As a part of my series about the “5 Things You Need To Know To Create a Successful Service Business”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Pia Silva an entrepreneur, speaker, and author of Badass Your Brand: The Impatient Entrepreneur’s Guide to Turning Expertise into Profit. As a businesswoman who understands the struggles that come with maintaining a work-life balance firsthand, she is a partner and brand strategist of Worstofall Design, where she helps entrepreneurs build a lucrative lifestyle business full of freedom and flexibility that doesn’t require an office full of employees.
Unlike most branding firms, her company builds entire brands in days instead of months and focuses on 1–3 person service businesses. The unique process and niche positioning have helped her overcome the hurdles she struggled with when starting her business, reliably attracting a steady flow of high paying clients and allowing her to enjoy the freedom that inspired her to become an entrepreneur in the first place.
She has made it her goal to clarify and simplify the elusive ideal of “branding,” and shares practical tips and tangible steps to help businesses find their unique brand voice leading to profits within the solopreneur space.
Pia is a weekly contributor to Forbes and has been featured on MSNBC’s Your Business, Entrepreneur On Fire, and the UGurus and Million Dollar Women Summits to name a few. Pia currently resides in Brooklyn, New York with her husband and their son and loves to salsa dance!
Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
I was born and raised in New York City, and from a very early age whenever anyone asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up I would respond “in charge.” Running the show always felt natural to me, and even when I was in college, I knew I was never going to apply for a traditional job with a resume.
However, right out of college, I don’t think to start a business occurred to me because I wasn’t around any entrepreneurs. So “being in charge” manifested as being in charge of my own schedule and making money based on my efforts. I bartender to keep myself flexible, and that allowed me to try a lot of different gigs. I organized a few fundraisers, helped open a cafe, headed up sales and marketing for a tech startup, and tried my hand at being a real estate agent, none of which I had any formal training around (I was an economics major at Wesleyan University). But I’ve always been more interested in learning on the job than traditionally climbing the ladder, and I think my general willingness to jump in and figure things out is how I ended up even being brought in on some of those projects.
And that’s also how I ended up starting a business around my husband’s skills as an artist and graphic designer. I saw how talented he was and always joked, “I can make a lot of money off of you, honey!” I didn’t know anything about graphic design or branding at the time, but it was an exciting opportunity to once again learn on the job. And this time, it was with my life partner!
What was the “Aha Moment” that led you to think of the idea for your current company? Can you share that story with us?
We formally decided to start our company, Worstofall Design, in a most unlikely place: while living and working on a farm in the British Virgin Islands. We had bought a one-way ticket to the island of Tortola to barter farm work for “room and board” (which meant we could eat off the farm and camp on the land) to experience what life would be like without the stress of needing money while living in paradise.
We were only a few hours by plane from New York City, but it was a different world: we had no phones, computers, electricity or clocks, and we had to make a fire out of sticks for every meal. We would work on the farm each morning for a few hours, and then had most of our days free to just read, talk and think.
Just two weeks into our trip I had a realization that forever changed me. I think part of me went down there looking for a more peaceful and balanced life, and while there I realized that I didn’t need the islands, that peace I was looking for really comes from within. Plus I missed having projects to work on, and having goals to achieve.
We decided that we could bring everything we loved about living on the islands — the leisure time to enjoy life — back to Brooklyn with us. But that seemed impossible if we went back to working for other people. That’s when we decided when we returned, we would work for ourselves. Instead of Steve freelancing for others I would get us clients and he was focused solely on creative work. We spent the next 3 months enjoying island life, while also brainstorming and planning our new business. Steve even designed our first website in one of his moleskin journals!
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?
A few months into my business I discovered BNI, a networking group for small business owners. I thought I had found the answer to all my problems! I enthusiastically started trying to get referrals for my group from everyone I knew (my poor dad!).
Of course, I slowly realized that not everyone could deliver on their promises. I felt horrible that I had suggested to my friends and family that they hire people I barely knew, trusting they could deliver simply because they were in my networking group. My biggest takeaway was that when you give someone a referral, you are really putting your reputation on the line for them so it’s on you to vet them.
Now I only give referrals to people I have personally worked with, or know well enough that I can vouch for them. I also generally only ask for referrals that the referrer has actually worked with. There are a lot of great and well-meaning people out there that don’t necessarily deliver, and it’s your reputation and your business’ reputation that is on the chopping block if they don’t!
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?
I love this question because I both strongly believe in the value of having the purpose beyond profit and because I find many people are quick to add a purpose to their business that they don’t actually connect with. It took time and experience for me to find and connect with my purpose.
When I first started my company, my main goal was just to work for myself and never have a boss. That was it, I wanted the freedom to choose how I spent my time.
Now that I’ve experienced both the struggle of trying to get a service business off the ground and the ease of running a service business that fully understands what it has to offer better than anyone else, my vision and mission have evolved. My purpose now is to help every single person that wants a life of ease and a business they love to achieve that goal because I believe it has a trickle-down effect on everyone around them. Having an abundance of time and money makes people more generous to people they know, and people they don’t know, and that can have a huge, positive ripple effect on communities.
