85: The Evolution of a Business from an Idea

The Evolution of a Business from an Idea

Episode 85 on the Business Bites Podcast

The Gist Of This Episode: The beginning of a business can start in different ways. For Rachel and Aaron Nace from Phlearn, their businesses started from people asking them questions about their areas of expertise. Join them both as they discuss how they took those questions and made it into their businesses and the mistakes made and lessons learned along the way. 


What you will learn:

  • How Aaron made the decision to quit his corporate job and grow Phlearn
  • How Aaron and Phlearn have evolved over the years
  • Why injecting your personal life or personality can be important in today’s world of online businesses
  • What the biggest lesson Aaron has learned
  • and more!

Expand To Read Episode Transcripts

Rachel Brenke: All right guys, Business Bites Podcast. I’m Rachel Brenke. You know the drill, except I’m going to throw it up a little bit differently this week for you guys. Instead of a quick format episode, I’m actually going to go all in because I was able to secure the CEO of Phlearn P-H-L-E-A-R-N, Aaron Nace, and he is basically my brother from another mother when it comes to business creation. And we’re going to be talking about the evolution of business from an idea as opposed to thinking, “Oh, I want to have a business,” and then formulating the idea. You came out the gate and you’re, “I know I have this great idea, this great solution for people. I have the skillset,” and then you want to figure out how to make it a business. That’s what we talk about in this episode.

We’re going to go from talking about quitting your corporate job, transitioning from there, becoming a business, managing people, how to keep up with industry changing standards, all of that. A lot of great information. So again like I said, we’re changing this up. It’s not going to be a quick format episode, so feel free to grab a cup of coffee, cozy on up. And let’s get started.

Intro: Welcome to the Business Bites Podcast, the podcast for busy entrepreneur. Whether you’re an online entrepreneur, or seeking after brick and mortar success, this podcast brings you quick bites of content, so you can learn and grow anywhere you are. Now here’s your host, Rachel Brenke.

Rachel Brenke: Guys, welcome to episode 85. You’re going to be able to find all the show notes and transcripts from my talk with Aaron Nace, at phlearn.com and rachelbrenke.com/epi85.

All right Aaron, thank you so much for joining us today. I’m excited to hear about your background and your path to entrepreneurship and creating and owning Phlearn. Can you tell us about that some?

Aaron Nace: Yeah. Thanks so much for having me, Rachel. So my background is actually in photography, and specifically photo manipulation, compositing, retouching. And basically Phlearn, my primary business came about, started out really as a passion project. Back in 2008, I was posting images on websites like flickr.com. Images that were relatively heavily manipulated in Photoshop. And requests started coming in for people asking me, “Hey, can you teach me how to do this effect that you did? Can you teach me how to retouch those images?” Retouching is a very big market. Pretty much every image that you see on the cover of a magazine or in any ad has been professionally retouched in Photoshop.

So questions started pouring in. In the beginning, I just did one on one sessions using what we’re doing right now, just little screen recording software and showing people one on one how to get things done in Photoshop.

And from there I realized I really wanted to be able to teach more people. Reaching people one on one was great, but the ability to reach people all around the world was definitely a goal of mine.

So I started making YouTube tutorials and releasing them for free. So anyone in the world can learn Photoshop professionally for free online. And from there, we snowballed and built a bit of a following on YouTube, and then started offering more advanced classes on our website, phlearn.com. So that was back. The company itself was founded in 2011 so we’re eight years in and things are going very well.

Rachel Brenke: I love that because we have a similar path in that my businesses grew out of being asked questions and being the go to person a lot. So I love that. Did you think you are going to be owning one of the largest educational resources for photo retouching and education?

Aaron Nace: Good question. In the beginning, I was just having fun with it. I didn’t see it as a business until probably I was four years into running a business. And some days still, “Do I know what I’m doing? Is it okay? Are they going to find out that,” I don’t know. You know? But yeah, in the beginning it was just something that I wanted to do. And I realized that I didn’t really enjoy, I kind of wanted to be on my own. I had a fantastic job actually when I started. I really did enjoy my job, but I realized when I really put my passion and energy and all of myself into a project, it’s usually because I have ownership of that project. I just realized that if I wanted to give my 100%, that probably wasn’t going to be coming from working for a larger company. I realized I wanted to go on my own path.

