Big companies have a board of directors. So do many small and midsize businesses.
But as solopreneurs and freelancers, we typically make our own strategic decisions.
That may be OK for small, daily tasks and project-related activities. But what about the big stuff?
Things like mid- and long-range business planning. Positioning. Strategic growth.
Are we so different from traditional businesses that we don't need outside input on these important items?
Not so, says Luke Mysse, founder of CROSSGRAIN, a business-minded design firm.
Five years ago, Luke assembled an advisory board of trusted friends and colleagues. The impact on his business and personal life have been transformational.
In this candid and thought-provoking interview, Luke explains how he assembled his own advisory board. What has come out of board meetings. And how this idea has changed him personally and professionally.
What follows is a condensed transcript of our conversation. If you prefer to listen to the full audio (35 minutes), you can listen to it (or download it) here:
ED: Hey, Luke, great to have you here, man. Welcome to the Academy.
LUKE: Well, thanks, Ed. Thanks for having me.
ED: You have a really cool concept that you spoke about at last year’s Creative Freelancer Conference in Chicago. It really caught my attention and I wanted to spend some time with you talking about this idea, which is this whole notion of creating your own advisory board. Why don’t you tell us a little bit about what that is and what led you to that idea?
LUKE: Well, I was having a conversation one day with one of my business mentors; it’s a guy that I had spent a lot of time with. We call him Uncle Dave. He’s actually an uncle of a friend of ours, but he just has that kind of uncle figure, you know? Where he’s kind of the wise uncle.
Uncle Dave was a retired CFO, very successful, done well, just very wise and very good at encouraging people along without hitting them over the head of it. He’s expressed a deep interest in helping me over the years, and has always just been kind of a good mentor.
We were sitting in my office one day, and I was just talking about some of the struggles I was having at the moment. And a lot of the struggles that I have personally with business are just discouragement; I’m really hard on myself and I have really high expectations for what I see my life meaning and things like that, and I’m really driven to do really big things.
Part of the highs of that is that I do accomplish some amazing things, but part of the lows of that is I also beat myself up pretty bad. So I was having kind of one of those moments, and he said that it would be nice if there were a place where you could go and get encouragement.
And he said, “I feel like you’re pretty good on the accountability side, and you kind of drive your own ship pretty well, and you actually try to get things done, and you’re kind of moving forward. But you get hung up because you get discouraged.”
And so he actually suggested it, and he was kind of saying big companies have boards, why wouldn’t an individual have a board…especially when they’re trying to do some of the things that I’m doing even outside of work…making a difference in the world and things like that? So that’s kind of how the idea started, and I want to say that this happened probably four or five years ago.
ED: Okay, let’s take a step back. What kind of work were you doing back then? And maybe give us an idea of some of the other things you were involved in outside of work that are pretty big.
LUKE: I’ve been self-employed for 16 years. My background is in graphic design and branding. But about five years ago, and it’s probably around the same time that I got into this board situation, I started shifting more towards marketing strategy — where I would come in and look at a client’s business and then kind of help them figure out what they need.
I'm jumping ahead a little bit here, but one of the interesting perspectives that I had on my board is I had an old client. This client had moved on from the company that he was working with or he had sold the portion or share in the company that he had. He was a client for a long time. So he had a really good perspective into how I work.
And it was kind of through some conversations with him and even in the board meetings that we realized that some of the value that I bring is not just designing what they need or doing what they need, but it’s actually helping them decide what they need.
Personally, I have to understand why we’re doing something. It has to make sense. And I have to be able to get behind that or my creativity vanishes. So, it’s wise for me to dive into a company’s business, they need me to do that, and ultimately, I have to do that in order to be creative.
So the idea of this new business focus that came out of some of those initial meetings, was how do we leverage this skill that I know I have? Because ultimately that’s very good for the business. I can usually articulate why I think the company needs to run a campaign versus a new website or whatever it is.
ED: OK, now I’m starting to see why this "advisory board" idea struck a chord with you. So, let me ask you: How did you go about it? How did you structure the board? How did you identify people that you could approach? How did you recruit members to this board? Tell us a little bit about that process.
LUKE: So one of the things that Uncle Dave and I first talked about was who should be on the board. I didn’t want it to become a roundtable discussion with other designers. I felt like I had enough of that in my life already. I was doing things with AIGA. I had a lot of interaction with designers. Because I had done a lot of speaking in the design community, I have a lot of that sort of influence already, and I didn’t necessarily feel like I wanted to start that again for myself.
Also, design is only one part of who I am and what I do. I wanted different perspectives. So, it was important for me to have a wide array of perspectives. So when I started, I really looked for people that were outside of the industry.
