Jonathan Franchell, CEO and Founder of Ironpaper, talks us through his team’s approach to building up their roster of senior leadership positions. He shares his process for assessing the need for various Director-level candidates, how he balances internal and external candidates, and when he knew it was time to add folks that don’t correlate to billable hours.
Hi, everybody. Welcome to Agency Unfiltered. I'm your host, Kevin Dunn, and Agency Unfiltered is a biweekly web series and podcast that interviews agency owners from around the world about agency operations, growth, and scale. Episodes can be found on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, or wherever it is that you listen to your podcasts. And you can find our videos in full transcripts on agencyunfiltered.com.
Jonathan Franchell, CEO and founder of Ironpaper, joins us to walk us through his team's approach for building out their roster of senior leadership positions. He shares his process for assessing the need for various director level roles, how he balances internal versus external candidates, and when he knew it was finally time to add folks that don't necessarily correlate to billable hours. This is Agency Unfiltered.
KD: Hello, Jonathan. Welcome to Agency Unfiltered remotely. Thanks for dialing in.
JF: Thank you.
KD: Obviously, the trend we've been seeing this season is having folks dialing in. John, I always ask where folks are dialing in from, but I think people would appreciate where you were relocated to first and then where you're dialing in from. Because I think they'll appreciate the, what I took as a dichotomy between two different places.
JF: Yeah, I think COVID has changed a lot of our lives, and it's changed mine quite a bit. I lived in New York for 22 years. I absolutely love New York. I'm still in love with it. But I used this whole era that we're in to make some big moves, both with the company and with my own personal life. I moved from New York to Montana, and now I have my daughter in school here, which is wonderful. I feel very lucky. I'm also able to get out into nature. I've been developing some new hobbies like I've been hiking a lot more. I started cross-country skiing, and I've gone from horrible to pretty bad, and working my way up the ladder.
KD: That's good, yeah. That's an improvement on the scale, I think. And if you're going to do cross-country skiing, Montana feels like the right place for that. Do you—I don't want to go down a rabbit hole. Do you have any dogs? Do you have any pets?
JF: I don't. I love them. I wish I could. I have allergies instead.
KD: I feel like Montana is the perfect place to just let a dog loose.
JF: Oh, and it feels like everybody has them around here. Yeah, it's dog heaven.
KD: I can imagine. But as much as I'd love to talk about Montana, I think we're here to talk about Ironpaper, and specifically about maybe some intention you've put into your org chart, some key hires that you've decided to make recently. And so what I'd love to dig into is Ironpaper's focus on adding more senior or more director-type roles into the organization. And so I have a whole flurry of questions, but maybe the best place to start is why don't you give us the context as to, OK, you are assessing an org chart, you identified this as a need. How did you go about deciding the future for these types of roles your agency?
JF: Yeah. That's a good question. I should probably start with, so I started the company about 17 years ago. And I've experimented with a lot of different business models, and I'm not going to say that one is definitively better than another. I think that's really crucial as a starting point. For what we're trying to accomplish with our clients, and the kind of company. I want to be leading and running, and the value proposition that we're trying to create is this top-heavy model, where we're putting more emphasis on senior leadership has become crucial for us. But I want to be very clear. It's not for every agency out there. And in 17 years you get to make a lot of mistakes, and you get to learn from them. And I that's what's helped us evolve. And I didn't have it all figured out at once. Part of this current model that I've put together has been-- has come from client feedback. It's come from learning how to train and activate team members. And our goal, longer term, is to build a more performance-driven culture. That's our major goal.
So we started—we've always had a director in charge of finance and hiring, and more recently we've invested in having a director in terms of operations, who's now a vice president of operations. But we've been making a lot of inroads is to developing more client-facing senior leadership. And the idea here is that when a client comes and starts working with Ironpaper, they're going to be working with a senior leader, a marketing director, an account director who can help find that balance between strategy and execution, where there's a senior director who's able to roll up their sleeves and play and be hands on in the work. And both strike a balance between strategy execution, but also the short-term and long-term investments in marketing, which are a constant challenge for companies making a decision between the two. We found that by investing more in senior leadership, we've also been able to help support our team growth. I don't feel that bringing in leaders and in building leadership roles in the organization hurts other team members growth paths. And in fact, I think as time goes on, Ironpaper as a whole is becoming more senior over time. We're trying to develop growth paths for every role in the organization. And our directors play a role in training, activation, providing candid feedback for the growth of our team members, helping to identify areas of improvement. But they also critically play a role for our clients, and they act as a catalyst of growth for both sides in our team's growth and our client growths.
