I run a small, 11-person animation studio in the Midwest (shameless plug: @pixelbakery). As any small business owner knows, you’re only as good as your team.
So many entrepreneurs today start companies with the sole objective of eventually selling the company to get rich, which is fine, but that’s not why I’m in this. We don’t sell a physical product, we don’t develop revenue-generating apps, and I have no exit strategy. No venture capitalist in their right mind would invest in us.
Good. That’s not something I want.
But even if I did want that, it wouldn’t be possible. We sell the creative brains of our employees, which means we’re not scalable, and that comes with a price.
I’m an empath.
That phrase gets floated around a lot and is almost just… something people say. But most people don’t fully understand the depth of what it really means. Empaths experience the emotions, feelings, and moods of the people in their lives down to the inner essence of their souls, which can be extremely overwhelming at times. When someone does something shameful, I feel their pain and self-defeat. The worst is when someone loses a person close to them. I experience grief and stay up all night resisting the urge to smother them and struggle with giving them the space they need to grieve.
However, for all the bad, there’s an equal amount of good.
It gives me the unique ability to understand other people on a deep level. I can connect with them, listen to them, and hear their needs without interjecting my own life experiences/bias. It helps me to appreciate their journey, to give them patience and grace, and to respect their feelings. My wife would say that my most commonly used expression is “feelings are facts for the person feeling them.”
Running a business is hard
You’d think that would be obvious, but goddamn it’s hard. For the first three years of owning Pixel Bakery, I bartended to pay my rent. I would work 80-hour weeks and sleep on the tiny couch in our tiny office to keep up. Covid was especially hard. It nearly finished us, and we were one payroll away from not existing. I literally had an email drafted and ready to send to all our clients informing them we would send over recommendations for other studios once our current obligations were finished. Heavy is the head that holds the crown, or whatever.
I’m not saying this for pity or sympathy. I would go through that a hundred times just to have the relationships I’ve made along the way. I might have the stress lines of a 50 year old at the age of 30, but it’s all been worth it.
The only reason we’ve made it is because of our clients, our community, and my team
This is where the empath part comes in. I’ve only recently diagnosed my personality as that of an empath. It’s not something that’s conscious– I’ve always just been… me. I never recognized how it shaped and molded my leadership style. I’m constantly insecure about being the boss, and it never feels real. My personal life is in a perpetual state of chaos, and I’m constantly wondering things like “does my team know I’m the type of person that has had a moldy coffee mug on their nightstand for a month?”
That said, I’ve spent a lot of time trying to pinpoint what makes me a successful leader and areas I may be failing in. Those areas are pretty obvious and are things that all leaders struggle with, such as time management, bucketing tasks, balancing employee work-life, keeping a stream of clients coming in that will creatively fulfill the animation department, etc. I don’t have the answers to those yet.
But I have some insights on the positives that I’ve extrapolated from the whole empath thing. It boils down to really three things.
“How Can I Support You?”
I try to ask it often as I possibly can without annoying my team. Again, we’re not scalable and our creatives are our product. Providing the best support possible is not only the right thing to do, but it makes financial sense. Supporting your team is so important that if I were to write one of those self-help style horoscopes-for-entrepreneurs books, that would be the only sentence.
I push my employees hard and the weight of our projects usually weighs on them. Our industry is chaotic with an ever-changing landscape. I’ve had seven years of learning how to navigate that, but our team hasn’t. The second someone on my team is showing signs of burnout, stress, or overworkedness(not a word, I know, and Grammarly is freaking out as I type this), I ask them about it. And I ask so often that they know it’s not a canned response. I follow up with actions based on their response, and I’ll immediately shift lanes and take on any tasks that have become overwhelming.
“How are you?”
There are two intentions behind that question. The first is something you say in passing jovially as a form of saying “hello”. It’s not something that even merits a response if the other person said “hi” first, and often doesn’t get one.
Then there’s the other side of that coin. Try to pull them aside on a regular basis and prioritize time to actually ask the question. The tone of your voice even hits differently when you ask it that way. You say it more intention and eye contact.
There’s the expression “Everyone is fighting a battle you know nothing about” and it holds true. Managing your team without fully comprehending that concept makes you a commander, not a leader.
“I appreciate you so much.”
It’s a little corny and it takes a practice of vulnerability o get comfortable with it, but it’s important. I say it to every single person when they leave for the day and after they accomplish anything from mission-critical tasks to the remedial ones. Sometimes it’s hard to say it without tearing up (nothing says ‘Ope’ like crying in front of your employees).
Again, it sounds like something someone might say in passing, but I truly mean it and I hope they believes me when I say it. I’m sure they’re sick of hearing it, but I’m going to keep saying it anyway. As previously mentioned, they’re the reason behind our success. At the risk of sounding hubristic, we’re damn good at what we do and highly revered in our industry, and it’s all thanks to them, and they deserve to know that.
Idk man, I’m making everything up as I go
Everyone is wingin’ it and any CEO that says otherwise is full of shit. Don’t take my advice as gospel, these are just the three things I’ve discovered so far. Really, I only have one thing about business figured out:
Be kind. Treat your employees like humans.