So in the beginning, it was just let’s see if I can eat, let’s see if I can pay rent. Let’s see if I can like rub a couple pennies together and survive off of this. And from there things just grow naturally. And yeah, I’m super happy to say we’ve got a fantastic team here in Chicago. Things couldn’t be better. And I honestly have no idea what was coming. It’s just from the beginning, the idea of I’ll try my hardest and I’ll work as hard as I possibly can, and try to create the best possible content I can. And hopefully people will respond to it.

Rachel Brenke: And what’s refreshing about this is you and I are also along the same timeline or trajectory. 2012 is just when all this freemium model information and social media acceptance as an avenue for education really became booming. It was there before, but now people were moving away from Google and they go to social media when they have questions, or they go straight to YouTube like in your case. And so I see a lot of similarities, and I can feel the excitement what you had in the beginning. But how did you actually make the steps? You’re working a career. You have a pretty stable income coming in. How did you make the jump from … I think it’s easier now, now that people have seen how many years has it been, that this is a solid online thing you can do? But at the time, how did you make that jump? How long was it until you realized I want ownership and control over my future here and this is what I want to do. How long did you stay in your corporate job?

Aaron Nace: Yeah, that’s a great question. I stayed in my job for probably about a year and a half honestly, I didn’t work there that long. The whole time I was shooting photography as a hobby as well as taking commercial clients, and doing some teaching on the side. And the decision to leave my job was, it was a tough one. I remember going like on a long walk by myself in the woods, just like can I do this? Is this at all a possibility? Am I going to be able to make this. Because it’s scary to go out on your own. It’s not something that we’re always encouraged to. I feel like now more than ever, people are being encouraged to go out on their own. But there’s no roadmap when you’re on your own, you just have to make it happen. And at the end of the day, what I realized on that that long lonely walk was-

Rachel Brenke: [inaudible 00:08:03] forest walking music or something playing totally revolutionary here.

Aaron Nace: Totally. But my little revelation at the end of that walk was okay. If I do this, and it doesn’t work in a year, I can just get another job. I have a job now. There’s other jobs out there. If this doesn’t work, if it totally blows up or if I just find myself too frustrated, or I’m not able to make my ends meet, I can just get a job. That’s that’s always an option. If it’s a part time job, if it’s another career job. Yeah, okay. I’m going to be without a cushion for a little while, but that’s totally okay. If I need that cushion again, not a problem at all.So I spent about six months saving enough money to cover my expenses for a little bit, and kind of jumped off into the unknown.

Rachel Brenke: And I love that you say that about, well I can always just go back to basically the drawing board. I can always get back another job and then fix and see what I need to do to go back out and have ownership again maybe. Or maybe realize that’s not for you. And what I find refreshing about that is with working with a lot of entrepreneurs and just talking with others, I get it. There’s this fear of failure, but failure is not the end. I don’t want to just sit here and sound cliche, but there’s always options. I’ve had projects that I thought were going to be gangbusters. I dedicated all these resources and time into, and then they flop. Then I’m like, “Dang.” Even more so when you have an entire company, right? You’re putting yourself out there and you’re, “Then I have to explain to my mom and my cousins,” while all of a sudden I’m going back to a corporate job and there’s an inherent shame and a fear of that failure. Did you have any of that or were you just very logical? “Well, I’ll just get another job. Screw what anybody thinks.”

Aaron Nace: I’ve got a really supportive family. That wasn’t necessarily in the back of my head. It was more of just I think I can make this work. It wasn’t that if I can’t make this work to the degree that I want, I wasn’t thinking I’ll just stop it all together and just go get another job. It was just maybe I’ll just get a part-time job to help pay the bills while I keep doing this. Because I really felt like there was something there. Thankfully I come from a background of very hardworking people. I’ve always believed that if you put in the work and you really believe and just try your hardest, that you can really make anything happen.

