How to Lead Your Agency Team By Putting People First
Steve Pockross has been the CEO of Verblio for nearly five years. As CEO, he applies leading marketplace and SaaS principles to create an industry-leading content creation platform with 3,000 U.S.-based writers supporting the creation of premium content at scale in every niche. Verblio has grown over 400% in the last four years. So, Steve is sharing his insight on why it’s important to lead by putting people first and how that contributes to your agency’s growth as a whole.
3 Golden Nuggets
- Exhibit your agency’s values. Don’t just say what your values are but actually exhibit them. Lead by example and personify the company culture you wish to set.
- The key to finding great talent is marketing to them. Treat your recruitment like you would a client. Write a unique job description that appeals to the right person and then market to them. Attract agency talent the way you would attract customers for your clients.
- Three keys to putting people first: (1) willingness to sacrifice other areas, (2) constantly seek feedback, (3) empower your team to identify holes in the culture.
Sponsors and Resources
Verblio: Today’s episode of the Smart Agency Masterclass is sponsored by Verblio. Check out Verblio.com/smartagency and get 50% off your first month of content creation. Our team loves using Verblio because of the ease in their process and their large pool of crowd-sourced writers.
Leapsome: HR platform for engaging your agency team
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Leading Your Agency Team By Putting People First
Jason: [00:00:00] What’s up beautiful agency owners! I’m excited. I have another amazing podcast guest who actually has been back several times. I don’t know why we keep inviting you back. No, I’m just kidding. He’s a good friend of mine and, uh, we’ll provide lots of value. And we’re going to talk about leading with people first for your agency.
Now, before we jump into the show, I want you to do something. I want you to take a screenshot off your phone, listening to the podcast, upload it to Instagram, tag us. And give us a shout-out on Instagram. And then I can shout you back and say, Hey, thanks for listening to the show. So let’s go ahead and get an episode.
Hey Steve, welcome to the show.
Steve:: [00:00:40] Hey Jason. Good to be back.
Jason: [00:00:42] Yeah. I don’t know. Like I said, I keep inviting you back, I guess you do well each time. So now we’ll welcome back for the people that have not checked out the other episodes and we’ll link those. Into the show notes of the episodes to make sure you guys go to JasonSwenk.com and check those out.
Tell us who you are and what do you do?
Steve:: [00:00:58] So I’m Steve. I am the CEO of Verblio. Oh, we are a Denver-based marketplace, content creation platform. So we have a network of highly curated, fantastic writers that we put together with our unique business model and put it on our platform so that we can do high quality content at scale for any niche. And we work primarily for agencies.
Jason: [00:01:19] Awesome. Well, welcome back. And let’s kind of jump into it, right? So, Let’s talk about what does it mean to lead with people first and a growing company? I mean, you guys are, I think, 30 plus employees on your team. And I think a lot of agencies will relate to this.
Steve:: [00:01:37] We’ve been fortunate to have some really high power growth in the last. So I took over as CEO four and a half years ago, and we were talking about what are some of the lessons that we could really pass on to agencies to help them with their growth as well, that can relate between the type of business that we do and the type of work that agencies do.
And so one of those big strategies is putting people first. And that might sound like the most cliche strategy of all time. Going back to “Good to Great.” Put the right people on the bus first. I think we took a really, well, we think about it and brought it to every aspect of our business. And so I think bringing it to life is really interesting.
And hopefully, some of these nuggets that helped us can really help others. And has helped us grow 400% over four and a half years as a bootstrap startup. So with no investment in order to fund that growth, all being organic growth. And it’s also helped us grow when I first started, we were 11 people for the first three years.
And over the last two years, we’ve gone from 11 to 30. So how do you accelerate that growth with the right people strategy? And then also, how do you ensure that it continues to build, even as you’re expanding rapidly?
Jason: [00:02:38] Yeah. A lot of times I see kind of people, they get to certain stages of climbing the mountain, and they kind of backtrack.
Right? And like, I’m looking at growing any business or really growing an agency. And it kind of like six phases, right? Like you got staging base camp, the climb, the crux, the crest, and then obviously the summit. And each one of them you’re focused on different things.
