How to grow a creative business with Sarah Durham

If you’re a "passionate practitioner" with the “good” problem of too much work, today's blog post (and podcast episode) is for you.

Sarah Durham, founder of Big Duck, who has recently reinvented herself as an executive coach for “accidental entrepreneurs,” shares insights into growing a creative business...and so much more. 

Here's one of my favorite quotes from the conversation, when Sarah said: 

One of the things I found was, once you learn how to read financial statements, you can actually set up financial statements in a way that makes sense to you.

You can give things names that makes sense to you. You can run reports that makes sense to you and are visual and turn them into dashboards. Sure, that's a different kind of creativity, perhaps, than what we think of when we think of illustration or design or copywriting, but it can be really meaningful. When you get a report that makes sense to you because you co-created it with your bookkeeper or an accountant, I think there's some opportunity for creativity and personalization and fun in that, and it helps you gain authorship and confidence, and that's hugely important in what we do.

Here are a couple ideas for baby steps you can take to grow, no matter where you are in your journey:

  1. If you're trying to grow beyond just you, identify a few "rock stars" -- smart people who do something better than you do, Then find a way to hire them, whether as freelancers, part time or maybe even full time.
  2. If you're trying to find a way to make your marketing more "fun," figure out what makes you different from those who do what you do – like your voice and your style – and make sure that comes through your marketing. It could have more to do with how you work than with what you deliver.

So listen here (or below) and scroll down for the complete transcript too.

If you like what you hear, we’d love it if you write a review, subscribe on Apple Podcasts and sign up for Quick Tips from Marketing Mentor.

If you want more from Sarah, listen to these previous episodes

  1. On pricing creative services
  2. On finding companies who "do good"
  3. On pricing for non profits

 And if you're just getting started, check out my 7-step guide to marketing for creatives. 

Transcript of #442 – Sarah Durham – Growing the Biz

ilise benun

Hi there. This is ilise benun, your Marketing Mentor. And this is the podcast for you, if, and only if, you are ready to leave the feast or famine syndrome behind, and I mean for good. 

This episode is dedicated to a few of my clients who are in the throes of deciding how to grow their business. It's a good problem to have, but a struggle nonetheless. That's why I turn to Sarah Durham, who, until recently, was the owner of Big Duck‚ a well-known communications agency in the nonprofit world.

Sarah has since sold her firm—to her employees, no less—and reinvented herself as an executive coach for accidental entrepreneurs. Sarah and I covered so much ground in this interview and somehow, also, left so many stones unturned, so there will definitely be a Part Two coming soon. In the meantime, listen and learn. 

Hello, Sarah. Welcome back to the podcast.

Sarah Durham

Hey, ilise. Great to be here. Thanks for having me back.

ilise benun

Yes, of course. Please introduce yourself.

Sarah Durham

I'm Sarah Durham. I'm a native New Yorker and a serial, creative entrepreneur. I started a company in the 1990s called Big Duck, which was a communications firm that works with nonprofits to help them communicate more effectively, and I ran that company for a couple of decades and then sold it to my employees last year. Along the way, I also bought and ran a digital agency called Advomatic, that also worked with nonprofits, and now I have exited the creative agency world and I work independently as an executive coach for accidental entrepreneurs and women in professional leadership roles.

ilise benun

Awesome. There's so much we could talk about there, so perhaps we'll have to do a Part Two and beyond on this conversation. But, the reason I wanted to talk to you is especially to focus on the fact that when you're a creative solopreneur, there are lots of different options for growth. And often, people think growth is adding employees, but that's just one approach that, I think, people can take, and there's so many others. But, I just wanted to talk with you first about what your experience was. Obviously, not everything, because it was 27 years or so, but what did you learn, and how did you go about going from just you to growing that business, and what did you learn along the way that you wish you had known sooner?

Sarah Durham

Well, I love that you're starting with this question of growth and what growth means and how you did it. I, like a lot of your listeners, have a creative background. I went to art school. I never went to business school, and I kind of fell into starting a business a little bit by accident. I was a passionate practitioner, and starting my own company was the best way to just do the kind of work I wanted to do. In the first few years, it was mostly me and occasional freelancers, and I really didn't think a lot about growth because I was really just trying to survive the day-to-day of it all. 

