Episode 12: Founder Ali Schwanke intersects marketing, entrepreneurship, rural myths

 

     

 

 

Dr. Connie gets down to business with Ali Schwanke, Founder and CEO of Simple Strat, a growth marketing agency headquartered in Lincoln, Neb. Ali shares some of the nuts and bolts of what it takes to be successful after the startup phase. She sprinkles in some insights into what small businesses can do to amplify their voice and their story. And she gets real about what it’s going to take to create a culture for female entrepreneurs — starting with them finding the time between running a business and life’s demands to take their seat at the table. For those of us in the Midwest, Ali also challenges to own the misconceptions of our region and start telling our story better.

Ali Schwanke, CEO Simple Strat
“You start to understand the myths and preconceived notions that exist in the Midwest, and it’s up to us to change those. We can’t get angry about someone not hiring us, because we are part of the story that’s being told in our region.”
Ali Schwanke
Founder and CEO, Simple Strat

About Ali

                  

Ali is the founder and CEO of Simple Strat, the marketing agency for companies that are serious about growth. She’s a sought-after speaker, consultant and content creator; a Pipeline Entrepreneurial Fellow; and a member of the National Practitioner’s Council for the American Marketing Association. She’s a wife to Bryce, a fifth grade teacher, and mom to two boys.

 

Show Notes

Dr. Connie: Welcome to the Rural Futures podcast. Joining me today is Ali Schwanke. She’s the Founder and CEO of Simple Strat, the marketing agency for companies that are serious about growth. She’s a sought-after speaker, consultant, and content creator, a Pipeline Entrepreneurs Fellow, and a member of the national Practitioners Council for the American Marketing Association. She’s also wife to Bryce, who’s a fifth-grade teacher, and mom to two boys. So you’re doing it all. You’re doing the whole  work-life balance, and all that good stuff. But I’d love to dive into a little more about you, Ali, so tell our audience a little bit about yourself.

Ali Schwanke: Sure! Well, I’ll definitely correct the not-doing-it-all-well.

(laughing)

Ali Schwanke: Before we started-

(laughing)

Dr. Connie: I just had to say that.

Ali Schwanke: Before we started recording, we were just talking about how I burned a pan with Pam spray in it, because I forgot that it was actually on the stove. So, most days I try a little bit harder than that, but I, but it’s true, being a mom and being a wife and those things are important, but I have a similar passion for running a business. And my first ever business, per se, was probably when I was six or seven. I was selling these greeting cards, door-to-door. So, it would have been, in the probably, early ’90s. And back then, everyone had stationary and greeting cards. And I wanted to earn this tent, and so I went around selling these cards, door-to-door. And I had decided this was so easy, that I’d make my own catalog. And so I drew myself a catalog with clothes that I knew I could purchase from the local, like, Shopko, and nobody bought anything, but-

(laughing)

Dr. Connie: That is awesome, though! What a great story! So do you feel like you’ve always kind of had this entrepreneurial bent to you?

Ali Schwanke: I do, but I didn’t start my business right out of college, and I did work for other people, which I think gave me some of the, “here’s what I wouldn’t want to do”, sort of perspective? I often wonder if I had started earlier, what the world would look like, but I’m really thankful for the people that went before me and showed me a bit of the ins and outs before I actually had to kind of take the hard knocks myself.

Dr. Connie: So, it wasn’t something that you did right out of college, but what made you ultimately decide to become an entrepreneur and build a business? Yeah, I actually did have a photography business right out of college, and so I did that as a solopreneur. At that point I didn’t have any employees, and I kind of got sick of the schedule with that, and decided to morph into marketing, but every time I worked for somebody, I had this sense that it was mine. And a couple companies, I got to the point that I was ready to buy in, as a partner, or an owner. And one time, I actually sat down with one of the companies I was working with to talk about becoming a minority partner. And this is one of those times that, you don’t ever really talk about the ugly that goes on in business, and I remember this person just yelling at me and calling me an unthankful person because the number I proposed to them was not what they thought the business was worth. And they were kind of valuing sweat equity, which doesn’t really have a numerical value sometimes. And at that point, I’m like, you know what? If I’m going to build something, it’s going to be for me.

Dr. Connie: Right. And so how long have you been building Simple Strat? When did you found it? And really, tell us a little more about what Simple Strat does.

