On this week’s episode, we’ll explore Lauren’s story and how she went from Principal and Creative Director at Northbound Design to Vice President of StudioPress.
Note: This episode originally aired August 10, 2016.
In this 30-minute episode Brian Gardner and Lauren Mancke discuss:
- The start of Lauren’s career as a creative
- How a mix of formal education and self-teaching contribute to what she does now
- The beginnings of Brian and Lauren’s nearly 10-year professional working relationship
- Her experience in Creative Entrepreneurship
- Building an agency on the Genesis Framework
- Why she left her business in pursuit of something greater
The Show Notes
- Find out more about Brian on BrianGardner.com
- Find out more about Lauren on laurenmancke.com
- Follow Brian on Twitter at @bgardner
- Follow Lauren on Twitter at @laurenmancke
The Story of the VP of StudioPress, Lauren Mancke
Brian Gardner: On this week’s episode, we’re going to explore Lauren’s story and how she went from Creative Director at Northbound Design, her own agency, to the Vice President of the seven-figure line of business we call StudioPress.
Hey, everybody, welcome back to StudioPress FM. I’m your host, Brian Gardner. I am here with Vice President of StudioPress, Lauren Mancke.
Lauren Mancke: Hello.
Brian Gardner: Hello, there she is. To recap, last week we talked a little bit about my story — how I went from a struggling, flailing college kid to the accidental Internet entrepreneur. That was fun. This week we have the pleasure of talking to Lauren about her story. I know everyone wants to know how she went from little kid to Vice President of a line of business that brings in seven figures a year for our company.
The Start of Lauren’s Career as a Creative
Brian Gardner: The best thing to do, I suppose, is start at the beginning. What kind of kid were you? Were you a tomboy? Maybe you were always a creative — I wasn’t — but maybe some creatives are always creative. Tell us about the early stages of your “career.”
Lauren Mancke: Yeah, I definitely was always creative and into art. A bit of a tomboy. I was a classic overachiever when it came to projects. I can remember when I was in sixth grade I made this crazy pyramid out of foam core board and sand paper. It opened up and it was an exact replica of the Mummy’s. Everything, every room was perfect. Other kids just turned in like a piece of paper. That was just me. I always went overboard.
I became interested in computers really early on. I built my first website, actually, in sixth grade. My dad got me a copy of FrontPage for Christmas and I played around with it on our family’s computer. He asked me if I could use it to make his company’s website. That was actually — my first client was in sixth grade, and I did the website for his company.
Brian Gardner: That’s funny. When I was younger I was a different type of creative, I really liked to write. My parents were divorced when I was nine. Even as a nine-year-old, which was third, fourth grade, something like that. For me, writing was my therapy. I didn’t even know it was a creative gift at the time. I was creative in a different way. I merged creativity with things I was interested in, for instance, and still am. I’m a baseball fan. I created this game with dice where I would roll dice, and depending on what numbers came up that would give a particular player at the time an at bat. “You hit a single,” or whatever.
I channeled my creativity in unique ways like that, atypical. Invented games and things like that that I thought was fun.
It wasn’t until I grew up and went through high school and college and went through some other stuff that I was really able to channel that. Since you were more of a creative as a kid than I was, do these interests stick with you as you’ve gotten older and whatnot?
Lauren Mancke: Definitely, I’m always interested in projects. I still make things. It’s definitely a large part of why I do what I do. In high school I was always the one taking pictures and making videos, and turning in projects that were out of the ordinary than just a paper. I never really was into writing, so I’d come up with ways to do a project that didn’t involve writing.
I actually created a computer class at my high school. I went to a small school, so the computer class that we had was just intro to typing, really basic stuff. I petitioned the school to basically create a higher level computer class, and we worked on the school’s website and helped build the school’s website. It was a really fun learning experience. All of my friends signed up. It was a great first step into doing a larger website beyond what I had done before.
Brian Gardner: All right. Now, what year did you graduate high school?
Lauren Mancke: 2003.
