What I Learned This Year: Becca Colbaugh

[Originally posted on Tulsa Egotist.]

You’re only as good as your last project: Lessons learned from a tech start-up.

It’s hard to believe yet another year has soared by.

For JESS3, it’s no question that 2011 has been one of our biggest years yet — and in so many ways.

In 2011 alone, we’ve seen:
– 114% increase in our revenues
– 59% increase in our team growth
– 142% increase in JESS3.com’s page views

While these kinds of numbers make us proud as a team, we also want to recognize that none of this has come easily. There have certainly been lessons learned through less-than-ideal situations, sobering journeys and even downright failures. Yet through both the good times and the bad, looking back on this year, I can confidently say JESS3 is at its highest peak yet.

Looking over the past 12 months, I’ve compiled a reflection list: the top 11 lessons learned for 2011.

11. You’re only as good as your last project. While I’ve been hearing this from our CEO and founder, Jesse, for years, after launching over 70 projects this year (with just a few more about to launch before New Year’s Eve), I’ve understood it now on more levels than ever before. I’m also excited that this year, we locked in our own 14-step (literally!) launch process for each and every one of our case studies. That puts any 12-step process to shame in my book!

10. Don’t discount puppets. One of my most favorite projects this year was our video for ESPN, where we found a creative way to explain how the TV ratings system actually works. When the client was citing off inspiration, let’s just say they had us at “Sesame Street”…

9. Taking a pulse on projects to watch the bottom line. As I’ve grown into a more operational role this year at JESS3, one of my many missions when working with Leslie, our President and COO, has been to create an easier and more accurate system around tracking our employees’ time. This means keeping a disciplined approach in assigning new billing codes, categorizing our service offerings, keeping employees accountable and monitoring profit margins — all of which have been incredibly helpful as our company engine roars, with a shift in gears gaining speed from a start-up and accelerating into a small business.

8. Evaluating our clients is just as important as their evaluation of us. Now, this isn’t because we’re an agency with a “too cool for school” attitude — it’s because we’ve seen what works and what doesn’t work in our client partnerships. To be truly successful, there must be a mutual fit for both sides.

7. Producing is about discouraging creativity. To borrow a line directly from Tina Fey and her book, “Bossypants.” (If you haven’t read it yet, stop reading this post immediately and go out and buy the book, it’s too good to be true.) Ultimately, overseeing companywide production means staying constantly vigilant over budgets and timelines, both of which in many ways go against the true creative process. I particularly love this except from Tina, and even though this is written within the context of TV producing, I still find it eerily familiar:

You would think that as a producer, your job would be to churn up creativity, but mostly your job is to police enthusiasm.You may have an occasion where the script calls for a bran muffin on a white plate and the Props Dept. shows up with a bran cake in the shape of Santa Claus sitting on a silver platter that says “Welcome to Denmark.” ‘We just thought it would be funny.’ And you have to find a polite way to explain that the character is Jewish, so her eating Santa’s face might have negative connotations, and the silver tray, while beautiful, is giving a weird glare on the camera and maybe let’s go with the bran muffin on the white plate.

6. Stay close to the earth. This is a phrase adapted by several JESS3 team members, and it can certainly take on many meanings, depending on context. But when relating to the creative services world, what this broadly means is that despite the role at your company, you have to instill regular checkpoints on all projects. This not only supports your team and increases success rates across the board, but it also keeps you informed for new business opportunities, unexpected client calls and ultimately gives you the knowledge you need in sticky situations. Bottom line — it’s easy to lose sight of the day-to-day operations when you aren’t on the front lines — but the potential consequences are simply not worth the thrill that comes with orbiting from above.

5. You have to treat your own brand the way you would a client. Or else, you’ll get so far behind on your own brand, it will become incredibly overwhelming and will give a whole new definition to “playing catch up.” This applies to your own website, your case studies and your social channel management. When it comes to the depth and breadth of your agency’s activity on all the gazillion social channels crawling all over the web, brands themselves have a enough trouble dedicating the time, staff and resources to do it right. Yet, as agencies who are helping to manage the brands — we have to do this ourselves. How are we to be seen as the experts otherwise?

4. Integration across departments is crucial. We’re really mindful at JESS3 to respect each other and appreciate the value each team brings to the table. Creative swim in their own lanes — strategy plays in their own sandboxes — and that’s all good and well … to a certain point. The real power is the point at which all departments overlap and integrate, and it’s within that small nucleus where each department’s value adds come together to make magic. And when you start to break each department up into individuals, and create even more circles, that area for that center intersection point grows even smaller — but more potent. And it’s in that very cross section where you will find the heart and soul of JESS3.

3. Scaling yourself is hard, but worth it. It’s become increasingly evident to me how unwilling employers are to train their new hires and recruits, and more so it’s become clear why — it’s difficult, it takes time to prepare for, as well as implement and it is slow-going. However, what I’ve also come to realize is how necessary this first step is upon onboarding someone into your company and its culture. No matter how much experience someone might have, this person has never worked for your company before, and you’re not setting him or her up for success unless you get them trained in your firm’s processes, lingo, SOPs and more.

2. If you feel uncomfortable, good — that means you’re growing. There’s no shortage of challenges in the agency life, and along with challenges comes a certain level of uncomfortability as you venture into what feels like the unknown. While some people might crave habit and consistency, I’ve now realized that it is upon settling into endless routines where my first steps to dissatisfaction and unhappiness in the workplace begins. If you’ve mastered all challenges, then what’s will keep things interesting?

1. Never lose sight of compassion and humility in all that you do. Whether it is internal or external, creative or operational, personal or professional. Because, when combined, these two traits yield both power and grace.


Becca Colbaugh is JESS3’s Vice President of Production & Operations. Follow her @Becca_Colbaugh.

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