Like at the very beginning, you’re focused on how do I build this company and then like, what do I need to focus on? How do I get further ahead, all that kind of stuff.
So when you came in and you guys were 11 people, what was the main thing that you were focused on? And what was the big challenge that you were trying to overcome?
Steve:: [00:03:18] Well, it’s hard to boil it down to just one, considering anybody who’s ever taken over a company or a division knows that you’re kind of moving into somebody else’s house.
It’s kind of like this: I’m very grateful to have this house. It’s really beautiful. I’m excited to live here. And then you question every single choice made about that house. Why are the carpets on the floor? Why are their sconces all over the place? And so I think a lot of those decisions are really frequent to that.
So number one is to keep an keep in mind that a lot of people put in a big deal in order for you to get there. And the second is to question everything.
So the first thing that was most important to me was instilling my values in the company and then making them not like imposing them, but creating an, “our values.”
So I knew that whatever I started with, there are things that are just deal breakers for me, like follow up on what you say. If you commit to it, you’re going to do it, or you’re going to create a natural distrust throughout your organization. And so the very first thing I said at the meeting when people ask me: What would new leadership be like? We started creating those values.
And the most important thing was less to say what they were, but really to exhibit them. That I follow up on everything that I’m standing for. That I bring enthusiasm and excitement to my meetings and my projects. That I plan them out.
And my very first hire was Paul, who, you know, very well. Whereas partially ’cause I knew he was an amazing marketer, but we really invested very little in marketing at the beginning because we wanted to focus too much on the product. And the most important piece was that Paul exhibited all the values to every other new member of the team. This is what good looks like.
The CEO can be there all the time and having members of your team that just emulate those values for you and can start bringing them to life is critical. So that was my first big investment.
Jason: [00:04:55] Well, I think you just brought him on because he looked like Will Ferrell.
Well, you said a couple of really cool things and a lot of us, I think, you said question everything. And this was for you coming in from an outsider with no emotion coming into it. Now, most people that are listening to the show, they’ve created it from the ground up.
And a lot of times, kind of, what I want you guys to unpack is: you should question everything that you’ve made the decision to get here. And question everybody on your team as well on an ongoing basis. I mean, I almost think it’s kind of quarterly. Like, I live and die by 90 days rather than the year. Sure. We have yearly goals, but I’d rather be able to adjust quicker and, you know, I try to question everything as well. I think that’s really good.
And then the other thing I love that you mentioned was, you know, marketing. That’s one of the first things I tell people is like, you gotta bring in marketing, you know, in the early stages, in order to really build that pipeline. And then, you know, marketing should break sales and sales should break operations and blah, blah, blah, and so on and so on.
So I love it. What are some surprising things that happened to you about, you know, building this culture?
Steve:: [00:06:13] I think one of the most surprising things was that the values that I, that I set out to create took their own form. They really bonded with the people that we brought on board. So I always talk about my management style as being, I want to run my company like run my ultimate Frisbee team, so I want it to be incredibly, it’s funny cause the ultimate Frisbee teams are the maximum size of 30 people and I just hit 30. So I don’t know what I’m going to say now. But it’s being super collaborative. It’s rooting on for people. It’s focusing when you’re in your huddles and you’re down 12 to 2, you get into the huddle and you talk about how much fun we’re going to have and how much enjoyable this is gonna be. And cheer for each other. As opposed to going around and talking about all of the different processes you’re going to create to win the game. It just brings everybody down.
And so I really wanted to call it the spirit of the game value and the rest of my team. Uh, there are almost no athletes and they all refer to it these sports is “sports ball,” so they captured it. And they basically said that even we, we played like can ultimate Frisbee team, even though 73% of our company doesn’t know what a sport is. And then kind of wrote it up in our own really distinct way.
It’s really interesting how culture is not you. Culture is how all of you make it together. And then when, before we leave the 90 day feedback thing, I think you said something really important. One of my favorite, most important concepts to me of 90 days is every new person, especially if you’re an agency owner. You started this place, you’re going to have a very distorted view of your reality, because this is yours. This is your baby.
