It takes guts to venture out on your own, admit that things could be better or keep going when everything inside you is screaming at you to stop. In the agency world, on the services side, it’s easy to fault yourself for setbacks. But the inner criticism, the self-doubt and fear are likely just signs of imposter syndrome.
Melanie Chandruang knows the feeling. Venturing out on her own as a finance and operations consultant, she wondered if she made the right choice. Today, she’s helping owners and operations teams silence their own inner critics, and optimize the inner workings of their companies. As she says, “Just keep going…you do know a lot more than you think you do.”
Feel like you’re making it up as you go? You’re not alone. Join us at an upcoming event to validate your thinking and discover new ideas and solutions.
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Welcome to The Bureau Briefing. A podcast by the Bureau of Digital, an organization devoted to giving digital professionals the support system they never had. Each episode, we're gonna talk to a member of our community doing awesome, inspiring things.
Now for your host, Carl Smith.
Carl Smith: Hey everybody and welcome back to The Bureau Briefing. I hope you're having a great week. I am having a great week. And today coming by the Bureau studios we've got Melanie Chandruang. How's it going Melanie?
Melanie Chandruang: Doing well, how are you?
Carl Smith: I'm doing great. Now we met at Operations Camp in Utah earlier this year. And I have to say I was really impressed with the way that, just your knowledge of operations, the things you were bringing to the table. And you're bringing them from a different angle because you are a consultant, right?
Melanie Chandruang: Yes, that's correct.
Carl Smith: But you weren't always a consultant. So tell everybody a little bit about your background and what led you to launching WeConsult?
Melanie Chandruang: Yeah sure. Well, first of all I'm flattered, thank you for acknowledging that. But yeah I wish I had a really interesting story to tell and that I've been yearning to go off and do consulting for years and years, and I finally branched off, but that's just not the case. I've been at a full time job for the past 10 years in my career. I've always been in operations.
I first started at a tech startup, and then I moved over to a custom development shop, which was a sister company of that tech startup. And then I moved over to a web design agency, which is where the bulk of my agency experience lies and is from. Yeah, I've always been in operations. And in terms of operations, I know that's such a broad term, but basically at these companies they were small enough. The web design agency was the largest one being around 40 people. But still small enough that I was able to have my hands in a lot of different things, so everything from all the finances and accounting to HR. All of the business administration that everyone hates, you know, filing all those documents every year and doing 401(k) audits and worker's comp audits, all of that stuff. Even down to office management. And so it wasn't always me doing all of those things but I did have my hands in all those different departments and had a team of people working on those things.
So yeah jump forward to when I was at the design agency. Had my hands a little bit more on the services side which is really, really great to have that experience. Unfortunately, at the end of 2017 that company was acquired, fortunate for them, unfortunate for me. But yeah so it was a whirlwind. It went from a 40-person agency where everyone's tight knit to it was a acqui-hire, yeah so talent acquisition, and so they moved over to a 5,000-person enterprise software company.
Carl Smith: Whoa.
Melanie Chandruang: Yeah. I was able to help in that transition, kind of shutting down the company doors. At that same time I had the opportunity to move some of the existing team to another agency. And that agency was about 70 people. At that point when I was integrating them at this new agency I realized, hey, this agency is almost double in size but they have so many of the same problems that these smaller companies do. So it's just a lack of processes, a lack of defined workflows, and kind of just flying by the seat of your pants. And that prevents you from moving quickly, and so at that point I decided, "Hey why don't I use my skills that I learned in operations to be able to help multiple companies at the same time." My thought process behind that is not all companies have the funds to hire an experienced operations manager, that's just not ... especially for agencies where you're billing for your work, every non-billable person you add hits your profitability. So I was thinking, "Yeah why don't I just help out. They could hire me on a consultant basis and I can get them up to speed. Help train their team, put processes in place, and then it kind of took off from there.
Carl Smith: So you go with the name WeConsult, talk about that for a minute.
