The Leap: Talking agency life, acquisition, and service-based businesses with founder and investor Arati Sharma

Welcome to The Leap! 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. In this episode, Rachel sat down with Arati Sharma, former Director of Product Marketing at Shopify, now founder partner and angel investor at Backbone Angels and co-founder of Ghlee. Below, read their interview where Arati shared more about agency life, being acquired, and the evolution of marketing.

Note: The following interview has been edited for clarity and length.

RR: Welcome to this week’s episode of The Leap. Arati is joining us as one of our judges for the pitch competition, which is super exciting. Arati is a founder and angel investor (she’s also an angel investor in Wethos) and she recently left Shopify after about seven years as a Director of Product Marketing. She has also co-founded a Ghee-based skincare company called Ghlee and is a founding partner of Backbone Angels which is a new angel investor circle of Shopify folks and she has currently backed over 30 companies led two-thirds by diverse founders — which is music to my ears. I’d love to just start by hearing directly from you and let people know a little bit more about your journey and your days before Shopify and running an agency.

AS: I was not someone who was in tech early in my career; I thought I was going to be a lobbyist. I moved to Ottawa thinking it was going to be like The West Wing, but lobbying, especially for a nonprofit, is very slow. So I moved back to Toronto because I felt like there was something happening there, and I met my husband and his co-founder who started a digital design and UX agency. And this was like over ten years ago when there were some agencies focused on UX but it was still a very novel thing, especially in Toronto. So I was swung into the tech and startup scene and it was a whirlwind. I learned a lot about how to manage projects and how to look at client work. There are so many pain points around running an agency from figuring out how much you want to charge per hour to how much you should be growing your team to how many projects you should take on.

When I joined my husband and his co-founder, my husband was our salesperson, and my co-founder, he was our creative director and I was kind of the person in the middle of figuring out all the operations — which is why I’m so passionate about your product. 

After four years of doing that, we were acquired by Shopify and were one of Shopify’s first acquisitions. That’s how I got started at Shopify and I built the product marketing team from the ground up.

RR: I would love to ask a little bit more about the acquisition. What does an exit look like for that kind of business? Any thoughts or learnings from going through that acquisition process or how it came about?

AS: Service businesses are hard, so I think acquisitions can be appealing. The way that I see acquisitions when it comes to services businesses is it’s a talent thing; it’s a little more of an aqui-hire. We were lucky that we had a product under our belt as well, so we were already playing around with product. That’s actually why my husband and his co-founder really wanted to sell it to Shopify because we were all ready to be in a product company. We had been on the other side and we were like, we need skin in the game. 

I think the way to think about acquisition is it’s more of a talent play; it’s a way for a product company or a tech company to easily build up a team. If an acquisition is your final goal, you should really figure out how you’re positioned and how your people are positioned. We did that inherently before acquisition was ever a goal because we created a niche for ourselves which was, we’re not a large agency, we’re not just going to do your brand or your marketing, we’re going to be embedded. At that time, no one really knew how to design mobile websites or mobile apps, so that was our niche. We were like, we’re going to behave like your product design team. I think that differentiation helped us with the acquisition because it showed that we were very tech-forward as an agency.

RR: Yeah, for sure. In terms of your time at Shopify, the world of marketing has changed so much in the last 10 years. From your perspective, how do you think things have evolved? What are some things that you think maybe are no longer relevant or might come back?

AS: For me, I think all marketing is cyclical. There are things that are always consistent with marketing, and then there are tools and platforms that are going to constantly evolve and change. I think the best marketers understand that, and they’re not tied to the execution, they’re excited about their goals and their strategy. 

Anytime you’re depending on a third-party platform, it’s risky. Like, we all kind of bet on Instagram, and then the algorithm changes and everyone starts freaking out. Now there’s TikTok. There’s always going to be something new that the kids are into and we’re going to be too late on. 

As a marketer, you need to remember that your community is your number one. Who are you talking to? Who’s your audience? Who’s your community? I don’t think that’s going to change. And with all of the Web3 stuff going on right now, it’s even more important to niche down into who your people are.

RR: Yeah, totally agree. A question that’s kind of an offshoot of this which is, I think clients can be the guiltiest of the whole like, “everyone’s on TikTok, now we have to get on TikTok!” Any advice to people on how to mitigate that or tell your clients you know, just because there’s a new channel doesn’t mean we necessarily need to launch it. How do you handle that?

AS: Yeah, I’ve been on both ends. I’m an investor, but then I also consult, and I also have my own beauty skincare business. But I think regardless if you’re an agency owner or freelancer, or you’re just in client services, sometimes you have to give the reins to your client. 

If they really want to test out a new channel, especially when it’s something that’s so new or something like TikTok, because your own personal voice is so important on any channel, I kind of push it back to them. I say, I want you to create your first Reels or your first TikTok, and let’s see how it performs, and then we’re going to come up with a strategy, fix it, and learn from it. I often find that with agency owners and people on the other end, especially if they’re more junior, they kind of just say like, okay, great, we’ll test something out. And it’s like, no, no, no, let them do the work a little bit. Because if it’s not coming from the founder or from the brand, it’s just gonna fail.

RR: You’ve been at a bunch of different kinds of businesses both running them and servicing them, from service-based agencies to product-based skincare to technology-based software. What are some of the takeaways about starting and growing the different types of businesses that you think are going to be helpful?

If you’re going into a services-based business, then you have to love service. When you’re running an agency or client-facing business, then you’ve got to love that client relations stuff and the details, like even the finesse around presenting. If you want to be in a services-based business, that’s what’s going to push you ahead of everyone else. 

And it’s pretty transferable if you work in services and then work in a founder-led company, whether that’s a B2C brand or a product. When you work at a founder-led company, it’s the same thing as client services where you’re executing on their behalf and their vision. You can have as much autonomy as you want, but it’s the founder’s vision. And I think that’s what makes a good marketer too. You have to love the finesse and you have to love service, and you have to get really, really excited about someone being really emotional about their brand. Most people don’t have the language to describe likes and dislikes, and they use vague language. So it’s your job to really understand those feelings and turn them into facts.

RR: I want to wrap up with some bigger picture questions around the future of freelance. What do you think the next 10 years look like?

There’s a lot happening in the future of work. I quit my job, which I loved, to go out and do things on my own. Now I’m building brands and businesses, honestly, with just an army of freelancers. And I think the interesting thing that has changed is the leverage that freelancers have. Everyone wants to hire good freelancers, but the best freelancers are the best because they’re working on seven amazing brands. And the more they work on these amazing brands, the better they get because of the input and feedback they receive. Freelancers have leverage, and they need to recognize that and they need to charge accordingly.

On the flip side, it’s going to get really hard for companies to justify and convince talent to work for them. I really hope we go into the next 10 years with freedom for the employee and putting more leverage in the employees’ hands whether they’re a freelancer or they’re a contractor or they’re full time.

RR: Any advice for folks thinking about taking the leap or who just took the leap that you think they should know as business owners or people getting into freelance?

At the end of the day, I’m a product marketer so I’m going to look at how you’re differentiating yourself. If everyone is a freelancer now, how are you differentiating yourself? I’m excited about people niching down lately so I’m excited about people knowing exactly who their community is and who their audience is and what they bring to the table. Also, if you’re going to go out on your own, you should be able to live on your own terms.