The Leap: Brand strategy and studio building with founder and creative director Sarah Salvatoriello

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 Sarah Salvatoriello, Founder and Creative Director at &AND&, a creative branding studio that helps small and medium size businesses rebrand and pivot. Sarah spent 18 years of her career building in-house creative teams at huge companies including Conde Nast, TripAdvisor, and The Knot. 

Below, read their interview to learn more about what led Sarah to found her own studio, how she creates transparency around her business, and her advice for anyone thinking about taking the leap into freelance. 

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

RR: I’m super excited about what you’re working on and I’m really excited to hear more about your journey. So I’d love to kick it off there. What drove you to take the leap into freelance and how did your business sort of evolve from there?

SS: As a designer, I always had a side hustle going on. So as I was working some of my first early jobs out of school, I was always kind of doing stuff on the side and helping friends make their dreams into realities by giving their side hustles, their weddings, their babies, some pomp and circumstance. That was always kind of in the background as I was very tunnel-visioned on becoming a creative director.

I was very fortunate when I worked my way up in media. I found myself at The Knot and started to see how maybe that goal wasn’t totally aligned. Seeing how a lot of the creative director role was tied up in other things like people management [and] not doing a lot of creating, I started to kind of wrestle with that. Then, I found a wonderful opportunity at W, which was kind of this underdog publication at Conde Nast. I worked there for a while, building out that in-house team and positioning creative services as something that could be really consultative — not just hands executing in a program, but how can we talk brand strategy? How can we make something that is viable and appealing for advertisers? And that gave me some really good experience at making something out of nothing.

But then what I was seeing was that regardless of where you’re doing that work, even a small company within a larger organization, you’re going through these similar exercises [like] values alignment and figuring out what drives you forward. I kind of had that moment of like, “Hmm, okay. Maybe I’m finding a little more joy helping people outside of work. Maybe I can bring some of this to people that don’t have the means of these larger companies, people that don’t have these giant in-house teams.” That was when I started dipping my toe in consulting. 

We launched Ampersand & Ampersand before the pandemic. And then a lot of stuff went sideways, but now that we’ve gone through a couple seasons with COVID, that’s where we’re really focusing our attention now — how can we help people go through these same exercises and figure out that strategy that works for big brands, but for anybody?

RR: I was taking a look at your website and saw that you provide a lot of transparency around your business, which I love, personally. But one thing that I hear often is, “What about the secret sauce? Aren’t you worried that people are going to steal your secret sauce?” I’m curious what drove you to take the opposite approach and to hear your thoughts on how that might benefit your clients or your business.

SS: It is hard, [especially] when you’re first starting out. And this is something that people do in business also, right? How many branding clients don’t want to really say out loud what it is that’s special about them because they’re nervous? They have to protect their IP. And I think something that we really try to do is show that your IP actually isn’t whatever you’ve been telling yourself it is because when you’re translating it to like, “Oh, we are the Uber of blah, blah, blah,” that’s already tying someone else into it. It’s no longer that special. But if we can really figure out what is just yours, what is uniquely yours, that unlocks everything.

I’m at a point in my life now where I’m thinking about something surviving my lifetime. So what is that thing going to look like? The only way to have that is if you share it. There’s no real benefit to holding it. I really think you have to share it and share it freely and let people make it theirs. And I try to do that by leading by example. I’m like, “Yeah, I did this thing. If you can benefit from it, have it please.”

RR: Do you think that level of transparency on your website speeds up your sales process at all with clients? Or rather the selection process, I guess, when you’re trying to vet people for project opportunities and what you want to do next.

SS: It’s all an experiment. We’re always trying new things to see what the sweet spot is. And you want people to feel seen. So how much of [the website transparency] will help them feel recognized and recognize that we would be a good fit and how much is too much of us and not leaving enough room for them? That’s always the balance that we’re trying to strike. 

But I think with process and pricing and all of that stuff, we try to say, “Here’s where we’re operating from. This is where we’re coming at it. If you want to push up against us with this, we welcome that.” We welcome the feedback, we welcome sparring buddies. We try to infuse some of those cues around the site.

We’re trying to keep it an open conversation. And if people don’t want to have that conversation, if they use the word, “just” like, “I just want a logo,” that’s not going to be a good fit for us. And I want to know that at the beginning.

RR: Another question I hear a lot is, “How do I manage my bandwidth and the inbound opportunities that are coming to me?” And I noticed you have this big banner at the top of your website that says, “Book now for June and July.” I’m curious how you typically manage the growth of your business and your bandwidth. What has gone into your booking process? How do you set expectations?

SS: One of the things that we’ve been seeing is that we have some clients that reach out and they still have a little bit of work to do. So one of the things that we’re trying to do is, we’ve made some “work at your own pace” tools that [act as] the prep work that they can do on their own time before they really want to engage other people. We’re trying to see if we can start seeding that idea of, “You can not need us until June [or] July.”

It’s actually a relatively new addition to the site to try to get people thinking a few months out because we’re noticing that the ebb and the flow is usually that we get a bunch of inbound requests in January and then they go quiet and then they come back in March with a vengeance.

RR: How has your pricing strategy or operational strategy changed since you’ve been shifting your mindset and thinking about scaling up and bringing more people into the business to help service more clients?

SS: I would say it was maybe 2017 or 2018 that I started thinking about [my service] as more of a business and trying to see if I could make a go of it in terms of being a job creator instead of being at the mercy of people or deeming it valuable enough to give it money. 

When I started really diving into it, a lot of it came down to transparency. Are we holding all of these things in the same space at the same time and properly evaluating them? With deliverables, who’s going to be working on it and how much of their brain space are you going to be able to occupy in exchange for money? I feel you can’t have that conversation without considering all of those things together.

RR: Yeah, for sure. I think that there’s a lot broken about hourly rates. Aside from the operational challenges of hourly rates, an hourly rate asks you as a person to put a price tag on your person, like what is the value of my time? And to try to quantify it also forces a person to now negotiate with a potential client around their self worth basically.

SS: It’s a value exchange I think. Especially in the last couple years, we’ve seen how finite and limited your actual time can be in a way that the biggest luxury would be that we have nothing but time but that is not the case. And that’s not the case for a lot of people that have a lot of really meaningful and amazing things to contribute.

RR: I want to leave people with some advice, if you don’t mind. Any parting words for folks who are thinking about taking the leap to freelance or maybe have just taken the leap?

SS: Find a community. Find people that you feel really comfortable talking to about [your business] in a really vulnerable way. And people that you feel comfortable referring [work to]. Instead of feeling like you need to pass on work, what are ways that you can use the people around you to augment and grow larger than yourself? I think that’s a big thing that people are very scared and hesitant to do. But the faster you can do it, the better off you’re going to be.

Ready to take the leap?