Before starting her career in advertising Lauren graduated with a degree in industrial design, gaining an understanding and appreciation of the design process. She then went into advertising where she could leverage that appreciation. Initially she worked for some small boutique advertising agencies and then went on to work for some larger holding company agencies, followed by 7 years of independent consulting work. All of this led to a partnership at Underscore Marketing where she joined as Chief Global Strategist, within two years assumed the role of CEO and is now 51% owner of the company.
I had the pleasure of speaking with Lauren and asking her some questions about her entrepreneurial journey and business philosophy.
How do you hire the right people?
When I began with Underscore we were about 9 people and now we’re 62 people. Because we are a smaller company we try to hire versatile people who don’t mind wearing many hats when needed, but specialize in one or two areas that we have high demand for. A good example is someone who is a subject matter expert in broadcast, but also helps on the new business committee and is being cross-trained in digital media.
As we grow, we think about how we want the organization to evolve and how to craft clear job descriptions to make sure the expectations are managed for the new hire as well as the team. When somebody new starts they’re successful because everybody on the team knows why we hired them and understands how they fit into the work-stream. When we consider a new role we think about what that person will be doing over the next several years and consider if we really a full-time hire or if the needs are short-term and can be filled by a consultant.
When we interview people we use a cross functional team because we’re a highly collaborative company and want to be sure we hire people who can work well across teams. For cultural fit purposes and to be sure we are aligned on core values we have people that are at least 3 years with the company, who understand the organizational dynamics, interview candidates. When we interview we’re not trying to sell anybody, we’re presenting who we are, what we do, and what the job is and then comparing the candidates qualifications and interests to see how well the fit is. The interview process is about finding the people who are expert and like-minded, and providing them with the work that they can be successful in. Our goal is to have long term relationships with our employees by providing them with the right balance of challenge, learning, and environment.
How do you measure success?
This might sound shocking, but we measure revenue and profit last. Our first priority is client retention and loyalty, meaning low client turnover. To keep turnover low we give focus on giving our clients a great experience and favorable results, so they will stick with us. Our second key measure is employee retention, meaning low employee turnover. We focus on providing a great culture, having the right opportunities, and training for our team. And last but not least is steady increase in revenue year over year that meets our profitability goals (this is a result of client loyalty and employee retention measures being successful).
What was one mistake you made early on?
Underscore is a privately held company and we’ve never taken any outside money so understandably when I started, we didn’t have many additional resources to turn to. Rather than leveraging the professional network that I had created over the years I tried to do it all myself. I used to think about what and how, as my core questions when faced with a challenge (what do I need to do and how do I need to do this); now I think, who is knowledgeable about this, who has seen success here, and who can help me navigate this challenge.
Who do you admire most as a business leader?
Because Underscore is health and wellness focused, somebody who has come into the health and wellness landscape recently and is doing something that is near and dear to our hearts – which is digital – is James Park, the CEO of Fitbit. He introduced Fitbit in 2008 and really kick-started the revolution of wearable devices.
The brands he is rivaling in this space are big names like Apple and Nike, but Fitbit is a name and a brand that has developed more recently. He came in as a challenger who was nonexistent in the space and quickly created a master fitness brand, and is making money despite heavy competition with deeper pockets. That’s good leadership and innovation by my standards.
What’s was the best decision you ever made?
The best decision that I ever made was when I stopped playing it safe at an unfulfilling job and went into consulting with no safety net whatsoever, and really thinking about how to build a company. I think confronting my biggest fear, which was failure as an entrepreneur, enabled me to make decisions that I wouldn’t have made when I was an employee working for another organization.
What inspired you to start a business?
I didn’t start Underscore, but I had the unique experience having started my career on the agency side of advertising and then taking a client side position a few years later. On the client side I saw the complete opposite side of what the agencies were delivering and I gained perspective on some unmet needs.
When I decided that it was time for me to start my own agency, which was my intention, I wanted to create an agency that delivered on what I wanted as a client, so taking everything that I had learned from my early days working at other agencies and applying that to something new. It just so happened that the folks at Underscore caught wind of what I was about to do and asked if I would be interested in infusing that vision into Underscore.
The idea of starting something brand new on my own, with no infrastructure and no team, verses joining a very small company that could really be molded and shaped was highly appealing.
What motivates you?
New challenges, I constantly seek out new challenges. I think to the extent that I’m not challenged I’m losing my edge. Finding something that we haven’t figured out yet and attacking a new problem every day is what drives me. It could be a micro problem or it could be a macro problem but it’s really looking at new solutions to things and reinventing things that have been stagnant for a while.
How would you sum up your sales philosophy?
Our sales philosophy is to find and attract like-minded clients we can deliver high value to. As we’ve grown we’re competing with a slightly different tier in the market and have had to pivot from largely referral based business to looking at growing our existing client base and doing prospecting through direct mail, phone calls to set up meetings and actual consultative meetings
We analyze what prospective clients are challenged with and decide if we can help them or not. It’s not a hard sell it’s more, let’s see if there is a fit here and let’s see if there is something we can do here that is unique, something that might yield a better result for the client. If we feel strongly that we can do it, then we are aggressive about it.
It’s a long sales cycle so the best thing we can do for ourselves is to be where our prospects are, to drive awareness that we’re here as a solution and to be thought leaders. We do a lot of writing, speaking engagements and stay pretty active with industry events where we can meet new people.
What’s one business book that you would you recommend?
I really enjoyed Outliers by Malcom Gladwell. It’s one that I refer to continuously because it’s so true and it’s helped me shape my organization. It’s a great starting place for someone to think a little differently and make a mind-shift.
What’s one thing that you learned about yourself through growing your business?
I learned that gaining insights from other people helps me avoid mistakes and grow faster. I’m an introvert, but I’ve learned to put myself out there in order to meet new people and compare experiences. I also learned that it’s incredibly rewarding to mentor others.
What’s more important than business in your life?
My family and my personal health are number one. I make sure that I’m at my best so that I can be my best for others and provide everything that my kids and family need.
What the best thing about being an entrepreneur?
The best thing is that there are no limits, no boundaries, and there’s not a set of rules that you have to adhere to. Even if you wrote a company policy, you wrote it with your own rules in mind and not somebody else’s. It’s that freedom to have the ultimate decision making power.
What’s the toughest thing about being an entrepreneur?
It’s lonely at the top unless you find a way to create your own peer group outside of your company.
When I worked for somebody else and I had friends at work and we’d go and get lunch or get together outside of the office. I see our employees doing that and it’s wonderful but I know why I’m not invited. Back in the day I didn’t invite the owner or head of the company, either.
I’ve joined an organization called EO (entrepreneur’s organization) and it’s been transformational for me because what I’ve found is that all the things I worry about – that are issues in my business and even personally – are pretty much universal across entrepreneurs.
What is one piece of advice you would give to someone who is just starting a business?
It’s important to think about how you want to grow and what your exit strategy is early on. How do you scale without taking money and at what point do take investment money? Thinking about how you’re sourcing your funds and how you want to grow early on is better than being in a place where you need to grow quickly and you’re not sure that you want to or have the means to.