Recruiting the right people, embracing deadlines, and the power of open source: Interview with agency owner Dawn Hancock

Written by: Karl Sakas
Design and marketing agency owner Dawn Hancock of Firebelly Design

Agency owner Dawn Hancock of Firebelly Design

Agency leader Dawn Hancock founded and runs Firebelly Design in Chicago. She’s spoken nationally and internationally as a leader in the socially responsible design movement.

Beyond running her agency, she’s training social entrepreneurs at Firebelly University, inspiring the next generation of designers at Camp Firebelly, helping her office’s neighborhood through Reason to Give and the Firebelly Foundation, and transforming Chicagoland non-profits through her annual $250,000 Grant for Good.

How does she get it all done? She recruits others to help, delegates things that aren’t her specialty, uses “fast failure,” and more. During our interview, Dawn shared:

  • What creative people need in order to beat procrastination
  • Why she only wants to hire employees who think like an agency owner
  • How she decides to start new social-good projects
  • The feature she added to her annual $250,000 “Grant for Good” program that’s a “miracle” for the pro bono selection process
  • How smart agency owners need to “pick one”—that they can’t be good at doing both creative and agency operations
  • The business choice she’d have made differently when she started her agency
  • How she thinks Open Source has the potential to transform social change worldwide… if nonprofits can get past a big sticking point

This is a condensed version of our interview last week. Want to hear her in person? Dawn is speaking about social design this week in Raleigh at AIGA Raleigh‘s “Made Good” event. Get your ticket here.

Getting people together to create things

Karl Sakas: In your 2011 AIGA Pivot conference talk in Phoenix, you mentioned Firebelly’s neighborhood Pop-Up Shop was—in part—a deadline for your team to make physical things of their own. I’ve noticed this theme again and again, whether it’s Rick Boyko speaking at AAF-RDU about needing a self-directed creative outlet, or 1950s PR photographer O. Winston Link self-financing a photography project that went unrecognized for 20 years. What do you think is behind the need for agency-based creative people to have their own projects?

Dawn Hancock: It’s really easy to procrastinate and to say, “Oh, I’ll get to that tomorrow or the next day.” I’m as guilty of that as everybody else is. Even the most ambitious of us still does. We still all go through those sort of scenarios.

Creating events like the Pop-Up Shop gives everybody a deadline—the folks in the studio, as well as all sorts of creative folks. It’s not just our employees—it’s all our friends in the design community, the art community, everybody who we know makes really cool and interesting things.

The more you do [creative] things, the more people who will pay you to do them will see it, and then they want to be part of that as well. I want people to feel happy and I want the work they’re doing to be the best possible work. I think that by giving [the team] opportunities to create stuff that they are super passionate about, it just infiltrates everything else that they do.

Hiring people who can wear multiple hats and think like an agency owner

KS: You’ve mentioned hiring people who know how to do more than one thing, and who make decisions as if they were an owner of the agency. How do you identify those qualities in potential employees?

DH: The ability to do multiple things or wear multiple hats—that’s a little easier because you can tell if someone is a good copywriter as well as a good illustrator by talking to them and reading their materials.

Can you tell if they would be good at having a conversation with a client and not have to come back to me every time and say, “What do I do? They said this.” It’s hard to know that, of course. That’s not something you can always judge in an interview.

[When it comes to thinking like an owner, current employees at Firebelly] are confident and they’re crazy talented, [but] they’re always thinking, “I know the work that I’m doing could be better, and there’s always a place to learn more and constantly improve, and I can learn from the next person who comes in, even if they’re 10 years younger.”

There are no expectations and there aren’t any rules around the job descriptions. We do have the creative director and we do have the strategist and whatnot, but people are going to wear multiple hats.

Part of the reason I trust them is because I see them in action and I know they’re capable. I’m also like, “Throw them into the fire, see what they can do.” They’re going to make mistakes; so do I. We all do, but you learn from them and you go on. And if you can’t handle it, then I learn really quickly that you’re probably not a good fit and we part ways.

We do a three month trial [to see if] this going to be a good fit. We see how you are, you see how we are, that sort of thing, see if we’re all in sync. If that works out then you’re on full-time from then on. That’s a good opportunity for us to see in both capacities like, “Is this a good fit for you? Is it a good fit for me?”

