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Growing with Vision, with Marina Darlow
Episode 131: Growing with Vision, with Marina Darlow
When Marina Darlow, the CEO and Founder of Vision Framework, started working in a male-dominated tech engineering company as an immigrant in the United States, she saw that the office culture was nothing like she expected. So, she took her project management and operations skills into her own business and founded Vision Framework. On this episode, Marina talks about running an online business, how to trust someone when expanding a business, the transition from large companies to start-ups, as well as the emotional side of business. She also shares her tips on how to work remotely and best practices for starting a new business.
00:12 Kristy Wallace : Hello and welcome to the Ellevate Network Podcast. This is your host, Kristy Wallace, with my co-host Maricella Herrera. Hi Maricella, how ya doing today?
00:22 Maricella Herrera: Hey, Kristy. I'm hungry, but other than that, okay.
00:26 KW: Yeah, yeah, I don't know, I've got the end of day funk going on, so I'm trying to will myself into more energy. Gonna make it happen. You just raise your voice really high. It just changes your perspective on everything.
00:46 MH: I've had meetings all day so I feel... And most of them you need to be sort of present and empathic. Is that the way you say it? It's when my brain starts... This is how you know I'm really tired, my English goes away. But, yeah, so I feel a little drained.
01:10 KW: So, what are your thoughts on meetings? And, maybe this is a bad time to ask you 'cause you've just been doing them all day, but what do you think about meetings?
01:18 MH: I have a love-hate relationship with meetings since I was in college because we used to do a lot of group projects and my school was notoriously known for that, team projects. And what ended up happening is you were just always meeting with people and being non-productive. I think they are important if you wanna get on the same page, but I think they should be used wisely. I have a very strong opinion about meetings that are used for updates. You can read an update. You don't need to take an hour of my time to give me an update. But, yeah, I don't know, it depends. I think one-on-one meetings with your teams or with the people that you work with are very important, which is what my day has been like today.
02:08 KW: Well, our guest today, Marina Darlow, I'm sure has some thoughts on that. She is a former big company worker who left that to start her own company advising start-ups and entrepreneurs on how to put into use, easy, and effective, and fun systems that really create businesses from the heart. And, she's got some great insights into best practices for entrepreneurs and building and scaling businesses, which is why I wanted to ask you about meetings, because I think that that's always the Catch-22 for entrepreneurs. You're moving so fast. You need to communicate with your team. You need to be very agile but also in-the-know. But, then it's really important too, to be heads-down, and doing the work, and seeing your vision come to life. So, it's always an interesting balance around that.
03:03 MH: Yeah, it really is a Catch-22, and it goes for everyone. And, especially in scaling companies, I think. Because soon enough you need to actually take a role where it's less about being head-down and doing stuff, and more about giving other people stuff they can do on their own and grow.
03:24 KW: Oh yeah, absolutely. Well, I know that we at Ellevate have been reading a lot of books lately.
03:31 MH: Oh yes, we have.
03:32 KW: As we've been growing our business, we started this little book club around business books which has been great, and exciting, and illuminating. But, what does the Ellevate community think about this? Are they big readers of business books or not?
03:48 MH: Yeah, before I go into the poll, I have to say that when I saw this poll go out, it made me chuckle because I wonder if the person who posted it on our newsletter was trying to tell us something. 'Cause we've been talking about all these books. [laughter]
04:08 MH: Well, the poll says, "Do you read business books to improve your career skills?" 39% of people say, "Occasionally I find some of their insights useful." About a quarter of respondents say they read them all the time, "I find them invaluable." I would be probably in that camp right now, but not always. 14% say, "Not often, I mostly prefer other resources." 9% said, "Only when people recommend them to me." And 2% said, "I've read the classics, but I'm not up-to-date on modern business literature." I feel... It really does depend on where you are, I guess. For me, right now, it's been extremely helpful. I don't know.
04:58 KW: Yeah, I don't know. Well, as I've talked about in the past, I'm a big consumer of fiction for mental relaxation and relief, so I read a good bit. I tend to consume more articles, and papers, and shorter sprints of thought leadership and research, so that fits in more with my lifestyle and the way that I work. Although, if a good book is recommended to me, I will absolutely read it. So, I'd straddle a few of those answers, but I think I'm less of the book, bookie, and that's not the right word. I think I'm less in the voracious reader camp when it comes to business books.