Ali Schwanke: So, Simple Strat is about two-and-a-half, as of the recording of this, at the end of this year, it’ll be nearing three years old. But prior to that, I had a couple of years where I was a solo consultant and really went in as a CMO for hire. In that experience, I discovered that a lot of businesses, they really struggled with marketing, although I think I have a very well-rounded marketing skill set, because of all the things I’ve done. I’m an okay designer. I’m an okay content creator, but when you have a team around, you can do it so much better. So Simple Strat was birthed out of that realization that I can build this skill entity with teams and people, and then that allows me to go out and really, kind of push these big changes in the industry, as opposed to doing all the kind of grunt work. So we focus on companies that are looking to grow through marketing, and that means you have to be forward-thinking and putting the consumer first and thinking through all those different types of things that are going to draw someone in to your story, and then get them to act instead of just interrupting them and hoping that they pay attention.

Dr. Connie: Well, I love how your journey has progressed and it sounds like you’ve had a lot of experiences that have led to this moment, but you’ve really embraced all those experiences as well, and learned from them.

(music transition)

Dr. Connie: Alright, Ali, so one of the reasons we brought you on the podcast is because you are a maverick, and in our world, you are a rural maverick, right? So, tell us a little bit more about why Simple Strat is located here, and what advantages, and maybe disadvantages, that really entails?

Ali Schwanke: Yeah, so Simple Strat’s headquarters, I guess I could say, if I use the HQ. We’re in Lincoln, and one of the reasons why Lincoln’s such a great community to build a business in, is there’s this really interesting ecosystem of startups, and that’s not just quote unquote tech startups. But, it’s really anybody who’s trying to be innovative with their business and make things happen. So there’s the tie that you have to people and other people that are doing things like you, is incredible. We have a strong presence of Internet connections here in the city. We have the strong presence of legal support, and financial support, and that kind of stuff. But the challenges it presents in the Midwest is probably related to talent. Typically, when you’re looking for people with certain skills and you have a certain size of the population, how many of the population out there are certified inbound marketers with experience in B2B marketing, that have automation and lead generation on their resume? Ugh, not very many. So, that’s probably the biggest challenge that I’ve seen so far in building a business here. And then there is, I don’t know how we’re going to get over this, we’re working on it but, there’s still the perception when, I went to a conference in Boston, and I remember someone, I told them I was from Nebraska. And they kind of like in the South, they’re like, oh, bless your heart, you know?

(laughing)

Dr. Connie: Right?

Ali Schwanke: That’s what it felt like! They looked at me and were like, good for you! And I was like, good for me, what? Like, we don’t get out of our cattle call! I didn’t understand what that was supposed to mean. So we had this conversation about what their perception of the Midwest was. And yeah, they’d never been here. So I think building a business here, I can help us bring people to the region, and then they leave and go, “Holy cow, there is amazing stuff happening in Nebraska.” Then we can be part of that change. But until then, we’re just going to continue to build this ecosystem, because everyone here recognizes that it’s super powerful.

(music transition)

Welcome to Bold Voices, our segment with rock star students from the University of Nebraska who are making a difference in rural.

Katy Bagniewski: Hello podcast listeners, my name is Katy Bagniewski, and I’m the Production Specialist of the Rural Futures podcast. With me today is Amber Ross, a junior agribusiness major from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Welcome, Amber.

Amber Ross: Hi, Katy.

Katy Bagniewski: Okay, Amber, so give us your elevator pitch. Who is Amber Ross?

Amber Ross: So, Amber Ross, is just your typical small-town girl. I grew up in Callaway, Nebraska, graduated from Callaway High School. Callaway has 500, a little more than 500 people in it, and honestly, Callaway taught me most of what I know now. So, I carry what Callaway taught me as I go through life and I refer back to it pretty frequently.

Katy Bagniewski: Yeah, so talk a little bit about that. Why do you care about rural so much?

Amber Ross: I am your typical farmer’s daughter. I learned all about hard work, about teamwork, about dedication, about perseverance, all that kind of stuff on the farm. But then, I also learned a lot growing up in a small town. I mean, it was, our high school was K-12. Everybody was in one building, and that puts a lot of pressure on high schoolers to do everything. I did speech, I did one-acts, I did volleyball, basketball, I rodeoed. I did it all, and there’s not a lot of free time there. And so I came to college, and I wasn’t used to having free time. I was so bored, I actually went out and got a job, so that I didn’t just sit in my dorm room. You do, you just learn how to time manage. You learn about hard work and, that kind of stuff is invaluable to a college student like me.

