S1:E4 – Entrepreneurship (Brea Starmer)

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Flexible work environments provide an opportunity to be more inclusive to other people. Brea Starmer, Founder of Lions and Tigers, talked about building a company with a flexible work environment as a priority. We talked about how to maintain the company culture and sense of community and some of the challenges. Brea also talked about her trajectory in marketing in tech, and insights and learnings from early in her career.

s1e4-brea-starmer
Brea Starmer

Transcript

[00:00:00] ES:
I’m Edaena Salinas, Software Engineer and host of The Women in Tech Show a podcast about what we work on, not what it feels like to be a woman in tech. For more information about the show go to wit.fm.

Flexible work environments provide an opportunity to be more inclusive to other people. Brea Starmer, Founder of Lions and Tigers, talked about building a company with a flexible work environment as a priority. We talked about how to maintain the company culture and sense of community and some of the challenges. Brea also talked about her trajectory in marketing in tech, and insights and learnings from early in her career at Microsoft and in consulting.

Before we move on with the interview, I’m really excited to announce that Season 1 of the Five Minute Mentor Podcast is now available This is a podcast where you’ll get advice from prominent people in tech, authors, journalists, artists, and more. You can find more information about the show by going to mentors.fm. Thank you.

[00:01:11] BS:
Thank you. So happy to be here.

[00:01:13] ES:
We’re going to talk about various topics of your trajectory. You’re an entrepreneur, you’re the founder of Lions and Tigers. Before we get into that, I want to talk a bit about your upbringing. I read both of your parents were self taught entrepreneurs. Your father owned a popular bar in West Seattle, your mom was a marketing executive and consultant, among other things. You are also an entrepreneur. Looking back to your upbringing. Were there things that you learn from your parents self taught entrepreneurial lifestyle?

[00:01:50] BS:
For sure. You know, being an entrepreneur is sometimes very scary. It can be an intimidating thing to even say, even to own the title entrepreneur. It’s such an interesting hat to wear. And I watched my dad, own some retail establishments, have a career in logistics and then go into real estate and so traveled through a couple of different industries having some success and some failures. I watched my mom stay in one industry and really accelerate her career by doing so. I definitely learned a few lessons out of that. Certainly the kind of grit and resilience required to sort of withstand those highs and lows in this lifestyle. I watched my parents kind of navigate that, and neither of them have college degrees. My dad was a college dropout and my mom barely tried, but they both sort of despite like not having what people would traditionally consider the credentials, displayed a level of courage that I felt was really inspirational and they probably would never describe it that way. I mean, they would just probably describe it as like they needed to pay our mortgage. And so for them it was about need. But as I reflect back on some of the lessons I took from them, certainly their ability to just like courageously move through some of those decisions, has affected my ability to be a bit audacious. So those are a couple of things I took from them at an early age.

[00:03:1] ES:
And you did go to college and you graduated. You studied specifically communication and marketing. One of your first jobs out of school was at Microsoft, as a Marketing Manager. And later as a marketing program manager. What were some of the highlights of your experience of working at such a big tech company, specifically in the marketing division?

[00:03:44] BS:
Oh, man, so when I was a college senior, I had a plan. I was planning, okay, I want to work for either Nordstrom, Starbucks or Microsoft, these big Seattle employers. And so I kind of had this whole campaign to try to land a job at one of those large stops. And I remember I was getting near the end of my senior year. And so I was getting a little nervous because I hadn’t gotten any offers yet from either any of those companies and got referred to Microsoft and met a hiring manager there and went through an interview process and I remember getting the offer, and it was the happiest day I can really ever describe because I went to Washington State University, and not many Kooks were being hired into Microsoft, just, you know, it wasn’t really known for tech, it was just kind of a hard college to enter into Microsoft from it wasn’t a source school. And so I felt really lucky to have gotten one of these really coveted spots. And so when I was hired, I was part of a college hire program at Microsoft that that was the first year that they had it. And what happened was, Microsoft realized that as a company, all of it was starting to age, the workforce was aging. And so they wanted to bring in some younger talent and so they hired like, 250 of us right out of college and they put us in these really big jobs like these, you know, Marketing Manager jobs up next to peers who were much older than us. And then they supplemented our first year with some really in depth training. So Duke and Harvard created some curriculum just for us. And so we kind of got this little like mini MBA style training. And so to launch a career at Microsoft, you know, with that kind of support was such a game changer and a foundation for me to build upon, that I’m still grateful for To this day, and I feel a debt owed to Microsoft, because of that investment in me. So I was really set up for success. I also had some really beautiful mentors that emerged during that time in my life, because being right out of school, you just like, I didn’t know anything I didn’t know, you know, how to communicate effectively. I didn’t know how to advocate for myself. I didn’t know how to approach annual reviews. And so to learn all of that on the job with some really, really gifted mentors is again, something That has really set me up for a career of success.

