Brand strategist and designer Hollie Elliott joins me today for a conversation I think is incredibly important: is your brand strong enough to support you when something unexpected happens?
Life has a funny way of throwing us a curveball when we least expect it. At the time of recording this episode, we’re still not out of the Covid pandemic and times are still uncertain. A lot of people’s lives were turned upside down almost overnight back in March 2020, a lot of businesses were affected, and so I think we can all relate to today’s topic in some way. But this is not an episode about how to respond to a pandemic, because let’s face it… unexpected things are likely to happen to us on an individual level too. It’s the nature of life: it’s unpredictable.
So what can you do, to ensure your brand is solid – even when the rug is pulled from under your feet? That is what Hollie and I will be talking about today.
⚠️ Before we dive into this conversation, I just wanted to give you a little bit of a trigger warning. In this episode, we talk about some quite difficult things. There are descriptions of serious illness and of cancer, and Hollie does get quite personal about this. This is also probably the first episode where I actually cried whilst recording, and I just wanted to let you know in advance so that you can skip this episode if this is something you feel like you would be triggered by.
TL;DR – here’s how to connect with Hollie if you want to learn more from her:
Disclaimer: The following transcript has been auto-generated and then edited by me and while the general flow of the conversation is there, it’s most certainly not 100% accurate.
P: Hollie, I am so thrilled to welcome you to the show. Thank you for joining me today.
H: Thank you for having me.
P: You are so welcome. I’m always so excited when fellow brand strategists come on as guests because, well, besides the obvious, which is the fact that we could geek out for hours over the brand strategy stuff… It’s also such a fantastic opportunity to learn from someone else’s approach and from someone else’s lived experience. We’ve kind of been in the same orbit online for a while now, and I have found you to be just such an inspiration. And then lately you have… Well, quite honestly, you’ve just blown me away with how you have dealt with the recent life changing event and how you have taken that experience and used it to create something that so many others could be helped by too. Just to get us started: today, we are going to be looking at how to build a brand that’s strong enough to support you if something unexpected happens in the future. So kind of future-proofing your brand, really?
H: Yeah, definitely.
P: I know that this isn’t something that most people ever think about really, until they’re in the middle of that unexpected situation. I have to be honest. I haven’t really put much thought into this either. Up until now and then your story has just prompted me to take a good step back and ask myself some fundamental questions about my own business. And I think it’s going to inspire so many others to do the same. If you’re comfortable sharing and of course, share as much or as little as you want, would you mind telling us a little bit about that pivotal moment? You know, the back story and what happened that made you realise that you really had to change things a bit?
H: More than happy to share. So in December 2020 my other half, George, started to get really bad headaches, and we didn’t know what the headaches were. We had so many appointments to try and get him the help that he needed and get some answers around what was going on. After about three weeks of really persistent calls and appointments, I knew that something still wasn’t right. So the doctors were saying “Oh, it’s migraines or cluster headaches. Wait another two weeks and then get back in touch with us again.” And I knew, because obviously I’m living with him and I’m seeing him, that something wasn’t right. So on the 23rd of December, two days before Christmas, we went to a doctor’s appointment, and the doctor pretty much referred George to the hospital straight away. Because of Covid, I wasn’t allowed to go in. We’d already decided that George should not be driving anymore either. So I drove him to the hospital, dropped him off and just came home and just sat and wondered what on Earth was going on. Then, after a few hours, I got a message from George saying he was ready to come home. So we came home. He was absolutely, really tired. Really knocked out from the day, because he also has MS, so he went to bed and really didn’t think anything of it. And I was sort of saying to him before he went to bed, I said “What happened? What did they do?” And he said “just a few tests and a CT scan , and then they said, I can come home.” And then I got a call on the phone while George was sleeping; from the hospital, saying “George has left too early, we actually need him to come back. How quickly can you get him back?” And I said, he was sleeping at the minute but that I could get him back to the hospital in about 25-30 minutes, and the doctor said, “we need you to get him back here as soon as possible, and we need you to come with him too. We think it’s best if you come in.” Which obviously… they were not allowing friends or family in at that point. So I got really worried, managed to get George to wake up, got him in the car, heart absolutely pounding in my chest. Not knowing what was going on, trying to keep myself together because I knew something wasn’t right and trying to stay strong for George. Got into the hospital and into a room and waited for the doctor to come in. And then he actually brought a surgeon in with him who was dressed in his scrubs and everything like that. And I thought “what is going on?” And then they showed us George’s CT scan and basically told us that he had a brain tumour. And it was a bit of a shock.