And then I realized that my business was running me, instead of me running my business, and that if I ever wanted to do anything else in life or have any kind of work-life balance or things like that, I really needed to switch that dynamic; and so I never really, early on, thought about growth in the way that I think is kind of very traditional in the business world.

What I thought about was quality of life and satisfaction. Kind of early on in my time at Big Duck in the 90s, my father was diagnosed with a terminal illness, and that forced me to think a lot about time and attention, and what I was paying attention to, what I had time for, and so that became, I think, a guiding principle. 

I think to answer the second part of your question—"What do I know now that I wish I knew then?"—I think it was about a lot of those things, about being mindful and deliberate, about how you spend your time at work and beyond work. And making decisions that are in the best interest of your business or your career in a kind of a holistic and dimensional away, and not just sort of buying into what are historically norms that were set by men, typically white men in the 50s and 60s, about what work is and how work works. And I think one of the great opportunities we have as creative professionals is to be creative, and lead and work in different ways, creative ways.

ilise benun

One of the things that came up when we talked recently was this idea of doing the business side creatively—which is something I've been thinking about and talking about for a long time, as well—that I noticed that often, creative professionals don't bring their creativity to bear on the business side of their business, for some reason. So maybe you can give us an example or two of how you did that.

Sarah Durham

Well, I think that a lot of creative people are kind of terrified of the stuff that's entrenched in the business of your business, so they're scared of financials, for instance, or things like cash flow management, or sales and marketing. 

What I found over many years—and this was many years in which I never did get an MBA, but I worked with a lot of consultants, I read a lot of business books, I went to a lot of conferences, I hired and worked with coaches, so I was kind of constantly trying to learn and grow personally—and I found that the more I did those things, the more I learned and got less intimidated by things like financials, the more I found that I could actually make them my own in some ways. 

For instance, in my coaching practice, there are some creative people I work with who literally don't even have access to their business' financials. They have an accountant or a bookkeeper who does it all, and kind of they send stuff over there and they don't really look at reports, and they're just frightened of it. One of the things I found was, once you learn how to read financial statements, you can actually set up financial statements in a way that makes sense to you.

You can give things names that makes sense to you. You can run reports that makes sense to you and are visual and turn them into dashboards. Sure, that's a different kind of creativity, perhaps, than what we think of when we think of illustration or design or copywriting, but it can be really meaningful. When you get a report that makes sense to you because you co-created it with your bookkeeper or an accountant, I think there's some opportunity for creativity and personalization and fun in that, and it helps you gain authorship and confidence, and that's hugely important in what we do.

ilise benun

Definitely. I had a thought the other day that let me run this by you, because it's connecting to what you're saying. Someone I was listening to on another podcast—especially, this was focused on LinkedIn—was talking about how maybe it's a generational thing that certain generations are not that eager to experiment with things because they're afraid of breaking it or they don't know what's going to happen, and that perhaps younger people have a little bit more facility for experimenting. And so this idea of bringing creativity to the financials—which is kind of scary, I hear that a lot—and then experimenting, and then being afraid to do it all wrong and mess something up that you won't be able to fix … do you think there's something generational about that?

Sarah Durham

It's an interesting question. I go back and forth on this idea of “generationality,” if that's a word, and I'm not sure. There are places where it rings true for me and places where it doesn't. I guess what I do think is that there are people who grew up in a time where, if you worked with something and you broke it, it was really bad. And then there are people who grew up in a time where breaking something was pretty easy to fix, and a lot of people I know who are younger than 60 know that the first thing you do when your computer freezes up is you unplug it and restart it. I think that maybe those of us who've kind of learned that lesson—that it's okay to just turn the thing off and reboot it, and sometimes that fixes a lot of stuff—maybe we’re more comfortable experimenting.

