Andrea Heuston is the founder and CEO of Artitudes Design, an experiential design firm that works with Fortune 500 companies (Microsoft, Starbucks, and Expedia to name a few) as well as startups and non-profits. She is also is the creator and host of the podcast, Lead Like a Woman, where she interviews female leaders and entrepreneurs who share their tips on life, leadership, and entrepreneurship. She is passionate about empowering women and helping to close the gender gap for women in business. Her LinkedIn article, ‘Never Apologize for Being a Strong Woman’ became one of the most viewed articles on LinkedIn, with over 1.3 million interactions.
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Table of Contents
Thank you for joining us today. Please introduce yourself to our readers. They want to know you, some of the background story to bring some context to your interview.
Andrea Heuston: I’m Andrea Heuston, Founder, CEO, and creative Principal of Artitudes Design. At 24 I was putting myself through college at night and by day running the creative services department at an energy systems engineering firm in Seattle when the company was purchased by a French firm. They had me lay off the entire team of seven designers and then laid me off. However, two days later they called me back and said we made a mistake – we need to do some rebranding and we need you to come back. I decided I didn’t want to put my fate in somebody else’s hands anymore, so I jumped in my car, drove 60 minutes to Olympia, the state capital, and got a business license. I used $5,000 that my Grandma Gerry loaned me to buy a Macintosh computer and get business cards and then called the energy systems firm back and they became my first client.
I also grew up with a father who had traditional values around gender roles, favoring female domesticity over entrepreneurship and leadership. He didn’t believe that women should be in business. The realization that I could run a company and I could do it well was also the attraction, motivation, and inspiration for founding Artitudes Design.
You are a successful entrepreneur, so we’d like your viewpoint, do you believe entrepreneurs are born or made? Explain.
Andrea Heuston: I think it’s a mix. But if I had to choose one or the other, I think they’re born. Some people have a certain tolerance for risk, others don’t, and the number one quality you have to have to be an entrepreneur is high-risk tolerance. I don’t think that’s learned, I think it’s innate. You can learn to run a business, you can learn to jump off a cliff, but you cannot learn to have a high-risk tolerance.
If you were asked to describe yourself as an entrepreneur in a few words, what would you say?
Andrea Heuston: I have that high tolerance for risk — I’m really happy to look over the edge of a building, jump and know that I’ll grow wings before I hit the bottom. I also have grit, a ton of passion and I’m super tenacious. If I feel like I need to go after something, I’ll go after it comes hell or high water.
Tell us about what your company does and how did it change over the years?
Andrea Heuston: Artitudes began as a ‘traditional’ graphic design firm – creating logos and branded content (newsletters, brochures, postcards, etc) for clients. As technology changed so did we, moving into the online world. However, I quickly found out that killer creative skills are just the tip of the spear. To be successful, we had to find a niche and own it and that’s what we’ve done. Today we are an experiential design firm – we specialize in designing and executing corporate events – from visual concepts, video, motion graphics, and animation to presentation design to speaker training and support, for events from 5 to 50,000 attendees.
We understand how people communicate across media and platforms, and how to integrate strategic and brand alignment. There are very few companies that focus on creating audience connections through communications, both visual and otherwise, and do it well, and that’s what we do. We had to look for a need that was there that we could fill in a highly valuable way, using our creative skills and strategy.
Thank you for all that. Now for the main focus of this interview. With close to 11.000 new businesses registered daily in the US, what must an entrepreneur assume when starting a business?
Andrea Heuston: Obviously, the main one would be to assume that you’ll have a lot of competition – whether you’re launching a cookie business and selling at Farmers Markets, launching a photography App, or a new wine brand, chances are somebody has something similar. Do your research. And then do some more. The more work you can do defining your audience and your differentiators, the better poised you will be for success.
I started as a solopreneur and grew the business organically over time, but if I were starting a new business today, I would research the heck out of the space and have my brand well defined before launch.
Did you make any wrong assumptions before starting a business that you ended up paying dearly for?
