Growing an Agency with Aeolidia Founder Arianne Foulks
When I first started thinking about adding more people to the team, I was totally resistant to it, because I would not call myself a perfectionist, but I have a very high standard for the work that I’m doing, and people need so much stuff when they want to put together an ecommerce site.
— Arianne Foulks, Founder of Aeolidia
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Tara: Welcome to Profit. Power. Pursuit. I’m your host, Tara Gentile, and together with my friends at CreativeLive, we talk to powerhouse small business owners about the nitty gritty details of running their businesses, making money, and pursuing what’s most important to them. Each week, I deep dive with a thriving entrepreneur on topics like time management, team building, marketing, business models, and mindset. Our goal each week is to expose you to something new that you can immediately apply to growing your own business.
This week, I sit down with Arianne Foulks, the captain and founder of Aeolidia, a web and graphic design studio that’s been working with creative, design-oriented shops since 2004. Aeolidia serves those at early stages on their path with an informative blog and supportive community, and her agency builds fully custom ecommerce sites for established business at that tipping point where strategic design can be transformative and cause exponential growth. Learn how Arianne decided to build an agency instead of going it alone at web design. We talk about who she hired first, how her team works together, and both the first and last steps of any client project.
Arianne Foulks, welcome to Profit. Power. Pursuit. Thank you so much for joining me today.
Arianne: Thank you for having me, Tara.
Tara: Absolutely. So I’ve always looked to your agency as sort of a leader in web design for creative business. You guys have been around for a long time, but everyone starts somewhere, right? So how did Aeolidia get started?
Arianne: Thank you. We definitely did start somewhere. We started very small and humble, and in fact, like, I’m always so busy keeping my nose in my own textbook, that I don’t even really notice how much word about us has spread, and I always get kind of surprised when people have heard of me. But yeah, we started as just me sitting on my couch with my laptop. I didn’t have a computer when I was growing up, so when I went away to college, and I had unlimited access to the computer lab, I found myself spending a ton of time in there, and I figured out how to make a website on GeoCities.
Arianne: Which will be hilarious to anybody as old as I am. And I spent a lot of time designing a website for my zine and redesigning it and redesigning and redesigning it, because it was fun, and eventually, my friends noticed that I had a skill there, and they wanted websites for their band or their record label. Most of the people that I helped out at the start were in the music business somehow, and of course, they were not loaded with riches or anything like that, so I ended up doing a lot of websites as favors, or just for fun, or maybe as a trade or something like that. And then eventually, I had a friend who had an ecommerce shop, which I had no experience with ecommerce, yet, but she wanted me to help her make it look better. So I came in and helped her figure out this new ecommerce software, which I’d never heard of, and I was like, oh, look at all this, it’s HTML, which I know, but there’s also this PHP and all this crazy stuff, but I figured it out and we made her website, and it looked pretty darn good, and from that one project, I got introduced to kind of this world of pre-Etsy handcrafters. They had a little community going, and I think it was the year before Etsy began that I really started working on projects with crafters. And so before Etsy, there was no easy way to get a website up online. You had to actually get web hosting and know how to use ftp and upload all these files to your server, and you had to, if you wanted to change anything, you had to know HTML or CSS or PHP, so you know, they couldn’t really just pop up a website like you can nowadays. They needed somebody technical to be able to help them, so I was quite busy for quite a while in this little niche that, you know, had a need that wasn’t really being served. So yeah, I was super busy with a bunch of crafters, and it was all word of mouth. I wasn’t trying to advertise or find new clients or anything like that. In fact, I was often turning away people when they asked me, because I was just too darn busy, because it was just me.
Tara: Yeah. And were you operating under the Aeolidia brand then? Or was that something that kind of came along later?
Arianne: I was. I think I had a couple different names as I was transitioning from hobby to more of a business, but when we, when I started doing sites for crafters, we were … I was Aeolidia back then, yeah.
Tara: Got ya. All right, well, that’s a really good segue into my next question, then, which is about, you know, how lots of web designers really, they choose to go it on their own, or they think that that’s kind of their only option. Either they’re working with, you know, a developer, or they’re doing even everything, you know, development-wise themselves. How did you make the decision to build out an agency and start working with more and more people to produce the sites that you wanted to produce?