Melanie Chandruang: Yeah so again not a creative thing. So my husband actually has a small agency and he does mainly product design. And so his company is named WeBuild, and so to simplify things, this is the operations person in me, I was like, "What's the easiest way that I can just jump this hurdle creating a name?" I don't want to go through this whole branding thing and then incorporating my own business. So I just did a DBA, it's kind of a doing business as, and then tacked it onto my husband's already existing C corp. So that's the story behind the name.
Carl Smith: That's great, and I have to say as an old school ad guy and marketing guy, I was like, "Ah she went literal." We consult, that's what we do. Right?
Melanie Chandruang: Exactly.
Carl Smith: We build.
Melanie Chandruang: We build, we consult, we do everything basically, yeah.
Carl Smith: We do a lot of other things, we just don't name our companies that. Okay so you come out of the gate with WeConsult, and your first client was that second shop that you were moving people over to? Did that take off for you?
Melanie Chandruang: Yeah, so actually they weren't, I guess they were technically a client. I never thought of them as a client. But yeah, my first client was actually an agency based out of Michigan. And that relationship happened totally organically. The studio manager a couple years back reached out to me as the operations manager at the agency that I was at and said, "Hey, we really respect you guys and I just want to talk about operations. How do you guys process time off? How do you guys manage resourcing?" All those things that we talked about at operations camp. She just wanted to pick my brain. I say that they're my first client, and so yeah.
Carl Smith: They're in Michigan, and you're in San Diego right?
Melanie Chandruang: Yeah, I am.
Carl Smith: Okay. She reached out to you?
Melanie Chandruang: Yes she did. Yeah, at the time, it was a couple years back.
Carl Smith: That's not fair.
Melanie Chandruang: Yeah and then-
Carl Smith: You're supposed to hustle and it's supposed to be so difficult.
Melanie Chandruang: I know.
Carl Smith: Hey, maybe I'll just pick up the phone and there's my first client.
Melanie Chandruang: I know. I was very, very fortunate. I posted on LinkedIn that I was going off on my own. She saw my post and shared it with her founder. And he reached out to me, and it was literally one sales call. I don't even think of it as a sales call. It was just get to know you, what have you done, what's your experience? And they were like, "Okay send us a contract." It was seamless.
That was not my first experience though. I did have a heartbreak early on where an agency in my area had a verbal agreement. I had been kind of courting them for over two months. And I was like, "Oh, this is going to be great. It's my first client." And out that I thought I was going to, like you said, hustle my pants off. And so three days before I was supposed to start they emailed and said shift of internal projects and they were no longer bringing me on. So I've definitely had my fair share of heartbreak and it's six months in at this point. So, yeah.
Carl Smith: It's interesting because I've tried consulting. I've never went out trying to it's just the nature of where I sit at the Bureau. A lot of people think I'm going to know a lot of stuff because I'm in all these different events. And I think I do know but consulting is not-
Melanie Chandruang: Yeah. You do, you're not giving yourself credit.
Carl Smith: Consulting is not just about talking as much as it's about knowing. And I think there's so many people who feel like if it all falls down I'll just become a consultant. Right?
Melanie Chandruang: Yeah, right.
Carl Smith: What were some of the things, and you just started in February so this is still really fresh, but what are some of the things that surprised you about being a consultant that you weren't expecting?
Melanie Chandruang: Some things that surprised me. I would say I knew that selling my services was going to be hard but I didn't think it was going to be as hard as it has been. I thought that me just talking about my experience would speak for itself. But like you said, speaking doesn't always take you all the way to where you need to get. And so that has been surprising and challenging in that I am not a great salesperson. I just like to dive in and do the work. I don't really like to, or maybe not like to, but I hadn't gotten to the point where I'm completely comfortable telling you and selling you on what I can deliver. I know it's important because I have lived and breathed it for 10 years and I see the importance when I'm in there. But it's hard to convince people that things could be better. And you know a lot of the people that I've encountered are really brilliant people and they're working on really great things. But they want to move quickly.