Brian Gardner: Okay, that’s what I thought. I thought I was about ten years older than you. So the difference between you and I here is that when you graduated high school computers and technology was a lot further along than when I graduated high school. Back then, of course, the Internet wasn’t even around. You millennials have a leg up on us. It’s not fair, I think.
Lauren Mancke: Well, I didn’t always have a computer. I definitely was an early adopter. I got my first Mac in 2002, maybe. My dad was like, “Oh Mac, why do you want that?” I never looked back. 2003 is when I started NorthBound Design, right after high school. I graduated from high school and I got all my paperwork in order and was very well informed and went to the bank. The Bank of America guy who was the Small Business Account Manager was very off put by how young I was. He was sure that I didn’t everything in order. I answered all of his questions, had all the paperwork, everything was A-okay.
I opened up the NorthBound account and started taking on a lot of videography jobs. Photography jobs was my main interest at that time. I did some graphic design in high school. I did invitation design, T-shirts for class T-shirts. I didn’t really have a lot of the equipment that I have now, or the software.
When I was in middle school, actually, I opened up a clip art file from Microsoft Word — whatever version that was so long ago. I could break it apart and see that it’s made up of all these different shapes. That’s how I started to understand digital design, was these different vector shapes that made the whole picture. I would manipulate those, and I did my first design work very rudimentary in Microsoft Word.
Brian Gardner: Now what’s interesting about Lauren, for all you who are listening, is that Lauren is more than just a graphic designer. As a creative — there’s so many other elements to her that over the last seven or eight years that we’ve known each other that I’ve learned incrementally along the way. What I mean by that is I first got to know you as a graphic designer and web designer, and then along the way I’ve learned other things, like how great of a photographer you are. It’s been fun to use that skill of yours as well with what we do at StudioPress. A lot of the pictures that you now see in the themes that we’re releasing are shots that Lauren has taken.
In fact, the café pro theme that we did was a fun experiment. We conceptually knew what we wanted to create, so we just sent her out into the local bistro and said, “Take some shots of food.” The resource at the time we’d been using, Unsplash, they don’t have a lot of great food, or certain types of shots. We just had you go out and take them. There’s a few other themes of late that we’ve done you’ve done the same thing with. In fact, it’s probably been almost a year because I think I got the domain renewal on Minimography, which is a fun little side project you and I have done where you’ve taken your photos, and you’ve put them up and made them available. I also know that you’ve moved some of that stuff over to Unsplash as well.
On top of that, even just a few weeks ago I realized just how good of a creative you are when it comes to audio mixing. You and I have been going back and forth on picking music for the show. I came up with my little rendition of how it would start and I sent it over to you and Robert. You did your own version and totally smoked me. I’m like, “Okay, she’s a better audio person than I am too, this is great.”
Back to NorthBound Design. You started this right out of high school. I’m always interested in knowing the evolution of a name. Talk to us about how you came up with that name.
Lauren Mancke: I actually came up with the name when I was seven, with my sister on a trip to Ohio. My parents are from Ohio. We’d go there every year on a long road trip. We were heading up there and we were talking about what we were going to do when we grew up. We decided we were both going to be architects because we had always been interested in design and things like that. My dad is a builder and a civil engineer and a structural engineer, so it just seemed like a natural fit for us to both be architects. We could be designers — and also the technical aspects of architecture.
We came up with the name NorthBound Design for our architecture firm that we were going to start when we grew up. We thought it was a great name. We were heading up to Ohio, but we also thought it extended beyond that. It had to do with buildings and all sorts of stuff. My dad always encouraged us to be entrepreneurs. He’s an entrepreneur himself and he comes from a family of entrepreneurs. His brothers and sisters all have their own businesses. He raised us to be thinking that way, that we were going to go out and do our own thing, we weren’t necessarily going to fall in the rat race. I think his guidance has really helped me in my career path.
How a Mix of Formal Education and Self-teaching Contribute to What Lauren Does Now
Brian Gardner: All right, so you started NorthBound shortly after you got out of high school, but I also know you went to college. Talk to me about the things that went on in your college days, what types of things did you study and how did NorthBound fit into that at the time?