KD: I love that. You mentioned growth paths, and I think that's a perfect-- or growth plans career trajectory. I think that segues into my next question perfectly. And as we think about more senior leadership roles, as you identify the needs, is there a preference or an approach between internal candidates or external candidates? Do you think about them both the same? Do you have preferences in trying to fill these roles? How do you approach it from an internal mobility perspective, if you will?
JF: That's a great point. I think both are vital. I think the internal moves have to come first. I mean you have to identify and recognize the team members that you have and their potential. So we see growth as coming from both internal, the team the existing team and how they can grow, as well as external. And sometimes I've talked to team members. I spend a lot of time trying to get feedback from the team. And sometimes I feel like in a lot of organizations, they'll make a hire from the outside and fill in a leadership role, and that deprives someone who's in the team of that chance to grow. And for Ironpaper our mission is to have an all senior team in the future, to have everybody grow, and to evolve our business model to support that. And increasingly, over time, what our clients are benefiting from is they're getting more critical thinking. They're able to gain improved decisiveness, especially in the realm of marketing, which is crucial. With greater seniority, we could have a more holistic understanding of how a business works. And I think one of the things that's done well is the kind of leaders that we've hired are naturally enthusiastic, and they themselves need to grow. They want to learn. One of the central tenets of Ironpaper, for both our clients and our team, is we're learning culture. So if you're going to get a job with our own paper, if you're going to sign up and get on board, you have to be willing to learn. And some of our new team members have even described it as, I joined Ironpaper and I realized it's like drinking from a fire hose. I've learned so much. And that's crucial to us. I love that. And I need that for myself as well.
Going back to the question of internal verses external hiring, I think they work in tandem. And I think it does change the way you grow each role. Senior level leaders, you hire from the outside, you have to ask yourself, well, how well are they going to help in my internal team development? Are they going to provide coaching? Are they going to be able to do skill assessment and do trainings? Are they going to be able to work one on one, and in a group context for their team and provide the support that the team members need to grow? And also there's always a need to identify when someone's ready for their next move. And part of the way I do this is also-- I just create feedback loops. I try to get feedback on how I'm performing, how I can improve, and I also try to make it very comfortable for people to want to get feedback and to desire betterment and self-betterment. So regardless of internal or external candidate, you always have to consider the impact on growth of the full team, and if there's an internal candidate that's truly ready, we wouldn't want to bring in an external candidate that maybe blocks that. But at the same time, you don't want to prematurely put somebody up into a position that they're not quite ready for. So I think that's a fair answer that you do consider both-- in both play a pivotal role here.
KD: One question for you, just a clarifying question, I think it would be helpful for folks to know how big is the team at Ironpaper? I think that'll be helpful to know. And then the follow-up question to that is, you mentioned that a more top-heavy organization wouldn't be a fit for all agencies. What's a good-- is there a thing to consider, or a quick tip, as to know actually this might be better for you or not? Is there a question they should ask or an introspective thing that they should be looking at?
JF: Yeah, that's a great question. I'll start with timing. For us, years ago probably wasn't the right time to start to work towards this more senior in expertise driven culture. We just couldn't afford it first of all. Our cost structure wasn't in place. The kinds of clients we were bringing on, they had a different set of needs. They were very focused on production. They wanted to get things done and quicker. I think today, a lot of our clients are more on the enterprise side, and they're looking for expertise. They're looking for advice. They want recommendations and strategy and insights, not just execution. And better than that, I think we've evolved into a place where execution drives strategy and strategy drives up execution. There's a feedback loop. But earlier, I don't feel like we were ready because one, we didn't have a cash flow in place. You know, again this is coming from a certain finance philosophy that I have. I don't have external funding, I don't have investors who aren't giving us marching orders. We are continuously trying to use our cash flow to reinvest in the organization. And over the last number of years I've been focused on incrementally investing more and more in our client practices, in our services. And so that's been an incremental transition for us over time. And it's ongoing.
