When you find yourself steering a burning bus: Learnings from a CEO who (barely) rode it out
VOLTAGE CEO Eric Fowles shares some personal learnings from the ups and downs (mostly downs) of 2018/2019. A broken back wasn’t even the worst of it.
I started VOLTAGE 11 years ago as a solo designer, winning Smashburger when they first started, then Reebok, adidas, Chipotle, Fjällräven, and many more as our team and our expertise in the D2C / ecomm space grew.
At our peak, we were just over 35 employees. At our lowest low in 2019, we got down to 7. Here are some things I took away from a really, really rough year that included everything from toxic leadership to a broken back, and even money laundering (yeah).
Dealing with discouragement or burnout – or a broken back (I was laid up for six weeks after scorpioning on the slopes) – is tough. I bought a new guitar and started lessons, playing scales every night. Songs have been my emotional and mental therapy for months now. I still suck, it’s a blast, and it has helped me put the anxiety in perspective. I’m still alive. I can still play the guitar. Fall in love with something other than work.
11 years ago, I set out to create a place I wanted to work. Who you hire is critical to the success of your business, your team, and the integrity of your culture. They say you usually know in the first 20 seconds what you’re supposed to do, and had I trusted that instinct, who knows how things would have gone different.
Culture can change so quickly based on your leadership. Good people left because I didn’t trust my gut. I didn’t even want to show up to work. I learned how important culture is when it wasn’t strong. Ultimately, by getting back to our values and roots, we were able to reestablish culture – but it took time.
Work like crazy. Don’t get paralyzed by fear or anxiety. Imposter syndrome? We all have it. Creative juice running low? Work through it. Or around it. Capitalize on your desperate moments, and trust the shared goal of a win to bring the team together.
“Free to create!” Remembering that this is why I started a creative agency to begin with gave me my spark back. I wanted to create fun, crazy experiences and stories with our clients and partners. And I wanted to make a difference in people’s lives and our clients’ businesses. Being a Force For Good is critical to our brand and, I believe, our success.
Our creative agency is doubling down on the direct-to-consumer economy. We’re growing our D2C digital marketing to supplement our Shopify partnership and expertise, and we’ve been selling a birthday cake of strategy / roadmapping / execution to digitally native brands. We power the brands of tomorrow to be a force for good.
…but don’t get too comfortable. Things can change so quickly and what will carry you is your culture, vision, and leadership. Build your company and culture on principles that are bigger than any employee, a client, or a service. This won’t break as long as you believe in it.
A new day for VOLTAGE.
Midway through 2019, we gutted a building we owned and moved the team to the new space. It’s like we’re going back to our startup roots. The move breathed new life and energy into the team. And I have gone back to what made me get in the business in the first place – the freedom to create, and to have crazy experiences and relationships like we have now with clients in Colorado, Utah, and beyond who we call friends.
Be a FORCE FOR GOOD
VOLTAGE is a digital agency specializing in eCommerce, digital brand experiences, and web apps. Get emails and insights from our team:
Eric Fowles is the master and commander of the VOLTAGE ship. His unending creativity and entrepreneurial spirit provide clients with the inspiration and vision they need to transform their brand, transcend the typical and excel in the eCommerce landscape.
Inspiration is all around. But it takes practice and intentionality to turn what goes in into truly transforming work. Here’s how the VOLTAGE team takes time to stay on top of design trends, marketing strategy, and future commerce. Plus some links to 2020 trend forecasts.