Katy Bagniewski: So, how would you answer the question of, why rural, why now?

Amber Ross: So, we’ve seen through the patterns of history that, as we go through, people either want to live in the city for a time and they revert back and they want to live in the smaller community, in the rural community, and I think, right now, we’re really heavy into that. Everybody wants to live in the city where it’s convenient and everything’s right there where you need it. But I think we’re going to start seeing that go back to small-town feel, in just 10 years or so. I think we’re really going to see that change, again. And rural communities are going to become the trendy place to live. It’s going to be cool to be in rural. I mean, I was there before it was cool, so I kind of already am on the trend, but—

(laughing)

Katy Bagniewski: Because rural is cool.

(laughing)

Amber Ross: You right, You right!

(laughing)

Katy Bagniewski: So with that mindset, how has the Rural Futures Institute impacted your college career and your future plans for beyond college?

Amber Ross: So, the Rural Futures Institute just has offered me a lot of different opportunities that I wouldn’t have gotten any other way. I mean, I’ve gone to West Point and Columbus for serviceship experiences. Just those kinds of opportunities, I wouldn’t have gotten if I didn’t work with RFI and work here in the office, and so, meeting those kinds of people who are real movers and shakers and doing some really cool things regarding rural, has just changed my outlook on a lot of things, and so,  in the future, my goal is to be a community developer of some sort, whether that be through the chamber work, or through economic development. And so, I wouldn’t trade my experiences with RFI for anything.

Katy Bagniewski: Well, thank you, Amber, I think that was really valuable. And thank you for being our student spotlight of the week, and giving hope to our generation of future leaders who want to make a better world for all.

Amber Ross: Thank you, Katy.

(music transition)

Dr. Connie: So, one of the areas we like to focus on at the Rural Futures podcast is leadership, and obviously you’ve had a lot of experiences that you’ve learned from and you’ve used to develop as a leader. Tell us a little bit about your leadership philosophy and how you’re using that to grow Simple Strat, but also your presence in the entrepreneur ecosystem.

Ali Schwanke: Sure. So, a lot of people who have gone before me have given me a glimpse of what is good leadership, and then there’s definitely those that, when I was working for people, I always kept a never note file, called things “I will never do when I have a company”.

Dr. Connie: That’s awesome.

(laughing)

Ali Schwanke: And it was filled with things—it’s funny, because now, there are things on that list that I know I didn’t understand the context at the time, and I think oh, I’d never do that! And then when I get in a leadership role, I think, oh, that’s why they did that. And so I think that being a transparent leader and letting people know you have faults, but balancing that with the confidence and reassurance that here’s where the company’s going. To be honest, every day is not great, and every day, I’d love to say: we had this amazing team meeting, and we all high-fived, and everyone is clear on the vision, and it’s amazing. And you could still ask one of my team members, “What’s this thing over here?” And I’d be like, we just talked about that! But talking to someone and talking with someone and having them understand are two completely different things. So, I think it’s always a learning process.

Dr. Connie: No, I agree, I think it is a learning process, and I loved how you talked about the context, too, because I think sometimes, as an employee, you don’t work to understand to maybe what that other person’s going through or what their needs are, so how can I also support that while also growing as a person and growing as an organization serving customers, et cetera. The whole idea of gender and leadership is such a big conversation right now, and as well as gender and entrepreneurship. How would you envision this evolving in the future? Being a female who’s a strong leader, also an entrepreneur, how do you see the future of leadership for women?

Ali Schwanke: Yeah, I think that’s an interesting conversation. It’s one that actually myself personally hadn’t had too much up to this point, and I’m not the first person to sit out in the middle of the street and say, go women entrepreneurs. Not because I don’t think that’s important. It’s just, I was asked by a reporter, “What is it like being a woman entrepreneur,” and it’s just kind of like, what is it like to breathe?

