“A Good Idea to Spread Good Ideas”

McArthur and Free Range Studios

Free Range Studios offers web design with a conscience. Its founders, who grew up making creative projects together, needed a way to survive using their talents without selling their souls. They realized that big corporations and interest groups have a leg up on smaller competitors largely because they have the money to pay for the right kind of advertising and imaging. Why shouldn’t smaller organizations, grassroots causes, non-profits, and progressive campaigns have access to the same talent? McArthur was hired as Free Range’s first paid employee and has subsequently used her extensive business and creative acumen to help grow Free Range from a two-person start-up to a twenty-five person operation.

What did you do to grow this idea? Where was the funding coming from, what were the initial marketing ideas, and how did you build a team?

I think in some ways we were spoiled, frankly. Versus having a lot of overhead to produce a product, or starting a business where we’d have to hire a lot of folks to get going, we were able to begin producing and selling something: our own services, just with our own time and energy and resources. And so there wasn’t any VC funding. That’s a little bit hard for me to tell other entrepreneurs, because it is a different scenario.

One of the things that gave us the lift-off from it being just two people to getting it in motion was interns. I had come from a program in which everyone was required to have an internship before they could graduate, and so I knew that it was possible to get people who were interested in working. And so as an entrepreneur, if I were trying to grow out a business, and I needed more personnel power, I would not underestimate the power of interns and what they can get accomplished.

The other thing I would really caution – I read a great article recently that talked about how you should make sure you’re profitable at this certain percentage before you actually grow. A lot of Free Range’s growth was very organic and we just kind of kept up with demand, and I think there’s a lot of wisdom in saying, “make sure you’ve got your systems in order, make sure you’re really tight, and then grow out once those things are in shape.” That’s not how we did it. But I think it’s really good advice.

Was there a moment in which you found yourself in too deep, or taking on too much?

All the time. As an entrepreneur, every single moment is kind of beyond your capacity, honestly. I mean, you walk into some of your early meetings and you’re trying to convince people that you have the skills to take something on, and you have to trust your gut that you can do it even though you may have never done it before. And so you’re almost always in too deep. I think to be a successful entrepreneur you have to be a person who likes to learn by experience and learn on the fly. We’d hit a certain glitch and we’d be like, whoa, we don’t have any idea what to do here. So we would read a lot, we’d call up friends, we hired mentors a couple times, hired consultants. That’s the other thing – being an entrepreneur, we tend to want to do everything on our own. One of the things that I’ve really learned along the way is that there’s a lot of value in going and asking for help.

Any of those initial glitches that bear repeating?

A lot of entrepreneurs are classically fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants. And that gets you a long way, but if you actually want to have a functioning, running business, then you need systems. Lots of those glitches come up because those systems aren’t in place, they aren’t clear, they haven’t been communicated. That doesn’t mean that you should be bureaucratic or not able to be nimble, but you can’t underestimate the fact that other people need more guidance, more structure, more information than an entrepreneur needs to function.

And so part of learning to slide from being an entrepreneur to being a business owner is keeping all the strengths of being an entrepreneur – being nimble, being able to make a start up, being able to be innovative – but learning that there’s the balance of saying, “Oh, I need structure, management, communication to staff and employees and customers and whoever else.” It forces you to take yourself out of your own mindset and perspective and strengths, and understand that the world needs you to balance out some of your approach.

The other thing is that you have to trust your gut. There have been a couple of times where I didn’t, and those have been the biggest mistakes I’ve made.

What do you look for as you hire team members?

I look for them to be better than me. As I’ve grown through Free Range, I’ve done almost every job. I’ve done operations and I’ve done project management and I’ve done office management, everything that has to be done. So when I’m going to hire someone to take over for me, I want them to be more skilled than I was. Actually, a piece of advice from David Ogilvy, who was in advertising, I think that’s where it comes from, said that if you hire people bigger than you, you end up with a company of giants. If you hire people smaller than you, you end up with a company of dwarfs.

And I imagine that everyone on the team is clearly on board with the values.

Absolutely. That’s a baseline. At Free Range and at any other company, one of the most important things you can have is company culture. You know, who you are. And so at Free Range we have a really strong identity. This is what it means to be a Free Ranger. If you don’t have the values that the company is espousing, it’s dead in the water. There’s no way someone could survive at Free Range, and I think that’s true of any company.

How are you making sure that the clients have those values too? Are you ever approached by someone and then you say, you know, this is really not for us?

Yeah, absolutely. We screen all the time. And I think that it’s become trickier and trickier because as sustainability has become more mainstream, there’s a lot of green-washing that’s going on, and so we work with non-profits and socially responsible businesses and we want to make sure people are authentic and that has gotten trickier and trickier in the last couple years. We definitely have screened people and said we’re not the best fit here.

In this growing marketplace, where it’s so profitable to be marketing the sustainability side, how are you doing that screening and what kind of goals do you set out as a company dealing with that new market?

It’s hard, frankly. And this is an ongoing discussion that we have at our office, so I do not think we have this figured out. There are a couple of easy screens – if someone is a member of Social Venture Network or B Corp, then there’s a stamp of authenticity, which is great and they’re through the door. But frankly there’s a whole new slew of people who I think are authentically trying to change what they’re up to but either historically don’t have a great track record or they’re a really big company and so really big companies have to move slower than other companies. Wal-Mart has taken huge strides in the environmental world and should be greatly commended, but I still think their employee policies are not great. So it’s really, really hard to dissect this and make sure you’re working for people who have authentic values that are really important, and really important to how we want to use our talents. It’s an ongoing discussion.

How would you define leadership?

I think leadership is having a vision, and being willing to do the hard work it takes to enact that vision and bring others with you, in a compassionate and authentic way.