The Leap is back! For this IG Live series, Wethos CEO Rachel Renock sits down with entrepreneurs who took the leap toward working independently or starting their own project. Our first guest of 2022 was Ashley “Nala” Williams, VP of Strategic Partnerships at Visionary Rising and CEO of LIONSROAM. In this episode, Rachel spoke with Ashley about strategic development, creating effective systems to help you scale up, and the creator economy.
Note: The following interview has been edited for clarity and length.
RR: Ashley, who is joining us today is the VP of Strategic Development at Visionary Rising, which is an amazing digital agency and production studio that both uses Wethos and that we’ve hired ourselves — so we’re big fans. She’s got 10+ years of experience across leadership, strategic development, partnerships, and art direction across educational institutions, agencies, and museums. But what I’m really excited about is the fact that you’re all about effective systems that help smooth production and guide people through a product lifecycle from ideation to execution. So I’d love to start with the basics. Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and how Visionary Rising came to be?
AW: Like Rachel already said, I’ve worked in a bunch of different institutions, from agencies to museums. The quick story is out of high school, I knew that I was going to work for myself at some point because on every report card every teacher was saying, “Ashley wants to do things on her own.” I already knew going into college that I would either finish film school and start my business then or go right out the gate into entrepreneurship.
When I was around 19 or 20 I started LIONSROAM which was my own art brand. It was my way to fuel my creativity and passion. I started off doing visual arts and development, art direction, and creative direction.
That led to meeting LaTecia; she and I met at a creative town hall in Tampa, Florida. That led us to have a few work sessions and we just kind of clicked. This was six years ago. From seeing what I was doing with LIONSROAM — building my own brand, curating art events, and developing art programs and institutions — she asked me to come on board. I worked my way up to where I am now as a business partner with Visionary Rising.
RR: One thing that I’d love to dig into a little bit is a question we get a lot from people who are kind of on the cusp of growing or are maybe dealing with some growing pains, which is when should you bring in a partner or a counterpart? I’ve got one, her name is Claire (Wethos COO) and everyone needs a Claire. Can you tell us a little bit more about how you define your role in strategic development and what that looks like for you day to day?
AW: LaTecia is the CEO of Visionary Rising, so I would be like Claire to you, Rachel. I came on board as someone who already knows how to be a liaison. Working with LIONSROAM, I’ve been able to partner myself with corporations and startups, so I see my role as being a partnerships director and strategic developer and being the liaison between either brand or creator and building that true partnership.
RR: How does that boil down operationally? With Claire and I, we used to both do pitching and sales and new business development, and then we had some processes around, you know, putting the actual contract together and everything like that. What do you think about dividing up those kinds of responsibilities on an operational level and what does it mean to you when you bring in a new partner and set up that kind of strategic relationship?
AW: We like to have a discovery call first. My preference is three calls or less because time is valuable. And like LaTecia also says, I can tell within the first 20 minutes if you have funds and if you’re really ready to have an actual partnership. It’s about how people pitch you, so I like to listen a lot. I let the people lead with what they think a partnership is.
Operationally, it looks like setting up that discovery call, which is about 15-20 minutes, to understand what they are seeking. Is it a partnership or is it a sponsorship? Sometimes I like to go over 20 minutes just to get a fuller understanding and determine whether or not we’re going to have a follow up call. Then I’ll look into sending them a pitch deck of what we actually do based on what they need, and what we could provide as a symbiotic relationship.
Moving forward, if they do have money and they are available and ready to go, then we book a third call to really go through the scope of work and say this is what we’re agreeing to, this is what we’re signing up for, and then building from there.
RR: Quick question for folks that are maybe a bit newer — any thoughts on red flags or how to pick up on those conversations to understand, you know, is this client for real or not?
