Arianne Foulks is the head storyteller, idea hatcher, and yaysayer at Aeolidia, the web design company she founded and captains. The custom ecommerce websites Aeolidia creates have a reputation for transforming businesses, taking them to the next level, and resulting in substantial increases to online sales.
Arianne's wealth of freelance knowledge, which she has developed over the past 13 years, is astounding. Lucky for us, she's sharing a bunch of that wisdom right here! Be sure to carve out space in your week to sit down and really let her words sink in.
Tell me about your journey to becoming the captain and founder of Aeolidia.
I began creating websites for people officially (meaning I got paid!) in 2004. I didn’t have a master plan. I was tired of taking the bus downtown and sitting in a cubicle, and it seemed like I could replace my income with freelance work.
I was lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time, when people were beginning to sell their crafts online. At that time, there weren’t any software solutions available that didn’t require coding help. I learned on the job on every project I worked on, and found out what clients needed by wading in with them and discovering together. Payment providers and SSL certificates, for example, were new to me when my first client asked me how to set them up.
I reached out to dozens of my favorite illustrators early on, because it seemed fun to collaborate with them. Aeolidia became known for quirky, illustrated web design. My relationships with my illustrators made it easy to visualize expanding a bit. I hired a friend and my husband, and we grew little by little over the years. I ended up replacing myself in my original roles with the Aeolidians, who I rely on now.
If you’d asked me if I wanted that in the beginning, I probably would have laughed at you, but I’m delighted with where we’ve ended up.
In the beginning, how did you attract your first good Aeolidia clients?
It was almost too easy in 2004! I did work for a friend, then for the friend’s friend. The friend’s friend ran a community for craft businesses, and I soon became known as “the” designer for that crowd. It was less a matter of trying to attract clients than it was trying to find time to work with them all.
Can you tell us a bit about the growth process for Aeolidia? Was it always your plan to expand to the size of your current team?
I never planned to expand into a team with full time employees and always more than a dozen contractors. In fact, I resisted it quite a bit along the way. When I was still designing and developing websites myself, I tried hard to hold on to these roles. I didn't like the idea of bossing a bunch of people around, without getting to do creative work myself.
Both the Aeolidia blog and newsletter have been an enjoyable way for me to still be creative. And I see now that business strategy and growth is an art of its own. Before, I would have ideas, but no reasonable way to implement them. Now, I can have an idea and call on my team to help me make it happen, which is a wonderful thing.
Team management can be a challenge. Do you have any advice for handling communication to a large team? Are there particular digital tools that you like to use for communication?
Our team is remote, spread across many different US cities. We also have a Canadian and Australian on the team, and often work with clients out of the country.
Communication is something we excel at, but are also always working to improve.
Slack was the best thing we ever did for our communication. We use this chat software to discuss things as a group and one-on-one. We can break into infinite groups, one for each client project, and one for each role within the business.
We schedule meetings in Slack, such as the intensive strategy session we complete for each client, and the “postmortem” chat at the end of each project. These help us meet client goals and pinpoint what we did well and what we could improve for next time.
I’m currently pondering a way to create an “Aeolidia hive mind” that allows our entire team to learn from every project, even ones they weren’t a part of. We know so much more together than we would on our own.
Do you have any tips for being your most productive?
My best tip for being your most productive is: don’t try to do everything yourself. Tips for being productive tend to revolve around trying to do more, but I spend my time trying to do less. That way, instead of feeling hassled and burnt out by my impossible to-do list, I can focus on the things I’m best at.
Everything else? I work to delegate to someone who can, in most cases, do it better than I was doing it. It’s more productive to hire a bookkeeper or a copywriter or a project manager than to find yourself stretched thin between five different jobs. And realizing you're not doing any of them to the best of your ability.
I find that every time my business hits a point of growth, I can hire someone who pays for themselves. They either increase our profitability directly, or they free up my time to make us more money.
When the work I’m doing is the kind I’m best at and most interested in, I'm naturally productive. I’m more likely to have to remember to tear myself away from the computer for lunch than to try to force myself to focus.
What has been your greatest struggle as a female creative and leader of a creative company so far?
