Finding the right partners to serve our clients alongside us is a continuous quest. Identifying others that share our obsessive attitude toward client service is extremely important to us! We recently found such a partner in Kudoscode, a Minneapolis-based web development firm. After numerous successful projects together, their owner Michael sat down for a discussion with our Founder Justin who shared his marketing leadership tips and discussed ways to deal with different obstacles in the ever-changing landscape we are all navigating.
Justin is always eager to sit down and exchange ideas with other thought leaders. He’s comfortable in front of the camera (and microphone) from years of facilitating groups of all sizes. Interested in reaching out to him? Connect to Justin here.
@3:46 How Mercury helps brands soar.
@4:40 Find out the most significant challenge we are all facing.
@6:02 Learn why finding “white space” in your day is essential.
@8:33 Discussion on the importance of sleep!
@12:38 Discover the power of connection.
@14:12 Business lessons from Justin’s parents.
@17:45 All about EOS (Entrepreneurial Operating System).
@25:06 Justin reveals the business decision he most regrets.
@28:25 Lightning round wrap-up!
Kudoscode Podcast Host, Michael Schwengel: Our team supports creative agencies and digital marketing firms with on demand web development expertise and you are listening to our very first episode with many more to come. We launched this podcast because we wanted to learn from our agency partners. We wanted to create a community of agencies, creatives and digital marketers. Give people an opportunity to share tips of the trade, maybe learn some tales from their journey, successes and failures along the way and lessons learned. And today we are excited to introduce our very first guest Justin Bieganek, who is the owner of Mercury Creative Group, which is a full service agency based here in Minneapolis. And we’re also proud to have them as one of our agency partners at KudosCode. Justin has over 20 years of experience in the industry. He is an inspiring leader and a champion for diversity and inclusivity in our community. Thanks for joining us, Justin.
Justin Bieganek: Thanks for having me. I love the intro. This is great.
MS: Let’s start off with some good news. What’s some good news that you want to share in the past week or month, either personally and professionally?
JB: Past week’s been a really big week for us or actually this week, rather, I should say. Tuesday, we launched the City of Rochester’s rebrand. We’ve been working on that since about early May, working with over 14 departments and 44 individuals on their leadership team to take the city as an organization through a complete rebrand and bring them all together as one unified organization now, under one umbrella logo and we launched that within the 900 plus city teammates on Tuesday to great success.”
Now that the rubber has hit the road and we’re putting all the applications out of the departmental logos and working with department leaders like police on their patches, squad cars, the ladder trucks for fire department, all the signage for parks and recreation, their fleet vehicle, public utilities. There’s a lot that’s now going into it.
MS: How long was this entire project? And how many team members do you have working on it?
JB: Since mid May, and it was a project that we actually started pre-COVID. I started interviewing each of the departments in March and then COVID hit so we hit pause and picked it up late April and early May really got into the heavy design thinking in our workshops in I think June. We were meeting weekly, this group. How many team members? Probably more than 10 from my actual team, six internally that had been working very heavily from the brand strategy work and then into now the logo design and the actual production aspect.”
MS: Let’s go back to just some more of the basics. Tell us a little bit more about who your agency is.
JB: We’re a creative agency. We really focus on brands and what we really do is help organizations through change, through brand change. And we leverage the power of an organization’s brand, identify their true purpose and then connect them to their audience. And we help really elevate that brand so they can truly take their organization to another level and soar.
MS: You mentioned change is usually the fulcrum point or the catalyst for when a client comes to you. 2020 has been a year of change like none other. A lot of people see it as that we’re moving into an entire new era of sorts. Let’s talk about the current circumstances and change in general. What would you see as the biggest challenge that maybe first clients or agencies are facing through this transition that we’re going through, through this challenge that we’re facing?
