“Work to be of maximum service”, With Douglas Brown and Clara Fairbanks

Work to be of maximum service. Everyone wants a short cut to success — but in my experience, and from what I have observed, the best short cut is actually taking the long route. Work hard, provide more value that any body else, and you are almost guaranteed to be successful, appreciated, admired, and taken care of. […]

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Work to be of maximum service. Everyone wants a short cut to success — but in my experience, and from what I have observed, the best short cut is actually taking the long route. Work hard, provide more value that any body else, and you are almost guaranteed to be successful, appreciated, admired, and taken care of. Every day at Clarafy we work to be of maximum service. We ask ourselves, who can we help, how can we help them, why is it important that we help them. This is the foundation of our day to day activity and it has never led us astray.

As a part of my series about “Lessons From Inspirational Women Leaders in Tech”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Clara Fairbanks, Founder and CEO of Clarafy.

She graduated with a BS in computer science at Hunter College. She worked as an artist and a software engineer through college before founding Clarafy, which aims to integrate art and technology to build better products for a better digital future.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to learn a bit more about you. Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

I was working in tech as a software engineer. Early on in my career I founded my first startup and we launched through an incubator. I loved the work, the diversity of tasks, the energy… but my company was floundering because frankly our user experience was terrible. I noticed that most early stage startups had really bad user experience. The engineering was good, the ideas were good, but the presentation was totally inaccessible. Thats when I realized that I have an eye for good UX and I can make a big difference by employing 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?

When I was first putting myself out into the world, and clients began to come my way, I got a message from a friend of a friend. She told me that she loved my website and the design was great. Because I focus on helping small businesses and early stage startups to build better websites, I took a look at hers. She created these amazing paintings of animals — like family portraits — and they were so cute but her website was… not my style, you could say. So with the intention of being helpful I wrote back “OH my gosh thank you so much! I would love to help you with your website if you need some design tips!”

She promptly responded, “I designed my own website, thank you.” And then blocked me.

I had totally offended her! I was just trying to be helpful but I never considered that she was trying to be a supportive friend, giving me a compliment, and that she didn’t need my help.

That’s when I learned to ask people who designed and built their products, and if they were happy with it, BEFORE I offered to redesign for them! It has saved me a lot of future embarrassment and preserved a lot of relationships since.

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?

I think I considered quitting almost every single day of the first three months of founding my company. Everyone tells you that starting your own company is the way to live our your dreams, as though from the moment you start it will all be laptops on beaches with Mai Tai’s. The reality is that starting a company is terrifying. I turned down cushy jobs at big tech companies to found Clarafy. I turned down health insurance, stable paychecks, and security. When I first started I didn’t know anything about building a business. I didn’t know how to market myself, build my reach, get clients. I was jumping off of a career cliff and effectively saying “Here I come Universe! Catch me!!”. The day I got my first client was the first day that I thought I might make it. But the day I got my 5th client was the first day I knew that I would make it.

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?

Yes! So many people actually! I would never have gotten so far without the support of my friends, I don’t even know where to start! When I was thinking about founding a company I was totally lost — I mean I had no idea where to start!! I called my friend Anna Livermore, successful founder of V Mora, and I offered to make here dinner. I came over groceries in hand, started cooking, and casually mentioned I was thinking about starting a business.

Anna was a godsend — she immediately pulled out her laptop, opened a document called Clara’s Hell Yes Business Plan, and walked me through all of the steps for the first 3 months of starting a business, from systems and processes, to branding and marketing strategy. If it weren’t for Anna I don’t think I would be anywhere close to where I am today. And because she was so loving, supportive, and generous with her time, I try to make myself as available as possible to anyone thinking about starting a business for their first time.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“I’ve missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. Twenty-six times I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.” — Michael Jordan

I know it’s a Michael Jordan quote and I know I am not a professional athlete, but this quote had a huge impact on me in developing my business. I was so afraid to fail, to look foolish, to embarrass myself — and the thing is, if you don’t try, you don’t embarrass yourself. If you shrink into the shadows of inaction, no one notices you, and no one thinks about you, and you can’t help anybody.