Rachel Brenke: And you know what’s interesting, you say that about going get a part-time job, making the ends meet is the idea. And I’ve talked in other episodes to my audience about when I came into entrepreneurship, I didn’t have really two nickels to rub together. And how did I do that? How did I take the steps to do the right marketing things, the right legal things? And I waited tables in the evenings. My husband was active duty military, we had a two year old son, and I was actually going through cancer. Long story but remission, obviously I’m still here. That was my walk in the forest. I realized that I wanted to have something for myself, and I did. But we didn’t have extra cash. And we were a young married couple, military. So we sacrificed in time. In the evening I waited tables, and in the day he worked and then we were able to trade off our son so we didn’t have to pay for daycare.

And so for me, especially us in an age now where, and I almost feel like I’m calling us old fogies. But right now, as far as when it comes to online education, we are the older ones, right? Because now there’s no barrier to entry. We came out the gate, you had YouTube, I had Facebook, etc. But now you can set up a website in two minutes. There’s no barrier for anyone to create this stuff. So yeah, it’s finding how you can make the ends meet and do that. So I love that. Did you have a specific financial number? You said you saved for six months. You don’t have to tell me the number, but I just want to know if you were like, “Here’s the box, here’s the amount I have to have.” Or if it just was I’m going to save and then I’m going to quit.

Aaron Nace: Yeah. Well I wanted to be able to cover my expenses for at least three months. Fully, fully cover my expenses. Because my the idea is okay, well if I quit my job and I spend literally every minute of every day trying to get clients, and make money, and make ends meet, I’m going to be able to make some money. Maybe I’m not going to be able to like completely cover my rent, but I’m going to be able to make some. But even if I make $0 dollars for three months, I want to be able to cover those bills. I want some cushion.

So I was living just in a small, humble apartment at the time in North Carolina. So rent was relatively inexpensive. So my living expenses were relatively low. So the amount of money that was necessary to save for three months’ living expenses wasn’t really that much. I just lived frugally as I could for a period of six months. I had some savings, just a little bit. I generally try to save a bit of all the money I make anyway.

But for six months I lived very frugally, and put a bit more away, and built that little cushion for myself. All the time, figuring out how I was going to go about building the company from the ground up. And again, at the beginning it wasn’t going to be a company, it was just going to be can I pay my bills working for myself?

Rachel Brenke: Which is actually what I want to move into. But when you were talking about the savings and making the step, I was like this is perfect. Because a lot of entrepreneurs I talk to, they go, “Okay, I want to have a business.” And then they come up with an idea. You had an idea that rose out of necessity and people asking you questions, and you were finding ways to meet that education and then it became a business. So what was the timeline from when you started Phlearn, to realizing? Realizing and it being a business may not be at the exact same time. When did you realize it was a business?

Aaron Nace: I’ll say maybe when did I start treating it like a business?

Rachel Brenke: I wasn’t going to throw you under the bus, but yeah.

Aaron Nace: Yeah, I would say really a few years to be honest. In the beginning, it was just can I cover my bills and can I do what I enjoy doing and make a living at it? This was not me trying to make a bunch of money, or trying to build this big thing. It was just can I do what I love doing and make money?

So that’s how the business was run for the first few years which was just okay, we did something that was really fun. Let’s see what else we can do that’s really fun. There was very little organization and strategy to the business as a whole. Most of the business was based on the whimsy of my own personal emotions, attitude, personality at the time. If I was not feeling very good or just like not feeling inspired, I wouldn’t do as much in the business would suffer a little bit because of it or maybe I was like in a super excited mode and I’d be okay, all hands on deck, let’s do this. And the business would start surging forward a little bit more.

So it was really a few years in when I realized, at the time I had a few employees and started to realize okay, cool. This isn’t just me anymore. This isn’t just a way for myself to generate my income. Now the company is responsible for other people’s livelihoods as well. This has grown larger than me. And with that comes the responsibility to start seeing and working, and acting just a little bit differently. Just putting a little bit more intention, and a little bit more planning, and a little bit more organization into everything that we do. So the income is a little bit less sporadic and a little bit more predictable.