[00:06:03] ES:
What are some of the ways in which those mentors would help you? Was it a lot of explicit coaching and tips? Or was it just the fact that you are being exposed to working with this very experienced people that you’re observing and how they work, how they interact?

[00:06:19] BS:
Both. I mean, when you’re a new employee, you need help in every aspect. You’re really trying to figure out what level of authority, what voice, how to structure an email to get what you need out of people influencing without authority. So all of those moments where I really needed specific coaching, I found, you know, to have lots and lots of people who would sign up for that. Additionally, again, as I look back now, as now I’m a working mother, I realized my very first manager and my first mentor, Stacy and Deanna, both of them were the first models I saw in a workplace of working mothers and being able to have really impactful careers while also raising families at home. And I didn’t know at the time because I wasn’t yet thinking about family planning. But those role models early in my career also informed some of my values around work life integration. And so I had a number of moments that I just went through some really rapid learning during my time at Microsoft,

[00:07:18] ES:
After your time at Microsoft, you move to a consulting company, and you worked a lot on helping the company grow and drive change around this. Can you talk about some of the things that you did at the time and kind of what that consists of working in consulting and, you know, different space than what you were doing previously?

[00:07:39] BS:
Absolutely, I should definitely I kind of addressed my decision to leave Microsoft to because the idea of leaving this job in this community that had given so much to me to go to a company that was not just brand new, but like this wasn’t even a company at and so to leave the sort of security I remember having to like give up my business cards from Microsoft and how hard that was. And I remember having to print my resignation letter and how hard that was. And so to leave that, that safety was just a really scary moment, especially early in my career. But I did, I felt this entrepreneur calling, and I just I knew that I needed to go have this experience as early on as I could. And so this wonderful gentleman, Jeff invested in me and said, Hey, could you be my first employee, you know, I’d like to start this business. And so when I got there, he had a couple of folks who were kind of 1099 contractors in the business, and he would wire them money, you know, once a week, and there was no infrastructure in place, we didn’t have a brand. And so the idea was that I was going to come on and start selling the business as a business developer. And when I got there, it was really clear that the work that we really needed to do was to essentially build the infrastructure of a startup. And so I got to have really every job there I ran payroll, I was on like, irs.gov, googling how to pay taxes, you know, we really had to figure out honestly on the job, how to set up a business from scratch, we put in benefits, we put in payroll, I had to learn about 401Ks and all the matches, we had to think about employee recruitment and retention. So I mean, I truly was immersed in this business and in every function that this business had, and I was so fortunate that we were really in the right place at the right time. And that business saw tremendous growth and success. So in the four years that I was there, we were able to ramp up to about 120 consultants and about $16 million of revenue since I’ve left they’ve you know, more than doubled that so they still are on a wonderful trajectory, but to be a part of the early stages of a business like that, and to have so much autonomy to make those decisions. Man, that is just a gift that I will you know, I have taken with me for sure as I’ve continued this like entrepreneurship journey,

[00:09:52] ES:
How did you navigate jumping on new areas? I’m guessing some of this you didn’t have prior experiences.

