As part of my series about the “Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Turbulent Times,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Kaitlyn Witman, Co-Founder & COO at Rainfactory.com
Kaitlyn is passionate about helping products go from concept to success. Her agency, Rainfactory, has been a top-ranked agency for crowdfunding, product launch, and early-stage start-up growth marketing since 2014.
Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. 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?
Rainfactory was founded by my business partner, Janielle Denier, in May 2014. She had been spending years in the Pay-Per-Click world working in-house for businesses such as ADT and Web Metro, and immediately prior to Rainfactory, she was the Marketing Director at a failing hardware startup. She had worked very hard on the launch of that startup, and due to a hardware issue, they were not able to deliver on the new technology. So, she contacted the software development firm that built the website, Monsoon, with the idea that she could do product launch marketing for other new startups as a new agency. She decided to name it “Rainfactory” because the domain was available, and it related to the “rain” aspect of Monsoon.
Meanwhile, I was a Project Manager at Monsoon, working on building websites for new products. I had been recently promoted, and my very first project happened to be Janielle’s first client with Rainfactory. We clicked so well working on that project. It was a hardware startup out of Boston named Jibo, run by Dr. Cynthia Breazeal — a pioneer in the social robotics movement. Janielle and I worked together to get everything Jibo needed to launch in July 2014, including the pre-campaign website for email collection and the launch.
We had been working with the Stripe API to develop the Pre-Order website, but unfortunately, Stripe told Jibo that they would have to hold back as much as 25% of the pre-order funds raised until Jibo could ship. We then got connected to Indiegogo, who was new to the hardware space at the time. They said that we could use their platform, and they would only charge a 5% fee.
So we quickly pivoted to Indiegogo, applying everything we were building for the website to the crowdfunding campaign. Janielle worked directly with Indiegogo’s developers to install her advertising tracking. at $2.3 Million raised, it was the highest-grossing campaign that year. (Until Rainfactory’s second client broke that record a month later, at $2.8M).
Mid-way through the Jibo project, I quit Monsoon and joined Janielle to build Rainfactory from there!
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?
Funniest mistake? I’m not sure. I guess you could say that when we were first starting out, we didn’t really have any policies or procedures for interviewing and hiring. I think most people were a little surprised when we would just get a “good feeling” about someone and hire them on the spot. I guess now I know that we can wait a little longer for the right person to come along, and that good interviewing rounds help bring out the best in a candidate.
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?
Sure. There are so many people that I can count among my mentors today. Honestly, Janielle believed in me so much that she let me help her build Rainfactory from the start. I have a lot of admiration for her and think that we work really well together. Being in technology, it’s very nice to have someone who really listens to the ideas and arguments you present for going in a particular direction. There’s a lot of push and pull for us every day.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. When your company started, what was its vision, what was its purpose?
This is easy. I think Janielle and I wrote down our values in just a few hours. They are: radical inclusion, data-driven insights, teamwork, and integrity. When we have disagreements internally, we always point to elements of our core values as the common ground where we stand.
For example, when the Black Lives Matter movement began to put forth in the mainstream, there was a lot of stress internally in how to respond. We have employees from across the political and international spectrum, from many different underrepresented communities. And so we were careful about “radical inclusion” as the way to move forward with all our communications, being careful to make sure that no voices are unjustly silenced in the workplace. It’s a work-in-progress, and we’re still growing from it much stronger.
Thank you for all that. Let’s now turn to the main focus of our discussion. Can you share with our readers a story from your own experience about how you lead your team during uncertain or difficult times?
Sure. Even before that, when the lockdowns started happening due to the Coronavirus epidemic, many of our staff were nervous and fearful for the company in general, and their jobs in particular. We immediately implemented measures to stretch the budget, including cutting our own compensation first, and announced that as a result, we didn’t have to make any lay-offs or even cut anyone else’s salary.
The whole company rallied around our call-to-arms, saying that we had to innovate and get a new line of business in the door. It feels like we could move a mountain in a week; it was amazing to see what our team came up with, and the new initiatives that came out of it that we still use today, even after we’ve recovered from the initial shocks of lockdown.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
In the agency world, there’s a huge risk of burnout. I’ve seen it at my previous agency, and I’ve seen it in my friends who go on to work at the big three consulting firms. It always happens at around two years in. I decided that I need to make sure that my own cup is full before I can pour more into my work. And as a result, I made a strong commitment to go to an Evening MBA program and gain inspiration and comradery outside the workplace that kept me full of fresh ideas each day.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
Putting people first. It’s easy to forget that they are real people that need motivation, care, and direct check-ins along the way. Instead of shutting it out and saying that you need to focus on work, I’d say just to let the emails pile up and allow people to tell you how they’re doing, personally.
