I’m an intensely curious person. It’s often to a fault but occasionally leads me to some interesting insights about people and what makes them tick. This interview with BFO’s owner, operator and occasional foosball champion Steve Krull was one of the good ones. I laughed, I cried…well, I laughed. But mostly, I learned a lot and had a fun time doing it. We talk about running a business, the hurdles that come with it, and then some unrelated stuff to fill time dive deeper. Give it a read and you might learn something too.
Scott Diebel: Okay, first one. This is from the “heavier” category. As a business owner, change is inevitable. What mindset or habits have you picked up to help you deal with change?
Steve Krull: Mindsets and habits? That's a really interesting way to put it. I think, if you go through stuff once, then twice, then 3 times, it always sort of gets easier. What I try to do is ask myself how I would feel on the receiving end of things. From there, I try to think about that feeling when making a decision or delivering news. I'm trying to think about putting myself in the other person's shoes.
Scott: Yeah, I'm not always great with change. I kind of like consistency. I'll eat the same sandwich every day and be 100% happy with that. So, at times, you have to come to us and say, “Hey, there's going to be a change.” How do you shape that, or what are you thinking about before you present that to the team so that people like me don't freak out?
Steve: Freak outs are inevitable. When change is announced, I think that 20% of people are like, “Oh, that's cool. That's fine. Great,” 60% are like, “Hmm. Okay, cool,” and 20% are like, “Change!? I hate that. Why did you make a change?” It's a catch 22, though, because if you change the topic, a different group of people gets worked up by the change. It's the old adage, I think they use it in sports, “you can't make everybody happy all the time”. So, you sort of have to go with it.
I think one of the things that's changed over time is my messaging. Many years ago, I probably would have just barged in, blurted it out, and hoped for the best. One of the things I've worked on in leadership in the last 4 years is communication. How to message things, how to understand what it is. A good friend of mine, Amber, says, “What do you want them to know? What do you want them to think? And how do you want them to feel?” And when you think about that, when you're messaging bad news or change, you can find yourself thinking about it a little bit differently.
Scott: I like that. I mean, I'm still fairly early in my career, so I haven't faced as many changes yet. Can you think back to early in your career and any changes that occurred that you were just not okay with? How did you handle those in the early days?
Steve: So, I became a manager of technology at a large bank, and I had what I thought was a really cool boss. I worked for a few departments in the building, and I had a few people working for me. One day, somebody showed up and said, “This is Ed. He's your new boss. You're still gonna work for this department, but we're trying to centralize all the technology managers. And you've been centralized under Ed. Do you understand the matter?” I didn't.
I don't know who Ed is. So I got Ed and I got 4 people working for me. I knew a couple of these guys because we worked in the same building, but now they were told the same day, “You work for Steve.” I was not okay with that change. It took me months to get accustomed to that one. and I never got accustomed to Ed being my boss. But don't tell them that.
Scott: You are someone who draws a lot of energy from being around people. How have you adjusted to a remote-heavy working world? Do you resent the shift or have the benefits helped outweigh the negatives?
Steve: I don't resent the shift. There are times that it drives me absolutely crazy when I can't be around people, so I do get tired of being in this 12’x12’ box. I do miss the off-the-cuff conversations we used to have in the office. You'd solve a problem in 5 minutes instead of over 5 emails, but I think it's super cool that we've only increased our autonomy as a team.
Go do what you're going to do. Go where you're going to go. Make sure the people that need to depend on you know how to find you and get your stuff done. I think it’s those basic rules of an organization and they still apply. I don't care if you work at 2 in the morning or 2 in the afternoon, as long as the clients are happy and your teammates get it.
Scott: Definitely. I have friends looking for jobs and struggling because they're looking for remote work and a lot of companies are forcing everyone back to the office. Do you expect this trend to continue where we're all gonna slowly go back to offices? Or do you think there's gonna always be this subset of remote culture that's gonna persist?
Steve: I don't care what the rest of the world does with remote work. I care what we do, and we're never going back. Even when we tried to impose 3 days a week in the office, the days were unpredictable. I remember the last time we did it, we imposed our will as a leadership team to be in the office 3 days a week. I even forget what days, but nobody's boss was in the office. Your boss wasn't in the office. Your boss was in Michigan, I think. I think Curtiss was still your boss, and it's like, “Well, my boss isn't even here, so I can't get that sort of one-on-one mentoring”.
I do worry about culture. As we add new people, how can we integrate them into the culture and introduce them to our ideas and our ideals? That's going to be the trick, but we seem to have done it. I mean the newest folks on the team were remote. Lauren and Kyrin are probably still among the newer, and they seem to be 100% Beefer. I think we've all made a point of getting to know them as well as other people who are remote, and I think if we can continue that. If our onboarding has improved to support the remote folks, then we don't need to go back.
And I get that some businesses have to go back. If you're in manufacturing, or even some creative jobs, you might need to be in the office. Maybe not full time, but be in the office. But I think the heavy hand of “in the office or die” has no place for most anymore.