Andrea Heuston: Yes, I assumed that I should take the advice of anyone who gave it to me. I didn’t have any entrepreneurial role models in my life so I went to entrepreneurs in the business community who I knew, and I picked their brains and I got their advice. Since they were, for the most part successful, I blindly assumed that it was advice I should follow. But it wasn’t always relevant for me and my particular situation. What worked for them wasn’t necessarily right for me.
I was so green, I didn’t know any better or how to sort through the advice. I’ve since realized that my best learnings are from other people’s experiences — be it the good or bad — versus prescriptive advice they give me. I still seek out examples from other entrepreneurs but I don’t ask them how to apply them to my situation, as no one knows my business as well as I do.
If you could go back in time to when you first started your business, what advice would you give yourself and why? Explain.
Andrea Heuston: Oh, there are so many things! I’d tell myself to surround myself with trusted advisors and not go it alone. You should have a banker, a lawyer, a CPA, a bookkeeper, and a coach. You might think when you’re starting that you can’t afford to pay for professional services, but you’ll make mistakes that may cost you more in the long run if you don’t. I’d also tell myself that when hiring, look for people who have complementary skill sets and who will challenge me.
One of my early hires —Jonathon—was intelligent, creative, driven, and good with customers. When I hired him, I didn’t realize it was like looking in the mirror. And since we shared the same skill set, I always thought I knew best and wanted to direct him. I also didn’t need to duplicate my strengths, I needed to hire complementary skill sets and people who do things better than I do. I used to be upset when employees challenged me. Now I understand that they’re doing it because they’re trying to improve things. And my way is not always the best. We’ve had lots of company processes that have been improved because employees challenged me.
I’d tell myself to learn to delegate. I’m good at it now but it was a hard one for me and I only learned to do it when I was forced to, thanks to a medical emergency that put me in a coma for 3 weeks and forced me to miss eight months of work. Before that experience, I was a micromanager, a control freak. I used to touch at least 80% of all projects that came through our doors, but because of my illness, I was forced to let go and see where I could truly add the most value to the company, and where I could let others shine with their skills and enthusiasm. It’s changed the way I lead, and I believe that both Artitudes and I are better for that decision.
And finally, I’d tell myself that success is a series of failures and it’s okay to fail. I have found over many years that my willingness to take risks is in direct relation to my ability to succeed. The more risks I take, the more I fail forward, the more successful I’ve become. I now look at “failures” as a stair step to something greater. I believe that the only way to truly succeed is to have failed in the past.
What is the worst advice you received regarding running a business and what lesson would you like others to learn from your experience?
Andrea Heuston: The worst advice I’ve received has always been around hiring — people telling me “You should hire this person, or this is what you need.” I made my worst hiring decision ever when I listened to that kind of input. Two different people in my life (who didn’t know each other) pushed my first employee on me.
By pushed I mean they said, “Oh, she’s so great, she was doing this for another design agency, she’d be amazing for you.” My gut was, “I don’t really like you and I don’t connect with you.” But because I had those people in my life telling me this is what I needed, I hired her. She didn’t work out at all AND it was only after I eventually fired her that I learned she’s been embezzling from me. Even though most of our people come to us today through employee referrals, we now have a formal hiring process and always do background checks.
In your opinion, how has COVID-19 changed what entrepreneurs should assume before starting a business? What hasn’t changed?
Andrea Heuston: What we’ve seen with Covid is that pretty instantaneously the needs of people, be it for services or products, changed overnight. And continue to change. So you can’t assume that last month’s brilliant idea will be something that is needed this month. What we’ve learned from Covid is that the marketplace can flex overnight.
What hasn’t changed in the realm of entrepreneurship and business is that you shouldn’t get too wedded to your brilliant idea and fail to read the marketplace tea leaves. Whether you have a great idea or a great product or great service, it doesn’t matter. It’s what the marketplace wants and you need to be in tune with the marketplace. It’s always been true but is exponentially more so because of Covid.
What is a common myth about entrepreneurship that aspiring entrepreneurs and would-be business owners believe in? What advice would you give them?
Andrea Heuston: One of the myths is that you must be focused on your business 100% of the time for it to be successful, but that’s not true. Being able to focus on yourself and your family and your mental and physical health will make you a stronger leader and make your business stronger. A lot of people say, ‘it’s going to take all your time, you’re going to take away from your family, you’re not going to have time for anybody anymore. That is utterly untrue, that is a decision you make on your own — some super-successful female founders who work 20 hours a week.