Lauren Mancke: Well, at the time I got a scholarship to go to where my sister went to school, which is University of South Carolina. I was thinking about going into engineering — or my parents really wanted me to go into engineering. I was thinking I’d like to do something more artisti, or more creative, because that seemed to fit me better. I think my senior year in high school I talked to a friend that was in the media arts program, and I had never even heard of a media arts major. He was telling me more about it, and it focused on photography, videography — everything I was interested in. It was a way to do an art degree but not necessarily traditional arts of painting and drawing, which I didn’t think were very sustainable. I’m not the best at drawing and painting, I’m better with a computer.
I was thinking, “This seems like a perfect major.” I decided to major in media arts, and I also studied business administration because I was thinking that would help me with NorthBound Design. During college I actually had four jobs to pay my way through the school along with my scholarship. I did the photography lab, the dorm key checking, and I was a Sprint cell phone salesman out on the — not in the store — then I did NorthBound. During the summer … a lot of the early NorthBound projects were video and photography, like I said. I didn’t really get into web design until after college. Most of my classes didn’t really touch on that in college, so I had to learn myself on that front.
During the summer I worked as a Technical Assistance Manager for a mission group. We’d go out on these mission trips and I would train everyone to build the website, build the video presentation, and take the photographs of all of the people helping on the mission trip. Each week it was very stressful. You had to have the whole video completed for the last night, so it’d be long hours and we were sleeping on the floor and showering in portable trailers, things like that. That really taught me to hone my skills because I had no time to mess around. I really just had to learn and get things done. I think that really helped me with my work ethic.
Brian Gardner: You get through college, graduate in 2007. Did you think about continuing this freelance thing, as unstable as freelancing can sometimes be? Typically, when you get out of college, one wants to just get a stable job and then start making money. Then get an apartment or condo, or whatnot.
Lauren Mancke: Like you said, when I graduated I was like, “Ugh, I gotta go out in the real world.” At the beginning of college I was thinking I’d probably take NorthBound full time. But after four years of spending a lot of time getting straight A’s and doing all sorts of jobs, I was really burnt out. I was thinking, “I really should find something that I can really learn more at.” I wasn’t super confident that I had learned everything I needed to know, and I wasn’t ready yet.
My first job straight out of college was Creative Director at a political consulting firm. That was just what came along, I wasn’t really into politics. I was a print designer, web designer, video editor, photographer — all the things I was interested in — it just happened to be for political clients. It was very high stress, long hours, 16-hour days. It was a very small company, but we were working on dozens of campaigns — national campaigns, presidential, from state senate all the way up to presidential. That was a learning experience and that’s where I first started to get into web design.
Brian Gardner: All right, last week we talked about my story and how I ultimately met the gentleman who gave me my first full-time desk job at the architectural firm. How did you meet Wes? Like you said, that was sort of your first real job. I’m always curious how people meet and how they get connected and so on. Tell me about that, because I don’t think I’ve ever heard that real story.
Lauren Mancke: The job was advertised on Facebook, which it was like the first … Facebook back than was just for college kids, really. One of the other guys that worked at the company had advertised it on Facebook that they were hiring. I went to the interview and had my portfolio, they liked it and pretty much hired me, I think that day.
The Beginnings of Brian and Lauren’s Nearly 10-Year Professional Working Relationship
Brian Gardner: All right, so First Tuesday is ultimately the job that you were at when you and I — when our paths crossed back in 2007 or 2008, whenever that was.
Lauren Mancke: 2007.
Brian Gardner: Yeah, okay. It’s all a blur now because it’s almost been 10 years ago, it’s hard to believe.
Lauren Mancke: Yeah, you were one of our vendors. They wanted me to start designing the websites for the people running for office. I really didn’t have much website experience other than what I’ve already mentioned, a few sites here and there and some stuff in college that was very basic. I started to do the design and then we hired you to do the development.
I remember talking to you and you pointing me in the right direction and said, “WordPress is a great place to learn.” I started to read the Codex and really started to try to tweak things on the style sheet that I could do. Everything was last-minute at that job. When they wanted to change the website they didn’t have time to wait on a developer to change it, I had to get in there and just dig around. That’s how I learned.
