Know what it takes to sleep well at night. Define what’s important to you when you do business — is it integrity? Bravery? Security? Reputation? You’re going to face a lot of tough choices that aren’t always easy, but if you know what your values are from the beginning and follow them, you’ll make decisions that you feel good about in the long run. There have been quite a few times when a client has offered to pay us a lot of money to run a particular campaign or do something outside of our service, and it’s been tempting to just say yes even if we weren’t well set up to deliver it. However, returning to my values of integrity and honesty, I knew what I had to do, and the answer was to say no. Early on in the business, I said yes a little too much, and it never worked out well for me or the client. Things like that still keep me up at night even now.
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 Gemma Renton.
Gemma is the founder of Vine Street Digital, an award-winning marketing agency specializing in Pay Per Click advertising. With over a decade of experience, she has helped hundreds of businesses worldwide with their online advertising. She also promotes a positive work/life balance and employs 100% of her staff on remote, flexible arrangements.
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’ve always loved business and took every opportunity I could to be a part of a team and learn the inner workings of different types of businesses. This meant I had a lot of odds jobs in my teens and early 20s, including running my own dance school and even managing a non-profit. In university, I originally thought I might become a lawyer, but it only took 1 semester for me to realise I hated it. I immediately changed to business management and never looked back. After university, I got a job in a digital marketing agency and completely fell in love with PPC. I spent several years honing my skills before starting my own agency.
What was the “Aha Moment” that led to the idea for your current company? Can you share that story with us?
I don’t think I had an “aha moment” — more of a breaking point. Traditional agency life can be very toxic. In a lot of agencies, specialists and client managers are given an unmanageable amount of work which leads to crazy long hours. It’s also a high-pressure environment with a lot of KPIs. The better you are at what you do, the more pressure you feel.
This leads to a lot of burnout, and I was no exception. I remember I got tonsillitis and continued to work through it until, eventually, I had to go to the emergency room because it just wasn’t getting better. When the doctor told me that the easy answer was to rest, that was a wake-up call. My physical and mental health had really deteriorated and I knew I just couldn’t continue working that way.
I knew that a lot of this burnout and overload came from needing to maintain profitable margins on each specialist. So, I thought that if all the overheads were gone and your time was far more flexible, then you could manage fewer clients and still have a good work/life balance. Thus, Vine Street Digital was born.
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 my first year, I probably thought about giving up at least once a week. Not because I didn’t believe in my business model, but because I didn’t believe in myself. Who was I to be running a business? And at 24? Was I insane? I remember that I had recently gone full time in my business, I was living in a terrible apartment, and the communal washing machine had broken. I was so focused on my business that I just forgot to do laundry and didn’t have a clean outfit for the day. I remember thinking “how do you expect to run your own business if you can’t even clean your clothes?!” I had a lot of moments like that.
But those early days made me really look at myself and what it means to value my own time and skills. I noticed how I saw myself and realised just how much doubt I had internalised from the comments of other people. While looking at those things, I realised that even if they were true yesterday, they don’t have to be true tomorrow. On every day that I succeeded, I trusted myself a little more. And every day that I failed, I realised that the world didn’t explode. Those thoughts were really comforting.
So, how are things going today? How did your grit and resilience lead to your eventual success?
Things today are going really well. I still have the occasional flash of imposter syndrome, but I’ve succeeded in what I always wanted for myself — a work/life balance. Getting through all the difficult things has made me a lot more confident, too. After solving thousands of problems, it’s rare that I come across a situation that I think is totally hopeless.
Another thing that has led to my success is only worrying about things that I can control. Unknowns scare everyone in some way, so I made a point of listing out all the things that I wasn’t sure about and then going to find answers. The more you know, the easier it is to make decisions. And even in cases where I don’t know everything, I ask myself what’s the worst thing that can happen. Identifying what I’m afraid of comforts me and helps me move forward.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
The key difference between Vine Street Digital and other agencies is the quality of the work. This comes down to how we use our time. We’ve always been a flexible, remote workplace, even long before the pandemic. The lack of giant overheads (like office rent) means we can be profitable with fewer clients.
We’ve set a limit of no more than 40 clients per each of our specialists, and at the moment, many of them have about 25 clients. This is a huge contrast from traditional marketing agencies that overload their specialists with 100+ clients. We’re able to give more attention to our clients’ campaigns and create a better work/life balance for our specialists.
I speak to a lot of business owners who are all disappointed with their current agency that had promised them the world and failed to deliver. One story stands out in my mind — a woman who owned a small online store. She was paying another agency to manage campaigns for her. Things were not going well and I could tell she was frustrated. After looking at her campaigns, I could see the current agency hadn’t made any changes for months. She was so frustrated that she cried, and I’m one of those people that cry when other people cry, so I did too. We cried for a bit and eventually decided to work together. She’s still a client today and we can laugh about it now. I’m just glad we could help turn it around.
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’ve made a lot of mistakes in my time, but the funniest is probably sending an email to the wrong person by accident. I remember one time, a client emailed me saying that he was going to be paying late and that most companies don’t expect payments for 30 days so I shouldn’t be bothering him anyway. I was annoyed by this because he’d agreed to 14-day payment terms. So, I forwarded the email to another team member saying that this was so rude. But I didn’t forward it! I hit reply! I was mortified.
The lesson here is to check your emails. But also, if you have a problem with someone, you should just tell them directly. It actually opened up a conversation between us and he never paid late again.
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?
A lot of agencies are “full service”, meaning they’ll do a range of digital activities like web development, design, SEO etc. I remember someone telling me that it was never going to be enough to offer PPC services and that I’d need to expand into other offerings to make any real money. In the early days, I took on some web development projects and they just didn’t go well. The websites were good but managing the project was a nightmare and we ended up losing money. I realised that I know PPC backwards and forwards and that we should focus on what we do best. We’ve scaled up very well by remaining specialists at one thing, and it’s a big reason why a lot of clients approach us in the first place. So I wish I had never wasted time trying to be a one-stop-shop!