And so 90 days is such a great time. Every new hire that comes onto your company, to ask them a really explicit. What happened to the company that wasn’t what you expected to happen? How was the setup for you ahead of time? How are we not living up to the things we talk about? Cause I can’t see these things. So the question that I asked my teammates and every one on one. And I talked to, I have a one-on-one with everyone in the company, at least quarterly is what are the things that you’re seeing that you think I would want to know?
Jason: [00:07:59] I love that. Well, you know, I talk with someone recently and we talked about everyone says they have an open door policy. But most of your team members are not going to step through that door. You actually have to go out after them and ask those direct questions like you just did. Be like, what are you seeing that I’m not? Because they’re going to see things differently than management and leadership.
Talk a little bit about, you know, especially coming in from the outside and having a team of 30. Are you more the mentality now, like when you came in, were you focused on kind of like the what and the, how? Or were you focused on the who? Like, who do I bring in? I know you mentioned bringing in, you know, Will Ferrell.
Literally. I wish I had a little overlay right now. I could pop side by side. Like everyone would like, yeah. He’s Will Ferrell. I really don’t think he looks that much like Will Ferrell, but..
Steve:: [00:08:52] I know you’re the only one that doesn’t.
Jason: [00:08:54] Could we do a vote on your podcast to have people write in.
We should, we should. We we’d literally.
What we’ll do is we’ll put a picture of a, him and Will on the very bottom. And then, uh, or maybe we’ll put it on Facebook when we post it up. I think that’s what we’ll do.
Steve:: [00:09:12] So back to your actual question. Yes. So you get the what, the how. A lot of people refer to that in another business framework for the exact same question is, do you focus first on the people, the product or the processes?
Because these are the three ways you can address all problems. To me, you have to focus on the people first because they decide the processes. They decide the product. They’re the ones who are going to be taking your vision 10 levels down and making every decision to bring it to life. And so hiring became our absolute priority of making sure we were bringing on the right people and not making mistakes.
And then our second became making sure we kept these people. So our churn levels are just ridiculously low. We waste very few cycles. They say that every person churned might be worth double the amount of their salary in lost time. And the third benefit of having a great culture is you get incredible amounts of productivity and excitement out of it.
So we definitely focused on the who first.
Jason: [00:10:04] Very cool. Which leads me to kind of the next question is, how do you find really good people? And how do you know when you find really good people? I think that’s what a lot of people, you know, in the agency, world struggle.
Steve:: [00:10:19] So our hiring strategy and a couple of the things that have that I think have been keys to access.
And a lot of these were learning and iterative as we went along. Uh, one of the things that’s really important to me that I think everybody can do. And it’s all in your power, is to write the most unique killer job description that just attracts the type of people you’re looking for. Our job descriptions are fun.
I want to read them. I want to laugh at least three times is what I tell my people as they’re running them. But I also really want to feel what the job is. So we write killer job descriptions and they’ll stand out. How many people actually put that in. That’s a big part of your marketing. You are marketing to talent.
Most people only market to the roles and responsibilities and the experience. That’s a huge way to stand out. The second is to create the criteria of what you’re looking for. And if you can be very specific on it and also make it different from what others are looking for. So the hardest way to get talent is to hire, been there, done that.
Those are the most expensive, they’re most of the competitive. You’re going to be fighting in a red ocean for the exact same people. All the other agencies are looking for. Are there qualities that you like in people? For us it’s curiosity, creativity, and passionate about something that is not their work.
So my number one question in an interview is, if you’re ever interviewing with me is what’s a class that you took an undergrad that you didn’t think you’d be excited about, that you became unbelievably passionate about and why? And somebody who can be passionate about something that’s not the job function to me shows distinct curiosity.
And I think that’s particularly important to marketers out there. So there was a study like most of the skills in marketing in the last three years are different than they were the five years before. Which means you need people who are going to constantly looking for how to improve their skillset. And to me, curiosity is that way to get there.
How do you find somebody who just wants to do it and be passionate? So find your unique skill set that other people looking for, make yourself unique, market to them, and then have those as your criteria when you’re interviewing.
Jason: [00:12:14] Yeah, I would have failed that question. I’d been like, Steve, I hated every class I ever had.