Another myth is that you have to know everything about everything. You categorically don’t. The best thing you can do as a founder/entrepreneur is to surround yourself with people who are smarter than you. Don’t ever be the smartest person in the room, because if you don’t believe there’s room to grow, you never will. If you’re not open to somebody else’s ideas or looking at something a different way that could make your company bigger, faster, stronger, better, you’ll at best limit your growth and at worst, fail altogether.
And of course, there’s the old trope/myth, “if you build it they will come.” A lot of entrepreneurs have brilliant ideas, but they don’t know how to get people to buy what they’re selling — and that’s not just selling a product but is also selling your idea to a banker, or a VC firm to get funding. Or selling your ideas and services to clients. If you don’t have that skill, get coaching or hire someone who can do it well.
What traits, qualities, and assumptions do you believe are most important to have before starting a business?
Andrea Heuston: Fearlessness, confidence, and tenacity.
- Fearless: You must believe that if you fall six times, you get up seven. It’s such a trite quote, but it’s true.
- Confidence: You need to believe in what you’re doing with every fiber of your being and be able to talk it up so other people believe in you and what you’re doing.
- Tenacity: That fierce blend of determination, persistence, and grit is needed to get you through the ups and downs of running a business, as there will be many.
How can aspiring leaders prepare themselves for the future challenges of entrepreneurship? Are there any books, websites, or even movies to learn from?
Andrea Heuston: Without sounding too self-serving, I’d like to think that my podcast – Lead Like a Woman,- is helpful. I interview female leaders and entrepreneurs who share their tips on life, leadership, and entrepreneurship. I’ve learned so much from the amazing women I’ve had the pleasure of interviewing and I’ve been in business for 25 years!
I’m also in a lot of peer groups and these have been enormously helpful in helping me grow the business and grow my leadership skills. They’ll be different for every entrepreneur but something you should seek out. Some of those peer groups have Facebook groups that I go to almost daily. It’s where I can ask a question and get it answered by other female entrepreneurs. I’m not usually looking for advice but resources. Somebody always has something to add. For example, the Women’s Business Enterprise National Council (WBENC) is a great one.
As for books, Gino Wickman’s Traction: Get A Grip On Your Business is excellent. Wickman created the Entrepreneurial Operating System (EOS) which I use to run the business and the book expounds on the approach with examples, tools, and best practices.
I recently read Greenlights by Matthew McConaughey. A lot of people would say that it’s not a business book, but there are a lot of business lessons you can take from it. My new mantra, taken from the book, is ‘less impressed, more involved’ — I need to be less impressed with myself and what’s going on around me, and more involved in the process. It’s changing the way I look at things, both in business and in life.
You have shared quite a bit of your wisdom and our readers thank you for your generosity but would also love to know: If you could choose any job other than being an entrepreneur, what would it be?
Andrea Heuston: I’d be a baker. First of all, because it’s a creative expression and I love it as an outlet for my creativity. In addition to being a happy place for me, it’s also a de-stressor. Funny story, in the early days of starting my business, I would bake bread for the family on weekends. But if my husband came home and found me baking during the week he would stay clear of me because he knew I’d had a bad day and was working out my aggression!
Thank you so much for your time, I believe I speak for all of our readers when I say that this has been incredibly insightful. We do have one more question: If you could add anyone to Mount Rushmore, but not a politician, who would it be; why?
Andrea Heuston: Lucille Ball. She broke barriers that had been up forever in the entertainment industry. She owned her own business, her studio. She also portrayed marital issues, parenting issues, and issues about women in the workforce on TV that changed people’s minds and attitudes overall. So I love her for being such a brilliant explorer, somebody who just went forward with her beliefs, and paved the way for others.
Larry Yatch, VIP Contributor to ValiantCEO and the host of this interview would like to thank Andrea Heuston for taking the time to do this interview and share her knowledge and experience with our readers.
If you would like to get in touch with Andrea Heuston or her company, you can do it through her – Linkedin Page
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