Amy Balliett is co-founder and Chief Swiss Army Knife at Seattle graphic design firm Killer Infographics. Balliett has been using digital media to grow her own companies since she was 17, when she took on ownership of a combined arcade, ice cream parlor and penny candy store near her hometown. She subsequently built a successful career in SEO and marketing before teaming up with Nick Grant in 2010. In the four years since Killer Infographics was founded, the company has designed more than 3,000 infographics, motion graphics, and interactive graphics for 250+ clients around the globe, including Microsoft, Boeing, Adobe, Nikon, Starbucks and the United Nations. Today, Killer Infographics is an industry leader in graphic design and data visualization.
How has your life experience made you the leader you are today?
I lucked out in life. I was the youngest of three and raised by amazing parents who are both entrepreneurs. My mom owned her own fabric store for the first 16 years of my life while my dad sold hydraulics for a leading firm in Ohio. Now my dad owns his own hydraulic company and my mom works with him. My brother and sister always looked out for me and challenged me constantly. Always trying to keep up with them was what helped me grow up faster and take on more responsibilities earlier in life. The support they all gave me made it easy to conquer obstacles, but it also made me want to support those around me. In my opinion, a good leader is someone who supports others as they grow and accomplish their goals, and I had four amazing individuals exemplifying that for me on a daily basis.
How has your previous employment experience aided your tenure at Killer Infographics?
There are so many ways to answer this, but I'll focus on what has helped me grow Killer Infographics. Over the years, I've done what most millennials do: changed careers every few years. Prior to college, I was the owner/operator of a penny candy store and ice cream parlor in the middle of a summer vacation resort. I learned a lot about running a small business, including hiring employees, running payroll and keeping inventory.
I went to film school and started my post-college career in the "film industry." I'm using quotation marks because my "film industry" jobs included market research on movie trailers and editing videos for mobile devices (this was before the iPhone ever existed). In my job as a video editor, I learned how to use Adobe Photoshop and Adobe Illustrator for the first time. From there, I completely switched my focus to SEO. I learned all about online marketing and web development as I grew in that career.
I used every one of these skills, from business management to design editing to SEO, to give Killer Infographics a successful start. I even designed our first infographics -- though, luckily, we hired professionally trained designers shortly after that, since knowing how to use Adobe Illustrator does not make me a designer. I managed our designers, edited their work, animated our first motion graphics, built every version of our website, and managed our SEO. I now have a team that's far more talented than I am at doing all of these things, but it's nice to know that I'm still able to jump in and do any of the tasks in the company when anyone needs help.
What have the highlights and challenges been during your tenure at Killer Infographics?
I think the biggest challenge has always been the fact that we are self-funded. My business partner and I started the company with just a $750 investment and have grown off of revenue ever since. While it's great to be in complete control of the company and debt-free, it has meant that we've had to grow slowly and wear many hats along the way. At the same time, this has forced us to be very careful about all of our hires, so we've been able to create an amazing team as a result.
And that's the biggest highlight: the team. My team inspires me every day. There isn't a challenge they won't attack head on. We've had a lot to celebrate over the past few years as we've grown, and the team takes great ownership of our future.
What advice can you offer to women who want to start their own business?
Focus on yourself first and your business second. It's extremely easy to let your business engulf you, and I can promise that I've done this many times in the past four years. But if you're constantly giving your time and energy to your business, you will eventually burn out, and if a leader is too tired or sick to lead, how can the company survive?
When I finally realized that overworking myself was actually counterproductive to the company's success, I changed my tune and decided to put myself before my company. This meant making it clear that my spouse and family were my No. 1 priority because they fuel me both emotionally and spiritually. My second-largest priority is my physical health, so I decided to start every day with a workout before looking at email. My company now comes third in line after the areas of my life that keep me healthy and happy.
In making these changes, I've been able to tackle problems at work more efficiently and have been able to be more present in the moment when I'm outside the office. The result is that I'm able to lead my team with a clear mind and accomplish tasks with more success.
What is the most important lesson you've learned in your career to date?
Delegate. When you own a business, it's very easy to think that you can do it all. Maybe you're trying to save money so you choose to do the work of three people and never sleep. Maybe your idea is so amazing that you don't want anyone to know about it, so you overwork yourself to protect that idea. Or maybe you have a great team, but you like to micromanage everything until you end up just doing the work yourself.