Steve:: [00:12:20] That’s not true. I refuse to believe
Jason: [00:12:23] it’s pretty true. But then again, I tell people, I still want to get this shirt going “I’m retired because I’m unemployable.” I’m retiredfrom working for someone else. So that would be a good t-shirt. Now that Verblio is 30 plus people. What are some things that you’re doing to maintain?
You know, the environment, maintain the culture? Because it starts to get out of control.
Steve:: [00:12:49] It gets completely out of control. So it’s interesting there. Um, so startups like agencies, I mean, we’re all kind of at the same ilk, which is that we start at a certain size and we go through these growth phases, which you coach a lot of your agencies on.
So there’s the right amount of process for each phase. And someone told me that when you’re, uh, when you’re a startup, it’s like wearing the wrong size clothing all over your body all the time. You either have too much or too little at all times. And so we’re working on our people in culture processes really diligently.
We brought in a couple of much more process driven people who are much better at this than I am to focus on how do we bring it to life? And we’re focused on a few areas. One is we just had to have a platform it’s all consolidated in one area. We found an ingenious, one called Leapsome. If anybody’s looking for one that brings together so many of these disparate HR platforms. As everybody only seems to be able to do one thing on an HR platform, which I don’t know why.
One of the most critical factors was be really clear about reviews. What we’re looking for are. Creating a much better goal setting platform. So everything rolls up in our OKR style, to very top five goals of the company. So everyone knows what their role is. They update them quarterly basis. It’s really process driven and it’s way outside my sweet spot.
It’s not what I like to do. And the last is it has cultural surveys. Every month we send out 10 questions that takes less than 10 minutes to get the feedback from our team. We started this there was no one more than two levels below me. And now there are people five levels below me.
How am I going to get that information? How are we going to make rational decisions about what we think is our culture? What we think our communicating, conveying versus what people are actually feeling at different levels of the company. And the last for me is those one-on-one meetings, which is I meet with everyone at least quarterly. But we do probably more one-on-ones at Verblio than anywhere I’ve ever been.
It’s a huge investment in time. It means that you’re putting people first. This is really key to how we bring this to life. We could be spending that time doing more sales calls. We could be spending that time doing more platform, but we’re making sure that we’re empathizing with our team or understanding where they’re at and we’re really communicating.
So we’re, so we’re all working more coherently together. And I think that’s an investment that pays off.
Jason: [00:14:55] Yeah. You know, it’s kind of like when you start having a bigger team or as you start to grow that team, you’re all thinking about like, how do I build the right team? And then once you build that right team, you’re kind of like, how do I become that leader to them?
And then, you know, the next is, is like, how can I actually grow the leaders? Especially when you have that many different layers of going well, I need to make the decision-making spread out. So it’s not all flowing to us, you know, and then I’m the toll booth or even my leaders. It’s like, how do I create many layers of decision-making power and freedom?
And, you know, I was chatting with one agency, and, uh, he was the biggest bottleneck on the operations for a while. And he said, for many years, it was a big struggle on it because on himself, on his family, even on the agency. And then finally, he just got to a point where it was like, I’m going to document 50% of what I know.
And then the team could use that as a foundation to build upon and then innovate from that. And it changed everything for him. Uh, and now they’re well in the eight-figure mark and just flying to wherever they actually want to go. So, love it.
What are some three tips for the listeners who want to make a decision to focus on culture and really kind of catapult them to the next level?
Steve:: [00:16:21] I’ll see if, I’m going to start talking and see if it ends up being three. So the first tip is what are you sacrificing when you say you want to put culture first? You’re going to have to deprioritize something. We invested in an executive coach. When I’m investing in people. And I’m basically trying to find junior talent that has never done it before.
What’s the one area they’re not, they’re going to lack is that level of executive coaching. So I sacrificed the salesperson. We didn’t bring on a professional salesperson until last year, after growing 300% before we did. So then we focused on an executive coach first. Cause I thought that was more important.
