Ep #64 | Ignite the Spark

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See.Spark.Go co-founder and publicity maven, Brittany Thoms began her career in fast-paced agencies promoting national accounts through entertainment and sports-related events. With a desire to return to the city that captured their hearts— Athens, Georgia—Brittany and her husband Andy founded See.Spark.Go in 2007. Her strategic thinking and creative enthusiasm influence all of See.Spark.Go’s clients. She serves as a board member for Break Into Business and advises several other nonprofits on a regular basis. When she isn’t leading her team in winning PR strategy, she enjoys reading, playing football with her boys and enjoying life with friends and family. 

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Shantel: Hi Brittany, welcome to the Imagine More Podcast.

Brittany: Thank you so much, I'm so excited to be on.

Shantel: Of course, yeah. We're excited to learn more about your journey and how you became an entrepreneur and what sparked all of that.

Brittany: Good one.

Shantel: Yeah, that's kind of a loaded question. I'll try to make it more bite sized. Let's start with telling the listeners what See Spark Go is.

Brittany: Well that is such a fun topic. When you are an entrepreneur there's nothing that you love talking about more than this baby that you have birthed, or launched, or started. And then the fact that other people are joining you in that is probably the most exciting thing. See Spark Go is a public relations agency and we started it to tell the best stories in the world.

Shantel: I love that, that's a powerful way to end that sentence. Can you elaborate on how you guys do that?

| PAY TO PLAY |

Brittany: Absolutely. I started ... and maybe it's helpful to give you a little bit of background too. I started working for a public relations firm right out of college and did national brand storytelling before that was even a thing with big clients like Motorola, and DIRECTV, and the NFL, and we worked with TaylorMade Adidas, and I had a great client called the Nike 5K for Kids. And I tell people I got bit by the big brand bug. So I just realized it was a lot easier to call a reporter and say, hey this is Brittany calling with Nike, than it was to say, Joe Schmo. And not everybody has that opportunity, you have to get really good at telling the story, and like everybody says the elevator pitch in 30 seconds or less. But I just had this really great opportunity to learn with big brands. And so when my husband and I got married in 2007 we thought, how fun would it be to move back to Athens, Georgia, where we both graduated from college, and start a business. Both of us are children of entrepreneurs, and so that didn't seem too scary for us. And then we right off the bat had some contract gigs, which was awesome. And so we really thought this way we can be as choosy as we want about the types of stories that we tell. Me can tell nonprofit stories, we can tell faith-based event stories, we can tell big brand stories because I did know and love that world so much. And then we can bring people along that journey. So we do that through three strategies today: owned, earned, and paid media. Owned media is your channels, that's where you own the story and you get to tell your message through your website, through your social media channels, through a podcast like this, your LinkedIn page, all of the different mediums that we have at our fingertips to be your own journalist. And we really think about it from a journalism background. And then earned media is that tradition public relations arm, and that's where we are calling journalists. We're calling news paper reporters, and produces, and editors, and radio show program directors, and we are telling them about our clients and why it matters to their listeners or their viewers, and what's local about it and the influence that they have. And so we're able to generate a lot of earned media coverage through that channel or that approach. And then paid media is this world that we live in today called Pay to Play. And we take this great content that we're creating, or that our clients are creating, and we are amplifying it through paid digital advertising, paid social, Google pay per click, all the display networks, there's programmatic. The gamut of the digital world is so vast, but it's really easy to target a niche audience in that way. Sorry, that was pretty long winded.

Shantel: No, that's super helpful for us to understand, and love always hearing the backstory. And I think to even kick things off, it's super fascinating that you both come from entrepreneurial families. Do you mind elaborating a little bit on what type of business both your parents and your parents-in-law, what business they had? Were they a smaller, larger, were that inspiration came from?

