Workshop Digital Co-Founders Brian Forrester and Andrew Miller returned with me to Southern Railway Taphouse, where we dove into the realities of merging two companies, running an agency together, and building a work environment—and work product—to compete with the best.
I stuck with the Stone RVA IPA, while Andrew started with Devil’s Backbone Vienna Lager, and Brian opted for O’Connor’s El Guapo IPA.
The transcript is ordered based on the flow of our conversation, but here are topical links to skip ahead:
Brian Forrester and Andrew Miller…
On the Merger
Derek: As a company, we’ve won some awards, we have 30 people, a big office—was this the trajectory two years ago? Does this feel like where you thought you’d be?
Brian: I think we probably have different answers there, right?
Andrew: Yeah. It was two years ago when we met over a beer at Capital Ale House, and the idea of the merger came up. So if we’re using two years as a hard timeline, no, this is way different than what I thought I’d be doing.
If we back it out a year and half to when we had more concrete plans in the merger—and we’re being honest—I think we thought we’d be slightly bigger than we are at this point.
It doesn’t mean we’re not hitting our goals. It just means we’re being realistic about the challenges of building a foundation, scaling on top of that, and growing at the right pace, not some pre-planned pace.
B: I’ve always believed that to build a great company, you have to hit a certain critical mass to deliver. If you deliver a great product or service, people are going to want it. We’ve delivered on a service that people want—digital marketing—and have grown to support that demand.
D: If we zoom all the way out to when you both started in a room with a computer, at some point did you realize this might become a 30- or 50-person company? Were there moments when you felt like this was actually happening?
B: For me personally, one of the big moments of validation that we could do this was the merger, when Andrew and I decided to join forces.
It’s lonely being a solo owner, and it’s really nice to have someone whose office I can go into and plop onto his couch and go, “This sucks [laughs] This is tough.” I know we’re going to get through it—we always do—and we’re going to be stronger for it, but this is hard. And doing it alone is tough.
A: I was a little more hesitant to openly communicate our aspirations. I had a vision that this could grow—there’s a demand, like Brian said—but I never wanted to say we will be this or could be that. I always figure it’s safer to underestimate.
But the same pivotal moment for me was the merger. It was, “Now we’ve got to put up or shut up. We’re both in this together, and if it fails, I sure as hell don’t want it on my back.” I could rationalize failure if it were just me. I would have regrets but wouldn’t feel as bad as if I let down a partner or a larger team.
The merger has put more pressure on us to live up expectations. I like it—it keeps me honest, keeps me focused. It avoids letting fear or anxiety get in the way because we have to keep pushing forward.
D: And what about the merger? That it survived it all? That it thrived? Were there moments when you thought it was going to work, or did work?
A: I knew it was going to work because we had gotten to the eleventh hour two years before. We had a lawyer drawing up an agreement. We met the day before we were going to make it official and sat down at The Jefferson, and we both expressed concerns. We had different concerns, but both equally valid.
And we agreed that if we both weren’t 100 percent invested, then it was best not to do it. Even if one person was all-in and the other was 95 percent—there couldn’t be any room for doubt. It had to happen for the right reasons and on the right terms.
That was a more formative moment to make sure we were set up for success now than the conversation we had before the merger this time. It cleared the way. Once we decided to do it, there have been no doubts, no reservations, despite those moments when we need to reassure each other everything’s going to be fine.
Like Brian said, I now have a sounding board, someone to complement my weaknesses, and the knowledge of an extra set of eyes on things.
B: A pivotal moment for me was post-merger when we put yellow sticky notes up in front of the entire organization and said, “We are going to do these things.” We became accountable to the whole company to get a ton of things done.
There’s no turning back as the leadership of a brand-new organization when you put that out there. You have to deliver on that promise; otherwise, the whole thing could be a failed promise—the merger’s a failed promise.
That was a big responsibility, and I think what that taught me is that our team expects a lot out of us. Andrew and I hold a substantial burden on our shoulders from each individual team member. The expectations are high that we are going to deliver on the promise, and that we’re going to continue to do that.
I’m not going to lie when I say that I lose sleep over that. There are nights when I toss and turn all night because I’m concerned what the team is going to think about the way we’re going to handle a situation. I have lost a lot of sleep over that. I’ve complained to my wife about it. I’ve had more than one or two beers while thinking about it.
