You are enough! Early on in the business, even though I had secured three clients within my first few weeks, I was wavering and questioning if I had enough expertise to build the company on my own. I told myself not to be “arrogant,” and think that I was “smart enough.” I told myself to “let go of my ego,” and get a business partner. I wish someone had told me it wasn’t an ego problem. I wish someone had told me to keep moving, keep building my confidence and that I was in fact enough to build my company.
As a part of our series about entrepreneurs who transformed something they did for fun into a full-time career, I had the pleasure of interviewing Amber Swenor. Amber is a brand and business strategist who helps people to make their dreams a reality. She is the founder of Strategic Partners, a brand strategy agency and marketing firm that provides business strategy and marketing services for passionate people and companies. She’s also the founder of Impact Academy, where she provides coaching, speaking, programs and retreats on personal development and business strategy. She helps people to live their most authentic badass lives by getting clarity for their dreams and creating strategies to go for them. She helps heart-centered service providers, healers and creatives to build businesses that are authentic to them, and are both impactful and profitable. She’s a 2019 Goldman Sachs 10,000 Small Businesses Graduate, 2018 Vital Voices International VVGrow Fellow, 2018 Madison Magnet Super Connector finalist, 2017 Brava Magazine Woman to Watch, 2017 Young Athena Award Finalist, 2017 In Business Magazine 40 under 40. She’s authoring her first book titled, Unleashed, to be released March 2020. When she’s not strategizing to help you live your most bad-ass life, you’ll find her rocking the stage with her band, Morningstar.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a bit about your “childhood backstory”?
I was born ready to take the world by storm. Being “bright-eyed and bushy-tailed,” as my mother used to say, was accompanied by strong will and often a hard head. She also often told me she didn’t know how to parent me!
At an early age, I was determined to create a different life for myself: one that was free of constant stressors and fears, and one that could be lived the way that I believe life is intended for: to have freedom of self discovery, self-expression, and to uncover all that we are meant to become.
My parents loved me very much and worked extremely hard to provide a better life than they had. However, with my mom being a young single mother and both of my parents having a limited education, it made things very stressful and there was often a lot of fighting. I was an emphatic child; my mom often said I was, “wise beyond my years.” She said I’d always hang around the adult conversations, became everyone’s problem solver, and was the nucleus of every circle I was a part of, and there were many. I fit in with the farmers, the Gothic kids, the geeks and the outcasts. I fit in with them all because a piece of me identified with each of them.
Thus began the eventful journey to finding my true career calling and purpose in life.
What was the catalyst from transforming your hobby or something you love into a business? Can you share the story of your “ah ha” moment with us?
My whole life I have been a problem solver for people, and have loved being able to help others see their path. Many different people could always talk to me. I think it’s because my own vulnerability allowed them to feel safe opening up to me.
I knew for most of my life that this was something unique about me, but it wasn’t until adulthood that I came to understand that my natural gifts, combined with life and business experience, could actually become my job. I had the ability to fit into any sort of group and make connections with just about anyone, and particularly, the people who seemed to be a bit different, a bit of a rebel, or an “other.” I had a special kinship with the outliers, rebels and unicorns. As I got older I began to realize it was something unique about me.
As I was building my marketing firm, more and more people began reaching out to me with comments about how I had inspired them to have the confidence to be themselves, that I helped show them that even though they didn’t look the typical part and that they could be successful in business too.
I began to seriously consider how to take my skills and turn them into the primary business. In late 2016 I beta tested a 4-week brand strategy course that I thought was all about brand. Yet, after completing the course and reading participant feedback, I was noticing a theme in the responses. People were telling me they were feeling more confident and greater importance in their work; one person said that the course was “life-changing,” and that after 20 years in business he could finally speak confidently about himself, his business, and why it mattered.
That was a pivotal moment when I came to the awareness that what I provide goes way beyond business strategy or learning how to market — it’s about helping people feel worthy and confident and understanding that true success flows from that. That’s when I began re-positioning the type of business coaching that I offered to align with helping people uncover and pursue their dreams. This is what laid the foundation for the strategy that is now my ultimate purpose in business, and as a woman.
There are no shortage of good ideas out there, but people seem to struggle in taking a good idea and translating it into an actual business. How did you overcome this challenge?
I have always practiced what I teach: go back to basics, stay curious and constantly be engaging and learning from your clients/audience. Talk with people and find out what needs there are and how your driving principles and zone of genius meet your clients right at their weak spot. That is where the magic lies. When you are in alignment with your greatest strengths, you are able to identify the specific needs for your specific audience.
From the beginning, I wasn’t afraid to dive in and get started with my business knowing that it was not going to be anywhere near perfect. Word of advice: it never will be, perfection isn’t real, nor is it a healthy standard to strive for. You just have to start something and then iterate as you go.
