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Adriana Stein

Host: Isaline Muelhauser

Guest: Adriana Stein

Originally from the US and now living in Germany, Adriana Stein is the CEO and founder of the marketing agency AS Marketing. She leads a team of multi-language marketing experts who develop holistic international marketing strategies for global companies. In this episode, she discusses the personal and professional challenges she has faced as a marketing agency CEO, and how she found ways to overcome them. From her burnout to breakthroughs, she shares the lessons she learned while scaling her agency such as to how to standardise operations (project, client communication and processes) and why she nearly removed herself from daily operations with clients. We also find out what inspires Adriana and what empowers her to be the brilliant woman she is today.

You can connect with Adriana through her LinkedIn and Twitter/X and her Website.

Episode Transcript

Isaline: Hello, everyone. Welcome. This is Isaline Muelhauser. I'm your host today for the WTSPodcast. This podcast is here to amplify brilliant women's voices. Today, we have a special guest. As usual, we always have an amazing guest. I'm here with Adriana Stein. 

Adriana: Thanks so much for having me. It's a pleasure to be here.

Isaline: And, the topic is great. I know that lots of people dream of leading an agency, so stay here. This is what we'll be discussing today. You mentioned when we prepared this interview that we were going to discuss how to scale a marketing agency from zero. But, what's pretty special is that you are running an agency. Originally, from the U.S., you are living in Germany now. You are the CEO and founder of this agency, which is based in Germany. That's a whole different type of challenge. I can imagine. 

Adriana: Yes, absolutely. Great. Yes. So, thank you so much for hosting me. I'm excited to be here. Anything involved with WTS is the best because this is one of the most amazing communities I've ever been a part of. Shall I go into my backstory then?

Isaline: I know about your backstory, but most people probably don't. So, let's start with that.

Adriana: Okay. Sounds good. I'm originally from the U.S. but have been living in Hamburg, Germany for nearly eight years now. I moved here originally to study, and there's a lot in that that unfortunately didn't work out correctly. But, that's fine because when one door closes, another one opens. Because I had spent time in German language school and learning German, I ended up working as a freelance content writer and content translator. That was my first kind of job in Germany. That's how I started in the marketing world and the SEO world, in particular. 

Luckily, my language skills were in demand because being a native English speaker, I could help German companies, mainly with their U.S. content marketing. And so, that's kind of how I got my start. And then, over time, that ended up being something that a lot of companies needed help with. A lot of us in SEO, didn't intend to get into SEO, but it ended up kind of being my whole jam, let's say, my whole wheelhouse. 

Since that worked out quite well for some years, I also then scaled up into my agency now, as marketing. We support global clients in over 30 languages, and native speakers, and we still specialize in the thing that I started in, which was localizing for that new market and for that new language. But, we do more than SEO. We do holistic marketing as well; PPC, email marketing, brand strategy, and all of that good stuff through the support of my really amazing team.

Isaline: That's a wonderful path, but it also sounds like a lot of jobs for one person; one-person role. I know when we talked to prepare, you mentioned that you had burnout. Was it just because it was too much? What's happened, exactly?

Adriana: Yes. A lot of entrepreneurs go through burnout, and I was definitely no exception. A lot of it has to do with us, especially in the beginning of developing our businesses, we have to wear a lot of different hats. The funny thing is you go into any kind of consulting, and then you think you're going to do that kind of consulting. But, actually, the other half of that, if not even more, is learning things like finances and how to sell yourself. And so, those are a whole other set of skills that you have to learn. And then, when you're scaling a business, you also, in addition, need to learn operations, which is a whole other skill set. And then, as your business grows and you have a team, you need to learn management as well. And so, even though I'm still very closely connected to the SEO world, and check in with some of our client projects and things like that, I'm not so much doing our actual client work. That's what our project managers do. 