P: That’s harsh. I can imagine… Well, I can imagine, and I can’t imagine, because I don’t think you can ever imagine what it’s like until you’ve been through something like that. Sorry. This is going down in history as the first podcast episode that I cry on. But I am just, you know, your strength in all of this… It’s just amazing. Thank you for being so open about something that is just so difficult and personal. I think the lesson in this, for all of us, really – is that life is unpredictable. It’s precious and can be pretty brutal sometimes.
H: Yes, exactly. Like… the doctor sort of walked out the room after he told us, to let the information sink in. And then George was admitted to hospital that night for treatment, and I didn’t know whether he was going to be home for Christmas or not. And ever since then everything’s been like pinnacle moments. So he had brain surgery the first week of January, which was really difficult because the hospitals were in full lock down. So I was allowed to drop him off at the hospital and get him to the ward that he needed to get to, because there was no way he was gonna find it on his own. Then his surgery was the next day. I had no idea on the day of his surgery, whether he had actually survived the surgery or not. So it was the longest 24 hours I have ever experienced; not knowing whether he’d survived. Basically, we were told by the neurosurgeon that he could… I could lose him. Then, after five days, he came home, which is just the most amazing thing. It’s like a miracle. And then ever since then we’ve had more blow-backs. So we found out that the tumour is grade 4 cancerous and it’s incurable. So they’re doing everything that they can treatment wise to help him. His MS is an added complication also, because of the treatment plan that he is going through his MS is at risk of getting worse. But the oncologist told us she would rather concentrate on the tumour than the MS because it’s the tumour that will eventually get him in the future. If that makes sense. So then all this has made me question everything. What’s important, what isn’t important? Just everything.
P: What I find so inspirational about your story is that… I mean, it would have been so easy to just sit down and give up and think “OK, I’m just not going to do my business anymore. What’s the point?” And you’ve done the complete opposite, which is so inspiring. Obviously, I’ve seen the content you’ve been putting out about how important it is to create that brand and that business, that is gonna be there for you and support you if something like that happens – or you know, even if some sort of less drastic things happen as well. I mean, it doesn’t take a total life changing moment for you to need a brand that supports you. I think it’s a very timely episode to have as well, because… I don’t know, we’ve kind of all been thrown into a life changing situation in the past year with the pandemic. But then again, this isn’t going to be about pandemic management of your business. It’s just something to help people relate to this… that you know, this could be whatever it is in your life that means the rug is pulled out from under your feet. And then what are you going to do?
H: You’ve got two choices. You either give up completely and just kind of accept defeat, or you fight it and carry on forward and do what it is that you need to do. And I think me and George are so strong willed and resilient, and we’ve both grown resilience over the years from other life experiences, that we just said “no, we’re going to fight this as much as we possibly can!” And with George, because he was self employed, he did have his own business, but he stopped working from December because of the headaches because there wasn’t any point in him working. So I had to ask myself some really hard questions at the start of this year, in terms of my business and my brandand the direction I wanted to take it – because it is all on me, because he can no longer work and he probably won’t be working for another one or two years, or even more than that. We don’t know yet. So the pressure was on, but it just made me think “Is my business doing what I need it to do? Is my brand doing what it needs to do? Is it supporting me in the right way?” And ever since then I’ve just been making some small, subtle changes to make sure that it is supporting us the right way, because everybody goes into business for time freedom. And if your brand and your business isn’t giving you that time freedom, then what’s the point in doing it? So it’s a case of taking yourself back to the basics back, to the very roots and the foundations of what your brand and business is all about, and asking yourself “Okay, so how can I create more time freedom?” Because something that came up for me was; George is my main priority from now on, and his health is my main priority, but also my health as well. And as a personal brand, you’ve really got to look after your health because the book stops with you. It’s your energy. It’s you showing up and serving your clients. You’ve gotta look after yourself too. I can’t care for George if I’m feeling low energy and my health isn’t where it needs to be either. So that time element comes into it. Have you got the time freedom to be able to look after your loved ones, but also look after yourself and show up with the right energy for your clients too? And that’s been the biggest thing. Is kind of creating more time freedom and asking myself questions around. What do I enjoy doing? What do I know? Where am I spending that time? Is that bringing me joy? – and then getting those foundational brand elements in there to support you going forwards with that.