KD: Yeah, that makes sense. And then, sorry, just quick clarification. How big is the Ironpaper team?
JF: Oh, yeah. So we're 53 full-time team members. We-- for a long time, pre-COVID, most of those team members were based in New York. I would say we've always-- we've had, probably, the marketing team were the largest, I guess, talent body in the company. But we also have a very large content team now. And so we've been expanding our design team, our content team, as well as the breadth and depths of our skills on the marketing side.
KD: That's great. That's a sizeable team. That's a lot of folks. You talked a little bit about the impact on client experience. Just more senior folks are going to have better business acumen, a more cohesive strategy. I think you mentioned the decision-making ability and the speed, right? So I think those are all great points to make. The other side for more senior leadership positions is-- and I can imagine for depending on the folks listening or tuning in that hiring senior roles that aren't directly correlated to billable hours is a little scary. And so you mentioned that, obviously, I think you have a director of hiring or on-boarding, and there's a director and a financial role. How do you know when it's time to steer away from, this person has to-- this is billable hours first, everything else second. How do you get to a place where you can make those types of hires?
JF: Yeah, so it started on an individual level with everybody in the company. We aren't looking to maximize the productivity of our team. So if a person could work 160 hours a month, or give or take, we're not looking for them to bill out their full capacity. Actually we try to carve out at least 40 hours every month for continual learning. And that was one of our stair steps into being able to work more and more in investing in ourselves. I found that with time, we were like the cobbler's children who have no shoes, and it bothered me. It really bothered me. I mean I always cared about marketing. We had-- we have always generated our own leads. We've always focused on creating great content and on having a presence in search and in marketing for ourselves, but I wanted to really push the boundaries on that and make bigger investments. So yes, having a senior person that leads finance, having a senior person that leads hiring, and it ensures we bring in the right people. Recently, I made a promotion where we have now a vice president of operations, and bringing her on was crucial. We spent most of last year, 2020, investing in improving operations, like improving our workflow management, making sure our teams aren't just going down this path where they're doing more volume, but they're focusing on quality. We've even run experiments where we would cut down the amount of work we would do with certain clients, but instead reinvest those hours back into the work that they are doing, doing less things but at a higher quality, and looking at what is the net effect of that?
KD: Did you get any results on that? What was the net effect?
JF: Yes. It's clear. We're going that direction with all of our clients.
KD: Do fewer things better in a general sense, or at a higher quality?
JF: Yeah, I feel like one of those traps in the world of marketing is this desire to do more stuff, produce more, make more, throw more things at the wall and hope it all sticks. But I think with tools like HubSpot and analytics and the kind of the foundation that you can put in place with marketing, you can get a better sense of what is working and what is not. And that's also propelled our desire to go more senior in the company. More recently, we made a major new move and we hired a dedicated full-time growth director to focus and treat Ironpaper as a client, who looks at how are we doing with marketing and sales and content, which is an essential piece for us. And I felt like-- we didn't-- this wasn't a business decision that I made just one night. One of the things that I tend to do, and I think it has to do with the fact that I've had this company for a very long time, is I look at can I make faster decisions but more incrementally? Rather than just going out and making some big decision, can I test it first? Can I try it in a smaller scale? So what I would do is I would run-- I would take a role, and we have another role called a growth manager where we would devote someone a certain measure of someone's time to working on Ironpaper versus client work, and we would see how that worked out.
KD: Like treat Ironpaper as a client, under there? Yeah.
JF: Yep. Exactly. And so, I was able to pull together a team of people that cared deeply about Ironpaper's growth, and we built a growth team for Ironpaper, just like our own clients. And on our growth team, we were talking about sales, we're talking about marketing concepts, we're talking about content we should be creating, case studies. We're also talking about some of the tests that we're running and practices that we're experimenting with. And more recently, we went to a much bigger level, and we hired a full-time growth director. And so she is hands on in creating content, helping to look at PR, sales. But all of the team members are aligned under a working philosophy and methodology. They're not running off in different directions. Part of when we meet each week, we're talking about direction. What is our North Star? What are we really going after?
KD: I was going to ask, what's the methodology that aligns the team?
