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Nicole Gallardo of Gallardo Labs: “Creating good in the world can be done from the inside out, one person at a time”

Creating good in the world can be done from the inside out, one person at a time. Creating good doesn’t have to be done only with multi-million dollar global campaigns or grandiose public gestures. Instead, it can (and should) start from the most inward space — a heart, then a brain, then a mouth, then a life, that […]

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Creating good in the world can be done from the inside out, one person at a time.

Creating good doesn’t have to be done only with multi-million dollar global campaigns or grandiose public gestures. Instead, it can (and should) start from the most inward space — a heart, then a brain, then a mouth, then a life, that touches another life, and another, and so on… By creating a safe space for my team and myself to explore the truest version of ourselves, we’re cultivating diversity, building company value, and challenging the status quo. This environment inspires us and ignites a fire inside of each of us to pay it forward to our loved ones, clients, and society as a whole.

I had always thought changing the world was something I would be able to do only after reaching XXX employees or winning “So & So” account. It wasn’t until I noticed the impact our culture was having on the individuals within our team, and experienced the power we have when you put us all together, that I realized we are already changing it.


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 Nicole Gallardo.

Nicole Gallardo is the Co-Founder + CEO of Gallardo Labs, a design-first digital experience agency that’s redefining what’s possible with creativity, technology, and heart. She is the dynamic force behind the agency’s mission and capabilities, and pioneered a team culture where different is better, mistakes are opportunities, and the design process is rooted in compassion.

Since co-founding Gallardo Labs in 2012, Nicole has led her team and client relationships by example, solving complex business challenges with integrity, collaboration, and UX subject-matter expertise. She views design as the tool responsible for shaping our future and developed Created for Change, a non-profit design initiative within Gallardo Labs, to effect meaningful change one concept at a time.

Prior to her role as CEO of Gallardo Labs, Nicole spent 10 years as an accomplished creative director, user experience designer, and team builder for industry icons including Publicis Sapient, Quicken Loans, and Norwegian Cruise Line. She founded 2 successful online e-commerce businesses, one that re-invented the women’s couture shoe industry by creating a design-your-own online experience. She is an entrepreneur by heart and is as equally passionate about small start-ups as she is about Fortune 500s.

Nicole is actively involved in the design community and is an advocate for a better K-12 digital education experience. When she’s offline, you can find her at home in Fort Lauderdale, FL or exploring new destinations around the world with her husband and 3 kids.


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 grew up in a very rural area just north of Detroit, MI and was raised to work hard, put family first, be humble, and dream big. I got my first job at McDonalds at age 15 and quickly acquired skills I still use today: customer service, working fast under pressure, and appreciating the value of a dollar. We didn’t have a computer until I was in 11th grade, but design in various forms has always been central to my life. For as long as I can remember, I’ve spent my free time drawing, writing, creating, and building. My high school art teacher, Mr. Dewey soon recognized my love for art and encouraged me to apply for a summer scholarship art program at Michigan Tech University. When I arrived at the campus, I realized what it was like to finally be surrounded by other artists; it felt like home. From that moment on, I knew with conviction that a career in design was my future.

At 19, I moved to Chicago and went on to earn my BFA in Advertising & Design. There, I gathered most of my professional experience from a few iconic brands, where I got to work with and learn from some of the most talented people in UX & design. Itching to start something of my own, I launched two e-commerce companies on the side and did a lot of freelance work. Having multiple projects beyond my 9–5 and solving problems from both client and agency perspectives, kept me consistently challenged and ultimately formed my vision for Gallardo Labs as the type of digital experience agency we desperately needed in the industry.

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

The idea for Gallardo Labs came out of two big aha moments, several years apart.

The first happened during a chaotic time in my career (after I had started an online design-your-own couture shoe company). My son was 3, and I had spent his entire lifetime (+ my entire life savings) building that business. I remember looking around my home one day in a panic — I had shoe boxes stacked to the ceiling filling my living room, a sewing station disaster covering my kitchen table, and shoe cobblers running around my first floor. I thought, “I became a self-taught shoe cobbler in order to bring this crazy idea to fruition, but do I really love making shoes?” The answer was, a resounding no. I loved design. I loved building brands. I loved digital experiences. Design was my calling — not shoes. I realized that I needed to build a company that focused on that.