Brittany: Sure, yes. I grew up in Griffin, Georgia and my parents still today run an employee benefits agency, so health insurance for small businesses. Typically 50 employees or less, but they have been known to do larger businesses as well. And my mom is rockstar, so she's being doing employee benefits for 30 years and she still runs the day-to-day. My dad is semi-retired and plays a lot of golf. My husband Andy, his parents had several restaurants. They were actually really big in networking marketing and built a huge team and really operated that business like a family. They had five kids, I think you know my husband's brother David. They were all part of that business and it's all hands on deck, all hours of the day, seven days a week. But that to me is the like of an entrepreneur because you are not, not thinking about your business at night. You are thinking about it at night. You got to bed thinking about it, you wake up thinking about it, you have conversations about it with your spouse over dinner, and your kids, and it just is one big family affair. So I think for us to launch into our own business, A it was not scary from the standpoint of can we do it. It was scary from a financial standpoint, can we make money, that is the scary part because we all need ... that's kind of the fuel for life. But it was not the end all, be all. It was about chasing out passion and bringing people along. So we knew from the get go that we wanted this to be bigger than ourselves.

Shantel: That's cool. And so do you feel like you got a great foundation from both sides of the families on how to perhaps separate work after work? And I don't know if I necessarily believe that-

Brittany: No, we got terrible examples for that. But you know, I'm not a super compartmentalized person, and I think that leverage is not balance. A lot of people talk about finding balance, or striking a balance. And I think I want to be fully leveraged. And to be fully leveraged, that means that the scale tips. And the scale's gonna tip in the area of passion, and in the area of influence and impact. And so do we take vacations? Heck yes. And we want to show our kids that we're fully invested in them, and go on crazy adventures. But work allows us to do that. We have never viewed it as something that we do from 9:00 to 5:00. It's something that we wear on our sleeves, it's our heartbeat.

Shantel: Yeah, well I'm glad you mentioned the leverage piece and how there's not this balance, but also how you guys are being positive role models for your kids and family, and being able to talk about sometimes it is hard but look at all of the neat things that we have the opportunity to do because we can set our own hours, or we can take off a week if we need to or want to. Which I think is amazing.

Brittany: That's so true. And when people do join this mission called entrepreneurship and you start getting employees, which we just call team members or See Spark Go family, they then ... it's like your ... especially if you're in the services industry, your clients are your bosses and your team, we serve our team. And so we tell everybody, we're like, See Spark Go is not the Andy and Brittany show. See Spark Go is everybody here. I don't know if you rushed ... we just talked about that offline. When you rush a sorority in college and they tell you, you're wearing your letters. We're Sigma Sigma Gamma, I guess you could say. But we tell our team, you're wearing the letters so to speak. You are representing See Spark Go even off hours. You're representing See Spark Go on your personal Instagram account. You're not holding up the logo, but you are this company. And so it's super important in this world of full transparency and full authenticity that we hire really well. And we ... just a little tangent for you, we hire on four Cs. We hire on character, competence, chemistry, and calling. And we just think that those are so important. And if we hire well and the right people get on this bus, then we're gonna experience growth as team, but we're also just going to get to have a lot of fun making an impact on the world.

Shantel: I love that. Where did the Cs come from? Are they your core values or just integrated into the hiring process?

Brittany: Good question, they came from Bill Hybels at Willow Creek Community Church in Chicago. We stole the first three Cs, character, competence, and chemistry from Bill. And then we added the fourth C because we realized you can be a person of character, and be extremely competent, and then have great chemistry, but you might not be called here for this time or this season. You may be called to do something different, or chase another passion of yours. And so we kind of added that fourth C, which you could say is drive, or passion, or the want to get after it. We want people to feel fully vested here at See Spark Go and fully a part of the mission that we have to have influence and impact.

Shantel: Do you mind sharing some questions, or does anything come to mind on how you really hone into that calling piece in the interview process to gauge if you feel like this is the right time for them to join the team?