P: I think it’s so important to talk about this and to encourage people to start doing that very thoughtful work before they find themselves in these situations. Because you don’t need the added stress when you’re in a situation that’s already really stressful. To then have to think of your business and whether that’s going to keep on running and is the money gonna keep coming in? On that note, what would you say is something that we can do today as business owners to build brands that are able to handle those bumps that quite possibly will appear down the road for many of us?
H: I think it’s a case of taking a step back and reviewing your brand and really risk assessing it. So that’s something that I did. I really, literally sat down and risk assessed my whole business. So I looked at what were the biggest risks to my business – and obviously as a personal brand, you’re the biggest risk in your business. So I kind of looked at “OK, I am my biggest risk because if I fall ill, then my business doesn’t run” and then looked at “OK, so what do I need to put in place? So if I become ill and I can’t look after George, I can’t look after myself… What could I have put into place?” So I looked up income protection, and then because of what we do because we do (I do design as well), I looked at bringing in another designer so that if there’s days where I have to take George to the hospital, which I did yesterday, or to future hospital appointments or anything like that, then I have somebody that can come in and do design work for me while I’m out at those appointments. It means that the work doesn’t just stop. The clients are still being served and the work is still being done, and it’s a case of risk assessing everything. So even your income streams… risk assessing them too, and looking at “OK, so what are the risks to this?” So you know, it could be one income stream. Could be a group programme, for example… and a risk assessment could be that nobody is going to sign up to it. And also looking at how much of your time is involved in those income streams, too. So, with a group programme again, for example, if it’s all on you and you’re the one delivering all of that content, there’s a risk right there. What if you can’t show up one of those weeks? So it’s a case of looking at what can you put into place so that if that happens, you’ve got a backup in place? And I think It’s just reviewing and really looking at whether it’s in alignment with your values and what’s important to you as well. And what do you need to do to bring it back into alignment?
P: I think we’re in kind of similar situations work wise. Where we are very much a part of the service that we provide. And I’m guessing that it’s the same for you as well: that people actually come to you to work with you. How did you deal with that? And how did you handle that when you took on board someone to help you out with the design work? I mean, this doesn’t have to be just about design work. This could be for any kind of service based business, really. How do you handle it… when the clients are coming to your business for you and the experience of working with you… How do you then go about bringing someone else in who is on the same kind of wavelength as you, so you know that they’re gonna deliver the same kind of quality that you can then stand behind?
H: So with the designer who does work for me. They’re not client facing, because obviously people are buying into me and my expertise, my skills and knowledge. So a lot of that is obviously the brand strategy side of it, and the design side is then delivering that in a visual way, like the tangible elements of what we do. So they’re not client facing. But if they needed to be, I would make them client facing. And we just kind of manage things in a really organised way as well. So if I know that I’m going out for a hospital appointment with George, then I will ask my designer to do some work for me while I’m out with that appointment. So clients are still being served. And so they just kind of sit in the background and do the work for me. And then I’m still the one client facing, and managing the client’s expectations – because at the end of the day, it is my business. People are buying into me. But the work still gets done if that makes sense, and I’m also very selective in terms of which design work they do as well, and for which client.
P: That makes total sense. And I guess this might be obvious to you and me as brand strategists, but this is where I would say, a really solid brand strategy comes into play. It’s just a brilliant example of when you’ve got your foundations right and you know your values. You know your beliefs. You know the personality of your own brand, and you’ve got a record of it somewhere, maybe in a brand guideline document. Maybe it’s just… it could be something simple like writing these things down in a Google document. It doesn’t have to be big and fancy. But when you do come to take on someone else to take on responsibility within your brand, within your business, it’s easier for them to kind of pick up. They have a recipe for how to behave on behalf of your brand and you could be more assured that they know how to handle things in the same way that you would have handled thing.
