Jennifer Rotner | Scaling and Systematizing a Creative Business and Rebounding from Losing a Whale Client

John Corcoran 11:36

I’m curious, if you were talking to a small business that had a whale of a client that’s becoming a larger and larger portion of their business? What would you say to them? What should they do? What would you do? How would you advise them? Should they even take on that whale of a client? Or is there a certain threshold at which they should get a certain size before they’re willing to take on a whale of a client? Or do you not turn it away? You take it but there are certain things that you would do that you would advise them to do?

Jennifer Rotner 12:05

Yeah, I’m like, try not to smile because I’m you know, I’m a whale Hunter. One of our core values is to find the Yes. Right. So from the very beginning, most of our services have been born out of us doing something well and a client saying you’re good at this, what else can you do? And we say what do you need? And then, and that’s how we learn new things. I love this kind of challenge. I always say, you know, go after the big guys, you know, there shouldn’t be a limit to what kind of business anyone should go after an individual, a small company, a large company, I think, you know, if you are passionate about what you do, you do it well, and you know it and you bring value to the table you should be able to work for and with anyone. So to that, I say no, there’s nothing you should say no to. But I would say that now when we bring on big clients, I really try to do this for myself. I take time, I set aside time and I go through a whole exercise of what if this client was gone tomorrow? And what would I do you know, what would that whiteboard look like? What would need to shrink? And also what would I take away from that? And how can I make sure that if that happened tomorrow because it could and it has the business won’t be in jeopardy in any way the business shouldn’t be affected by the loss of a client in any major way. And so now I go through that exercise, often, even with my big clients, if they were gone tomorrow, how would that affect things? How can I safeguard things? How can I make sure that the people are safe? That’s, you know, that’s the most important thing to me? How can I make sure that these families that elite takes care of that elite supports? don’t ever have to worry about anything? That’s a key part to how I hire and, and have that plan in place.

John Corcoran 13:56

Yeah. Give me an example, though. You said there’s nothing that you feel like there’s nothing you should say no to but, you know, I imagine there’s been some things that have been tempting, but you’ve had to say no to so give me an example of that. You know, like, Is it a coffee table book? Is it Hey, well, you know, Jennifer, we create a movie for us. where, you know, has there been something where it’s been really tempting, but even like, that’s outside of

Jennifer Rotner 14:22

We created book trailers, right? So we, um, so but I hear what you’re saying. And absolutely, I think that what I have learned is to really know and understand our zone of genius and our center lane. And our zone of genius and center lane is writing and editing its words. That doesn’t mean that we don’t do those other creative pieces because we do but for something like content we write We are the execution team where the team when there’s a really great content strategy in place. We are the ones who are going to make it happen. You know, a lot of times people are maybe gonna hire a copywriter to write a blog post where you hire when you need 2050 100 blog posts that are 2000 words and really high quality and SEO. But what I don’t pretend to be is the content strategist is the SEO, we don’t pretend to know the data or the best way to analyze the data, because you need really good people to do that, people who do just that. So we are very clear about where we partner with others to get their genius and bring it on to supplement our team. I don’t try to be a full service agency that does all those things. I really try to stay in our lane of we’re editors, we’re word people. And this is what we know and love and what we’re going to do fantastically well.

John Corcoran 15:47

Let’s talk about that Elite Authors that you launched, what were the steps that you took in order to decide that that was going to be your new direction. And then also, I assume that there were some areas which you had to learn how to train your staff, you know, because I remember you told me that they became eo qualified, which, which for the listening audience means that it was generating seven figures and above, I think you said in about a year, which is phenomenal, who doesn’t want to start a business that’s generating over seven figures within a year? So what were the steps that you took that resulted in creating virtually from thin air, a seven figure business in a year.

