Nancy Lyons | [Top Agency Series] Build a Great Culture in Times of Pandemics and Social Justice Revolutions
Smart Business Revolution

Nancy Lyons is the President and CEO of Clockwork, an interactive design and technology consultancy. She is an entrepreneur, author, speaker, and passionate advocate for LGBTQ families. She is the author of Work Like a Boss: A Kick-in-the-Pants Guide to Finding (and Using) Your Power at Work, and lives in Minneapolis with her spouse and son. 

In this episode of the Smart Business Revolution Podcast, John Corcoran interviews Nancy Lyons, the President and CEO of Clockwork, about how she has been building her company during challenging times. Nancy explains how the death of George Floyd impacted business in Minneapolis and in her company, explains how she evaluates clients to work with, and talks about her book. Stay tuned.

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Here’s a Glimpse of What You’ll Hear:

  • How Nancy Lyons has benefited from being a member of the Bureau of Digital community
  • Nancy’s start in entrepreneurship and what differentiates Clockwork from her previous business
  • Nancy talks about the impact of George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis, the conversations that happened in Clockwork during the aftermath of the case, and the effects of the pandemic
  • The changes Clockwork made after George Floyd’s death, the tensions that came with that, and how the company’s clients reacted to those decisions 
  • What Nancy does to make sure clients are a good fit for her company
  • The types of companies Nancy has helped pivot over the last year
  • What inspired Nancy to write her book, Work Like a Boss, and her advice on how employees can act like a boss
  • How Nancy rallies her employees around a mission
  • Nancy talks about the peers she respects and how to get in touch with her

Resources Mentioned In This Episode

Sponsor: Rise25

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Episode Transcript

Intro 0:01

Welcome to the revolution, the Smart Business Revolution Podcast, where we ask today’s most successful entrepreneurs to share the tools and strategies they use to build relationships and connections to grow their revenue. Now, your host for the revolution, John Corcoran.

John Corcoran 0:40

All right, welcome everyone. John Corcoran here. I’m the host of this show. And you know, every week I get to talk to smart founders, entrepreneurs, CEOs, all kinds of companies. Take a look at my archives. We’ve got some great episodes with just recorded an episode with the founder of Kinko’s, we got Netflix, YPO, EO Activision Blizzard. This is part of our series focusing on top agency founders, top agency, digital agency owners, and I’m also the Co-founder Rise25, where we help connect b2b business owners to their ideal prospects. And before we launch into this, I want to give a quick shout out to Carl Smith of the Bureau of Digital community, we have connected with our guests through that community. I’m a member of it. And our guest is Nancy Lyons. She is an entrepreneur, founder or co author, speaker, passionate advocate for LGBTQ families. She’s the author of Work Like a Boss: A Kick-in-the-Pants Guide to Finding (and Using) Your Power at Work. And she lives in Minneapolis with their spouse and their son. And you know, Nancy, first before I go too far from Carl, I wanted to mention, you’ve been a part of that community for a long time. And I know I’ve gotten a lot of value out of being part of, especially during COVID times being part of different online communities where you can be with different peers and contemporaries. So what have you gotten out of the Bureau Digital community?

Nancy Lyons 1:59

Yeah, well, first of all, thanks for having me. I am grateful to you and grateful to the Bureau for these sorts of opportunities. Aye. Aye, first met those folks, probably, Gosh, 10 years ago. I mean, it was, it was a long time ago. And I am loath to join other more things. You know, I’m one of those people who is always worried about over-promising and I have high expectations. And I wasn’t really. I was a little reluctant to join an organization full of agencies or studios sitting around talking about how great they were. And so I was a cynic, kind of right out of the gate. But after a few opportunities to connect with folks who have issues, you know, learning opportunities that were similar to things that I needed to know more about, or things that I was encountering myself, I found just an enormous amount of value in that community. And, and, and I’m grateful for it, I’ve made really good friends, I’ve connected with people that I admire, and I learned from pretty consistently and people that I can reach out to, you know, at a moment’s notice and ask for advice. So the Bureau has been, you know, really instrumental in our growth and our success. And, and I, I’m super grateful for it, my entire leadership team is involved in the Bureau in one way or another, and it’s something that I count on.

John Corcoran 3:28

That’s great. That’s great. I want to ask you, I love to ask many of my guests how they started down the path towards entrepreneurship. And you’ve had your company for about 20 years now. Was it an organic thing? You know, what’s your background with entrepreneurship? Did you grow up in a family with business owners? Were you out on your parents lawn on the weekends doing a lemonade stand? Whenever you get the chance? What was that like?