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?
Honesty and vulnerability are big ones for me. I really respect those qualities in other people too. I worked in agencies for a while before going off on my own and I realised that most problems start because someone wasn’t being honest or direct. This has been important in a remote workplace, too — I can’t walk through a physical office to get a vibe for how everyone’s doing. I can’t solve problems I don’t know about. So, being honest about what we need, what we want, and what we’re not happy with, is a big reason why we have a good culture here.
I had a situation with an employee who started as a full-time specialist. She was a relatively new mother and her daughter started to have some health problems. This person was a big team player who never wanted to let anyone down, so she’d always tell me things were okay and that she’d manage it and be fine. But, of course, her daughter needed to be the focus, so her work started to suffer. I told her I’d support her and I had many solutions where she could keep working here but still prioritise her family — all she needed to do was level with me and be honest with herself about how much she could handle. We crafted a new role for her, and she thrived. If we weren’t honest with each other, she might have burnt out or I might have lost a great employee. She’s still with the company, her daughter is happy and healthy, and she’s expecting a second bub very soon.
The third quality is integrity and I think this is particularly important in the digital marketing industry. Handing over your campaigns to someone else is a bit like taking your car to a mechanic. You know that all mechanics would know more than you, but you’re not exactly sure if what they’re telling you is true or if what they’re charging is fair. Digital marketers are the new mechanics, and it’s our responsibility to maintain integrity in everything we do.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
Know what your company expects from you and don’t be afraid to push back when you feel it’s unreasonable and crosses a boundary. I think a good example of this is overtime. A lot of agencies don’t officially ask you to work long hours, but it’s implied by their KPIs. Talk about how much work you have and the hours you have to do it in, and have your manager confirm their expectations. It’s a good way to bring the burnout conversation to the surface.
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?
Starting a business is so exciting, and many CEOs and founders are amazing visionaries and ideas-people. The big downfall I see is business owners running away with their ideas and not taking the time to get the systems, processes, and data collection down. Starting a business is fun, but don’t ignore the boring stuff.
In your experience, which aspect of running a company tends to be most underestimated? Can you explain or give an example?
Definitely all the boring stuff! A lot of my hours have been sunk into things like paperwork, spreadsheets, and documentation. I think all business owners know things like this will exist, but sometimes it’s literally all you do. Luckily a part of me finds things like that satisfying in their own way, but I think you’ve got to really love what you do to get through the boring bits.
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.
Don’t set yourself on fire to keep others warm.
This is something I say to myself a lot nowadays but I really wish someone had said it to me early on in my life. You can’t look after other people if you’re not looking after yourself.
When I did finally start my own agency, it was confronting just how run-down I had become, and how much I had isolated myself from friends and family because of that. But, before I could be there for them, I knew I had to be there for myself first.
Know what it takes to sleep well at night.
Define what’s important to you when you do business — is it integrity? Bravery? Security? Reputation? You’re going to face a lot of tough choices that aren’t always easy, but if you know what your values are from the beginning and follow them, you’ll make decisions that you feel good about in the long run. There have been quite a few times when a client has offered to pay us a lot of money to run a particular campaign or do something outside of our service, and it’s been tempting to just say yes even if we weren’t well set up to deliver it. However, returning to my values of integrity and honesty, I knew what I had to do, and the answer was to say no. Early on in the business, I said yes a little too much, and it never worked out well for me or the client. Things like that still keep me up at night even now.
Knowledge = confidence.
I eventually learned to find answers to my unknowns so that I could move forward and make decisions. But prior to that, I found myself playing scenarios over in my head and not taking action. I had a lot of hesitations about hiring employees in the beginning, and I think I delayed it mostly out of fear. One of my big regrets is not hiring sooner. I think that just came down to a lack of information to be able to move forward with my choices.
Be more than your career.
When I left the traditional agency life, I found it really confronting when I was left with no hobbies or interests outside of work. When I started my company, it took me a little bit to realise that it wasn’t just the poor work/life balance of my old workplaces causing that problem, it was me. Finding interests and not defining myself by my career has made me a happier person in general and allows me to see the bigger picture on days where company life is hard.
Be the leader that feels right to you.
There’s a lot of advice out there about being a business owner and/or leader and it’s kind of intimidating. I spent a lot of the early years trying to fit that “leader” persona and do the things I thought I was meant to do as someone in charge. But ultimately, I had to admit that not everything was going to suit me and who I am, and just be okay with that.
A good example is probably the fact that I’m very quiet on my personal social media accounts. This is very controversial for a leader because we’re often told to develop our personal brands. It’s even crazier for someone who runs a digital marketing company! But a big reason why I started my company was to prioritise my mental health. When I really thought about it, I wanted my own life to be mine — I didn’t really want to share it with the rest of the world. And I don’t always enjoy the noise that social media creates, so I stay off it most of the time.
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. 🙂
The movement of prioritising mental health in the workplace. I think this has already started to take off during the pandemic when we realised that there’s more than one way to get a job done and we can tailor workplaces to individuals much more than we realise. I hope it’s something we don’t forget when the pandemic ends. I believe that flexible workplaces can contribute greatly to inclusiveness, accessibility, and gender equality, which are all movements I hope to positively contribute to.
How can our readers further follow you online?
I would highly recommend Vine Street Digital’s Instagram (@vinestreetdigital). Not only do we share digital marketing tips, but we also share tips on work/life balance, mental health, and how the team embraces personal development outside of their careers.
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent with this!