Arianne: Right. Well, that’s very complimentary that you called it decision. I was not making any strategic decisions back then. It’s something that just kind of happened. So, in fact, when I first started thinking about adding more people to the team, I was totally resistant to it, because I knew I didn’t want to become just like the boss, and I wasn’t doing any creative fun work anymore, and I was like, nope, nope, that’s never going to happen, I don’t want to do anything like that. But at the same time, I would not call myself a perfectionist, but I have a very high standard for the work that I’m doing, and people need so much stuff when they want to put together an ecommerce site. So, you know, I would just dig in there and get going, but they would come to me and they wouldn’t have a logo, and so I’d have to like try and just type their name in a nice font, and I eventually ended up learning how to design logos myself, because people needed them so often. People needed product photography, and I’m not a photographer, but I didn’t know any photographers to refer them to, and I didn’t really like the idea of referring people to a third party, because it was totally out of my control. I didn’t know if the quality was going to be high. I didn’t know if the product they brought back to me was going to work for the website. The whole thing just felt very uncomfortable.
So I ended up actually bringing on people to do all these different services that it turns out my clients just kept needing that would pop up as a surprise. Eventually, we ended up adding people to do all of those things in house, so we could, you know, be in charge of the whole project, and know what was going to happen with all the parts and know we were going to get something that was up to our standards. So you know, it all ended up being in house, and I was so worried about losing the work that I had to do sitting there and designing websites, but let me tell you right now, I am thankful every day that I don’t need to sit down at Photoshop looking at that blank white screen and try to figure out what to make for somebody. I don’t regret it at all, now that I see how it worked out.
Tara: Yeah. And I love that you talk about the reason that you brought people in house, the reason you, you know, wanted to bring other people in period is because you had this need, you know, you’re a bit of a perfectionist, maybe even a bit of a control freak, and so I love thinking about going the agency route as being a way to appease your perfectionism and control freakness, because I think a lot of times, perfectionists kind of isolate themselves, and I love your solution much better.
Arianne: Well, the best part is, it turns out everybody I’ve hired along the way has ended up being much better than I ever was at all the things I was trying to do by myself, which I love and is the best thing about running Aeolidia.
Tara: Yes. Amen to that. Okay, so who was your first hire?
Arianne: So I was thinking about this. My first hire was actually a small troop of illustrators, because I just loved illustration so much, personally, and when I was sitting there with that blank, white Photoshop page, I really wanted to have something awesome to start with, and I hated having to have a very text-heavy site or just sticking with my clients’ awful photography or going to some terrible clip art or stock photography site, which back then, there were not a lot of options, and it was really kind of terrible. So I just reached out to a few illustrators. They weren’t, some of them weren’t even doing client work. Some of them were just illustrators that were doing it as a creative hobby, and I asked them if they would like to be paid to make illustrations for my clients, and that worked out really nicely. And even though I was working with maybe, I don’t know, at some point, we had … we had a lot of illustrators at one point, and things have gotten a lot more sleek and clean and modern lately, but you know, I would have maybe five different illustrators and me, but people would tell me back then that they knew it was an Aeolidia site before they even scrolled to the bottom and saw our credit, just because I think we were doing something there that you didn’t see a lot on the internet at that time, and our sites looked a lot more creative and illustrated and arty and interesting than people were used to seeing, so that was really awesome.
Arianne: But, you know, that didn’t feel like, I didn’t feel like a studio at that point. I felt like I was just making websites and I had a couple helpers. I did bring my friend, and my best friend from college had been doing web design and development, and when she moved up to Seattle, I was like, you know, I’m turning away clients left and right. I think it would make a lot of sense if we just worked together on this, and then you could do some and I could do some, and maybe I wouldn’t have to say no so often. And so we both ended up working together. She managed her own projects. I mostly just kind of got people started and took care of the money part of it, but we were basically two freelancers who happened to be working together. And then I also brought my husband in. He had been doing this really boring cubicle-style office job, and I think I just wanted to save him from the cube. I was like hey, you know, you could learn MySQL and PHP and help us with these databases and we can all work together.