JB: Both our clients and a lot of our partner agencies are dealing with lack of focus or an inability to focus because of all the distractions. Speed, we are moving at a faster pace than ever post-COVID. There’s just so many distractions with the election, with COVID up and down and then you take my team, they’re balancing their partners, their kids at home, dogs, school on, off. There’s so much disruption internally and at home and then they’re trying to balance a full day work week. So many things have changed and even the emotions in the game from our clients and vendors are at a different level. We’re balancing a lot more things, a lot more elements in our work together.
MS: This is kind of a large question, but when you talk about focus and distractions and how do you as an entrepreneur, find that focus in an ever changing environment where you feel like you need to stick to a certain mission or goal for your clients, for your team, but also want to be aware of the ever changing external landscape and being sensitive enough to be tapped into that in the meantime? How do you find that balance?
JB: I’ll tell you, I’m figuring it out and every day, every week is different. And it came to me pretty early that one of my key jobs in leading my team is regular health checkups with them in a sense, and just having time in our status meetings or our production meetings just to like take a step back, how’s everybody doing? No, really how are you doing? And getting some moments of pause. You run on EOS, just like us. One of our rocks this quarter is white space. And how do we get more white space around our schedule? It also has a fun play because as designers, we want white space in all the pieces that we create, but this actually came to me with Morgan who was one of our new hires, she’s my operations person. And she took a look at my calendar and everything was back to back.
We are putting white space in between our calendar or between meetings, for example. Instead of a 30 minute meeting, it needs to be a 20 minute meeting. Instead of a 60 minute meeting, it needs to be a 50 minute meeting. Even if we get those 10 minutes of white space to run to the bathroom, grab a drink of water, stretch, literally close your eyes and just zone out for a little bit. That’s super important, but it’s been very difficult to get all of us to tackle that and to find success in it. We’re constantly helping each other, trying to hold each other accountable to how are you doing? Where is your white space at? What can we change? That’s been one of my key things, almost more important than leading some of the creative efforts and solving some of our client’s problems. It’s how are my people? How are my vendors? Do they need a break? Am I keeping an eye on that? And that’s, I think very crucial right now.
MS: Yeah, that is humongous. I think it’s something that’s really interesting because you create that white space for yourself as a leader and so you have your own personal rituals to create that and then figuring out how to bring that same energy into the organization and encourage those on your team to do the same. The clarity breaks that EOS talks about can also be seen in a leadership model as going up the mountain to get a larger perspective and then coming down to execute or to do the actual work. And I think it’s pretty powerful to create that as an expectation within the organization. It’s not just about grind, grind, grind all the time. There needs to be some balance and people need to be connected with their bodies, with their higher self, whatever you want to call it.
JB: Yeah. We had a team happy hour last night and Emily was reading a book called Burnout. She was talking about how we all need 10 hours of sleep or 10 hours of rest, rather, and a solid eight hours of sleep would be ideal. But then those other two hours are, how are you turning your brain off? Are you going to kickboxing class for 45 minutes? Are you doing meditation for 15? Are you taking a nap for 20 minutes to add up for those other two hours? I completely agree with that. Maybe even if you could just take five minutes and breathe and try to shut everything off, that helps you in the next hour or two, for sure.
MS: Yeah. I think it’s incredible how much more productive, even if you want to talk about productivity, which is not obviously the goal of mindfulness, it’s about connecting to something greater, but if we look at productivity, it’s amazing that when you take that time away, in a sense you are sharpening the ax. And so when you come back, you hit much clearer and with less force, you’re able to do so much more. It’s cool to see that mindfulness, creating that white space, it actually leads to more productivity in the long run. It leads to profitability. It leads to a better bottom line. We can sort of have our cake and eat it too, in that sense you can have an emotionally-grounded organization, leadership team, culture and really have great benefits that are seen all around.
JB: Yeah. My team’s number one. They’re taking care of our clients so I have to take care of the health of my team and in whatever shape or form it can be. And that’s life at home and life in the business, they’re all interconnected. How we can help each other is super critical.
MS: You mentioned being sensitive to the emotions that your clients are going through right now, have you struck up conversations with them about this same sort of thing with white space or maybe how it applies to their brand or messaging?