Jennifer Rotner 16:32

So a couple of things first, that was very much within our wheelhouse, I was able to borrow from the operations of Elite Editing in order to start that company. And still the operations are incredibly entangled and sometimes to go by sometimes not. So you know, they work really well together. But it’s really essentially the same operations team. And what it is still is a second surfaces business, we’re servicing a different type of client, but it’s a business I know really well, which is how to create process around helping a lot of people at once right doing doing work at scale, doing a large volume, how to provide quality control, that’s ultimately the business that we’re in is, is you know, we edit, we write an edit millions of words a month, and anyone can write, anyone can find a writer to do one good piece. But in order to get to a level where you’re guaranteeing quality, at that volume, you have to focus on the quality control process. So in that way, it was a very similar business. We worked really hard right away to find really good vendors. And because we were in this space, we were working with partners and clients in the publishing space, that was something that we were able to level up really quickly on finding great vendors. I went after some really great talent. I’ve hired people who knew a lot more about it than I do, or ever will. I have people on my staff who have 15 20 years of publishing experience. And so when I have a question or thought, or someone who comes to me, you know, a potential client, I’m like, great, I’ve got the person to talk to you, I’ve got an expert. And it’s not me. And I’m really aware of that. It’s still a business that’s new to me, and that I love learning about. I love publishing, and I love books, but there are people who know it really well. So I hired those people I borrowed from elites, Elite Editing operations. And I really just followed the same business model. And I’ll tell you, it’s a lot easier to start a second business, right, because you may have made all the mistakes, but you’ve made a lot of mistakes in that first business. And you’ve learned and you’re at a place hopefully, where you’re able to take those lessons with you. 

John Corcoran 18:52

So it will allow me an example or two of the types of mistakes that you make. Other than the big one, the big client that you are, right, I don’t even know that’s really a mistake. But what were some mistakes that you’d made with the first person that you didn’t make with the second.

Jennifer Rotner 19:07

Yeah, um, I, I got out of the way, with a lot of things with my first business, I was so entrenched in all the details, I was so focused on having a hand in everything. And with the second business, I had great people. I hire people who are so smart and capable and who I trust implicitly and I was able to lean on that trust. I think when you first start you know, you don’t know yet what you’re going to be comfortable with other people doing. It’s your baby, it’s your everything. And I think business owners in general and certainly me had a tendency to stay too close to things and to to be involved and have a finger in every pot. And on the second business I was like, here’s what we need. Let’s talk about what needs to be done and let’s talk about who’s going to do it and really focus on letting people run and not stopping them. questioning them and keeping tabs. We were really fast and loose about it. I mean, I, I really always say we started Elite Authors out of the back of the trunk of lead editing scar. And we kind of tested it for a couple of months. We were like, is there they’re there? Let’s find out. Are people going to want this? Is there room in the market? What it sounded like was our messaging, but at its core, it’s and that’s why we created Elite Creative. It’s the same people, it’s the same values, it’s the same culture. It’s the same model. And we’ve focused on doing, doing those things. Right. And following what we knew worked for us. Yeah. And, you know, I’m very proud of what we’ve built. And it certainly isn’t me.

John Corcoran 20:43

That you know, there’s so many businesses that are creative businesses, where the end output of the production is something that’s creative. And you talked about quality control for the creative process. How do you do that? You know, when it comes to editing, you know, or do you throw a, what is it called Strunk and Wagner? Or something like that? The editing? Here? Yeah, here’s your process guide, like, just follow that,