(laughing)

Ali Schwanke: It’s just this thing that I do! But if you take certain situations and break them down, there definitely are times that you start to think, Oh, maybe there are some disadvantages that exist. I have a couple people in my business that are men, and it’s not been uncommon for people to assume that I’m working with them or for them. And I don’t think that that’s— I don’t think anything negative about that person for thinking that, but it’s just a natural thing that happens. I’ve done some social experiments myself, where like, does it matter if I wear glasses? Does it matter if I wear my hair is up? Does it matter if my hair is down? Do I wear a startup tee with a blazer? Do I wear a dress? All of those things affect your first impression and what people think of you, and I always want someone to think, “She is damn smart,” versus, “Whoa, I wonder if she knows anything” because of the way I’m dressed. So, that’s something that I’ve thought through, but there’s definitely a need to have more conversations about it and it’s getting women after work away from their families to talk about it.

(laughing)

Ali Schwanke: That’s probably the bigger challenge is, we have so many things to worry about, that having a conversation requires strategic effort.

Dr. Connie: Absolutely. I mean, I think it’s just this time thing is such a big one. And we have women leaving the workforce in droves right now, to start their own businesses, because they are thinking, “How do I have  more flexible schedule that I can control somewhat?” “How do I continue to be involved with my family?” All these different things and also, the organizational cultures that don’t support, what the modern lifestyle is and I think that’s true for women, but also for men. We see more men wanting to be parents, and full-on, as well, Or just, couples in general, trying to figure out how to balance all this, or single parents, all of that. What advice would you give to women who are in the workplace right now who are thinking about starting their own business?

Ali Schwanke: Yeah, I have a book on my shelf that’s called “Secrets of Six-Figure Women”, and I thought it was interesting because I didn’t know this until I started reading it, that women typically don’t make more than $100,000 in their business. And I don’t know what the number was, don’t quote me on it, but it was something like, more than 80% of women don’t ever break that $100,000 mark. Just like any statistic, you can look inside and say, let’s figure out why this is, and it might be because the number of businesses counted included part-time businesses, or Etsy businesses, or whatever, but at the same respect, why aren’t women earning more? And if you go to any women’s entrepreneur event, you’ll notice a very interesting thing. You’ll notice that there’s a lot of women who have a business that’s a solo business, it’s them.  And 1099’s or them and a VA, or something like that, because the idea of building something bigger, where you have to like, “I’m responsible “for six people’s salaries.” Every month when I write the check or press the button or whatever for payroll, I’m responsible for other people’s livelihoods, and that’s a big risk, being responsible for just my livelihood isn’t as big of a risk. And I think that’s one of the challenges, and I want to help people figure that out, but it is one of things that I struggle to find other women that have businesses that are employing people. I think that’s a fascinating sort of aspect of entrepreneurship, because I think sometimes, we see this growth in what we call the gig economy, the 1099 employees, they just want to do gigs, maybe to support their family a little bit. But you talk a lot about this whole issue of the side hustle is easy, what’s hard is the growth, what’s hard, is saying you know what, I’m going to put my stake in the ground and I’m going to build a team, and I’m going to go after this bigger business model, a bigger business concept. What would you tell people that were wanting to say, “You know what, maybe I need to go bigger?”

Ali Schwanke: Yeah, I think that one of the things that’s difficult from a side hustle perspective is a lot of side hustles start as just that— they’re just a side hustle, they’re just a way to make some extra money. They might be kind of this random idea, but it’s not like they’ve thought, “when I hit revenue x, I’m going to do y.” “When I hit revenue this, I’m going to do this.” When you’re building a business, you have some of those benchmarks and milestones already laid out because you kind of, even if you didn’t put together a plan, you still have somewhat of a, “In five years, we’re going to be this.” “Okay, to get there I’m going to do this.” When you’re side hustling, you’re still just kind of in the motion every day and you’re not really thinking strategically. So when it becomes overwhelming, in the podcast where we were interviewing local entrepreneurs, one of the gals there said, “I either had to grow, or I had to get scaled back.” And people often have the fear of the unknown, even if it’s better, they want to stick with the known. And even in marketing I’ve noticed a lot of people now, it’s so easy to start something. Seth Godin says, “It’s easier than ever to start, it’s harder than ever to finish.”

Dr. Connie: Yeah, and I think that’s interesting to hear some people who have lived this whole experience as more of a lifestyle. Like you said, it’s like how you breathe, almost. It’s not necessarily just something that you, I don’t know, do part time, or just kind of dabble in. It’s just how you, you’re wired, and how you decided to live and make your living. But, I too, would like to dive a little bit into your podcast, because I think the other thing is, you have this message, not only with your business, but you as a person, as an entrepreneur who has scaled, and is employing other people. And we have so few female entrepreneurs in the US, and even, internationally doing this type of work, and scaling like that. I’d love to learn a little bit more about your Bar Napkin Business podcast, and why you started that, and what the message is behind the podcast.