That’s a big call. That’s a hard thing to tell, if you’re the owner, then it’s a hard thing to tell yourself. And if you have a board like I do, it’s a hard thing to argue to them. So how much time is it going to take and work backwards? It’s really easy to say, this is my number one priority. It’s not easy to say this is my number one priority, and I’m not going to do these three things because of it. So that’s my number one.
My number two is to get constant feedback. It’s really similar to your 90 days, like check in, do surveys. How do you keep yourself honest so you don’t believe it? Come up with the right set of questions of celebration.
And then number three is every opportunity you can. One of my favorite podcast guests recently, he was telling me about the hardest thing to be a CEO is to not just say one thing once. You have to say it a hundred times and keep repeating yourself until you’re bored, is to keep repeating your values. This is an example of why this reflects my values, reward the people publicly. If somebody comes to you with criticism about your culture, where you’re not living up to your own values. And you worked really hard to ask people, to give you a feedback, call out that person at the all hands, give them a reward and say, thank you. You are right.
You’re going to get a better culture, a more curious and critical thinking culture. And you’re going to get less yes-people in your company.
Jason: [00:18:10] Yeah. I mean, you said it. You got to kind of stand by your values. You know, just literally a little while ago, I was chatting with one of our team members and we, unfortunately, had to ask one of the mastermind members to leave.
A new member over two months, there’s just too many red flags, just didn’t mesh. And we just didn’t want it to pollute the rest of the culture. And so it hurts to say no to reoccurring revenue, but at the end of the day, you gotta know you’re gonna stand on your values and not sacrifice that. And be kind of a whore for sacrificing it, which a lot of people, you know, do.
Steve:: [00:18:53] There could be very few things that are more powerful to a company than fire a client that’s been abusive to your people. I think one of the things I’ve gotten the most positive feedback on is when there was a client that was kvetching about my, uh, some of my people while they were in the room. And I just told him that was absolutely unacceptable on the call.
And I think it really, like everyone on the team felt supported. Like they could do whatever they wanted and I’d have their back. But it’s hard. I feel that in the moment, especially when somebody is paying your bills and you really need them.
Jason: [00:19:21] Oh, yeah. But you know, you get to the kind of the next stage where you’re like, I’m not going to sacrifice us.
We’ll figure it out. And it’s just going to be that much better because yeah. Your people are everything. And if you don’t have their backs, well, then they’re not going to have yours. Like literally they’ll hang on until they find the BBD, right? The bigger and better deal.
Steve:: [00:19:46] So we’ve talked about kind of hiring as a people strategy, investing in people and bringing culture to life.
And I think the last piece is thinking of, uh, thinking of all of the people related to your company, as your stakeholders, as your clients. For me, it’s my writers. We need to treat them special. And like, I want them to have the best writing gigs in the industry so that they feel like this is the place they want to be..
Cause the more excited they are about their job, better the writing and the product will be for our clients. And all around. And so if you it’s a virtuous cycle, you bring on the good people who are empathetic and excited and creative and passionate. And they start feeling all the other stakeholders in your business the same way.
Jason: [00:20:22] Love it. I love it, steve. Where can people check out more about Verblio? Especially if, uh, if they need some help around content writing, which I highly recommend you guys. You guys rock and are awesome and use you guys for so many years.
Steve:: [00:20:36] Cool. Thank you so much. So you can find us at Verblio.com.
And you can find my podcast, the Yes and Marketing Podcast, about 54 episodes, which is a broader marketing leadership and people who bring creativity into marketing. And then we have a special offer for jason Swenk listeners out there: get 50% off your first month at Verblio.com/smartagency telling me you heard about this on the Jason’s Swenk show, and we’ll give you two months of free onboarding as well to help you out.
And which we hope is an easy process, but we know that’s a big lift for some of you.
Jason: [00:21:09] Awesome. Well, thanks so much, Steve. And thanks for coming on the show. And if you guys enjoyed this episode, make sure you comment below. Make sure you subscribe, so you don’t miss out a new episode and make sure you actually take Verblio up on that offer.
I mean, that’s killer, they’re giving you 50% off the first couple of months, so it’s amazing. Thanks so much for doing that. And if you guys want to leave a comment or review, that will help us out to reach more people, especially if you listen to the whole way through. And until next time have a Swenk day.