So that still didn’t feel like I was building an agency. That felt like we were maybe like a mom and pop shop kind of thing, like a little family business. I think the big change happened when a designer who I admired reach out to me to ask if she could work with us. And this seemed, I mean, already, I had hired some people, but this seemed super foreign to me when she said this, and I was like what? Hire somebody? That’s crazy. I don’t know if we should do that. I mean, how would we keep control of what’s going on? Will it still look like an Aeolidia site? Like it all just seemed fraught with peril, but I was pregnant with my first child, and I knew that I had no idea what was going to happen to my schedule after he was born. So it seemed like a really good time to just go for it and see how it worked out. So we hired her, and it was awesome. It was the best. I was able to just like fade into the background with a baby for a while. She was designing sites, my husband was developing them, my friend, Shoshanna, who’d been working with me all along was taking care of her own clients, and it was really a great way for the business to keep afloat while I basically could hardly do anything. So I think that was our big tipping point where it began to be more of an agency.
Tara: Yeah, I love that. And so now, is … are … are … is the group that you have, are they a mix of, like, W2 employees and contractors? Or is it one way or the other?
Arianne: So all of our workers that provide a service are contract workers, so they’re all either freelancers or they have their own small studio. My only employee is my project manager, Sam, and she takes care of all the project management stuff that I started having to do when we brought more people onto the team. Other than that, everybody who works for me, you know, we all live in different places. We have a designer in Australia, we’ve got a developer in Canada, we have people all over the United States. My one employee, Sam, is actually in San Jose while I’m in Seattle, so we all work remotely as a, just kind of a magical team.
Tara: Nice. I love that. I love that. Sounds like you’re super-flexible. Is flexibility important to you?
Arianne: Yeah, it totally is. I … I always think if I had to go back to like a regular job and lose my flexibility, I don’t even know if I’m employable anymore.
Tara: That’s great. That’s great. So you mentioned earlier that you’re really glad you don’t have to stare at the white, scary Photoshop screen anymore, and so that makes me curious how you’re actually spending your time in your business. What role are you personally, or have you personally taken on with the agency?
Arianne: So it’s super-interesting to me, because when I was resisting the role that I have now, I was not fully imagining what I would actually be doing. I just pictured myself bossing people around all day long, which I totally don’t do. I hardly ever boss anybody around. I spend most of my day doing content creation and marketing type stuff, because finding work for 19 people is a lot more work than finding work for yourself or maybe three people. So I write for the blog a lot, I do our social media. I’m the mastermind of thinking of what new things we need to be doing or how we need to change our process or what we should be working on next or what our clients need, all that kind of thing. I’m the tricky situation smoother-outer. Whenever anything weird comes up, I get to pop in there and unruffle everybody’s feathers and figure out good solutions. And all that kind of problem-solving stuff is what I love doing, and I’m way better at problem-solving than I ever was at designing a website, so I’m really glad I’m doing what I do now. And I do still have the blank page problem, because I write for the blog a lot, so I sit there in front of the blank WordPress screen, but that is a lot less intimidating to me.
Tara: That’s awesome. So it sounds like it’s sort of a, like, dual CEO/CMO role.
Arianne: Yeah, I guess so. I would eventually like some help with the marketing, because a lot of it is a drag to me. Like, I love doing the blogging, and I love talking one-on-one with business owners and solving people’s problems. In fact, I spent a lot of time kind of doing free consulting work for people, just because if somebody puts a really interesting question in my inbox, I cannot resist getting in there and figuring out how to crack that nut.
Arianne: So sometimes, I’ll just go and I’ll help people out, but then what I do is I turn it into a blog post that is super helpful for other people in the business. So it all works out, but yeah, it’s all fun for me to just sort of figure out how to make things better for Aeolidia and for our clients and other small business owners.
Tara: Perfect. Cool. So you’ve started talking about this a little bit, but I want to drill down into it a little bit more, too, and that is how have you decided to add people to your team? It sounds like some of them have presented themselves to you, some of it’s been by need. When you’re looking at your business right now and thinking about those new directions, or you know, maybe new services that you want to add for clients, how are you thinking about who you’re going to bring into the business, too?
Arianne: Right. So I have become a lot more strategic about this in recent years, but in the olden days, I used to just kind of add people if somebody asked and I thought that they would be an amazing fit or if I saw somebody online where I just loved their design work and I thought they’d be perfect, and we also spent some time trying to figure out to balance our team, because for a website project, you need a web designer and a web developer, and we didn’t want one group of people being super busy while the other was kind of sitting around twiddling their thumbs looking for work.