Ali Schwanke: Yeah! The podcast is a local podcast, to the Midwest at this point, and we’ve interviewed nearly 50 entrepreneurs and small business owners. It’s really about the, we call it the down and dirty details of running and growing a business. Because I think we were a little bit over the fact that there’s all these, startup x y z guys, venture capital funding, and they don’t even have a product yet. There’s a lot of really great things happening that require a lot of investment, but there’s a lot of really just people that are grinding it out to make things work that provide a pretty good business, so it might be like one gal was building a candle business. And she was at the point that she was outsourcing production, and how does that all work. And another guy developed a patent for something that he and his buddies had just kind of ran with and now it’s a business and they’re selling online and shipping everywhere. It’s more like a Shark Tank sort of feel, but it’s happening right here in the Midwest.

Dr. Connie: Yeah, absolutely and I think sometimes when people think of rural, they think of the entire Midwest. And so this is something we’ve talked a lot about with our audiences, and I get asked a lot, “How do you define rural?” And I’m like, “Well, it really kind of depends on the context, right?” And so if you’re on the East Coast or West Coast, you define the whole Midwest as rural, where a lot of times people in Omaha wouldn’t define themselves as rural, or Lincoln wouldn’t define themselves as rural, if you’re thinking about just Nebraska. I think, though, the hyper-localization of what people want to hear and know is such a key part of while we see everything grown exponentially and get bigger, at the same time people need to know how that applies in their own life. And so it’s awesome to hear about Steve Jobs and the next big company, as in Gazelle, but I think what it missing sometimes is the conversation you’re having and that podcast. You don’t have to get a multimillion dollar investment deal to do well in business.

Ali Schwanke: Yeah, one of the things that we found was that people wanted to hear like, we talked about the story of ZipLine Brewery and how that started. And when you hear someone else that is kind of like you or not just looks like you or acts like you but they could be your neighbor down the street, if they did it, I could probably do this. So it was designed to show some of the, I mean there’s also a lot of hard stuff that goes into building a business, and we didn’t want to sugar-coat the fact that you have to pay attention to the numbers. We started to see trends that came out of conversations. Matt and I, my co-host, would just look at each other and kind of be like, “Yep, here we go again,” because they’d talk about people, or they’d talk about financing, or they’d talk about needing lawyers, and I appreciate good lawyers, it’s just essential and you can’t look over that.

Dr. Connie: Well, I think even if you’re doing just your own thing, getting started, you have to have that team in place. I mean you need to have an attorney, an accountant, people that can help you through the fine print of owning a business and the legal issues and the accounting issues that you’re going to have if you’re going to take an income for a product or service and try to get that out.

Ali Schwanke: Yeah, I mean the day that I realized that I didn’t have to know the answer to every accounting question, I was ecstatic. Chad, if you’re listening, you’ve been a lifesaver. It’s been amazing and we went through some legal paperwork in our operating agreement lately and Bart Dillashaw helped us out with that and he just, he understands the Midwest entrepreneurial culture, he has experience in the valley, it’s just—that sort of resource available here in our rural Midwest, I guess, for people that are on the Coast is amazing.

(music transition)

Dr. Connie: One of the things we’ve talked about in our rural communities is the need for more entrepreneurship. We’re not going to pull in a lot of big companies, there are fewer and fewer big companies that even exist. How would you envision more of what’s happening here in I would say our Lincoln startup community? Omaha is a great startup community. How could you see rural and urban connecting through entrepreneurship, and helping maybe support more entrepreneurship in our rural areas?

Ali Schwanke: Yeah, I think one of the challenges that we have with rural, and even in the Midwest, entrepreneurs still learn from each other. And someone asked me if I had to give advice to someone about entrepreneurship, what would it be? And my advice is find a powerful community that can push you and challenge you and is going to know the things that you don’t know. Ithink, though, the fact that we have access to all information also makes it very hard to know what information we should pay attention to. And when I’m living in a rural community of maybe 300 people it seems like my world is very small and there’s no resources available, but in fact you are connected by the Internet and it just requires a little bit more strategic navigating to find the people that you would call your people, and then don’t disregard the fact that being together in person is super-valuable. So if there’s an entrepreneurship summit in the middle of your state, go, use it as a chance to go and meet people.

