Lacey Picazo of ZoCo Design graced us with her presence at April’s Rise & Design to brave all our hopes, dreams, and fears of what it’s like to start your own agency.
As a small shop, Lacey has experienced first hand the change that happens while evolving ZoCo from a studio of one to a studio of a dozen—feeling the pressures of wearing every hat and the dangers of owning roles you don't love, all while trying to stay true to the values that brought ZoCo to life in the first place.
Nothing below is verbatim, as I can’t write that fast when note-taking. So even though I brazenly use “I” when Lacey responds, it’s still a condensed version of her answer. Cool. That’s out of the way...let’s get to the good stuff.
As always, this post was lovingly written by Anna Hetzel, fellow copywriter and tiny house builder.
Photographs were taken by the ever talented Sean Gorant.
Lacey introduces herself
I went to OSU and worked in-house and at agencies as a graphic designer. The problem was nothing fit right! Creatives tend to get siloed fast in agencies and are asked to do only what they’re really good at. I felt super stuck!
But here was the challenge: I wanted to know more about the work, about how to work with clients, how to understand the vision, and not feel just like an executor of the work. I didn’t understand the design I was creating in the context of the larger idea.
So I quit and became a pharma sales rep because I was so dang burnt out. At night I freelanced and eventually quit the pharma sales because it started getting in the way of my design work.
Do what works for you personally or you’ll be really unhappy!
From day one I wanted to a build a team alongside with me. I wanted the consistency of a team, of working together. And full truth: there are parts of running a business I don’t like, so why not hire those parts out? The first position I hired was a project manager and it freed up so much of my time.
Q: How were you able to dictate which aspects of the business to delegate?
A: Well first, because I’m selfish, I didn’t want to delegate the creative side at first. I wanted to keep control of that process at the beginning.
Second, I’m a perfectionist. Hiring someone is hard. You know how the job is done, what your process is, but it’s hard to get it down on paper. It’s going to take a long learning curve for the new hire and you have to take the time to train the person properly. It’s a long game.
Trying to figure out what to delegate was really hard. I still wanted to be involved in all parts of the process. The best thing that happened was having babies, actually! I had to delegate because I was going to be out on maternity leave. I handed tasks over to my team and didn’t take them back when I returned.
Q: When did you start hiring designers? Was it a sort of chicken/egg scenario, where you either have the work for them or because they are hired more work will come?
A: I’m very risk intolerant. Loads of financial advisors and business coaches tell you to have 3 months of expenses and 3 months of the employees salary already saved up in the bank. I make sure I have 6 months before I hire.
When I first started building my business I didn’t pay myself very well. I wanted to leave a lot of money in the company so I could hire people when I was certain their positions were safe and secure.
Q: Are you specific on the type of work you do with clients because you know your team?
A: Yes! But we focus more on value alignment. We want to make sure the clients value us and we’re not just a production and execution branch of their business.
We work to make sure we are partners. If the client thinks they know everything it’s not a good fit because they don’t value the team’s expertise and input.
Honestly, the best project we’ve had was for a water systems distributor in the septic systems space! Not a sexy industry, but we helped them align to really understand their target audiences and every aspect of the journey for building new communities to find where their product plays an integral part. We really helped this company find their best opportunities and showed them how to take advantage of them.
At the end of the day before we take on a client we ask ourselves: Can we make an impact?
Q: How do you have a conversation with clients who aren’t aligned with your values?
A: Well, you never want to burn bridges. Yeah, it gets super frustrating and I can get a little hot headed sometimes. I take a day or two to collect my thoughts and write up the email to T-up the bad break up. I’m always honest, open, and still come at those conversations as a partner.
The key is to take emotion out of it. It’s hard.
Q: What are signs that a client isn’t a good fit?
A: When they are nickel & diming you- it means they care more about cost than value.At the end of the day, it comes down to a gut feeling.
Q: Was there a reason why you chose Columbus?
A: I love Columbus. I thought I wasn’t going to stay, but my husband is from here and we found a wonderful house in Grandview.