Jennifer Rotner 21:09

you know, the style. Um, so, you know, editing, and, and many other things are, it’s a perishable skill, right? I’m not an editor anymore, I am not allowed to edit my own emails anymore. And my team is the first to tell you, like, you shouldn’t send anything without showing us. Um, but, you know, it really is, it’s a very technical skill. And so understanding the ins and outs of it, and you know, certainly finding people who, who are good at it is step one, but like anything else, quality control is really the same whether you’re in a factory or you’re editing a book, it’s, it’s creating, it’s turning it into a process, right? It’s, whether you video it, record it, write it down, whatever, whatever works best for you and the people you’re working with, it’s getting down the steps of how did I get it from here, when it when it came, you know, came in front of me when I pass my desk, how did I get it from here to when it’s ready to go out, and dissecting those different steps and turning that into something that’s repeatable and actionable, is really what quality control is all about. And so we’re, I can’t even imagine, if I had to count the number of pages of SAP in process docs that we have in place. And a lot of times, freelancers and contractors who come on, are overwhelmed by the amount of materials they receive. Because we don’t want to leave anything to chance. And, it’s not about just finding someone who’s a good editor, because as I said, if you’ve got a team of 41, writer-editors on that team might bomb an assignment or disappear in the middle or just become unavailable, that the client should never feel that they should never know. And the way that that happens is by creating a really great process and quality control. Machine really, that by the time it gets to the output, it’s going to feel the same no matter what happened in between. and, you know,

John Corcoran 23:18

How have you chosen to organize your business that supports what you just said? So, you know, in the agency world, there’s kind of a difference of opinions, sometimes people organized by pods. So there might be a writer and editor, project manager, a couple of different skills together. Or another approach is to have everyone kind of organized in different sections, where all the writers have all the editors together, have you tested different models? And how have you settled on how you organize it now?

Jennifer Rotner 23:48

Yeah, it’s something we’re constantly learning and something we’re constantly testing because it is a really hard thing to figure out. I don’t know if there’s a right answer, I’ll say the way that we do it is we do organize by department. So we have an editorial department, and we have a project management department. And we really try to be very clear about what those roles are. And there’s quality control, and there’s accountability within those teams. That being said, whenever we onboard a new client, we and this is something we’re now becoming much more intentional about whether it’s a tiny client or the biggest client in the world. We start with one project manager and one editorial lead, and there are still the people above them and below them that are going to be working with them. But there’s really one owner because when there’s that level of accountability, there are people who respond differently when it’s theirs, when there’s that level of ownership. So, you know, on our editorial team, for example, we used to just kind of have the project managers bring on a new client and say, Okay, take a look around and figure it out. And let us know what you need in order to do this. Well, now we pick someone on that team, we say, who’s this the right fit for who’s going to own this, who’s going to tell us what we need Who’s gonna be responsible for that research and discovery, and who’s going to help build out the process in order to make this client successful. So we try really hard to keep from silos happening, because that’s what pods are really good at is that collaborative nature. And we use a lot of tools, communication tools and other things to make that happen. And obviously, like many virtual businesses, we’re in Slack. And we have the channels per client and PR type of client. But for us, it’s really about focusing on the fact that everything we do is about collaboration, the editorial team and the project management team should be working so closely together, and they are and that’s what I think makes it successful.

John Corcoran 25:39

Yeah, I wanted to circle back to something you mentioned earlier, you said that your, your leadership team, your executive team, they were three freelancers. And they’ve risen through the ranks. I know that one of the things you’ve talked about is you got to coach or your senior leadership team. But in addition to that, what have you done in order to take them from freelancers to leadership in a company that has, you know, a few 100 people when you add up all the employees, all the contractors, to move them into that role, because not every Freelancer is going to survive that kind of transition,

Jennifer Rotner 26:17

right. And not every Freelancer has, the majority of our team, in general, has come from our freelance pool. So that is something about the way we hire we’re very much about the cultural fit. And we’re also about hiring for the person, not the position. Because we have so much work to go around, that goes among our freelancers, if someone is really just such a clear fit, and just feels like one of us and is great at the work and passionate about the work, we usually try and find a place for them. A lot of times pay conversations are, we think you should work here? What does that look like for you? You know, let’s figure this out together. So we’re not we’re not often putting out job descriptions and hiring for a specific job. Not that we haven’t had to do that. But that’s generally speaking, not how we go out into the world. For these particular three, they just showed themselves, you know, and I think that’s true of any great leader with an organization, at some of the biggest organizations in the country in the world. There are people that started out as an intern or an account manager, and now they run the company, right? It’s, I think, for me, it’s identifying that talent, identifying that sense of camaraderie. After that whole, to the incident of 2018,

