Josh Dougherty and Polly Yakovich own A Brave New, a 4-year-old boutique marketing agency focused on branding, inbound marketing, and web design. A Brave New uses strategy, marketing, content, and technology to help clients around the USA tell their stories, expand their reach, and connect with the right kind of customers, clients, or donors, “who will benefit from whatever they have to offer.”
A Brave New believes in developing a “smart strategy” and diving quickly into execution to get “80% of the way” to the final results—energizing client companies with quick wins, seeing what works and what doesn’t, and leveraging that experience to refine the strategy. Targeting perfection from the start wastes time and strategy does not have to be “complete” at the time of implementation. Companies can learn a lot by “doing,” adjust their course, and develop strategies iteratively over time. A Brave New has found that flexibility and nimbleness empower companies to leapfrog over the competition. In simple words, “Get to the marketplace quickly, then fix it.”
Both Josh and Polly came from a “big agency” and executed carefully-planned, strategic, employer-supported exits from big agency life. They honestly and openly shared their long-term goals with their employers and maintained good relationships with them as they adjusted their work schedules and phased into working at A Brave New full-time over a period of two years.
In this interview, Josh and Polly address the curiosity, discomfort with the status quo, and drive to explore new ideas that characterize the entrepreneurial spirit. They give a lot of credit for A Brave New’s success to great mentors and a network of entrepreneurs who advised and encouraged them through the hard times so typical for start-up companies. Josh comments that, “Fortune and the future really favor people who are bold and set big goals.” Polly agrees.
Josh can be reached on Twitter at @doughj or on LinkedIn https://www.linkedin.com/in/jdough/
Polly can be reached on Twitter at @pollyyakovich or on Linked in at: https://www.linkedin.com/in/polly-yakovich-5a5151b/
ROB: Welcome to the Marketing Agency Leadership Podcast. I’m your host, Rob Kischuk, and I am joined today by the tag team of Josh Dougherty and Polly Yakovich. They are the owners of A Brave New, based in Seattle, Washington. Welcome to the podcast.
POLLY: Thanks for having us.
ROB: Yeah, good to have you here, tag-teaming as the owners. Why don’t you all start off by telling us a little bit about A Brave New and what makes A Brave New great?
JOSH: A Brave New is an agency. Obviously, we focus on the digital space, and our core offerings are working in three areas. We help companies with branding, inbound marketing, and with web design. Those are kind of the out-of-the-box things.
But. if you talk about some of the things that we really think make us great, I think one of the big focuses for us is helping people turn their big idea into something real. A lot of times business owners have a lot of trouble – they know where they want to get and they know where they’re starting from, but they’re not sure what are the steps that they need to take in between. So, helping people take a big idea, break it down into little parts and help them get there over time in a disciplined way.
That’s one of the things we really work on, and I think another thing is really moving quickly and getting results quickly, because we understand also that the dollar is at a premium today, and we want to help people both do smart strategy, but also dive into execution quickly because we can learn a lot by just jumping in and trying things out as we’re working through strategy.
ROB: Very cool. You mentioned moving quickly and getting results quickly. In different areas of practice, sometimes branding, as you mentioned, can take time. There are aspects of inbound that can take time, especially when you are thinking about building content that’s going to require some SEO and some keyword figuring-out.
How do you balance that need to get results quickly with the fact that some of these things are going to maybe not be easy, quick wins in the big picture of things?
POLLY: As good consultants go, we are going to say it’s both/and. One of the things that we talk about on the branding side first is, yes, a branding process can take a year, 18 months to even complete, and then you get into implementation and everyone’s sick of it and they’re over it, and it’s 2 years down the road and you’re telling them implementation’s going to take them 3-5 more years, etc. It can be an exhausting process.
With one of the clients we’re working with now, we did a short, 3-month branding process with them. We told them, look, this is going to get you 80% of the way that a 1-year branding process would get you, but your staff is going to be energized at the end of it. They’re going to be really ready to execute. Because, as we know, most of all of the success of that is going to be in the execution, we can get to execution quickly and we can iterate and implement as we go.
