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How to Transition from Solopreneur to CEO of a Multi-Million Dollar Agency with Sandy Marsico

photo of Sandy Marsico, WOMXNAIRE for Episode 4

SANDY MARSICO

FOUNDER, SANDSTORM DESIGN

“Every loss means you're one step closer to a win.”

KEY TAKEAWAYS

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  • Even women who are running multi-million dollar companies question themselves

  • The importance of surrounding yourself with other growth-minded entrepreneurs in peer-advisory groups.
  • How life-changing it can be when you share your challenges with a group of people who are there to provide you feedback, for both personal and business.
  • Set a goal that drives you – like Sandy did when she committed to being in “the top 4%”.
  • $0 to $1MM is the hardest climb, but once you hit $1MM things don't get easier, they're just different challenges.
  • Don't give up. “Every loss means you're one step closer to a win.”

IN THIS EPISODE

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5:52 – How she got started at age 24 with no clients and no network
8:37 – How she went from solopreneur to CEO
13:22 – The practice of processing issues
15:56 – Her personal challenge as a CEO and a mom + the advice from her peer group
17:21 – The biggest challenge she had to overcome
23:22 – Her biggest piece of advice for women entrepreneurs

SHOW NOTES

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THE POWERFUL PARTNERS FORUM

What we create together is more than we could ever create on our own.

LET ME BUILD YOU A PEER ADVISORY GROUP OF AMBITIOUS WOMXN ENTREPRENEURS, WHO WILL BECOME THE FOUNDATION TO HELP YOUR BUSINESS GROW.

CLICK HERE to apply today

TRANSCRIPT

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Megan Wessels 0:00

Welcome to a WOMXNAIR episode for today you're going to hear from Sandy Marsico, she is going to share the two key things that took her from solopreneur to CEO of a multi million dollar company. She's also going to share some of the limiting beliefs that she's had as an entrepreneur because I know we can all resonate with that. So enjoy

SANDY MARSICO! Thank you so much for being here. As part of the WOMXNAIRE interviews you and I met a few years ago at a luncheon here in Chicago, we both do a lot of networking. We've stayed connected since and I'm so grateful that you have agreed to be a part of this. I'm really excited for you to share with our viewers the knowledge that you've gained throughout these What is it 20 years of owning a business?

Sandy Marsico 1:03

It has! I officially was 21 last year, so I'm finally legal.

Megan Wessels 1:07

Oh my gosh, and you started your business in your 20s. Right?

Sandy Marsico 1:10

I did. I was 24 years old. When I call my parents told him I was gonna quit my job and start this company called Sandstorm.

Megan Wessels 1:16

Tell me a little bit about that experience getting started. You were a solopreneur at the time. First of all, why did you decide to go out on your own?

Sandy Marsico 1:24

I really wanted to work for a small boutique agency, just a handful of people. And after months and months of trying to apply at the small agencies, I realized very quickly that it was a lot of who you know. And I was only 24. So I didn't really have a big network and small agencies with just a handful of people. They're not hiring all the time. So it's really hard, right when it's a small company, and you want to work in a small company to find a small company to work for. So after about six months, I threw up my hands and said fine, I'll just build it myself.

Megan Wessels 1:55

Your father was an entrepreneur, do you feel like that gave you some courage?

Sandy Marsico 1:59

Absolutely. When I was a kid, and my brother and I would be at the dinner table, my dad used to make us repeat, I am a leader. I am not a follower. That is both how my brother and I grew up. And he always used to say you don't want to work for somebody, you want to work for yourself. In the beginning, I was like you are crazy. It is way easier to work for somebody else. But here I am. I'm 24. And I bought a book on how to start a business. And both my parents were crazy, supportive, like emotionally supportive, being like, hey, if it doesn't work out, you can always come back home, if it doesn't work out, you can always go get a job, just their belief in that I could do virtually anything. That support was invaluable. I mean, they even supported me in college, I went to college to be an art major, I was a painter, they didn't worry at all like or they didn't give me the impression that they worried at all about me. Just do what you love, like learn how to learn. And I say those same things to my kids today. Learn how to learn. That's really what school is about, not necessarily what you learn.