JB: A little bit with white space because it’s been pretty recent, just this fall. I’ve been having just conversations and kind of candidly with some new prospects, kind of bringing them into the fold is what we’re trying to do. And this really came to me months ago when I would be two or three minutes late for a Zoom meeting. And of course I’m like, “I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry.” They’re like, “It’s okay.” And they’re frustrated because I’m not driving anywhere, but I still can’t make it to a meeting on time. And that was a big red flag for me. This has to change. We have to help implement some of these expectations in change somehow. And we could probably have a whole nother podcast series about white space for accountability. And I’ve even forgotten the question now.
MS: No, I was just curious, if you’ve had those types of conversations with clients outside of your inner circle with your team, if you had conversations about what that means for your clients or how that might impact the work that you do with them.
JB: Yeah. To come back to it, yes. The white space is in the conversation now, it wasn’t prior because prior to that I was just listening and hearing what was pretty common. And our clients are experiencing the same thing that my team is and possibly you guys are of that imbalance and that race that we’re all in. And we have to be good vendors to our clients and help them hit pause or let’s cancel that meeting and let’s change the timing because it might be better at a different time or how else can we help you? Because we’re looking to achieve the same thing in the end.
MS: You have such a people-centric approach to the way that you do business, it’s obvious. Has that always been the case for you? Have you always taken that approach to doing business? Or was there a shift for you at some point in your journey?
JB: I think it’s always been there. I think it’s ingrained in me. My father owned a John Deere implement so I’d been working in his business since I could probably stand and move a broom to sweep the floors and stock shelves. And I just watched that connectivity of humans solving problems and we’re all emotional beings so we can move mountains by connecting with individuals to solve things. And we’re in the creative industry; we’re so lucky that we get to apply our talents to solve some really big problems for our clients and make them be greater organizations. And on top of it, help. The value add is we’re helping their customers, their members with the services and products that we’re promoting. So that’s a big win for us, but it all comes back to the people. It comes to how we’re solving those problems and collaborating together. It’s a brand and an emotional journey, really when we take them down this process through change and growth. No AI, no service can do that without the emotional connection of people.
MS: You mentioned your dad as a business owner. Are there any tips or messages that he has relayed down to you in your upbringing that have really stuck with you as a business owner?
JB: I’m actually going to use my mom. Both were really great people connectors, but my mom taught me the gift of a handwritten note. My dad taught me the gift of a good handshake and to listen. And again, those are people skills. They’re simple things that we can do that mean a lot. They helped me connect with other individuals.
MS: Would you consider yourself an empath? Do you feel like you’re very sensitively connected to the emotions of others?
JB: Very intuitive. Yep. I know what they’re thinking before they’re thinking it. A lot of the workshops that I will run, I love because I can pick up on that energy and I can help them see or get to where they need to go as well as bringing a lot of people together because I can call out or see or help people connect and get through disagreements or work through things. And I have a unique way to deliver and connect people and not have them take it negatively. Yes, I got a strong intuition.
MS: As a fellow empath, I’ll just say that I’m kind of aware of the strengths and weaknesses that come with that. The weaknesses is if you have it turned on too high or if you aren’t able to put a limit on it, then you’re feeling too much and you’re not able to listen to your own voice, you’re not able to discern what’s really needed in the moment, your reactivity to those emotions kind of takes over. How have you navigated that as a business owner and working with an ever-growing team of people and client base?
JB: That’s a really good question. Because we’re more emotionally connected, that is a strong weakness so you have to draw that line of pulling the emotion out of certain decisions, or helping people get to the next step or letting somebody go. I’ve kept a few people too long, because I believed in them a little bit too much. Maybe I wasn’t helping that person by getting them to the next place because I was too emotionally connected and also fearful of making that decision. You need to stay objective and pull yourself outside, but it isn’t till you go through a lot of those instances that you recognize it and know where to pull yourself or what you need to do, to be there for that client or that family member, that person across the table from you.