And so I think sometimes when you talk about process that scares them. And they just don't know any better. And so really in my mind I feel process helps companies move faster. And obviously you don't want to have a process for every little thing. You want to have it kind of the right balance for the size of the company and the pace of the company.
Carl Smith: What are the sizes of the companies that you're talking to that your prospects are?
Melanie Chandruang: Yeah, so right now they're all small companies. The agency in Michigan, they are a 10-person company. I'm helping kind of in that area, I've spoken to another few agencies that are larger than that. They're in the 25, 30 range. I just haven't taken them on because I haven't had capacity to. Yeah I feel like they're all small. Eventually it would be interesting to see what type of impact I could have in a larger organization within a specific department. Maybe a design department and kind of putting my magic touch on that but haven't gotten there yet so we'll see.
Carl Smith: So with the clients that you have and the shops you're talking to that are smaller you're plugged in with the owner for the most part, right?
Melanie Chandruang: Yeah. The owners, some of them they got an operations manager but like any small agency everyone's wearing so many hats. So they're not just a dedicated operations manager, they're doing project management as well, and strategy, and sales, and all of that. And so yeah the agency in Michigan, they had a studio manager. And so she had experience in some of the operations but I kind of helped bring her to the next level and teach her things that she wasn't already aware of. She didn't come from an agency background.
Carl Smith: And I think one of the things, and you've probably identified this maybe not, but having been somebody who ran a shop my imposter syndrome would be flaring. If you were going to come in and take a look at how to help us I would have to acknowledge that there were things that could be better. And as much as that person running that 10-person or 20-person shop really wants to acknowledge that, it also hurts.
Melanie Chandruang: Yeah I know, I know.
Carl Smith: Right? It's like you feel like why can I not be enough? Why can I not do that? So how do you approach that when you're first talking with a company about coming in to help?
Melanie Chandruang: Yeah again, I've been really fortunate. The companies that I have helped they know where they're lacking in skill. A lot of the founders they didn't set out to run the company, they just wanted to work on exciting projects. Either they come from a developer background or their strategist or their design background. They wanted to do kickass projects. And so their goal wasn't to run the day-to day-operations, that's the boring stuff. From my perspective it hasn't been completely hard for them to admit that they don't know what they're doing and that they could be doing a better job. So I've been fortunate there but I do have to say that in my career in operations I have definitely run into people that, or even founders, that feel like they know everything and they don't have anywhere to improve. And those are the kind of clients that I don't think that I would personally mesh well with.
Yeah, I think it's just all about the connection too. If I'm able to sit down with someone and we can talk about anything under the sun that's going to be ultimately a good relationship. Just like you running your agency that's probably the way it was with your clients as well. Of course, it was about the work, but if you can have a friendship with them then that goes such a long way.
Carl Smith: Oh they knew, I used to tell prospects I would be like, "Look, if we sit down and start talking, you're done. You're going to like us so much. And I just want you to know don't invite me over or don't come over here if you don't want to work together." It's not fair to any other shops that you're talking to.
Melanie Chandruang: That's awesome. I need to get that confident that I can say that.
Carl Smith: Oh you totally can. I like what you're saying is that you're giving the founders, you're giving really the rest of the company the ability to focus back on the stuff they love because you're optimizing that day-to-day stuff.
Melanie Chandruang: Right.
Carl Smith: So when you go in do you find that sometimes you have to recommend that they change the tools they're using? Because that feels like that could be kind of challenging.
Melanie Chandruang: Yeah so the tools is something that I haven't touched as much to date. I have recommended that they maybe look at different tools but that is a really hard thing to convince people of. For my perspective, it's been more about hey you're using this tool, for example Basecamp, for company-wide communication. And that's all they were using it for. I was like, "This is not the best way to be using this tool. How about you send out company-wide announcements in a different way?" And so yeah, that hasn't been really something that I've been deep diving in yet. And so I haven't had to like pull a tool from someone's hands that are clutching it to heart or their chest. So yeah.
