Keep relationships at the core of everything you do. Whether it’s client relationships, customer relationships, or relationships with your team members, these will make or break you as a company. I realized how central to our agency relationships are once we started asking for client feedback on an annual basis, and consistently received the response that we’re an extension of their team, that we’re trustworthy, and that we care. These things can get lost in business and aren’t hard to do. The best way to do show that you value relationships is to go above and beyond when it comes to meeting expectations and show up when they need you.
As a part of our series about “Why We Need More Women Founders”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Andrea Barnhill.
Andrea is one of the Co-Founders of Socratik SEO agency, a 3-year old digital marketing agency, and serves as the Director of Operations. Her eight years in the digital marketing and SEO world have helped her to grow Socratik by +433% in revenue over the last, work with more than +40 clients, and grow the team to 5 employees over the last 3 years.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?
My first exposure to SEO was during a digital marketing internship at Discovery Communications for TLC one summer while I was studying English at Florida State University. SEO and content marketing immediately clicked for me, as I loved the data-driven approach and strategic creativity behind it.
After I graduated, I got my first job at VISIT FLORIDA as the Content Management Specialist, and pretty early on, I saw a huge opportunity to implement SEO into the large-scale content publishing that they were doing. They had a full staff of incredible journalists producing serious volumes of content every week, but the viewership was so low because no one was finding this content. It wasn’t visible in organic search engines and had no SEO strategy behind it. So, it became my mission to evangelize the value of SEO among the various marketing teams to start to implement it into our processes in order to organically acquire more users to the website with a more data-driven content approach.
There wasn’t a breakthrough until we went through a massive overhaul of the website — a platform migration and redesign at the same time — and as one of the internal project managers, I made sure SEO was top of mind throughout. We built the new website with SEO at its core — technically optimized, content hierarchy and information architecture developed to scale — and not even 5 months post-launch, we saw a 70% increase in organic traffic YoY.
Then, I was officially hooked. I wanted more SEO and decided to make a career transition and jump over to the agency side. I took a job with a brand new digital marketing agency as their first hire, where I learned a ton about both SEO and getting an agency started.
From there, I went back in-house to an Ecommerce startup brand backed by PepsiCo called Drinkfinity, where I learned all about the ins and outs of a fully-digital business, and wore a lot of hats as a digital marketing team of two.
Hardly one month into this job is when the opportunity to start an agency came up. A colleague from a previous job had a national hotel chain company looking for an SEO vendor to support their needs for a 12-month contract. I knew I’d need help to make it happen with a day job, so I called up my good friend, Tyler Cooper, to see if he wanted to partner up on the account as a side hustle. He’s very experienced in SEO and comes from the affiliate marketing world.
As soon as we made the decision to launch our own agency, we started to pick up more and more business through word of mouth and referral, left our jobs within six months, and have been growing our agency ever since.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
After about six months of a full-time job by day and building an agency by night, it was time for me to leave my job. I was so nervous. It’s a monumental moment for any entrepreneur to leave a secure, stable job to pursue your vision.
Of course, self-doubt started to creep in when the day arrived for me to resign and have a tough conversation with my boss who I admired and enjoyed working for. It was such a great team and company; if it wasn’t for this pursuit of starting my own company, I would’ve seen myself there for many years.
I was also young, just a few days away from turning 26, and I did still feel unsure to declare that I was starting my own business and say that outloud to people, worried that I wouldn’t be taken seriously.
I asked my boss if he had a few minutes to chat, and we went into a conference room where I let him know about my decision to invest in my SEO agency and that I would be leaving the team in two weeks. It did not go at all how I expected! He was incredibly supportive, believed in my vision right away, and expressed interest in becoming one of our clients to continue to work together. I could have never predicted that outcome. This conversation that I dreaded turned into one of the most vital moments of our company’s origin, as it was one of the first people who believed in us and expressed buy-in to our idea. They did end up becoming a client of ours, in the end.
This point in starting a business is incredibly daunting, but it’s pivotal in giving yourself the space, and giving the attention to your business, to really speed up growth.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
When we were just entering our second year of business, Tyler and I went to New York City to present our SEO strategy to one of our new clients in person. We prepared a ton, even practiced presenting and answering any questions that could come up. Though we were thrilled to have this opportunity, naturally, we were nervous too!