How a “professional instigator” chooses what projects to do next

KS: From reviewing your career thus far, I’d call you a “professional instigator” of good things. But your time’s not unlimited. In your 2010 TEDxWindyCity talk, you mentioned listening to your heart and following your gut, and in making things happen when you see a problem… but I imagine you’re confronted with more opportunities that you can realistically handle. I’d love to learn more about your decision-making process. How do you decide which new projects you’ll pursue?

DH: It’s interesting because I think from the outside, it seems like there’s probably 40,000 different things that I could be doing. But really, from my side of it, I feel like every time I think of something and I’m like, “that hasn’t been done” or “that would be cool,” we just do it.

There’s probably a ton of stuff out there, but people aren’t approaching me all the time. I think it’s partially because we are already doing so many different things, people think, “She’s busy, I don’t want to bother her.”

Some of those things [we’re doing] were ideas from employees, like the summer camp we do. That was an employee, somebody who was a year or two out of school. We were doing our annual strategy meeting and figuring out what we wanted to do for the year and five year plans and all that.

She’s like, “Wouldn’t it be cool if we had just a way that we could help young designers? We don’t have enough opportunities—we have one or two interns a year and that’s it. What if we could do it in en masse, like teach a class or something?” I was like, “Sure, what do you think?” She’s like, “What if it was like summer camp for designers?” I’m like, “That sounds fun.” That was January, and then in June, we were running our first camp.

When I hear a good idea or when I think something’s interesting and it seems like that’s a hole that could really be filled and we could help a specific community, we do it.

To say, “how do I pick?”—I don’t necessarily have 20 options out there and choose which ones not to do. [But] I have to keep conscious of my time.

I’m passionate about this stuff, I want things to succeed. If I see that part of the reason it’s not succeeding is my fault, I’m going to do anything I can to make it better even, if that means maybe we stop and pause and rethink how we do this.

Collaborating with other firms, to accomplish more than one agency can do

KS: I like that “Grant for Good” has an application process. I’ve been on a couple nonprofit boards and from reading the application, I see that one of the things you ask about is, “If you get this, what are you going to do to keep it going?” This is very reminiscent of grants I’ve written. I like that you’ve recruited other firms to help deliver the Grant for Good’s services, so it’s not just your agency on the hook to provide $250K in value yourself.

DH: Yeah. That wasn’t even me recruiting them as much as them asking me how I did it. Two or three people said that to me and eventually I was like, “Wait a minute, you’re asking me and you’re asking me; why don’t we all just band together and make this a bigger thing?” They were like, “Okay.” This is our third or fourth year I guess.

There’s lots of bumps in the road in figuring out how to do it. [Every other “Grant for Good” donor we’ve] worked with are individuals. We’re the only [multi-person] company. It’s a very different amount of work for one person to do over a year versus our whole studio. We’ve learned [the year-long grant] may be too much of a commitment for [single-person shops].

Having an application process for pro bono work shifts the recipient’s mindset

KS: I love that your Grant for Good has an application process. I’ve seen pro bono projects go badly before, so much that I’ve written Pro Bono Project guidelines that I encourage my clients to steal and use themselves. What’s your advice for someone who wants to do strategic pro bono work in their own community?

DH: Having that application is a miracle, frankly. To me, that is what makes the difference between the people where you’re just doing something for them for free vs. somebody who’s applying. They know that they won this thing and that there were all these other people you could have picked and you chose them. It’s like a different mindset.

We started it with this concept of, “How do nonprofits normally do things? Oh, they apply for grants. So, why don’t we do that? Okay.” The process of doing that application, we had some nonprofits and some foundations help us figure out what are the right questions to ask too.

So, I think it’s a mindset. [That there’s an application process] shifts the way that they think about what they’re getting. [Plus, it’s] the fact that we do it for an entire year. After two years, we realized that working with somebody for an entire year really gives you just an immense amount of time to be able to transform that organization, whereas one-off projects are still, in my opinion, a Band-Aid.

