As part of my series about the “5 Things You Need To Know To Create a Successful Service Business”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Adrian Granzella Larssen.
Adrian is the founder of Society, a creative content studio that partners with world-class brands to enrich people’s lives. Previously, she was the first employee of The Muse, where she built the publication and community from the ground up and garnered awards such as Forbes Top 100 Sites for Women and Top 75 Sites for Your Career. She’s also a brand and content advisor, a contributor to Fast Company and Business Insider, and a travel enthusiast.
Thank you so much for joining us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
I started my career in event planning and marketing then was hired as the first employee at The Muse, which is now one of the leading online career and job search sites. I got to spend the next seven years as the editor-in-chief, building our publication and content operations from the ground up. During that time, I helped grow our traffic to more than 6 million monthly views, built a team of 500+ freelance writers, and most importantly, witnessed the power that high-quality content has to change people’s lives. I also had the chance to work alongside founders Kathryn Minshew and Alex Cavoulacos, who taught me so much about building a business.
Around the time I was ready for my next career move (and ready for a break from the pace of startup life), other startups began reaching out to me for help with their content strategy and operations. I saw it as an opportunity to start consulting — helping other growing companies and doing what I loved while being in charge of my own schedule — and launched Sweet Spot Content.
While working with startups was so much fun, I’ve also had the chance to work with some more established companies, like SoFi, Chatbooks, Buffer, Hairstory, and Skillshare, as well as executive thought leaders. In those cases, my clients already have a solid marketing strategy in place. They have a vision, they have a voice, they know the impact they want to make on the world — they just need help translating it to content. I, then, use my expertise in building incredible teams of writers and creating exceptional content to bring that strategy to life.
That work has become the bulk of my business, so earlier this year, I decided to pivot and launch a content studio, Society, where I get to work alongside best-in-class writers to write impactful content for brands and thought leaders.
What was the “Aha Moment” that led you to think of the idea for your current company? Can you share that story with us?
Going from consulting to starting an agency both happened very naturally and was an emotional journey. For most of my career, I’ve said that I never wanted to run an agency. I knew from my past work experiences and by watching friends run agencies that growing and succeeding in this type of business often means taking on any client that comes your way and being available to them 24/7. As someone who immensely values freedom, flexibility, and a healthy work-life balance, this direction never felt like the one for me.
But as my business started growing, I began bringing on freelancers to help out, and I really loved getting to work with other smart people and support their work. One day, I was talking with my executive coach (the brilliant Laura Garnett), about how the company had been evolving, and she said, “It seems like you’re building an agency.”
My immediate reaction was, “Absolutely not!” But as we talked through the reasons I didn’t want to do it, I realized that my only holdup was how I had seen agencies run in the past. Why couldn’t I infuse the traditional agency model with my values and work philosophy: that when people can work and live in the way that works best for them, that’s when they do the best work?
It was in that moment that I envisioned it was possible to build a different kind of agency: one that delivered premium work to clients not by sacrificing the needs and personal lives of its team members, but by supporting them. From there, the vision for Society was born.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
Like many service-based business owners, I dramatically undercharged for my work in the early days. True story: My first freelance writing job ever — a side gig to my $30K/year job as an event planner — was writing press releases for a fashion PR firm for something like $100 each. When they couldn’t afford that (which was often), I accepted clothing from their clients as payment. Even later on in my career, I’ve done work in exchange for skincare and food subscriptions.
While all of those projects made sense at the time, it’s funny thinking back on it now, because that would absolutely not fly as I’m building my current business. If I value paying my employees and freelancers well, I can’t be compromising on my rates (and certainly can’t be working for merch swaps!).
Thank you for that. Let’s now pivot to the main focus of our interview. Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven business” are more successful in many areas. When you started your company what was your vision, your purpose?
At the core, my mission is to help people elevate their careers, businesses, and creative pursuits, and I get to do that in a few ways through my business.
For one, I focus on serving clients who support similar missions, so that I can constantly be creating valuable content that helps readers in these areas of their lives. I always hire writers who are passionate about these topics, too, so that they’re more excited about the work (which ultimately leads to better content).