[00:10:00] BS:
Oh, yeah, I had no experience. None. I mean, that’s why I was like, are you sure you want to hire me?
But I guess, you know, he’s like, No, you seem good enough. So, no, I mean, we kind of matched a lot in terms of what we saw as a vision for this thing. But yeah, I mean, I certainly stumbled a lot. And you know, we hired a number of consultants to help me figure out some of those tough challenges. Remember, the first time we ran payroll, and I was trying to figure out how to withhold taxes in the ADP payroll system. So we had to hire a woman to come in and sit with me for a couple of hours while I ran our first payroll. And so you know, just I definitely made a ton of mistakes in those early years. But it was a really gracious culture. And so everyone was kind of along for the ride. Well, we went through those early bumps.

[00:10:43] ES:
After working in this early stage consulting company, you worked in a different consulting company. And just in general, you’re working with clients at both these consulting companies. Some of them are big tech company clients. Can you talk about some of the important skills that you learn through your career working with clients and building and nurturing relationships and selling products?

[00:11:14] BS:
Sure, you know, I’ve worked in a variety of different business models. I’ve done startups, small businesses, digital marketing agencies, staffing firm, since sort of a management consultancy, if you were to kind of bucket the things that I’ve done. And across all of those experiences, no matter if it was a team of less than 50, or a fortune 50 company, one of the things that I have found to be true and all of those experiences is that humans run businesses. They’re the ones who buy they’re the ones who work hard to fulfill on promises. And so human centricity has been a core value that has really sat with me as I’ve traveled through those experiences. Alongside that, one of the more practical ways that that shows up is that I think that setting proper expectations is a critical component to success in each one of those relationships and engagements. And by that, I mean, you know, when I was selling versus when I was servicing versus when I was building product in each of those settings, helping people understand what you’re trying to achieve, and what is to come next has been a skill that’s taken me a long time to hone but has been something that has really helped people come along to not just want to say yes to what I’m trying to build, but to turn them into mentors and sponsors, as I’ve kind of like building out a vision. So those are a couple of things that have traveled with me and show up today in my work.

[00:12:40] ES:
Have there been particular resources or ways in which you learn this? I know earlier, you talked about the importance of mentors and then working with highly experienced people so that you can learn from them. Are there other things that you found useful, like perhaps some books that you read?

[00:12:58] BS:
I think that it kind of depends on your life. learning style. So for me, I really value conversations, I love to talk ideas out, like me with another person in a whiteboard in a room, it feels like you know, like, that’s my playground. That’s where I really love to learn. And so along the way, I’ve had a number of people. So I would say that terms of mentors, it hasn’t been these like long enduring relationships where I’ve had a mentor that has seen me through all of these different moments of change. For me, it’s shown up in these sort of micro moments of, I need to make this next change, or I’m considering this next skill I need to learn. And so I’ve tended to seek out a thought leader or a mentor in that particular moment to try to make that next decision. So that’s really how that’s shown up for me. There hasn’t been sort of like one aha book. It has been these like these really next critical decisions that I’ve wanted to unlock alongside another human who’s been there or that perhaps as a peer or as an advisor that I can use to make that next decision.

[00:13:58] ES:
Earlier you mentioned that You made a lot of mistakes throughout your career and that leads to growth and building new skills. Is there something that stands out like a mistake or maybe an opportunity that taught you a really valuable lesson, looking back.

[00:14:17] BS:
In the times that I’ve been a part of high scale experiences or high growth experiences. In my early career, I think I was a bit unclear on my either my “why”, or the professional values that I wanted to use to make decisions. as I’ve gotten older and a few more gray hairs. I now have a better compass for making decisions. But, you know, I’ll give you some examples. When we were growing staffing firm. Part of the energy that happens there is that every time you staff someone into a role, you’re giving someone new a job, and there’s a lot of joy that comes with giving out jobs for a living, but what happens when you do that too quickly. Is that you tend to lose track of the people who you’ve placed originally. And so I think what I learned there was that I looked back and felt like I wasn’t building the kind of deep relationships that if I really am honest with myself, that’s the kind of experiences in life that I wish to have is these more quality, longer term deep relationships. And so I took away from that experience to say, you know, perhaps growth or scale at speed isn’t always the most desirable thing. It’s definitely something I’ve considered as I’m now scaling my own business, how quickly and at what cost do we consider growth in scale and speed relative to the quality of experiences and engagement and it just takes you doing that a couple of times to know like, how to dial those things simultaneously.

