My Co-Founder and I launched Digital Knack (DK) in 2014. A boutique recruiting firm serving early stage, high-growth companies. We had a bootstrap plan with zero outside funding, the basics necessary to operationalize, and a strong start to our mission. It took time to articulate what our mission was, but the sentiment of our mission has never changed. We memorialized it as: Bringing people together to achieve more than individually possible.
Worth noting, my Co-Founder is also my mom – Marcia. She is the strongest and most compassionate human I’ve ever known who takes risks like she takes tequila – straight up with no hesitation. This is not a story of an up and coming startup raising capital and making it big – this is about a small business making big impact for a handful of companies at a time. Our success is defined as having: impact, revenue, integrity and evolution.
When we first started DK, there were so many unknowns. So many big questions that were worth contemplating answers for. “How do we make customized recruiting strategies while giving consistent service?” “What can we do to cut through the noise in this market?” (let’s face it – recruiting firms are a dime a dozen). We fumbled our way through most of the big questions early on – learning along the way. Looking back, there were a few key things we did right – really right. For that, I am so freaking grateful.
One of the first things we did as a business was write our ethos statement – this was no Netflix Manifesto, but it made a few of our core values crystal clear, and cemented them into our DNA. About a year ago, my performance coach had us dissect every ethos we had. We looked at more ways we could adopt our ethos amongst our team and our clients (thanks Steve). The act of doing so sharpened my focus towards value-based decisions, and how powerful they can be.
Setting our values and ethos at the start heightened our authenticity – we knew our purpose, we had a blueprint for how we wanted to act and interact. One of our first clients told us that our authenticity was the first, clear differentiator – which led to our partnership. Meanwhile, here I was trying to make infographics of the ‘DK Recruiting Approach’, or decide which tech tool will get us ahead of the curve. While those efforts are absolutely critical to work through, the loudest differentiator was our authenticity – the confidence and transparency we had when explaining what we do and why (followed by results).
Coming up with company values and ethos is, to me, such an exciting endeavor. We had brainstorms, happy hours, presentations and chances to challenge every ethos we wrote down. In the end, we curated the values and ethos that were non-negotiable …
Here’s a few:
Integrity and authenticity > everything else
Conscious bias for diversity of thought, perspectives and people
Work with companies who have shared values and invest in employee empowerment
Represent companies that we believe in – people, product and mission
Make it work, then make it fun
Another thing we did early on was set the criteria for how we select and serve our clients. In short, we look to answer these two things:
Do our core values align?
(In other words, do they care about the same things we do?)
Can we serve this client in a way that upholds our definition of success?
(meaning: deliver impact, drive revenue, keep our integrity and evolve with the client)
Reflecting on our core values has helped us make some tough calls. We’ve met some incredible companies who had business needs we could deliver, but approaches that we didn’t align with. When looking at our core values and partnership expectations, there were gaps. Ultimately, there are better partners to deliver for their needs – and that is okay. Knowing when and how to “walk away” is worth it – it’s short term revenue loss for the ability to take on more aligned clients – it’s choosing not to be what someone else asks you to be, but rather, distinguishing who you are. In turn, you’ll generate long-term gain and better sleep at night.
It’s been six years since launch. 10+ kick-ass clients, 200+ valued hires, 5 new Digital Knack team members, and the birth of my baby boy later – we’ve had quite the adventure! One of the most valuable lessons I’ve learned in building Digital Knack is that internal narratives can make or break one’s ability. That defining success is so important (The world will always try to define it for you). I’ve learned that value-based business decisions typically pay off and how to get comfortable feeling like every goal you have is a stretch goal. On paper, I find these lessons to sound like sensible tips (common sense) – the beauty of hindsight is understanding the gravity of these lessons and how easily they can be forgotten when our company, or life, gets the speed wobbles. With historical context, I am reminded that our values, purpose and definition of success will always steer us to where we want to go (vs. letting the current take us). Defining our ethos, values and success gives holistic awareness of who we are and how to continuously work on ourselves as a business, and as individuals – as a result, we’ve made intentional growth year over year in a manner that is right for us, and our clients.
I’ll leave you with a few value based decisions that have paid off.
After my son was born, I set a Personal Objective of “Being an Engaged Mom” and a Business Objective of “Spending More Time as an Entrepreneur.” To do either, I needed more time. So, I made time – I started dedicating Tuesdays to two things: My son Mason, and DK’s entrepreneurial endeavors. I set expectations with my team and my clients that I was only available for 3 hours on Tuesdays. I was worried about clients thinking I was tapping out, or my team needing me on those hours away. The result? My clients were proud of my choice and my team became more self-reliant. I am fulfilled and fairly guilt free as a mom, enabling me to be more present when at work and at home. I am a better leader because I can think ahead for our team and our clients. I am a better business owner because I am asking questions that need space, creative mindset and time.
When DK hires, we look for candidates that align with our ethos and purpose – mission-critical. We do our best to make sure that every person we hire is motivated by all four components of our success (impact, revenue, integrity and evolution). As a result, we’ve collectively built an empowering culture. We are better equipped to motivate each other, and every teammate is compelled to impact all components of DK success. We have missed out on some proven-performers in the recruiting space that could crush it for our revenue goals, yet may not be as committed to the others, and that’s okay.
We use Andy Grove’s OKRs (Objectives & Key Results) as our goal-setting structure. We set our goals to focus on all quadrants of our defined success. This can have somewhat opposing efforts at play, but intentionally so. i.e.: We might have a Q4 objective of: ‘Secure 1 New Client in Ed-Tech Space’ and in that same quarter, have another objective of: ‘Make our Client Discovery Sessions More In-Depth to Assess Alignment with Client’. This automatically slows down our client selection process for ed-tech space, albeit while giving us a better approach to exploring new clients. Pairing revenue objectives with objectives rooted in our definition of success has helped us stay true to our ethos and select clients that we are adept at delivering for.
The questions we ask are just as important as the answers we give. As you start, evolve or calibrate your business – my recommendation is reflect on your ethos and values. Revisit your definition of success. Ensure that the fundamentals of your business are true to what you want to build. Fold your values and ethos into your everyday work – how you interact with clients, with your team, with company advisors. Doing so will give you peace of mind and clarity when making decisions – you’ll have an active compass to guide you on the daily.