Megan Wessels 3:01

That's true. I never thought about that. There's not much I learned in college that I actually apply. But it was more of like that knowledge you gain I do think about some of the experiences.

Sandy Marsico 3:11

The business I have today didn't exist when I was in college you couldn't possibly do or build or sell what I do today, so I run a digital creative agency. When I went to college, you weren't building these large scale e commerce websites or these web applications. You weren't doing user experience research and usability testing. So even in college, I couldn't have learned what I needed to learn for this business. So I ultimately went back to grad school, and got my master's in marketing. And even then I learned traditional marketing tactics, but it wasn't like they were really teaching the digital that you need to know today.

Megan Wessels 3:47

Tell us a little bit about your company, Sandstorm, what is it that you do for your customers right now?

Sandy Marsico 3:52

We help brands understand what is really important to their customer. So we start almost every project with that in depth user research, to understand where the whitespace opportunities are, understand how they can connect with them how they can create engagement, particularly in the digital space. So a lot of what the outcome is of that research. It could be action items on how to improve your website, maybe we're building on a new website, maybe we're building out a new brand strategy platform, so that we're working on that messaging so that you can meet your customers where they're at, you're no longer guessing about it. We're taking and reducing all the subjectivity out of the creative process. If you really can pull that insight about your customer and what it is that they really care about. Then we can design the messaging, the marketing, we can meet them where they're at, we can build the tools that they're looking for, that's built for them, essentially by them.

Megan Wessels 4:48

That is so important because there's so much messaging out there and so many companies trying to get your attention now for you to provide that for a business so that they can speak directly to the customer and stand out amongst all the other noise.

Sandy Marsico 5:03

Well, and we've done over 3400 hours of in depth user research, understanding human behavior. So when we work with a new client, we get the build off of 1000s of hours of insights that we already know, because humans are so much more similar than we are different. And that's what's most fascinating about it. If I'm running a usability study, I only need five to six, that is correct five to six users, from a particular user group to identify 80% of the issues.

Megan Wessels 5:34

Wow, I love it. It's kind of psychology too. So interesting.

Sandy Marsico 5:37

It is, it's a mix of like anthropology and psychology and marketing, all kind of rolled up into one, I absolutely love what I do.

Megan Wessels 5:44

So you started your company and your 20s were you doing then what you're doing now walk me through how that shifted throughout the years.

Sandy Marsico 5:52

So when I first started, right, very much like any kind of solopreneur I originally thought, okay, my business model is going to be I'm going to be the go to Freelancer for all these cool agencies, when they have extra work, they're gonna, you know, pawn it off. To me, that was my plan that lasted six months. And I say it lasted six months, because I got a couple agency clients right away. And what I learned very quickly, is that I didn't have control at all. Right, the agency had all the control. And what I mean by that is control of the relationship of what was coming next. So I was kind of at their mercy, if they had a project, I got it. If they didn't, they didn't, and I couldn't really see forward too well. So I made a decision within those first six months, that I need to get my own clients. So I can control that relationship, know where the work is coming know if I can find additional work. And I share that today. Because there's so many entrepreneurs, they think like, oh, there's this great big business plan when you get to a certain level and that that CEO had it all figured out on day one. I didn't. I had a vision. I had an idea. I thought I was going to be this Freelancer I saw really quickly. That kind of sucks. I should probably go direct. And then the big question was, how do I find clients? Because I'm 24. I have no network. My parents don't really have a network because my dad's business has nothing to do with my business. Right? He was in manufacturing and distribution of golf supplies, I don't even golf. And so what do I got to do? And I read an article that said the difference between sales and marketing sales, you pick up the phone and call them marketing, they call you. I was like, okay, it works for me. I want people to call me. And when I first started, not only was I a freelancer, but I was doing design, huge avid reader. So I bought a book on how to start a business. I bought a book on HTML, I bought a book on CSS, right? I bought a book on marketing, I used to do everything, I would sell the work, I would write the work, I would design the work, I would develop the work, right, I produce it, I manage it, just like a lot of people when they start. If it was something I didn't know, I just bought yet another book, and just read the book and did what the book said.

Megan Wessels 8:08

It didn't have to be perfect when you first started. You had an idea, then you researched it, you figured out how to do it yourself. But you have scaled your business to multi seven figures. What were some of the steps it took to get there? Because you went from solopreneur to you have what is it? How many employees now?