On Running an Agency
D: I would’ve guessed that, with the merger, there would’ve been anxiety about losing autonomy, but it sounds like there was more relief?
B: Well, there was relief, but there are still times when it’s, “Hey that’s my job,” or, “Get off my lawn, you’re in my territory now.” We set very clear terms up front of what was expected of each other, which is why I would second his agreement—that I’ve never had any doubts this was going to work.
But there are still times when we have to put each other in check. If we have an issue, we start every owner’s off-site with “Clear the Air.” When we clear the air, there have been—I don’t want to call them tense moments—but where we have said, “Alright, I’ve got to own up to it.”
When you’re a solo owner, there’s no one that you’re accountable to. Your employees may occasionally call you out, but you can choose to ignore that. But when your cofounder calls you out, you have to face it. And it’s made me personally stronger.
I don’t want to speak for Andrew, but I’ve seen him grow into the Ops Leader role, going from a 5-person company to an almost 30-person company. That’s a dramatic change.
Most of the company, in one way or another, rolls up to Andrew. So to be able to grow into that position, he’s had to take some hard feedback from the team and from me, and that’s one of the things that we’ve done well and has allowed us to grow as quickly as we have.
A: And we do it behind closed doors because if we aired those concerns in front of the team, or even the management team, it could send the wrong message—that it’s an unhealthy thing—when in fact it’s constructive. It’s never personal. It’s always about refocusing on the vision, the shared goals, the reason we exist as a company.
If we’re venturing too far into one another’s territory, it’s usually by accident. But it’s a good thing for us to say, “Hey, I appreciate you bringing up the issue. I got this.” Or, “Hey, I’d like some help on it.” But we’re always framing it in the context of what’s best for the team and the company and the clients.
D: Is that getting easier as you’ve been doing it longer?
B: It depends on the topic. When you have to call someone out in a one-on-one scenario behind closed doors and say, “Hey, I think there could be positive change if you do this,” that’s not something I’m comfortable doing but have had to learn to do.
I’m also not always comfortable hearing it [laughs] so it’s been a learning experience for me. Andrew is very good at hearing feedback, and he also knows how to give me feedback so that I can take it. Because I’m not always the best at receiving constructive criticism.
A: Yes it’s easier because we’ve learned each other’s communication styles. I know how to phrase things so that Brian’s going to be more receptive to them. And that’s part of any relationship, right? I also know what’s going to anger him.
But it’s harder in some sense, too. It’s easier to rationalize things now because I know how he’s going to think about something. So I’m like, “Okay, well, I can position this so that he’s going to understand…”
B: It becomes a chess match.
A: Both of us are guilty of this, and we have to call each other out because it gets harder to dig into the root cause of an issue.
We can address surface-level things, and we’re pretty good at diagnosing and fixing those, but it’s always a conscious effort for us to go back in and figure out, “Okay, we’re dealing with a surface-level issue. Is there an underlying cause that we need to get to, whether it’s service based, or team based, or client based? Are we really solving what matters? Are we solving the root issue, or are we just putting a Band-Aid on it?”
That remains hard. It’s never been easy.
B: And it’ll never get easy.
D: You both started as analysts. What, then, is the intellectual joy of being an entrepreneur, of running a business?
B: For me, when I go into work every day, it’s not that I’m necessarily running a company. I’m fulfilling my desire for adventure, because there’s never a dull moment. I don’t want predictability. I’m getting fulfillment from the reality that I don’t know what I’m going to walk into—what bomb is going to go off at 10:30 a.m. when I think my day is going to be what’s on my calendar.
So that sense of the unknown is the most intellectually challenging. I’m running a finance team, I’m building a sales team, I’m building a marketing team, I’m in the Visionary position, and I’m also handling requests throughout the day. Those could be client-facing, those could be from our legal team, from our outside vendors. I love that. And you have to be intellectually engaged and understand what makes a business tick.
A: I would agree. I enjoy and appreciate the challenge, not always in the moment, but as a whole I like solving different challenges. So many of my challenges now are people-based rather than numbers-based.