Carl Smith: I mean that's another one of those sensitive things. It's like as soon as you start changing tools people are going to start getting cranky. I don't care if it's three people. Somebody brought that in and they're going to have ownership and they're going to have pride in it.
Melanie Chandruang: Oh yeah, for sure. I mean I like to start simple. Right now I'm creating an operations manual for one of my clients and it's kind of if this person gets hit by a bus one day, that's what we've been calling it that manual.
Carl Smith: I feel so bad for bus drivers.
Melanie Chandruang: I know, right? They get a bad rap.
Carl Smith: People are getting thrown under their vehicle, they're constantly hitting people.
Melanie Chandruang: Exactly, I know. Those bus drivers. Yeah, so anyway, creating something like that and I'm just using, I say, "What are you currently using?" And they said, "Oh, we're using Google Tools for everything," I say, "Great, let me create that operations manual in a Google Doc." And there's some cool ... I think they're cool features. You know you can create the headers, or you can have a table of contents and skip directly to that section. It's whatever they're using. I try to kind of just blend in to that and make it work for them. I haven't pushed any tools onto people. I do hate Outlook though so. I do so when I see that I'm like, "I don't know if I can work with you." Yeah.
Carl Smith: So you're six months in.
Melanie Chandruang: Yeah.
Carl Smith: How's your day-to-day?
Melanie Chandruang: Oh my gosh. You know-
Carl Smith: Are you just slammed?
Melanie Chandruang: I was in the beginning. So my first client in Michigan I was doing about 25 hours of billable work for them. I was slammed. My main project for them was creating a hiring process, and then also recruiting three, no, four different roles. So I was on the phone constantly creating the process as I was running the process. And so it's basically jumping off a cliff and building the airplane at the same time. Right, that. And so it was very challenging, but I was heads down and having a blast doing it.
I was on the phone all the time with different candidates, and with the team in Michigan. And so I ended up hiring a full time operations manager for them. And he's amazing. I knew when this guy hits the ground I'm going to be out of a job. And I was grateful for that. He's honestly amazing. I think he's going to do awesome things. When that happened I was like, "Okay I need to think about who my next client is going to be." And so there was a lull in between that engagement and then my next one. So it's kind of busy heads down, things are crazy. It's kind of in the agency world's feast or famine, I went through a bit of a famine I was like, "Am I ever going to work again? Am I just going to be wandering around my apartment talking to my dog?" And all the people that I've spoken to they say, "Yeah, get used to that feeling because that's never ending." I kind of just said okay this is how it's going to be. And I have more clients now and so busy again. Yeah, really grateful for that.
Carl Smith: I've only had one boss my whole life and her name was Melanie as well.
Melanie Chandruang: Okay.
Carl Smith: And Melanie Husk, and she used to tell me all the time she was like, "Enjoy this slow time, it's not going to last. And as soon as it's gone you're going to be so frustrated that all you did was sit there and worry about it." I was like, "Okay."
Melanie Chandruang: I know.
Carl Smith: But it's so tough. Right?
Melanie Chandruang: It is tough, yeah. Even when I left the full-time position at the agency I was like, I'm going to take a vacation and then I'm going to catch up on some Netflix, and go to the beach, because I never go to the beach even though I'm 15 minutes away. The day that I left the full-time position I freaked out. I was like I'm never going to eat again, I'm not going to ... I got a parking ticket that same day and I started yelling at the guy that was giving me a ticket. I was an awful person. It's so hard to remember those words of wisdom that you gave yourself. This is time for me. And so yeah I need to get better at that.
Carl Smith: It is the worst. And it's humans. I don't know if it's cross-cultural or how it works, but I know at least for me it's the same thing. You have that feeling that this is never going to work, why did I think this was going to work? Everybody, nobody told me this is ... I blame all of you. Everybody listening this is all your fault.