Sandy Marsico 8:26

40.

Megan Wessels 8:27

Wow, that is incredible. What were like the steps that it took to get there, especially when you're on your own and you're hiring your first employee. I mean, that's kind of scary, isn't it?

Sandy Marsico 8:37

Oh, there's so much. For me personally, the hardest trip was from zero to 1 million, right? Because there's so much change on that path up to 1 million and so much that you as an entrepreneur, need to learn to be able to get there. At least that was my experience. And there's two fundamental things that I believe took me from being a solopreneur to an entrepreneur running now a multimillion dollar agency. And the first one was, remember I talked about the sales and marketing. It was search engine optimization. I taught myself search engine optimization. I do not remember sleeping, I spent a weekend building a new website re optimizing it thinking I wonder if this will work. And I launch on a Sunday night, I finally go to bed I wake up Monday morning and I get my first lead and it was Careerbuilder. And I was like, “Oh my God, this works!” Right? So then the next couple weeks, I don't remember sleeping at all. Because I was like this totally works. So not only did we then we got the RFP and I filled it out, we won the we won the business. We ended up keeping them for over 10 years, millions of dollars in revenue over the course of the year. All through search engine optimization. That is what actually made the connection for me on how I was able to grow the business because on the web, you are Your website kind of looks like you are. So I built something that made us look bigger than we were at that time. And I started attracting leads in search engine optimization is one avenue that we still win business from. So that's how we won all state. That's how we won Dell. We win big brands, they're still going on Google, looking for agencies and looking for partners. But that's how I started monumental thing. One, you need to get some customers.

Megan Wessels 10:28

Yeah.

Sandy Marsico 10:29

But that doesn't really mean that you're actually going to grow a scalable business. The second by far game changing thing I did. I'm a huge believer in peer advisory groups, I joined Vistage, my only challenge with Vistage was that it was very male dominated. And I was one of the only females in the group and I happened to be pregnant at the time. And just really felt like I needed some perspective that wasn't just male. So then I joined WTO, which is the women's presidents organization. I've been a member of WTO ever since. And I'm also on the board of the WTO. Now, that's how much I believe in your advisory groups. Now both Vistage and WTO, you have to be up to that like million dollar mark to get into those programs. So I love I love learning. I'm a lifelong learner, one of our core values is to be curious, we hire spongy people that love to learn as well. And that's been by far the greatest thing I've ever, ever done as a CEO is to be a part of a peer advisory group.

Megan Wessels 11:30

Thank you, I could not agree more. As you know, I started the Powerful Partners Forum. The revenue bar to get into organizations like Vistage and EO and WPO… it's pretty high. And there are a lot of women who have not reached that level yet. And that's why it's such a boys club, I wanted to create something that does not have a revenue bar that women have to reach. My real ideal audience is what you were talking about, it's that zero to a million, because that is a really big jump. I mean, I'm going through it right now myself. And I can tell you being a part of my own Powerful Partners Forum was a game changer, especially last year, during a pandemic. We came together and really held that space for each other to go through these emotional things and to grow our business, learning so much from each other. And I will say one of the things that I love about it, I'm very competitive, I'm guessing you are too. So having these other women and seeing what they're accomplishing what they're up to. And it's like, oh my gosh, it really makes you want to be on your own game, because you're watching what they're achieving, then learning from what they're going through, as well as learning through my own experiences and sharing that with other women. You talked about processing issues. Can you explain a little bit about what that is and why it's so important for entrepreneurs to be a part of something like that?

Sandy Marsico 12:51

Absolutely. And I'll take it a step further. Not only do I believe in processing issues with, let's say, a CEO cohort, but I brought that exact same practice to my executive team. And we do a level 10 meeting every Monday morning. And we have a process that we go through. And we added extra time to our morning meetings every week to process issues, because the whole concept is that more minds are better than one.

Megan Wessels 13:21

Yep.