JF: Yeah. So part of the-- also benefit of having the company for 17 years is I've been able to try a lot of things with clients. And we've distilled that into our own growth methodology. It's not dogmatic. It's more of a working philosophy to guide the decisions you have to make, day in day out, in marketing. For example, we know that there's so much data available in marketing, yet there can be so much noise. So how do we cut through that clutter? With our teams, we're encouraging them to focus on a single metric-- qualified leads. And also, once you can start to generate a good volume of qualified leads, how can we better understand the needs of those buyers? Go deeper into their problem sets, go deeper into the challenges of their industry, and get to know the buyer on a more fundamental level. That's how we challenge ourselves. And we do this both for Ironpaper, in the context of a growth team, and we also do that with the growth teams of our clients.
KD: It sounds like there's just a general theme here of refinement, right, and spend more time doing fewer things with better performance, whatever that singular KPI might be, et cetera? But I'm sensing a trend here.
JF: Yeah, I mean, I also think I can always do better. I mean I think we've done really well, especially considering what we've had to-- what all of us have had to go through with in 2020 with COVID and the pandemic and all of the chaos that has ensued. But I always feel like I can do better. And it's-- I don't mean it in a way that's always haunting me, but I but I'm trying to encourage that in my teams, also in the company. It's part of our working philosophy.
KD: That's great. Quick question. I don't know if this is a veer, veer off the path here, but you mentioned, I think it was 40 hours or 25% of the time you want to dedicate to development and learning. And so, you're speaking to the choir here. I can't work at HubSpot Academy, unless I agree with that sentiment. Are there any recommendations you have people-- and this isn't a plug. Maybe anything that isn't HubSpot Academy, but is there anything anywhere you point folks or any recommendations you have for folks to check out for up-skilling development, skill development growth, etc?
JF: Yeah, I mean one thing that we do is we do by a lot of physical books. I think it's nice to get away from the screen and just read books. And I would always put that at the top of the list. Even for myself, I spend a lot of time reading newspapers and magazines, and I had this desire to go longer form and go deeper into a subject, and so I'm a big reader. That's probably the number one for me. Number two is, my teams will always talk about how they're hands-on learners, so practicing is a major part of how we grow. We have test instances of different software we use. We will do a lot of in-person trainings in the agency besides sending them and mailing them books. Also yes, we use the HubSpot Academy quite a bit. Certifications have been big. So for a long time, we would require new team members to gain six certifications in their first year through the HubSpot Academy. And now, of course, we are trying to create more diversity in the ways that people learn in the company. For example, now the fact that we've invested more in senior leadership, they're doing more trainings. They're directly involved in coaching. Coaching has been powerful.
KD: Like, they facilitate trainings for the more junior staff?
JF: Yep. Yep. I just got out-- before this call, earlier today, I got out of a training that one of the directors were leading on Google Ads. And it's a great forum for insights. The other thing is inside of Ironpaper, we try to encourage for every team member to be part of strategy, and bring ideas to the table. So you'll have trainings from all coming from all angles in the organization. You'll have growth specialist doing trainings, or digital marketers running trainings. You'll have a lot of coaching and support between team members. There's also support across teams who aren't working on the same clients, where there's a knowledge share between one client and another, and that's been--
KD: Something went well for client A. The team that manages client B should be made privy to a particular strategy tactic?
JF: Exactly. Yeah. And the other thing, I think, is also just analyzing what you didn't do well, and talking openly about it. Not having a fear of failure, but simply talking openly and examining what we could do better. And I think that that's powerful in the world of marketing and in sales. And hopefully that eventually turns failures into smaller things that you can recognize quicker. And they don't become fundamental, but they but they fuel this desire to learn and get better.
KD: That's great. Johnathan, I only have one or two questions. I know we're coming up on time. But just a wrap back on senior leaders and finding senior leaders to join the team. So maybe we'll focus on external candidates that you consider. I don't want to assume, but I can imagine that those roles are going to see fewer candidates coming through it? They're going to be higher-- or harder positions to fill. What do you guys-- do you have anything that you put into place to make sure that you're building a great cohort of candidates? Are there things that you look for that you love to see in resumes? How do you source and hire candidates for their senior positions, again, assuming that they're probably tougher to fill and candidates are probably harder to find for them?