Be generous with time off. We’re having a hard time motivating people to put down the computer, now more than ever. And we have an unlimited time-off policy that we’re now pushing people to put in a full week. Not just a day or two. Decompression time is crucial for the amount of creative and analytical work we do.
When the future seems so uncertain, what is the best way to boost morale? What can a leader do to inspire, motivate and engage their team?
Being open, honest, transparent. Make your directions clear that you expect everyone to pull their weight, but that you intend to shoulder the most of it. But not like to suffer in silence, you know? You need to make it clear that there’s a lot of work to do, and you can’t just be the one to silently do it. If folks hear your call to arms and ask for help, they give it.
And also, just a small thing, but handwritten letters go a long way. I started making handwritten notes to my team members, and I hear how it truly helps them feel like their work is seen, heard, and appreciated.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
Difficult news should come with learnings and action items. Have a plan. We held off with our big “Quaranteam” presentation until we had some strategies in place to move ahead. Bad news should be delivered continuously because it shows your employees that you’re realistic and motivated to work through the challenges.
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
Just like the captain of a ship, you can have a general heading and bearing even if you can’t see land yet. I think many leaders make the mistake of thinking that they need to have sight of the end, when in reality having the direction is just as good. Then you invite your whole team, or crew, to do what they individually do best to help you get there.
When people think that leaders have MORE control, they’re thinking wrong. They, in fact, have LESS control. It’s important to acknowledge that and make sure that your plans are adaptable to feedback from the folks that have to implement it.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
Always put your people first. The business will be there, but at the end of the day, all you have is your reputation to your name. You need to have a lot of integrity and trust. If you have to let someone go, give them the best possible severance because you want to put their wellbeing first, even though their talents aren’t a fit for your business needs.
Can you share 3 or 4 of the most common mistakes you have seen other businesses make during difficult times? What should one keep in mind to avoid that?
Firing people too quickly, and needing to rehire shortly after. Cutting others’ salaries before cutting your own. And not inviting others in on the decision making process.
Generating new business, increasing your profits, or at least maintaining your financial stability can be challenging during good times, even more so during turbulent times. Can you share some of the strategies you use to keep forging ahead and not lose growth traction during a difficult economy?
We decided to pursue a diversification strategy a few years ago, and it really paid off in this time. When one area of the business was hit, the team’s skills were focused on other projects. For example, when the Coronavirus had shut down China first at the beginning of the year, all of our crowdfunding projects hit a pause as logistics went out the window. And so we doubled down on our eCommerce business, which majorly paid off as Shopify and direct-to-consumer brands have seen an enormous boom these last few months. It’s even better because we could sustain the eCommerce clients even as the Crowdfunding clients started coming back. It’s been awesome.
Here is the primary question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a business leader should do to lead effectively during uncertain and turbulent times? Please share a story or an example for each.
Alright, I feel like I’ve been talking a lot already! So to sum it up, I’d say that:
1. Have cash in reserve as a cushion to shocks in the business, giving you the runway you need to pivot.
2. Have a list of nonessential payments that could be the first to go when times get rough. If you have an in-office masseuse? Catered lunches? Make sure you have those on your chop list.
3. Build in diverse business lines. All of your money should be coming in from multiple sources, whether it’s subscription, service, or performance-based.
4. Have a lot of your workforce on flex time and contracts. Make sure that you have the systems set up to accept high-quality work from many different people.
5. Give your full-time staff lots of one-on-one attention, push them to take time off to rest and recharge.
6. Don’t ask your staff to pull extra hours that you aren’t willing to commit to yourself.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
I recently came across this quote from Psychologist Dr. Emy Monday: “It may not be your fault, but it can still be your responsibility.” It resonates with me so much because I always make sure I’m taking responsibility even though others may be at fault. It’s the only way I feel you can be productive and grow as a leader. After working at an agency, I’ve been put in a situation where I saw leadership blaming lower staff when clients weren’t happy. And team morale fell. People felt like their leaders didn’t have their back. It was a very toxic culture. Instead, I always make sure that I am on the side of admitting fault where fault is due but taking ownership and responsibility for making it right. Not only does this keep morale high, but also clients are a lot more confident in your integrity and professionalism.
How can our readers further follow your work?
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