05:48 MH: Yeah, I fluctuate, it depends. I also really like to read fiction, so I mostly try to... Used to do that. It depends on where I am, I guess. Articles are hard for me because I start reading them, and then jump to something else, and then jump to something else, and my ADD just goes all over the place when I start reading an article.
06:10 KW: I save it for travel.
06:13 MH: That's a good one.
06:14 KW: I'm heading out on a flight tomorrow. I've got about 20 tabs open on my computer, so whoever's sitting next to me is gonna get catching up on some good articles. Well, let's get to our podcast and hear what Marina has to say on this. Enjoy the show this week, folks, and we look forward to meeting you back here next week for the Ellevate Podcast.
06:46 KW: So Marina, we are so happy to have you on the Ellevate podcast, today. Particularly, because you just have a really interesting story, not just your personal story, but also your professional mission and what you are doing at Vision Framework. So if you wouldn't mind just sharing a little bit about how you got to where you are today and what you're currently working on.
07:12 Marina Darlow: So I started out as an engineer, an industrial engineer. And fairly, quickly after college, a project manager in a very high-tech male-dominated companies, from one to the other. I'm really comfortable with managing projects. What I was not comfortable with is the office culture, especially after I moved to the States and was a new immigrant and really had to find my footing and missing a lot of cultural references on the way. And at some point, after a few years, and a big burnout and being really frustrated both by being treated as a second-class citizen because I do not program and I'm apparently not a real engineer. And also because many of the jobs I held, I did not feel that they're really doing something truly meaningful.
08:11 MD: I appreciate the place of big corporations. But when you are running an IT project for a marketing department of a big conglomerate, so they have a slightly better program for their marketing, within the associations of a number of big other organizations, your personal impact is very, very... I wouldn't even say small, but it's really removed from the people that get anything from your work. You basically don't get to see your own impact other than on your co-workers. And, about the same time, I was getting really frustrated. I got laid off from my last job, and I started thinking, "What the heck am I going to do with my life, because clearly this is not going anywhere?" The burnout was so a bad. [chuckle] I did 180 degrees turn and went to get an interior design degree, in RISD.
09:04 KW: Oh, my goodness. Talk about using all sides of your brain.
09:10 MD: I'll be honest. I'm not a great designer. [chuckle] I never did really anything with that design degree, it turns out. Because kind of in the middle, I opened my business, and a few things were happening. In parallel, I was working with my mentor, at the time, and she was trying to convince me to start a company. And I was resisting it, because who am I to start a company? And people who run businesses, they're clearly closer to God than I would ever imagine. I know nothing about running a business. It's scary. It's still scary by the way. So for a year, more or less, I did everything I could to completely dismiss the idea that I would ever run my own thing. And then, a friend needed help. Basically, she came up with a very innovative treatment that insurance company's won't pay for. And she had a flood of clients, so she needed to figure out how many clients she could take in, how many hours she's supposed to work, how much money she can charge, she should charge, how much money he's going to make per hour, can she hire people, and so on and so forth, which was very much my territory.
10:23 MD: And I said, "Well, let's sit down, do a spreadsheet, and then you'll just, all you'll have to do is plug in the numbers." And that's what we did. And, this is how the business was born, because I discovered that my ability to do operations is not completely universal. So there are people apparently, whose strong suits lie elsewhere and who either cannot or do not want to deal with figuring out the internal systems of running a business. So, she recommended me to a few of her friends, a couple of her clients, and this is how Vision Framework came to be.
11:03 KW: I love that story for a few reasons. I do believe that so much of the directions we take in life are not super obvious to us at the start of that path. Oftentimes, we're going about life and there's some influence, some conversation, some piece of advice, some opportunity that we hadn't expected that has this impact on our direction. And it comes down to being open enough to listen to that and to see the opportunity in that and to believe in yourself, right? Because your friend said, "Wow you're really good at this," and you believed in that and saw the opportunity there. But it's also back to starting a business and, of course, you are starting your own business, but it's not a one-person game. I mean, we're not all experts in every aspect of starting and running a business. So having that squad, having that team that you can rely on and tap into, to provide the advice and to fill in the spaces that need to be filled in can really have a huge impact in amplifying the pace of growth.
12:14 MD: I cannot emphasize this enough, and I want to actually expand on what you've just said. There is, especially in the beginning, this huge desire to do everything by yourself because frankly you don't have the money to hire people out. And on top of this, this is your business, this is your little baby. Nobody is going to be able to do it the same way that you do. It's especially funny in my case because, hey, I did large scale project management, which means delegation is my bread and butter day in and day out. I'm really, really... That's what I did, delegation protocols, knowing what people should do, manuals, procedures.
