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12 Years, 12 Lessons I Learned as a Female Founder

12 Years, 12 Lessons I Learned as a Female Founder

Samantha Choi Cadley

CEO & Chief Creative Officer

May 2, 2024

Manual Labor turns 12 today. 

On one hand, it feels like just yesterday we were working at my kitchen counter. On the other hand, there's a lifetime of lessons that I could share, year by year. 

This anniversary is not just about the numbers. We’ve done so much learning along the way. Some lessons were clear from my first conversation: a good client values partnership and respect.  Some lessons happened in real time: always respect the preparation. Being open to taking big steps or making necessary small shifts has shaped me, our company, and how we set out to design an agency people want to work with and at. 

While I’ll save you the chapters, here are 12 lessons I would tell my day 1 self and any new leaders.

1. Be an active listener.

So much of business is about building strong relationships -  that begins with understanding one another. Focus less on what you want to say next and listen to what they are saying. Sometimes the a-ha moments come through what clients aren’t actually saying. That’s active listening. 

2. Seek out good partners.

They’re the ones who share the same principle - that we are all in this together. You can usually tell from the first conversation what kind of relationship you’ll have. Are they talking with or at you, asking you questions, engaging with the entire room or just select people? You’ll meet them at all stages, budgets, and sizes. At the end, what you are looking for are signals of empathy and respect.

3. Build a diverse team.

A spectrum of backgrounds, beliefs, thoughts, and experiences will result in challenged ideas, work that isn’t just from a singular pov, and a culture of learning from one another. It is central to Manual Labor. We’re not checking boxes here. Our diversity is what makes us confident that we are not approaching work with a myopic view of the world.

4. Leverage what got you here, and don’t shy away from it.

Not all journeys are linear. As a matter of fact, it’s rarely a straight line. Embrace the different experiences you’ve had because you may find a superpower in there. For example, as a designer, the skills required to extrapolate an idea into a final client asset requires a broad skill set. This equips us to be unparalleled problem solvers, a.k.a. great leaders. 

5. Treat Culture like an essential team member.

We spend so much time at work; why shouldn’t it be a place that we enjoy? Businesses forget too often that they only exist because good people invest their time and deserve the best possible environment to succeed. Establish the culture you want, then check in with it, and make sure to nurture it. 

6. Do what is best, and temper the need to be right.

We all have egos that can get in the way. Fostering a culture of creativity, collaboration, and inclusivity will allow you to solve for the best solution. Challenges partners face can only happen by listening, learning, and planning together; not fighting to be the one that’s right.

7. Ignore the status quo.

A lot of people will tell you, that’s not the way it’s done. Understand the difference between an opinion and advice and do what feels right to you.

8. Have a strong team of trusted advisors.

None of us can do this alone, as we can’t be experts in everything. Identify your strengths and where you have gaps to build the right advisor community that can help you lead and drive change.  

9. Respect the prep.

Being impactful takes hard work. Give yourself the advantage (and mental relief) by allocating time for preparation. Practice your presentation out loud, do the research required to have an engaging conversation, and create a cheat sheet for yourself.

10. Own your voice.

Don’t compete to be the loudest voice in the room, but DEFINITELY let them know you’re there. More is not more.

11. Don’t try to solve problems alone.

The pressure we put on ourselves because we believe we have to solve a challenge on our own is unnecessary. Big or small, asking for help and gathering the right team is a great way to get to an answer quicker. Be vulnerable, ask for help when you need it. 

12. Notebook, notebook, notebook.

Learn how to take good notes. Whether you’re a student or a founder, mastering this skill is invaluable for retaining the right information. Your shorthand will be the key to long term success. 

I’m so proud of what we’ve built so far and we could not have done it without every member of this ML team. Our belief in the power of talent, passion, grit, and a sprinkle of blind optimism has guided us through every twist and turn. To all our partners, thank you for being part of our journey thus far and joining our Good People Network.   

According to 4A, there are approximately 14,000 ad agencies across the US. Less than 1% are owned by women. Whether you’re in year 1 or 50, let’s go, ladies!

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