So we would do that kind of thing or maybe replace people as they left, but now we have a more businessy type way of figuring this out. So we have a certain amount of projects that we would like to be working on each month, and we’ve actually finally gone through the numbers and figured out how we stay profitable, and so we’ve just figured out how many projects each person can do, and that tends to be different for each different worker, and then we plan our team based on that. So if we know that want to be doing 12 or 14 projects in one of our two-month blocks, we look at who we’re going to have then and how many they can do, and if it looks like we don’t have enough manpower, then I can go out and try to find somebody else to add to the team, and that is what we have been doing recently. And right now, we, it feels like we’re at just the perfect size, because we’ve recently added a couple designers to the team to replace some designers who are out on maternity leave, and I think we should be set for a while.
Tara: Nice. Awesome. How do your team members work together? Are they talking to each other? Does everything go through the project manager? How does that work?
Arianne: So we have used Basecamp ever since it existed, I think, to talk to our clients. I was thinking the other day, I was doing something before Basecamp where I just had like a bunch of tasks written out into a text document, and I seriously have no idea how I used to ever get any work done. But now we have wonderful tools, so we use Basecamp with our clients, but the thing that’s been huge for us internally is we started using Slack when Slack started existing, and that is a tool that lets us all chat with each other with no clients ever involved. Like we definitely had a couple of mistakes in the early years where we think we were sending a private message on Basecamp and the client would get it, so now, you know, we’ve got our internal team on the internal software with no clients on it and we can all just sit there and chat with each other, and that has been huge not only for just organizing projects, but it has really made our team feel like a cohesive team of people that all actually work together, whereas I think before everybody kind of felt like freelancer that was just doing their own job, and the project manager would be popping in to ask them about it, and you know, we would be emailing back and forth on Basecamp to ask each other questions, but now with Slack, we have a way to all, you know, make jokes and share random stuff we like on the internet and figure out ways to do stuff better and have little chats where we improve things, which has been so awesome, and I feel like we’re much more of a team now.
Tara: I love it. I love Slack for all the same reasons. It brings … it brings people together. It brings the team together. It creates a culture, and it’s, obviously, it’s just great for communicating, too. So that’s …
Tara: Yeah, so that’s super helpful. Okay, so can you walk us through what happens internally after you’ve signed a new client? What are the … what are the first steps there? How do you get started working on that new project?
Arianne: Yes. And I am very happy with what we’re doing now. We spent the last year kind of building this out, and it’s all working so well. So we used to just take on a project willy-nilly whenever the client was ready. We’re like, okay, here we go, let’s get started. And it was chaos. And now we have kind of switched to a block system. So in the block system, we have two-month blocks throughout the year. We have five this year. I think next we’re going to try to make it six. And each client project is going to take at least one block, or maybe two, possibly three. So if you’re doing a logo and a website, that ends up being three blocks, because we do two months on the logo, two on the website design, and two on the website development. So before the block starts, we have a phase that we call Phase 0, and we like that to be about a month long, although we can get away with less, sometimes, but a month gives us lots of time to get everything done. So what we have been doing, we used to just kind of collect content from clients as we worked, and if they didn’t have photos, for instance, we would use placeholders, and it was hard to do our best work.
Now, we insist on having everything totally ready for us before design begins. So Sam works with our client to gather content, so that would be like product descriptions, whatever they want to write on the home page, what the about page is going to say, all their photography, their preferences, feature requests, that all happens during Phase 0, and that is also when we bring in our copywriter to create content for them or edit what they’ve got, and our product photographer to take their beautiful hero shots for the front page of their website and all their product shots, and so all that time is mostly, you know, the designer and developer relaxing and Sam is in there with the client digging everything together. At the end of Phase 0, when we have everything ready, we all get together in Slack for an internal project planning meeting, and this has been wonderful. We used to just kind of go by whatever the proposal said and then work out any kinks as they happened. Now, we try to work out all the kinds before they happen, which is a much better way of doing it. So now, we look at both what the client has given us and all the content, and we check out their goals and their objectives and first, we look through the proposal and make sure that we didn’t put in anything that was unnecessary or didn’t leave out anything that is going to be really helpful. So sometimes, we make some adjustments to scope right there at the start with the client’s agreement, and then we spend some time just kind of making our rough plan for how we’re going to do things, and we try to pinpoint any possible problems that might come up or like unusual requests or things that we don’t often do, and we try to make a plan for how that’s going to work and what’s going to happen, and during this time, we also tend to show the client either a wireframe of what we’re planning for their site, or we will give them some information, like for example, we often end up editing and adjusting a client’s category list. So they’ll give us this list of like maybe 18 product categories, and we help them whittle it down and reorganize it and make it make sense to their customer.