MS: It’s kind of cool. We met originally because we live in the same building and I think I was reading Traction by Gino Wickman up in the club room in our building and I think you saw that I was reading that and we struck up a conversation. EOS or Entrepreneurial Operating System has been something that I’ve been pretty fascinated by and we implemented at our business and I know that you use it at Mercury as well. I’d love to hear a little bit about how maybe when you came across it and the impact that it’s had on your business.
JB: I came across EOS probably 10 years ago and I don’t recall how or where. It came across my desk multiple times by the time they hit me at one point. I did a lot of research, but we were always too small to implement and we’re actually still too small to implement it, but there were so many things in there that really made sense to me as a small business owner and also I started my business right out of college so I never worked for another agency and had all these different systems and processes that I could actually just take and run with to build my own company. I’ve made a ton of mistakes and what EOS brought to me was a framework that was repeatable, that helped me take the business to the next level. And we implemented December of 2018 and it’s been pretty painful for the first six months to get into it and not get too swept up in it, but also to use the tools.
The cadence of meeting and following some of the frameworks that we’re implementing are so crucial to just smart, slow growth. And we’ve grown since implementation. Super grateful through this year to double my team, triple our contractors. You’re part of that larger team of us and it’s allowed us to do that. It’s allowed us a system and accountability for our teammates on my leadership team. I strongly recommend it. I just want to read Rocket Fuel because Emily and I are working in the integrator visionary role and where we overlap and how to pull her out of her current role and into the integrator role. But she can’t do that full-time so that was a helpful book. And also it was nice to kind of go back and just re-read Traction originally. It was a good refresher to go back through that.
MS: Thanks for sharing that. And it’s kind of fun to connect that with our previous conversation about being sort of intuitive, highly emotional beings, because I think about being an effective leader or running an effective organization requires having that high warmth and high structure and the beauty of a framework like EOS, it really gives you that framework that you can comfortably still be an emotional being still lead with that intuitive sense, but know that you have these strong walls around you or the strong tempo built into the organization that you can depend on.
Let’s talk about some experiences and stories a little bit. What would you say was your most favorite project that you worked on? You had the most fun with?
JB: So many, so so many, Michael. I have to come back to Rochester right now because the depth and the tentacles that we’re all involved in with this city in spurring change and getting all these individuals to align and get to a place where they’re now excited and can see what we saw months ago and to see that interaction and excitement grow. And also then just seeing our product out in the city. It’s nice to see that full evolution. And also I had such a large team engaging with such a large group from the city of Rochester, to have all that working really well and in orchestra was as a business owner, a delight to step back and just be really proud of this entire team in how they’re collaborating and working together.
MS: What’s the key thing that stands out to you? Is it the impact the project makes? The people that are behind it, maybe your relationship with them? What stands out as the key thing that really makes it stand out?
JB: It’s a little bit of all of the above. The client needs to be invested in the initiative. They have to be curious. They have to be open to a lot of change and some frustration along the way and helping everyone get buy-in, but it’s watching an organization grow through this process. And especially in a year or two to look back and see where they were and where they have come. Because so many of our clients have been with us for 10 plus years. They’re a family, they’re an extension of our creative family so we’re growing with them and that’s a big win to sit back and see the growth, see the change, be invited to their birthdays and anniversaries and weddings. And be part of their family also is I think something very unique to us because we can get in so deep and get to know them so well that they become really good friends and good family.
But on the flip side, again, we get to use our creative talents to spur this change and make a movement and then see our work. We can see it on shelves. We can see it on a website. We can see it on social media channels. We see unique videos that we’ve produced with our clients. We get to see the fruits of our talent working out in the world.
MS: Speaking of change again, I was just thinking about within your own agency, were there any moments that were low points or points that stood out to you as this is a clear indicator that something needs to change, this is a catalyst for growth for us in some major way. We have to pivot think about the way that we approach our clients or the business differently. Have there been any sort of low points that stand out to you that really led to it to a new stage of growth for you?