I totally geeked out on being an analyst, which has made it hard for me to detach and step into a management role—to lead people when I feel like, in typical manager syndrome, I could do the work as well or better and faster or more efficiently or whatever argument I can make to myself.
So the challenge for me is, “How do I extract myself from the here-and-now and get out of problem-solving mode and get into issue-discovery mode? Why are we having a problem with this type of client, or this type of analysis, or this type of reporting, or this type of process?”
And figure out how do I use the tools and resources at our disposal, whether it’s hiring the right people, retraining the people we have to do things a little differently, or bringing in extra resources to steer us in the right direction?
And it’s hard. It’s hard to get myself away from the break-fix moment to long-term vision and planning mode. And that to me is the challenge. Like Brian said, I enjoy it. Every day is different.
Sometimes, I long for the days when I could be an analyst because I understood it—I could find some closure. It’s more focused, maybe a little more predictable, but it’s not less fulfilling. I get great gratification from both roles.
B: I’m definitely envious of analysts because we started out doing the work. But we’ve gotten to a point where we’re no longer doing the work—we’re not even doing the work we were doing two years ago. We’re not even managing the team’s work. We’re managing the team that manages the team’s work, and building new teams.
That’s another thing that’s very intellectually rewarding: The nature of work continues to evolve as the company grows.
A: One thing that makes me happy is when I hear a conversation between two analysts or an analyst and a manager, and they’re coming up with ideas that I never would’ve come up with. They’re able to do things that I was never able to do. They’ve graduated beyond what I would be able to teach them.
I have to remind myself that I can’t pretend to be the expert anymore, and it’s not my job to be the expert. It’s my job to cultivate the next generation of experts.
B: A company is a living and breathing thing, and as the owners of the company, your job morphs into empowering the people that will keep the company alive. You aren’t the one keeping the company alive. It’s greater than the sum of its parts. And your individual influence has less and less sway the larger the company gets.
You have to predict future trends, outside forces, and the internal dynamics of your team. And we’ve got to put all those things together and figure out, “Who do we empower and entrust with the future of this company?”
And it’s different people at different times, given any number of different problems or opportunities we’re encountering. And I think that’s the beauty of running a company—that challenge.
D: As far as the work product, if it’s a choice between us and other quality vendors, why are you pitching a client to choose us?
B: So I truly believe we have something special. We’ve hired a bunch of very smart people and empowered them to take their individual skills to the next level with some autonomy—maybe too much autonomy. I know it sounds like a cop-out, but I think it’s our people.
However, when you start comparing us to the other really, really good companies out there, they have really, really good people, too. In all honesty, I don’t think we’re as good as we will be and can be. One of the mantras at The Martin Agency is, “Be good to each other but hard on the work,” and that has stuck with me.
One thing I don’t think we do enough of is critique the work—and this doesn’t directly answer your question—but it’s something I worry about because I’m looking at the company three years down the road. I’m not looking at the company today.
And right now we’re doing well. We’re winning awards. But to keep doing that we have to be harder on the work, we have to challenge each other, we have to stop treating SEO and PPC as separate channels. We have to bridge that gap and create more strategic plans.
I don’t want us to get too comfortable. For us to succeed and be the obvious choice for clients, we have to push ourselves to grow the work.
D: What is that human element that we feel is a differentiator but is really hard to put in copy or an About Us page?
B: I don’t know that we’ll ever fully define it. It’s the result of very selective hiring, very selective firing, training, autonomy, empowerment. It’s a culture that we’ve spent a lot of time and energy to build and nurture without controlling. You can never really define what makes Workshop Digital, Workshop Digital, because it is the people.
The digital marketing universe is consolidating. A lot of management firms, consulting firms, and traditional agencies are buying agencies like ours or absorbing them into the framework of something else. When you look at why these companies are getting acquired, it’s a combination of two things: people and technology.
And the technology is the piece we’re a little light on right now, and it’s something Andrew and I talk about a lot. Because I think when you leverage really smart people with really smart technology, that’s when you start to have a very convincing case for choosing Workshop Digital over other very talented companies doing the same work.
A: The companies we compete against now, or aspire to compete against at the next level, are applying the human component—the analysis, the insight, and the judgment—to massive amounts of data.
We’re just starting to scratch the surface of that. I can see a lot of us transitioning from analyst roles to true data scientist–type roles. Something where we start to ask questions that we previously couldn’t answer, at least at scale.