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Tara: Is the average project that you’re doing average? Like, do the projects look very similar or is there a lot of disparity between the different types of projects that you’re taking on?
Arianne: They do look very similar, and the reason is because we only do ecommerce projects right now, so we don’t do informational sites or service-based businesses, we only do product-based businesses, and if you want somebody to shop online, there are a certain about of expectations that your customer has from shopping on Amazon and other big sites. They’re expecting the cart to be in a certain place, they’re expecting the login link to be in a certain place, they know kind of what an add-to-cart button looks like. So you have a lot of constraints when you’re designing for ecommerce, which actually turns out to be wonderful, because you’re not reinventing the wheel each time. So most of our client projects are very similar. Like, they’re so similar, in fact, that we just kind of go through a checklist when we’re making a proposal of which things to include and not include. We don’t have to come up with new crazy things very often. We usually have a flat rate or a set price for each type of feature we’re adding. Yeah, so things, you know, we get to put our own spin on it and our own details, and there’s usually not a lot of wild variation going on.
Tara: Got you. That’s … that’s really interesting, and I love the … I love the hyperfocus that you have on who your target client is, and how that not only makes it probably easier to find new clients, but also has streamlined your process so that it’s as efficient as possible for you, and I think that should be a huge takeaway for anybody, whether they’re running a web design agency, or you know, any kind of business that they’re doing, I think that kind of hyperfocus on who you’re selling to really has ripple effects through your entire business strategy, so that’s awesome. Do you mind if I ask you what your average project fee is?
Arianne: So we have kind of a minimum and maximum right now.
Arianne: So most of our clients that come in … So we have a starting at price and then we just add on features that they need to it. So some clients want a blog and some don’t. Some clients have a bunch of informational pages. Some need to add things like downloadable products and stuff like that. So our starting at price for a custom Shopify site is $14,000, and we have had projects go up to $25,000 and $30,000, but that’s usually when we’re adding in completely separate services like marketing and SEO and stuff like that on top of what we normally do.
Tara: Great. Awesome. That’s super helpful. I think fees for web design, well, one, are all over the place, and two, people never know what to expect, and I just, I love hearing, you know, what people are charging. I think that’s really helpful.
Arianne: Right. And they’re totally all over the place, because there’s so many different things you can get.
Arianne: Because if you want to set up a shop on Shopify, you could do it over the weekend for $0 by getting a theme from the theme store, and that is probably going to work for you, though it might not be the best. The clients we work with have been in business for a while, and they have seen success and things are working for them, but they feel like it could be working better, so when we come in, we are not starting with any kind of framework or theme or anything. We are starting from scratch based on their goals, based on their objectives. We’ve been huge on return on investment lately, and figuring out what’s actually going to help the client make money, not just make a pretty website. So yeah, there’s a big difference in services there.
Tara: Perfect. Absolutely perfect. Okay. So we’ve talked about the beginning of the process. Now, can you walk us through what happens when you’re completing with a client? What are … what are those last few steps where someone’s working with you, you’re finishing up this site, what does that look like?
