A Directoress of Happiness. No, this is not a make-believe position, but you are about to enter a magic realm. Inspired by the legendary King Arthur’s court, Round Table Companies is a business that tells fantastic stories – maybe none more so than the tale of its own ongoing creation. Prepare to be amazed and delighted.
Round Table Companies produces stories of great variety, offering a wide range of creative and publishing services. Each project is a powerful elixir, concocted with the transformative agents of collaboration and belief. You’ll want them to employ you. You’ll want to seek out their work. What a treat to have Founder and President Corey Michael Blake invite us into the round and share more about his culture changing company:
How’d you come up with the name for your company?
When I was working back in L.A. as a commercial and television actor, I started helping authors with their books. One I was heavily involved in was called Excalibur Reclaims Her King. As a huge fan of collaboration, the idea of a round table was always enticing. The company’s initial name became Writers of the Round Table and we have since launched the umbrella organization Round Table Companies as a testament to King Arthur’s court and that level of passion, integrity, and collaboration.
What’s the very first thing you do at work everyday?
I typically spend my first hour reading articles and then sorting my inbox for small issues I can quickly resolve and larger issues that will require my attention in the coming days.
How many people did you start the company with and how many people work for you now?
When I founded the company in 2006, I was the only employee. Today we employ 18 writers, editors, illustrators, and support staff.
Remember the early days starting up? Maybe you can share one anecdote that describes the struggle you went through?
We struggled with our identity for a number of years. We needed to accept clients of all kinds to help us with cash flow and to assist our staff in improving and growing their talents through the workflow. Over the years we have been intentional about saying no to clients who do not share our values or bring projects to us that our staff love to work on. Having the restraint to say no can be more challenging than I expected, but it has protected our staff, which has protected our growth.
I share a number of detailed anecdotes in my book #Jump. One that comes to mind is a project where I fought to win it, but when pressed by the client to do the work myself instead of letting my staff handle it, I gave in to the detriment of the client, myself, and the business. I avoided doing my best on that project for a long time. When I eventually woke up and realized that I needed to stay true to my word, I took a trip to Maryland and holed myself up in a cabin with my client for 4 days to kick it up to something we were both proud of. While the result was fantastic, the damage to the relationship could not be overcome. I was forced to live with that, learn the lesson, and move on with the wisdom I gained.
How do you handle frustration? When / how was the last time you dealt with frustration?
Our core executive team has made the commitment to grow together and to face our own limitations and weaknesses head on as we grow the business. When I get frustrated, I typically find it’s due to my own demons. I have a therapist that I use for my own emotional navigation, and we have a business coach we use for our core executive team to assist us with professional blind spots and obstacles. This is some of the most important work we do. As the owner, I can get emotional and sometimes I act out when I panic. To protect the business, I have to have a process to de-escalate that behavior so it doesn’t push away talented staff or valuable clients.
What’s your office environment like?
We run a virtual office. So while our administrative staff works out of a small space in Jacksonville, FL, the majority of our staff works from home around the country. Navigating the creation of a great virtual culture has been organic for us. We have a Directoress of Happiness (Erin Cohen) whose sole responsibility is the happiness of our clients and staff. Erin and her role have been incredible assets.
Of course, we use software like Trello and Basecamp and Harvest to ensure the sharing of information, and we use an internal private Facebook room like a water cooler to keep our staff connected. We also gather our people a couple times a year to work together from a single location. We’re definitely a family style business that takes care of one another, enjoys and supports each others’ dreams, and loves celebrating together.
How do you picture your company in 5 years?
In 5 years, I do expect to have two office locations for our creative staff to utilize as they please. We’ll never have a traditional corporate feeling environment, but we will soon have creative settings for our staff to feel inspired as they work. The success of our organization is based around trust and flexibility with our staff, so we won’t want to impede that.
From a topline revenue standpoint, we grew at 73% in 2012. I want to be careful not to exhaust my staff while we continue to grow. If we can average 20% growth over the next 5 years, we should be at $2M in revenue. Because we have the bandwidth for growth right now, I expect to exceed that target with an emphasis on expanding all five of our primary divisions: writing, illustration, brand amplification, film/video, and publishing.