And I think Brian’s exactly right. When we look maybe five, ten years out, we look at a company that hopefully maintains the same core values and attributes that make us fun and engaging, but layers on top of that a competence and conviction to say, “Not only are we cool and fun and eager to learn and willing to fail, but we’re also really damn smart, and we have access to tools and resources—or we can build tools and resources—that no one else has.”
So our differentiator, everybody says it’s their people. Our differentiator has to be what do we allow, enable, empower, and expect our teams to do, and how do we back that up by giving them the autonomy and purpose and the mastery to fulfill that?
The challenge that I see is always going be the human side of the equation. We can go out and build or buy a lot of technology very quickly, but we can’t go build or buy people that are excited and passionate and eager. That has to happen naturally, so we can’t get one side of the business too far ahead of the other, unless we expect to see something crumble.
B: One thing that I’ll say, is that you have to earn the right to get top talent. You have to earn that. You can’t buy your way into that because people won’t stay with you. They’ll get in, and they’ll see it’s a façade and leave. That is where we have invested heavily—creating a reason why people want to come work here.
We’re invested in that, and we’re going to continue to invest in that. And that will pay the greatest dividends because if you get the right, bright people in the room, and give them access to the tools they need, they’ll figure the technology piece out.
You have to earn your way into top talent. You can buy it temporarily, but they won’t stay.
D: You can rent it.
B: You can rent, but you still won’t get good product. You have to create an environment that people actually want to be part of, and once you’ve developed that, then, with enough time and some accolades—and some really good work—you will start to create pull, and you won’t have to push yourself out there as much.
We’re at a point now where I think the scales are starting to tip in the favor of pull. People are starting to submit resumes when we don’t have open positions. People are starting to say “I heard about you in this, or I saw you here.” That’s what you want as a business owner—people that are passionate about doing good work want to join your cause.
And fostering that becomes the most fulfilling thing we do as Visionary and Integrator. Because if we can do that, determining what’s valuable from a software and technology perspective is just finding the people that can figure it out—we don’t have to figure it out.
That’s how we win, and that’s how we earn the right to sit at the table with the best companies, which is where we want to be.
On Company Culture
A: I think our advantage is that we’ve done a great job incorporating our values into our culture—we don’t create the culture, I’m sure that’s pretty evident. We can’t dictate what that is, but hopefully everybody can rattle off “We’re ethical, We’re accountable, We’re transparent…”
As a lot of companies grow, their culture contracts, but they still tout their culture, even though it doesn’t mean as much or the same thing it did when they were smaller.
I think we need to expand our culture. Our core values are great. They’ve gotten us very energetic, motivated, talented people, but if we can expand our culture to include a culture of testing and learning—we’ve got the accountability, we’ve got the transparency.
We need to architect that into our culture so that we’re all the good things—the human attributes we want to have—but also that analytical, results-driven culture.
D: As owners, which decision points do you feel affect the culture of the office?
A: Hiring is probably the biggest influence we have over the culture of the office.
B: Culture is the whole nature versus nurture argument, to a certain degree. I don’t know which it is, and it’s the thing that gets me most excited, honestly—what culture is and what it can mean. I would argue that it’s nature just because we have set the doctrine, but it’s taken on a life of its own and morphed into nurture.
The team has taken our vision for the company from almost two years ago and run with it. It’s living and breathing on its own a little bit differently from how we initially envisioned it on a whiteboard when it was just the two of us.
But it’s way more beautiful and unique and different because our largest objective is not to dictate—and that’s where most people fail—you can’t dictate culture. You can create an outline, benchmarks, guide posts, but then you have to hire great people and empower them, and you have to define who those people are that are really going to help take your vision and run with it. And I think that’s where we have probably succeeded.
A: The teams probably don’t see this, but we rule out a fair number of people just based on culture fit. So when I say the biggest influence we can have now in the culture—because we’re not sitting out there every day with the teams interacting as closely as we used to—is making sure we bring in the right people, not necessarily to assimilate to the culture but add to it, because it’s going to evolve over time.
Ping pong is not a culture. Sitting around the café in the morning drinking coffee together is not a culture. Those are groups within a larger company. Those are activities that fall under the same umbrella.