[00:15:48] ES:
When I was researching for this interview, I saw that at some point after all this experience, you were laid off and you happened to be seven months pregnant at the time. And then, later on, you founded your company Lions and Tigers, which is a marketing firm with a flexible working style. Can you talk about that time when you’re laid off, and then you’re looking to start a company.

[00:16:17] BS:
I had gone from Microsoft to a pretty fast growing staffing firm to a digital marketing agency to a start up. So I had been really curious about all these various business models. And I had really had this kind of career plan and trajectory, like I was sort of on this path. And I was at the startup. It was a big startup and it was really well funded. So it felt very safe to go there. And we decided that it was the time to start our family and so I was fortunate to get pregnant with my first son while I was there, and the business wasn’t doing awesome. We, you know, certainly there was a lot of indicators that we didn’t really have a path to profitability. So I was maybe shocked but not surprised that on grey day in October We would all get pulled together and 20% of the company was to be laid off that day. And I definitely agreed with the business decision because it made sense. But from a personal perspective, being pregnant, seven months pregnant, my third trimester and facing job market with the kind of fear that comes with that moment really rocked me. I mean, I didn’t have health benefits for my upcoming birth, I certainly didn’t have a maternity leave or had budgeted or planned for that. And my greatest fear was that I was on hireable. And that proved to be true. I went on a number of interviews and certainly faced some discrimination during that time, which is probably a whole nother podcast episode, but the only thing that I could do and I of course recognize such privilege and being able to do this, but I made myself available as a consultant. I said, Okay, well, can you hire me on contract and what would that look like? And so I hustled and I was able to Bill 60 hours a week for my whole third trimester to To save enough money for 11 weeks of maternity leave, so that I could Welcome my first son. And it was a really scary time because not only was it not like, I wasn’t making progress on my career, but I was going through a massive transformation to bring a baby into the world. And so after my first baby was born, I went back to just one of those contracts. It was a 25 hour a week consulting project that was so so such a good fit for me, and it compensated me so well, like it was so worth my time to go and do. And so I did that for a few months and I sort of got my sea legs under me my mama sea legs as I figured out how to have this little baby and be a consultant for the first time and I realized how much I loved that I had never consulted up until then I had always sort of sold consulting services or structured them but I had never been a consultant on my own. And I just fell in love with the kind of work that I got to do. I loved the flexibility. I loved the model I love that I can say yes or no to clients as my life allowed. And so I did that for a couple of years, about three years. And then we decided to expand our family again. And so in the first month of my second pregnancy, I felt a calling like I felt a true moment where like the clouds parted and I felt called like, Brea, you have figured out and stumbled upon a kind of working that has enabled your life. I just felt so much gratitude for this work, that I felt incumbent upon me to share it with others and to help other people, especially working moms, like me try to understand how they can go about doing this kind of consulting part time, full time, whatever their needs were, and I wanted to teach this kind of methodology. And so I decided to found this business and so I grew a baby and a business in 2018 and built the business so that I could prepare for a second maternity leave this time with employees to backfill me on Some of these projects and so that was really the start of this company. And now it’s called lions and tigers. And today we have roughly 50 people who are living this way that get to choose how much when they work and be involved in really high impact projects in a non traditional archetype.

[00:20:20] ES:
We’re starting to see more of this flexible work. Now, in particular, because of the COVID-19 pandemic, and a lot of companies had to be bought to support our remote working environment. It doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re going to stick with it. But they’ve been some challenges with this. From your experience in running a company that is built on this idea of flexible hours flexible work environment. What are some of the main characteristics of a company that operates this way?