To me, this is a great advantage that creative people have, is that we tend ... creative people see the world differently and bring a kind of a vision that is refreshing, and I think that's like really an opportunity.

ilise benun

One of the phrases you used a little bit ago, which I want to come back to, is you said you were a passionate practitioner. I love that idea, and it's connected also in my mind to the idea of wearing a lot of hats, and then as you grew, you mentioned to me that you had to hand off one hat at a time. So maybe you can share a little bit of that experience, also. How did you decide which hats to hand off, when, and what were some of the problems that came up when you did it?

Sarah Durham

Yeah. Well, pretty early on, probably in the first seven or eight years of running my business, when it was really me doing most of the doing and working with other freelancers who did most of the doing of things, I worked with a consultant who said something to me along the lines of, "Well, look, if you ever want to get to a place where you don't have to do everything, and particularly if you ever want to sell this business, you should build it and run it to sell it, regardless of whether you're going to sell it. It's just a discipline. It's a kind of a healthy discipline; a business that you can sell is stable, it has infrastructure, it's financially successful. It has a whole bunch of markers."

That seemed like a good idea to me at the time. Like, "Why don't I try to build this business so that it actually is something that could be sold, and later on I can figure out if I do want to sell it." 

In the building a business that can be sold, one of the things that came up pretty quickly for me is that to grow a business, particularly once you get past having a couple of employees, there is a difference between doing the work, managing the work, and directing the work. And I started off doing graphic design work and also a lot of copywriting work, so I was a doer. As I started hiring other people, what I saw was there were a lot of people out there who are better designers and better writers than I was, and I kind of switched altitudes and I started doing less doing and more managing. But then as you grow even further and you build networks of people you work with, or you hire even more expert people, sometimes you even move out of managing and you move into a directing seat. 

And as a director, your job is to have kind of a vision of the field or a vision of the landscape, and understand who's on that field, what are they doing, how are things moving? Another metaphor I like to use a lot in my coaching is the idea of altitudes.

When you're a doer, you're kind of on the ground doing the thing. But as you move into managing, you move up to a slightly different altitude where you have to manage people or manage projects and have perspective. 

But as a director, you actually have to switch altitudes constantly. You have to be able to understand what it's like on the ground and what it's like from all kinds of different vantage points. You become almost like an air traffic controller. 

What I found, and what you and I talked about in our last conversation, was that it's pretty awesome when you find people who are better at doing things than you are and you give them a job that they love doing and you get out of their way. And you can switch altitudes, and you can have a chance to maybe try something new and grow in a different way; instead of there just being a vacancy, there's actually this other person or people who are bringing their own unique skills and talents and perspective to the work, too. So, that was huge for me.

ilise benun

Yeah, and I have several clients actually struggling with this, and one of the things I often hear is, "I want to hand this work over, but what if I don't like what they do?"

Sarah Durham

Yeah. Yeah. That's, I think, probably the number one reason why people don't do it. And it is both kind of a leap of faith to trust somebody to do something that you know you're good at, that you could do. Even if you're not good at it, you can trust yourself. You know what to expect from yourself. But getting to a point where you can trust in somebody else's vision is scary, and it, I think is both ...

It's a kind of letting go that you really have to practice. And I think there's also sometimes … I think another reason people struggle to let go in that way is that all they see is what they're giving up, not necessarily what they're gaining. 

I had many years working as a creative person in my business, but probably about, I don't know, 10 or 12 years into my business, I actually stopped doing any creative work; I was no longer doing creative work. If you had said to me, "Oh, you're going to work your way out of doing creative work," that would've sounded really sad to me. I probably would've said, "No, I'm a creative person. I don't want to do that." 

But actually, even though I stopped doing creative work in the business, I started doing other work in the business and on the business that was, for me, super creative and actually turned out to be better at doing. And so, I think, as you're kind of fearful of letting go and trusting other people, it can be helpful to think about what that letting go might enable you to do elsewhere. What else do you want to learn? What else do you see as an opportunity as you grow your business or your practice? And maybe you can kind of invest the energy into the new thing you get, as opposed to the thing you're letting go.

ilise benun

Yeah, I love that. It sounds like you're just redefining what creativity is and where you bring it, how you manifest it in your life.

