You don’t have to be perfect. In the early years of our company, I worked 80-hour weeks and never took a vacation. I wanted to make sure that every project was going as smoothly as possible, and I felt that I could never be away from the office. But you’re going to make mistakes — and what you learn from those mistakes will only make your company stronger. Exhausting yourself won’t make you perfect, and accepting this will actually make you a better leader.
As a part of my series about strong female leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Amy Balliett. Amy is the CEO and founder of Killer Visual Strategies, an industry-leading visual communication agency that designs and executes communication and content marketing solutions for Fortune 1000 clients. She owned her first company at age 17 before building a successful career in online marketing. In 2010, she started Killer Infographics, which has been an Inc. 5000 company for four years in a row. Balliett has become a thought leader in visual communication, and has spoken at more than 175 conferences around the globe, including SXSW, Adobe MAX, and SMX Advanced. She is also a teacher at Seattle’s School of Visual Concepts, a LinkedIn Learning instructor, a columnist for Inc., and a corporate guest speaker helping organizations communicate visually with their employees as well as with their audiences.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
When I was 17, I owned an ice cream parlor and candy store in the center of a summer vacation community. I spent the summers of my junior and senior years of high school taking on the 80-hour per week workload of a typical founder and learned quickly that working at that cadence was thrilling rather than exhausting. Still, being the proprietor of a candy store wasn’t a life ambition, so when the time came to head off to college I relinquished ownership back to the vacation community and assumed that was my first and last big venture.
I went to film school and minored in marketing. While film was my primary passion, minoring in marketing felt like a practical addition. I figured I was more likely to get a job in marketing than in film, given the fact that moving to New York City or Los Angeles was not as appealing to me as moving to Seattle.
My first few jobs in Seattle centered around motion-picture marketing and research as well as video editing. Through these jobs, I started learning key skills beyond what my film degree had taught me, like the full Adobe Creative Suite and web development.
As my understanding of these tools grew, I also started learning about SEO and online marketing. This led to a complete career change. I left my career in video editing and design and shifted entirely to a career in marketing.
It didn’t take long to realize the link between film and marketing: visual storytelling.
But I didn’t yet have a vision for a company that centered around visual storytelling. Instead, I saw visual content as a great tool in the marketer’s toolbox, and I knew that I could use that tool to further a new business venture that I had launched with my old business partner.
Fast forward a few months into the venture, and people started asking us to design infographics for them. This began the business pivot that would become Killer Infographics and has now evolved into Killer Visual Strategies.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
The way my company has developed and evolved over time is, in my opinion, a great example of how to remain agile in a quickly changing business environment. If you take a look at our name-change, which took place in June of this year, that will provide you some immediate insight into how our business as a whole has changed.
When we started in 2010, we only made infographics — hence the name Killer Infographics. That was an accurate description of our services for about two years, but then we started to expand. Our clients didn’t just want infographics anymore. They wanted any visual content that would help them get their message across — provided that content was high-quality and followed visual communication best practices.
Or, perhaps better said, they wanted every piece of content they produced to be in the optimum format for delivering their message — whether it was a motion graphic, a GIF, or a social-media micronarrative. So we needed to adapt and expand our offerings to help our clients connect with their audiences through a wide variety of mediums.
We have continued to expand our product offerings ever since, and today we can craft anything from interactive experiences to augmented reality to robust visual marketing campaigns. But what we really specialize in is advising our clients on the right visual strategy for them. We use our marketing expertise to recommend the types of content that will best help our clients achieve their goals and reach their target audience. We then develop that content while keeping the best practices of visual communication design intact.
So for years, the name “Killer Infographics” wasn’t an accurate or full representation of what we could do for our clients — and it was holding us back, leading people to inaccurate conclusions about our capabilities. We finally decided to change our name, and I feel that this will help our business grow, since the new name gives a clearer picture of who we are from the moment you see it.
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?