[In one-off projects,] you’re helping them in one situation but you’re not really helping them change who they are and how they talk about themselves and all that other stuff. [With a] long-term focus, you can make a dramatic impact.

If [you’re starting] a new process, have the application [and involve others in reviewing the applications]. We’re bring in outsiders to help us understand a nonprofit mindset. We’ll have somebody from a foundation, somebody the nonprofit [that won the grant] the year before, and then potentially another outside person.

We do that because we want to make it fair but we also want to make it so that we have the mindset of somebody on the inside—especially somebody who just went through this. They know this is an amazing thing to get, but it’s also a huge drain on their resources. We’ve learned when we’ve got five or six or seven companies calling on you every week because they need something from you, it’s like, “I’ve got to do this work! I don’t have time to talk to you about our logo.” That has been a learning process too.

In the last two years, we’ve asked grantees for multiple people to be contacts, so, it’s not the same person that it getting hit by all these different companies trying to help them. It’s really overwhelming. We learned that the hard way.

Leading either creative or operations: Why you need to pick just one

KS: In a 2011 interview with Antonio Garcia, you’ve mentioned realizing that you needed to delegate design and operations so you could focus on client relationships and project management. As an agency business operations geek, I’m happy to learn you’ve integrated accounting, client service, project management, and other business operations into the “run an agency” learn-by-doing component of Firebelly University. What’s your advice to experienced agency owners who hate dealing with business operations, but who aren’t ready to delegate or otherwise get help?

DH: That’s tough. You’ve got to pick one—I don’t think there’s a way to say “I’m not ready to give up control and I’m going to do it even though I hate it.” You’re only losing.

No one is going to win in that situation. You’re going to be pissed because you’re not happy with the work you’re doing. And you’re going to be overloaded, I’m sure, because you’re probably trying to take on too many things.

I’ve said this to lots of people who want to start design firms: “What do you really want to do?” They’ll say, “I love to design.” I’ll say, “Okay, but do you really want to have a design firm? Because most people who own companies are generally not doing design work.”

There are exceptions, in those scenarios where they have someone else who’s helping them do [business operations] and that they trust. They’ll just say, “You can handle everything and I’m not going to worry about it.”

[When it comes to doing design and agency operations,] it’s really hard to try to do both and to try to do them both really well. It’s virtually impossible. One or the other, that’s the only advice I know.

[Before] I changed my perspective, I was trying to do it all, just like everybody else. I was in that place. It was not an easy transition but there was a point where I started realizing, “You’re a much better designer than I am. I couldn’t do that even if I spent a week—what you do in three hours, I could not pull that off.”

I realized I should probably really stick to the things I’m good at, which is much more about clients, the new business, and the operational side of things.

I’m very conscious that I’m hiring people who are only going to be awesome at what they do. It really was a huge shift in thinking. I think it’s really hard for business owners to do that. Most people who start a business think they know it all. I’m guilty of it. [Joking] “I quit my job, I know how to do this. That’s why I started my company, because I know better than the last guy.” Live and learn.

Accidentally falling into improving the design and marketing industry

KS: Your website notes that Firebelly Design was an early advocate for socially responsible design. Championing change any field is often risky, and at the least, it’s exhausting. What’s your advice to people early on a mission to improve their industry?

DH: When I started, it wasn’t like, “I’m going to build a company that’s going to be doing social good projects and sustainability.” That’s not what I said. I just said, “I just want to do work that I care about. I want to do things that matter to me.” I had been volunteering with a nonprofit. I could see the work I was doing there was impacting people’s lives. So, I thought, “that’s what I want to do,” even though I never got paid for it.

It wasn’t this intent to change the industry. It was, “There is no one else doing this so I can’t find a job doing it, so I guess I’ll just figure out how to do it myself. If it doesn’t work out, oh well, I’ll just go find another job.” It was that naïve because I was 25 and because it was 1998 and ’99 when the economy was fantastic and there were 25 jobs to every one designer.

It’s such a dramatically different time and all of the things that happened since then have really made a lot of people second guess things, like “I hate letting go of that security,” but it was just a different time. I was young. I would not recommend my decision.