JF: Yeah, we do we talk openly about both the process in which we take the hire and the kinds of questions we ask. We ask a lot of probing and investigative questions when we hire. We put all team members entering the marketing team through a marketing test. And we also have an additional set of questions for leadership that are scenario based. And then those help us kind of create a benchmark, in terms of hard skills, and the ways that a leader would approach a certain type of problem that's common to our clients. We also we have a great hiring director who oversees the hiring process, even though there may be others involved, maybe even spearhead certain conversations with hiring senior leadership. I also found that when I'm doing interviews, I'd like to understand what is triggering that desire for change? And when someone applies to us, what are they seeking? And I'm not trying to treat that question as just another default interview question. I really want to understand it.
I'm finding that one, there are a lot of leaders out there that feel like they're in just so many meetings, they never get anything done that's meaningful. Two, they have such pressure on them, that it almost stymies progress. They want to feel creative again. They want to be able to both be creative and analytical, they don't want to have to choose between the two. And those two things become that part of that feedback loop that I described earlier. So we're both hearing and learning from the candidates that apply in evolving our practice of hiring, while at the same time we're redefining the role that our senior leadership can take in the company. For example, we started to shift and have them play a more concentrated hands-on role with clients. We want to give them time to make sure that they're in the data, in the analytics themselves, not just kind of managing from afar. And that's inspirational to the team. It's also helpful for the team in how they coach the team to grow inside of Ironpaper.
KD: That's great. I think that makes a ton of sense. You mentioned that well, what's the trigger here for change? Is there any-- is there any other question that you find most valuable or insightful in the interview process? What's the golden question that you like to ask?
JF: Gosh, it's funny. We have quite a few golden questions. I think there's a great starting point that I love to begin with, which is, like you mentioned, what is triggering this change for you? What are you actually looking for? And what I'll find is oftentimes the responses I get require follow up. Just getting the initial answer out is OK, but you need to dig into it a bit. And sometimes people will eliminate themselves right away because what they're looking for, they can actually find in their current company.
KD: So why make the change? Why switch gears? If you can fix the problem that exists in your current company, why leave?
JF: But for the most part, a lot of people do-- they want a cultural change. And that's one of the main things that's attracting them to Ironpaper. They want to be part of a team, they want a peer group. They don't want-- they want a peer group that's also a peer group of leaders that can challenge them and push them to become their better self, a stronger marketer, a stronger sales leader. And so that's something that we've had to emphasize to a greater degree in the company. For example, every Tuesday we have a meeting that's dedicated to director-level trainings, where just the directors are sharing tidbits and insights, and I'll lead a training, or another director will. That's the one I came off of today. And those are inspirational. We do this with the teams too.
KD: That's a great point. I think it's just a great rule of thumb, regardless of business or industry. But even your senior leaders need their share of development and growth opportunities as well.
JF: I mean, I do.
KD: Yeah, everyone knows I definitely do, so yeah. You're spot on.
JF: I'm like you. I mean, if I'm not learning and growing, I really feel like it's critical to human happiness. Learning something is so fundamental to being happy in life. And that's become something that I pursue, and it's one of the reasons why I love doing what I do. I get to learn a lot.
KD: Yeah, John that's a pretty good place to wrap. So I only have one final question for you. We end every episode with this question. What would you say is the weirdest part of agency life?
JF: I think it's the fact that there are all these different companies that come to you. These are ecosystems, where there's personalities and culture and challenges and fears and desires. And you have this moment to enter these ecosystems, and get to these remarkable people who are getting up every day and fighting the good fight. And I think what's so strange about it is sometimes you get have to have the opportunity to go into their world and really help them achieve growth and help them achieve their vision. Sometimes it's just a passing conversation. But you get exposed to just so much insight and data, but at the same time it can be like driving 125 miles per hour down the highway. And it's a wonderful experience. It's probably not for everybody. But going back to learning, that's why I do it.
KD: Yeah, you know what? I would say that's a great answer. It's almost like you had it ready. That was perfect. That was a great answer.
JF: I winged it.
KD: As most folks do. But that was a good answer. You know Jonathan, I know we're out of time here. So I really do appreciate you dialing in.
KD: This has been super insightful for me. It's been a great chat, so thanks again for jumping in.
JF: Thank you, Kevin. Appreciate it.
KD: So anyways, for folks tuning in, this has been another episode of Agency Unfiltered.