The biggest aha moment happened in 2011 when I was a newly-single mom and a creative director for a large digital agency in Miami. I was up late, pulling an all-nighter for a major pitch we were working on, for a client I had never met. Because my son was sleeping, I was also at home alone while everyone else on my team was in the office together. Despite all the FOMO and guilt I felt about not being with them, I was IN THE ZONE (or as I like to call it, mad-scientist mode). I thought about how common that scenario was. Me alone, doing my best thinking and deep problem solving outside of standard office hours, always for someone I knew nothing about because the creative team never got to meet them. It was the first time I decided very firmly that my agency would not be confined to an office from 9am — 5pm. On the contrary — we would work completely remote and allow flexible work schedules. We would work wherever, whenever, and however was right for us, to do our best work and achieve mad-scientist-mode. And we would all know the client. In fact, we would all make an effort to build a close relationship with them, no matter the title or the rank.

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?

In the beginning, we were a 2-person agency. When we won our first big account, we realized we needed a third team member. I reached out to a junior designer I had mentored at a previous company. At the time, he was working as an internal employee there, and I was consulting. He had shared with me his desire to follow in my footsteps and go out on his own to start his own agency one day. His words stuck with me and when the opportunity arose, I was inspired to give him a shot. He accepted with excitement, but unfortunately his enthusiasm dimmed immediately after I walked him through our first task — organizing the mess that the last agency had left behind for our client, before we could come onboard. It involved cleaning up design files, naming layers, adjusting grids, etc. Very unsexy, but 100% essential work. My plan was to divide and conquer so we could quickly advance to the fun stuff.

It quickly became apparent that he didn’t want to do the work when he sent me half-completed files and missed our first two check-ins. I continued to give him the benefit of the doubt for two weeks until, on the day of our deadline to complete the reorganization phase, he told me that he couldn’t finish because he was going away for the weekend. He asked if I could get someone else to clean up the files who is “better suited for that type of work”, and then said he would start designing with me the following week after it’s done. I politely told him to have a fun trip and that he would definitely NOT be designing with me next week, or any week for that matter, ever again. Then I spent my weekend working around the clock, organizing his half of the files for our first delivery.

That experience left me feeling extremely defeated. The first person I had trusted to share my company with, felt too entitled to roll up his sleeves with me. I definitely considered the easy way out of going back to consulting, but my desire to build Gallardo Labs was too strong and needed to be explored fully. Instead of throwing in the towel, I began searching for a team that wasn’t afraid to dig in and do what was necessary to be successful.

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

Our choice to be a fully remote and distributed workforce was a conscious one made 8 years ago, and the effort we invested into building our culture around that model really paid off last year. During the pandemic, we were put to the ultimate test and passed with flying colors. Surviving 2020 as a boutique digital agency was a success in itself, and 2021 is on track to be our best year yet.There are several inspirational projects in the pipeline that the team and I are very excited about. Today, we are proud to be working with progressive brands in technology, health, education, e-commerce, travel, and cannabis, who are doing incredible things within their industries.

Since that first failed attempt at hiring talent, we have worked really hard at finding and retaining top industry MVPs. Our team now hails from the world’s most iconic brands and coveted agencies bringing a diverse set of skills, experiences, perspectives, interests, and quirks, to the agency. I learned that grit and resilience are not only traits that I must possess as a leader, but they must also be traits that each of our team members possess as well. Design is not always big ideas and beauty. It takes an equal amount of patience, critical-thinking, and tedious attention to detail. We all have at least 8+ years of experience under our belt, but are never too good to clean up design files.