[If I were doing it over again,] I would probably try to get a client who paid me first. I didn’t do that. When I quit I was looking to start something simply because there wasn’t another thing to do. That sounds sort of weird because there were a million jobs—there [just] wasn’t one that was doing work that I thought would benefit people.

The fact that when I quit I had nothing [may have] made me work that much harder to get there. I don’t know. I cashed in the only money I had saved, which was six grand and a 401(K). That’s all I had to my name. So that was not super smart either. I mean ask a financial planner, they all want to murder me for cashing that in.

How others can help out

KS: Between training future social entrepreneurs at Firebelly University, inspiring the next generation of designers at Camp Firebelly, helping members of your office’s Humboldt Park neighborhood through Reason to Give and the Firebelly Foundation, and transforming Chicagoland non-profits through Grant for Good, you have a lot of balls in the air, in addition to blogging about vegetarian food and running Firebelly Design itself. How can people help with your projects?

DH: There’s always room for help, whether it’s with one of the programs [we discussed earlier] or Reason to Give—there’s always tons of needs and opportunities for helping on that. [Reason to Give is] the community organization that helps Humboldt Park, the neighborhood our studio has been in for the last 11 years. There’s 100 different roles that somebody could fill in volunteering with that. With the other programs that we run, whether it’s the camp or Firebelly U or the grant or any of those things, there’s always somehow an opportunity to get involved.

As far as the studio, we are hiring right now so there is that. [Editor’s note: Info on the graphic design position is posted here.] There’s always an interest in looking for people who are out there who might be unique. Maybe right now isn’t a good time [for a particular applicant] but in six months it might be.

The question with an always-changing answer: What’s next?

KS: You’ve done a number of interviews and talks over the years. Is there a question no one’s asked you yet that you wish they had? What’s your answer?

DH: There’s a question that people do ask me and the answer changes always: “What’s next?” Somebody always wants to know what’s next. Literally every time, I have a different answer for it.

Right now, I’m really excited about open source and the idea of open source frameworks, especially in technology and the way that open source works—in terms of file sharing and knowledge sharing and all of that, especially like, “I built this piece of code. Here, you can have it and you can use it and modify it and then share it and then the next person can use it.” It just keeps building.

I am obsessed with that and I feel like that model is what needs to happen in the social space to take all these really cool projects that we’re all doing across the world and sharing them on one tool and one platform somewhere. Everything, from the good and the bad, the challenges and the successes, to the files and all the documents and everything that came with it. Then letting the next person who’s starting the next program or the next cool thing read about all these other things around the world, and how to take these bits and pieces and model their new thing from all of that.

[In the past 15 years,] open source really started to become a platform that people trusted instead of everything being Microsoft or whatever platform you had to go under. It’s just changed infinitely, and I think that can happen in these projects for good—whether it’s a nonprofit or just an individual project that you’re doing. I think open source is the way to world change.

Wikipedia is probably the best example. Wikipedia is an open source, global platform. [I’m thinking about] the same idea, but it’s all around these sort of projects that are making a difference. I’m asked all the time, “How did you start this mentor program? How did you start your camp? How did you do this?”

What if there was just a place where all these things were there, so that you go and see every program like that around the globe? You’d search, it’s there and here’s 20 of them. You just sort it out, things like “it’s for youth” or “it’s for adults” or “it’s this or that.” You just start to figure out what things make sense for what you were trying to do. We’re all learning.

We like to think that there’s an original idea and that we’re all like, “I just came up with the most brilliant thing.” That’s great and all, but probably not. Someone across the globe has probably thought about the same thing and you just don’t know it.

The nonprofit world is notorious for not sharing information because they’re so competitive around grants. It’s killing them. It’s literally killing them and they just need to let go of that old mentality and just start to realize the more we work together, the more impact we’re going to have. I really, really believe that [open source] has the potential to dramatically change all kinds of amazing things in the world.

What’s your mission as a marketing agency owner?

Thinking about what we discussed, I’m struck by how Dawn can accomplish much more by working with others—she’s not trying to do it all herself. We can all learn from that. And I’m fascinated to see how things turn out in creating an open source platform for sharing best practices for social change.

Question: What do you want to accomplish in your community through your marketing agency?

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