Rachel Brenke: And I am similar in that I look back and I see how I was very driven by impulse and emotion, like you said. I just didn’t feel like doing something, I didn’t. Then the ones that I wanted to do, I really did, the ideas I had. Do you think that helps? Obviously both of us are sitting here with successful audiences and businesses. We have many employees. I just wonder sometimes had I been more intentional and straight laced from the beginning, would I be further along? Or do you think that contributed in a positive way that we were so emotionally drawn and acted upon the things that were really were into?

Aaron Nace: Yeah, that’s such an interesting question. In the beginning, I don’t think I knew any better, right? I was definitely trying my best since day one. But also I had a time when it was just the fun times. In the early dates of businesses, just so exciting [inaudible 00:18:01] this is a cool idea. Cool, let’s try that. Maybe let’s try a different thing. And I think that play around time is super important because it just … for me anyway, it just made the process more fun. And I really believe that when you enjoy something, you’re going to put more of your energy into it and you’re going to want to do it longer as well.

Things are always fun in the beginning. No matter what you’re doing, it’s going to be great in the beginning. That middle area, that’s really when things get to be a little bit more difficult. Not necessarily, the work doesn’t always get harder, but sometimes just showing up and doing the work can become harder. Just mentally. Once you establish a business and you’re like, “Okay cool, I know what we’re doing.” Now I just have to like show up and do it every day not to say that it becomes a boring, but it becomes a little bit more predictable.

And I think having that beginning stage driven by emotion and excitement can steer the direction of a company in a way that can hopefully benefit the people who work with that company on an emotional level.

So when it comes to the middle, the long middle is what I’ve heard it called before. During that period of the long middle, you’re still doing something that you really love to do.

So for instance, I’ve been making Photoshop tutorials and releasing them on YouTube for eight years now. And we release one a week. So we’re talking hundreds, and hundreds, and hundreds of tutorials on Photoshop, photography, Lightroom. Everything that a creative would need to get started. And the first 100 videos, the first couple hundred videos are very different from video number 650.

Rachel Brenke: You stole my next question. I was going to ask, have you seen an evolution in not just the quality, but the content, the approach, maybe the visual branding, the whole package? Obviously you’ve seen an evolution since the beginning. What do you think impacted that?

Aaron Nace: Yeah, that’s a really good question. So I would say a couple of things. So in the beginning, creating videos on YouTube, there was a lot of personal content. I put a lot of my own self into the videos. And these days I would say it’s a lot more just educational based. Learn to okay, what am I really doing here? I want to help educate people. I want to give people the opportunity to learn and grow, and they don’t need to know what I had for lunch yesterday. You know what I mean? Hey, quick intro, here’s what you’re going to learn.” All right, let’s show you how to do it, this is step one, step two, step three. Okay, here’s what we learned. Thanks a lot, have a great day, bye bye.”

That’s the format of our videos these days. So it’s a lot less of my own life in the videos and a lot more of the education side. But through the education side, it’s still … in our videos for instance, you always see the person on video. So if I’m teaching you a tutorial for instance, you’re going to see my face through the entire video. So even if I try to hide my personality, it’s impossible. You’re going to get that interpersonal connection with an individual.

And I found that that’s totally enough to make that connection. You don’t have to spend so much time talking about your personal life. If you can get straight to the content and just interject your personality in that content as you’re going through it, then you hit that sweet spot.

Rachel Brenke: I do think … it’s so funny listening. Aaron and I didn’t talk about these similarities before. This is all is coming out as you guys hear this too. I was the same way with mine. I started out very injecting personal life. This was before the whole term personal brand and connecting your audience. I was just putting out there and saw that people resonated with who I was. And actually, that injection of me before any brand. So myself came before TheLawTog, which is the legal website I have for photographers. But I use that same penetration style strategy every time that I build a new brand now. I start with myself in the forefront, and I slowly start pulling it back. And much like what you just said, it’s like an evolution that changed, but you’re still going to have elements of personality in there.

And I think what’s great about that is you don’t have to come out the gate and share everything about your life. There’s a spectrum of ways that you can inject yourself. Look at it like Aaron has Photoshop tutorials. And guys, they’re amazing. So whether you’re a photographer or not, just any creative, that Photoshop, Lightroom, the gamut, you name it. They’re are incredible. I’ve used them myself. And I’ve got a not so fun topic, right? Yours is very mechanical, mine is very legal. So we recognize that we have to inject personality into it to attract people.