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

Our partners genuinely enjoy working with us; and we see our client relationships just as important as the quality work we deliver. We are not afraid to bring our full, unique selves to every initiative and it shows in the multi-faceted design solutions that we’re create. Our design process involves very lean teams of subject-matter experts working in close collaboration with stakeholders. We don’t do typical big agency fluff and there are no account directors filtering communication. In order to achieve that seamless collaboration, that we call “magic,” between our clients and team members, we consider soft skills just as important as expertise when it comes to recruiting talent. We meet our clients at eye-level, as equals, who we respect and believe in. As I told one of our favorite clients the other day, they are the yin to our yang.

Another one of our key differentiators is stated in our company tagline. We put heart into every project we work on, big or small. We want our clients to succeed, just as much as they do. We understand the sacrifices business owners, CEOs, founders are required to make, and we go the extra mile to make sure they understand that we’re in it, right there with them. Recently, we did a design presentation for one of our favorite new accounts, a start-up botanical e-commerce brand. We were presenting the brand color palette for the first time and to express our confidence in the bold recommendations, everyone dressed in a different color of the palette and decorated their spaces with plants for the zoom call. The client was grinning from ear to ear.

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 got the opportunity to pitch Gallardo Labs for a large e-commerce account when I was 7 months pregnant. The agency selection process took so long that by the time we won the account, I was about to pop, and because all our meetings had been virtual and the topic never came up, nobody on the client side knew! The start date got scheduled for exactly one week after my due date and I soon found myself with a 3-day old newborn and our largest company project-to-date kicking off. I couldn’t find the courage to tell them I had just given birth. I was afraid they wouldn’t trust my ability to balance it all without it affecting my team or the project. Moment after moment passed and one excuse led to another. It wasn’t until 9 months later (!!!), when we were walking them through the final file delivery, that my daughter let out the most earth-shattering scream as I was presenting and with a sweat-filled brow, I had to confess that I had a 9 month old baby at home the entire time. The look on her face as she did the math, was priceless.

The biggest lesson I learned from this was to never again let my fears get in the way of being my full, real self. Relationships are built on trust and dependability. If a client doesn’t trust that mothers and fathers are fully capable of doing both — parenting and working, then they aren’t the type of person I want us to work with.

Another major takeaway — 3 kids is enough! No more!

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?

Early on in my career, one of my college mentors warned me to never mix business with pleasure. For 10 years I followed her advice and lived a very divided life. I passed on many opportunities and spent a lot of mental energy enforcing this unwritten rule of mine. Then I met Beto, my soon-to-be partner of all things, and he introduced me to his “Colombian” way of doing business, which felt like the complete opposite of that — it’s a constant blending of personal relationships with professional ones. Initially, it terrified me, but after seeing past my fears, I realized the rewards of mastering this approach could be monumental. Now it’s how I choose to live my life and lead our company. I’ve married my dream partner, built a family with him, AND we are running a radically new kind of agency together. Gallardo Labs, at our core, is a group of extremely talented and diverse friends from all walks of life who share a love for UX, design, and creativity as the common denominator. And we share this with our clients, whom we also work hard at building real friendships with. By blending the lines a bit, we are able to foster mutual respect for one another while having honest and transparent professional relationships. It just works.

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?

Openness — When I’m in new situations, totally outside of my element, I grow the most. This takes openness in its truest form. Being open has made it possible for me to connect with just about anyone I encounter, soaking up their culture, stories, knowledge, and language like a sponge. Having an open mindset has given me the ability to look at things from different perspectives and design with compassion. It has also allowed for opportunities that have transformed my life and company, to present themselves and grab my attention. If I wouldn’t have been open to the possibility of successfully blending business with pleasure, for example, then I wouldn’t have noticed the spark of potential to have everything I wanted in life, personally and professionally, and Gallardo Labs would’ve never been born.

Perseverance — We took an extra hard hit when the economy shut down in 2020 because many of our clients were in the travel industry. Instead of stopping with the rest of the world, we took a step back, reflected on who we were, and revised our strategy for the future. Going through that process was extremely challenging during such an unprecedented time, but we had a financial genius as our founder and a phenomenal head of strategy to lead the effort. Their innovative solutions made us stronger and more equipped than ever. Together, we figured out how to realign ourselves to our company values while increasing profitability in the long run. Our new strategy put us back on a solid track to become who we really wanted to be and gave us the inspiration we needed as a team to get there. We persevered.