JB: In 22 years now there’s been quite a few. The biggest one that just sticks with me because it was a hard lesson, a big financial lesson was I started another company called Attention Displays at about 10 years into my company and at the time a great idea, but it pulled me away from the focus of the design agency. And we also then ran through our economy on 2008, 2009. That took a big dumper and so I shut the company down and it took me probably three years to sort of get back, get focused, build my team back up and stay focused. And I did what I tell my clients not to do. Don’t lose your focus on what you’re uniquely great at or what that best product is. And I just took us down another channel and being small, that hurt us. Hurt us on a brand level, reputation level, quality level and on a financial level. I will never do that again.
MS: Yeah, I think it’s tough when you’re a small business and you get opportunities that come up and the desire to see some immediate growth with revenue, for example, can lead you down a path that really takes you away from that core focus. And it’s something that I’m continually being reminded of is, what do we stand for? Who are the types of clients that we want to serve? And how do we want to do that? And how can we do that better and focus on that inner focus or that inner core more than the shiny objects that lead to something ultimately that’s more powerful?
JB: And that’s hard.
MS: Yeah, it is.
JB: I don’t think you can do that effectively until you’ve fallen down a few times and you learn those hard lessons. You don’t do them again. I learned through that process, how to manage cash better than I’ve ever learned how to manage cash or lack thereof cash. Probably a better way to explain it. And also coming back to relationships, in that instance, I had to call a lot of our vendors to help us through that process and they all were there. And that was also a big lesson for communication first, be honest, and let them know where you’re at and they lots of times have solutions for you. I really learned that I have a really powerful network in that process as well. And to use your network. They have lots of people they know too. It’s not always as bad as you think it is.
MS: Yeah. It’s cool how problems don’t exist in a vacuum like that. There’s usually an answer just so close by waiting for you if you can just be vulnerable and share that you need some help on something.
JB: You just hit a really powerful word in vulnerable. I think as entrepreneurs, we are uniquely vulnerable and the good ones are, and that humbleness and being vulnerable, opens up so many doors and so many relationships. That’s a key trait that we all need to have.
MS: I agree. Let’s go into our lightning round. I have a few questions for you here. Three words to describe your agency.
JS: Curious, creative, and compassionate.
MS: Three words to describe your team.
JB: Crazy talented, crazy committed, and fun.
MS: What are three keys to success?
JB: Trust your crazy, silly ideas, relentless execution, and never give up.
MS: Who was the first client? You signed
JB: Corporate Drug and Alcohol Specialists. And funny story because I was serving while I was in college and this couple would come in every Friday and Saturday and wait for my table. They knew what I was going to school for and I reached out to them once I started on my own and they were my first client and it was a brand project and I worked with them for probably 10 years.
MS: What year was that?
MS: Wow. And how did you celebrate that signing with them?
JB: I saw that question come through. I don’t remember, but knowing where I was at in time, I probably jumped and ran around the house and then Bailey, my Australian shepherd was probably jumping all over me. I probably put on the rollerblades and we went around Como Lake a couple times. Calm her down and get a little workout.
MS: What’s one thing that you wish you would’ve known when you started your agency?
JB: How hard it is to manage people.
MS: What is a dish that you would serve your favorite client?
JB: Would be nachos for sure, but another fun story. Nancy Kayoum-Close, when I started my business then I went to go work at Caravan Serai, which was a Afghani restaurant in Highland Park. And she was an amazing cook, an amazing business owner and I would have her dish up any of our fabulous meals to any of my clients, because she’s the best.
MS: There we go. Okay. And then finally, what would you say it takes for a person to be happy and fulfilled?
JB: We all need to have a purpose. And I think I get to use my creative talents, my intuition, my ability to connect people to solve problems and do creative solutions and change the world so I’m very lucky to do that. And I hope that others can find that talent or find that craft, find whatever it is that brings them joy and excitement to keep getting better and better and better. And then you have to have really good friends that are really your family. And if you have a really great family, that’s icing on the cake and lots of travel and really good food.
MS: Justin, thank you so much for being our first guest on our podcast. This was a lot of fun, really appreciate you coming on today.