Butt I also think that’s the name of the game now. That if you’re going to have a very sterile marketing, very sterile product, you’re not going to do as well. And Aaron, you may disagree with me on this, but I don’t think it matters how amazing of a video tutorial you have that creates the most amazing results for me. It’s going to be very hard to get me to buy into it if there’s no personality to it.

Aaron Nace: I completely agree. Yeah. And especially in these days where we’re living in a digital age. So much of our interpersonal communication comes through digital media, whether it’s text messages, talking on the phone, social media. So much of that is a little bit disconnected from face to face communication that I feel like as a whole, people are clinging to any type of personality. Any type of real connection they can get with another individual, it seems to be even more special these days because we live in such a … we’re so connected, but we’re also so disconnected. Yeah. It’s a very interesting time.

So with my personal life for instance, I’m put my phone on the table. Let me just have a conversation face to face. That’s what I want in my personal life. So I try to bring a little bit to that into the business side of things. When I’m making videos online, let’s just have a conversation. Let’s make this, we’re just hanging out, and I’m showing you how to do something. Whether it’s in Photoshop, photography, YouTube. Whatever it is, let’s just break down all that stuff and make it feel like we’re just hanging out.

Rachel Brenke: Well, and I think to compete too on this topic of evolution, what worked on just a simple screen share in 2012 isn’t going to work that way on YouTube anymore. Visual branding … it’s an interesting dichotomy to me, because I feel like consumers are forgiving of lower quality video when you’re being very personal, right? They are more forgiving when I’m just taking an Instagram story around my house and I’m showing my dog. But when I’m selling to them a product and service, they want on point visual branding.

So we have this low barrier to entry these days, but yet I feel like there’s that increased … and I don’t know if it’s going to keep going this way, but an increased demand in visual aesthetics, which is where you guys come in. You help to fulfill that need for many creatives and teaching people how to process images, photography, and all of that to get to that level. Do you think it’s going to get to the point that it’s so impossible for us to reach, or is the bar just going to keep going up, and then websites like y’all are just going to keep meeting the demand and providing the resources to help people get there?

Aaron Nace: I do think that we are more visually connected than we ever have been. You pick up your phone and spend five minutes on Instagram, you might see hundreds and hundreds of photos. And chances are if you’re going to the explore page, you’re going to see hundreds and hundreds of the best photos on all of Instagram.

So we’re so used to seeing high quality images these days, more than we’ve ever done in the past. Almost everyone I know anyway, has a camera with them at pretty much every time with their smartphone. So using images and using videos has become a daily part of most people’s lives, at least in the United States where I live.

And because of that, we’re so used to seeing images and high quality images that when a brand comes out and doesn’t have images of a certain caliber, to a consumer, you’re automatically judged upon hey, what’s that great image I saw on Instagram this morning? That was just some person posting online. Now here’s a brand trying to sell me something. If their imagery doesn’t match up to my expectation of what good imagery is, then I’m not going to take them as seriously. I’m not going to think that this is a top notch brand. Because I already have this reference point that’s very, very high.

So the bar is continuously raising it. And also technology, and the availability technology is also going up as well. So when I started my photography career, an investment of a few thousand dollars is what it took to get high quality photos. And now, they can be taken on the average smart phone. So there’s editing software on phones. In fact, I have a friend who does all of her editing just on her phone. She’s a professional working photographer. She takes images on her phone, and edits them on her phone, and has fortune 500 clients. It’s a really interesting time we live in.

Rachel Brenke: That’s incredible. So how do you reconcile that? Going back to what you were saying, how in the first few hundred episodes that you had on YouTube, did you go back and redo them? [inaudible 00:29:14] I think that’s one of the age old questions. When people learn something new, they’re like, “Should I scrap everything and redo it or do I just let it live?”

Aaron Nace: Yeah. Anything that’s not currently relevant anymore, we take down. And we do this periodically. But in the early days, let’s say I was teaching how to do something and now a new technology comes out and there’s maybe a faster, easier, better way of doing that. Then it’s time to make a new video. It’s time to show people what I feel is the current best way of doing something.

