Remember what it felt like to be the underdog. We all remember our first roles, first breaks, first mistakes and the pressure to meet/exceed expectations. Sometimes as an experienced leader we can get frustrated by “these learning moments.” It is important to remember those firsts and remember that people are generally well-intentioned and want to do the best, but we are all human. Even though I am a business owner, as a female in tech, I still feel like the underdog at times. I am often the only female in the room and there is extra pressure to prove myself, and believe it or not discount my rates. These experiences keep me humble, and help remember the importance of being patient, kind and understanding.
As a part of my series about strong female leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Erica Hakonson, Principal and Founder of Maven Collective Marketing. Hakonson has worked extensively with the Microsoft Corporation, the Microsoft Partner/Reseller/Independent Software Vendor community, Safeco Insurance, Intranet Connections, BONZAI Intranet and a variety of other software, application development and software services businesses. Building upon her core values of integrity, authenticity, creativity and loyalty, Hakonson created her B2B digital marketing company on the premise of humanizing brands to facilitate people-to-people connections, rather than business-to-business.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
My story and how I discovered my career is not atypical.
It involves a mix of trial and error, self-discovery and a few inspirational mentors along the way, who perhaps saw my passion before I recognized it myself. I started my career in marketing and somewhere on my path, as the industry began evolving with search engines, social media and technology, I was exposed to data, pivot tables, dashboards and algorithms. It was instant love.
I loved spending my days digging into analytics, algorithm changes, usability studies…you name it. The more I immersed myself in the industry, the more I wanted to help companies make better decisions with comprehensive research, deeper insights and, my favorite, the right mix of quantitative and qualitative data.
I started my own business because I wanted to facilitate business connections in a more relevant and meaningful way. I wanted to help humanize brands. Today, my company, Maven Collective Marketing, helps better define and distinguish brands and products to their target audience while still concentrating on the technical fundamentals of search engine marketing, making it easier to be found online.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
An entrepreneur will tell you that starting your own business is never what they bargained for. There are so many stories, learnings and fail forward situations, and they pile up quite quickly.
Being an entrepreneur, and starting a business is somewhat like becoming a parent. You don’t completely understand what you have signed up for until you are in the situation, and you have to be able to think on your feet. The stories that stand out are where those worlds collided. When my kids were really little, like really, really little, it was not uncommon for me to participate in meetings while breastfeeding, holding in-depth conversations about emotional engagement online and optimal conversion paths. In those days, the things I loved dearly seemed to intertwine — I am surprised at times that my kids’ first words weren’t “optimization” or “let’s do some A/B testing.” It is just mind blowing to me how we evolve and adapt so quickly as parents, business owners and entrepreneurs.
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 was my first week at Microsoft, and I was scheduled to attend an online meeting with a global team. It was my first time using the software and I was a bit lost when signing in. The rest of the team appeared to be having technical challenges as well.
Since it seemed like I would be waiting awhile for the full team to join the meeting, I decided to browse the internet while I waited, checking my personal email and other non-work related websites. That’s when my boss pinged me via Office Communicator live chat, saying “I see you’ve joined the meeting. In fact, we all see you’ve joined the meeting and can currently read your personal emails because you are sharing your screen.”
I was humiliated and was quickly able to figure out how to unshare my screen. The most valuable lesson from this experience was that my boss was the first one to save me from myself. He also never mentioned it again, because he knew I was mortified and had learned my lesson. He didn’t need to say a thing. As a leader, it is easy to feel like you are accountable for everyone and everything, but people make mistakes. They are human. Let them learn and most importantly, let them move on.
What do you think makes your company stand out?
We are a small, nimble team who are very good at what we do. Our focus is on technology to allow for better connections to humanize brands. The people who work with us don’t just see the results. They experience them, and that makes the difference.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
We just introduced a new brand and new website with a great long-term client: BONZAI Intranet. We were a part of a team that helped put BONZAI into a new industry category, which differentiated it completely from competitors. This was all actualized with the launch of BONZAI’s Stress-Free Intranet and Digital Workplace (and who can’t relate to wanting technology that is stress-free?). The results for this project speak for themselves. Within a few weeks of the new website, BONZAI achieved a significant increase in the quality of website leads, which resulted in nearly a 100 percent conversion rate from those requesting a demo.