John Corcoran 27:38

that I was referred to, and

Jennifer Rotner 27:40

I don’t even know I don’t, I probably should name it probably should have some capital letters and trademark or something, because it’s something we talked about so often. But at the end of 2018, I sat down with those three folks, and I gave them each a piece of the business. And I told them, that, you know, you acted as if you were owners of this company, you every day you come in and you act as if you’re an owner, and I want you to be an owner with me, I want you to have a piece of this and really be a part of it success, because you are. And so those, they’re just all three individuals who showed themselves extraordinarily early to be the type of person that is going to stand by the company no matter what, and who’s going to act as if they’re an owner. It’s not really you know, it’s just, we all have people within our organizations where you look at them, and you’re like, I couldn’t do this without you. I say that early. And I say that often. And I make sure they know how appreciated they are. And then I get that back 100 times. 

John Corcoran 28:46

You know, sometimes businesses are so dramatically affected by a major incident or a turning point that it in many ways inhibits them, or they lose a bit of the magic or prevents them from taking risks. How do you prevent that incident from affecting you in that way?

Jennifer Rotner 29:09

I think it’s just a bit of my nature to be delusionally optimistic, I think in order to start a business in order to look at nothing in a blank space and say, I’m going to make something here. And I think it’s going to be great. You have to be a little delusionally optimistic, right? Yeah, all of us are. And I think that I know, I know, it sounds crazy. But even at that moment, when I was sitting on the floor, I didn’t ever think this was going to fail. I was more like, how do I gather my thoughts in order to make this succeed? So I don’t know. I don’t think it’s in my nature to not jump after the next challenge. And to not try and spear the next whale. That’s the fun of why we do this.

John Corcoran 30:00

Thinking that that at the stage of your business is right now? What is your time spent most on? It sounds like you’ve replaced yourself and virtually if not all areas are most of the key areas that you would occupy in a smaller business. What do you focus your time on now?

Jennifer Rotner 30:19

So I think that my time is best spent focusing on the, you know, the culture of the company, the vision of the company, and managing the leaders of the company. And by managing, I mean, the question I asked the most during the day is, what do you need? And how can I support you in doing your job? Right? I think that’s the most valuable thing I do. So it’s not that I certainly pulled myself out of the day to day operations, I have a, you know, my a phenomenal person who, who runs our operations. And, and that’s been such a game changer. I’m still very involved in the business development and relationship management, I almost never miss a call, almost never miss a call with our, with our big clients. And even so, I don’t know if sizing really matters. In that case, I really love being on the client side, I love making sure that we’re moving forward. I like just kind of spitballing with, with people organizations were involved with and say, What else? What else can we do? What else can we do together? We really like working together. And I think that’s where a lot of growth happens is in those in between moments. So while I’m not involved in the operations, I’m always focused on what’s next. And having conversations like this, where I walk away, and I’m buzzing with new ideas. That’s where I want to be. And that’s what I’m trying to spend time on.

John Corcoran 31:46

Okay, two last things I want to ask about. You created this Freelancer experience to better onboard the contractors that join your company to make it more of an experience for them, make them feel like part of the culture. Tell us a little bit about that.