But, that’s something that we, I think, have really taken on, and customers really love that. They’re really attracted to that. They feel like that’s actually practical and possible for them. Even really large orgs – we’re working with a cancer research institute – even really large orgs are really attracted to this fast, nimble process that gets them somewhere more quickly and that they can actually show their leaders the results.
JOSH: I think on the inbound side, like you talked about, obviously SEO takes time to build up all those things. Really, what we’re looking at is: what are some quick wins to do with people? Are you able or do you have some content that would already be desirable to people that we can offer in exchange for an email address? Just to get started, to start capturing leads within a month, even as we’re building up the rest of the SEO piece.
There’s small steps, and it’s really just being strategic about, what are those initial steps that we know we’re going to have to do that we can dive into as we’re working on things like audience personas, content strategy, etc.
POLLY: And I would say that we do ask our new clients to sign a 12-month retainer for inbound because it does take time. But like Josh said, there are things we can do at all levels of that ramp-up. We will even boost some traffic to our content with demand generation and some outbound marketing tactics as well, so that we are demonstrating that the system works even as we build some of the more long-tail aspects of it.
ROB: Got it. So you can demonstrate and begin learning. You can almost begin putting some money behind it to learn and to even impact the downstream work that you’re doing and to make that even probably more effective from what you’re learning and what they already have in place.
POLLY: Yeah. I think we really subscribe to what a lot of marketing gurus, including Seth Godin, would say, which is to get on the marketplace quickly. You’re going to learn the most about what you need to fix when you’re already seeing what’s working and what doesn’t work. So really having that nimbleness and that flexibility is where I think we thrive.
Of course, that gets to the “brave” part of our name, A Brave New, because we are asking clients to maybe put something out there that’s not 100%. Like, let’s get this to 80% to 90% and feel really good about it, and then just get it out there and refine it and tweak it as we go so that we’re not wasting time getting to perfection. That can be uncomfortable for some people, but really, that’s where I think the results are and that’s where people leapfrog over their competition as well.
ROB: How did you two start this thing? What was the origin story here?
JOSH: It’s a little bit of a story. We both came out of an agency space. We were both in the same larger agency years ago, a 130-person agency, running various portions of it. I ran the user experience team that really focused on brand, digital strategy, content strategy, and UX at the agency, and then Polly was running a client team, doing account planning and strategy for a whole segment of clients.
So we had worked together for a long time. We were actually travel friends outside of work and had always dreamed about starting our own company. Around the time as we started talking about it, we had another colleague who was ready to make the jump a little bit quicker than us. The three of us worked together to get the thing started.
It was pretty exciting to be able to dive in and go somewhere. Polly went off and worked somewhere else between the time we started the agency, and just I think moved into something where we felt like we could be faster, nimbler, and also get out of the big agency space where previously we had been managing teams. We’d gotten away from the work that we loved to do.
So that was the genesis of why we started. Polly, do you want to talk through a little bit of how it happened?
POLLY: Yeah. I would just say practically, it took us I think 2 years. Our third original partner was able and had the finances to leave and freelance and work essentially “full-time” for us, even though we didn’t have full-time work, for the first year and a half or so. And then we started realizing that we really were making it happen for ourselves and started putting together timelines to get out of what we were doing.
I was a marketing director at a healthcare startup in Seattle in the interim, so originally that looked like me saying, okay, I’m going to work my “40-hour week” in four 10s, and give Friday to my business. Luckily, we were at the place in our careers and had great relationships with our employers, so we were very honest about what we were doing.
For me at the healthcare startup, they were grateful for the time that I could give them because they couldn’t pay what they would pay a marketing director, and I was looking for flexibility. That was some of the tradeoff that we had there. Josh was able, at the agency we had been working at, to negotiate a tiered, staggered down leaving of that work.
So, we were both able to really – and this I think comes to the strength of our relationships and being very transparent and straightforward – that won’t always work for everyone in every circumstance, but for us, we were very honest. We were very upfront about not wanting to compete or take work away from the places that we had good relationships, and we were very open to getting input about what we were doing because we worked for entrepreneurs as well.