Dr. Connie: Yeah, absolutely. I think what we’ve found, I used to work with the Entrepreneurship Club down in southeast Nebraska, and it was always amazing to me, great groups of people getting together, and everybody knows that you have a business, I have a business, but they didn’t know a lot about one another’s businesses, or how you could, “What are those partnerships?”, “How can we leverage what each other’s bringing “to the table so that we’re winning together, rather than thinking we’re competing?”, or “There’s no partnership potential here.”

Ali Schwanke: Yeah, people in the Midwest, what’s interesting, we work with clients from all over, and I spend a lot of time in other cities doing either speaking or we’re a HubSpot agency so we work with a lot of software, but people in different communities tend to have a different view on what competition can and can’t do. I love competition because it pushes us the be better, but it also means that most companies can find out pretty much everything that you do because you put it on your website or they can ask around. So, they’re so shy about sharing what they’re doing, which means they don’t connect with other entrepreneurs, or they don’t seek out communities because they’re just afraid of connecting to the point that it’s going to be a detriment. When I think that we’re now at a point in our world that you should be connecting because if you don’t, your next opportunity is going to come from a human being versus from some sort of a Web search.

Dr. Connie: And I think that’s a critical point. Businesses grown by human beings and those relationships are still incredibly important. I know you’ve also talked about this challenge we have sometimes around not hiring the people we know or the people around us— the local businesses not always getting hired. Tell our audience a little bit more about that experience and how you think just employing one another, doing more business to business work and investment with one another could help spur on our own economy.

Ali Schwanke: Yeah, this is like a catch-22, because I think, I don’t know who, someone smart, said it once, but I don’t know who it was, but you’re always an expert 60 miles outside of your market. What they basically meant is you have a chance to establish your reputation for one or two specific things that you’re known for and outside the market, because you’re an unknown, it’s somewhat shiny and new and you can, that is actually a lot easier than doing it in your local market. The interesting thing is, a lot of times the people that are looking for the services that are local, they don’t know that they exist here, or they assume they don’t exist here. So why would you hire a development company out of Lincoln, Nebraska, when you could go hire the company that helped build some software out in Silicon Valley? Well, why wouldn’t you? And you start to break down some of the— you start to understand the myths and preconceived notions that exist in the Midwest, and it’s up to us to change those. So we can’t get angry about someone not hiring us because we are part of the story that’s being told in our region.

Dr. Connie: I love that. I love how you’ve so strongly come in as a leader and an entrepreneur and really has, in a short time, you’ve experienced so much success and growth. But I’d love to know, too, about your experience as a Pipeline Fellow, and some of what you’re doing to just not only grow your agency but also, really just grow the capacity in thinking in general around entrepreneurship and innovation.

Ali Schwanke: Pipeline is actually accepting applications for next year,

Dr. Connie: Oh, great.

Ali Schwanke: through October 22d, but the organization itself is designed to help high-growth entrepreneurs, and there’s a whole application process that accompanies it and they’re there for the entrepreneur, yes the businesses too, but they recognize that entrepreneurs typically have multiple things they’re involved in their lifetime. And it’s backed by the Kauffman Foundation, so they want people who have amazing entrepreneurial talent to stay in the Midwest and build businesses here and build capital here. I’m involved now this year, we start Module Three actually tomorrow here in Lincoln and Omaha, and it’s designed to help us go through all the different things that you would go through, it kind of feels like my MBA. I never got my MBA. It very much feels like that. But we’re building a software product that has a much higher scalable model to it than an agency, so we’re actually using a lot of the learning that’ll apply it to that specific product right now. And it’s just a wealth of people and it’s, I mean, pardon my French but it’s a good (bleep) kicking, it really is.

(laughing)

I’m prepared tomorrow to get everything that I turned in for homework absolutely ripped apart because I need to get better, and I need those people to challenge me in places that I think I’m already set.

Dr. Connie: Well, it sounds like a strong network, though, just like you said earlier, those relationships are so important, and what a great way to say, “You know what? I don’t know it all.” I mean, you’ve already said this in building a team, so you’re building a team at the agency and outside of the agency to help you continue to grow and help the firm continue to grow. I think that’s just brilliant. I’m a huge fan of Pipeline and everything they’re doing, and just appreciate that, but I also know that this is a prestigious program. You do have to apply, get accepted, and so it’ll be exciting to see where you go from here and where the agency goes from here.

