Lara Schmoisman of The Darl: “Leadership is not about rank”

Leadership is not about rank: Leading a team is all about mentoring. You lead by example. For me, it’s important that they know I am not afraid to roll up my sleeves and get my hands dirty. A leader is someone who is there emotionally for their team, is leading them with intention, that is […]

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Leadership is not about rank: Leading a team is all about mentoring. You lead by example. For me, it’s important that they know I am not afraid to roll up my sleeves and get my hands dirty. A leader is someone who is there emotionally for their team, is leading them with intention, that is communicating, that can read between the lines. My definition of leadership is being able to teach and to lead your team into a better place.

As part of our series called “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Began Leading My Company” I had the pleasure of interviewing Lara Schmoisman. She is a business strategist and the CEO & Founder of The Darl, a boutique marketing agency known for breaking the rules when it comes to digital marketing, and creating unique and multi-beneficial collaborations for different startup companies.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?

I was born and raised in Buenos Aires, Argentina where I spent much of my time listening to the radio and watching TV. Even as a little girl, I knew that the world had many possibilities, and I was the type to make things happen. At just 14 years old, I started working at a radio station learning the ropes.

From there, I went to school to earn a certificate in screenwriting and a BA in radio and TV production. But as most of us probably know, life after college wasn’t exactly easy. And life after college in the entertainment industry? That was rough…so, unsurprisingly, I was not able to find a job.

Later that year, I came to the US to learn English. One thing led to another, and some doors started opening. At that time, I was sleeping on a hand-me-down mattress with coils literally sticking out of it. I was taking as many jobs as I could and sleeping little, buteven so — somehow life was starting to fall into place. Opportunities to learn and grow came my way. I worked in TV, film distribution, digital, marketing, and advertising. Later on, I was even giving lectures at CALPOLY Pomona — I was living my dream, or what I thought was my dream at the time.

After flirting and dating for a while with each industry, I realized that I didn’t want to settle down with any of them because each one was equally important. They complement each other. And, as I was taking a step back and evaluating where I was going, new opportunities came my way, which prompted me to start my own agency, The Darl.

What was the “Aha Moment” that led to the idea for your current company? Can you share that story with us?

I’ll never forget about this, it was a breaking point for me. I had two kids and was working at a marketing agency, not getting back home until really late at night. It was very intense.

One day, right around Christmastime, my son’s school decided to play Secret Santa, and the girl he got wanted a sewing kit. I remember buying it from Amazon, but it got delayed, so we had no gift. I found myself, late at night, crying at a gas station trying to find a way to replace the gift in the little free time that I had. I remember thinking “I can’t do this anymore, I’m done with this industry.”

I was ready to stop working for people, to be able to have control over my own time. I was going to figure it out. Two weeks after quitting, I ran into some friends who were starting a medical practice and the opportunity allowed me the chance to put everything I had learned over the years into use. One thing led to another and I found myself needing an assistant, hiring designers, and then when the clients kept coming, I found myself needing more people to be able to manage all the work. That’s how The Darl was born. Now, we are a 360 Marketing and Production boutique agency that specializes in digital.

Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?

I was working as a project manager in an advertising agency, and being my sassy self I would often voice my opinions about the different projects. One day I found a comment from the CEO on his assistant’s notepad saying “Tell Lara not to give opinions during client meetings’’.

This made me turn to a headhunter. She basically told me that because I didn’t have a linear career and my experience was too broad that I should consider just staying home taking care of my kids because no one would hire me.

That was a breaking point for me, I decided to quit for good. I was ready to start driving for Uber if I had to. That weekend we had people over for dinner, and I gave them a few marketing tips for their business that worked really well for them. This led to them hiring me and giving me my first solo opportunity.

As I continued to learn and grow professionally over the years, I also became a mother. This meant that I was literally an expert at juggling it all. With growth comes experience and maturity — in the business world, it is called restructuring, and in my world, it is called re-strategizing.

The biggest lesson I learned was that I was allowed to change. I’ve been there, I’ve done that. But most of all, I’ve learned that my only limitations are the ones I give myself.

So, how are things going today? How did your grit and resilience lead to your eventual success?

The Darl has been a remote agency since company inception, long before the pandemic started. Today, we have more than 40 team members around the world working in the agency.

I’ve realized that I had to rely on people to grow. I’ve learned to empathize and be patient.