But, getting to that point where I could focus on more admin side of the business doing our own marketing, which is my favorite part of it, and then the part that I hate the most is accounting, but someone's got to do it and I'm the one who knows it the best. But, to get to that point where you can have a team to completely execute projects that I may not have even actually met the client, then that's that takes some time. That takes a lot of practice and optimization. And, going through that really in the beginning was what caused my burnout. Because I just didn't know how to do that. I didn't know about operations. I didn't know how to be a manager. I didn't know how to train people. I didn't know how to brief people.

And so, in the beginning, there was a lot of me, redoing a lot of work. I also led all of our client projects, which was so difficult. Because I remember at one point, we got up to 14 clients and I was in charge of all of them, and that was like a total disaster. I was so glad that I didn't have to do that anymore. Because our project managers, they usually have three projects. And so, if you imagine, me doing 14 plus running the business, that was insanity. I mean, it was constant meetings. And then, fixing work that other people had done incorrectly, but it was also my fault that I didn't brief them correctly. Just not having processes to standardize projects, to standardize how work is done, to standardize how client communications are done, all of that kind of thing. 

And so, it was probably around two or three years ago, even up to that point, I was still working 50, even 60 hours a week. It was like craziness. The most time that I could really take off was around Christmas because that's kind of when the whole business world shut down. I'm always thankful for that time. Still, nowadays, to be honest, because when I can really check out, it's hard as an entrepreneur to completely check out. If you ever get to that point, I'm really happy for whoever gets there. I think I care too much to do that. I do take a lot more holiday now, and I work a lot more normal hours, which is great. Actually, I don't work Fridays anymore. Most of the time, as well. I work more like four days a week, which is so much better for my work-life balance, and just saving that mental space, and being able to prioritize time with family, and doing like hobby things, seeing friends, cooking, which I really like to do, going hiking, which I also really like to do. 

To get to that point, you have to, well, one, if you're rich, you can probably hire an operations consultant to come and help you. But, as marketing is completely bootstrapped, so self-funded growth through our profits. So, I had to just learn a lot myself and try to go with the flow. Yeah, it took a lot of practice throughout that time and it's such a huge difference. It's funny like I was just writing today with our head of marketing, talking to her about a project from a couple of years ago. Like, what we did to get through that project. She was like, "What? How did you do that?" I was like, "Well…" Because she only joined us recently. I told her, "Yeah, you came in at a very different time for AS Marketing. We're a very different team now than we were back then." But, you have to go through those things to kind of refine everything and get to a much better stage. Every business has to do it, I think. Even if you hire a rich operations consultant to help you refine things, you still have to figure out a lot on the way. 

Isaline: I'm sorry that you had to go through this, and happy for your success and also happy that you are transparent about it. Because it's true that not a lot of people are willing to discuss the difficult parts. Sometimes, it looks wonderful, "Oh, yeah. Well, let's talk about revenue and this type of thing." But, the behind-the-scene is something different. Can you share with me a couple of changes or breakthroughs that really helped you get from A, "This is crazy," to B, "I have some sort of work-life balance"? 

Adriana: Yes. One of the biggest wake-up calls I had was actually, our first team member, Liz, who has been in charge of operations. She's on the homepage. If you like to check out, she's really awesome. She was actually the person who helped me build a lot within, like our project management tool, that's one big part of it. Just thinking about how to set up standard operating procedures, which are templates for things and workflows for how things work. But, before you can even get to that point, you have to understand, what is the operations within a business. What is the point of it? Because unless you're specialized in that originally, it's probably not even something you think about as an entrepreneur.

I remember, one time, she gave me this presentation of, "Here are the normal roles within an agency, and here are all the roles that you as one person are doing, and that's why you feel burned out." It was so clearly laid out. So visually well laid out and she explained it so well. I seriously appreciate her doing this because it totally changed my mindset to think about, "Okay, we need designated roles for things. We need systems for things to keep track of who's supposed to be what, and by when, and for which client." I also, kind of around the same time because this is quite a few years back. 