Who or what inspires YOU?
I’ve always been inspired by Harold Clurman, founder of the Group Theatre in 1931. Clurman was not viewed as the most talented of those he brought together (Stella Adler, Elia Kazan, Lee Strassberg, Clifford Odets), his value was as the generator who encouraged and supported the growth of the artists. I strongly identify with that role. I’m also constantly inspired by my staff who have foregone potentially lucrative writing or film careers to help give a voice to individuals and organizations that are making a difference but can’t do so themselves.
How’d you fund this venture?
I started RTC in 2006 on $150. Last year when we had the opportunity to launch a series of comic books in partnership with best-selling business authors, we were approved for an SBA backed loan that fueled the next phase of our business growth. That required $75k in collateral that I put up from previous years’ profits in the business.
Got any great bootstrapping tips for the lean startups out there?
A large part of RTC’s success has been the result of hiring part-time mothers who are highly educated and passionate to still work at jobs where they matter, but aren’t looking for full-time work because they are raising young children. These mothers have proven to be an invaluable asset to our growth. They typically start at 5 to 10 hours a week and then grow into 30 – 40 hour a week employees. This approach doesn’t overly tax a small growing company, while it does offer the opportunity to affordably test numerous part time employees before more heavily investing in their training and growth.
What would you be doing if you had one year off and $500,000 to spend (and you couldn’t spend it on your current startup / projects)?
I would start an education non-profit that was dedicated to building curricula around people’s life stories and delivering those to schools for teachers to utilize in the classroom. Social-emotional learning is an unfunded mandate for our schools and storytelling is a brilliant way to empower our youth. By using the stories of others we encourage children to find their own voices and articulate who they are and what they stand for. In the new internet world, such a compass is invaluable to a child’s future.
Do you consider yourself a successful entrepreneur right now? If not, what’s it gonna take to make you feel successful?
I do consider myself successful now. I’m financially comfortable and the work I engage in daily makes a difference in the world. My next challenge is engaging a larger audience around the power of culture in the workplace so I can help more people love the work they do.
Website you couldn’t live without and why?
I’m a Google guy. I use gmail, google adwords, google analytics, google search, google docs and more. I don’t use Google +. Hmmm.
Mobile App you’re in love with and why?
Chess.com has a simple app that allows me to play 4 or 5 games a day on my phone. Chess has influenced my business strategy for years and while I’m no chess wiz, I always feel like I’m orchestrating moves for future positions within the business.
Dogs or cats?
Dogs. I have 2. Daisy and Max. I treat them like children.
iOS or Android?
iOS. I converted from PC to Mac about five years ago and I’ve been a devoted Apple fan since.
What’s the greatest thing about your company / website / idea?
We change the lives of everyone we touch with a pay it forward model. By transforming the quality of life of our staff, we empower them to do the same for our clients, who do the same for their communities.
Where can our readers get a hold of you? Facebook? Twitter? Google+? Personal blog?
Any other projects you’re working on that we should check out?
We’re currently creating an entire library of story-based books and comic books for residential service provider ORP with the goal of celebrating the heroism of families struggling with children with disabilities and educating and offering hope to families, educators, pediatricians and mental health professionals. You can check out our first release on Aspergers here.
In March, we’re releasing the story of the Amazing Carmen Blandin Tarleton whose ex husband beat her with a baseball bat and doused her in industrial strength lye burning 80% of her body. Carmen’s story is about true heroism and the power of the human spirit. You can read about Carmen here.
Why the focus on culture?
In my experience, we’re all looking for someone to believe that we have the power to change the world. Almost like we need permission to access our greatest self. A focus on culture creates an intentional opportunity for us to practice that belief in each other and challenge our staff and our clients to dream, to believe, and then to take the necessary steps toward making a large scale difference. Culture trumps marketing. Culture trumps training. Culture trumps traditional sales efforts. Invest in your people and they will solve all your problems in ways you could never dream.