But I also get to achieve this mission for the writers I hire. I want to help people build incredible, flexible, well-paying, fun, freeing careers in writing and editing. By rethinking what agency life can look like and attracting the best-of-the-best clients, I’m able to help many of the writers I work with escape the typical freelance grind, do work they love without sacrificing their personal priorities, and generally re-envision what their careers could look like.
What do you do to articulate or demonstrate your company’s values to your employees and to your customers?
I’m no longer shy about articulating my category focus to potential clients. A lot of content shops do it all — SEO, social, video, ad copy — and for any industry. We stay focused: long-form written content for the personal and professional development spaces.
I also value giving content the time it needs to be great (and paying my writers enough that they can do the same). We’re not a content farm, I’m not paying my team pennies to crank out as many articles as they can, and my clients can see that in the quality of the work we produce. It’s hard to find good digital writers, and my clients are typically amazed at the exceptional quality of those I work with.
To my employees and freelancers, I really try to be an advocate for their personal and professional well-being. I provide truly flexible arrangements, avoiding quick-turnaround deadlines as much as possible and working with my contractors so they can take time off. I pay above-market rates so my writers feel valued for the work they do (I’ve even insisted on giving a raise to a freelancer who I thought was undercharging). And I work to match them with projects they’re truly excited about, whether it’s with me or referring them elsewhere. By elevating their work experience, they in turn elevate the content industry as a whole.
Do you have a “number one principle” that guides you through the ups and downs of running a business?
I am constantly repeating the mantra, “If it’s not a hell yes, it’s a no.” I can’t say I’m always successful in following it because, as all business owners know, saying “no” to opportunities in front of you can be challenging. But almost every time I’ve felt iffy about something and said yes to it anyway, it’s ended up being the wrong decision.
Now, I really try to reflect on it anytime a choice about a new project, a potential hire, or anything else is in front of me, and it helps me trust my gut and move more toward the ideal work I want to be doing.
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?
In early 2020, I was being considered for a dream contract — an ongoing project with a major hotel brand where I would get to travel around the world and create content on sustainability in tourism. It was perfect for a travel-lover like me, and it paid well to boot.
I was chosen for the project and was so excited that I immediately started turning down other projects to make space for this. Unfortunately, at the last minute, they decided to go in a different direction, leaving me with almost no work on my plate.
This ended up being a blessing in disguise since, as we all know, travel came to a screeching halt in 2020. But I was still left with a lighter workload than I’d like — at the start of the pandemic when work was drying up for a lot of people.
While this was tough, I never felt tempted to give up. For one, I knew I couldn’t go back to a corporate job after experiencing the freedom of working for myself, so I had to make it work. But, even though the dream project fell through, it reminded me that there are projects out there that I’m excited about, and that I’d be able to find more of them.
Ultimately, I ended up leaning back on my original skill set and picking up a lot more freelance writing gigs than usual for a few months — which led me to meeting one of my current longstanding agency clients. Even when it’s hard, I try to remember that there’s always a way to work things out.
So, how are things going today? How did your values lead to your eventual success?
I’m really happy with how things are going today, and I think launching Society is really a testament to that. Understanding my values helped me get very clear on the type of work I want to be doing and who I want to be doing it with. I’ve walked away from some opportunities that were good but not great, which was tough but ultimately opened up space for me to work with some of the most interesting, creative, and mission-driven brands out there. Working with the best writers to create amazing content for these clients has led to them ramping up our work together or referring me to other perfect-fit clients.
All of that momentum helped me grow to the point where I could work with an incredible branding agency to help with the launch of Society, hire some of my freelancers as part-time team members, and really envision an exciting future not just for me as a professional but for my agency as a business.
Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a founder or CEO should know in order to create a very successful service-based business? Please share a story or an example for each.
