There’s a lot of hype around the startup space right now, particularly in the tech industry. However, you don’t need to build an app to launch a successful business; taking your professional skills and creating a service-based consultancy can be a lucrative way to step-up your career—and flex your entrepreneurship muscles. For pros who work in public relations, accounting, graphic design, or other service-based industries, there’s obviously a big leap between freelancing on your own or working for someone else full-time and starting a full-fledged agency. And no one knows this better than Leland Drummond and Michele Thomas, the cofounders of bicoastal public relations agency, AZIONE.
Since leaving their jobs at a boutique agency and launching AZIONE, the founders have built an impressive team across the east and west coasts and worked with some of the buzziest businesses across multiple industries—in fact, their clients have included a few of our favorite wellness brands: Sweetgreen, ModelFit, Sakara, and Ritual. We sat down with Leland and Michele to learn their tips for starting and running an agency.
Sporteluxe: What were you doing before you launched AZIONE?
Leland Drummond and Michele Thomas: We worked together at a boutique firm in LA that focused on traditional public relations. We quickly realized that we shared a vision of going beyond the typical PR approach to not only act as a liaison between the media and the brands that we worked with but really to cultivate a symbiotic partnership between ourselves and our clients to tell stories that went way beyond earned media. We really refined this over the years that we worked there together and eventually realized to see this through to its full potential, we need to be in an unrestricted setting where we could explore a new agency model.
Why did you decide to make the leap into starting your own agency?
We knew if we wanted to do things our way it was never going to happen while working under someone else’s vision. We were creating something unique in the space, and in order to grow it, it had to be on our terms.
Why was it the right time for you professionally and in terms of business opportunity?
We were truly lucky to have friends, family, and mentors in our corner supporting our vision and championing us at a time when our reputation began to proceed us and we started thinking about the future of what could be. We began fielding a high volume of new business opportunities based on referrals from the work that we were personally executing and we knew that we were on to something bigger than where we sat. Ultimately, we wanted to have ownership of something and really sink our teeth into the journey, and the only way to do that was to start AZIONE.
How did you attract your first clients?
When we launched AZIONE in 2010, we did so with a handful of clients that were really helpful to us in attracting and referring future business. Since opening AZIONE, we have been extremely fortunate that the majority of our clients have come to us by referral and that the growth we’ve experienced to date has truly been organic. We find the best way to attract new business is really staying the course of our unique business model and telling our story through the fingerprint we have on the brands we work with. Since day one, we realized that every interaction we had with a client, reporter, colleague or otherwise was going to be a direct reflection on AZIONE.
How did you attract your first employees?
We started AZIONE because we not only wanted to build a new agency model where we could be creative but also because we wanted to build an environment in which our employees (including ourselves) were excited to go to work at every day. We sold our dream to a few early employees that were willing to take a risk to reap the rewards. It’s important at the beginning to realize how extra perks of the job are valued and respected from an employee’s standpoint. We promised ourselves from day one that we would be the type of bosses we had always wanted ourselves but had never had. Whether it was year-round summer Fridays or super creative office spaces, we really focused on creating a fun atmosphere for our team from even the earliest days.
What surprised you most about starting your own business?
The one thing that surprised us most was how much you get lost in the minutia of operations and how much backend work there is to maintaining a business—let alone a bicoastal one. We really had to dive in and teach ourselves about all aspects of management, finance, and general operations and align with the right people when we needed to, to outsource the things we weren’t skilled at.
How has your life changed since starting AZIONE?
Freedom! The day we started AZIONE was they day work wasn’t work anymore. We were finally able to do things on our terms, not only from a scheduling and time perspective but also from a creative standpoint. The day work stops feeling like work is the day your life really changes.
What tips do you have for other women wanting to step up their own business, whether it’s in marketing, accounting, graphic design, or something else?
Do your research and speak to as many people as you can in a likeminded field. We always say, surround yourself with people smarter than you and can teach you about things you don’t yet know. Inform yourself about what challenges people face and what makes them tick. But after that? Jump in head first. If you believe strongly enough in your vision, it is worth every long hour, sleepless night and skipped paycheck (oh yeah, when you run a business, be prepared to pay yourself last).When it’s yours, it’s all worth it.
Has owning your own business given you more or less flexibility?
The quote we always think of when someone asks us this question is, “Entrepreneurs are the crazy people who work 100 hours a week so they don’t have to work 40 hours for someone else.” In all honesty “the job” is 24 hours a day but when it’s yours, those hours are what you make of them.
How much do you think a college degree helped you professionally? Do you think college is important for professional success?
We believe careers don’t directly correlate with one’s college experience, but college is certainly important, not to mention an incredible way to get an early start to understanding a vocation. Our suggestion? Once you find something you like, use your university’s network to find a mentor, apply for an internship, ask questions. We find that the greatest entrepreneurs come from all walks of life and don’t necessarily take the obvious route on their respective journeys.
How do you prioritize self-care and your own wellness while running a business?
As we’ve continued to get busier and also both became mothers, self-care has become an imperative part of our lives and crucial to finding the balance (or at least trying to). Ultimately, by taking a little time for ourselves whenever time allows, we become more creative and more productive as result. Through the years we have learned to prioritize wellness in particular—whether it be meditation, fitness, time out of office, digital detoxes, a spa day, a hike. It doesn’t have to be anything major, but it really is important to step away from your day to day routine and unwind.
What does an average work day look like now for you?
When we aren’t traveling between LA/NY you can find us at AZIONE’s Costa Mesa office (about an hour and a half south of Los Angeles). Each day really varies based on our individual schedules, but ideally, we arrive in the office at around 8:30 AM and go straight into work mode answering emails and taking calls. Since we’re three hours behind New York, we tend to find ourselves buried by the time we wake up, so it’s really fast and furious by the time we get to our desks. We break (when we can) for fitness (heated yoga class or pilates are preferred) which we feel gives us a great opportunity to unplug momentarily for our lunch hour and regroup and talk through everything going on as we go to/from. We grab a quick lunch post yoga which we usually eat at the office and work through the end of the day. We prioritize time with our families at the end of the day, so when we’re at our desks, we tend to rarely break from the tasks at hand.
How do you de-stress and unwind after work?
While we both have respective wellness routines, we find the best way to de-stress after work for us both is to focus on our families and really be present when doing so. This means doing our best to not check email or be on calls once we get home before our children go to bed, even if it means that the few hours of uninterrupted family time leads to a delayed response to a client or team member. The end of the day for us is really about living in the present and we find that the dichotomy of our work and personal lives is what makes us whole and ultimately successful.