Brittany: Yeah, and that's a great question. It is probably the hardest C to interview for. However, we tell ... I think the fact that someone is applying and that they have this drive. One thing we ask people all the time is, if you were at the helm of the ship what is one thing that you would do? And if they are thinking about it, or just even have ideas about how to lead people and how to lead teams, then I think that's a huge indicator that somebody's for you, and bought in on mission. So we are always looking to see if people are not just doing tasks, once you come on to the team. It's about driving results and building relationships, because you have to have both in order to be successful. And so when we are looking at our team and evaluating on an annual basis we're they're at, we ask them to rate themselves. On a scale from 1 to 10, how do you feel in these four areas? How are you doing? And then for calling, we want them to tell us do you feel like your passion is elsewhere, do you feel like you're totally bought in here and you can't wait to see what's in store for the next year or two. And so they get to have a lot of the feedback on us. I think if we as "employers", quote unquote, have to come to someone and say, I think you're being called elsewhere, that's a difficult conversation and not one that we want to have at all. So really we put that on the team member to tell us. We want you to come and tell us if you're calling is changing, because that happens. And let's not let it be the other way around where we have to tell you.

Shantel: I appreciate you sharing those. Have you heard of the program 15Five?

Brittany: I have not.

Shantel: I'm really excited that you mentioned those two specific questions, if you were driving the shop, and then also having them score themselves on the core values. We use this program called 15Five and it essentially ... it's away to pulse the team every week on a variety of different questions. And they have a question bank that you can pull from or you can add questions like this. But it's a safe place for them to just provide feedback, and thoughts, and be heard outside of being encouraged within the workplace. I love those two questions and I am so excited to integrate those in. Do you mind if I clarify something? Driving the ship, do you ask what is one thing you'd or, or one thing you'd change?

Brittany: I think it's a both/and, I would ask both and have probably asked it in multiple ways of people. But we ask for a lot of feedback regularly. One thing we're not super dialed in on is our annual performance review process. So that's why it's been such a great dialogue for our team. And I think something that's an area of growth for us, is that do we have these ... maybe 15Five is a great solution for something like this. Do we have these scorecards, or checklists, or manifestos were people can check-in and rate and review themselves, their peers can review them, and of course their supervisor. But I think it's really good to always hear where your team is at. And if we can hear people well, then we can hopefully provide opportunities for growth.

Shantel: Certainly, that's a very good point. I would love to hear a little bit more about how you and your husband split and divvy up responsibilities. Was that a natural evolution when you started the company? How did you?

| LEVERAGE EACH OTHER’S STRENGTHS |

Brittany: It's an important one. It's a very important distinction to make if you do work with your spouse. It was very natural at first. He is business minded, super financially savvy, I very wise steward I would say, set us up for success from day one. Big time saver and not a spender, I think I'm the spender in the family. And so he was very diligent about See Spark Go being cashflow positive from day one. And so we've never been in debt, we've never sought loans or investments of any sort, which is super great as a company to say, that we're healthy and we can stay afloat if everything were to fall apart for months on end. So that's great, and that was really where his head was at, as well as just developing all of the systems and processes for operations. I was very much in the beginning, and still to this day, involved in client relations, and setting strategy, and doing PR execution. Here we are 11 years later and I was still calling media for an event last Wednesday, and touching base with some relationships that I've built over time and telling them what great stories that we're working with currently and why they should read about them. So I still do a lot of that. And together we have built a really good vibe, or a good jive I guess together, in doing the business development piece. Meeting with perspective clients, telling the story of See Spark Go, even the HR piece that we are so heavily involved in, whether that's existing employee reviews and just hearing our team really well or going out and recruiting new people to join See Spark Go. Which if any of you are listening, we're always hiring. That's kind of how we divide it up today. He's still operationally minded and I'm still public relations minded. So it works for us. We talk about it nonstop, but we also are big cheerleaders of the other person's strengths. And we're big strengths people, so Strengths Finder, Meyers Briggs, now the Enneagram. We're all about assessing each other and out team.

Shantel: I'm glad that you mentioned that. I on Meyers Briggs, I've taken it a few times and there's one letter that I always flip in between. I was trying to understand and gauge the difference between the two different sets and which one maybe in this season of life I was drawn to a little bit more. But we had the whole team, we do DiSC Profiles, we did Strengths Finder. Do you incorporate talking about the strengths in any way within your organization that you've found to be really effective, outside of just putting it on a piece of paper and hoping that people talk about it?

