Five leadership lessons from our first 10 years
Updated: May 10
In May 2012, the amazing adventure that is Experience Willow began. I can’t believe we’ve been alive and thriving 10 years this month!
When I decided to leave a 20-year career in corporate advertising and marketing behind to start our small-but-mighty consulting boutique in Atlanta, I could never have imagined what lie ahead. Today, we partner with a diverse list of stellar companies and leaders, helping them cultivate better cultures, workplaces, special events and professional experiences for their people.
Personally, I’ve never felt more fulfilled at work. Every day is its own experience with its own rewards and challenges; but I love waking up, ready to learn, and driven to create exceptional experiences for others. That said, I know firsthand that deciding to go out on your own—and staying the course when times get tough—is never easy. Here are five leadership lessons I’ve learned as a small business owner the past decade:
1. YOU CAN BE SMALL AND BIG AT THE SAME TIME.
You might be small, but that’s no excuse for not acting big—especially if you want to play big like we’ve been able to do with our global partners and clients. As you get started, you should prioritize a few basic business fundamentals to help you manage your reputation and minimize your liability and risk, especially as you begin to scale and grow:
Obtain your LLC and appropriate licenses. If you’re a minority business owner like me, get certified. We’re proud to be members of OUT Georgia and NGLCC, both of which provide wonderful small business tools and resources for LGBTQ business owners.
Identify your trusted legal and financial advisors. These were my first contract hires. Spreadsheets, projections, and pages of declarations and legalese are not my cup of tea, and as a small business owner, having sound advice and trusted support in these areas—and others where you lack skill or will—is critical.
You won’t be able to grow or compete without doing business with others. Be sure to formalize terms and conditions with all contractors, suppliers, and customers. We regularly use non-disclosure, confidentiality, and service agreements. It took one mistake early on for me to learn the real importance of formal business agreements.
2. ALLOW YOURSELF TO BE LED.
You might be the one on top of the org chart, but you need to be led by something bigger. A vision. An idea. A purpose. Your business was called into being for a reason. That reason—the something bigger—is Why your business exists. Never underestimate the power of your Why to engage your team and motivate your customers.
You might not have the exact words out of the gate, but they will eventually come. It took me a few years and iterations to feel good about our Why. As we teach in our purpose workshops, every great Why includes both a contribution and an impact. At Experience Willow, our contribution is to ignite a contagious curiosity, and our impact is better lives and organizations. Put them together, and you get our Why: To ignite a contagious curiosity that makes lives and organizations better.
When our team works in alignment with our Why, it’s magical. When we don’t, it’s not fun. I’ve learned the hard way how to screen new people and opportunities based on our Why. I’m constantly assessing: Are they ready to be truly curious? Do they want to make things better or just tick a box? Can we authentically contribute and make a real impact here?
3. LIVING YOUR VALUES COMES RIGHT AFTER BEING LED.
I can already hear some readers: “Ugh. He wants me to have a purpose and a set of values. I just need to sell.” I get it, but I’m here to tell you: no matter the size of your team or your business, whether they’re written down or not, you already have values. Why not set aside an hour or two, like our customers do in one of our shared values labs, and start to formalize yours?
We nicknamed our company values the Head, Heart, and Hands of our culture, and like all values, they are our How and guide how we work: how we think and create, how we serve and treat each other, even how we treat ourselves. A set of simple and sticky shared values to remind your team, no matter its size, who you are and how you behave, can go a long way on your small business journey.
4. YOU DON’T ALWAYS NEED TO CHASE.
Like most dreamers, I’ve lived a life on the go, always chasing what’s next. When I left my last job before starting Experience Willow, the company CFO pulled me into his office and gave me one piece of advice: “Kevin,” he said, “Stop chasing.” At the time, I don’t know if I grasped the true wisdom of his two simple words. Nonetheless, they stuck with me. As I look back over the past 10 years, I’m amazed at the number of meaningful projects and relationships that came our way without spending a dime on traditional marketing, publicity, or cold-call chasing.
Word-of-mouth marketing has powered almost all our growth. The work we accomplish with our partners and clients, when we are aligned with our purpose and values, speaks for itself—and that makes it easier for our clients to speak for us. I never realized how often clients ask each other for recommendations. Delivering an exceptional experience for one keeps you top of mind—and top of the recommendation list—for the next.
5. WORK HARD. HAVE FUN. BE YOU.
This lesson has been taunting me most of my career—daresay my life—but something about being out on my own and now in my early 50s, it’s really sunk in. Sunk in so much, it’s exactly how we now define one of our shared values, Thrive.
I, like my team, don’t have a problem working hard. Our parents and grandparents taught us early on the meaning and importance of hard work. What matters for us though is that we don’t lose our joy—or ourselves—while we’re at it. According to recent studies, work is now our #1 human activity. Isn’t that reason enough for it to be done in a way that’s joyful, sustainable and honors our whole being? That’s what we mean by Thrive.
You’re going to have to work hard as a business owner, likely harder than you’ve ever worked before. That’s exactly why you must surround yourself with people you trust and enjoy spending time with. People who are motivated by your vision and your company’s purpose. People who bring your values to life, likely in ways you never thought possible. People who keep coming back—and recommending you—without being chased because they see the value in not only what you do for them, but why and how you do it.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t close by thanking all those people for me. The ones I’ve been so blessed to surround myself with the past 10 years, who made and continue to make Experience Willow possible every day.
Thank you to my core team. You are Experience Willow personified. If it weren’t for you and all the amazingly hard work you do, I’d be right back at square one in May 2012. You push me, and our partners and clients, to be better. You’re all rock stars.
Thank you to all our gig workers, independent consultants, and boutique businesses in the Experience Willow collective. If it weren’t for you, we wouldn’t be able to meet customer demands or expectations and deliver the quality work that we do. You make us better.
Thank you to our customers and clients across the world. We’re blessed to have worked alongside you the past 10 years. Without you, there would be no challenges to solve or reasons to be curious. There would be no designs or redesigns or stories to tell. There would be no awards or accolades or reasons to believe. You complete us.
I’m really looking forward to what the next 10 have in store. If there’s one thing I know, every day will be another day for us to help others be better.
If you found this blog post helpful, inspiring or otherwise delightful, please share it with your friends and colleagues. And if you have any other tips, share them in the comments below.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Kevin Finke was that kid that never stopped asking why, and doing so still drives him today. His contagious curiosity can be found at the heart of the experiences he designs for the world's most progressive brands.
Kevin founded Experience Willow in 2012 with a clear purpose to help others harness the power of their shared stories and experiences to cultivate change.