12:58 MD: When it came though to my own business, delegating something as basic as a logo. Okay, I'm not a designer. I... Interior design doesn't count. Delegating a logo was a struggle because it's me. It's like, how can I? What, can't I just whip up myself? And I think that for people... I don't know if, especially women, honestly, I think it's universal to internalize the idea that you need to hire some things out, and that in many cases it's money well invested with a great return. To internalize that idea is really, really, really important. I interviewed a while ago, somebody on my podcast, and he had a really good hard number that he goes by. This number may not work for people who are just starting out. But, I like having clear boundaries. He said when I see that it's under $25 an hour, and it's something that could be outsourced, I go for it because I can always make more.
14:12 MD: Now, clearly we're talking about a person who's a serial entrepreneur and on his third or fifth company successful. So, for him it's clearly different, but it's really good to have a specific number in your mind. Saying okay, if it costs less than $5 an hour sometimes [14:30] ____ that's what really happens, and you know what should be done, but not necessarily how it's done. Go ahead and delegate and outsource it. It's a great investment.
14:40 KW: Yeah. What was that transition like for you moving from a large company to starting your own? When we talked to the women in the Ellevate community this is often one of the concerns that may hold them back from starting something new is I know how to work in this big corporate framework, and infrastructure with the resources that that provides and don't know how I'll fit into the start-up mentality.
15:12 MD: It's a great question and I have two answers for you because, in a sense, I had two transitions. When I first started out with the story that I told, it was actually amazingly easy, euphoric, and supportive. I was part of a small but very tight knit community where people once they decided that they trust me. I barely needed to do any marketing to get clients in the door. And people were really there for me, people would be willing to help me to get my help to just hang out, to share their emotional journey. And that was five months of pure elation. So that was great. Again to your point, having a community that's there with you of other entrepreneurs, really, really made it pretty... I can't even stay positive because it was almost enlightening experience. And then five months after I started my business, maybe six or seven 'cause five months I remember that five months mark I had a full practice, I found myself at capacity and it was unbelievable. And then we moved. We moved from a fairly small town where it was all about word-of-mouth, and networking events and you go to five networking events and 80% of the faces look familiar. We moved an hour north to a city, a city that's dominated by either big corporation or small high-tech start-ups. Neither of them are my people. I left both worlds pretty intentionally, and then it was really hard.
17:00 MD: It was isolating, it was depressing. You go to the networking events and nobody cares what you have to say and frankly you don't care what they have to say either, you're not inspired by their companies, their businesses, their mission. They're just not your people, they just don't speak the same language in a sense. And your people... I commuted for a while with my clients that stayed in Long island. But that's it. You can't really not for a long time. So it was a pretty hard year where my business more or less crashed and I was kind of thinking maybe I should take it all online. And my mentor at the time was really against it. She was like, "No, you will need to reach out for more people. You don't know anything about online business." And on top of that, I honestly believed that I have to physically be in the same room with my clients because... And it's a whole other topic. But, doing systems is really emotional, especially when you hire somebody to help you with system for your small business, you don't do it just because you think it's nice to have you do it because you reach a crisis.
18:14 MD: You really need to fix something. And systems touch upon really core subjects. You figure out that you don't have enough money, and you figure out that you took on more than you could chew, you suddenly see that the hobby that keeps you sane, you actually don't have any time for it right now if you keep your current business model or you don't raise your prices of god knows what else. So for me, the engagement with a client is very much about holding stasis, it's not just about the technical aspects of, "This is this spreadsheet and this is what we should do with that. This is the program, this is the plan, and this is how you follow it." There is a huge emotional side, and I didn't want to do it over the internet but it didn't work any other way. So it was sink or swim, and I gradually started bringing my business online, and that's what I do today. So most of my clients are now remote. I happened to have a couple around here, but it truly happened by accident, they just... They found me through other people, and they just happened to live 20 minutes from me. But yeah, that's what I do now. I work with people one-on-one, sometimes I run courses in groups and all of this is happening virtually.
19:37 KW: I know at Ellevate, we have numerous team members that work remotely. What are some great ways to create rapport and relationships in this virtual environment?