The first two “infographics” I ever designed were far from being true infographics. They were text-heavy reading assignments, cluttered, filled with stock imagery or clip art, and perfect examples of poor execution. In fact, today I use them as proof of what not to do when designing with visual communication in mind.
The second infographic was about Google’s PageRank. Because I was so proud of it, we tweeted it to Rand Fishkin, the founder of Moz. He responded simply by stating, “That is not an infographic.” The SEO nerd in me was wholly embarrassed, but it was in that moment that I realized just how awful my attempted infographics were.
It was because of his tweet that I took a deep dive into the world of visual communication. Killer hadn’t even launched yet; I had designed those “infographics” to promote a different business model. But had I not been called out for poor execution and delivery, I doubt I would have focused so much on the power of a good piece of visual content, and I don’t think Killer would be where it is today.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
Killer Visual Strategies is the leading agency in our field. Our definitions of visual communication and related terms appear in over a dozen textbooks.
But that’s not the only thing that makes us stand out. I think the most unique thing about Killer Visual Strategies is that we’re as much about delivering a service as we are about developing visual content. Our clients come to us because they want us to recommend the right visual strategy for them. They’re facing a problem or a challenge, and it’s up to us to suggest the best solution. That solution may comprise a single asset, or it may involve a full visual campaign — a suite of visual assets, each serving a particular function with a specific goal in mind.
At Killer, we know which types of visual content perform best on each platform, and what types of content your particular audience prefers. That’s what empowers us to create visual content that will deliver real results for our clients.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
So many of our projects are exciting, but we can’t really talk about them before they are released to the public. After all, we don’t want to steal our clients’ thunder. Given this, I’d love to speak about one of my favorite past projects.
Since our launch in 2010, we have donated more than $4.5 million in services to nonprofits in need. We do this because we believe that quality visual communication can be a very powerful tool to engage audiences. When put in the right hands, that content can be used as a catalyst of change.
Recently, we completed an interactive microsite for the 9/11 Memorial Museum showcasing their impact in 2018. The Memorial Museum releases such a report every year in an effort to garner future support while also displaying all of the ways they hold true to their mission statement.
While the museum has worked with other agencies in the past, they wanted a fresh take on the report as well as solutions that would make it easier for their team to add updates throughout the year. As a result, we built a microsite using WordPress as the backend to accomplish these goals, and then some.
Creating this report was a real labor of love. Our team took so much pride in the opportunity to help craft and communicate the 9/11 Memorial Museum’s message in collaboration with their amazing team!
What advice would you give to other female leaders to help their team to thrive?
It has been my experience that teams with female leaders really don’t face unique challenges simply because their leaders are women. Companies with female leaders face unique challenges, but the challenges teams face tend to be the same regardless of the gender of their leaders.
At Killer Visual Strategies, we have an incredible team — including several female leaders besides myself — and we’ve been thriving. In fact, some would argue that we are thriving because of our focus on female leadership. A good argument is made for this in the book, Better Together.
Still, in some work environments and in situations in which you’re representing your company outside the office, people may sometimes treat you as though you don’t have the authority to make certain decisions, simply because you’re a woman. I’ve had this experience myriad times.
In those situations, you have the right to set the record straight. While remaining as respectful as possible, explain that you have that authority as a leader within your company. For example, if you are consistently interrupted in a meeting, take back your voice by bringing attention to the matter. I suggest saying something like, “I think you’ll get the most value out of this meeting if you hear what I have to say. Your time is valuable, and as the owner of my company, my time is quite valuable as well. I want to ensure we use that time wisely, so I’d appreciate the floor now.” You would be surprised how quickly that shifts the energy in a room and how gracious people become in response.
The majority of people don’t realize how lifelong stereotypes unfold in their work interactions. Being reminded of this is often appreciated and strengthens relationships. If you get a negative response, then maybe the person you are meeting with isn’t the right fit for you or your company anyway.
What advice would you give to other female leaders about the best way to manage a large team?