We were able to stagger until we made the leap a couple years ago to all come on full-time, and obviously our growth has exploded since we’ve all been able to spend our full-time efforts building our own company.
JOSH: I think really, at the bottom line, part of it is that we’re just a little crazy. I mean, I’ve always been about building things, pushing new ideas. I’m really uncomfortable working in the status quo. For me, it’s exciting to be like, “Yeah, I’m going to take on a job-and-a-half or two jobs to make this happen.”
It’s always been a dream of mine to have my own company and be able to chart my own course, and I know Polly has a similar story. So, this in some ways, was the opportunity to make a dream that’s always been there possible.
POLLY: Yeah, and I would say too, in that same regard, our third original partner found that this life wasn’t really for him. He didn’t want to put in the time and the energy that it takes to work 60-, 70-hour weeks in the beginning to make things work.
So, we negotiated a buyout of him, and that was all very amicable as well because we were just very honest about, “This is what’s required of each of the people who owns and is a leader of this company at this stage.” We were able to decide what worked for each of us and what we were willing to invest.
ROB: That’s really interesting that both of you had this bent towards entrepreneurship, and maybe to an extent – no disrespect to whoever you’d been working with before – but quite often, I know I also felt a little bit caged up at times. I felt this need to get out and get on to my own thing. Similarly, I think, I had some stepping stones where it sounds like you got to do almost entrepreneurship, working in some entrepreneurial opportunities in between.
JOSH: Exactly, yeah. My career started – I was at the agency that I was at for like 7 years. When I started I was a digital copywriter, went into doing digital strategy, and then ended up helping launch the team that I ended up overseeing and grew to around 15 people.
I’ve always been building things. I think it comes with a healthy sense of – I don’t know, “unrest” is maybe the right word, of always seeing, “We could be doing this and this and this and this,” and just always wanting to push the boundaries. I think you’re right about that idea of feeling a little bit caged when it’s like, “I know there’s so much of this broad world of opportunity out there, and I can’t grasp it unless I’m running my own thing and can call my shots and figure out what my risk tolerance is, etc., to dive in.”
POLLY: Yeah, I completely agree with that. One of the things I often hear from other people – and I used to feel inclined to feel more badly for people that maybe didn’t have the same opportunities I had, but I’ve come to believe more and more that there are opportunities to explore this entrepreneurial side and build, even if you’re working for somebody else. You may not be working for the right person, but there are lots of these opportunities out there.
I do find that the people who, in the past when I managed bigger teams, complained about not having these opportunities, they were the same people who didn’t ask for new kinds of projects, didn’t come with new ideas, weren’t willing to put in the extra time.
So, I do think that there are lots of places to make these opportunities for yourself and sort of try on this entrepreneurship hat before you take the crazy risk and go off on your own. But you do have to have all those aspects and components that we’ve just been talking about – and be willing to take the risk, because it is a risk.
JOSH: I think the one final thing before we move on is, I have a real humility to know that we built on the backs of a lot of great mentors and people who’ve supported us. We’re really surrounded by a network of entrepreneurs who were able to give us really good advice and keep us encouraged in the hard times of startup. I can’t overestimate how important that was to us, to help us navigate through the first years.
POLLY: And that still give us really great advice. I would say that those people, the thing that they did for me in the beginning that was the most valuable – their practical advice was great, but the thing that they did for me, that I felt most heartened by, was that they just said, “I’ve been doing this for 20, 30, 40, whatever years, and you can do it. I believe in you. You have the skills, you have the soft and hard skills that you need to make this happen. I completely believe in 10 years from now, I’ll be celebrating your massive success.”
While we were like, “Oh my gosh, what are we doing? This is terrifying,” just having that steadiness of somebody who had gone through it before, lending that support to us, was very motivating and provided a lot of support that we felt that we needed.
ROB: What tremendous encouragement, because a lot of people will tell you, as you’ve said, that you shouldn’t, that you should be scared, that you should be worried, that you shouldn’t do it, that you should just keep the safe job, and not to take the risk. But also, the tremendous opportunity you have to invest in yourself in this process.
Did you start with all three of those practice areas? How did you come into a level of comfort with the things that you would do and the things that you would be happy to work with someone else to do?