Sarah Durham

Yeah. That's really well said, and much more concisely said. Yes, exactly.

ilise benun

But the other thing, just to go back to the point about not liking what the freelancers or whoever else is doing the work, the point I often make is, maybe it doesn't matter if you like it, because what really matters is either does it work or does the client like it. Right?

Sarah Durham

Absolutely. Absolutely. I mean, I think this sort of comes down a little bit to what you're comfortable living with, but sometimes clients are happy with things that we, as creatives, really wouldn't be happy with. And I think you have to decide if that's okay for you. But certainly, the perfect is the enemy of the good. 

Oftentimes, what I have found with different people I've managed over the years is that, it's actually not that their work isn't as good, it's that their work is just different. They just bring a different sensibility to it, and I think when you have an experience where somebody you've hired presents work that's very different from what you would've done, or they present in a way that's very different from how you'd present it, and you see the client love it, that's really helpful. It kind of makes you realize that there's lots of ways to solve the client's problem and a lot of kinds of relationships that can be helpful for the client. It doesn't all have to be your way.

ilise benun

In terms of handing off the various hats, one at a time, I'm curious about the order in which you did it or you think it's best to do it. Either way.

Sarah Durham

I don't think that there is a right order to do it in. But I guess that the approach I have found most successful personally, and I've seen be very successful in other places, is to focus on finding sort of rock star people that you really trust who become powerhouses in your business. 

For me, in the first let's say decade of my business, I tended to hire people who did good work, and that I liked a lot personally, but that I sort of felt like I had to manage them a lot or direct them a lot. Then, I was at a conference, and I heard a woman named Farra Trompeter speak at this conference and she was brilliant. I was so impressed with her vision and her smarts, and she said all these things that were, kind of, felt like they aligned with my values—but she just had depth and perspective that was different. 

I said to myself, "Wow, if I could hire somebody like Farra, that could really be a game-changer." And I actually didn't know what the job was going to be, initially. I just saw the potential for her to be this hugely transformative person in my company. And so, I figured out a job for her and I hired her, and it was the biggest hire I ever made. It was expensive salary, and she was a serious professional who had high expectations for what she was looking for in a job. And it was great. It was transformative. I mean, to go from feeling like I had to be the grownup in the room to feeling like, all of a sudden, here's this other person who's not only also a grownup, but just bringing all kinds of new additive skills and talents—that was a pivotal moment for me and became sort of a model. I mean, after that, I think a lot of the people that we developed on the team at Big Duck, and a lot of the people I had subsequently hired, we looked for those kinds of additive, game-changing perspectives.

Today actually, Big Duck is actually a worker-owned cooperative. So Farra, and Elizabeth Ricca—who's another rock star, co-direct Big Duck. Everybody who works at Big Duck is now an owner. And I think it's that sense of ownership or sense of vision that made it possible for me to let go and do different things, and for them to step into owning and running the business without me.

ilise benun

What I love about what you're saying and how you're answering the question is a little bit counterintuitive also … that it's not about the role, it's about finding rock stars. It's about finding the right people. And then figuring out how to collaborate with them, and letting that guide how the business grows, almost, it sounds like. And it even sounds like hiring Farra pushed you to step up your game.

Sarah Durham

Definitely. Definitely. My husband, years ago, said something to me that I thought was really profound, and it's been kind of a North Star for me in a lot of places my life. He said to me, "Your partner should make you better." Like if you're in a relationship with somebody and they're not making you better, helping you be your best self, maybe that's not good.

ilise benun

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Sarah Durham

I think when you hire a person who you want to be a game-changer for your business, they should make you better, too. Make you better, make the business better. And I think it's also important to be able to distinguish between yourself and your business. I think if you ever want your business to be something that is not all about you, that hiring those kinds of people is really critical.

ilise benun

I think a practical aspect of that, also, is perhaps a mindset shift where you pay for quality, essentially, because I see people struggling with that. I see this person, but I can't afford them.