There are quite a few other projects we have in the pipe that we are excited to be working on to help clients grow their businesses. I also sit on the Board of Directors of the Aligned Collective Society, where we have been lending our marketing muscle and skills to non-profits in order to help them better define and scope their differentiators, pricing strategy and website performance.
What advice would you give to other female leaders to help their team to thrive?
In my business, the word authenticity comes up a lot.
I work with clients to help them define their “purpose” as businesses. This drives focus, strategy and overall growth. I think the same rings true for leaders who want to help their team members thrive. It may sound trite, but you can’t paint everybody with the same brush.
As a leader, you have to uncover and get to know the authenticity in each individual team member. What are their strengths? How are they motivated? How can you best support their professional goals? Invest in them as individuals, and your team collectively will strengthen.
What advice would you give to other female leaders about the best way to manage a large team?
Make it feel like a small team, with open doors and lots of connection points. You need to be incredibly organized to do this, but a business is a reflection of its people. Oh, and always take the time to respond within a business day, and always say thank you. Little things like this show that you care about more than just the bottom line.
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?
Carolyn Douglas, the founder of Intranet Connections and my former employer. She was pivotal in my career development. She built her company on the foundation of simplicity, creativity and culture. She fostered a culture without hierarchies, where people are encouraged to work hard and follow their passions. Carolyn taught me that in order to provide the best service and customer experience, you need to think like the customer.
She also led her company with empathy, and her leadership is the reason its customer base includes 14 Mayo Clinics across the US, NASA Langley Research Center, Cayman National Bank, BC Place (2010 Olympic Opening Ceremonies), Sandals Resorts, MS Society of Canada and UNICEF.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
I am certainly trying. I have been fortunate to have had the opportunity to follow my dreams and find a career that I am passionate about. I recognize this is not always the case for everyone, and I definitely want to pay it forward. Five percent of all Maven Collective Marketing profits are given to charities that we believe are making the changes we want to see in the world, including the Fistula Foundation, Plan International, The Nature Conservatory, WE Charity and local to us, the Howe Sound Women’s Center.
Beyond this, I am serving/have served as a volunteer on the Board of Directors for Simon Fraser University Alumni Board and the Aligned Collective Society as a way to lend my professional experience beyond my business. Additionally, I often lend my voice to encourage more women to enter entrepreneurship and the technology sector and meet with undergraduate and graduate students to discuss career options for them in these areas.
What are your “5 Leadership Lessons I Learned From My Experience” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)
I have learned a lot as a leader, which to me is a steeper learning curve than being a “good employee”.
1) Don’t take yourself too seriously. Being the leader, the spokesperson, the decision maker, the voice of a company can make it feel like each success and failure rests solely on your shoulders. It is easy to get overwhelmed and stay in paralysis. But honestly, failure is the best teacher and I have learned a lot. More than that, sometimes we just need to laugh at ourselves, shake it off and remember why we chose to do the work we love. Technology is always trying, and sometimes it doesn’t work — even for the experts. I have been busted on more than one occasion for using creative language when dealing with technological challenges. I often say, I work to humanize brands — but it’s also important to show that I am human too. It makes it all the more satisfying, when the solutions are discovered.
2) Remember what it felt like to be the underdog. We all remember our first roles, first breaks, first mistakes and the pressure to meet/exceed expectations. Sometimes as an experienced leader we can get frustrated by “these learning moments.” It is important to remember those firsts and remember that people are generally well-intentioned and want to do the best, but we are all human. Even though I am a business owner, as a female in tech, I still feel like the underdog at times. I am often the only female in the room and there is extra pressure to prove myself, and believe it or not discount my rates. These experiences keep me humble, and help remember the importance of being patient, kind and understanding.