Once we sat down with our client’s team and began our meeting, things were going swimmingly. We had great discussions, got to hear more about where they wanted us to focus, and aligned on goals and objectives. It felt very productive, until we were graced with a surprise visit from the global CEO. The brand is an Italian brand, with global markets, so chances of the CEO actually being in the New York office at the same time we were was very slim. All of a sudden, we found ourselves being grilled with questions, having to defend why SEO was the right investment and how sure we were about driving impactful results.
I was shocked when he walked through the door and pulled up a chair! It’s funny to look back at that and remember how I instantly went from feeling confident to wanting to crawl under the table. But looking back, that was a huge learning experience. Now, we write every email to every client as if it’s getting forwarded straight to the CEO’s inbox. We prepare for every in-person meeting as if the CEO is going to be there. Lesson learned — you never know!
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
There are many people that come to mind, but the first one is my dad! I have watched him lead his life and career without a fear of failure, and he instilled that in me from a young age. During my college winter breaks when I would visit home, he’d encourage me to apply to internships at companies I never would’ve thought I had a shot at. He suggested I make a list of the companies and brands I think are the coolest and biggest in the world. When I’d tell him no way am I applying, it’s pointless, he would ask, “Why not? Just go for it, there’s nothing to lose”. And that’s how I ended up interning at Discovery, which changed the trajectory of my career dramatically.
It’s translated to other areas of life, too. I got into long-distance running and racing a few years ago, which might have felt intimidating, but I just figured there’s nothing to lose, to just go for it and try. I’ve done all kinds of distance races, and ran my first marathon, all because of this mentality that my dad models of removing the fear of failure from trying new things and exploring new opportunities.
I attribute the success I have experienced in my life and career to not being afraid to fail, and reaching farther than I think I can to accomplish big things. I use this day in and day out of building a business and seeking out opportunities to keep our team dreaming and in momentum.
Also, I couldn’t have accomplished anything in creating this agency without my partner, Tyler Cooper. His work ethic is unmatched, he’s brilliant and a very strategic thinker, and he’s tough — his positive attitude in the good times and learning moments has kept us going over the years. He’s also been a big influence in my career since the beginning. Back in college, he’d loop me into some of his side projects and I learned a lot about digital marketing from working with him and having him as a mentor in SEO.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. According to this EY report, only about 20 percent of funded companies have women founders. This reflects great historical progress, but it also shows that more work still has to be done to empower women to create companies. In your opinion and experience what is currently holding back women from founding companies?
When I think back to when I was younger and contemplating what I wanted to do for a career, founding my own company certainly never crossed my mind as an option. Naturally, as a young person, your world is much smaller than it is as you grow throughout adulthood, but at that age I did not have any women entrepreneurs in my life to model after. In my case, it just wasn’t introduced as an option growing up. A lack of resources and entrepreneurial education for young women 10+ years ago could hold women in today’s workforce back from founding companies.
It may be assumed that men have more role models, especially today, hearing about incredibly successful business leaders in the media and can set their sights on pursuing a similar path as they begin their careers. But as the report shows, the number of women-founding companies is dramatically growing and will only continue to do so, in which case more young women are more likely to aspire to start their own companies as they see more women doing it with significant success.
There’s also no black-and-white “blueprint” on how to found a company, and I’ve read that psychologically, women tend to question decision-making and their qualifications more often. To start a business, you have to believe in yourself and your idea to a fault in order to break through roadblocks in the process.
Can you help articulate a few things that can be done as individuals, as a society, or by the government, to help overcome those obstacles?
As individuals, women founders can see being a female in the business world as a differentiator. Because it’s less common than a male founder, it gives you an edge and allows you to stand out. Rather than view being a woman in the business world as a barrier, I see it as an opportunity to either prove people wrong or that it enriches my story. When I can’t control external forces, I focus on how I can alter my perception since that is completely in my control.