- Specialize in work that’s important and meaningful to you: People always talk about finding your niche, but I know first-hand that that can feel limiting. Instead, I think it can be more helpful to start by understanding your anti-niche — the work you absolutely don’t want to be doing. I often get requests from brands in the data, security, tech, and AI spaces who have big budgets, but I know that I won’t be effective because the work isn’t meaningful to me. Specialize in what’s exciting to you. You’ll be happier, the end result will be better for it, and you’ll ultimately see the thread that ties those projects together — that’s what will define your “niche.”
- Connect with other people who do what you do: A lot of people in the service industry shy away from talking to their “competitors.” I tend to hate that word because it creates such a scarcity mindset — I truly believe there’s enough work out there for all of us — and I think we’re all better off helping each other out. I regularly talk to people who have agencies like mine, some smaller, some larger, some exactly the same size, and the conversations are incredibly helpful. Whether I’m getting advice, sharing lessons I’ve learned, or simply talking through tactical things like how much we’re paying freelancers, it’s helped me feel like I’m less alone in the ups and downs of building a service-based business.
- Focus on making existing clients happy more than finding new ones: Expanding work with existing clients is often easier than finding new ones, so look for opportunities to expand those relationships before you spend a ton of time on business development. When clients share that they’re happy with the results they’ve seen, I respond with ideas for how we could expand our partnership even further. When a client mentions how busy they are, I ask if there’s anything else I can take off their plate. Thinking proactively about opportunities where you see room for growth for them and looking for ways to naturally remind them that you’re available to help will create a better experience for them — and may generate more work for you in the process.
- Get clear on what helps you do your best work, and set those boundaries with clients: It can be scary to set boundaries when you’re in a service-based business, but the client experience will ultimately benefit when you can do your best work. For instance, like many writers, I need long stretches of uninterrupted time and limited distractions, so I give myself “meeting-free Mondays’’ and prefer to communicate via email instead of text and Slack. Most clients absolutely respect this, though I had one who consistently pushed back. Ultimately, she needed someone who could bounce ideas around with her all day, and that’s not how I work best, which was a clear signal to both of us that we weren’t the right match. Asking for what you need from clients is scary — but you’ll make it up to them when you’re able to do incredible work.
- Hire the best, most passionate people you can: Having great people in my corner has truly been the secret to my success. And, to me, finding those people means a few things. One is hiring team members who really care about the work that they’re doing. I always ask the writers I’m interviewing what they most like working on, and when people say they’ll do anything, that’s a red flag — I want people who are passionate. Two, it means hiring people who are better than you in certain areas and fill the gaps in your expertise. Bringing on someone part-time who excels at operations (not my strongest suit) has been game-changing. Finally, hire the best talent you can afford. Many people opt to bring on cheaper people to improve their profit margin, but ultimately, hiring higher-priced, higher-quality talent has freed up my time and actually expanded my business.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
I was very close with my uncle, Larry Granzella, who died unexpectedly in 2020 around the same time I was plotting the future of my business. I thought about him constantly, and two things kept standing out in my mind.
The first was reflecting on how much he loved his work, but also made space for things outside of it. He was a firefighter whose job added deep meaning to his life beyond money and stability. But he also had a rich life outside of work, filled with hobbies, projects, travel, nature, and the people he loved most. He was deliberate about all of it, and he really gave me a model for the meaning I wanted to cultivate both at work and outside of it.
The second was reflecting on the unexpected nature of his death. I realized that I, too, could go at any moment. If I have fewer years on the planet than I had planned, what do I want them to look like?
Together, this created an urgency to change the way I was working to ensure each day was meaningful and that my work could align with my vision for life.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
I really want to contribute to the broader global movement to dramatically rethink how we work. I’d love a world where the eight-hour workday, five-day workweek is no longer the norm, where people have a lot more freedom and flexibility to work where and how they want to, where hustle culture is gone, and a new vision for how we pursue goals and what a meaningful life looks like takes its place.
Ultimately, we need policies and laws in place to make that happen at a societal level — better worker’s rights, improved childcare and healthcare regardless of whether you’re a full-time employee — but, for now, I can help in my small way by making a more balanced life possible for my team members, and being a model by creating a totally flexible life and career for myself.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
I’m @adriangranzella on Instagram, or you can find me on LinkedIn!