Melanie Chandruang: I know, right? Yeah.
Carl Smith: So what do you-
Melanie Chandruang: I mean.
Carl Smith: Go ahead.
Melanie Chandruang: Oh no I was going to say I'm really fortunate because my husband's been an entrepreneur for eight, 10 years. And so everything that I've gone through, he just laughs now. He's like this is exactly what you given me a hard time for, for years. I used to give him a hard time, "Why aren't you stopping for lunch? You need to nourish your body in order to do the best work.” And now I'm texting him from the other room saying, "Can you please make me a salad? I haven't eaten all day." And so he just laughs now and it's great. We have that kind of bonding thing between the two of us because he can kind of guide me through the rough waters.
Carl Smith: So I had my youngest daughter the other day. When you're 15, you hear a lot of things for the first time, and you think that nobody else has heard them. So she came to me and she goes, "You know Dad, nobody on their death bed ever said I wish I had worked more."
Melanie Chandruang: I mean at 15, that's really wise.
Carl Smith: I was like, "That's absolutely true, sweetheart. But you know what they do say? I wish I had done more for my family." And so to do that I got to work more. Now get out of here. No, I didn't say that.
Melanie Chandruang: Get out of my office.
Carl Smith: Those things, right. It's like you do have to pace yourself. You do have to realize. Now you are in a service space so yeah if you don't do something that day that opportunity could be gone.
Melanie Chandruang: Right.
Carl Smith: Right. So that is like super heavy. Do you think you would ever hire somebody else?
Melanie Chandruang: Oh yeah, that's my dream is to have a team. Because you know in my career, in operations, like I said, it's never been just me. I've always had a team of people working alongside me, whether it's an office manager that I get to hang out with all day or if it's a recruiter or an HR person. I have a team and we can collectively think about the big projects that we want to work on and then we divide and conquer. And that's my dream is to do that for companies as well. To not just be doing all the leg work myself. And so I would love that, but as most agency people know when you hire other people you're responsible for those people. Not even agency-
Carl Smith: Oh my goodness.
Melanie Chandruang: ... anyone that runs a company it is a big weight. I don't want to ever have to say, "I don't have enough work to sustain both of us. And you know what, I'm the owner and now you're going to have to find some other contract work, I would hate that. I've had my fair share of less than desirable bosses and so I want to be the best boss that I can be as well. So yeah it's a very big goal of mine, but at the same time it's a big weight too that I know that I'd be taking on.
Carl Smith: So if you look back six months ago and you were going to give some advice to then Melanie, what would you say when you were just starting out with the knowledge that you have now?
Melanie Chandruang: Let's see. I mean I feel like I had so many people guiding me in the right direction. But I would probably say that you're on the right path, because I had a lot of self-doubt in the beginning, especially after that agency kind of dropped me even before I started. I was like, "Oh my God, is this how it's going to be? Maybe that was my only chance." And it's really to just keep going. And that you do know a lot more than you think you do. Like you said it's imposter syndrome. I am working with new people potentially every few months, and so there is a lot of self-doubt there. Now I feel like I have the tools to go in and execute on some really great projects, and so it's really just to have confidence in myself. That's kind of the advice that I'd give myself back then.
Carl Smith: That's great and I think everybody, I mean, we all need it. We all need that confidence. It is funny though, I'll look back a year at things that I set in motion that I'm having to deal with now and I'm like, "I don't like you then Carl. Why did you think this was such a good idea?
Melanie Chandruang: One year ago Carl, yeah.
Carl Smith: Well, congratulations on coming out of the gate strong.
Melanie Chandruang: Thank you.
Carl Smith: And overcoming that first little hurdle.
Melanie Chandruang: Yeah, thank you.
Carl Smith: And I'll look forward to check in maybe in another six months and seeing how things are going.
Melanie Chandruang: Yeah, absolutely. That would be great.
Carl Smith: Wonderful. Well everybody listening, thank you so much, and we will talk to you again next week. All the best.