While I had a future vision of what my company could become, I knew that none of that would be possible without talking with people who fit prospective ideal customer types. I needed to learn their pain points, needs, and cultivate solutions to fit that. It has been a constant practice making adjustments to programs and offers as I go.
What advice would you give someone who has a hobby or pastime that they absolutely love but is reluctant to do it for a living?
It’s a personal choice as to whether you choose to turn your hobby into your living or not, and it’s important to look deeply at what is driving that decision.
Often people will say they don’t want to turn their passion into their career. However, when we dig into that, their sentiment is often always coming from a place of fear, more specifically rooted as the fear of not making any money.
My advice is to get quiet with yourself. Imagine that anything is possible and money is not an issue. What would you do all day every day? What lights you up? What makes you feel like you’re making a difference in the world?
Now, consider if there is a reality in which that could become your business. Often people do wish for their passion project to become their career but it’s that they don’t see how it’s possible and they cut themselves off before even getting started. My advice is to allow yourself to dream and be honest about what you truly desire before you write it off as not plausible.
It’s said that the quickest way to take the fun out of doing something is to do it for a living. How do you keep from changing something you love into something you dread? How do you keep it fresh and enjoyable?
I’ve invested a great deal of intentional effort getting really clear on my driving force and guiding principles: unwavering beliefs that fuel my passion driven work. I work from my soul so every day that I’m serving my clients, it is impossible for me to lose my enjoyment or passion.
To keep from changing the passion to dread, it’s important to work with clients who are truly an ideal fit for me and vice versa. It is so important your values are in alignment with your clients.
I always look out for what I perceive to be in both the client’s best interest, and mine as well; it’s in neither of our interests to take their money if something doesn’t feel quite right or if it’s not clicking. In addition, I manage how many 1–1 clients I work with so that I don’t over-book my schedule. This guarantees that I can show up in full energy and support of each client, every time.
I also make space for the aspects of my life that provide personal fulfillment, such as regular writing blocks, time dedicated to my band, and my own health and wellness. If work ever becomes dreadful, it is when my schedule is too tight, I’m overworked, and not creating space for my own personal recharge.
What is it that you enjoy most about running your own business? What are the downsides of running your own business? Can you share what you did to overcome these drawbacks?
I’ve always believed that a different type of workplace was possible, outside of the typical corporate norms.
I believe that different people with different work styles can perform their best when provided some flexibility to determine what workflow works best for them. For example, when I’m on, I’m on. When I tap into creative flow, or sales motivation, I can get more done in two days in flow, versus five days being forced to be somewhere because those are the “office hours.” I love being able to create my own, unique culture and I love leading a team that has the freedom to tailor their own work experience. My main goal is to support each of them in igniting their best strengths, while also working to my own schedule that allows me to optimize my own productivity.
Downsides? It can be lonely to be the boss. As an entrepreneurial leader, we have a lot on our shoulders. This is why I seek out entrepreneurial communities and have my own coach, so that I am never in the experience alone.
Can you share what was the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?
It’s been a surprise to see how easy and joyful it can feel when I am working in flow, with an ideal client who is committed to the work. This doesn’t mean that it’s without challenges, as there are many of those; however, when all the stars align, it feels magical.
Has there ever been a moment when you thought to yourself “I can’t take it anymore, I’m going to get a “real” job? If so how did you overcome it?
Even in my lowest low, October 2015, when my bank account was down to it’s last few dollars, and I had just come out of a destructive and failed business partnership that left both the business and myself in a precarious situation, I never thought about taking a different job. I knew that it wasn’t a matter of if I’d come out on the other side, it was just a matter of having the resolve to hang in there, continue doing the work, and things would improve.
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?
It’s funny now to look back and remember some of the false things I believed back when I started my business: that I always had to over-deliver (this kept me struggling a I was often working three hours for one hour of work). I now understand the value of what I offer and that everything doesn’t need to feel hard or painful to be worthy of it.
Another is the lie that I had to hire whoever was willing to work for me because we were a young organization and I couldn’t yet offer benefits (I now understand the value of our culture and how much that matters to people). It’s amazing to look back and see how much I’ve grown in four years.
Who has inspired or continues to inspire you to be a great leader? Why?
My clients are my biggest inspiration. I see them being so strong, brave, and doing amazing heart-centered work that makes a difference in the world. When I see them smile, stand up in pride; when I watch them stumble and hear their cries, followed by their continued resolve to get back up and move forward again, that shows me that I’m helping them to build their strength, and that inspires me to keep going because with every woman who can fall down, and get back up, there is one less women who is giving up on her dream.