I think it’s important to be humble and keep learning. When you’re an entrepreneur, you tend to hold onto the same mindset you had when the company was just you: thinking you have to be involved in every aspect of the business. When your team gets bigger and you start taking on more and more work, that just becomes impossible. If you keep trying to micromanage everything, you’ll end up being a bottleneck to your company’s success. A colleague of mine has always summed it up well with one phrase: The bottleneck is at the top!
The best way to remedy this is to focus on hiring fantastic employees. If you’re not sure how to do this, start by codifying your mission, vision, and values. Once those are set, you can hire and fire based on how closely a candidate lives up to your values and aligns with your mission and vision.
With a team you can trust, you won’t just be able to step back from the day-to-day — you’ll also learn a great deal. Any employee worth their salt will know something you don’t know, and bring something new to the business you may never have thought of. That’s how a great deal of growth happens, and that’s how your company will stay innovative and relevant.
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?
I’ve had a village of resources and help at my disposal, but one person has been in the thick of things, helping me 24/7, and that’s my spouse.
Above all else, my spouse has been the bedrock of my success. Running a business is one long roller coaster of highs and lows, and she has been sitting beside me on that roller coaster from day one.
To have someone who can provide honest and sincere advice, clarity, and support throughout this experience has been priceless. She has been my best advisor and has kept me grounded in moments of humility, ego, fear, and so much more.
Not all entrepreneurs will have the support of a lifetime partner, though, so I do think it’s important to also share other avenues where I have found support that has definitely led to the success of Killer:
● My team: By surrounding myself with a team that aligns on company values and isn’t afraid to challenge me, we have seen great success. Each person at Killer helps drive the growth of the company. Nobody is just a cog in the wheel; everyone drives us forward.
● The Entrepreneurs’ Organization (EO): There are many organizations that claim to be like EO, but I haven’t found any with the same exact elements. At EO, I can seek guidance from a variety of business owners around the world and can do so with perfect confidence that what I share will not be shared outside of our conversation. Sometimes it’s enough to know that I’m not alone as a business owner. Other times, we have the chance to get together as members to solve large business problems. In either scenario, simply being a part of this community of entrepreneurs has very positively impacted my bottom line.
● Coach Keith Upkes: I never understood the need for a corporate coach until our company culture came to a head in 2015. Thanks to the suggestions of many EO members, I contacted Keith Upkes and brought him in to better train my executive team, reset our culture, and help our company achieve new milestones. I needed an independent third party to help align everyone in a non-threatening way, and Keith did exactly that. In 2015, we aligned on a five-year vision that we achieved in just three years thanks to his help. We now work with him for our mid-year and year-end planning and can’t wait to build another five-year roadmap with him.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
From the moment I founded Killer Visual Strategies, I knew I wanted to give back to my community. So even when we were a self-funded startup of just a few employees, we made the commitment to do one project every month for a nonprofit organization. Since we were founded in 2010, we’ve donated more than $4.5 million in services to nonprofits as a result.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
- You can’t do it all on your own. When I founded Killer Visual Strategies, I wanted to be involved in every single project. But as we grew, that proved impossible. Once we built a fantastic team and I started relying on them more, I discovered they were more than capable of ensuring that each project was a success.
- Define your mission, vision, and values early on in the process of starting your business. At Killer Visual Strategies, we didn’t sit down to formally outline our values until several years in. Ever since, they’ve helped us make better decisions about the growth of the business and what we value as a company. I wish we’d done it years earlier.
- Hire an accountant or bookkeeper sooner rather than later. Early on in the life of our company, I tried to manage all of our finances myself. That included making sure that we received payment from all of the companies we worked with. As a result, we had a lot of outstanding invoices. This wasn’t for lack of follow-up or time — this was actually because I was the CEO asking for payment. When the CEO asks, it sends a message to the payer that the payee is too small to take any further actions if payment is late or even missed entirely. Once we hired someone whose duties were strictly dedicated to ensuring our finances were in order, we became a much healthier company.
