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Building a business: Lessons from Parkway Digital’s first 5 years

When Rob and I started this venture in 2014, I don’t know if we ever thought we’d be lucky enough to build a company like Parkway. It’s been a mixture of luck, talent and persistence that brought us to where we are now, five years later.

I always considered myself fortunate that I didn’t have any agency experience when we started Parkway. I worked with my dad for about 15 years. His business, Reilley Printing & Graphics, was a print broker with an in-house design studio. I also spent a year working as a designer at a car magazine in Atlanta. That was it.

To me, the benefit of limiting my exposure to how others ran their businesses was that I was free to build Parkway the way I saw fit. There were no preconceived notions about how things “should” be. It gave me the ability to instill my beliefs into the company and manage the business, and clients, the way I would want to be treated.

There are an infinite number of things to learn when starting a business. Most can be found with a Google search. There are countless resources on figuring out how to do your own payroll, whether or not to charge sales tax, and even how to create a business plan. What I want to share as Parkway approaches its fifth anniversary is more personal. These are the things that can’t be found with a simple search.

I’m sharing them in the hope that they help others build their businesses too.

Learn to lead, not manage.

When we started Parkway, I knew very little. At the start, it was just Rob and myself. He worked from home and I answered the phone from a single rented office. When we needed to bring on our first employee in 2016, I was clueless. We didn’t have a handbook; there were no company policies. We had to figure all of that out, and most of it we did as we went. Even with all the new responsibilities that came with our first employee, my biggest challenge was trying to figure out how to be a good leader.

One of the first books I read about leadership was Leaders Eat Last by Simon Sinek. I had always been a fan of his work, but that book really helped solidify what it meant (to me) to be a good leader. Being a manager is about tasks; being a leader is about people. Building a safe workplace, where our employees felt comfortable and empowered, was important to me — especially in the creative field. Leaders Eat Last started my obsession with books exploring culture and responsibility. From Shoe Dog and Delivering Happiness to Powerful, I’m always reading (albeit sometimes slowly) a book to push my assumptions about leadership and running a business.

My goal is to continuously improve the way Parkway runs. By focusing on accountability, ownership and relationships we built a culture where everyone is excited to come to work and build something together. By removing the “manager” role and providing ownership to each team member, every person manages themselves and is proud to deliver the best work possible for our clients.

Forget the product; focus on the experience.

This is a little misleading, I know. Having a quality product or service is important to the sustainability of your business. However, you can have an amazing product, but your business won’t last long if you can’t communicate with customers. Customer experience is just as important, if not more so, than your offering.

When Rob and I started Parkway, we made a lot of purposeful decisions about how we build our websites, manage our hosting and advertising campaigns, and even how we give access to our time. At Parkway, we don’t host websites for clients. Sure, it’s a great way to earn a little extra money with reoccurring revenue. But it went against our ultimate mission of doing what’s in the client’s best interest. It’s more affordable for clients to sign up for hosting on their own and it gives them ownership of the decision.

We want our clients to have the freedom to leave. We build our websites in WordPress so our clients can move to another web provider if they want to. There aren’t contracts for any of our SEO or advertising campaigns. Clients can call and ask us to stop at any time. We don’t have account reps; all of our clients have complete access to anyone on the team.

The deliberate choices that make up Parkway’s framework provide a unique experience for our customers. It includes them in the process and gives them the ability to leave should they want to. The funny part is, most don’t. Our flexibility shows how confident we are in our products and showcases how we are different from some of the competition. Focusing on experience can really be a differentiator for you and your business.

Love your work.

Life is hard. Of the five years since starting Parkway, four involved my dad’s battle with terminal brain cancer. Working with my dad taught me how to run a company. He guided me in my first business venture and was the person I spent the most time with. He was my sounding board. I lost a part of that after his diagnosis and subsequent surgery.

My dad passed away this past August, and the last year was extremely hard to watch. Leaving a nursing home after visiting your dying father and walking into work with a smile is challenging. I can’t imagine how people go through that and walk into a job they hate. I wouldn’t have been able to do it if I didn’t love what I do and the team around me.

How does this relate to business? It doesn’t exactly. But when you’re trying to decide what do to with your life, don’t just follow the money. Find something you love to do, something you are passionate about, and focus on that. Designing and running Parkway isn’t a job for me. It brings me an immense amount of satisfaction to see the amazing work we produce and the way this business impacts the community and our employees’ lives.

Part of the reality of running a business is always being on call. There are personal trade-offs, including constant worry and all sorts of stress. It doesn’t go away when you clock out. So be sure you really love what you do. When things get tough, whether personally or professionally, that passion is what gets you to the other side.

Every business is different and everyone’s experience is unique. Of the million things I’ve learned since we started Parkway five years ago, these are the three that stand out most to me. These three lessons touch everything I do at Parkway and drive me to constantly improve who we are and what we offer.

Hopefully, there is a glimmer of knowledge you can pull from my experience and use to build something special yourself.

Cheers to another five years.