Scott: As a business owner, is it realistic to have it all or is it inevitable that some things are going to need to be sacrificed?
Steve: I find that it’s always “If everything is good, too good for too long, then you'd have to expect that something's gonna go boom,” whether that be personal or professional. I know there are organizations that are a lot larger than ours, but, as a small, mid-size agency, we feel it when the pendulum swings. Everything seems to be going well, then I find myself looking over my shoulder and thinking, “Okay, what's gonna happen?”
Scott: What is an aspect of business ownership or agency ownership that you didn't anticipate before getting into it? Or did you know what it was going to be like?
Steve: I had no idea. I moonlighted and started a few businesses while I had a day job, and I thought that that prepared me for doing this full-time. And then, when I found myself in a position to do it full-time, it was eyes wide open. Everything was initially rose-colored glasses. I wanted to do good work, so I did, and I convinced myself I needed to work 30 hours a week at a certain rate so that I could cover my expenses and take care of everything.
That was great in theory. In practice, you're just starting out. You need to win new clients, so you need to get out and network. You need to talk to people you need to meet as many people as you possibly can. You need to dust off your email list and bother people with “Hey, I'm independent now. I'm doing some work in this and that. Would you like to pay me for it?”
You're running around trying to create these relationships so you're not working 30 hours a week because you simply don't have the clients to do it. So, you end up running around for 30 hours a week getting sales, and then you're trying to get the work done. And then, when you realize that you suck at accounting, you kind of go, “Alright. I'm good at a couple of pieces of this business, but not everything.”
It's that idea of waking up to the different aspects of operating a business where you might be a really good technologist or digital marketing talent, but you have no idea how to run a business and you sort of have a trial by fire.
Scott: It sounds like a lot. Are you ever tempted to just pick up and run, and what stops you from doing it?
Steve: Haha, every time I think about putting my head in the sand, I realize that the world is going to keep moving past me. So, if I put my head in the sand for any length of time, I simply have more catching up to do. The feeling of running is always short-lived.
The other thing that I try to do is surround myself with people who are balanced thinkers. I like to have people who are just sort of emotional thinkers and other people who actually think too much, and I think you probably attest to the fact that we have that across the team at BFO. It's nice to be able to solicit those opinions when I'm feeling stressed out by stuff, or to share the responsibility if I'm dragging around 3 or 4 huge things that all feel insurmountable. It's so crazy when you share some of that burden with somebody else. You realize that it's not as crazy as you thought it was.
Scott: Well, I am here to overthink whenever you need it. How about this one: In an ideal world, what type of business would you enjoy running or being a part of if financial viability was not a concern?
Steve: I would like a product-driven business versus a customer-driven business. I think some of the most stressful parts of what we do come from the ebb and flow of our client roster, whether it's the fact that client rosters shrink and grow, or that sometimes you get clients that aren't the friendliest people, despite all your attempts. It's just that swing of the pendulum of “Hey, we have way too much business. Hey, we have no business. Hey, we have way too much business.”
Scott: Would it be a product that you would feel very confident would sell? Would it fit a really big need?
Steve: So, what's crazy is that what floats my passion these days is spending time with you and other people on the team. It's people. I think my next idea or business is probably gonna come from somebody on the team at BFO. And we're gonna make a decision to invest in it and see if we can help it grow.
Scott: I’ll check my notes.
Scott: I'll finish with one of the lighter ones. So similar question, but the inverse: What profession are you 100% certain you could never do? No matter the salary, you just know it's not a “Steve” thing. You couldn't hack it, nor would you want to.
Steve: Wow, super cool question. I immediately wanted to say “lawyer,” but no. I couldn't be an auditor. Not a tax auditor, not a technical auditor, not an IRS auditor, none of that stuff. It would simply destroy my personality. I would hate it. If I had to do it for five years, I would hate myself when I was done.
Scott: Is it just the lack of human interaction or creative thinking or what is so off putting about that industry?
Steve: It’s that auditors have to be right, even if they're not, They have to staunchly defend their position. I remember back in my days of banking, I'd work with auditors because we had to do all these compliance tests. Even when a system wouldn't bend, we had to bend a system to make it work. If it was out of compliance, there was 0 latitude from an auditor. And all they did was stand there and figuratively (and sometimes literally) pound the table and tell you you had to fix it. Yeah, it just drives me crazy. It drives me crazy.
Thanks for Tuning In!
Thank you for your time and insight, Steve. We’re glad you’ve chosen to run an ad agency instead of becoming an auditor, for our sake and yours. If you’d like to read more about BFO and how we think about the marketing world, you can check out the rest of our blog. If you’d like to get in touch, we’d love to chat (as long as you’re willing to make the first move): contact us.
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Scott began his career in digital marketing after setting out to join a small business right out of college. Scott was excited to join BFO when they acquired his startup in 2016 and has enjoyed making an impact on a larger scale ever since.
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