Humility — I know I’m not more or less important than anyone on my team or on our client’s teams and we each play an instrumental role in the success of the projects we work on together. I try to approach each relationship in my life on even playing grounds and make every conversation have meaning. I used to mistake this quality of mine for weakness, and felt pressured to portray assertiveness and self-importance to get ahead. But as I got older, I began to stop caring about advancing according to society’s rules, and started caring about exploring my own personal journey instead. Now I accept my humility and lean into it, using it as an asset, instead of unnaturally trying cover it up. The outcome has been beyond liberating.

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

In order to avoid burnout from happening, especially when working remotely, clear boundaries must be set in 3 key areas:

Communication — Turn off all work-related phone notifications when you’re not working (Slack, email, PM tool alerts, etc). Doing this is extremely difficult at first, but it forces you to compartmentalize and maximize your time in whatever moment you’re in. Without setting communication boundaries, you’ll always feel like you have one foot in the office. In order for you to be your best creative self at work, your brain needs time to reset, recharge, and find inspiration outside of work.

Space — Make sure you have a designated office space, even if it’s just a corner in your room. This will allow you to leave your work at the end of the day and not carry it with you into the rest of your life.

Time — Clearly set your work schedule and communicate it with your team so they can respect it. We use G-suite’s office hours feature for this. We also have a dedicated Team OOO calendar so we always know when one of us is taking a day off and won’t be online.

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?

Running a digital experience agency has given me the opportunity to work with many start-up CEOs and founders. The most common mistake I see them making is underestimating the investment needed to launch a successful digital brand and the commitment needed to support it on an ongoing basis. Too often, they think that because their brand is digital, they can save on strategy and design, and essentially cut corners. But, not investing in proper strategy, UX, and design from the get-go can have serious negative impacts on their business down the road and will typically cost them more to fix the problem long-term. And if they put all of their budget into launching a digital product and don’t plan for the necessary ongoing UX support, testing, and optimization, the chances of it eventually failing are even higher. To avoid these errors, it’s important to talk openly and honestly with your chosen UX & design partner about expected costs and planned investments, before finalizing the budget. Make sure you have a partner you can trust, and listen to their investment recommendations; you hired experts, now let them do what they do best. They’ve done this before, want to see you succeed, and know what it takes.

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

Promoting balance. Throughout my entire journey as a woman, an entrepreneur, a wife, a designer, a team leader, and a mother, I’ve found myself constantly defending the professional and family life I was building. Finding balance between the two is what I devote most of my energy to (still to this day, even when playing by my own company rules). Thanks to the fearlessness and values my parents instilled in me growing up, I feel confident embracing my individuality and following my professional dreams while being present for my family along the way. I know that this is not the case for many CEOs, and I can’t stress the importance of figuring it out, if not for themselves, but for the sake of their company. Work/life balance is often stated in employee handbooks, but in my experience, it’s rarely enforced or seen by leadership as a benefit to the business. When my team and I have our personal life in check, the quality of our work is much better and the overall productivity is through the roof. As a company, Gallardo Labs invests in the actual enforcement of work/life balance with concepts like “Burn out hours” (similar to vacation hours, but used when someone has been working more than 40hrs/week, which can happen during project crunch times).

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.

When I began leading my own agency in 2012, I wished I’d had a step-by-step guidebook on what to do, say, seek, and avoid. This golden blanket resource does not exist, rightfully so. Extraordinary leaders are built from a lifetime of individual experience gathered from their own unique values, personality, and story. I spent the first half of my career trying to model myself after those I admired before I had the courage to forge my own path.

If I could go back and give my younger self 5 pieces of advice in order to demystify my leadership truth from the get-go, this is what I’d tell her:

Even great leaders don’t have to have it all figured out.