H: Exactly. That’s what I’ve got. So I’ve got a document that, a Google document, just to make it plain and simple and easy for people to understand. So anybody that comes in, whether it’s a VA, your… I don’t have anybody that does my social media or anything like that. But if I had somebody coming in to do my social media, I would share that document with them. And it’s basically got the brand strategy in there, but in a more simplified and more understandable way. So things like “These are my brand values and why.” I also have things in there like “This is my communication style.” So I had a VA, I think it was last year, and their communication style was very corporate and very professional. And that’s not my style. So I write phonetically. So I’m always asking my clients how they are. Have they had a good weekend? Have you got anything nice coming up this week? Whereas that VA I had wasn’t doing any of that.So I sort of had to educate them and say “This is my writing style. This is my communication style.” and put a document together that showed examples of my communication style and e-mails. And then what not to do. So some bad examples of communications and go “This isn’t my brand” So I made that really clear, too. And then just share that because everybody’s gonna be on the same page.
P: I think this is what a lot of business owners forget. When we strategists say you need to think about your strategy, it sounds big and scary, and it sounds like something they’re not going to be able to use because you can’t… you can’t really see it. But this is something really practical, and the end result is that you can actually see the evidence of your brand strategy when something like that happens. You can see how much easier that process is when you are clear on who you are and how you communicate it with them. So I would say that’s something every business owner really needs to put in place.
H: Definitely. And email templates. They are so helpful.
P: Canned emails are the best! I don’t have a VA, I do all of my communication myself. But even so, it’s just really nice to not have to type the same things over and over again. So the canned emails can be a blessing in more than one way: they can ensure that you keep your tone of voice consistent. But they can also just, like, save you time.
H: Yeah, exactly.
P: So even though that’s the smallest little thing that you could put into place that makes such a big difference.
H: And it’s just little things. And that’s the thing which you just said before. You know, most of the foundational elements of your branding nobody sees because it’s under the surface. It’s like when you see a lake or an iceberg. You see the top of the iceberg, but you don’t see what it’s like under the water, and I feel like that’s what branding is. Nobody sees those little bits because it’s so subtle, and nobody knows that your branding is in everything that you do. It’s just you can’t see it. It’s hidden, but it is there. It’s like the little invisible magic that goes on. And if it’s not there, if something’s missing, then you can see it.
P: That’s when the cracks start to appear and inconsistency will creep in. I wanted to go back to a little bit, to the canned email responses and stuff, because I think that to me, that is also part of kind of future proofing your business, because getting those systems and time saving things in place means that you’re free up time that you can then spend with your family if that’s what you want, or doing urgent care things like what you’re having to do now. And even if you just saved two minutes per email because you don’t have to type it out – little things like that can have a big impact. I mean, there are a lot of other things that you could automate like that without taking the soul and the personality of your business away. A lot of people think “Oh, automation, that sounds like a robot. I want to be a personal brand” – but it doesn’t really work like that because you’re going to put you into those automations.
H: Exactly. So again, it’s like if you write phonetically like what I do, then, obviously, that’s your voice going into everything straight away. So even your contracts and things like that, like you know, they don’t have to be bog standard. These are my terms and conditions, and this is the contract for us working together. There’s nobody to say that you can’t add your own flair into there, whether it’s a personalised message at the top or within the email that goes out to your clients with the contract, anything like that, even invoices. There’s nothing that says you can’t put some flair into your own invoices, which I know sounds really weird because people might be thinking “Really?! Invoices?” But yet all these small little touches make such a big difference to the client experiencing your brand and the service that you’re providing – and these are again… the small little things that people don’t think about. But you can absolutely add your flair to everything. And don’t be afraid to outsource either. So even like the automation parts and things like that, the canned emails, contracts, work flows, they’re all great, but if you don’t want to be doing them or setting them up or anything like that in the first place… Then don’t be afraid to outsource because that’s just going to save you so much time in the long run. And if it’s not your area of expertise, then why are you putting yourself through having to do that when you probably get so frustrated doing it and probably hate doing it and wonder why you’re doing it yourself when you could just pay somebody to do it who is going to do a much better job for you. It frees up your time to do something else instead.