JOSH: This is something that I would change next time. If I started another agency, I would get to those practice areas much quicker.
POLLY: Yes. No, Rob, we did not. We wandered in the wilderness for a very long time.
JOSH: I think people go through and they’re like, “We’ll do anything for you. We can do a bunch of one-off tactics, etc. We can do great digital, we can do great email. We’ll do your digital media for you only.” I think over the course of time, we realized that it’s really hard, especially in 2018 heading into 2019, unless you’re doing something comprehensive on the web, it’s hard to have an impact. It’s hard to really lift the results for your business.
We just celebrated our fourth anniversary in September, and it’s really taken until earlier this spring to zero in on exactly what we want to do and start saying “no” to clients and shift clients off our client list who don’t fit in with what we do.
POLLY: In the beginning, the first project I remember taking on – and I was so excited. It was what, $2,000, Josh? We were like “Oh my gosh, I can see this is going to happen for us.”
A guy was a runner and an educator and wanted to start this personal branding project, and we sat down with him and went through this branding process to give him this defined personal brand. We thought it was so great that we weren’t just coding emails to send and things like that, that we had really moved into this branding space for this guy.
So, at first, Josh is right, we were like, “We’ll be a digital agency and we will do anything!” But we realized quickly that – and this was also some advice from our mentors – coming out of a full-service agency space, we felt like the full-service agency is dead. You’re not really good at everything, and people no longer buy work that way. While to some extent we do still feel that way, our mentors were like, “You really need retainer clients, or this is going to be a really hard row to hoe.”
We’ve found, especially with some of the more project-based work – even a branding project, even though it’s a long project, is project-based work, or a website build – having that system with inbound marketing that pulled together a lot of the components that we already were doing, but in a more systemized manner for clients, gave us this really good retainer product that has led to a lot more financial stability for the agency.
JOSH: I think it provides a growth flywheel for clients, because when they can invest in something that’s a full system that they’re going to see the benefits from in 6 months, they’re like, “Oh my gosh, we need more of this and we need to keep going,” because they can actually see breakthrough results.
I think brand is often abstract for people, but when they start seeing the benefits of inbound, they can start to see, “Oh yeah, brand is about what makes me unique in the marketplace. I can see why we would need to understand our brand better in order to do better inbound, and I can see why we need to improve our website so that we could do better inbound.” There’s really a symbiosis between all the service areas that’s allowed us to really accelerate our growth and also to serve clients better.
It’s really refreshing and nice to be able to tell a client, “We’re not experts in this. We know these people because we’ve been in this business for a long time that you should work with on maybe your PR or some other aspect that we’re not great at. We’re not going to dive into that and lie to you and tell you we’re good at that. It’s better for you to partner with them, and then we’ll all work together to achieve your goals.”
At the end of the day, if we can’t be successful with clients and our clients can’t be successful, we’re not going to be successful as an agency.
ROB: I have never thought of it that way, this linkage between your service offerings. At first I didn’t completely see the connection, but it’s funny because it’s like you’re speaking into my brain. We have a very new salesperson on our team, and the exact questions that you are saying are coming up. This person is reaching out to people, and one of the primary questions is, “What makes us different? How does that play into our brand? How does that play into our website? How does that play into our content?” It makes all the sense in the world now.
I love talking to smart people like y’all, because you’ve already realized this thing that I’m beating my head against the wall a few days a week to figure out. [laughs]
JOSH: Well, it took us a while, too. [laughs] You were probably close to that breakthrough, too.
POLLY: We’re all in this together.
ROB: You kind of started down the path of this question as something you would do differently next time, around the service offerings. What else have you learned? If you were starting from scratch instead of 4 years in, what would you pursue differently?
POLLY: One of the things that is a very practical thing that I thought of as I was thinking about what I would do differently is, both out of necessity and choice, as many smaller agencies have done, we’ve built our agency around a core team and then heavily rely on freelancers and contractors to help support some of the work we’re doing. In some ways that’s very intentional, because at least in the early days, we may not have had need for a full-time copywriter or designer.