And so my initial board was made up of a CFO, which was Uncle Dave. I had a sales person, someone who was selling a service product. I had a company owner, and I had a really good friend.
And the idea there was to kind of balance out these perspectives into the different areas of my life. It’s kind of shifted over the years to be different people. And I’ve had a couple of people step off, and I’ve had a couple people come back on.
And again, I wanted to go beyond my design work and my career, because that’s only one part of who I really am. I wanted this board to extend beyond my business because these meetings really get personal.
I mean, we talk about a lot of personal stuff. And these are all people that are friends of mine, so they know a lot of things about me. I’ve cried in those meetings, which is kind of embarrassing, but when you’re talking about big stuff and you’re talking about struggles and things like that, sometimes that happens.
So once I identified the right people, I just asked them, and these are people that I’ve had relationships with for a long time and people that respected me.
The other thing is I really needed to find somebody that I had a lot of respect for. Otherwise I could just figure out a way to talk around what they were saying. My wife hates this about me, but at the end of the day I’m a really good salesperson, and I can convince just about anybody anything.
So I needed somebody who had a level of maturity, and a level of experience, and even a level of friendship with me that they could kind of call me on that when I was saying something that didn’t really make sense…and somebody that I couldn’t really talk my way out of.
In fact, that was the other reason that the board idea made sense to me, because if it's a one-on-one relationship, I feel like I could probably figure out a way to kind of weasel out of doing something by coming up with a reason that even they would look at me and go, “That kind of make sense.” But it was very hard for me to do that in a collective group environment because of those different perspectives.
So eventually I just sent out an email and I told them that I wanted to improve things not only in my business and my life. And I wanted to know if they would be willing to invest some time in "me." And honestly, every single one of them said "Yes."
ED: Interesting. And it seems like you picked a good size—four people. I would think that if you go much bigger than that, it starts getting a bit of out of hand, right?
LUKE: Yeah. And you don’t want to get paralyzed in those meetings. You’re asking for a couple hours of somebody’s time every few months, and so you want to keep it manageable. So yeah, I feel like any bigger than that then you have too many differences of opinions.
I also think that it’s important that the relationship is pretty clear that they are there to help you. It can’t be some sort of a mutual arrangement, like "you help me, I’ll help you" type of relationship, because those relationships kind of get weird sometimes.
LUKE: I contend that every person has at least one or two people that they could call on for this role, even if it’s a friend. You might have a friend that is really good at managing their finances, and maybe you want to improve in that area.
I don't think it’s an issue of finding the right person. I think it’s the issue of having the guts to actually step out that far and be that transparent. And that’s why I think people get hung up because it’s not comfortable. I mean you lay down your financials on the table in front of one of your best friends. That’s not a fun experience.
ED: No, not at all.
LUKE: But it is an experience that will make you better. That’s why I think some people like this idea until they get to that point, and then when they get to that point, it’s like, “Oh, I don’t want to do that because that’s too vulnerable.” And I’ve never been that, because to me, I’m serious about this. I really want to make a big impact in the world. And to me the only way to do that is to get other people to speak into my life. There’s no way for me to do that on my own.
ED: I think it’s tough for a lot of people, but especially creative people. We take a lot of pride in what we do, the way we do it, the way we approach things…and to open up like that and kind of take in different opinions and be that vulnerable, that takes some guts. That takes some guts.
LUKE: Or stupidity.
ED: Yeah, exactly you need a good balance of both.
LUKE: I’ve got a pretty good dose of both.
ED: I’m curious. When you approach these people, what did you tell them? What did you tell them you were looking for?
LUKE: I sent out an email as a first introduction, and all these people know me very well, so it wasn’t like an email blast or anything like that. I sent out a very specific email to each one, and I was very specific on what I was asking for.
I explained that the structure of these meetings would allow me to explain where I’m at. We could then talk about what’s in front of me—including a little bit about goals and dreams and things like that. And then I want to hear their perspective.
I also told them, "I'm going to send an email a few months before so that there’s plenty of time to put it in the schedule. I’m going to ask that you come to my office in my conference room. I will cater a lunch and I’m going to ask for two hours of your time.”
I was very specific on what the time commitment was. I wanted to make sure they I understood that I wasn’t asking for something every month, or I wasn’t asking for any sort of ongoing coaching or anything like that. It was a specific time and a specific time frame. So really I was just asking for two hours of their time, and then I told them I’m not really asking for any preparation on your part or any follow-up on your part. I’m really just asking for you to be present in that meeting.
So I think that it's key to set the expectation from the very beginning. Because people have gotten onto boards before where it’s like a nonprofit board and you just end up working yourself thin because there’s so much work to get done. I wanted to make sure these people understood that that wasn’t what I was asking.