I had the opportunity to work within another agency, and I was also one of their project managers. I won't call them out because I don't want to embarrass them, but they were just a disorganized, chaotic mess. I learned a lot about what not to do within an agency. And so, I actually took that as like a huge learning point about how we, as an agency, can then improve and do things way better because that was a lot of the problem there. Like, the client didn't know what was going on, and the team members didn't know what they were supposed to do. There was no database for either party. And, that just creates so much stress and chaos. 

And so, that was really one of the first things that we developed operationally, was this database within a SONA or project management tool. We have a very specific way of using a SONA so that our projects are very organized. Our goal is that whenever our team member starts working, they know exactly what they're supposed to do. They don't have to sort through a bazillion things to figure out, "Okay. These are my tasks for today." They can just start, and that definitely helps with a lot of clarity. And then, just coming up with better briefing processes. This was a huge help to kind of standardizing things that we do because one, it helps the client side. Because you're implementing something in a repeatable process that works. It's much more efficient. But then, the strategist who's also doing that work knows what to do. And, that helped reduce a lot of my fixing things time immensely, immensely. 

From this, we were able to start training people into project managers, and that was kind of like the next level of scaling, I would say. I gave every single project that I worked on as the project manager, giving it to a different project manager. One very difficult part of that was getting the client on board with that because they were very used to working with me and a specific way of working. There were a few clients I worked with for a year and a half like this, and I had been kind of the face of that. And so, they had very big expectations about the new person who was going to come in and like duplicate me. There had to be a lot of really careful planning about who I put on which projects, what their expertise was, and the training that we had to do for them to make sure. Sometimes, they had to stay on for meetings for a couple of months. But, maybe, I was doing a lot less of the task work. And so, that also helps slowly reduce my meetings as well over time. Yeah, that really, over the past few years, probably three years, working towards that made a big difference.

And then, I would say our kind of third level of restructuring, our scaling was giving me back my time to do more for our own internal marketing. I still lead our sales process. Because, as in most businesses, the founder is able to close deals the easiest because they're the most well-known. So, I still stay in that part because I think it does make a big difference. But now, I'm a lot more like, I can help with the sales process that the project manager who's going to run the project is there with me. Even from the first meeting, if I can try to organize it like that. And then, they take the communication as early on in the process as possible. And, there have still been some clients who expect to work directly with me. I have to tell them, unfortunately, I can't. We're too big of an agency that there's no time anymore. But, I have this really great team member and if that still doesn't work for them, then they're probably not a good fit. We have lost some projects that way. But, a big part of not burning out and having a work-life balance is learning when to say no.

Isaline: That's the thing. There is a type of client and a type of agency of consultants for everyone at every step, every stage. But, going into the first stage, you mentioned there is standardization of the operations. Are there activities you did during the stage that you would recommend also for consultants or freelance, even though they don't want to expand? Because I think lots of people deal with a similar type of compartmentalization difficulty. There is a limit to how many hats we can have. What activities do you recommend?

Adriana: Just SOPs. Everything with SOPs. Standardize as much of your processes as you can, even if you're working as a solo freelancer and you don't want to scale out into a team. SOPs are still really helpful, even for yourself. Set up workflows for things like how you do accounting, how you do invoicing, how you do your tax management, and anything regarding your finances. Try to set up a system for that so it's the same and it's not chaos all the time. That's going to make a big difference and you control how much you're able to earn. And then, templates as well. Templates are a kind of SOP. Templatize what you do. Because as I mentioned, this is also even better for the client because you can apply what works. You can apply that to multiple projects, and then just make some tweaks over time, some changes. 

Especially with SEO, things are changing all the time, so you can tweak it and optimize it, but try not to completely work from scratch all the time. That will help you also learn more in the end. Because then, you're going to be a lot more efficient. I think every single business needs to have this focus. Whether you're a freelancer, whether you're a billion-dollar company. Because I have the chance to see into both worlds because we do have quite some big clients sometimes and I see how much they are still quite disorganized, and they're still really winging it. Every single company can benefit from standardizing way more than they currently do. 