Lauren’s Experience in Creative Entreprenuership
Brian Gardner: Ah, the good old days of learning WordPress and all of that. For sure, I totally remember those days. All right, so you worked with Wes for a couple years. You and I did some things back and forth through that. But at one point you decided that you were done with the high strung atmosphere that you were in there. You decided to take NorthBound full time. I vaguely remember that. Even though we were working together, I don’t think we were considered really good friends yet at that point. I don’t know the real story then, at which point you decided, “It’s time for me to take the jump.” Walk us through that a little bit.
Lauren Mancke: I think at the end of 2008 I had just gotten married. Planning the wedding and being in campaign season — we got married the week after the election. I realized that I just was done with it. I did not want to do anymore campaigns. It took me about another six months to get all my ducks in the row to go out full time. I lined up different freelance clients and I lined up what my services were going to be, what my business plan was.
I told my boss Terry at the time that I was going to try to go out on my own and that if they still needed me I could go on retainer with them for a certain number of hours per week, I think it was ten at an hourly rate. That was my first contract basically, when I went out and took NorthBound full time. That was a good transition, because even though I did have other clients lined up, I had a steady retainer client.
Building an Agency on the Genesis Framework
Lauren Mancke: A lot of my family was nervous, they weren’t sure I was ready for this. I think Will, at the time, was nervous as well. Within a few months I doubled my salary. It just went up from there and grew. I think the next year you started doing Genesis. I was helping you with several of those first themes. I got other clients. In 2010 my husband and some other employees — we got them on board, we got an office on main street, we had interns, tons of clients all over the world. Super fun time. We ended up expanding to the full floor of our office, which was great. Painted, got to decorate — super fun.
Brian Gardner: It’s been fun to watch that part of your life evolve. I know that even one of the early themes that you designed for us included — I still remember, it was some sort of shamrocky green-looking wedding theme. The pictures that were used …
Lauren Mancke: It was like a mint.
Brian Gardner: Yeah, it was like a shamrock mint type of thing. I remember because the pictures, the wedding photos that were used in that were the ones of you and Will. I remember that when you said you got married back in 2000 and …
Lauren Mancke: 2008.
Brian Gardner: 8, I was like, “I remember that. I remember the pictures and seeing that, and seeing you in a wedding dress.” Here we are, what, six, seven, eight years later now, you’ve obviously married, you’ve got Fox, your son. I’ve been privy to a very special part of your life, and for that I’m very thankful.
Lauren Mancke: Oh yeah, it’s been great having a consistent … That’s one great thing about the community, is how close you can get to people that are doing the same thing that you’re doing, even if they live across the country.
Brian Gardner: That’s the kind of thing that, as the show goes on and we introduce others on the show and have them come on and talk to them, that will be the fun part. Bringing the community onto the show. Talking to them and hearing their stories, and finding out how they got to where they got to. There’s so many different types of people within the Genesis community — those around StudioPress as a whole. Whether it’s support, or design, or development, or plugins, or whatever — everyone has a story.
At some point there’s that — what you explained with your family being nervous about you going out on your own. I went through a similar thing. I had a decent job with everything guaranteed. As we talked about last week with my story, it got to a point where Revolution’s sales at the time were five figures a month and I said, “You know, I gotta quit. I gotta pursue this. This is fun, this is exciting. There’s money to be made.”
Of course, Shelly’s parents were 60-something at the time and ultra conservative. They were like, “You’re what? You’re leaving your full-time job to play on the Internet?” A different generation. They don’t get that’s basically the mindset right now of a millennial entrepreneur. That’s what everybody does, right? It will be fun to have those folks on and to hear those stories.
As we move a little bit forward past you creating and doing NorthBound full time, at one point — this was 2013 now? As we joked last week, I ultimately finally got to hire you. That was, first of all, monumental in my life. I’m like, “Here it is. I finally have figured out a way.” Thankfully that was through Copyblogger the company, after we merged six years ago almost.