Brittany: Right, well we do put it on everyone's office door, so we are big about displaying it. But we landed early on with Strengths Finder being our primary tool, I guess you could say, because I liked that it gave people words that have action and have meaning to them. And everything's a strength, so there wasn't anything that you would point to that was negative. It was all about a person's individual makeup and their gift mix. And so if you have these strengths, they are to be celebrated. And how do we use them and deploy them best? If we know each other's strengths, we can meet each other well, we can meet our clients better because we can assemble the right team for the project or the task at hand. But I love Meyers Briggs and I think that that is really helpful. There's some really nerdy stuff on the internet that you can do to help give you that same language effect of common language from your team. And then we recently took the Kolbe, we did it through Elevate. at Elevate assessed our whole team this passed February. And what Kolbe does is it assess your mode of operation. If you are stressed, or given a project, or given a deadline, what's your go to? Are you gonna find the facts, are you gonna create a plan, are you gonna just go with very little information, quick start is that personality type, or are you gonna build and use your hands to model what that problem or solution looks like? We loved Kolbe, and we talk about high red lines, and high blue lines, and high green lines. That's some of the language that you would use if you used Kolbe. But it was really insightful and our team loved it. And everybody has these little desk toppers now so we know everybody's Kolbe.

Shantel: That's really interesting and I'm glad that you touched on the ... and also it kind of sounds like you guys have tried a few different ones and you try to incorporate them all.

Brittany: We're guinea pigs.

Shantel: Yeah. But I bet that's super beneficial so you guys know, okay you're taking on a high stress new client or new partner and it's a big project, and now you have some language around how to talk to each team member differently. This one may be more stressed, so you know how to frame it so that they can digest it even a little bit better.

Brittany: Right. If we have a very complex corporate client that has a myriad of opportunities, then we need a fact finder in there because that fact finder is gonna go in there and dig all the who, what, when, where, and why's and help us get a lay of the land and understand the landscape that we're working with. But if we need to go fast and hit the ground running, you don't want a fact finder leading that charge, you want a quick start because that person needs to get in there, understand as quickly as possible, and just hit the ground running. So it really is helpful in that way, in just assembling teams in general.

Shantel: Yeah, absolutely. Do you mind sharing your Kolbe and/or Strengths Finder results? What were you?

Brittany: Thanks for asking, Shantel. And I took the Meyers Briggs when I was in college and I tested ENFP. I think I've taken it semi-recently and tested the exact same. I'm an ENFP, which I don't know I would guess that that would translate well into my Kolbe, which I'm a 10 quick start. I'm looking at my desk topper right now. I'm a 2 fact finder, 3 follow through, and 4 implementer. So really you want me on your team at the very start of a project because I'm just gonna blaze the trail. And then I'll probably get bored and move on to the next thing, and so I'll want to staff that weakness with some more follow throughs and some more fact finders around me. And then my strengths are, if I can remember them because I don't have them in front of me. Woo, maximizer, positivity, ideation, and I can't remember the last one, relational I think, something like that, relater. But here's the problem with that, none of those strengths are executing strengths. If you've done any work in the Strengths Finder world, they categorize them into four domains, executing, influencing, relationship building, and strategic. And I have zero executing strengths, so I really don't know how I get anything done.

Shantel: Maybe with the balance of Andy and the rest of the team.

Brittany: That's right, staff your weaknesses, that would be my number one piece of advice for any leader. Figure out what you're not good at and go hire that.

Shantel: Well just to be completely transparent, you can just tell in your voice and the way you're chatting, you definitely have that woo. We learned a little bit about that and the influence piece, you're so positive. I can certainly see that just even in the conversation we're having, which I think is kind of fun now looking back.

Brittany: Well thanks. Yes, the glass is half full and the best is yet to come. That is the lens that I'm always looking through.