AW: One red flag would be when you ask them what their personal mission is and they can’t articulate it. That’s a red flag, at least when you’re trying to speak to an agency level. If we’re talking about consulting, that’s a different thing. I might be more flexible if we’re just consulting because I can help you build that brand voice. But if we’re talking pitching to an agency for partnership, if you can’t execute your voice and your space in your said market, that’s a big red flag.
Another red flag is budget, especially when you bring up the budget or money and they avoid it. I always like to pitch being transparent. And I know the word transparent is thrown out there a lot but like, truly just be transparent. I had a client last week that said, “I’d rather let you know that we may need more time on our raise, so let’s reengage closer to when we’re fully funded.” And that’s how you build understanding and trust.
RR: Totally. So in terms of scaling up, one of the biggest challenges that we faced when we were growing our own business was, how do you spend your time? Do you spend it on new business or on existing clients? We found that revenue really started to grow when we had great retention and engagement from existing clients, but at the same time, a big retainer is less appealing to people these days. So bringing in new business was always top of mind and important. What do you think about that? How do you focus time, energy, and resources between the two?
AW: I like to keep a flow. Every week I look at my notes and at the last conversations about new business, and then prospective clients for the new week. For partnerships, there’s always going to be people that you have to engage with. Then there will be people that you’re already actively pitching. When I can’t sleep, I like to scroll through Twitter and look for new clients and actively look at new opportunities for outreach. For outreach, you may start off with 6-10 prospective clients. Maybe 4 of them won’t get back to you, then you have 3 that engage with you, and then a solid 2-3 that you actually work with.
I start outreach on Mondays and Tuesdays, following up the rest of the week with clients and calls. Throughout the week, I like to keep active clients at the top of the list. But I like to start outreach early on Mondays so we have time to get on a call later in the week.
RR: As you guys have grown and expanded, it sounds like you’re kind of selling across a couple of different lanes in terms of partnerships and sponsorships packages. How do you think your pricing and operational strategies have evolved as you’ve grown? Any important lessons that stick out to you?
AW: I’ll go back to my side hustle days. When I was 20 or 21 as a photographer, everyone was charging $50 an hour. And I was like, $50 an hour? I didn’t pay $250 for these lights and this much for a camera for me to make $50 per hour. So I remember I charged double, which was a risky move but I knew my time was valuable.
So looking at it from an agency perspective, you have to stop focusing on service based and focus on value-based when it comes to pricing and scaling. Maybe it’s not about having a lot of clients, but instead choosing quality clients with long-term engagements.
RR: So, zooming out for a second. The freelancer/creator space is growing like crazy. It’s also changing a lot. There are a lot of different products emerging and different revenue models around how you can make money through some of these platforms. What are your thoughts on how the space is evolving? What do you see in the next 5-10 years on a macro level as well as with your business?
AW: 10 years forward, we’re going to be seeing a lot more immersive experiences. Obviously we have the Metaverse, but that’s just the tip of it. I think we’ll also see a lot more CRM tools that are geared towards creatives and productivity.
I think where the creator and tech economy is going is if you can see it you can build it. We’re at the brink of it right now, but I see a lot more with Web3 and how that’s going to open the field up for blockchain. The future is going to be pro creator and I’m excited to see that continue to build.
RR: I want to ask one last question. There might be some folks on here who are thinking about taking the leap. Any advice you have for people at that stage?
AW: If you’re thinking about taking the leap, you’re probably a little frustrated with the situation you’re in right now and may not know how to get to the next step. One thing I would say is before you quit that job, save. Create a rainy day fund. If you can save some money, save. Because life will hit you and you don’t want to be stressed jumping into that situation. You want to have at least three to six months saved up before you quit.
You also need to ask yourself, are you risk averse? Are you willing to sacrifice some things? Ask yourself these big questions because along the way, if you’re building something, whether it’s a brand or you want to be an influencer, or you’re jumping into building something more robust, you need to ask yourself why you’re doing it. Use a six month roadmap to figure out where you’re going and how you’re going to get to at least point A.
Lastly, be resilient and know that it’s a process. It’s not overnight.