I’ve learned to value loyalty and hard work more than ever, but also I’ve learned that with a new structure we also need to accept changes. I understood that it is no longer about me or my personal connections to people.

The Darl has become its own, and as things shift, people and logistics have to fit into what the company has become. As the winds of change blow, I, as an individual, and we, as a team, need to be able to evolve, adapt, and keep moving forward.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

Most entrepreneurs start their business believing that bigger is better — but according to Forbes, 70% of startups fail within the first year because they spend more money beyond what their business can afford to begin with. Those who fail are focused on hiring sales personnel, perfecting the products, leasing offices and over-priced marketing. So perhaps instead of going big, I say go boutique.

At The Darl, we think outside the box. When we started, there weren’t as many online businesses as there are now. So, to differentiate ourselves we had to get creative; collaborate.

A boutique business is an elite business; small but strong with authenticity and originality. It gives us freedom, allowing us to select our clients. It instills a sense of connection between my team and our clients, we create a bond while holding the brand to its own values. It’s quality over quantity while maintaining compassion and empathy.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘takeaways’ you learned from that?

I had this one client that for lack of a better term was a diva; she just assumed that she knew everything about marketing and never listened to any of the suggestions or advice I had.

One day, we were speaking through a group chat, and she was making demands that in the end would not be beneficial to her business. So I wrote a separate text to a team member saying “oh my God she is so obsessive,” but I accidentally sent it to the group chat which of course she read it. When she asked if I was talking about her I just answered, “You are acting obsessive, and you know it.” Luckily, she didn’t take it badly. I owned up to it, and we had a laugh about it.

So, when you make a mistake don’t be afraid to own up to it, you might feel bad or embarrassed at first, but in the long run, people will respect you more for it.

Often leaders are asked to share the best advice they received. But let’s reverse the question. Can you share a story about advice you’ve received that you now wish you never followed?

I come from a family culture where its members are not risk-takers, I was taught to play it safe. Unfortunately, that doesn’t work in the business world. That held me back for a long time, I had to reconstruct an entire belief system and be okay with the fact that if I took a risk I might fail, but I also might accomplish so much.

Basically, you can’t hide behind other people, you need to take the risk to shine and not care what others say.

You are a successful business leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?

Running a successful business is challenging, but I would definitely say that being a good team player, having unique ideas, and perseverance are all key elements that have contributed to my success.

To have a meaningful and lifelong career, you need to be able to work or play well with others. This is why teamwork is so important in the professional world.

Being connected and telling a cohesive story is what makes a brand succeed, and you won’t achieve that unless your team is on the same page. I have had all kinds of jobs, some better than others, but what I have learned over the years is that teamwork makes the dream work. Having a strong team that knows how to work together not only builds morale but also brings new ideas to the table.

You can’t rely on being the only company in an area performing a service, especially online. So, in order to succeed, you need to specialize, be unique and be able to differentiate yourself from the countless other brands. In today’s market covering the customer’s necessities is not enough, your brand must offer actual expertise.

This will differentiate your brand from the rest and will keep the customers coming back. In every piece of work I produce, I’m telling a story. This is something I work on every day. And every day, I keep choosing how to tell my story. Storytelling is what brings a brand to life, it gives your business a heart and soul.

One example that demonstrates perseverance is when I moved from Argentina to the US I had to start all over again, but in a different language: an unpaid internship, interpreter, assistant, et cetera, et cetera. In each one of those experiences, I learned one or a few new skills.

Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?

I’ve been in this industry long enough to understand that every time there is an action, there is a reaction.

Time taught me to become quite good at not reacting — maybe I’ve developed a thicker skin — so when things are moving too fast, I recommend they stop and take a deep breath, and only after gaining some perspective, start again.

This helps me keep a clear head and create a strategy. When everything goes crazy around you, and everyone is up in arms, it doesn’t mean you need to take that crazy train, too.

Also, it’s good to keep in mind that the process of creating and leading a business is filled with mistakes. In the digital world, large businesses have had plenty of mistakes in the process of arriving where they are right now. There is no shame in not knowing everything.

My advice? Have the courage to embrace your mistakes and the curiosity to learn from them. Success only happens after you learn how to fall, get up, and try again.

In addition, if you have a team, it is not only about recruiting, it is also about the training, creating a work culture, making sure they communicate and meet deadlines. Leading a strong team is crucial in order to achieve success. Treat them as future leaders, mentor and rely on them. Let them be part of the narrative and encourage them to be independent thinkers.