What’s great about Columbus is that you can have open and transparent conversations. The vibe of the community is incredibly supportive. Columbus has a network like no other city for entrepreneurs.
Q: What is the biggest challenge in managing a team?
A: I’m a creative, not a business legal HR etc etc person. The key is having values that are really aligned and creating a more family and flat environment. Sometimes that’s hard because you can start assuming that the team just knows what you’re thinking. It’s all about communication.
I love a team because it brings a wonderful diversity of ideas. We have a new team member who’s only been with us for a couple months now and she’s already challenging us on our process and how it could be better.
My communication style is really direct and I’ve totally cried in front of my team multiple times. I believe in getting things out in the open and resolving it! That’s a big part: problem-solving for the team. It’s my job to notice down to their body language if they are happy. If they are feeling stressed, how can we move their schedule around to make it better for them?
Q: How do you communicate the value of design to your clients?
A: We are an agency that focuses a lot on strategy. We make a strong case for why it’s important through qualitative research and try really hard to not be so subjective.
We go in prepared for the “well my wife likes purple” line. With data and research, we can clear up why maybe that color isn’t the best fit for the company. Our job is to give the best case on why to teach our process and approach to design.
Q: Can you give examples of how having brought more diverse perspectives has helped your business?
A: Our team challenges me all the time with the “Why do we do it that way?” question. They better define and improve our processes. But it’s not just my teammate’s perspectives that are unique.
Design is and should be multidisciplinary. I never want to silo my team because it wouldn’t grow them as individuals. Just because you’re really good at print assets doesn’t mean you can’t also be amazing at websites. Learning and growing is the goal.
Q: Have there been times you’ve needed to be “the boss?” How do you navigate those situations, as you’ve built an intentionally non-hierarchical company?
A: I’m super transparent on the “why.” I have to explain so either we’re on the same page or we as a team need to say no.
There have been times when saying yes to a certain opportunity or project would’ve been really good for me and the business, but it ultimately comes down to what the team wants. I don’t want a decision to harm team happiness, and that loyalty has hugely paid off.
Q: So have you been able to build a healthy culture?
A: The boss I am today is miles better than who I was even two years ago. It takes time to be better, to build, to ask the right questions. I work to make sure our values aren’t just words on the wall- we practice them. We live them.
Q: You make sure you are pushing your team to grow in new ways, but do you have mentors that work to pull you out of your comfort zone?
A: Working with others is the biggest factor in personal growth. You can get thoughts and insights on your challenges. I have about a dozen different people I consistently get coffee with, I’m a part of mastermind groups, I’m involved in numerous local organizations...really it’s very frequent and open communication with people different than you which helps you grow the most.
Now, I’m involved in a lot of stuff. That means that every year or so I have to sit down and reevaluate how I spend my time. There are different seasons in life, and right now I’ve realized where I focus my time and energy is different—and that’s ok. This year I’m more focused on personal growth and wellness.
Q: Where do you get your business savvy?
A: My husband is naturally skilled at operations, process, and logistics, so I have free in house advice!
Through the years I’ve had a lot of failures, but I ask questions, I ask people, I find people who are going through the same thing. I learn from other people.
Q: Did you ever at any point feel like you had no one to talk to?
A: No! I’m a people-person, and like I said before, Columbus is super open and welcoming.
Q: You’ve talked a bit about value-based pricing. How do you determine the value the design is going to give them?
A: The first thing is to understand your client’s business and the challenge they look to solve. Use case studies to show what a similar project has done for someone else. Be sure to talk more about the problems they are having and how you can help solve them.
Figure out what their problem actually is and go from there. Though design can be subjective, we always look for ways to implement metrics and performance indicators in everything we do.
Q: We live in a DIY culture- how much problem-solving conversations do you have before a contract is signed? Do clients ever just go and do the work themselves?
A: Number one- if they want to DIY, they may not value what we bring to the table as professionals and it’s possible they will not be a good client.