Isaline: Can you give me an example of a workflow? Just for me to visualize what it means.

Adriana: Yeah, absolutely. Actually, I think one of the most helpful workflows that we set up, especially because our listeners for this are within SEO, was creating an SEO playbook. So, this playbook, it's basically a process that should be ran at the beginning of every client project. We can understand, what needs to be done. What is the situation within their business? What do we need to improve on? What is our content strategy? And then, we go from there. So, it's actually like a fixed document with different sections for all of this, and it's templatized. So that when our strategists work on it, they have instructions on how to fill everything out.

And so, they just read through that. Some of them have some knowledge of something similar when they start. But, for some new people, maybe we offer some training for some new people and it's really helpful for them because they can learn it really quickly. Some of them, they do one, and then they've got it, and they can just repeat it over and over. The nice thing is this kind of playbook can flex quite well for different types of projects. Because we specialize in localization, we don't have an industry specialization. We tend to lean more towards B2B projects, but we also have B2C and eCommerce. We specialize more in that tactical side of things. And so, that's what's included in our template as well. It applies really well with eCommerce, it can work with B2B, and then we're just adjusting it based on the specific context at hand. Also, like the scope of work of the project. Whether we're doing a high volume of content or a lower volume of content, or maybe it's a one-time project or a long-term project. Those types of things can be adjusted based on the context. 

But, at the end of the day, we have very quickly, because we can do this kind of playbook usually within a couple of weeks. We can have an idea of where the strategy needs to go. That's presented to the client really quickly, so then we can start content production or content optimization as quickly as possible. Because that's what we need as an SEO. To get results is to actually start and get things live and spend a whole lot less time auditing, and building a strategy and just start doing something. Because we all know how long SEO can take, how long things can sit with a developer, and how long getting feedback and content can take. 

So, to have the ability to get that done really quickly, the clients understand what we want to do. It's easy for the strategist to put together. It's easy for the PM, the project manager, to present to the client. That's been one of the biggest things that workflows, I would say have been standardized. From that, we learned from that. That works so well with SEO. And now, we have applied that to other channels as well. So, we have our PPC playbook, like our Google Ads playbook, or a Facebook Ads playbook, or something like that. It works across different channels. And, of course, the tactics are different, but the concept of standing up --

Isaline: When did it start? Does it look like one big interview and when do you do it? I imagine you have the first contact, which is very often an email. You, call the person and ask lots of questions. At which moment does the playbook take place in the client relation? 

Adriana: It's usually the first thing that we do after we have started a new project. The contract is signed and usually, we would go and we would set up the playbook for the particular channel that we want to work on. There are only some cases where we don't do this. If it's like a very fixed project. Like, the client comes in and it's like, "We want you to localize exactly these 30 pages," or something, and they already have an idea. But, the playbook is useful, especially for long-term projects or for clients who don't know what they need. They're kind of looking for like, "Please tell me the opportunities that we have here. What should we work on?" So then, we tend to use it, I would say probably 70, 80% of projects.

Isaline: Right. And now, today, you mentioned you are in the third stage of scaling if I can say.

Adriana: Yeah.

Isaline: What are the current things you want to do in that specific stage? Now, you have a standardized operation, you have project managers doing project management that frees some committed space for you. And now, what's on your plate?

Adriana: Yes. This has been by far, my favorite level of scaling, I must say. Because I get to focus so much more on our own growth strategy and building up relationships with our network and partners, and things like that, giving lots of ideas. Because now, I have, for example, Louise, who is our head of marketing. She's really fantastic at taking my really weird ideas that are sometimes chaotically described. She says, basically, our relationship is like, I'm the visionary and she's the operator. She takes my weird ideas, and then she actually makes them realistic, which is fantastic. So, I'm so grateful to have her because now that's where I can really focus my brain space. Meeting up with people, like yourself and WTS, at different conferences, and things like this. Having to find people for partners. 