3) Don’t stay in bad relationships — even business relationships. I remember complaining and whining to my husband about client relationships that I struggled with month over month. At the end of the day, like any relationship, if it is not a good fit and it isn’t working, don’t keep banging your head against the wall. You are both better off cutting the losses and moving forward. When I was starting my business, I reluctantly discounted my rate for a client I was unsure about. I wanted to get the relationship started, and justified that it was the best way to do so. Accordingly, while working with this client, our work was constantly questioned and undervalued. Needless to say, this client relationship didn’t work out. When it comes to business relationships, it is important to trust your instincts and not be afraid to walk away if it doesn’t feel like a good fit. My best advice is to recognize your worth and avoid working with any clients that will try to discount your value.
4) Keep your bucket full to fill others’. As leaders, as entrepreneurs, as parents and as women we often put ourselves last. This is what we have been taught to do and so we do it. But a leader that is exhausted isn’t a leader at their best, which is a leader that inspires and thrives. We need to take care of ourselves to best take care of our people, we need to be well fed, well rested, well energized and well connected to give the same to the teams that we lead.
As an entrepreneur, a mom, a wife, an ultra-runner, a board member, I have been known to burn the candle at both ends. This is something I am constantly working on. I know you can’t help others if you are drowning yourself. Find what recharges you, and build in time for it. Your business will benefit. Trust me.
5) Abundantly praise, strategically criticize. Everyone likes a pat on the back and a song of praise for a job well done. You cannot overestimate the meaningfulness of the positive feedback you deliver to your team. Some individuals run solely on that energy.
Also, while it can be said that all constructive criticism is good, I would argue that too much is bad. Even if you are approaching criticism from a positive lens of improvement and development, the amount delivered will always be weighted against the praise. Try to categorize and compartmentalize criticisms to deliver as swiftly and concisely as possible, in order to move forward with better outcomes.
The hamburger approach (good praise — constructive criticism — good praise) is never a bad idea. I remember working on an important presentation for a leadership team. I was proposing a cost-saving model through a group purchasing strategy. The presentation went really well and I received praise from everyone in the group, except my direct boss. This really impacted me — and it was no surprise when I was recruited to a new role, I didn’t think twice.
You are a person of great influence. 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. 🙂
My movement would be to encourage more women to enter the tech field. A recent report by the Brookfield Institute highlights the severe lack of female representation in the tech industry globally. It also found that women in tech are earning nearly $20,000 less per year than their male counterparts. We hear this story across many industries and I find it disheartening each time. It feels appropriate that my movement should tackle the lack of diversity in the tech industry.
I would love to bolster our tech economy and encourage the industry to draw from a wider talent pool, making sure the overall experience is more equal and compensation is based on skill, rather than gender-influenced. I would also promote more inclusion in the field, which I believe would result in the discovery of new technological frontiers and drive overall economic growth. I can see it now — #BalanceforBetter #MoreWomenCTOs #theFutureisFemale.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Our greatest glory is not in never failing, but in rising up every time we fail.”
— Ralph Waldo Emerson
I will be the first to admit, I have had several failures. During my career, I failed to secure a work permit in my first attempt to immigrate to Canada from the United States. I took a left turn to test the entrepreneurial waters by becoming a Licensed Financial Advisor, which was a major misalignment from my passion and creative instincts. It was a miserable year that taught me a lot about myself. Even my failure to get into my desired PhD program — not without trying, but without a grant coming through — tested my resilience and identity.
The key for me is that I always got up and kept myself moving forward. I think there is strength in being able to share this. I’ve taken great pleasure in learning my passions and discovering my strengths, even in the times I have taken a wrong turn. What is important is that you are willing to takes those leaps in order to challenge yourself…maybe even scare yourself. You never know what you are a capable of, or what you may be passionate about –until you try it.
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 🙂
I’d love to meet the OG Dragon from Dragon’s Den herself — Arlene Dickinson. I have read her books and enjoyed her witty banter and insights on Dragon’s Den, as well as The Big Decision series and now Under New Management. Her experience as an entrepreneur, an investor, a mom, and a visionary are so inspiring. What can’t she do? I hope to be half the inspirational leader that she has been and continues to be throughout her successful career. I’d be extremely delighted to meet her and ask her the million questions I have about her entrepreneurial journey, motherhood and investing/funding.