But if you try something challenging, you are bound to meet with failure eventually. I learned to see failure as a mile marker of how hard I was trying. If I’m succeeding at everything I do, it means I’m not pushing my limits — I’m not even close. The more I fail, the more I learn, experience, and achieve.

Ok super. Thank you for all that. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. We’d love to learn a bit about your company. What is the pain point that your company is helping to address?

Our mission is to make our digital lives better lives — so in the big picture, what we want is to help to create a digital world that sparks joy. In a more direct way, we want to help small businesses and early stage startups build competitive and effective digital products. We provide all of the benefits of a full-time UX and UI staff for a small monthly fee or a low contract rate so that the smallest company can still afford a beautiful and delightful website.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

We really love, and value our clients, and we always try to go above and beyond for them every time. Our focus is 100% on maintaining relationships with current clients. Our services go way beyond building pretty websites or apps for people. Our contracts are sacred pacts with our clients that state that we will do anything we can to help them to succeed. I have coached clients through fear and imposter syndrome, helped them to make their first sales, taken their calls in the middle of the night when something goes wrong or when they have brilliant ideas they can’t wait to share. I think of every client as a partner, and I know that if their success is the only important measure of Clarafy’s success.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

One of the things our new clients struggle the most with is developing strategy for their brands and the mindset to be forward thinking. We are currently launching a new program for all of our clients that will walk them through the step by step processes of building a business and a brand.

Because we work mostly with female owned businesses we found that imposture syndrome is a huge hurtle for a lot of our clients to jump when starting their businesses, so we directly address this with every client from the start and are now formalizing the process to give our early stage businesses the competitive advantage of confidence.

Let’s zoom out a bit and talk in more broad terms. Are you currently satisfied with the status quo regarding women in Tech? What specific changes do you think are needed to change the status quo?

I went to school for computer science and in the majority of my classes, especially my senior level classes, I was one of two to three women. In a fair amount of my classes I was the only woman. This was not 10 years ago, I finished my degree in 2020 while starting my business. Our culture glorifies women in STEM to this unrealistic unicorn status, as though being a woman interested in math and science is a sort of rare anomaly. But it shouldn’t be like that.

Women in tech should be presented as the norm. I’m not particularly smart or odd for being interested in science. Our culture treats every woman working in tech as some kind of mythical being, and this doesn’t resonate with a lot of girls who just want to grow up and develop satisfying careers. I believe the stigma around women in tech is mostly positive, but the fact that there is a stigma at all doesn’t help us.

In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women in Tech that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts? What would you suggest to address this?

The biggest challenge is being heard. In meetings, conferences, networking events. The opinions of men are valued by other men who tend to lead the conversations. Men are often louder, more assertive and perceived as more competent. Women who compensate for this by being loud and assertive are often rejected. The fact that tech is dominated by men just makes it harder for women to contribute to. It’s human nature to listen to people who look like us. I think the only way to address this is to encourage women to be steady and to take positions of management so that they can guide younger women into the field.

What would you advise to another tech leader who initially went through years of successive growth, but has now reached a standstill. From your experience do you have any general advice about how to boost growth or sales and “restart their engines”?

Every time I feel I am stagnating or stuck in a plateau in my business I stop and look at my origin. I started my company for a reason — I had a mission and a purpose. This is the guiding force of all of my work and my progress, but it is easy to loose sight of it in the minutiae of running a business. If you feel stuck, look at your why. Why did you start your business in the first place. What was your mission, and do you still hold those values today? How can you be of maximum service? By starting over I get the chance to reignite the energy and passion I had in the beginning and boost myself forward and over the plateau.

Do you have any advice about how companies can create very high performing sales teams?

No. Haha. I don’t. My sales model is based 100% on customer success. All of our sales are organically generated through referrals and testimonials. My best advice for improving sales is improve your customer service! If all of your leads are warm, you don’t have to sell — you just have to be honest about your product or service and the value it provides you customers.

In your specific industry what methods have you found to be most effective in order to find and attract the right customers? Can you share any stories or examples?

This is a great question. I am a big believer in thoroughly defining your ideal customer. We actually take every one of our clients through our customer ideation process where we define the demographics, motivations, habits and pain points of the ideal customer. Using this as a guide, we can identify exactly where to find our ideal client, and speak to them in an impactful way.