We're also going to start our own podcast pretty soon. So, I'm really excited for that. Because I've been a guest on podcasts for a couple of years now, and I'm really excited now to finally host. Because I can really kind of choose who I want to meet and talk to. And so, that's really exciting to have that chance to do that. 

I still have to do the non-fun stuff; accounting, finances. Still, if there's like a complex situation with a project manager and a client, maybe a client is being difficult and I have to come in and negotiate or mediate or something or they're like this, I get the most difficult problems. But, that's okay because the tradeoff is worth it. That now, I can really focus on the creative side and our own growth, which is something I didn't get to focus on for so many years. 

Isaline: For someone who is in a similar position today, let's say someone successful as a consultant with a portfolio of clients who wants to scale, who's thinking, "Okay, today, I have enough clients to start hiring someone." And so, for someone in this situation, what's your best advice? 

Adriana: Hire someone like Liz, who understands operations and can really help you with that. Because like I said, unless you're actually specialized in operations, it's a whole other universe to think about things in terms of processes. And so, that's my biggest piece of advice. Because it really changed my way of thinking about everything to have someone come in and look at how can we standardize this. What things are taking so much of your time? How can we delegate that? How can we train other people? How can we hire other people by hiring other people, HR? That's even a whole other thing. That's a whole other thing to learn. Again, unless you're specialized in HR, you're probably not going to know. It's very hard. The most difficult thing I've done throughout this business, actually, is not finding clients. It's more of finding the right people for our team who are really enthusiastic, dedicated, and committed. It's hard to find really good people. 

And so, all of those things you have to find the best methods for doing, and that's what operations is about. It's about optimizing every facet of the business to make it function as well as possible. And then, you as the entrepreneur, the founder, can then kind of choose where you want your time to be and really think about what you enjoy doing. Because life is so short, and we shouldn't spend a ton of time doing things that we don't enjoy. And so, take the opportunity to, if you do have a lot of clients and you're ready to scale out, take the opportunity to then look at, "Okay. What don't I like? What can I get rid of? And, what can I replace with something fun and try to give to someone else?"

Isaline: Thank you very much for sharing. I thought it was really helpful to hear you structure the different stages that one has to go through. We don't think about it, but it's obvious that being an excellent SEO has nothing to do with being an accountant manager, all the different hats that you're wearing. So, huge congratulations for what you have achieved and for going through this, but also for keeping up. Like, not stopping and doing something else. But, really taking the process to the end to create awesome job offers for other people. I mean, this is another thing that. So, thank you so much, Adriana. 

Adriana: Thank you. It was really a pleasure being here. Yeah. I must say that the people make it all worth it. I love the people in this industry, and that's a big reason why I didn't quit even on some very difficult days. Well, even if you're a freelancer, days or months of not earning sometimes, or losing money sometimes, it happens and then you can question things. I think the awesomeness of the people, I just generally really love marketing, and I really love our clients as well, and that's kind of kept me going. 

Isaline: Congrats. Well, I hope you have a relaxing end of the year. I also do love the end of the year when everybody's off. 

Adriana: Yeah. 

Isaline: Best time. I wish you the best for the next year. Of course, I suppose you're here to follow-up questions, and everything is easy to find, I will link every profile. If you have a question for Adriana, go to the description of the podcast. You'll find the links and everything. Well, Adriana, thank you so much for giving us some of your time and for sharing all of this advice tonight. It was a real pleasure. 

Thank you everyone for listening. We are the WTSPodcast. We have "tech" in Women in Tech SEO, but you don't need to be a tech SEO. You are very welcome whatever your level of experience. Do join us. We are super nice and super friendly, and we will be happy to answer your questions in our Slack channel. Whatever they are, we're here. Thank you, everyone. 

Adriana: Thanks, everyone. I can confirm it's true what Isaline said, so please join our group.

Isaline: Yeah. Join us. We have festivals. We have everything. Really, we are the whole package.

Adriana: Yes. 

Isaline: Thank you, and see you soon.