Sandy Marsico 13:22

Right? More ideas are better than one. It's twofold. Not only do you get all the good brains in the room, but you also are building that camaraderie that together we can solve anything. How we process an issue is it starts with like a clear, concise, one sentence. And it usually starts with “the issue is…” because you want everybody around the table or everyone on the zoom color in the room to understand what's the point like what what's the issue, and then we go into some details, then we go into here's help I'd like from the group. So we kind of identify. And like I said, the group could be your fellow CEOs or the group could be your executive team. Here's the help that I need. And then here's where I'm leaning, I'll even share like this is kind of what I'm thinking, here's all my options. And this is what I'm leaning towards. And then the group gets to ask questions. No one gets advice yet, but they get to go around and ask questions. And we do one question per person. And we keep going around the room until there's no more questions left. And then the advice comes, and then you kind of get the advice. And then if it was me, that's processing the issue at the end, I'll then share this is what I heard. And this is what I'm going to do, because it's going to be expected that I have to report on it the next time we meet and I will. So it's an accountability chain. It's a clarity process, right? So it helps you as the entrepreneur really identify the issue, really focus on the details that matter and then process a solution.

Megan Wessels 14:43

Yeah, and we do that in the Powerful Partners Forum too, it is THE most impactful part of every meeting. Actually, it's the largest part of every meeting is that time to process the issue. So we call it “challenges”. I don't know I had a little bit of an issue with the word “issue.” The book “Think And Grow Rich” by Napoleon Hill, there was an entire chapter in that book about the power of the mastermind. The way he described it is you have one battery, you get a certain amount of power from one battery, you bring multiple batteries together, that is actually what powers this toy or this machine, it won't run on just one battery.

Sandy Marsico 15:18

Part of being an entrepreneur and choosing this different path is it's really lonely.

Megan Wessels 15:23

Yeah.

Sandy Marsico 15:23

And over the years, my entire circle now, like almost everybody that I know where I hang out with, or I talked to, or I text, we all run companies.

Megan Wessels 15:32

That's what I love about the Powerful Partners Forum and other peer advisory groups. If you are having a personal challenge, it's a safe space for you to talk about that with other people who want to help you out. They want you to be successful in your personal life and your business.

Sandy Marsico 15:48

Personal can impact business. And I, I'll share one if you want to hear a personal issue that I had brought up.

Megan Wessels 15:55

Yeah

Sandy Marsico 15:56

I had two young kids. And I was struggling a little bit with the life choice that I made to be an entrepreneur and to run a growing company. And we're growing really fast. Because there's parts of you that think, Oh, I kind of thought I was gonna be a stay at home mom. But I'm not a stay at home mom, I've got this other life path too. So you have this like, guilt kind of piece like pulling you do should I be this? Should I be that? What do I want to be? How do I be both? How do I have it all? And I process that as an issue? And I got a really great piece of advice. The suggestion came back from the group that said, Hey, why don't you take a week off a quarter, and B, stay at home mom, make the lunches, pick them up from school? Then I started figuring out what was it that I really wanted what was really important to me, it was being there and present for homework or for walks or for listening. And what I learned is, I would be really good at that if I could get away too. So I started planning like these family vacations that were jam packed with too much to do, but allowed for that quality time. And I still follow it to this day there now seventh and eighth grade.

Megan Wessels 17:07

That is such a great piece of advice. I know so many mom entrepreneurs are going to hear that from this interview and really take a lot away from that. Sandy, what is the biggest challenge you've had to overcome as a woman entrepreneur?

Sandy Marsico 17:21

I'm an entrepreneur first, who happens to be a woman. But the biggest challenge that I had to overcome is calling myself a CEO.

Megan Wessels 17:29

Really?

Sandy Marsico 17:30

I… even to this day, I still think I have a real company. Right? 20 years, millions of dollars in revenue, working with huge global brands, right? Is it real? It's real. It took me a good 10 years to call myself CEO. And I don't know, is it imposter syndrome? Is that just my you know how young I was when I started? Was it just because I had this vision of what a CEO was, but I'm a CEO. And

Megan Wessels 17:59

I love it! Yes you are!

Sandy Marsico 18:00

It took a long time for me to wear that. A long time.

Megan Wessels 18:04

Why do you think it is that women really struggle with stuff like that? Because you're not the only one? There's so many limiting beliefs that we have. I know that that's one of the reasons that only 1.7% of million dollar businesses out there are women owned. Why are we so hard on ourselves?

