourselves as well. That’s pretty much it. That’s where we’re going and what we’re doing. It’s two sides to the business.

Do not keep your eggs in one basket. Explore and create other facets to help more people and expand your team Click To Tweet

We will check back in with you in a few months and see how things are going. Thank you so much for your time. Best of luck to you and for the upcoming year, especially with your team. It’s great.

Thank you so much, Kendra. I appreciate it. Thanks for having me.

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About  John Aikin

John opened Web Canopy Studio in 2010 as a small web design shop servicing local businesses in East Central Indiana. In 2013, after struggling to find growth through small website engagements, his company discovered HubSpot and the beauty of inbound marketing, signed onto the partner program in 2014, and never looked back. He has spoken across the country on topics of tech and software, including HubSpot’s INBOUND conference and Partner Day presentations, and regularly leads his team through training workshops to challenge and inspire creativity in the workplace. He hosts the Website Conversion Show, a podcast that discusses how to turn your website into a conversion machine, with tips, strategies, and marketing tools.