P: Yeah, this has inspired me actually, because I’m terrible at outsourcing. What I’ve realised since we had our pre recording conversation a couple of weeks ago, I think it was? I realised that well, if I start outsourcing little bits and pieces now, that’s gonna be a lot easier than if I have to do it because something comes up and I’m thrown into it. So if I start doing those things now, while I’m still in control of them, I guess that’s gonna be a smoother process for me and the person who is then taking on these tasks for me. So would you say that it would be a wise step to start to think about and do these things before you need to.
H: Yeah, I would say so. Definitely. Even things like recording how to do certain things, like screen recording. So you know, if you manually send a contract out, then you could screen record what you do with that contract before it goes out to a client. So if you outsource that to a VA they would be able to watch that screen recording and see what it is that you’ve done. Just the same if you need an automated workflow and you need a new one of those setting up: record your screen doing it. Because then in the future, if you need a VA to do something similar for you, they can just watch that screen recording, see how to do it and just be able to do it rather than come back to you and ask loads of questions about how to do something. You’ve given them the answer straight away and It just saves time in the future for anything like that again. So I did a thing recently with my VA, where she actually set up some canned emails for me because some clients every now and again, don’t pay their invoices on time. So she’s set up some lovely templates to overcome that from happening again, and that just… not only does it save me time, but it saves her time as well, so that when she goes to do any of this work for me, it’s already set up ready to go for her. And it means that there’s less to’ing and fro’ing because the last thing you want is loads of questions coming your way, especially if you’re having to do something that’s essentially more important than that minuscule task at hand. So to minimise that as much as possible, record everything. Your processes, how you do things… because then when you do outsource in the future, you’ve got all of that in place and you’ve literally shown them how to do it. And there shouldn’t be any questions and then it saves everybody time.
P: That’s such great advice. And I think it takes away that scary part. And to me, the thing that has been holding me back from outsourcing tasks in my business is the fear that it’s gonna take me just as long to show someone how to do it as it does to do it myself. So the screen recording, definitely. That’s a winner. Thank you for that. (Why didn’t I think of that?!)
H: Just the little things, isn’t it? That makes a big difference.
P: Yeah, and I mean… you could use Loom to do that, I guess. Or a similar service. And that’s really easy. I know that Loom has a free plan as well, because I use it myself. But just for other things, not for this. Yeah. Now that’s going to change. So let me try to summarise what you’ve talked about. You want your brand to support you in the future no matter what happens, and to do that, you want to have a business that gives you joy. But you also want to leverage your time in the best possible way so that you free up some of your time and you’re not so tied to the day to day running of things.
H: And that’s the thing… Again, it’s looking at your products and services as well. So very similar to what we do, or anybody that’s out there offering 1 to 1 services like coaching or strategy sessions, then that means you’re limited to only working with one person at a time. Think about leveraging your time. Can you work with a group of people instead, but that only takes up the same amount of time as working with a 1 to 1 client? So then, rather than working with just one person at a time, you’re working with 5 or six, or twenty – however many people, but it doesn’t take any more of your time. So it’s about looking at how you’re spending your time that way as well, and then also looking at income streams that are either semi passive or… I know a lot of coaches out there will say there isn’t a single hands off passive income stream, but I believe that there is. You’ve just got to find it and see what works for you. So developing the income streams as well. So that, for example, if anything does happen, anything traumatic, any life events, then you still have some money coming in through the door. I think for entrepreneurs it could be such a big worry, and probably one of the big pain points for everybody – that they may not even want to admit – is worrying about how on earth am I going to be able to pay the bills? How am I going to get through the next month? How am I going to pay the bills at the end of the month if there’s not enough money coming through the door? So it’s looking at all your income streams, and if you only have literally one service that you offer and that service is relying on you delivering that service, then you need to look at your income streams and bring more in, because then you want to be having income streams that are working in the background so that if you do need to just stop everything and go to an emergency appointment or anything like that, you can and you still have money coming through. So you are still financially comfortable. So it’s looking at all of that as well.