Sandy Marsico 18:23

Well, I'm gonna say, Yes, we are perfectionist often. And yes, we are very hard on ourselves. But I also believe that society is kind of hard on us even accidentally, like even accidentally, when I decided to quit my job. I had very good friends of mine, very close friends of mine who normally I would say are crazy supportive, and they love me, right? They would ask me when I was going to get a real job.

Megan Wessels 18:48

Wow.

Sandy Marsico 18:49

It was their own fear talking their own like life path. You go to college, you get a degree, you get a job, you stay in that job, and you get promoted. And that's how, you know you build wealth. Like there's a belief, right? That's the more common belief, particularly when I started my business, it's getting better today. entrepreneurialism is definitely more widely regarded today. But there is that idea. So it was it was accidental pressure. When are you going to get a real job? And I was like, this is a job. No, no, I mean, like a real job. Yeah, so

Megan Wessels 19:22

Yeah.

Sandy Marsico 19:23

Why? Why did I feel like I wasn't a CEO? Because my besties are asking me when I'm a real job. I took it not for the value of what it was. I'm curious about what you're doing, and took it as somehow it was pressuring me so I'm 100% accountable for my feelings on that. I'm 100% accountable for my insecurity to call myself CEO. That just took time and confidence. So I share that with everybody that's listening. Find that mirror and say, “What am I limiting myself on?”

Megan Wessels 19:53

You've had multiple seven figures did you have to work through any limiting beliefs around money? Do you have any awareness around that? Because I know that is one of the reasons I truly feel like women struggle so much to hit that seven figure mark. We are totally capable of it. We run a lot of different aspects of family life and everything. So were there any areas that you felt you had to really overcome?

Sandy Marsico 20:18

I'm gonna build upon something you said about the 1.7% women that ever hit the million in revenue. When the first time I hit a million in revenue, the metric was only 4%. of any and all American companies ever hit a million in revenue. Right now to in today's day, it's 7%. But this is including Google, Facebook, GE, right. So 7% will ever hit a million and now of that 7%, that's 1.7 is women. And I do like to win. Right, that whole competitive side. So what I had to put out there, right, the hardest part, I don't know that it was money. When you're talking about business dollars, I can talk about 1 million, 5 million, half million, right? But when you're talking about personal dollars, like, ooh, do I want the medium or the large? There's $1.25 difference, right? So my own personal dollars, I see very different than I do like business dollars, right. Wqhat I had to do is to say I could put that big stretch goal out there. And what I told myself is I want to be part of the 4%. If only 4% ever hit a million in revenue, that's what I'm going to do. So I took my personal saving dollars, looking at what $1 is, and actually separated that from business revenue and business dollars and said, I want to I want to win and what is win looking like? That means making it into that top 4%. And I will never forget, I was driving in the car. My husband called me because he does all our bookkeeping. He called me and the only thing he said was “Welcome to the 4%.” The day he entered in the revenue that hit the million, right. And I was like, Oh, right. You just that was that was that was the everything for me. It wasn't the dollars, even though dollars are the scorecard.

Megan Wessels 22:09

Mm hmm.

Sandy Marsico 22:09

What I really wanted to be was that 4% or I didn't even… again, I think of myself as an entrepreneur first, who happens to be a woman. So now you say in that the 1.7%. And I know. So we've surpassed 5 million in revenue. And I know that number is the point zero something percent of women that ever hit five. It is…

Megan Wessels 22:30

Yeah

Sandy Marsico 22:30

It is. I do not believe it. I'm sitting here talking to you. And I still don't believe it. Like, I have a real company. This is really what I do. Like this is real. And that part surprised me. It didn't go away. The other part that didn't go away is I used to believe this as a limiting belief. I don't know if it's a good thing or a bad thing. But yes, it was hard going from zero to one. But I believed once I hit 1 million things would be a lot easier. They're not. They're not they're just different problems. It's just different. So I even had a friend of mine who hasn't hit his million yet. And he's like, I got to know, is it easier? And I laughed? I was like, I thought the same thing? I actually thought it was gonna be easier. Haha. It's just different. So it's all hard.