ED: You mentioned frequency. Let’s talk about the structure of the meeting. So how did you approach this? And did it change over time? Did the structure of the meeting evolve? Or did it stay pretty much the same?
LUKE: The structure has evolved quite a bit, especially this last year, because of where I’m going in my career and my life. Things changed quite a bit. I have a pretty heavy involvement with a nonprofit, and starting another nonprofit right now relating to this specific issue that I’m working on, and so the structure has changed dramatically since then.
We don’t have as frequent of meetings; I stay more connected to them individually. I am getting ready to call a meeting, and it’s more based on when I hit major milestones that I’m kind of pulling meetings together.
But when I initially started, it was every other month. Eventually it moved to quarterly, and now it’s a little more infrequent based on what’s going on, even though I stay connected to them individually.
As far as the structure of the actual meeting, I have this analogy about the lion, the bear, and the snake. The lion is consuming your leg; he's the predator. The bear is charging through the forest, and the snake is just kind of laying around.
So, the lion is the most urgent thing for your business right now, where if I don’t deal with this within the next 30 days or even the next two weeks, this is the most urgent thing that I’m dealing with. It could be cash flow. It could be some specific client issue. It could be whatever. It’s the most urgent thing, the thing you wake up in the morning thinking about your business.
The bear is charging at you through the forest, and the problem with that is it’s not there yet, but it’s going to be there soon, and so what is that thing? It could be 30 to 60 days out. So here again it could be cash flow. Maybe right now you’re okay, but because your pipeline is light, you don't have enough work currently to deal with cash flow needs that will creep up in a couple of months.
The snake has always been the thing that’s kind of lying around. It’s somewhat dangerous if you play with it, but it’s there and it’s annoying and it’s creeping you out. And you’re kind of trying to figure out like, okay. At some point, I got to deal with that.
For me, the snake has always been marketing. My own marketing stuff is always kind of that. Oh gosh, I got to do this. I got to do this. I got to do this. And so what I would do is I would come to the table with kind of the 30-day, 60-day, 90-day items. The three biggest things that I need to deal with.
Then, I would present my current health report as far as cash flow, accounts receivable and other financials. So if it was a two-hour meeting, I’d probably spend 45 minutes to an hour updating them on what’s happened since the last meeting, and then also updating them on the three things that I need to spend time on—the lion, the bear and the snake.
And then at that point, I would kind of sit back and let them kind of speak into those things, and at the end, we would have some action items for me. And those are the items that I would either follow up with in between meetings to talk them about or things that needed to be done or achieved by the next meeting.
ED: I’m curious about something from an earlier point. The fact that these people aren’t in the design industry…they’re not freelancers, they’re not agency people, and I think that’s great. I’m a great believer that each of us needs to bring in different perspectives into our businesses and personal lives. Sometimes I think we have too much baggage. So we don’t see opportunities that are obvious to other people.
But I’m curious: Did you ever get frustrated because one of the board members didn't really understand your business, so they advice they were giving you was not very helpful?
LUKE: I haven’t really found that, and I think it's because of the type of people that I brought in. I mean they’re pretty savvy. And to them, a lot of the stuff we were talking about is just about general business problems or general personal stuff. There’s a lot of personal stuff that gets discussed in here, and a lot of things about what’s going on with my own life personally and things like that.
I do have a designer that’s on the board now, and for no other reason than he’s just a really good friend. He’s definitely lent some perspective and been able to kind of point out some things that he’s done successfully. But I never found that to be an issue because I find a lot of the core things of business are pretty consistent business to business.
In some ways creatives think they somehow get a pass because, “Well, you don’t understand my business, it’s a creative business.” It’s like, “Yeah, it’s still kind of the same. You’re still like any other service business. You have to market yourself well.”
And that’s where I think a lot of creatives get frustrated, because they think that somehow because they can do things differently they can avoid certain tasks that are critical to business health. But fundamentals don't change. You're still running a business.
ED: That’s right. In fact, many times you really don’t want too many people who “know your business” because they’re not going to see the real opportunities or challenges.
LUKE: Right, right.
ED: So I’m curious. You’ve already mentioned some of the benefits that have come out of this, but any other big unintended benefits that have come out of this?
LUKE: Well, I think the biggest one is my physical health. So gosh, it’s been four to five years ago. I think it was the first year that we’re having these meetings, but it would have been like the third or fourth meeting that year, I had had some physical issues that I have gone to the doctor to have—I think we were thinking that I had a kidney stone or something.