Also in some of the early videos that I made, it was like I said 80% just my personal life talking about what I was doing and maybe 20% of instruction. That’s not the story that I’m trying to tell now.

So I don’t take down all of the content from earlier days, because there’s a lot of great stuff in there. But I’m constantly culling what’s out there and making sure that it’s consistent with our personal brand. Because if someone watches a video from today, they’re going to see a certain impression of our brand. If they watch a video from 2011, they’re going to get a very different impression of the brand. And that can sway a person’s mind in certain ways.

And not always in a negative way, but it’s just something that I’ve wanted to keep in mind over the years is hey, was I talking about my girlfriend for half the video? That was in 2011. I’m not with that person anymore. That doesn’t need to be online. Right? That’s no longer relevant for anyone. So take the essential parts of those videos, and then maybe make a new video that is current and a little bit more future forward.

Rachel Brenke: Yeah. I love it. I look at my old Instagram and I’m like I want to get rid of it because a lot of is not relevant, but then there’s pictures of my kids, so I just need to sit down and export as much as I can.

One last bit on this and then I want to talk a little bit more about some lessons that you’ve learned before we wrap up. But for me as a female, I had been really injecting my personal life into the brand. I wanted to have a really personal brand. And then a couple of years ago, somebody made a comment to me recognizing that this was the time when everybody now is fighting for online space. But someone made a comment about me being a mom entrepreneur, or a mom photographer, and how all I did was talk about my kids.

Which is so funny because I look at it now when I go, “Bingo, I was attracting and saying what I needed to.” Instead, I took it as a slight because it was written that way and I was not to be taken seriously. Right? And I’m like this is one person out of 50,000 people on my Facebook page. So I took it as a slight, and I went completely in the other direction. And I went very corporate, very sterile, very let’s talk about one, two, three of legalities. And I had audience members who reached out and were like, “What is going on?” And it took them a bit, but they picked up on it. But it makes me wonder how many people I lost in the process.

And I guess I just share that to say essentially this whole episode has been the evolution from an idea in what you’re excited about, and creating it into a business. But this was even almost 10 years into it already. And I let one comment derail me from expertise and everything I needed to know because I was so worried that I was doing it wrong and that I was being perceived negatively. And maybe it was just a lacking of confidence thing. But I think I damaged my brand when I went very sterile. Because once I started bringing the kids back into it, because that is me. I was connecting and I wasn’t just sharing, “Look what Johnny did today with his Play-Doh.” I would make a story of Johnny coloring on my dining room table. I don’t even have a kid named Johnny. I don’t know why [inaudible 00:33:36] coloring on the dining room table and how that’s applicable to running a business. And those sorts of things. So I’m hearing that as a little last dovetail of the evolution that you may make mistakes and change it up as you go, but it’s all about staying in tune with also industry changes.

Like Aaron was just talking about, the accessibility to this sort of equipment almost for visual equipment, whether you’re a blogger. Photographers obviously. Videographer, or just even an entrepreneur who’s wanting to create digital media for your business. It’s almost like there’s not an excuse now. The accessibility is there, so you’ve got to stay in tune with this. And fight against … I guess I don’t know what I’m trying to say. I’m trying to correlate that don’t let your frustrations of thinking, “Oh my God, I can’t get my head around good visual photography or something.” Be the reason you don’t do it. Kind of like how I let that one little negative comment actually I think hurt my businesses.

So if you listen to someone or an interview like this with Aaron and myself and we’re telling you this is what’s important, especially when he’s seeing this. They have millions of subscribers on YouTube and come to their website. There’s a reason for that. Visual branding and anything that’s accessible to entrepreneurs now you got to get your head around. In order to stay in the game and to evolve, and to stay current and continue to grow, you got to stay on top of. Nice little soapbox.

Because I think I for so long was well like, “I know what I’m doing. I don’t need to look outside myself.” No, sometimes that’s why podcasts are so popular now. People realized they needed more help. So listen from people like us who are telling you mistakes.

And on the topic of mistakes, I wanted to ask you, what is one of the biggest mistakes or hardest lessons. Could be one in the same or two distinct things, that you learned since starting Phlearn?

