Who are you and what business did you start?
I’m Andrea Heuston, Founder, CEO and Creative Principal of Artitudes Design, a 25-year-old experiential design firm in the Seattle area. We work with Fortune 500 companies (Microsoft, Starbucks and Expedia to name a few) as well as startups and non-profits.
I’m also the creator and host of the podcast, Lead Like a Woman, where I interview female leaders and entrepreneurs who share their tips on life, leadership and entrepreneurship. And the author of Stronger on the Other Side which I wrote to empower women to choose their own path.
I’m passionate about empowering women and helping to close the gender gap for women in business.
What’s your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
I was 24 and putting myself through college at night and by day running the creative services department at an energy systems engineering firm in Seattle when the company was purchased by a French firm. They had me lay off the entire team of seven designers and then turned around and laid me off. However, two days later they called me back and said we made a mistake – we need to do some rebranding and we need you to come back. I loved what I was doing but decided I didn’t want to put my fate in somebody else’s hands anymore, so decided to start my own firm.
Describe the process of launching the business.
Before the shock of being laid off even wore off, I jumped in my car (this was pre-internet and being able to do everything online!), drove 60 minutes to Olympia, the state capitol, and got a business license. I used $5,000 that my Grandma Gerry loaned me to buy a Macintosh computer and get business cards and then called the energy systems firm back and they became my first client.
For the first few years I was a sole proprietor and would use freelancers when I had more work than I could handle. When I got consistently busy, I hired my first employees. At the same time, I started working on my informal advisory group — I worked really hard to find a business coach, I got a banker, a lawyer, a CPA and joined a business advisory group. Creating your tribe is an essential step I’d recommend all entrepreneurs do. For women, to that list you should add a girlfriend who you can cry with and drink with and lean on in good times and bad. It’s taken me a long time to understand that I need female peers, business partners, friends, a female community. From a book club to an all-woman business group to nurturing friendships in my life, actively seeking out a supportive female community is one of the best things I’ve ever done to contribute to my own success and well-being.
Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?
It begins with our high quality work. That’s what gets us very happy customers and referrals. But we’re also incredibly high touch and build deep relationships with all our clients. We pay attention and take notes and invest in the relationship — we send cards to clients on their birthdays, flowers if we hear of a death in the family, baby gifts, etc. It’s much deeper than a transactional relationship so what happens then is that when clients leave a company and move on, they tend to take us with them so that’s how we get new business — in fact it’s how we got our second largest client at one point.
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
Today we’re a full service experiential design firm – we specialize in designing and executing corporate events – from visual concepts, video, motion graphics and animation to presentation design to speaker training and support, for events from 5 to 50,000 attendees. We’re doing a lot of script writing and speaker coaching as that really helps clients connect with their audiences and drive the success of their events. Beautiful visuals, video, motion graphics and animation should be a given and we excel at that. But if you can’t tell your story in a way that is meaningful to your audiences it will fall on deaf ears, and clients are beginning to understand that so that part of our business has really taken off.
I’m also doing a lot of coaching work. I’ll coach all executives, I’m happy to coach men or women, but I’m creating a very special niche for women in particular to help them be better communicators. We’re building offerings around that which are starting to be gobbled up as the word gets out. For example, I was recently hired to be a speaker coach for several presenters at TEDx Seattle Women. I want to help women rise and be the best they can be and I‘m really excited about it and it’s very gratifying work. A woman who I mentored emailed me this week to tell me she got the promotion of her dreams and she attributed it in part to my mentoring of her to become a better leader. That email made my day.
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
I’ve learned so much and I continue to learn every day! A big one I’ve learned is to embrace failing forward. I’ve learned that failure isn’t necessarily failure, it’s about what I can learn and take forward in my life and in my business to be stronger and better. The more risks I take, the more I fail forward, the more successful I’ve become. I now look at “failures” as a stair step to something greater. I believe that the only way to truly succeed is to have failed in the past.
One thing I learned the hard way was the need for a revolving line of credit with the bank. At one point I got into trouble as one of my biggest clients changed terms on me. They went from Net 30 to Net 180 and although I had plenty of money in accounts receivable, I couldn’t make payroll. Cash flow is King for a small business or a business just starting out. If you don’t have cash, you don’t have a business, you can’t make it. Once you hit $500k in revenue and a couple of employees this is absolutely essential.
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
We are guided by EOS, the Entrepreneurial Operating System. It isn’t a technology platform – they call it a ‘people operating system’ that they break into six categories: vision, people, data, issues, process, and traction. I consider it an essential tool for the business and find it incredibly helpful in making sure that the right people are in the right jobs and keeping us all on track and accountable.
For technology tools, we are a Microsoft-focused company and we use Microsoft 365, SharePoint and OneDrive for all information, dissemination and communication. It works really well for us and integrates with EOS.
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
I’m involved in a lot of groups — WBENC (Women Business Enterprise National Council), Women Presidents’ Organization, Entrepreneurs’ Organization and others. On any given day I might be involved in a meeting, networking event or class/seminar with one of those. These connections and conversations with like-minded peers have been invaluable to me over the years, both for my development as a leader and entrepreneur and in helping me grow the business and even avoid costly mistakes. It’s also created a network for me of amazing, strong, supportive, talented women who inspire me every day.
As for books, I tell everyone to read Give and Take: Why Helping Others Drives Our Success by Adam Grant. It’s a fantastic book and he’s an amazing author, I had my entire team read it and we did a book club on it. I also tell people I mentor to read it. It’s about giving personalities vs. taking personalities and how those who are givers initially might not look like they’re successful but over time they are. It talks about how you can work with each of them, but for the utter and most complete success is to turn to a giving way of being and to help your team do that as well.
Another one is Melinda Gates’ The Moment of Lift: How Empowering Women Changes the World. She changed my way of thinking in terms of organizational design with women and minorities. It really opened my eyes and I went, Oh My God, women are the backbone of all societies and still are not equal in terms of human rights. Society needs to focus on women and everyone will benefit.
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?
My first business coach told me, ‘come from a place of abundance and you’ll always have enough’ and it’s my mantra. An abundance mindset allows you to see more in your life: more options, more choices, and more resources. I take that lens to things all of the time otherwise I’ll live in the ‘I need more’ or ‘how can we possibly overcome this obstacle?’ Instead, I look at the abundance and positivity in every situation.