Shantel: Do you have any advice for entrepreneurs that are interested in starting a company or going through perhaps ... you said 11 years, so going back a little bit, were there any points where you guys were like, maybe we're gonna switch gears and we're gonna do something else? And how did you fight through that?

| FIND THE BALANCE |

Brittany: That's a good question. I can't remember a time when we even had an alternative in mind, like oh maybe we should do this. But I definitely have probably quit a couple dozen times on my husband, and he's quit on me too. I'm done, I'm out, I'll see you next week, I just can not think about this anymore. But as far as advice, I think finding the balance. There's a book called The E Myth Revisited, which talks about how as an entrepreneur your business takes on the personality of its founder, especially in the beginning. And so if you don't balance that out ... so here I am kind of going back to balance. If you don't balance that out then your business will look like you and it'll have your strengths and your weaknesses. And so you really do need to pay attention if you're just getting started, what are the things that you're the most passionate about, that come super easily to you, that you could do for hours on end and you would not even look at the clock? And then what are the things where you keep looking at the clock and you keep saying, how much longer do I have to do this? For me, when we would sit down, especially in the beginning when it was just Andy and myself and a couple of team members, and we'd have to sit down and build invoices I was pulling my hair out. I do not want to do this, I don't want to charge anybody, I just want to tell your story. And so that was definitely the painstaking part for me, was looking at the PnL. And I actually enjoy looking at the PnL now and understanding the nuances, and the trends, and how do we pull levers. How do we actually make things more efficient, or more productive, or better for the client? All those levers that we can pull now, having a team of 26 people and the PnL that goes along with that, it's more fun and interesting to me now. But in the early days I needed Andy. I needed him to run the operations, and the finance, and all of the details of the business because I wasn't geared that way and I wasn't wired that way. And I would think, honestly, that there would be months were I probably invoice somebody because I didn't want to get to it. That's a needed part of business, note to self, that if you are starting out you just want to pay attention to what drives you, what motivates you, and then what drains you. And try to staff that as best you can. Even if it's with an intern. Using these personality assessment or Strengths Finder is a great way to just ... if you're thinking about bringing on an intern, or an assistant, or somebody that can be your cohort in crime, then have them take those fun assessments and learn them. Because I think in order to lead yourself you have to know yourself. And in order to lead others you have to know others. And that's where I think those come in the most handy and are the most effective.

Shantel: Yeah, I'm glad that you mentioned that. Speaking of things to complement strengths, is there anything that's still on your plate that you one day ... you know you're not maybe very good at, or don't really enjoy, that you just can't wait to pass off but there just hasn't been that role yet in your organization, or that perfect person that can help assist with that?

Brittany: You know it's funny that you ask that question. Honestly, we are starting to embark on a search for an HR Director. And I think getting 20 plus employees is a point of more people, there's more conversations to be had and more opportunity to lead people. And so because I'm not really into the details as much, I would love to have somebody that's on leadership here at See Spark Go that's totally focused on growing the people that are currently on our team and recruiting and looking for new people and inviting them to join. I'm always gonna be involved in that part because I do love recruiting, and I do love being on the business development side and just hearing the stories of our great clients, because we tell the best stories. But I would love for somebody to come alongside and take on that HR piece, because it's a growing need for us right now.

Shantel: I'm excited to chat more about that as things progress, because we are certainly in the same boat and I am feeling what I'm imagining is some of the same pain points.

Brittany: I'm sure.

Shantel: I'm excited to chat about that.

Brittany: We can chat, that's great.

Shantel: How can people learn more about See Spark Go, get in touch, learn about employment if they're interested?

Brittany: Absolutely. SeeSparkGo.com, our name is our process See, Spark, and Go. But SeeSparkGo.com or follow us on social media @SeeSparkGo.

Shantel: Thanks so much Brittany for being on the show, it was so great chatting. Thanks for wooing us all over with such great advice.

Brittany: Thank you so much for having me. I so loved it, Shantel, this is awesome.