What are the most common mistakes you have seen CEOs & founders make when they start a business? What can be done to avoid those errors?

One of the biggest mistakes I see is people trying to copy other people’s strategies. Marketing isn’t one-size-fits-all. The fact that something worked for a friend or colleague does not mean it will work for you. Each business is unique, so you need to create a unique strategy — tailored to fit YOU. It’s important to understand and embrace your individuality as a brand and use it to your advantage. Ultimately, this is what will set you apart from the competition.

When first starting a new business, CEOs want to do everything themselves. In doing that they can burn out easily. That’s why it’s very important they learn how to outsource and delegate and create their own workflow. It is also ok to ask for help, you don’t have all the answers when you are starting out. Don’t be afraid to ask for advice or find yourself a mentor.

In your experience, which aspect of running a company tends to be most underestimated? Can you explain or give an example?

I would say that the aspect that gets more underestimated is the design of a well thought-out work culture. I took everything I’ve learned from my past leaders and my bosses and I “designed” a work culture. Yes, you have to design the culture you want in your company, the same as a brand; it’s not something that happens overnight or happens on its own automatically, it actually requires a lot of work.

You work every day at it and every person you choose for the team is an essential part of the culture. The Darl is completely remote, the team doesn’t have the chance to see each other face to face. However, just like any other company we also need our kitchen time. We have virtual happy hours at the end of the week as well as monthly agency challenges. We’ve recently started doing co-working via Zoom, someone puts music on, and we all continue with our work. It’s a special moment that allows us to form bonds with our coworkers and spend quality time with each other.

Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Began Leading My Company”? Please share a story or an example for each.

1. Leadership is not about rank: Leading a team is all about mentoring. You lead by example. For me, it’s important that they know I am not afraid to roll up my sleeves and get my hands dirty. A leader is someone who is there emotionally for their team, is leading them with intention, that is communicating, that can read between the lines. My definition of leadership is being able to teach and to lead your team into a better place.

2. Design a work culture: Company culture is an integral part of any business. It affects nearly every aspect of a company. At the end of the day, people want to understand where they’re going and what they’re working for. They want to be part of a team with the same beliefs and goals they have. And that’s where company culture can revolutionize everything. Leaders should lead by example from the start, acting as inspiration for the rest of the team. Your values and vision are the foundation that will influence what your culture looks like, so take some time to pin them down if you haven’t already.

3. Learn how to hire a team: When it is your own endeavor, you must understand the process if you decide to hire someone. When building your company culture, documenting the behaviors your current and future employees and leaders should have is always a good step. Also, I recommend reconsidering your performance management system to adjust what behavior is rewarded and optimizing your hiring process to recruit only good cultural fits.

4. Sometimes you need to make difficult decisions to affect the least amount of people: In many situations, doing a cleanup is mandatory. Things that are broken need to go, some have seen better days and also need to be set aside. Take a moment and look at the big picture: if someone or something isn’t working, you, as a leader, need to put your feelings aside and do what’s best for your business as a whole.

5. How to fire a client: Sometimes it just needs to be done. It doesn’t matter how hard you try to salvage the relationship, in some situations it just won’t work, and in the end, it will cost you more. When your trusted team is telling you that they can’t work with a client, this is a big deal. Always try to be fair and to give very clear and explicit warnings. I believe everyone deserves a second chance. With that being said, my team is my chosen family and they are the reflection of me and my beliefs. For me, my role as a leader is to protect my team first. They are the ones in the trenches fighting for the company, and when they bring something like this to my attention, I need to listen.

You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

An Empathy movement!

Feeling heard and understood is a human need. Empathy is one of those things that help us connect and understand the other person better. If you understand how others see the world, you can adapt yourself to their needs. I think it would be of great good if everyone were able to sense and understand the feelings, thoughts, and experiences of another to be able to find solutions to better the situation. It is also crucial to take the time and identify the strengths and weaknesses of a relationship as it currently stands in order to make it better, which I believe applies to personal and business relationships. Good business relationships are built on trust, and to build up trust you have to first understand what the other party wants, needs, and expects.

How can our readers further follow you online?

They can check out my page or The Darl’s website. Also, I host my own podcast called Coffee N.5! You can also follow me on Instagram @laraschmoisman

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent with this!

Thank you!!

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