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Leading From Behind the Scenes: Operations at Beam

Author
Becca Nash
June 29, 2022

Six months ago, if you had asked me what a Director of Operations does, I admittedly wouldn't have had an answer for you.

I conceptually understood marketing, sales, fulfillment, HR and basic finances, but operations? WTF does that mean?

Hi, I'm Becca, the Director of Operations at Beam. And I was completely unqualified for this job.

With a lack of experience, I was put in the position where I needed to learn. And, fortunately, learning is something I do best. 🤓

Over the last six months, I've learned that if you are in an operations or project management role, you may not be the one writing client content or getting engagement on your own social handle, but you are essential to delivering excellent content. And here's why.

First, let's back up a bit.

Many people know my husband and business partner, Brooklin.

He's pretty snarky, great with words, and strategic.

He's got the talent to drive a personal brand, manage a long lineup of clients, and handle a full-time job (plus, he's a great dad and human.)

But what you may not know is that there is a limit to what one person can do—and everybody has their strengths and weaknesses.

When it comes to signing every signature, documenting that brain of his, and bookkeeping, wellllll....            

For about a decade, by mutual decision, Brooklin was the face and voice of our business, while I (happily) worked alongside him with few external-facing responsibilities.

Somewhere around year 8, we started feeling growing pains as we embraced the opportunity to transition from a baby business, run by just us, to a pre-teen business with a small team. With a team, we knew we could better serve our clients, offer unique conversation and data-driven content, and create an intentional, professional network of freelancers.

But to grow a team and a micro-agency that could serve our clients with consistent, high-quality content, we needed systems, tools, and a better handle on paperwork and finances.

While I enjoy writing and nerding out on data as much as any content marketer, it was time for me to grow into superpowers I didn't know I had.

WTF is Operations?

Like I said, I didn't even know what Director of Operations meant six months ago, which I don't feel too bad about because even the smart folks at HBR say they don't really know:

"When you start to examine Chief Operating Officers as a class, one thing immediately becomes clear: There are almost no constants. People with very different backgrounds ascend to the role and succeed in it. This variability makes the job difficult to study; it’s hard to know whether you are making proper inferences when comparing one COO with another."

But, at the end of the day, the person filling these shoes is an implementer.

They get stuff done.

And the most consistent part of the COO's job description is not their day-to-day responsibilities or purpose. Instead, it is the level of trust they have with their CEO.

The visionary and (in my case) sociable CEO trusts their second-in-command to execute on projects, to reign in their ideas (or sassy tweets), and make sure the organization's gears keep on turning.

I'll be honest. As the Operations lead of a quasi-startup, I sometimes feel like I'm on an island—most days, my tasks are entirely different than those of my team.

Instead of researching, writing, calling clients, interviewing ridiculously intelligent and cool people, making images or videos, I'm getting kicked off the phone by the IRS for the second time, cataloguing systems in ClickUp and publishing our DBA in a physical newspaper (why is that a thing?)

But the thing is, I'm in it all.

So instead of an island, I'm actually a boat sailing between the different islands of our business and making sure they're all connected and have what they need.  

I'm not pretending I know how to sail perfectly yet. But I am seeing improvements every day in Beam's productivity, communications, and team happiness.

SaaS content writer ➝ Director of Operations. But why?

Beam helps B2B SaaS companies create expert-driven content based on interviews and original data so that they can build trust with their buyers.

Prior to building a team and establishing proper systems (or let's be honest, hiring a bookkeeper), Brooklin and I were limited to what we could do. Yes, we could deliver content. We could drive traffic to our clients' sites. We could share our experiences with other freelancers.                              

But to really partner with our clients in crafting unique, purposeful content, we needed to create better systems and build out a team.                                       

Limited to two to three people, we could create 25 deliverables per month. This was often "boring" top-of-funnel SEO that started with a Google search, rather than an expert.

SEO has its place, buuuuut...it's not what our clients' buyers were going to find super valuable or soak into their deep subconscious as they became raving fans.  

With a team of four full time people and roughly 20 freelance writers, social media experts, and designers, we can now deliver more than 100 projects per month at much higher quality, run 20 interviews, and give clients what they need to repurpose or distribute their content across social.

To manage this growth, someone has to keep tabs on cash flow, take over HR, equip the team with the tools they need, and build out communications systems. That person is me.

How getting a handle on operations improves content at Beam

As I entered unknown operational territory, my new guiding question became:

"How can I design a remote environment that makes it easy and rewarding for a team to deliver the high-quality content we expect for more B2B SaaS companies?"

In the lead-up to our launch as Beam Content, I've taken on driving efficiency in three main areas of our business to build this environment:

  • Process-and system-building
  • People Ops
  • $$$$$$

1. Processes and Systems

Let's start here.

Processes are the steps we take to communicate and get work done. If we don't take the time to identify, document, and future-proof them, we are wasting energy.