Nancy Lyons 3:57

Yeah, um, so, you know, I think I’m an accidental entrepreneur in that I just sort of landed there. And I think most careers unless you decide that you want to be a doctor or lawyer, or you know, an astronaut. Most careers happened by accident. And I don’t think our culture spends enough time talking about that truth. And so I’m happy to say I just sort of ended up here because the internet was a space that I was enjoying exploring, and I met people who aligned with my values. And it happened the way it was supposed to. My business partners, and I had a company before this that we sold. So we started more than 20 years ago. And we were very, very small, tiny geniuses, tiny, tiny young geniuses. But you know, fresh out of college, two of my business partners worked for Prince. And that story is I mean, we’re based in Minneapolis, and a lot of people sort of touched the universe that was printed. But as with so many self taught technology folks, they were missing musicians and Mike was a sound engineer and a producer, mixer composer. Chuck is a graphic designer. And both of them worked for Paisley Park. And they really started to explore the internet as a result of prints. And I was doing, you know, marketing and industrial video production. And the company that I worked for was exploring Internet technologies on behalf of clients. And so I started to sort of go off in that direction on my own. We were all really young, we came together, they started a bulletin board service, which was the early social web. And they did it on behalf of prints, they were going to call it the dawn and launch it for him to have direct access to his fans. But most people that know about prints know that he’s a little eccentric and unpredictable. And he was in this case, as well. And he asked them to leave. You know, he got irritated about something, ask them to leave. And so they took the technology they’ve been working on, they plugged it in, in Mike’s basement, and they started a BBS called bitstream underground, which ultimately morphed into an Internet service provider and became one of the premium residential service providers in this area. And I joined them in 1995-96. And we started building websites, right around them the first client was BASF. And we built that company and

John Corcoran 6:17

interviewed a cute one. Yeah, I want to ask you about that. I’ve interviewed a few people that were doing web designs around that period of time. 9596. And it was totally the worldwide web. I’ve been totally sorry, the Wild West. Yeah, that time, right. Like, you know, the tools were not that evolved. We didn’t have enough WordPress back then.

Nancy Lyons 6:39

Right, we were hand coding HTML. And, you know, we, I mean, when I first started to learn to code, it was in Perl. And you know, most people have no idea what the heck you’re talking about. And there were no content management systems. And, and, you know, most of what was happening there was pretty ugly. But we started right away, calling ourselves a user experience company, when the rest of the world was developing in Flash and creating entirely gorgeous, but possibly inaccessible, you know, web properties, we just didn’t, we never played in the dancing banana spaces. And I’m kind of proud of that. And it took a long time for even the language to catch on. And for people to understand the importance of accessibility, but we have always been there. And that’s where we started Clockwork. So we left the company that we sold and started Clockwork pretty soon after, with an intention to build a values based business, and build a place where we really wanted to work and create a place where other people could have, you know, great lives, too.

John Corcoran 7:44

Yeah. Tell me about what conscious decisions you made differently when you found a Clockwork cuz on the surface of it. Least from my perspective, it looks like it’s not that different. You had kind of a web design company before and you’re doing web design now or an agency, it might have evolved and changed. But how did it go? How did you decide that the clock is going to be different? 

Nancy Lyons 8:11

Yeah, well, I think on the surface now, it doesn’t look that different. I think you’re absolutely right. In that regard. I think, at the time, it looked very different, how we wanted to run the business, how we wanted to articulate our values, how we wanted to build the business around those values, and hire people that reflected those values. But also, I think, very early on before there was, you know, any sort of cultural awakening or reckoning, which, you know, one could argue is really only begun in the last year, we were really trying to embrace the tenets of anti racism and living in Minnesota and being you know, really wildly aware of how white we are. And Minnesota is, you know, it was a, it was something that we felt really strongly about, we were probably one of the first commercial businesses to come out very publicly to say that black lives matter. And we recognize that there could be no separation between who we were in the work we did and what we believed. So some people would call how we show up political but I don’t think having humanity in your business is politics. I think it’s a moral imperative. And I think that we were speaking to that long before there was this cultural shift that allowed for that kind of conversation.

John Corcoran 9:35

Let’s talk about that. You’re in Minneapolis. Take me back to what the last year has been like, you know, George Floyd was killed a little over 14 months ago now. I think it was. We’re recording this at the end of July of 2021. First of all, what was that experience like in the immediate aftermath?