So, anyways, so I had gone to the doctor, and it had been found out through that process by one of the board members that I was 30—I must have been 31…I had never had a physical before.
And I was starting to have a little bit of health issues. I was incredibly overweight. I was over 100 pounds heavier than I am now. And at one point, I was over 300 pounds, and so we had had a meeting. One of my friends who was on the board was leaving to travel for a year, and so we had decided to have a dinner meeting and I was kind of thanking him for being on the board, and dinner just happened to work out that time. So we went to a nice restaurant.
And at that meeting, it had been found out weeks prior that I was having all these issues because these guys were connected to my life, and so this friend said, “You know we’re not really going to talk about business today. In fact, we’re not going to talk about business moving forward until you go get a physical and we find out what’s going on with you. Because if you get sick, how do we help you achieve the things that you want to achieve in business?”
That was the first time that really deep personal stuff had come up. And I thought, “Hey, this is off the table. This is not what we’re supposed to be talking about. This isn’t what I signed up for.” But these guys cared about me and they saw some of the things that are happening. And so it’s funny because that moment they basically said like “We want to hear the report from your physical: you cholesterol, blood pressure, all that kind of stuff. It's an item we want to get back from you at the next meeting.”
And it was also out of that group that I started riding bikes, which again people that know me, I mean cycling’s completely changed my life. I’ve lost 125 pounds riding, I ride constantly, it’s the thing that finally clears my head, and I mean it’s literally changed my life. But it was out of that particular meeting that all of that started.
So, as I think about the unexpected benefits, I went into this thinking that it was all about business. But it has really affected me personally more than anything else.
The other thing that has happened out of it is my involvement with this nonprofit, which has been a huge kind of shift for me of getting involved in something that’s making a really big difference in the world, and that also came out of relationships in that group.
ED: Wow. And you know what? Would you mind sharing a little bit about that? I don’t know if you’re ready for that, if it’s something you’re sharing with others?
LUKE: Oh yeah. So the name of the original nonprofit that I’m involved in is called MANA Nutrition, and we make a peanut butter product. It’s a packet of peanut butter that’s got milk and vitamins in it, and it’s for kids that are dying of severe acute malnutrition.
These are kids that are very young that have had, for whatever reason, a famine, drought, and we’re talking about areas of Africa, India, Asia, very poor areas; and for whatever reason, they’ve hit a point of malnutrition where any food is not going to bring them back. They really need some sort of treatment.
So we make this product in Georgia, and these kids literally go from unresponsive to fat chubby happy kids, healthy. I mean the side-by-side results are just unbelievable.
So I got involved in the beginning of that. We’re now starting another nonprofit which I’m launching in the next couple of weeks. It's more of an overarching umbrella, which is raising awareness and cause called Stop SAM.
SAM is the acronym for "severe acute malnutrition." We’re launching this thing, and the idea is to raise money and awareness to buy these packets and send them to places that need them.
The issue of malnutrition specifically with these young kids affects about 20 million children at any given time. And more than 2 million children die from it every year. So it’s a pretty big issue, but it’s an issue that we can solve with this product, and so I’m really excited and really passionate about being involved.
And it came down to seeing one of my kids eat a sample. We had some samples of the product, and my oldest son, who was five at the time, wanted to taste it. We opened it up and he tasted it. And I realized that the only difference between him and a child that’s born in Africa is privilege. He didn’t ask to be born here any more than that child asked to be born into poverty. But that’s just what happened. He was born here and they were born there.
The idea is that my kid will never face those issues for no other reason other than he was born here. It really kind of pulled at my heart and realized that somebody needs to help these kids, and it’s one of those things that honestly if I could figure out the finances of it all of being able to afford and pay for my family to live and all that that I would go full time. I would walk away from my 16 years of being in business to pursue this project full time if I could afford to do so. I’m trying to line things up so that that could happen so that I can really get out on the road and talk about this.
ED: That’s awesome. And I sensed the passion in your voice and it’s pretty amazing to me that the seed for this initiative came out of these meetings. On a related not, I’m a big believer that as entrepreneurs and solopreneurs, part of our responsibility is to make the world a better place.
Anyone can do it. But you know what? I think we have an extra responsibility to impact the world and your community. So it’s super to see someone doing this and being so passionate about it. I’m glad you shared that with us.
This has been fantastic, Luke. I really appreciate you taking time out of your day to talk to me about it, and sharing it here with the community of freelancers. Where can folks learn more about you and what you're up to?
LUKE: You know the easiest thing is to just connect with me on my personal blog site. From there you can check out my other projects and initiatives. The site is www.lukemysse.com.
ED: Awesome. Well, Luke thanks again, man. I appreciate you coming onboard today.