As Killer Infographics has grown, I've used all three of those reasons as an excuse to stay in control of the work and have been lucky enough to learn that none of these are good reasons to overwork yourself. By trying to take on everything, I became a bottleneck for my company, which can actually restrict company growth.
With each year, I've learned to delegate more and more, but 2014 was the true test, when we promoted five long-time employees into executive positions. It was scary at first, because I was giving them so much control over the company. But within weeks they shifted my fears into excitement by bringing fresh perspectives and a new vision that I could never have imagined on my own.
Through their hard work, we've grown the company considerably by rebranding to showcase our full-service agency offerings, changing our process to better serve our Fortune-500 clients, and molding our team to meet new demands. I could not have done any of this alone and now wish I would have been delegating this whole time!
How do you maintain a work/life balance?
It took me a few years to even consider improving my work/life balance, which I'd imagine is true of most founders, especially in self-funded companies. One way I've created (and now maintain) a work/life balance is through delegating my responsibilities. Beyond that, though, I have set some key rules for myself:
Work out in the morning, not at night: I wake up at 5:30 every morning to ensure I get in my workout before coming to the office. It's too easy to find reasons to avoid exercise after 5 p.m., and most of the time those reasons (like a last-minute client need) are legitimate and important to my business, so they can't be ignored. I've found that I need to work out an hour every day to keep my stress down and ensure I sleep through the night. This also helps me roll with the punches better at work.
Eat right: During my first two years running Killer Infographics, my diet was all over the place. This lead to health problems, which impacted my ability to get work done in a timely manner. I shifted my focus to a healthy diet, which keeps me focused and lowers my stress.
Treasure the weekend: I do the best I can to keep my computer off during the weekend -- at least on Saturdays. Some quarters this is harder than others, but it's important to take time away from work whenever you can.
Set an alarm to leave work: I have an alarm that goes off at 5:15 every day telling me to leave work. Sometimes I cheat and ignore it, but I try to stick to it as much as possible.
Put family first: No matter what, family should always come first. My business partner and I agreed to this from the beginning, and we make that clear with our employees.
What do you think is the biggest issue for women in the workplace?
Less than 10 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs are women. In other words, we're still a rare breed in the business world and I've witnessed the impact of this firsthand. At networking events, my business partner and I often find that people defer to him rather than me in conversations, even if he is looking at his phone versus being an active participant in the conversation. When we first started the business, we also encountered it several times in client meetings. I would be pitching a client, and rather than ask me a follow-up question, the client would often look to my business partner for the answer instead.
While I don't think this was ever intentional, I do think there is a subconscious skepticism toward women in networking or negotiating positions. Prepare yourself for these subconscious responses and find a way to use them in your favor. Since some people still don't expect women to be in any positions of power, they won't be prepared for the power that you can wield.
In addition, this lower expectation of women in the workforce creates an opportunity for other women to connect. For example, I've grown strong relationships with many of my female clients because we have a common experience that binds us. We often build a strong respect and trust for one another, and share a desire to work together toward mutual success. While these are the partnerships I work to forge with all of my clients, I've found that it comes quite naturally when there is common ground like this to draw from.
Which other female leaders do you admire and why?
Is it weird to say my mom? It's honestly true though. My mom grew her company from the basement of our house to a 2000 square foot store with multiple employees, all while raising 3 children. She was the epitome of someone who could do it all, and I was incredibly lucky to have her as a mentor in my life.
What do you want Killer Infographics to accomplish in the next year?
2014 was an investment year for Killer Infographics. We grew our team, adopted a new leadership structure, rebranded to showcase our broader services, and improved our process to ensure higher levels of quality for our growing client base.
These changes have helped us lay a strong foundation to hit the ground running in 2015. We are already working on some amazing projects combining motion graphics with interactive content and data viz. We have evolved beyond a niche focus on static infographics into a full visual communications agency, which allows us to develop and execute multimedia visual campaigns for our clients that include branding, interactive development, brochure design, infographics, motion graphics and more. We expect 2015 to be a great year of diving into large projects that help our clients grow their brands and increase audience engagement.
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