Aaron Nace: Well, I would say one of the biggest lessons that I’ve learned is that a company, and when I say a company, a business. Internally, and what I mean by internally are just the inner workings of interpersonal relationships. Me and the people that I work with at this company. To me, that’s always going to be … I don’t want to say number one in that our customers are number two. I don’t want to rank them. But when our company internally is working really well, when everyone is enjoying what they’re doing, when we’re getting along, when we’re all on the same page, when we’re cranking as a team, I don’t even worry about the external. If we are doing really well internally, I know whatever we make, it’s going to be great.

We’re all on the same page and we’re putting our energy, and love, we’re making it happen. And when things internally start to fall apart, it affects the external immediately. It’s very, very obvious. Quality starts to go down, production starts to go down, attitude starts to go down. And it winds up affecting the consumers, the customers.

So what my main focus is, obviously we all have a bunch of … running a business it’s like you’re constantly putting out fires. But I pay a lot of attention in the internal dynamics to my company. How are the people who work with me feeling on a day to day basis? Do they feel like they’re growing with this company? Are they happy with their role? Do they feel heard? Do they feel appreciated? Are they comfortable at work? Is there something that could be done that would make them enjoy coming to work a little bit more? What are those dynamics that make the company run better internally? And I feel like the smoother we get our machine running internally, the more positive effect we can have on our customers.

Because at the end of the day, we are a content production company. And when we’re cranking, we can produce more content and be a better company for our customers, for the people who want to learn. So that’s a big, big part of my focus.

Not to say that our customers are not a big part of a focus. Because by focusing internally, it actually helps the customers more. We’re able to give them more of the things that are going to benefit them. So they go hand in hand.

Rachel Brenke: I think of it like when you throw a stone in the pond and the ripples all come from the middle, right? Right where that stone entered the water. If you are having a toxic or unsteady company culture, then that’s going to permeate and that’s going to be seen by your customers, your consumers. Management for me has been one of the hardest things. Not because I’m not a people person. It’s probably because I am. I love people. When they work for me, I joke that my customers or my clients become my friends. I just love people.

And so sometimes as the owner of the business, that’s difficult when I have to make changes. I don’t know. I’m constantly evolving as a manager myself, as a leader. I hate to say a manager because that sounds kind of degrading, but as a leader for my company. I get the sense when you’re speaking about this, that obviously it comes from experience. What are some ways that you became a better leader for your team so it could become a company, and it’s not just a group of people trying to figure things out?

Aaron Nace: Yeah. In the early days, I made the mistake of thinking that this is my company, and that the people that I work with, they’re there to do what I say. I’m the boss, and that’s a mistake that I made. I paid for that mistake. I was wound up getting to a place where I lost a couple of really great employees because I was not thinking about the business in the right way. I wasn’t thinking about my role in the right way.

So my big lesson from there is my job at my company is to make sure that everyone else at my company loves their job. And if things aren’t going exactly the way that I think they should go, my challenges there is how can I course correct while keeping everyone still on board?

There’s no room for just critique or just telling someone to do something different for another reason. A challenge that I have is okay, how do I say that’s not exactly how I think we should do it. I think we should do it like this. But my main goal in that process is I want to make sure that the person I’m communicating with is … they’re going to be happy. At the end of that conversation it’s going to be, “Okay, we’re cool. That makes sense. We’re cool, let’s move forward.” This is never a hand slapping thing. This is never, “Hey, don’t do it like that. Do it like this instead.” It’s always a conversation. And my primary goal is to just again, make sure that whatever decisions need to be made, anyone who has any interaction with this business winds up on the positive side.

Whether they’re an employee for a contractor that works with us for one day, or they work here for 10 years. Whatever they are, when they enter and then exit this business or as a customer, whether they watch one of our tutorials or they’re a long time subscriber for years and years. Whatever that process is, I want to make sure that by the end of that process, they’ve got a smile on their face and said, “That was a great experience.”