I don’t know about struggles as a female creative, but I have had plenty of struggles as a leader, of course.
One thing that is rough as a boss is firing employees and breaking up with contractors. Our standards are so high that we can only work with people who exceed client expectations. This means I’ve had to let many wonderful and skilled people go over the years. Each time, I’ve tried to get better by:
evaluating fit in advance
using trial periods or test projects
using Radical Candor to communicate
Freelancing can be a lonely industry. What is your favorite thing about working with a team?
Our team is incredibly supportive of each other, friendships spring up, and there is no ego in our group. Seeing what our talented team can create together never gets old. It feels amazing to get help on tricky issues and have smart people to rely on. Peppering our Slack conversations with animated gifs doesn’t hurt, either.
My favorite thing is the feeling that everyone on our team believes in Aeolidia’s values and mission. Our clients’ successes are our successes. When I'm doing my job right, Aeolidia isn’t just another job to the Aeolidians. It’s something special that pushes them to do their best work and helps them live their best life.
How do you continue to attract Aeolidia's ideal clients?
I could write a book about this! We attract clients by being worth talking about. Our clients refer us, and people follow the credit link in the footer of our clients’ websites.
Our blog has been a huge source of traffic and return visits. I can’t believe I ever questioned whether it was a good use of my time!
I love to collaborate on podcasts or videos, and other service providers' educational content. Something about hearing from me in person spurs people to action more than just reading a blog post.
Do you have any tips for dealing with the nitty-gritty business details?
Hire expert help as soon as you can.
Get everything in writing.
Make sure you control the process, rather than letting the client do so.
Whenever you're waiting for anything from anyone, set a reminder to yourself—no loose ends!
How do you stay creatively inspired?
Ah, so many ways! I read business books and listen to podcasts. I love the internet. We have a community for creative shop owners on Facebook who give me great ideas and problems to solve. I always have an eye out for interesting business puzzles that we could put our minds to.
There is nothing like heading to in-person events, and jumping in to teach or consult. Having some face time makes the people I’m serving more vivid and inspiring.
Since you are your own boss, do you have any advice for maintaining a work-life balance?
Ha ha ha ha hahahahahahaha! My main tip is not to stress too much about getting things perfect. If your family is generally happy, you see friends and enjoy a hobby, you’re doing fine! I course-correct any time that work doesn’t feel like a fun challenge to me. At the first whiff of burnout, it’s time to take a look at what you’re doing. Where could you give yourself some slack or spark a new interest in your day to day?
Are there any projects on which you're ruminating that you'd like to make time for someday?
This is my main challenge as a creative business owner. I used to have a list of almost a dozen interesting projects that I was trying to pursue all at once! With the help of a mentor, I did learn to focus on what was making Aeolidia profitable. And that meant shelving the rest.
I’m happy to say that two recent hires (a project manager and content marketing manager) are giving us the ability to pursue new projects.
The one I’m most excited about right now is improving and expanding the educational services we offer to business owners. We have plans to share more actionable strategy for making money online. We have some classes and paid info products up our sleeves that I am excited about.
Any music, podcast, or book recommendations that you'd like to share?
Books! Here are a few that are gold mines for freelancers or entrepreneurs:
If you’re anything like me, and want to pursue a bunch of glittery little ideas, and have never been a specific goal-setter, let The ONE Thing (The Surprisingly Simple Truth Behind Extraordinary Results) change your mind. It’s great for understanding how your daily, weekly, and monthly choices build your life as an entrepreneur.
If you feel overwhelmed by email and social media and like you spend your time on everyone’s obligations but your own? You’ll like Unsubscribe (How to Kill Email Anxiety, Avoid Distractions, and Get Real Work Done) for taking your own time back.
If you’re trying to figure out how much to pay yourself, how much to set aside for taxes, and when you can afford to hire help or purchase software? Profit First (Transform Your Business From a Cash-Eating Monster to a Money-Making Machine) is eye-opening about what it takes to divide your income up in a sustainable way.
Follow that up with The Index Card (Why Personal Finance Doesn’t Have to Be Complicated), to make sure you’re saving wisely for your future.