P: And I think one really important point that we can’t miss when we’re talking about this is if you’re going to add those more passive income streams, you need to have thought about it well in advance. I speak from experience here! You need to have that consistency, you need to build your audience up… And again, I’m only saying this because I’ve been there and not very long ago, either. Realising that I’ve got this great idea for this service that would give me, you know, more time freedom, that I don’t have a big enough audience to be able to actually sell enough of it to make it matter. And so that’s made me take a step back and think, OK, I need to work more on my visibility. I need to work more on building my audience and creating those connections so that I can actually put these systems in place. And I think that’s something that a lot of people (and hello… me included!) just forget about. It’s like “Oh, I can create this great service and I can put it out there and people will come.” But they won’t come if they know about you.
H: Yeah, exactly. So it’s all about consistency, isn’t it? And that’s the thing. You’ve got to be able to build your brand and build your presence and your visibility online, and you get to choose how you do that, too. So whether it’s through content marketing or whether it’s through events or PR, there are so many different ways that you can do it as well. But you’ve got to do what feels right for you – and again: what takes up a minimal amount of your time to be able to do that? Because, yes, it takes time to do that. But you’ve got to make sure that it’s the right amount of time for you and doesn’t take too much of your time away, but something that you enjoy, too. But yet it’s all about kind of building your audience up. But let’s not forget that there will still be people in your audience who will buy from you over and over and over again. So I think it’s really important to always kind of observe and watch and listen from the sidelines what your audience is saying to you. So it’s almost like reading between the lines and also looking at what questions your clients are constantly asking you. And can you create a product or service that basically solves the problem that they’re coming to you for, and look at it from that way. Because I know some people will say they’ve exhausted their audience, they need more people in there – but actually, I think you’ll be quite surprised because there will be people there looking, watching your content, but just not even interacting with you online. But there will still be clients who have worked with you previously, who totally wanna work with you again. But you just need to be putting out the right product or service that’s going to appeal to them and make them say yes. So it’s a case of… again, watching from the sidelines, looking and observing everything, and then also market research as well. So you can do that in really cool, subtle ways where people might not even know that what you’re doing is market research. But it just answers the questions that you need answers to to help you with a product or service creation.
P: Yeah, I think the most important takeaway from this is you need to start planning these things and implementing these things now – because when the rug is pulled out from under your feet, that is not the time to start scrambling.
H: Yeah, that’s the thing, because anything can happen like… You don’t think that this is going to happen to you and me. George and I had that in the hospital. We were sitting in that room, having just been told about his brain tumour. And I remember sitting there saying to him “I feel like this is really surreal, but real at the same time, I really can’t describe it” – and he summed it up so perfectly because he said “This is what you read about, what happens to other people. You don’t think it’s going to happen to you.” And that is exactly it. You see this happening to other people, but you really honestly don’t think it’s going to happen to you. And even though it is scary and it may sound really overwhelming to think of the worst happening… If you don’t, and you just carry on the way that you are, and then something like this does happen and it hits you right in the face, which he did with us. You don’t want to be in a position where you’re panicking and not knowing what to do. So if you prepare for it now, for if it ever does happen in the future, then you are fully prepared and you’ve got a plan in place to just implement straight away, you can always switch it on and you’ll be fine.
P: On that note, I think that’s a brilliant way to end this episode. But just before you go, if you could summarise it for us again. So if there was one thing, one piece of advice that you could give anyone listening today. What should they do if they want to get started with this process?
H: So I would say: review and risk assess your brand and look at whether it’s really supporting you in all areas of your life and your business.
P: And just before we go. I know that some people will probably want to connect with you and find you online and learn more from you. Please tell us where they can find you. I also know that you have a freebie that’s gonna be really useful for anyone wanting to start this work. So please tell us all of the details.
H: Well, I’m actually getting married this week, so my handles on everything are going to be changing. And, yes, if anybody wants to download my freebie which goes into this even more, that is available too. They’re all questions to really help you look at how you are spending your time and whether your brand is supporting you right now – and what you need to do to put into place to make some changes. [Note from Petchy: the following are the correct and updated links:] Website / Instagram / Freebie: 5 Questions to help shape your brand and business today, so it can look after you, tomorrow
P: That is brilliant. Can I just say: how exciting to hear that you’re getting married! I’m so happy for you. I’m assuming we’ll get to maybe see some wedding photos on Insta?
H: Yeah, there will definitely be photos!
P: I want to just thank you once again for coming on the show and for sharing so openly and generously about what was really a difficult time in your life.
Until next time,
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