One way to help overcome obstacles for women aspiring to become a company founder is to create a paved educational path to becoming an entrepreneur and founding a company. In my experience, there were college courses and degrees offered in business and entrepreneurship, but at that point, many young adults may already assume it’s not for them as they’re well into pursuing another route. High schools could offer an elective entrepreneurship class that focuses not only on development of viable ideas but also learning about the state of the market, how to put ideas into motion, operations, finance, marketing principles, etc. to give a full picture of what it means to own a business. The idea of business ownership would be introduced to both young men and women alike at earlier ages.
In recent years, many communities for female founders have formed and have become huge assets and support systems to women in all types of businesses. This has been huge in my own journey in getting connected with other women founders to not only find mentors, but to also have conversations with someone else going through similar experiences as myself. With the development and strengthening of the female founder community, it will alleviate some of the obstacles that women face in business by having others to turn to and seek counsel.
This might be intuitive to you as a woman founder but I think it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you share a few reasons why more women should become founders?
More women should become founders because it sets you free. When you become in control of your vision and have nothing in your way of bringing it into fruition, it’s incredibly empowering. Of course, it’s incredibly hard work, especially when you’re getting started, between wearing too many hats, working too many hours, losing pitches you’d give anything for, and the list goes on.
Additionally, I’m 7.5 months pregnant right now with my first child, and to be able to make my work support this new season of my life is a gift. The last few years starting a business and getting it off the ground took 110% dedication. But now, with the support of our amazing team of three employees, and seasoned relationships with our clients, I feel confident that I can make the transition of becoming a mother in a much simpler way than if I was employed elsewhere and was strapped to a strict maternity leave plan, if any, and inflexible hours. For women who aspire to have families, owning your own business gives you more choices.
Women have such unique and different perspectives to bring forth in all verticals of business. You will only add value to your industry and bring forward new ideas, especially in predominantly male fields like SEO.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a founder? Can you explain what you mean?
I remember thinking early on, “I don’t have any earth-shattering ideas to start a business”, but being a founder is so much more than just having ideas! A huge part of starting a business is to be operationally-savvy. If you’re naturally great at staying organized, project management, communication, and are a visionary thinker, you can be an amazing asset to the person who does have the big ideas, and team up as co-founders. My partner and I are night and day, but it reduces your weak spots when you can form a diverse team and bring many strengths to the table.
Another myth is that you need a lot of funding to start a company. You don’t! We haven’t had 1 dollar contributed from an outside investor and are entirely bootstrapped. This is certainly easier to accomplish as a service-based company vs. product-based, as there are generally less expenses upon starting up, but if you can start small and prioritize your focus on where will make you returns quickly and fund your business that way. Of course, you can absolutely go the route of pitching investors and acquiring funding, but that is not the only option.
People also think that starting a business is glamorous. I’ll first say that I’ve loved every day of it and every experience it’s granted me, but it has been some of the hardest work of my life. There is a lot more at stake, and since it’s your own, you can’t help but be emotionally invested and take things to heart. Some days are hard to get through. But I do believe it’s a myth that it’s a glamorous thing to be a business owner. You have to work incredibly hard for a long time before you get any moment of glamour!
Is everyone cut out to be a founder? In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful founder and what type of person should perhaps seek a “regular job” as an employee? Can you explain what you mean?
Resilience is a non-negotiable trait of a founder. As I mentioned earlier, there is no clear or easy route to founding a company. You sometimes find yourself on the windiest road you’ve ever been on, unsure if you’re making any progress towards your destination. It’s critical to be resilient and push through unexpected obstacles, and when things don’t go your way, to be able to bounce back and move past hard emotions, like discouragement and disappointment, pretty quickly.
If you’re someone who likes structure, a “regular job” is likely a better fit since when you’re a founder, your role evolves all the time. I started off as one of the two SEO strategists (alongside my partner), but as we grew, we realized that we needed someone to be dedicated to client SEO support and the other to fully commit to growing the business and overseeing operations, so I made the transition to become our Director of Operations. As we’ve hired employees, I’m even less in the weeds with client work, and now spend more time on our marketing and growth planning. There is no concrete job description to my role with Socratik, but I do love change and potential.
Lastly, having substantial self-discipline is key to being a founder. When you’re first starting out, you most likely have no accountability since you don’t have a supervisor, direct reports, or even team members. No one will know the difference if you’re working hard or taking a nap at 2pm on a Tuesday. But you have to know what works for you in terms of productivity and setting up your own work system in order to produce results and make progress in your business.