[00:20:54] BS:
It certainly works better in knowledge work. I mean, you can’t certainly the smallest At work in all industries, hospitality, manufacturing, some of those will of course have more challenges when considering flexible, remote work. However, in areas like Microsoft or other large tech firms in areas where knowledge workers highly coveted creative work, for instance, it is a ripe model to consider this idea of working from home. So the kinds of brands that are attracted to this model tend to be ones that think about inclusion as a core value. They’re thinking about how to keep talent in the workplace, because they potentially have some attrition or retention concerns, because their employees are wanting to go this route. And so they are dictating a brand to think more fluidly about their talent to they’re needing to move into more agile spaces. So they may have in the past thought only about the W two full time employees that sit on their roster, but the iteration required for transformation right now is So fast, the clip is so fast, that they’re needing to move with more agility than they have in the building. And then three, they really have to have the culture and infrastructure set up to be able to allow for the kind of tooling required. The kind of you know that everyone has laptops, there actually has to be a technical ability that the teams and staff can work either autonomous Lee or asynchronously, despite where they may be sitting at their kitchen table or in a building somewhere.

[00:22:28] ES:
An important component of this that I, my personal opinion, and what I’ve heard other people say is making sure you still have your sense of unity as a company, community, making sure people feel included and not isolated. Can you talk about some of the ways in which you and your company do this?

[00:22:50] BS:
It is really important and, you know, I have always since hoped that our workforces would become more human centric. We’re seeing now that you cannot ignore work and life. It’s not a binary choice. And we talk about work life balance. And really right now it’s a work life collision. I mean, people are on conference calls and dogs and kids are in the background. And you can’t apologize for that right now because it is what it is. But one thing that we have always done is advocated for people to show up to their work at lions and tigers as their whole authentic self. That has never been a question for us. And, you know, when I have a story about when I first hired one of my employees, Terry, he joined and in one of our very first conference calls we had together I said, Hey, you know, I need to turn off my camera for a minute because I need to pump it to me, I didn’t even think twice about it. But to him, he reflected back later to me, he said, You know, I’ve just never been a part of a culture where people could just do what they needed to do and then do their work. Like that’s just such an obvious conclusion I had never come to before. And so now we’re required to even more consider how we keep people feeling inspired. And by that we have really consistent all staff meetings where we share really transparently around how the business is doing and where we’re headed. I think it’s really important that we give that kind of consistent update to our team. We use tools like teams and slack all the time. It’s really important to us to have not just individual items and not just items around work, but we’ve got really specific channels around we’ve got a channel for virtual work right now where we’re sharing best practices, resources, homeschooling tips, we have kudos boards, content recommendations, so that people are bringing through this element of we have a value around intentional community. And so that right now is being pressed super hard. And then, you know, for us truly, it’s about giving a little bit of delight. And so we actually I’ve hired this gal for just five hours a week, but she is our Director of delight. And so we’ve been sending weekly and now monthly packages out to our whole team contractors employees doesn’t matter so that they just feel cared for right now. I mean, and it can be anything we’ve sent out coffee or send out sweatshirts. We’re just giving everyone just a little bit more love and grace right now, we gave everyone an extra day off around the Memorial Day holiday just for a chance to take a beat and try to kind of recalibrate, everyone just needs a little bit more grace. And so that’s how it’s been showing up for us at lions and tigers.

[00:25:19] ES:
Do you meet in person as a company sometimes?

[00: 25:29] BS:
I do, and I’m so sad because last year, I hosted a family picnic in my backyard. And this year, we don’t get to do that. And that feels like a really big loss truly, because you cannot replace in person. You just can’t in many ways, and we’re doing everything that we can to still build these strong connections virtually. And in some ways I’ve deepen my relationship with some of the folks I wouldn’t have otherwise interacted with, but we certainly are missing being in person. We also had a co working space prior to this where we would all come in and meet in sub teams. And we’ve really missed having that space. And so we’re still envisioning what fall will bring for us in terms of in person gatherings, we’re still a little unsure on what our reopening looks like for in person. That still remains to be seen as everyone’s trying to figure out what’s most appropriate in each community that they’re a part of.

[00:26:17] ES:
Well, Brea, thank you so much for coming on the show. It’s been great hearing your insights from your trajectory and your most recent work running lions and tigers.

[00:26:27] BS:
Thank you. Thank you for telling such important stories and the voices of women in tech. This is such a privilege to be with you.

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