But we had a lot of copywriting and design needs, and we wanted to be able to mix and match people to clients that could do that work well. For instance, fundraising writing is a very unique thing. We wanted to, for our nonprofit clients, be able to call on our network of writers who did nonprofit fundraising well. It’s a very different thing than writing for a healthcare company. We say this to clients when we pitch – some of our freelancers dedicate 20 hours a week to us, and we have guaranteed work for them, but we don’t want to take on that full employee.
But I would say one of the things that I would do differently next time is get a really good sense of their costs. I think one of the things for us coming out of the agency space is we felt that some of the bigger agencies really abused the freelance and contract workers and drove their price down really low unnecessarily, just so they can mark it back up again 50%.
We didn’t want to do that to our clients, but we also didn’t want to do that to our friends who we were working with as freelancers and contractors. We wanted to pay them fairly. But I do think that we over-swung a bit in that area at first and just took anyone’s rate and felt like that was really fine. Sometimes they would say, “I spent 10 hours on that,” and I was racking my brain to think, “If I was writing that, it wouldn’t have taken me more than three, so how did it take you 10?”
We were able to pull some things into alignment in a better way this year and give people guaranteed work and sell it more as a package. I think that we probably would’ve saved a bit of money if we had done that earlier.
JOSH: I think one other thing I would say is that I would have been more aggressive. I know that’s kind of funny, looking back at this 20/20, but you’re already pushing hard in a startup and it’s pretty easy to be like, “I’m punching hard enough.” From my perspective, the start is always painful of anything, and fortune and the future really favor people who are bold and set big goals. You only achieve big goals if you set them.
So I think for me, it would be getting my past self to think a little bit bigger in the startup phase so that we could’ve jumped through some of the pain at the beginning faster. Obviously, I don’t know if that’s possible – obviously not possible in my case, but I think that aggressive start and really going in there – people like to work with an agency that has big goals and is thinking big like them. That would be another thing that I’d adjust.
POLLY: This is so cliché, but it’s like, of course we would’ve wanted to crystallize our vision and our offerings earlier. Who wouldn’t want to do that? Is that actually possible? Are you able to know the things in advance that you haven’t learned through hard experience? I don’t know if we would be as committed to this path if we hadn’t really wrestled to get there and then felt so rewarded by what it’s meant to roll out the way that we have.
As cliché as it is to say, I think everything that we stumbled through in the first couple years has really made us very committed to where we are now, and we may not have had that level of confidence and commitment if we hadn’t fallen down a couple times. I’m not one to linger on the past. No time like the present to have a big vision. I think all the things we want to accomplish, we can still accomplish.
So, I do think it’s made us smarter, and it’s given us the experience to say we’re confident we’re on the right path.
ROB: It’s a profound question, but mostly looking forward, right? How do you accelerate the process of self-discovery, of understanding where your strengths lie, of understanding what you’re going to do well and what to leave behind? You can’t change it and you can’t linger too much, but you can think about how to do better in the future.
I have largely found that building a business for me has been a process of peeling away the layers of things that I felt like I was doing because someone else told me I should, but I didn’t know why. I don’t know what your take is on that.
POLLY: When you were talking, it made me think of something – not that I regret about the past, but an opportunity for the future. Josh and I looked around this year and felt like, as owners, we were taking all the burden on ourselves. We were making all the decisions. We were working maybe even, honestly, a bit too hard. We have young children at home, both of us, and want to spend more time with our families.
We were like, have we enabled our team to just rely on us and push decisions off on us? How can we empower them more? How can we bring new employees in who feel like they own this too, even if they technically don’t? How can we incentivize people to really interact with this company as if it’s their own and they have their own area to build within it?
ROB: What are you thinking on that so far, then? That seems like a worthwhile thought.
JOSH: I think one of the biggest things that we did – we’ve been doing for about 6 months – is just setting aside time each month as a team, and we have a day we go black each month and work on the company. I think that builds a lot of buy-in because people feel like they’re able to help structure and figure out things. Certain people have different levels of interest in that, but that’s been something that’s really valuable.