For example, in my personal experience, having success in my business means I can spend a lot of time with my toddler during the years that matter most to his development, I can buy from small businesses that are doing things I support and want to see more of in the world like local farms and independent artisans, I have money to donate to causes I believe in and I have the time to be more present and connected with friends and family. These things were much more difficult when my business was just struggling to get by and I was working all the time with no disposable income.
What do you do to articulate or demonstrate your company’s values to your employees and to your customers?
“Walk the walk” is one of the most important ideas we promote in my company and everything we encourage our clients to do we have already done and usually in a more extreme way. For example, an important tenet of Badass Branding is about being unapologetic about who you are, and being ready to be misunderstood or disliked by others in order to attract raving fans. We can say that confidently because as a company called “Worstofall Design” that sells “Badass Brands without the BS,” and we are a living example of that idea. We do this in every aspect of running our business.
As I coach people to bet on themselves in ways that might be scary (like making a big financial investment in their business, or foregoing paying clients for a period of time to invest time working on their business) I also bet on myself more extremely. It allows me to authentically speak to the fear that can come with taking risks, but also the value of making power moves and accepting nothing but success as an outcome.
Do you have a “number one principle” that guides you through the ups and downs of running a business?
“Always Be Badass.” It means whenever there is a decision to be made, what’s the badass thing to do? What’s the thing that, whether it works out or not, you can’t say it wasn’t a bold move? We usually do that.
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?
The first time I considered giving up was 3 years into our business when we found ourselves in debt, credit cards maxed out, and no cash in the bank. I felt cornered, I felt like I had failed and I thought I would be forced to get a job.
Luckily it was actually my partner Steve who pointed out that we had built 3 years worth of value in our business, not to mention 3 years of experience, and it was just a matter of look for opportunities to pivot. That’s when I realized I was considering giving up because I was so focused on one idea of how our business needed to look that I couldn’t see all the options available to us, and once I did, we completely changed our business model, let our two employees go, became extremely profitable, were out of debt within a couple of months and made $500,000 in the next 12 months just the two of us.
So, how are things going today? How did your values lead to your eventual success?
Things are better than I ever could have imagined back in 2011 when Steve and I were working out of our little 1-bedroom apartment in Brooklyn. Now we work with clients about 25% of our time, and the rest of our time is spent working on our own brands and other projects. I am certain that we were able to achieve this level of success so quickly because we are constantly willing to try new things, BIG things, without the guarantee that they will always work. It has allowed us to fail fast, and learn and pivot quickly, which has led us to all the things that have worked for our 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.
- If you want to be loved by raving fans who do a lot of your marketing for you, you have to be OK being misunderstood, and even disliked, by others. It’s that push/pull in your brand that is going to attract your best, ideal clients and allow you to charge more for the value you provide. Believe me, a lot of people told us not to name our company Worstofall Design, and when we first started saying “Badass Brands” 6 years ago many people told us it was inappropriate. Hard to believe now but it’s true! And I attribute a lot of our success to sticking to it. You’ve got to be yourself and go all the way, even when some people don’t like it.
- The profit is in process and standardization. Every client we service gets a completely original brand, but the process they go through is like a choreographed dance that ensures success every time. It’s the process that both allows us to become more and more profitable over time, and makes sure our clients get better and better results.
- Instead of doing free work to get clients, focus that time on building a reputation through content. So many service businesses give away their time to prove their worth to clients and hope they get hired eventually, and it’s a waste of time. If you put the work into creating a reputation, clients will come to you ready to buy. All of our clients these days come to us after they’ve read many articles and often my book, so they are excited to hire us before we’ve even spoken!
- Everything is a learning opportunity, so don’t be afraid to try things. There is only so much you can learn from watching and reading, in the end, you won’t know which strategies will work for your business unless you try them. And if you try something and it doesn’t work, it’s still valuable information for you. Always squeeze the value out of everything you do and you’ll be successful.
- Strive for excellence. Nobody is perfect, but as long as you are always learning and growing, your clients will feel it and not only does it build goodwill and trust, but it means your business will constantly increase in value.
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?
My partner in life and in business Steve, of course! Though I am the business half in the relationship and he is technically the creative director, it’s his creative way of looking at things (paired with his complete rejection of anything being done the way it “should” be done), that has encouraged me to take even more risks than I think I would have on my own. And I think getting comfortable with risk and trying things is one of the best skills an entrepreneur can have.
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. :-)
My movement is the Solopreneur Economy. It’s a collective of individuals who are all striving for excellence in what they do, and are able to confidently hire others in the Solopreneur Economy because they meet a standard of excellence. Each individual gets to enjoy the fulfillment of living a life of constant learning and growing and has complete agency over how they spend their time and live their lives. Now more than ever with the recent Coronavirus, the solopreneur economy is showing how needed it is because it gives people flexibility in their lives so they aren’t reliant on one company or one boss to survive.
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