Agencies and the Culture of "Startup"

Hi there! I’m Emily Allen, I manage HR, recruiting, and employee development at SEER Interactive. Approaching my one year anniversary at SEER, and looking forward to many more, I hope to share some things I’ve learned about culture, growth, and people in a tremendously fast paced, highly ambitious, and truly awesome digital marketing agency. From time to time, I’ll make some non-technical, non-digital marketing specific noise on this blog.

Agencies and the Culture of “Startup”

SEER is 12 years old this August. By definition, we’re probably no longer a startup, yet there is no other word that so accurately describes who we are. Sure, we work in a crazy cool space, we have a foosball table, couches, and kegs (from time to time) in the office. We do awesome things together, have agency field days, take off to volunteer, and we’re friends. While SEER embraces those fun things, operating like a startup actually means something much more.

Over the course of the last 11 months, I’ve identified some common themes (and I’ve tapped some trusted industry colleagues for their perspective, too). Understanding these themes should help prepare you, excite you, or even turn you off; but ultimately, they should help you to understand what you’re getting into if you want to work at SEER, or any other awesome agency startup that shares a similar culture and belief system.

Everyone is an Impact Player.

We’re not ‘small,’ but we’re not big enough to enable anyone to coast by. SEER does not simply exchange money for time. We expect every single team member to find a way to make SEER more valuable; in turn, we make each employee more valuable. The experience you will get, the things that you will get to work on, and the innovation you will be surrounded by will elevate you professionally. It’s not easy to stand out among a team of 90 overachievers, but I am inspired and humbled every day as I see newbies join our team and do just that.

At SEER, we really love what we do, and we work. A lot. We have work life balance, we each own our own schedules, and manage our own time. However, there is a genuine excitement and passion that each of us has for the stuff we do, and we pour our heart and soul into our work. If you’re looking for a nine to five, run.

There’s a million ways to make an impact, and it take lots of work to do it. It can definitely be overwhelming at times. Jen Dary of Plucky often asks her clients, “did you move something forward today?” She indicated, “That seems, to me, to be crucial in understanding success for some role in our organizations (surely anyone in leadership, but also Project Managers and other coordination-based roles). At the end of your day, you will never have crossed off all of your to-dos...We all need to ask ourselves this question, every member of the team. A team of people focused on “forward.” Now that’s something to see.”

Dream, Create, Self-direct...and Do it Now.

To be successful, each one of us has to have a bit of an entrepreneurial spirit. If you’re a dreamer, a tinkerer, a tester, you’ve got some startup in your DNA. Innovation is required. You’ve gotta be able to create and you can’t be afraid to fail. Go do, you’ll fail sometimes, and that’s okay.

Be prepared to move at record speed. For real. “Fast paced” does not do justice in describing the velocity at which things will come your way. Time at SEER is like dog years. You’ll do more in a year at a startup than you’ve done in your last three jobs. It’s truly amazing, but it is not for everyone. It’s high pressure and it’s stressful; how that pressure and stress manifests itself can lead to greatness and huge accomplishments. It can also lead to burnout and unhappiness. Be self-aware enough to know this about yourself and proceed with caution.

Danielle Corser at Yellow Pencil sees this is a necessity as well, “At Yellow Pencil, we actively try to hire people who are self-motivated and ready to jump in and get their hands dirty. We don’t micromanage and we expect that each team member will help move the company forward in some way, so we need people with big ideas and who are comfortable speaking up with them.”

Think. And Pivot.

We like process just as much as the next guy, but our ability to be nimble and adapt to change is just as important as producing quality work, out-caring and out-hustling our competition. We don’t follow instruction manuals, we create them. Again and again. The only constant at a startup, and certainly at SEER, is change. Embrace it; it represents opportunity.

According to Danielle, Yellow Pencil is constantly evolving and “part of that is being brave enough to try something new and smart enough to know when it isn’t working. We’ve implemented a few things that just didn’t work, and as a result we had to pivot - there is no room for ego in these kinds of decisions.”

Jen Dary often thinks back to the phrase, “done is better than perfect.” She sees organizations do well when this philosophy is adopted. “It’s crazy how much perfection can paralyze a person or team or company from trying new things and innovating.”

Get comfortable with ambiguity and making decisions. You were hired because we trust you and because we believe in your potential. Use sound judgement, critical thinking, and don’t be afraid to take a stand. You’ll be under pressure, it won’t be easy, and you won’t have done this before; but when you figure it out, you will experience a sense of accomplishment like you haven’t before.

Embrace Change.

Startups function as a team, not a family. Family is forever, but to be a part of a team, you must add value. All of our players are on the field, no one sits on the bench. As company growth is realized - in size, ability, and skill, what is needed to continue to succeed, changes. What we need to do as an agency to be competitive and successful is different today than it was two years ago. It will be different in another 18 months from now. This translates into opportunity for some of our team members. For others, it means that our paths will go in different directions at some point in the future. We’re all on a journey, we embrace our time together when our paths cross, but we understand and accept that our paths might not align forever. This is okay, and we are both better off from the time that we’ve spent together and the contributions that we have mutually made to each other’s future.

At Barrel embracing change is a huge part of our culture,” said Boram Kim. Boram says, “We’re encouraged to never settle and constantly look for new approaches that will help us refine our processes and find better solutions for both clients and internally.” Danielle Corser has seen people leave Yellow Pencil because the change was too much for them. “We try to be pretty up-front about it in the interview process - change is going to happen, get used it!”

Danielle also talked about importance of constant improvement and collaboration; another thing that defines the culture of SEER as well. However, one thing that she said really struck a cord for me - because of it’s relevance to our beliefs at SEER, and company cultures in general that I personally think are positive, productive ones - “Ego’s don’t survive in our space - they tend to get in the way of good work.”

It’s the Hardest and Best Place I’ve Ever Worked.

Part of my job at SEER is to manage the off-boarding process, so I do exit interviews. Almost always, I hear how hard it is to work at SEER. Immediately following that (relevant) observation, I hear, 'but it’s the best, most rewarding place I’ve been a part of.'



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