Sarah Durham

Yeah, that's definitely true. Again, if your goal is to keep doing what you're doing for a long time and have a business where you are essential to it, you can never leave it, then maybe that's okay. But, I think if you want to have a business where you can go on vacation and totally unplug and not worry, because somebody else can make great decisions if you're not in the room, or if you want to have a business that you're going to sell one day, then that may come at a real financial cost, and it will require you to really switch things up. But that's exciting. That's an opportunity. 

One of the things I'm doing in my coaching, a bit, is exit strategy and succession planning work. And I find that there are a lot of people with small businesses who don't ever think about their exit strategy and never think about succession planning. Never think about: "What do I do if this great employee moves on?" But tackling that stuff head-on is actually really important to building a business that is sustainable and can survive without you.

ilise benun

Indeed. Now, I want to cover one more topic before we wrap up, and because this is the Marketing-Mentor Podcast, we should talk a little bit about marketing.

Sarah Durham

Yes, please.

ilise benun

I've known you for many years, and we've been out of touch for a while but you were on the podcast several years ago talking a lot about pricing and the nonprofit world especially, but I don't think we've ever actually talked about marketing. And I know, but just from watching you, that you did some really innovative and interesting marketing for Big Duck. So, I want the question to be something like, "What did you do, and how did you bring your creativity to it, and make the marketing and sales piece fun?"

Sarah Durham

Yeah. I mean, I'm glad you brought that up, and boy, I love this topic so much. I feel like it'd be really fun to have a whole other deep-dive conversation about it.

ilise benun

Okay, we can.

Sarah Durham

I mean, I guess in short, I think that what scares people about doing marketing and sales is some sort of concern about either being inauthentic, or being somehow like sneaky or conning—like to sell somebody is somehow a bad thing to do or sleazy thing to do. What I have always felt is that the sales process is really a journey that you go on together with your client to explore if this is a good fit—and that's a two-way conversation. It's you talking candidly about what it costs, and what you do, and why you're different; and your client talking candidly about what they need; and you together exploring if that's a good fit. That's kind of a beautiful and fun conversation to have. Same thing with marketing.

Marketing is an opportunity for you to find an authentic way to talk about your work and share your work, and there are so many different ways you can do that. I guess what made marketing and sales really fun at Big Duck—and one of the reasons I love also thinking about it, working on it in other ways—is that that's also a quest for a way to be authentic and creative; and not just use social media because you got to use social media, but figure out a way to do that authentically for you or not do it for you.

ilise benun

And so is there ... like, what was your best marketing strategy or tactic at Big Duck?

Sarah Durham

Well, we were lucky at Big Duck in that we were working in nonprofit communications early on and we were able to establish ourselves as thought leaders on that topic through blogging and things like that. But I would say that probably the secret weapon for me, at Big Duck at least, was public speaking, and not everybody likes public speaking. I mean, what I always encourage people to do when they're trying to figure out marketing is to really think about the platforms you're most comfortable in; but I've always found it a lot of fun to get together in a room full of people—whether it's a big room like a conference or a small room like a workshop or something—and open up a topic and explore that topic. So, for me, public speaking was a great marketing tactic.

ilise benun

Yeah, I agree, and I like the way you're framing it, also—not as a performance per se, but an opportunity to open up a topic with people who also have opinions and are curious what you think of the topic.

Sarah Durham

Yeah, absolutely, and I think that's where a lot of people go wrong with speaking—is like, if it's a lecture, nobody wants to be lectured. But if you're an expert in something, it's really fun to be able to explore that topic with somebody else, and have them challenge you and maybe change your mind or maybe see it differently because of that conversation.

ilise benun

Right, and build a relationship along the way, also.

Sarah Durham

Mm-hmm (affirmative).

ilise benun

All right, I have one more question that just came to my mind. And I think I told you a little bit about this, but I want your take on this new thing I've come up with called the Proposal Oreo Strategy where people don't just do a proposal because someone says, "Send me a proposal," and instead, go through this qualifying process before they decide. That's Cookie Number One, is the qualifying conversation. And then I say, the cream in the middle is the actual document, if you decide to do it, based on the qualifying conversation. 