Based on your experience, can you share 3 or 4 strategies to give your customers the best possible user experience and customer service?

We schedule weekly success calls with all of our clients in the initial 2 months of service, and after that we continue to check in monthly. We believe that our personal connection with clients is what makes us stand out, so we try to be as available as possible for them. Aside from the calls, we give our clients full access to all of our design and strategy documents so if they are interested they can watch and engage in the process. We believe in transparency and try to provide transparency at every customer touch point.

As you likely know, this HBR article demonstrates that studies have shown that retaining customers can be far more lucrative than finding new ones. Do you use any specific initiatives to limit customer attrition or customer churn? Can you share some of your advice from your experience about how to limit customer churn?

We have pretty serious customer appreciation strategies. We send our clients small cards and gifts every month that they work with us and we continue to send them gifts for holidays and birthdays after their contracts end. I think that our weekly and monthly check in calls are the most effective means of staying connected with our clients and keeping them on board. We work closely with people because we really want them to understand what we are doing and empower them to build better products even after our contract ends. We get great feedback from our clients on our honesty, transparency, and the personal touch we add for each of them. This model might not work for a lot of businesses, but I think that a small personalized thank you note goes a long way for customers in any segment.

Here is the main question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things one should know in order to create a very successful tech company? Please share a story or an example for each.

  1. Choose your partners wisely!!! This was my first lesson in tech and it was hard earned. I started my first company in 2016 with another brilliant, amazing woman, and we got off to a great start but after one year we had to absolve the company because of our inability to work together effectively. When you are starting a company, it’s critical that everyone in your life be ready and willing to add to your success. Starting a company is hard. Surround yourself with supportive people, positive people, excited people. It takes a village to raise a company — I can’t count the times I was guided through hard times by my community.
  2. Focus on your why. Clarafy has a big mission — we want to make our digital lives better lives. This is our why. There are a lot of times when we face hurtles and obstacles that seem to large to surmount. It is our why that keeps us going. It is our why that ensures that we treat our customers well and produce work that will have a positive impact on peoples lives. Without our why we would just be another firm trying to increase profits — and for me the money is nice, but profit is not a very satisfying motivator when it comes down to it. Focus on your why every day.
  3. Never ever ever take advice from someone who hasn’t done it bigger, and better than you. Ideas and theories are nice, but we follow in the footsteps of giants. I don’t take relationship advice from people with a shoddy relationship history and I don’t take business advice from people who aren’t running the type of business that I want to run. I love all of my friends, but unless they have founded a successful company, they don’t get input on what I’m doing. Early in my business, I identified who my mentors were, both in my life and in society at large, and I take pains to heed their advice and guidance.
  4. Build a company culture of inclusion and appreciation. At the end of the day it is the employees that will make or break your business. As a CEO we can’t be everywhere and do everything all at once. But if we can find people who respect the company values and mission, then we should do everything we can to make them happy to be working with us. We appreciate our staff, our clients and our partners, and we show them our gratitude at every opportunity.
  5. Work to be of maximum service. Everyone wants a short cut to success — but in my experience, and from what I have observed, the best short cut is actually taking the long route. Work hard, provide more value that any body else, and you are almost guaranteed to be successful, appreciated, admired, and taken care of. Every day at Clarafy we work to be of maximum service. We ask ourselves, who can we help, how can we help them, why is it important that we help them. This is the foundation of our day to day activity and it has never led us astray.

Wonderful. We are nearly done. Here are the final “meaty” questions of our discussion. You are a person of enormous 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. 🙂

Honestly, if I could inspire one movement, I would get people to treat work more like play. So much magic comes out of creativity — so many solutions come from laughter and free thinking. I think that our society places a high premium on burning the candle at both ends, but ultimately that leads to sloppy decision making, low empathy, and low quality of life. If people treated work like it was play, we would be less focused on the bottom line, and more focused on the experience of creating value. We could build a bigger hearted, happier handed corporate environment, that was just as effective and far more efficient.

We are very blessed that very prominent leaders 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 admire Sarah Blakely so much. If there was one person I could spend an hour with picking her brain, it would be her.

Thank you so much for this. This was very inspirational, and we wish you only continued success!

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