In the first meeting, we really let them do almost all the talking. There are always natural organic ways to pitch yourself in that conversation. But yeah, sometimes people would rather handle the creative strategy themselves and if they don’t see us as a partner to help them meet their goals we may not be the right fit. , and the sales process is something we’re constantly working on.
Q: How much is Zoco managing current clients/new client acquisition vs client work?
A: Return business is really really important.
But hey, a tangent!
When you’re building an agency and you’ve been on your own for a bit, your clients expect to work with you, not your team. Your clients need to feel bonded to your team so there aren’t any misaligned expectations about who is doing the work.
When I went on my first maternity leave, my clients were really bonded to me, and not to my team. Now I make sure the team are in those early meetings so the client feels comfortable and excited to work with everyone at ZoCo.
Q: Do you feel like you’re doing the work you want to now?
A: I am now. When you’re thinking about building an agency, first really get to know yourself. Decide how and if you want to grow and build your dream job from there.
I was salty for a bit that as the business grew I did less and less design work, but now I realize I’m getting a lot more fulfillment from growing the team. Them loving their workplace really fills my cup.
So ask yourself: In a perfect world, what makes you excited?
But you know, also be ok with the fact you won’t be doing 100% of the work that you love.
Q: How are you finding your work/life balance?
A: I have a really high tolerance for pain. I work about 80 hours a week, but I’m looking at what I can take out. I don’t always have to grind grind grind!
My team actually helps me a lot with my own time management. They’ve been known to yell at me to get off Slack and enjoy my time off!
There’s also this model of a clock to help you visualize time management.
You have 24 hours in a day.
- Work (tasks, errands, career, etc) = 11 hours
- Personal life (sleep, yoga, showers, etc) = 10 hours
- Relationships (family, friends, quality time, etc) = 3 hours
If work is needing extra attention, you can borrow from any of the buckets you’d like, but it may lead to your failing health or your failing marriage. Finding the balance in your day is so important and I’m working on mine!
Q: Where do you even begin to hire someone?
A: 100% of the designers we hired came from our network. I’ve only hired one person from LinkedIn.
Hiring is a long long process. You have to really spend time with them to make sure their values align with yours so that it isn’t a total leap of faith.
Q: Where do you go to recruit?
A: We use our social media channels a lot.
We also send emails to our peers. In Columbus, one role that is harder to fill is for an account manager, did you know that!? Anyway, we ask our peers if they recently interviewed someone that wasn’t quite the right fit for them but is still a strong candidate, or if someone recently left the company. If they can connect us, great!
I keep up a good connection with professors at the local colleges to be connected to up and coming designers.
Really at the end of the day, it’s all relationship driven.
Q: You work with a few startups- have you ever taken equity for compensation?
A: So we do more work with organizations that support startups. We sometimes do discounted work but never spec work. But no, we’ve never taken equity in a startup.
Q: Are there any myths you want to dispel about starting an agency that we haven’t covered?
It’s a myth that it’s ridiculously difficult. Anyone can do it if they work hard and are resilient. The difficult part is finding enjoyment in it and ensuring your new role aligns with your personal values
Does work/life balance get any better? I think sleep is the new status symbol. If you can just go to sleep at a decent hour and not feel stressed, you’ve made it. I need to structure my time and work better!
What about the rest of the team? Do you have to sleep in the office to be a successful designer? No!! There’s a horrible myth that the only way to be a designer is to constantly grind. Absolutely not. And it’s the responsibility of the management team and owners at agencies to keep this from happening.
Final thought- use creative strategy for your own business! You have to think about how a service or a system takes the weight off you rather than put more on. We created a Zoco wiki as a resource so everything isn’t just all in our own heads. It helps with training new hires and with streamlining and improving our process.
Q: What made you decide that you wanted to make an agency?
A: We get a great number of awesome opportunities that I couldn’t tackle alone. I need the help of an awesome team to achieve everything I want to. I also really enjoy working with the same consistent crew each day.
Lacey’s final nuggets of wisdom:
Hey, sometimes those clients perceptions you think you see are just your own head trash. Just show who you are and people will come.