Be vulnerable. Leadership and vulnerability feel like they belong on opposite spectrums, but they actually go hand-in-hand. As I’ve gotten to know many different types of leaders over the years, I’ve learned that all of them, regardless of status and style, have their own insecurities and closets full of bad decisions. Pretending to be a flawless leader is insincere. Aside from strengths and successes, people want to know what makes their leaders human. They want to hear real life leadership stories that they can relate to — FULL stories — including imperfections, failures, and fears.

Being a vulnerable leader requires a constant case of the “f*** its”, as I once heard Antoni Porowski say. The only way to get comfortable with it is to own your story and have relentless trust in yourself. Earlier in my career, as a woman trying to make a name for herself in the design world, being vulnerable was never an option. Whenever a sliver of vulnerability bubbled to the surface, I immediately labeled it weakness and worked feverishly to push it back down. This oppressive mentality took years of reverse training to fix. But by surrounding myself with the right team, I eventually fixed it.

Now I proudly lead as I am, flaws and all. I don’t pretend to know everything and I no longer try to fit the societal mold of what a leader should be. I want my agency culture to feel safe, diverse, and open, so it’s my responsibility to lead by example. Letting my team know that I don’t have it all figured out allows them to compensate for my short-comings with their own unique strengths. When creative team members don’t wear their protective armor, creativity soars, relationships blossom, and companies are built on a solid foundation of trust.

Relationships are EVERYTHING.

In design school, we learned about the power of networking, something I’ve always despised. The definition alone makes me cringe: “the action or process of interacting with others to exchange information and develop professional or social contacts.” In those early years, I often found myself deeply discouraged about my chosen career path because of the pressure put on us to network, network, network. I’m naturally shy and somewhat awkward in larger social settings so forced events and conversations with others based purely on what we have to offer each other is one of my least favorite activities.

It wasn’t until later in life that I fully began to understand the important difference between networking and building relationships. While contacts within your network are collected throughout our career at face value, relationships run much deeper. Relationships are the roots upon which we build fulfilling lives. They take years of trust and work to solidify. They possess the essential qualities to grow stronger with time.

Viewing my company as a web of relationships has made it easier to lead — from our sales process to our team culture. Our vision and team values are crystal clear: Trust, Community, Time, Compassion, Curiosity, Growth, Authenticity, Leadership, and Global Citizenship. I see it as my responsibility to make sure our clients and new team members share the same ethos and are as equally committed to cultivating our relationship, as we are.

Choice fatigue is real.

When I co-founded Gallardo Labs 9 years ago, I envisioned my role as being 24/7 creative juiciness — brainstorming, mentoring, designing, problem-solving, researching, etc. In reality, since then my days have mostly consisted of meetings — pitches, planning, logistics, proposals, finances, and contracts. The amount of mental energy it takes to masterfully manage dozens of unique personalities, conversations, and situations on a daily basis is immense. Between the business, kids, and my marriage, I find myself being forced to make major decisions very quickly and one after the other, non-stop. For someone who is naturally as indecisive as me, this causes A LOT of stress and anxiety. I sometimes lay awake at night fretting over the choices I have to make the next day or even worse, going back over the choices I had made earlier that day, hoping they were the right ones. Learning to manage this took years and although I’ve gotten a lot better since starting out, I’m still working on it.

One tactic I’ve found helpful in building my decision-making confidence is to stop myself from saying, “I think” or “maybe” before I state a decision that I’ve already made. Instead of saying, “I think we should do this.”, I consciously adjust myself to say, “We should do this.”

Another practice that’s helped ease choice fatigue is delegation. By delegating specific tasks to my team of subject-matter experts, I am delegating decisions to others who are more equipped to decide what’s best within their area of expertise. This naturally allows me to focus my energy towards larger decisions that need to be made for the team and company as a whole. In order to properly delegate, there has to be 100% trust involved. Building the right team is key. A conscious decision upon hire must be made to trust and support that team member’s decisions whole-heartedly. Only then does delegation truly work.