Because it’s unrealistic to think that whoever you hire on day one is going to be with you for years and years it could happen but there’s probably going to come a time when someone enters your company. Maybe as an employee, as a contractor, even as a customer. And they’re probably going to have an exit. And I want to make sure when that exit happens, that they feel like they’ve had a good experience with the company. And they’ll take that experience as a positive moving forward.

Rachel Brenke: And one of my experiences, I wouldn’t say one. It’s been repeated that I have found similarly in that I felt like I had to give so much structure in the beginning. You have to have some sort of framework, and set expectations for the team. And I do say team. I don’t call them employees, we are a team. I may have the final say at the end of the day, but they know I super heavily rely on their opinions. Because they’re the ones that are in the trenches. They’re the ones that are interacting with the customers the most in all of this. And one thing that I have found that I’m fine tuning in my management style is an empowering ownership in them.

For example, if we have a customer service, maybe there’s a tech issue. And somebody’s download link was broken, but it happened in the middle of the night. And of course nobody, I don’t make my team work nights, so nobody was responded to right away. I empower them to do within a certain amount of money, whatever they see that will make that customer happy, right? And that empowers them, and that encourages my team member to problem solve. They get to feel like they have ownership. And they do have ownership, right? They’re actually enacting the whole job for that.

So I’ll say, “Here’s a certain amount of money you can refund, new credit.” Whatever it is for this customer in these type of situation. And that’s just one example. But I have found the empowerment bit and the initiative and ownership that they show me in response is so crucial. Because I feel like I can teach team members new ones all the time, I can send them to Phlearn and to learn how to process images. I can send them to WordPress Academy to learn how to update plugins, but I can’t teach initiative and ownership. So when I see those, I want to cultivate that by giving them a chance to enact that and having the freedom to roam within that as much as possible. And for me, I found then they really feel … because they are a part of the team, but then they feel real ownership in the brand, and that seeps into how they treat the customers.

Aaron Nace: 100%. I completely agree.

Awesome. Well this has been great. I’ve been loving hearing about the evolution from beginning to now. One last question for you before we wrap up. Do you feel like you’ve made it, or do you just feel like you’re on one summit of a mountain and you’re going to keep climbing to the next?

Aaron Nace: Yeah, I would say that I feel like I’m at the beginning of my journey. Yeah. Most definitely. There’s so many things that I want to do just personally and business wise. I hope that I can just stick around long enough to do some of those things.

Rachel Brenke: That’s awesome. Well, thank you so much for coming on today, Aaron. This has been incredible to see from beginning through now. A lot of great nuggets and action items. Guys, I’m going to have this posted of course on all the major podcast platforms. But the show notes themselves or you can dig in to learn about Aaron and Phlearn is going to be at rachelbrenke.com/pod. And Phlearn by the way is P-H-L-E-A-R-N. They have millions of subscribers on YouTube, lots of great reviews and comments that you can check out. Again like I said, visual branding like we’ve talked about is really crucial. You can learn a lot from them, especially if you’re not a photographer, you’re not a photo retoucher. They break it down so you can utilize these to help elevate your visual brand and put yourself out there professionally in front of your potential customers.

So again Aaron, thank you so much for joining us. And guys, don’t forget to jump into the Business Bites Podcast Facebook group. We’ll also be discussing and sharing some of our favorite tutorials from Phlearn in other tidbits about this episode. See you guys on the inside.

Speaker 2: Thanks for joining Rachel on this episode of the Business Bites. For show notes, a list of recommended tools, or referenced episodes. You can find them at businessbitespodcast.com. Until next time.

Featured Guest & Resources

Born and raised on the quiet island of Kauai, Aaron Nace would be the first to tell you that his upbringing was anything but ordinary. Despite the obvious perks of Hawaiian life, he would eventually move with his mother, father, and two brothers to North Carolina.

Aaron studied at North Carolina State University and obtained a degree in Industrial Design. Graduating from college, he thought his path was clear to one day becoming an automotive or furniture designer — that is until a six-month-long trip to South America transformed his life forever. It was during this time that he fell in love with photography and its power to both facilitate and share adventures. In 2011, Aaron founded PHLEARN to bring free, creative education to anyone around the world.


You can find Aaron here:

About the author

Hi, I’m Rachel Brenke

Rachel Brenke

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