Arianne: So the last thing we do is testing. We have a browser tester on staff who goes through and looks at each website we’ve designed on every reasonable platform. So she’s in there looking on the iPad and the iPhone and on Android and different browsers and Macs and PCs, and she sends this whole crazy report back to the developer to get everything fixed up, and then when we like it on our end, we send it to the client to do their user testing, because we found over the years when you don’t have the website owner go through the entire checkout process, they come back two months later surprised by something that they’ve never seen before, or they didn’t realize their shipping was working that way or something like that, so we have our clients go through the site as a customer, and we have them complete checkout and use the different payment methods, try the different shipping methods, make sure the order emails they get all make sense. You know, we want them to see everything their customer’s going to see, so they have a chance to customize it if needed and change it if they don’t think it’s going to work and all that good stuff. And then we are ready to launch their site, and then after launch, we spent some time to prepare them and our team for their six-month checkup, which is something we started doing this last year, where we launch them on their way and they get to set sail, and then we meet back up with them after six months to see if they’re on the path to achieving their goal and how it’s going, what’s working, what hasn’t been working, and we’re available at that point to do some updates or changes to the site if needed, and we try to make that very stats and sales-based, so we’re not just, you know, changing the blue to a lighter blue for fun, but doing something that’s actually going to be effective for them. And then it’s just we have a week in between ending a block and starting a new block, and during that week, we do a lot of internal marketing type stuff, like the designer makes some graphics for the portfolio and blog posts, and I plan out what we’re going to blog about for each client, and we get their testimonial, and we see if they’ll send us the print work we designed for them so we can take photos and all that good stuff.
Tara: Cool. Very, very cool. Are there any trends that you see coming in web design or in ecommerce?
Arianne: Oh my goodness. It’s so hard to know, like, what is going to be an important thing to do and what is going to be a silly trend that nobody’s going to care about in a little while. But you know, we keep our eye out, and it’s actually really good, Shopify has got a really good blog for following along and seeing what is happening with ecommerce, because they really are trying to stay ahead of the curve. In fact, we went to the Shopify partner conference just for their developers and designers and experts, and they were demonstrating virtual reality shopping, where you put on like the headgear and the gloves and you’re walking around in a store and grabbing things off the shelves, and I have no plans to start doing anything like that for Aeolidia clients yet, but it’s definitely interesting to look at. We, personally, have been seeing a lot more video on websites, which is nice. Like you can do video on product pages to just make people really understand what it’s going to be like to have the product, or like a video of your brick and mortar shop, or whatever your process, whatever’s special on the home page to get people interested, so that is something we’ve been looking at. Mostly, we try to stick to what we know works and not get too wild, because if you get super experimental with somebody’s product-based business, you could be costing them money, so we try to stick to what we know is working at the time.
Tara: Cool. Awesome. All right, last question for today. What’s next for you and Aeolidia?
Arianne: What’s next? So I am working with one of my developers on building kind of a members area on the Aeolidia site, which is just something for our newsletter subscribers. It’s free. It’s something that exists right now, but it’s a total mess, because it … it made sense when I had three things for them, but now that I have tons of things for them, it’s just getting confusing. So I’ve been making a lot of content upgrades for my blog posts where there’s maybe some more information or like a guide you could use or a workbook or a video to watch and all that kind of good stuff. So I’ve been saving that stuff in a members area for people who subscribe to my newsletter. It doesn’t cost anything, just your email address, but that is kind of just, I just keep adding to it, and it’s been going totally crazy, so I’m trying to turn it into an actual nice resource area for somebody who is either starting or growing a small creative business can use all the info we’ve put together over the years to really make some good next steps for themselves. So we’re working at that, tapping away at it. I am also speaking at the State of Making summit, which is something the Academy of Handmade is putting on, and we’re going to be talking about what changes we have seen in the industry over the last year, and I am pretty excited about that, and other than that, I’m just kind of sitting back hear and any time I see things that are not perfect in our process, I am sneaking in there and improving them, and making it better for everybody.
Tara: Awesome, awesome, awesome. Well, that’s a perfect place to leave it. Arianne Foulks, thank you so much for talking with me today.
Arianne: Thank you, it’s been fun.
Tara: Find out more about Arianne Foulks and Aeolidia at Aeolidia.com.
Next week, I talk with Jill Knouse, who gave up a lucrative career in the financial field to become a certified yoga instructor and massage therapist. Jill and I talk about creating an innovative business model in a saturated field, and we jam about collaboration, creating events people love, and testing new ideas.
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That’s it for this week’s episode of Profit. Power. Pursuit. You can download other episodes of this podcast and subscribe in the iTunes store. If you enjoy what you heard, we appreciate your reviews and recommendations, because they help us reach as many emerging entrepreneurs as possible.
This episode was produced by Michael Karsh at CreativeLive. Our audio engineer was Chris Stow. Daniel Peterson wrote our theme song and also edited this episode. Tune in every week for new interviews that give you the inside scoop on how successful small businesses run and grow.