19:47 MD: Well, you're asking me to describe something that happens on a very intuitive level for me, so I'll try to put it in words. First of all, I find that in most cases, having a video really helps because you get the cues and you really connect on a deeper level, you see the other person expressions, you see how they move, you get a cue from their body language and obviously, it goes both directions. I think when it comes to working with anybody, I was about to say with team or with clients, but actually it's true for everybody. The expectations have to be crystal clear. So if you have a client meeting, it's not a bad idea to send a quick email word, "We're going to talk about this, this and this today." And then when you wrap up the meeting, send another message saying, "This is what we did today, one, two, three, four. This is your homework, this is my homework, this is what we're going to do next meeting." And keep it short, because otherwise it becomes tedious and annoying for everybody.
20:57 MD: I also think that, honestly, on a deeper level so what if it's virtual? If you behave the same way that you would while you're in the same room, you talk to the same person, you listen the same way, you are your own self. Nowadays are current quality of the tech basically. So what if they're in Dubai, still same person, it's still... They're still bringing to the table the same thing that they would if you were in the same conference room. So I guess that the tip would be don't put the fact that it's virtual, be meaningful to you, just you know... Yes, probably invest in good tech, and good camera, and good microphone and a decent computer. But other than that, it's really just as you were to behave with the same person if she were just sit next to you.
21:57 KW: Great. Thank you for that. So you've worked with a number of clients who are starting new businesses. How would one go about determining what systems need to be in place, what are some of the common mistakes you've seen, what are some of the best practices?
22:13 MD: Oh, this is one of my favorites. Also because I have a PDF and actually a free class that outlines exactly, how do you know where you should start? So first of all, there are a few main aspects of the business where you absolutely need a system and by system I don't necessarily mean a complex support, but a process that you go through. There are a few aspects of any business where systems are absolutely non-negotiable. It's money, because if you... First of all, it's very prone to mistakes, so if you don't have a system, you'll be bleeding money. And secondly, it's a highly, highly charged subject, as you of all people probably live and breathe. And when emotions are involved, it's much easier to deal with the subject matter if you have a system for it. It's kinda like it helps you detach some of the emotions, it helps you navigate them better. So for example, instead of agonizing over every invoice because you don't want to confront the person, you don't feel comfortable asking for money, you're afraid of rejection, and thinking maybe they won't pay you and you procrastinate and then you only sent half the invoice and that's actually a real story.
23:44 MD: I'd interned for a company like a small company, when I still thought I was going to be a designer. When if you didn't send an invoice once a month. And you missed it, you wouldn't like... You Wouldn't get paid, because they felt uncomfortable asking for more money once every two months. So if instead of that, you have a very clear systems, the system may be automated that just sends invoices for you, or you have a process that you go through with defined expectations, defined pricing, formal, you just click a few buttons, that removes the emotion, that removes the possible thought of self-worth, of confrontation, of rejection. You're just going through the steps you went through before. So money, you need the system there, not just for invoices, for everything money-related. You need a system to manage your time, and by that, it spans the whole scope from setting goals, planning long-term, breaking it down to mid-term to daily actions through the smallest rituals for transitioning from task to task. So you need a system to do that. If you have a team, that becomes 10 times more important because now you're managing the time, to a degree of course, for your team members, making sure the project is being executed.
25:12 MD: So you need a system to manage time. Communications, obviously, and not just for people with teams because you communicate with your clients, you communicate with your joint venture partners, you may communicate with your vendors, you may communicate with investors. You need a system to navigate these communications and make sure the information flows from you and goes to you. Basic things like email, making sure that your inbox is not flooded that you can find your way throughout your inbox, making sure that things have filed correctly, making sure that your brilliant ideas get communicated to the right people and don't necessarily stay in your brain. Like for instance, I have a client, a brilliantly creative person, and she has a team and I work with all of them now, they all come to meetings. And one of her team members says, "It's great, but the problem is that half of her ideas stay in her brain," and then in a sense, she's frustrated that things are not being done, and all these ideas go to waste.