When my clients tell me that I help them to feel more confident leading their companies, and that I’m an important advisor to them, that helps me believe that I’m doing important work and it inspires me to keep going. I want to help women leaders to rise one by one which eventually will become a whole community of heart-centered leaders, together on the rise!
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
The more that I show up authentically as me, speaking my truth, the more that it provides permission and space for others to do the same.
I believe that individuals with the ability to be who they are is the ultimate path to personal freedom. When people are free to be themselves without wasting energy questioning their own worthiness or abilities, it enables them to show up as their whole self and focus on creating, innovating, and doing good work in the world.
My mission is to help people fully unleash who they are and their potential. Helping people to show up as their best while doing their best, makes the world better for everyone. In addition, my company supports several organizations such a Doyenne, an entrepreneur organization that’s striving to balance the ecosystem to be more inclusive of women and entrepreneurs of color. My company is sponsoring the making of the film, Dreamer, featuring several notable people including, the effervescent, Lisa Nichols.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
- You are enough: Early on in the business, even though I had secured three clients within my first few weeks, I was wavering and questioning if I had enough expertise to build the company on my own. I told myself not to be “arrogant,” and think that I was “smart enough.” I told myself to “let go of my ego,” and get a business partner. I wish someone had told me it wasn’t an ego problem. I wish someone had told me to keep moving, keep building my confidence and that I was in fact enough to build my company.
- Develop clear contracts from the start: I was too trusting with hand-shake agreements early on, and unfortunately, this lead to not getting paid on several occasions and clients who didn’t always hold up their side of the agreement. It’s so much better for both parties when the agreement is clear and drawn up in a legal document.
- You are not “equal” to your staff: As a small tight-knit team, I strive to create a strong and intimate team culture where we really understand each other’s strengths and gaps, and where we celebrate and support each other fully. Despite feeling that I have a mutually respectful working relationship and friendship with each of my staff, I had to learn that I’m still their employer with the power to fire them which creates a dynamic that makes us “not-equal.”
There were several occasions where team members hosted gatherings at their homes and invited the rest of their colleagues but didn’t invite me. For a time, this hurt my feelings, until I came to understand that as much as we have a supportive team-culture, my team views me as the boss, not as a peer, and that this is a dynamic that a leader needs to be ok with.
- Don’t underestimate the power of culture: Early on when I was first building the team, I was going into the hiring process feeling disappointed about what I could afford to pay a team member and feeling guilty for not yet being able to provide benefits. This lead me into the hiring process from a lack mindset that said I should “take what I could get” for employees. From the start, I’ve offered remote work, flexible hours, and a supportive, ‘mentorship-heavy’ work environment — all things that carry a ton of value. I’ve since learned the power of culture and I stand by it proudly as we seek the best candidates as I now understand the value that my company has to offer.
- Don’t Rush or Skip Steps in the Hiring Process: When hiring, especially as a small company where there’s no room for an under-productive employee to hide, it’s extremely important to make the right hire. You save yourself so much time in the long-run by taking time to do a thorough hiring process on the front-end.
What person wouldn’t want to work doing something they absolutely love. You are an incredible inspiration to a great many people. If you could inspire 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.
It’s time for the rise of the heart-centered leader. If you are heart-centered and have tried to grow your business and are struggling or feel that you failed, don’t give up! Get support! Your heart-centeredness is your superpower, not your weakness. You can find a coach or advisor to help you plan strategically for your business, but you can’t hire someone to infuse heart, soul, and passion. That is YOUR unique magic, and the world needs it. The world of business is changing, and more people see the value in business as something beyond just making money. Both workers and consumers are looking to do business with companies that are rooted in a meaningful mission. Heart-centered leaders are already mission driven and they are poised to be lead companies in an evolving world that is hungry for something deeper.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Through my youth and early 20’s, the life mantra that kept me striving forward was: “It doesn’t matter who you are or where you come from, you can achieve anything.”
It reminded me that it didn’t matter that I came from little money or a family without education. No matter what I had overcome, I could achieve anything.
When I started my business nearly five years ago, my mantra shifted to: “All growth occurs just outside of your comfort zone.”
This has empowered me to continually be scared and do it anyway because I know that if I want a different outcome or result, it requires growth, and usually, that means getting uncomfortable. Being uncomfortable is not to be feared, it’s to be embraced.
We are very blessed that some of the biggest 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.
Alice Cooper — he’s my rock idol and shows that you can be a total bad-ass rocker, and also a great human. He was the first person to help me see that I can fulfill my musician dreams while also being a business leader: that you can be all the unique parts of yourself. Or, Richard Branson. I’ve built my business on very similar values to Richard, but was doing it before I even knew much about Richard. The more I learn about him, his values, and how he’s sought to grow his companies, I think he sounds like a neat guy, and we could enjoy a laid back lunch together.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.