The key thing here, however, is that I wouldn’t have used any of those three terms — resilient, a big fan of change, and disciplined — to describe myself before I started my business. Because I had a vision and wanted to bring it to succeed so badly, these things came naturally. As a result, I’ve learned a lot about myself and grown as a person and professional.
Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. Based on your opinion and experience, What are the “Five Things You Need To Thrive and Succeed as a Woman Founder?” (Please share a story or example for each.)
- Keep relationships at the core of everything you do. Whether it’s client relationships, customer relationships, or relationships with your team members, these will make or break you as a company. I realized how central to our agency relationships are once we started asking for client feedback on an annual basis, and consistently received the response that we’re an extension of their team, that we’re trustworthy, and that we care. These things can get lost in business and aren’t hard to do. The best way to do show that you value relationships is to go above and beyond when it comes to meeting expectations and show up when they need you.
- Celebrate the wins. And this doesn’t only mean to celebrate when you actually win. I consider “winning” when I put forth my absolute best effort, when I can look back at a pitch and know that my team did the very best we could have. So even if the outcome isn’t favorable, it’s still so important to just take a moment and acknowledge hard work and effort.
- Don’t be afraid to fail. As I mentioned before, it feels liberating to go after opportunities without fear. The worst that can happen is that you have to figure something else out. Even when things aren’t okay, they are still okay. Being afraid of risk and failure can hinder your potential more than anything else.
- Company culture is critical. Once I was in the stage where we needed to start hiring some help, I realized that I had to make our company look appealing to work for from the outside. This resulted in quickly pulling together an online presence — a LinkedIn page, Instagram handle, Glassdoor account, etc. You want your vision for your business to be visible to people who aren’t you to be able to get invested, and want to join your team. That will help you to acquire true talent, and have wider candidate pools to choose from.
- Document everything. Of course, documenting internal processes is key to scaling up. But I’m talking about documenting absolutely everything, and essentially creating a history of your company as you go. As time goes on, and we get busier, it’s easier for memories to blend together. But to be able to look back and reference various points in time as your company matures will help your brand stay true to itself, and guide the way you navigate similar experiences in the future.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
It is my hope to have created a workplace that invests in its team and enables employees to live the life they want with autonomy and flexibility. Our small team is tight knit, but we have a culture of trust and accountability and we can rest assured that when life happens, someone will be there for us to lean on and help us to keep moving forward.
I also genuinely feel like our service offerings help our clients. They come to us with a goal to grow their organic search traffic, to start beating out competitors for more sales and conversions on their websites, and we have had many successful engagements where we’ve greatly surpassed their expectations. It feels like we all win together, and that’s really rewarding. Because our company invests in our relationships, we get to connect with more and more people and help them achieve their own goals.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
As I prepare to enter the next stage of life as I become a mother, one of my biggest worries these days is finding a solution for childcare that also supports being a business owner and entrepreneur. I also know I’m not alone in this. I have discussed this topic at length with other women who have families and own companies, and there’s no solution out there that mothers feel truly great about, all around. Childcare is such a large expense, which is a sacrifice. But at the same time, I (along with other women, I’m sure) do not want to sacrifice the quality of work and attention I can provide to my business and team because other people are counting on me.
I imagine that so many women face the challenging decision of the right childcare solution, especially even more so in these even more difficult times during the pandemic, and there must be a solution that really supports female founders who have children. One idea that comes to mind is a co-working space that offers childcare. This does seem to exist in the big metropolitan cities across the globe but have a significant price tag attached. I don’t quite know exactly what the perfect situation is, but I would aspire to be part of a movement that creates more options for female founders and mothers that allow women to still bring 100% of their A-game to their companies, support their family needs, and not break the bank at the same time.
We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.
Sara Blakely! She is one of my role models in business, hands down. She’s an ambitious self-starter, is so charitable and gives back in many ways, and she’s also an alumnus from my alma mater, Florida State University. What she has accomplished with an ever-evolving brand like SPANX is incredible and admirable. I can’t imagine all the amazing gems of advice from one lunch with Sara!
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.