Jennifer Rotner 32:01

I’m so glad you remember that because I don’t even remember talking about that. And that’s something that’s so fun and exciting for us, we call it the Elite Journey. Now, we give it a name. Um, but what it is, is, you know, for so many freelancers, and I was a freelance editor. So I know this experience, well, you’re in a silo, you’re kind of working in a black hole and sending work in and work comes to you and it goes back. And your connection to the company is minimal, if existent at all. And we really wanted to change that, because our writers and editors are really a part of our team. And we wanted as the company grew, we wanted that culture to filter down and be felt all the way down. So we created this Elite Journey, which starts as soon as you come on board, as soon as you sign that you’re interested in working with us. And it involves, you know, steps along the way. We send you lots of gifts and swag and birthday presents and, you know, holiday presents and first year anniversary gifts and, and things like that, to just show people that we appreciate them. We also start we’re starting just starting now to do these monthly culture calls, where anyone who’s hired that month, because in any given month, we could hire 15 to 20, you know, new writers and editors, and just getting everybody on a call and having Laura who who manages our operations, and he was really our key culture keeper. Just talk about what it means to be elite, what our values are, and you know, where we come from, and making sure that everyone feels connected to this company that they’re working for. We also do a lot of coaching and coaching down. So our quality control team, which is our senior editor team, works with every single individual writer and editor. There’s a huge feedback loop. There’s a huge amount of coaching that happens in the beginning, not just about making sure that they’re doing good work, categorically speaking, but also like, this is how we respond to things. This is how we give feedback. This is the voice of Elite talking so that people really understand and feel a part of the team. Yeah,

John Corcoran 34:03

Yeah. And then I have to ask about the Gandalf Lego. I know you don’t have it in front of you, right. I’m gonna go grab my keys, but tell us what it is.

Jennifer Rotner 34:13

So we, that same senior leadership team that I mentioned years and years ago, I think it was like 2015 or so. We did this really cool Lego experience that sounded completely zany with actually our coach who works with each of my senior leadership members. Her name’s Mandy Diamond, shout out to Mandy. She’s amazing. She’s a lifesaver. And she did this whole process with us kind of using the right creative side of our brain with Legos to come up with our core values. And in doing so we ended up using this Gandalf Lego to represent something that was this kind of unspoken unnamed thing that was in the room with us. That we started calling our magic. And well as we’ve ended up defining it, we define it as our culture of collaboration, which is any one of us can do something really well. We’re all smart, capable people. But when you throw it in the middle, when you throw it in the pot, what comes out is infinitely better. And that’s our magic. That’s what we think of, as what makes us really great at what we do is that collaboration. And we have a little Gandalf Lego that all of us have that represents that.

John Corcoran 35:26

Very cool. All right, last question I want to ask, which is, I’m a big fan of, of gratitude. And if you look around at your peers and your contemporaries, however you wanted to find that it could be others in your eo forum or other entrepreneurs, it could be others in the writing, editing space or authoring space. Who do you respect? Who do you admire that’s doing good work out there today? Yeah,

Jennifer Rotner 35:52

a lot of people, certainly a shout out to my email forum. I didn’t get into that piece. But they played a huge role in my rebound in 2018. It was in my forum meeting that the idea was born of not just the idea, but the confidence for me that you know, if anyone can start a company out of this Rubble, it’s you. And I left that meeting and thought, I’m going to start a company right now. And they’ve, my farm mates are amazing. And they’ve really just helped me not just level up in business, but believe that I’m capable of doing anything. So huge, huge shout out to them. And also have a couple of other women business owners in my life that I’m just really grateful for. I’m really grateful that I can really go there and be vulnerable. Kait LeDonne is one of them, who introduced us. Marybeth Hyland is another woman who does tremendous work around culture. And she’s just been a true north for me as a business owner. So I’m very, very grateful to her. And just watching what they’re doing in the world.

John Corcoran 37:01

And what they’re bringing just makes me want to be better. Awesome. All right, Jen, I know that you have a social program to help authors to promote their book on social elite, creative, calm. Where else can people go to learn more value, connect with you and ask you a question?

Jennifer Rotner 37:18

Yeah. and are both best places. I’m very active on social media because that’s what we believe. You know that that’s the best place to market yourself to be a thought leader. So LinkedIn is a great place to connect with me for sure. And otherwise, just we’re out there doing our thing and love meeting new authors, love meeting new businesses and seeing how we can help.

John Corcoran 37:40

Jennifer, thanks so much. Great story. Thank you. It’s always a pleasure. Thanks, John.

Outro 37:46

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