26:22 MD: So you need a system to communicate your ideas, and then of course, and that's a sub-system to decide which ideas get priority. So we talked about money, and we talked about time, we talked about communications. And the fourth major part of business that I would highly, highly, highly recommend to have a system for is sales. Now, you could say that essentially it's an intersection of systems for money and systems for communications because... And you'll be right. But sales, as a topic, first of all, that's the life blood of the business. You don't sell, you don't have a business. But also, maybe it's because I work with hard-centric businesses, but this such a touchy subject for myself. When I just started out, and I was part of a, I guess, business accelerator of sorts, this mentorship program. And we're sitting in a room with about a dozen other women in my situation, and we were practicing our sales conversation. [chuckle]
27:34 MD: And the person next to me, it was my turn to start the sales conversation, she looks at me, she says, "Marina, please don't have a panic attack." I would guess that my experience is not unique. Now, clearly, I was just starting out, I was really worried, but this is to illustrate that sales can be, again highly, highly emotionally charged. So having a system for making a sale, for charging for a sale, for analyzing the sales afterwards is absolutely essential to make sure your business stays afloat. So this is where these four aspects: Time, money, communications, and sales is where you have to have a system. This is absolutely essential. There are others, but these four need to be in place. And to your questions where to start because, hey, there are so many systems to have, I would say start where it hurts the most. Start where you feel that it really tugs at you.
28:38 MD: And I want you to, I guess, unpack. What do I mean by it hurts the most? If something brings up feelings of avoidance, or resentment, or fear, which is an underlying element of both, frankly, this is where you start. If your most dreaded piece is scheduling a calendar, start there, either by yourself or get help. If you hate dealing with money and you've never operated a budget, and that is like a tearing cognitive for you made for genius people that are not you, start there. Because the places where you struggle the most, these are the places where you need assistant the most.
29:29 KW: That's so spot on. And I can see that. It's one of those things where you, and at least for me personally, when I have a number of tasks to do in a given day or a week, I always tackle the ones I like doing or the easier ones, and you keep putting off the ones you struggle with. So when you recognize that and you tap into systems and resources that can help you overcome that, it can be a powerful way to move forward. Wanted to end with a quick question, 'cause we love talking about role models here, who are your business role models?
30:08 MD: As I said before, I don't know if that entered the interview, I really look up to Sallie Krawcheck. I think she's doing something incredible, and she's doing it with such grace and power. She's so convincing, and she's also so incredibly freaking accomplished that I would say she's one of my role models. [chuckle] I promise I'm not kissing up, I really mean it. Just to emphasize my point, Sally is really up there. I maybe one day do something remotely similar. I look at her for inspiration.
30:50 MD: Then there are other business role models who are kind of closer to my level, which is very small business, and one of them is Naomi Dunford from IttyBiz. She... Everything I know about online marketing I learned from her, and she does it in such an authentic way that it truly resonates. There is another woman, Margo Aaron, I'd recently discovered, a medium, of all places, and I love her writing for the bravery and the no-nonsense. Because essentially... Oh. Her thing is like stripping the glamor and the glitz from marketing and small business because I think there's too much about it, especially in the online entrepreneurship world and the business coaching industries, like, "I made six figures in six months and you can, too." Just get out of my face. So Margo Aaron, I really, really like reading. And another also fairly recently role model that I follow, his name is Jason Cromwell and he has such heart-felt on-point approaches and practical advice for keeping the sanity and keeping and achieving, moving towards happiness while you're an entrepreneur that, he had one of these things that you turn to in your dark moments when you think that things are not going well, when you feel isolated, when you want to read that there is hope. So I like to see what he does.
32:42 MD: For instance, he's a serial entrepreneur and he decided that his business model... He was a life coach for a while and a speaker. He decided that despite his vast success, what his client really need is a mental health professional and he is not a qualified therapist. So he is now just packing his business, moving out of it, and he's going for school for counseling. And that's very telling because he's essentially given away a very successful venture because he thinks that's the right thing to do.
33:21 KW: Yeah, follow your heart. That's powerful. Well, thank you so much for joining us today on the Ellevate Podcast. It was fantastic to talk to you, Marina, and really appreciate all of the great insights and advice that you've shared with our community.
33:37 MD: Thank you so much for having me.
33:41 KW: Thanks so much for listening to Ellevate. If you like what you hear, help a girl out, subscribe to the Ellevate Podcast on iTunes, give us five stars, and share your review.
33:52 KW: Also, don't forget to follow us on Twitter @ellevatentwk, that's Ellevate Network, and become a member. You can learn all about membership and all the great things that Ellevate Network is doing at our website, www.EllevateNetwork.com, that's E-L-L-E-V-A-T-E Network dot com.
34:13 KW: And special thanks to our producer Katharine Heller, she rocks, and to our voice-over artist, Rachel Griesinger. Thanks so much, and join us next week.