(music transition)

Dr. Connie: I also want to go back to something you said, you don’t have your MBA. I think sometimes what stops people is they, especially women, they don’t feel like, “Oh, I need this certificate or training, I need more, more, more, before I apply for maybe that higher position, or I launch my venture, or grow the venture.” And I think that can really be tricky for a lot of people, but I know that research says more women, they want to be perfect at something before they execute, whereas men sometimes will just execute and learn it, and not be afraid to learn it along the way. So I’d love to know how do you think not having that degree has been a benefit to you?

Ali Schwanke: Yeah, I think there’s definitely drawbacksto not having an MBA specifically in business, because there’s some things that I struggle with, there’s a lot of emphasis on finance in your MBA, and that’s all, that’s wonderful. I’ve gotten a lot of that through Pipeline, as well as just sitting down with mentors and getting a former CFO, who’s been a CFO for a long time, sitting down and actually talking through things and asking me, “Why do you do this?” “What’s going on here?  So really getting some of that feedback has been helpful. So I think that when you look at business, there really isn’t a, I mean there’s definitely models, and there’s things you have to know, but so much of the theory is tested  when you actually put it into practice. The best businesses have come out of people that were going to Harvard Business School or going to Stanford, and they had an idea, and they were able to act on it. It wasn’t the other way around where they were like, “I better get this degree, and then I will get something and then I can get move in this super-linear fashion.” It’s very abstract, and there’s no checks that you can check off the boxes to be able to get where you need to go.

Dr. Connie: Well, I think that’s such an important point because I know here at the University we have a lot of students and they’re always wondering, “Well, how did you get to where you are?” And it’s so funny as you talk to more and more people, it isn’t a linear path. It’s generally pretty windy, you just have to learn what you want, how to get it, but that also to roll with it a little bit when things get challenging, or things don’t go the way you had expected them to go and that resiliency is such a huge part of it all. But it’s also growing this whole life.

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Dr. Connie: I’m really fascinated by how you’re running a business, a successful firm, having a family, but also really connecting and still learning and growing as a person, a professional, as an entrepreneur. So tell us some of your secrets to, I don’t even want to call it work-life balance any more. I know now the word is work-life integration, but how are you just maintaining and growing your success?

Ali Schwanke: Yeah, I think some of it comes from modeling. A lot of times you don’t have a person you can look to as to what things should look like. So if you grow up in a home where your mom stayed home, you don’t know what it looks like for your mom to work. If you grow up in a home where your mom owned a business, that’s going to be much different. So myself, my dad’s always been in IT, and I remember when I was a little girl, I’d go into their bedroom to say good night, and I’d look over on my dad’s night stand, and I remember the book to the day. I’m sure he had tons of books there on any given day,  but on this day, the book there that said Intro to Visual Basic. And if you know what Visual Basic is, it’s a programming language, and my dad was in IT, and he had to constantly be learning new languages in order to continue to provide value in his job. And I just, I would look over at him and he’s reading this Visual Basic book at night before he went to bed, and that was just what he did. And so now my kids know that I’m always, if they walk in, they’re like, “Oh, mom, are you taking a class right now?” “Oh, mom, are you on a webinar right now?” If I have my headphones in and I’m on the computer, it might be Spotify, but my kids think I’m always taking classes. And I think normal for us is just that we’re always going to be learning, we’re always growing, and my kids always know that I’m going to expect them to earn or build a business out of something. It doesn’t have to be a huge thing, but kid, you want to go buy some new shoes, let’s talk about mowing lawns and how that can lead to some revenue. He made his own babysitting flyer and I made him use Microsoft Word and made him write it, so it’s funny, because he writes, “I will watch your kids while you go holiday shopping,” and I was like, “Interesting.” He’s like, “I Googled that.”

(laughing)

Ali Schwanke: Like, great!

Dr. Connie: I love it! I love that you’re making that your own flyer! Awesome! But it’s just going to become the new normal for us, and I have to admit that some days, if you come to my house, there’s going be like eight baskets of laundry that people are just living out of, because I don’t have time to put them away. I’m not going to be that Martha Stewart, I’m going to be the Sara Blakely, from Spanx,

(laughing)

Ali Schwake: that’s my thing, so…

Dr. Connie: Oh, that’s awesome. I think it’s great, but I think these are other conversations that have to happen, right?