Habits and routines make up the way we work individually. Company processes and systems ensure that everyone—from our VA to our editor to our client—is working in sync.

In his book Out of the Crisis, Dr. W. Edwards Deming famously attributed 94% of business problems to the system, rather than the individual.

Outside of academia, he demonstrated this with a metaphor: he rewrote the national anthem with notes that people could actually hit.

It's not the average person's (or employee's) fault they can't sing America's song without croaking—it spans more than an octave and a half. It's the song (the system) that's broken.

If you fix the system, you set people up for success.

Sounds great, but what does that mean for Beam?

Processes in a fledgling agency

In March, we went from a two-person team to a three-person team. (Hi, Sam 👋)

Now we're transitioning from a three-person team to a four-person team—along with a dozen contractors. So what's our status on systems and documentation?

TL;DR: We're in the "Come to Jesus" stage.

In January, our systems and documentation was our brains, habits, and inboxes.

It has been my job to get us out of that.

One of the biggest moves we took was to migrate ALL things to ClickUp.

We use ClickUp as our entire office. In ClickUp, we have a:

  • "Beam's Systems 🤩" Space.
  • A "System Catalog" list
  • Updated documentation of .... drumroll please....two systems

(One of our current systems is a system for making systems. #meta)

Let me clarify—we have ways of doing things, communicating, moving projects through editorial stages, and managing finances. Some of these processes are explained using Loom videos, but they have not been documented or catalogued properly yet.

These unofficial, undocumented ways of doing things makes it hard to:

  • Identify areas of inefficiency
  • Train new employees
  • Set proper expectations
  • Grow

To overcome these challenges, we have 43 identified systems in the "In Development" list and "Need to Create" stages.

I look at this and see "Wow, we have so much work to do." But I also know that we heading in the right direction and have a roadmap.

It's our top priority to get in the habit of maintaining clear processes in the very beginning stages of our business so that all stakeholders (team and clients) stay on the same page, productive, and happy.

Now that I've created a "system for creating systems," I can get the ball rolling.

2. People Ops

This one is my favorite.

I'm an Enneagram 2w3, which essentially means my motivation in life is to help people—and I'm really good at achieving things.

This is how I feel about our team:           

I guess it's this combo of personality traits makes the process of making people processes really exciting to me.

When I think of People Ops, I think of several systems for a company our size:

  • HR, payroll, and compliance
  • Recruitment and hiring
  • Team satisfaction
  • Communication
  • Onboarding

And this is a taste of what it looks like so far:

Recruitment and Onboarding in ClickUp

#BeamTeam recruitment has primarily taken place through past relationships and social networking.

So far, we've gone through a few iterations of onboarding.

ClickUp's templates helped lay a great foundation. With employee and freelancer feedback, we've steadily improved.

Payroll and HR stuff in Gusto

We operate across multiple states and countries.

Gusto keeps me sane and in good graces with everybody who wants $$$—employees, freelancers, and Uncle Sam.

I seriously love Gusto. I don't know how I'd run payroll, administer benefits, or get all our employee paperwork together without it.

Fun, learning, and other conversations in Slack

One of our values is to keep things fun, energetic, and a little funky.

Like most companies run by millennials today, we want to build a supportive, positive remote environment, where we stay humble.

We use a variety of tools that keep our team on track, checking in each day, and enjoying the work (ClickUp Docs, Loom, and Slack all go a long way.)

As a growing remote team, I know we will be investing heavily in continued learning, wellness, and ways to make communication awesome.

3. $$$$$$

Finances are the tool that run the show. But, for a long time, we didn't know what to do with that.

We didn't even have a bookkeeper in January 2022.

Now we have a bookkeeping service and a CPA.

I am the person that communicates with the money people. And I manage some aspects of our finances along the way.

I'm the go-to person in charge of staying on top of our monthly financials.

One of the upcoming projects is to make a system for making updates to our value chain dashboard easier—because it can slip our mind.

One day, a RevOps lead or a fractional CFO role may own these types of processes—but when you're a team of four, you wear many hats.

Without operations, there is no content

Whether your way of doing things is documented or not, you have a system. But if it's not documented, you can't see it. And if you can't see it, you can't improve it.

We got plenty of work done when it was just Brooklin and I operating as freelancers.

We didn't have any system catalogued in ClickUp, and we didn't know that we were supposed to categorize our expenses to save money come tax season.

And we still drove traffic and grew pipeline for B2B SaaS companies.

But we were extremely limited.

As we change our branding, our services, our pricing, our team, and, ultimately our systems, we are growing in our ability to deliver higher-quality content. Content that is actually interesting. Content that is actually based on expert knowledge. Content that is fun to see on social.

And we can make more of it.

I may no longer identify professionally as a content marketer—but as the Director of Operations at Beam, I know that my role behind the scenes is improving B2B content. And something about that is really fun.