I think another thing that’s valuable is, as entrepreneurs and as people who have a lot of buy-in in what we’re doing, it’s easy for Polly and I to both hold things really white-knuckle tight and not want to have things go out that maybe aren’t at the 100% of quality that we would see as being good enough.
Part of this is realizing – and this is more of a self-talk thing to each other – that you only get to where we are – and we’re certainly not perfect, but we’re further down the line than some of our employees – with trial and error. Figuring out, what’s the appropriate level of letting people really own something and make mistakes in an environment that’s safe, so that they can learn too?
I’m a really big believer in you can go to as much school as you want, you can do as much training as you want, but until you create something and really fall on your face, it’s hard to learn. That’s one of the things we’ve been trying to do a lot.
POLLY: The other thing, very practically speaking – and a client turned us onto this – I don’t think that there’s any one perfect business model, but it’s almost like with anything in marketing. Sometimes you just have to choose a system and actually execute it really well for 6 months, and the value you’ll get out of just being consistent is very positive even if you need to iterate on that later.
Josh and I really embraced this book and system called Traction. As part of that – you’re probably familiar with it, but there’s these key moments where you come together and you answer questions and you bring the team around certain objectives. Instead of trying to do all the things in a quarter, you prioritize them and you choose maybe three.
So, you’re working on the businesses in a way that is a little bit more focused. I think that when you’re doing that, you can then step back from it a little bit so it’s not so personal, and you can say, “Okay, I’m going to hand this portion to you” or “I’m going to really rely on you” – within all of what Josh just said, which I agree with, but in a really more systemized way so you can see progress and you can chunk out the business needs and assign them to different people in a way that you don’t feel responsible for it anymore because it’s clear who is doing that work.
ROB: For sure. Traction is one of those books that – we have quarterly learning days at our local EO Accelerator chapter, and every year that you revisit the topics in there, I feel like there’s something new to uncover. It’s not the same content over and over again because the business is different and you are different. It sounds like you’ve been on that journey.
POLLY: We have drunk the Kool-Aid, at least preliminarily.
ROB: [laughs] At least taken some sips. When people want to find you two and when they want to find A Brave New, how should they find you?
POLLY: Great question. [laughs]
JOSH: The easiest way, we’re both on Twitter, so that’s an easy way to connect with us, and LinkedIn. My Twitter handle is @doughj, and then you can just search for Josh Dougherty and A Brave New on LinkedIn. I’ll come up. They can always pop by our website, too. If people want to get in touch that way, we monitor that closely and one of us will get back.
POLLY: I was going to say, one of the things we’ve really tried to do is improve our blogging and our blog presence and put our money where our mouth is, as far as getting our content marketing and inbound marketing going in a more concentrated way. That’s always the challenge for any entrepreneur. You’re so busy working – “The cobbler’s kids have no shoes” kind of equation. Our blog is a great place to get connected with what we’re thinking about and how we approach our work.
Josh is right, we can be contacted on social media channels, Twitter, LinkedIn. One of the things that I think is awesome as well that I’m trying to improve is when you’re a small business owner – and I have a 16-month old boy right now, so when you have a baby and you’re starting a family and all these things, there’s just a lot going on. I would say something I haven’t been very good at is being as involved as I could be in joining things or speaking at places.
That’s something we’re really trying to ramp up and improve this next year, because sometimes things have to give, and that’s fine, but I think it’s a real opportunity for us to not only be passing on what we’ve learned, but be learning from other people as well.
ROB: That’s fantastic. Josh, Polly, thank you for the time. Congratulations on all the progress in these 4 years with A Brave New. We look forward to also seeing what’s ahead.
I will also give a special thanks today to Rhiannon Andersen from Steelhead Productions, who connected this guest opportunity here. We just love great referrals, and I’m so glad that she connected me to you two.
POLLY: Thank you.
ROB: Thank you for your time.
JOSH: Thanks so much.
ROB: All right, take care.
Thank you for listening. The Marketing Agency Leadership Podcast is presented by Converge. Converge helps digital marketing agencies and brands automate their reporting so they can be more profitable, accurate, and responsive. To learn more about how Converge can automate your marketing reporting, email firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit us on the web at convergehq.com.