People feel liberated to do the type of work they want when and how and where they want because they know what they’re accountable for.
That frees them up from thinking, “Do I need to look busy every time Brian or Andrew walks by my desk?” “Am I going to get in trouble for having a side conversation at the coffeemaker?” The answer is no.
Culture comes in when we can engage and fit in as a team, but culture takes you only so far. The work still has to get done. The team has to coalesce around challenges and problems. We play up the culture card, but there’s not a whole lot we can do to influence it.
B: I no longer think, “Do I like this person?” or “Does Andrew like this person?” I think “How is this person going to contribute to the expectations the team has set forward?”
You tie that to work product, and if a team looks inwardly with those same expectations for themselves and for the company, that is how we level up to stand shoulder to shoulder with the best companies in the country. Good to each other, but challenge the work.
That resonates with me because we’re challenging ourselves to get better. We’re challenging the leadership to continue to push forward. But we’re not necessarily challenging the work that each other is creating. We’re not saying “Why didn’t you do this?” or “Why did you do it this way?”
We’ve created a really good group dynamic and a safe place. If you don’t have a safe place, you’re not going to talk. If you don’t talk, the issues are never going to bubble up. We’ve got the safe place. We have to use it to challenge the work. Great work could be even better, if we challenged it.
Just as we ask, “Is this person going to make the entire company better?”, we’re going to look across the entire organization and say, “Is this the best work we can do?”
A: Yeah, I second that. Nothing to add.
On Trust and Accountability
D: Is there friction between trust and accountability?
A: We’ve given people the liberty and autonomy to do the work the way they see fit, and that has its pros and cons. We could overly process everything. We could micromanage. But I don’t think that’s the best long-term strategy.
By opening up the constraints a bit and letting people figure out the best way for them to manage their clients, or their relationships, or their work product, we give teams the freedom to innovate and test and learn. But we have to keep up that pace of self-improvement.
Autonomy’s a great thing until someone decides, intentionally or unintentionally, that they’re not going to push themselves to achieve more. I would rather be on the side of, “Let them explore, let them make mistakes, let them learn.” Ultimately, they have to answer for themselves, “How do I want to continue to improve?”
If there’s anything we need to reinforce, it’s that becoming complacent doesn’t fit in our culture. Our team can’t rely on somebody if they’re not striving to learn and improve themselves and pay that back to the team.
D: It sounds like you can get trapped on either side if you think about it as trying to increase trust or increase accountability, but if you try to increase progress, then you can say, “For this path we need more accountability to get better and not be complacent, and for this path we need more trust or we’re going to get complacent.”
B: I think that’s dead on. Andrew and I have a vision of complete autonomy for our team because we know that’s where the magic is. But we also understand that you have to have mastery before you have autonomy. Once you have mastery, then we can set you loose and great things will happen. If you don’t know your way around and we let you loose, bad things are going to happen.
That’s where accountability comes into play. We have to define clearly, “Here are the expectations in our organization, these are the things you need to be very good at, and we’re going to help you to get there.”
Our goal, and our management team already knows this, is to get analysts as quickly as we can to the point where they don’t need to be managed. You’re checking in to make sure they’re still on track, but you’re not managing them.
We have to get mastery first, then autonomy. Complete autonomy is amazing because we don’t need as many managers. And I think that’s a beautiful scenario because none of us likes being managed—there’s a derogatory connotation around management, even though there shouldn’t be.
The object of our management team is not to micromanage, not to dictate. It’s to guide people toward mastery, so they can have complete autonomy and do their best work. That is going to be the biggest difference for us between 2016 and 2017 and beyond.
We’ve got a young team and need to make sure they get the proper support and training until they hit mastery. And then we need to turn them loose to do their best work and trust that they will. Trust becomes very easy when you know you have mastery.
A: A lot of people aren’t attracted to that level of autonomy. They want to be told what to do, and they’re perfectly happy doing that, and that’s fine—there’s a place for everybody.
But if people are not willing to challenge themselves and challenge each other, Workshop is not the right place for them. We kind of self-select, but we also get to the point where we evaluate ourselves and each other against that mentality.
And the fact that we’re even considering this and talking about it, sets us apart from other places I’ve worked.