Ali Schwanke: Yeah!

Dr. Connie: I mean, this whole idea of doing it all is totally exhausting and I think even if it looks like you’re doing it all, something’s not happening that’s quite right. I think you’re trying to keep your marriage alive and going, trying to be a good mom to the kids, but also this modeling and setting a new example of what life looks like moving forward, because for this next generation, it is going to be very different than previous generations.

Ali Schwanke: Right. Yeah, and helping everyone around you understand, that’s probably the hardest part for me, is when you are in an environment where people aren’t familiar with women entrepreneurs, you constantly face this interesting dynamic where they just don’t get you. I think when you have conversations with someone who maybe works part-time, which is fantastic, versus the, “I can’t go to that school thing, because I actually have to be gone for a work trip.” And they’re like, “Well, you’re your own boss, Ali, why do you have to be gone?” If I have to explain this to you right now, we’re not going to have this conversation.

Dr. Connie: Well, it’s great that those options are available for anybody. I mean we see more and more parents that aren’t even living together, but making things work, single parents making things work. I think more dads are staying at home with their kids and, or starting to work for their wives’ businesses, so we’re seeing a lot of different dynamics around that, and I think technology enables much of that. I think we’ll see more of that in the future.

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Dr. Connie: Well, Ali, I’d love to hear from you. What are some words of wisdom you’d love to leave our audience with? I think one of the things that I end up talking with most entrepreneurs about is the idea of marketing always feels like because there’s so many things you can do, there’s always more opportunities and platforms than you can execute on. It’s always going to take twice as long as you think it will, so because you can launch, let’s say, a Squarespace site overnight— growing the traffic to that website doesn’t happen overnight. Growing the leads in your business, growing the effect on social media, you can buy fans, but those aren’t authentic, so why would you do that? So I think we talk a lot about the idea of building this marketing foundation and having a why behind everything, and once that happens, when all those pieces are in place, it is so fun, because it feels like when you start pushing that boulder forward, and the inertia gets going, it feels like you are moving so quick. That’s what it feels like for our company now, but holy cow! We spent a year putting so much in place that now it feels like the inertia has finally caught up with us. And it just equates to that “there’s no such thing as an overnight success”, and it sounds so simple but it’s so hard to do.

Dr. Connie: But it’s an excellent point because I think we hear about the successful person after they’ve put 10 years into being successful, so you see how big they are now, but it took that work and that effort and that focus to really get it done.

Ali Schwanke: If you’re a new business and you want to get started, even if you’re a startup, you probably should go claim all of your handles on social media so no one else goes out and gets them, but then just pick one to be active on, or one to run ads on where you figure out what your message is and you figure out if the audience is there and then you can start to kind of expand outward. But I think it’s this kind of like all in one buffet, and then everyone kind of gets mediocre in their content on all those platforms, or in their approach and they just can’t do one thing really well. So paring it down and focusing, and again that sounds so simple, that I almost feel bad saying it, but it happens so much that I think it needs to be driven home.

Dr. Connie: Yeah, I mean it’s hard to be everything to everybody and everywhere, especially on social media.

Ali Schwanke: Well, everyone will say, the worst answer to a, “Who are your customers,” I asked this in email this morning, and he replies back, and it’s super-genuine, it’s from the heart, but he says, “Actually, we can sell to everybody,” and he lists like all these examples, and I was like, “Okay, I didn’t ask who you could, who do you want to and who is the most profitable?” So those types of business questions when it comes to marketing you might have a service that you’re really passionate about. When I look at the numbers and I might see

that your profit margin in that particular service area is 2%. “Well, we just like that a lot more.” Yeah, okay, do you want to feel good at the end of the day, or do you want to drive value and revenue? If that’s the case, we’re going to have to focus on this kind of boring business over here because that has a much bigger potential for you to grow. A lot of people want to breeze over that part and they just want to get started doing the stuff, because it doesn’t feel like we’re doing anything. But that critical thinking, there’s been a lot of research that has come out in the past, at least probably five, ten years that critical thinking and strategic thinking is that skill that everybody needs for the next generation of business, because we have so many things that are automated now. How do we critically think so that we make the right decisions with the tools and the automation? And if we sidestep that, then we end up just having this vanilla approach to everything else, and if there’s another company out there that does what you do and you don’t have a clear why— why are they in business, why are you in business?