- Focus on leadership. As an entrepreneur, my goal above all at the start was to build a successful business. But managing people isn’t easy. It requires carefully honed interpersonal skills and a willingness to listen. I’ve discovered that leadership is something that takes constant work and self-improvement. Every CEO could benefit from leadership training.
- You don’t have to be perfect. In the early years of our company, I worked 80-hour weeks and never took a vacation. I wanted to make sure that every project was going as smoothly as possible, and I felt that I could never be away from the office. But you’re going to make mistakes — and what you learn from those mistakes will only make your company stronger. Exhausting yourself won’t make you perfect, and accepting this will actually make you a better leader.
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. 🙂
Data is powerful. In an era when everyone is talking about “fake news,” data — when it’s accurately presented — doesn’t lie. I think that we could all do our part to collect and share data that offers real insights, whether we’re working to understand our business, our industry, or our nation.
Accurate data visualizations are powerful. They don’t have opinions — they speak the truth. Then they let the viewer draw conclusions for themselves. Organizations that embrace this type of transparency will build well-earned trust with their customers — and those that can’t should re-examine whether they’re bringing real value into the world.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Celebrate mistakes. It’s trite, but when it comes to owning a company, if you don’t embrace this mentality, your business won’t last long. And if you don’t practice this in life, it won’t be a natural part of how you run a business.
You’d be surprised at how many mistakes I’ve made over the past decade, some of which were real knockout blows. I could have let them pile up and keep me down, but I wouldn’t be here today if I had.
For example, in 2012, we converted from a C-Corp to an S-Corp. We worked closely with our lawyer to make the change, and opted to do so by creating an entirely new S-Corp that our C-Corp would merge into. The reasoning for this doesn’t matter, but the actions I took to make this change do matter. You see, I didn’t think to loop in our CPA until after the changes were filed with the government.
Had I looped him in earlier, he would have had the opportunity to create a tax strategy around the change, or at least to tell me to draw down the money in the C-Corp before converting. The result of my lack of communication with my CPA was a $50,000 tax bill at a time when our monthly income was only around $40,000 a month!
This was a financial hit that could have buried us. Rather than letting it hurt us, I adjusted. I didn’t draw a salary for quite some time, my old business partner sold our services more aggressively, and after a few months, we were able to rebound.
Whenever an employee of mine makes a mistake, my first response is to identify the cause of the mistake and discuss what we can learn from it to ensure it doesn’t happen again. By approaching mistakes in this way, we’re able to learn so much together, and often we find that these lessons lead to great improvements that ensure future success. As a result, we celebrate mistakes instead of condemn them.
A mistake means we were wrong in our assumptions to begin with, so identifying the mistake gives us an opportunity to grow and reset expectations. Mistakes shed light on inefficiencies that you may not know existed, so without the mistake the inefficiencies persist. But most importantly, a mistake is an opportunity to learn. If you punish yourself for mistakes, then they will continue to happen simply because you aren’t taking the chance to learn and grow.
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 🙂
Guy Kawasaki. This isn’t just because he’s been my marketing/business sherpa from afar since I first read Rules for Revolutionaries. It’s because he’s one of the rare experts that seems to delight in sharing his knowledge for the sake of helping people grow versus just building his personal brand.
He and I had the opportunity to meet once at SXSW. He was generous enough to let me interview him for The Visual Minute, a series Killer produces that provides tips and insights into visual communication.
We only had 15 minutes to talk because his schedule was understandably stacked, but even the nuggets of advice he provided in that short time were priceless!
I must admit that I was so humbled by the opportunity to meet him at the time, that I stuck to my script versus diving into any deeper conversation. But I’m sure that, as the chief evangelist of Canva, he and I could have a lengthy discussion about visual communication and the competing value propositions of custom versus templatized solutions (among many other topics).
Thank you for all of these great insights!