And Cookie Number Two—this is the part I want your feedback on—is presenting the proposal in real time. Walking someone through it, rather than just “throwing it over the fence,” I like to say, and then never hearing from them again, for whatever reason, we don't know. I'm finding that people read less and less, and even if you put a lot of time and effort into a proposal, they may not have read it, so a better alternative is to literally take 15 minutes and walk them through it; and I'm finding when my clients do that, they're winning more of those proposals than they ever did before. What do you think of that, Sarah? Did you ever do that?

Sarah Durham

I definitely did that, and I think it's a great strategy if your prospect lets you do it.

ilise benun

Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm (affirmative).  

Sarah Durham

I think one of the things that is also a challenge here is just how competitive the process is. Is it an RFP process? Are there a million proposals coming in? I mean, I definitely agree with you, I would never send a proposal without qualifying conversations and without a strong sense of being on the short list. If you think you're on the short list to win the opportunity, if you can present your proposal in a call and walk somebody through it, what's great about that is you have the opportunity to really surface objections and get a sense of what resonates with the prospect.

One of my favorite questions to ask in those discussions is something like, "What objections do you have?" Or, "What concerns you?" Or, "What scares you about working with us?"

ilise benun

Yeah.

Sarah Durham

Because oftentimes, if somebody isn't choosing you, it's because there's some reason they're not telling you. You're too expensive, or it's too slow, or it's too this, or it's too that. And some of those objections, you can actually overcome if they would just be candid with you. So, I love the idea of that Second Cookie, and particularly, if you can use it to really plumb the depths of what is resonating and what the objections are.

ilise benun

Awesome. Oh my God, Sarah, you have shared so many gems. I thank you and we'll definitely continue this conversation—maybe with a focus on the marketing piece—but for now, tell the people where they can find you online.

Sarah Durham

Yeah. I am easiest to find at my website, which is comptondurham.com. That's Compton like Compton, California and Durham like Durham, North Carolina. My email is sarah@comptondurham.com, or you can find me on LinkedIn, Sarah Durham.

ilise benun

Beautiful. Thank you so much, Sarah.

Sarah Durham

Thanks, ilise. Great to be back.

ilise benun

Wow, she really dropped gem after gem, but I do want to focus in on a couple of baby steps you can use to take your next steps. If you're a passionate practitioner who needs to delegate and outsource in order to grow, the baby step I recommend is based on Sarah's suggestion to identify rock stars—smart people, who do something better than you do. Then, find a way to hire them—whether as freelancers, part-time, or maybe even full-time—and you can use that opportunity to transform your business so it serves you better, although granted, those are slightly larger steps. 

Or, if you're trying to figure out how to bring your creativity to the marketing of your business so it's more fun, and you actually do it, I would follow Sarah's excellent example to figure out what makes you different from those who do what you do—like your voice or your style—and make sure that comes through your marketing; and it could have more to do with how you work than what you deliver. Just a little hint. 

Now, this is actually Sarah's fourth appearance on the Marketing Mentor Podcast. The first three were several years ago, when we talked about pricing and working with organizations who are doing good. If you want to hear those, just search for Sarah Durham on my podcast feed, and you'll find excellent episodes that stand the test of time. 

One more thing, do you like this new baby step suggestion I've added to the end of the podcast? If so, let me know at ilise@marketing-mentor.com. I'm always open to feedback and more ideas to make this podcast more useful.

So, did you learn a little something? I hope so, because that's how this works, one baby step at a time. Before you know it, you'll have better clients with bigger budgets. Speaking of better clients, they're probably not going to fall in your lap. That's why I keep hawking my Simplest Marketing Plan, so if you want to build a thriving business on your own terms, you need the new 4.0 version for 2022.

It is packed with all new content, including six new case studies and six new lessons, all of which will show you how to bring your creativity to your marketing. You'll also get three different planners, plus access to the free monthly Office Hours group coaching session, where you'll meet other creative pros who are practicing what I preach and taking control over their business and their life. Find it all in the Marketing Mentor Shop at marketing-mentor.com, and I'll be back soon with more conversations with creative professionals who are doing what it takes to ditch the feast or famine syndrome. Until next time.