Megan Wessels 23:14

New level, new devil. What is your biggest piece of advice for women entrepreneurs who DO want to reach that seven figure mark?

Sandy Marsico 23:22

I think my best piece of advice is going to be not to give up. If you were to ask me like, how did you do it? The reality I lose way more than I when I do. If you look at the numbers, I'm going to lose more than I win. But every loss, I think, got that one out of the way. That means a win is coming. A win always comes and I had a mentor that once told me because I was really sad about losing something that's right, like losing his business. She said some will. Some won't. So what. Someone's waiting. Every loss means you're one more step closer to a win. I literally just didn't give up. That's it. I don't know how else to say it no matter what happened. I just didn't give up. And I just tried again. Oh, I also just didn't do the same thing over and over again expecting a different result. If that's just straight up, insanity. Yeah. So there are times that you have to look back. Okay, so you lose something or something doesn't go your way. You don't have growth year, I'll look back and try to figure it out. I think of everything is like, Oh, this is just another problem to solve. That's essentially what my entire businesses just problems to solve. And I know I can problem solve, and I know I have a pure advisory group that can help me problem solve. So that's all this is, it's just one more problem to solve. So I look at the loss, I look at what I could have done differently, and I just apply it to the next one.

Megan Wessels 24:47

I do that too. There's an exercise I have called “The Reflection Exercise” where every time I do something that's great that works so well or something doesn't go so well. I go through that list of questions and I work out what were the lessons in this and what the end of it is if you come up with a new standard going forward so that you can apply that if you have the same situation come up another time. You now know what to do so that you don't make that same mistake over or you now know what you can do to get that same result that you want to continue.

Sandy Marsico 25:19

Well, I think what's also really important with that learning is to know when to let go of the idea, no one to let go. That it's not quite working the way you thought it was. And then that's okay. I saw a CEO make some choices that didn't, didn't turn out for him. And I said, Oh, do you? Do you regret it? That's something I'm working on, I tend to look back. And he said to me, no, I made the best decision possible at the time with the information I had.

Megan Wessels 25:49

He owned it.

Sandy Marsico 25:51

It's a different way of looking at that perseverance and knowing when to let go and knowing how to let go of regret.

Megan Wessels 25:57

Now that you have reached this multi seven figures, what's important to you now?

Sandy Marsico 26:02

Building the life I want, and the company to support it. To build the kind of company I'd want to work for attracting those that share the same values that we share with the open mind that you build your life first, and the career to fit in with that?

Megan Wessels 26:19

What are some of the things that you look for then when you're interviewing somebody to really identify that?

Sandy Marsico 26:24

I asked him what it is that they're looking to achieve in life, and then try to see if I can help them see how a career at Sandstorm could have them achieve those personal goals to and have the flexibility that they're looking for. And you learn really quickly? Who are life builders, this is your company to, like, build this with me? What is it that you want? What's the dream company that you want to work for, tell me how we can make some changes and something that we have going on right now. I have two phenomenal employees that have a huge passion for inclusion, design, and accessibility. These two were so driven about the change that we can make in the world, that the two of them opted to go to these conferences and events and study and learn all about inclusion, design and accessibility. And now every two weeks, they are putting on a workshop. And they're teaching and training my entire staff on accessible design on Disabilities on bias right on diversity and inclusion. They chose it. This was important to them. This is what they'd like to see in a company. They're now educating and we made it open, volunteer if you want to come come, we have almost 100% attendance, huge amount engagement, all these questions, because this is something it ended up not being just two people that were interested in it, it was two people that were the drivers. And then they drove this education because they understand. They want to build the kind of company they want to work for. And I want to be the platform for that. And it's a learning moment for all of us.

Megan Wessels 28:01

Thank you so much Sandy. I want to acknowledge you for the amazing leadership, the ability to be vulnerable and share your story here today of what that meant for you to really be present with your family and to make that part of what you do in your business as well part of your life and create more of a lifestyle for your employees that gives them the permission to really be their best selves as well.

Sandy Marsico 28:27

Thank you, Megan. And I might add, I'm building a business to scale.

Megan Wessels 28:31

Mm hmm.

Sandy Marsico 28:32

Right. I'm just building it in a way that I believe if it works for me, it can work for others.

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