You joined in 2013. I think one of the first things that you did for us was convert all of our themes from XHTML to HTML5. Those who are developers and people familiar with the community and what we’ve built, they’ll understand what that means. Even then — in 2013 you came on and that has also evolved. Right now, as we record here, you’re the Vice President of StudioPress. As recent as yesterday you told me to get out of your space because I was doing things that you had planned to do, which ultimately means you’re running the show here. Walk me through the last couple years of your life and ultimately how you felt the decision has gone, that kind of stuff.
Why Lauren Left Her Business in Pursuit of Something Greater
Lauren Mancke: Yeah, back in 2013 at that time with NorthBound we were actually doing really well, bringing in half a million dollars. I was contemplating — I had talked to a couple investors and I actually was contemplating a merger with another agency, was in talks about that. A lot of those talks required me to keep doing exactly what I had been doing. I think at that time I was ready for something new and ready for a change. You, again, offered me the position and I seriously thought about it. Before I had just said, “No.”
I was really considering it and weighing my options. I knew that it would be a bit of a transition, leaving NorthBound in my husband’s hands and basically stepping away from it — this thing that I had built. I think it was more of a decision to be part of something larger, being a part of the Genesis community and helping that grow. You can only do so much on your own. I think that I really wanted to be a part of StudioPress and help everybody that way. I thought it was a good opportunity.
When I came on, yeah, I converted all of the existing themes from the previous ones. They got little, tiny re-designs. It wasn’t much, it was just some little freshening up as I converted them to HTML5. With 45 themes, it was quite an undertaking.
Brian Gardner: Yeah, that was definitely something I was glad that we got through. Something that you just said resonated with me, which is the, “I wanted to be part of something bigger.” We go through seasons where we want to do our own thing. If we’re successful we want to maintain that and build that, and so on. You get a saturation point of anxiety and stress where you’re sick and tired of doing it all. I know, for me, that happened for sure, probably at least three or four different times over the first couple years of StudioPress.
When Brian Clark came along and said, “Hey, you want to partner up and merge into a bigger company?” There was that part of me that knew I was giving something up — obviously StudioPress as sole owner. At that point StudioPress made up a significant portion of the sales that came into the company.
Yes, there was a little bit of a pay cut involved, but I knew that it was time. It was time to let go and trust in a bigger picture, a bigger vision. Looking back on it, without a doubt there’s no regret. I’m thankful that I did it. Again, I think as we go through the season and start to hear some of these other stories, I think we’ll encounter that same type of situation that other folks have gone through.
Lauren Mancke: Yeah, I think once you’ve been doing something — like I was doing it for ten years at that point — you start to hone in on what you like and dislike, and what your strengths are and what your weaknesses are. Those really come into focus. Me joining Copyblogger, I saw that as an opportunity to really focus on what I enjoy — which is making themes — and taking away the things that I didn’t enjoy.
Brian Gardner: There you have it, that is Lauren’s story. Slightly but also very similarly different than mine. Glad to know the evolution of Lauren’s design career. Where she’s gone and what she’s done, and where she’s at now. Now, the fun thing about the show is that next week we are going to be talking about the StudioPress re-design that we recently went through and launched almost six months ago, I think it was what, December?
Lauren Mancke: January.
Brian Gardner: January, okay. See, this is why you run things and take care of all the stuff.
Lauren Mancke: It was ready in December.
Brian Gardner: It was ready in October.
Lauren Mancke: Yeah.
Brian Gardner: Hey, that’s what happens when you have a bigger company and processes and so on. These are the fun things that even over the course of this show we get to talk candidly about, because nothing is rosy 100 percent of the time. We all go through struggles and challenges in running a business, and being online, and all that kind of stuff. It will be fun to talk about that type of stuff. Thankful for you, listeners, that you’re out there. Hopefully giving us a good rating over there at iTunes. Look forward to — how about that plug, right?
Lauren Mancke: Shameless.
Brian Gardner: Hey, that’s how shows like this grow. Anyway, we look forward to talking about the StudioPress re-design next week, thanks for listening.