Start your day with creativity and gratitude. The team and company must wait.

As a leader, my mind is constantly consumed with the success of my team and our agency. I can’t so much as take a shower without ideas or worries popping up. It’s a huge responsibility and honor to be their mentor, inspiration, visionary, coach, and sponsor. One that I don’t take lightly. In fact, quite the opposite. Last year, during the first month of the pandemic, I realized that I was taking it much too heavily. Striving to be the best is a necessary component of success, but without caution, it can evolve into evil-eyed perfectionism. I began experiencing feelings of dissatisfaction with the amazingly beautiful life I led and became blind to the tremendous achievements the team and I were making. In order to continue leading successfully, I knew something needed to change: my perspective.

The first step I took towards this momentous shift was rearranging my jam-packed schedule to carve out time for pure creativity first thing in the morning. I began blocking off 6–8am for just me — before my team, my kids, and the world wake up. During these 2 sacred hours each morning, I resist checking my phone, email, or anything having to do with my day ahead. I instead, sip coffee and read, write, design, or simply think. This uninterrupted time allows me to check in with myself with a fresh attitude. It’s the foundation for my actions and decisions throughout the day. It recharges the energy I use to stay true to my intentions and fuel my soul.

The second powerful step I took, was to start a gratitude journal. Every morning (weekends included), the first thing I do when I wake up is write down 3 things that I am grateful for. They aren’t light or quick. I focus 100% of my attention towards describing my gratitude in detail for these blessings. Starting a gratitude journal felt like a lofty idea at first, but keeping up with this daily practice has changed my life in a tremendous way.

I’ve learned that mental health is not something I can reach and then can forget about. Unattended, like anything, it can fall off course. It takes constant maintenance and investment. My morning creative time and gratitude journal are investments that have allowed me to bring a better version of myself to my team as their leader every day.

Creating good in the world can be done from the inside out, one person at a time.

Creating good doesn’t have to be done only with multi-million dollar global campaigns or grandiose public gestures. Instead, it can (and should) start from the most inward space — a heart, then a brain, then a mouth, then a life, that touches another life, and another, and so on…

By creating a safe space for my team and myself to explore the truest version of ourselves, we’re cultivating diversity, building company value, and challenging the status quo. This environment inspires us and ignites a fire inside of each of us to pay it forward to our loved ones, clients, and society as a whole.

I had always thought changing the world was something I would be able to do only after reaching XXX employees or winning “So & So” account. It wasn’t until I noticed the impact our culture was having on the individuals within our team, and experienced the power we have when you put us all together, that I realized we are already changing it.

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. 🙂

Our non-profit initiative at Gallardo Labs, Created for Change was started for this exactly reason. We got tired of companies crafting messages and campaigns in support of change and decided to actually walk the talk by using our creative skills to make change happen.

The first project we launched under Created for Change was PracticeSafeVoting.org, a tool and social media campaign that inspired more than 5,000 young voters to download their Vote-by-Mail application + get clear instructions on how to cast their ballot for the 2020 elections. Our idea not only encouraged people to use their voice (the campaign reached nearly 600,000 impressions on social media), but it also gave them the tools to do so, safely from the comfort of their homes in the middle of a Pandemic.

This summer we’ll be turning what began as a passion project into our first official internship. We’ll be looking for the small voices with big ideas, in communities that are full of culture, but rarely seen in the design industry. We believe creativity can transform the world and diversity is a key element of that, because great minds DON’T think alike. We all come from immigrant parents, mixed races, various beliefs and unique cultures and know that together, we can really make a difference. We’ll be publishing our Created for Change internship details on our site early April and encourage everyone to apply.

How can our readers further follow you online?

If you are a new leader and are looking for guidance, or if you’ve been leading your company for a while and want someone to swap stories and tips with, email me at [email protected] or schedule time for us to chat!

You can also follow Gallardo Labs online at:

www.gallardolabs.com

@gallardolabs

LinkedIn

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

Thank you for having me!

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