Nearly a decade ago when I was an intern at The Creative Coast, I was introduced to Erik Reagan, cofounder of a Savannah brand agency named Focus Lab. Erik was volunteering his time to help with one of The Creative Coast’s events, and I often found myself thinking, “This guy does not remind me of a typical CEO.” No offense to other CEOs, but Erik exhibited qualities that made him unique. He had a humbleness about him that I had not yet seen or heard of in those running a successful, growing business. He listened way more than talked and seemed to take stock in what others had to say, no matter their business background. When Erik did speak, he was mindful in the way he communicated with a sort of calmness that makes you immediately feel at ease around him.
Not long after meeting Erik, I was introduced to his business partner Bill Kenney and was struck in the same way. Like Erik, Bill seemed truly intentional when he was engaging with others. As I learned more about Focus Lab, I found that both founders genuinely cared about people with an intense focus to serve their clients by going above and beyond. Moreover, they seemed set on serving their employees very well too. A couple of my friends later went on to work for Focus Lab, and when I asked them how things were going, they always had high praise for their company.
Fast forward to 2021 and Focus Lab is a renowned, award-winning agency serving clients all over the United States with hundreds of designers and brand specialists competing to work at the company. Focus Lab seems to have a secret sauce that makes customers and employees thrilled to work with and for them, but what are the ingredients of that sauce? I was curious what it looks like to work at Focus Lab so I asked Erik if we could chat. He insisted on Focus Lab’s People Operations Director Kellie Groover joining the conversation.
As her title implies, Kellie is responsible for all things people at Focus Lab. While her job is similar to what is seen in a traditional human resources role, it is also so much more. “Truly what I think makes Kellie a phenomenal person and fit for her role is that she genuinely loves people. She wants the best for people,” said Erik. “Kellie is a fantastic steward of the processes that care for people, that acknowledge people, that dignify people, and give people that extra oomph to go to work, even when something is hard at work.” Keep reading to learn the ins and outs of Focus Lab’s work style, benefits, culture, and hiring.
HOW FOCUS LAB WORKS
Focus Lab has been working remote since before COVID-19 forced the majority of us to work from home. Employees have worked outside the office since the company was founded in 2010, but in 2019 Focus Lab officially dropped the overhead and shifted all employees to remote work. Processes to facilitate effective communication from a distance were already in place, and employees were trained and familiar with tools such as Google Workspace, Zoom, and Slack, so why not make the transition if it was best for everyone?
Kellie, who is in charge of the initial interview process, says that remote work has big appeal to applicants. “I have had multiple applicants telling me throughout the pandemic their own values were tested,” said Kellie. “They realized that they want to be closer to family – they want to be closer to home – and a remote opportunity would allow that.” As most of us have experienced by now, there are many pluses to working remote: no commute, money savings, better work-life balance, location-independence, and more. Focus Lab realized this earlier in the game and decided remote work should play a role in the total compensation package.
The official Focus Lab handbook reads, ‘We want Focus Lab to be an environment that empowers you to do the things you need in life, not just work.’ Team members are allowed to set their schedule within reason. This means employees can pick their start and end time each day as long as they are working around the 40 hours per week mark (and Focus Lab encourages employees not to go beyond this mark if possible), showing up to meetings ready to go, keeping deadlines top of mind, and staying thoughtful of how their schedules overlap with coworkers in different timezones. According to Kellie, Focus Lab’s project managers do a great job of keeping up with the schedules and the team has refined and optimized how they achieve this.
Play is another important element of Focus Lab’s work. “I’m a big fan of [author] Patrick Lencioni. He’s got some really good material that talks about the value of shared experiences and how those contribute to building trust within your team,” Erik noted. To achieve shared experiences, Focus Lab gets together regularly, both virtually and in-person (pre-pandemic). Some of their activities and excursions have included virtual games, frisbee at Forsyth Park, bowling, karaoke, improv classes, or even just taking a walk together. “It creates ways we can learn to open up and learn to communicate with each other better. I think it’s very useful,” added Kellie.
Lastly, Focus Lab believes their team members are more than just their jobs. In reference to the term “human resources,” Erik said, “I don’t like the idea of people being referred to as resources.” From the language they use in their job descriptions to how they interact with one another and customers, the team at Focus Lab sincerely makes an effort to treat people with kindness, respect, and dignity. In fact, they encourage employees to lower their guards and feel comfortable being themselves at work. They even have Slack channels dedicated to personal interests and non-work-related conversations between coworkers. Just one of the many perks of being on the team.
I recently found myself talking to a friend about tech companies offering great benefits that go beyond the standard 401(k) plan, health/dental insurance, two-weeks paid time off, etc. After telling my friend about some of these companies, he replied, “It’s too good to be true” and “Surely there are no Savannah companies offering benefits like this.” I was happy to inform him otherwise.
Focus Lab’s employee benefits are listed below:
- Unlimited paid time off. You’ll be encouraged to take a minimum of 20 days outside of holidays and sick time.
- Health, dental, and vision insurance plans (Focus Lab pays 50% of the premiums for medical and dental coverage for you and your family dependents)
- Life, disability, accident, critical illness, and cancer insurance plans
- Retirement plan beginning at your one year anniversary
- Paid parental, adoption/caregiver leave
- Opportunity to draw from a monthly wellness stipend
- Annual professional development stipend
- Two-week paid holiday rest at the end of the year
When I asked Erik how they achieved offering these as benefits his answer was simple: “Be profitable…you need financial margin to be able to do this.” Erik also explained that he and company partners Bill Kenney and Will Straughn have worked slowly to add in these various benefits over the years. Kellie suggested the best way to start making a company more desirable to prospective employees requires more of a time investment than a money cost: “The culture, the trust you build, the transparency, the dependability, the respect, and the dignity – these are things that you put time into and not dollars. So, we invested in those before we could afford to cover half a family’s medical plan.”
SETTING THE TONE
If Focus Lab had an engine, their core values would be it. Unlike many companies that create their values, throw them up on their website, and forget about them, Focus Lab approaches their values very intentionally.
“We hire and fire by our core values,” said Erik. “We talk about our core values as early as the application process and make sure that the people who join the team share in those values. I personally believe you can’t make someone value something. Ideally, you find people who are already aligned with your values.”
Focus Lab’s values are…
Own the Work – Basically, work autonomously and be self-driven. Feel empowered to act decisively and take ownership of your work.
All Over Ego – While autonomous work is important to Focus Lab, they also believe in meaningful collaboration and giving everyone on the team a voice to contribute.
Lead with Courage – The team welcomes a challenge. When they are confronted with a tricky problem or situation, they lean into it.
Assume the Best – They always assume the best of people, including clients and one another. They never jump to conclusions or make snap judgments.
Strive for Excellence – Going above and beyond is the status quo at Focus Lab. They aim to always raise the bar and to keep working until they feel they have got it just right.
Empathy in Action – Focus Lab seeks to understand differing perspectives and works to meet people where they are. Openness and humility play a major role here.
To further stress the importance of these values, each has been turned into a literal badge of honor. All of their core values have been turned into physical patches designed by the team. Coworkers nominate each other throughout the quarter and at the close of each quarter, Focus Lab has a patch ceremony during which the company partners bestow the nominated patches. “It’s just another way we double down on our values and how important they are to each of us,” explained Kellie.
THE HIRING PROCESS
By now you might be thinking, “Are they hiring? How do I apply?”
The better question to ask might be “What does it take to get hired at Focus Lab?”
They start by selecting applicants who show three main traits: humility, hunger, and people smarts. From there, top candidates are taken through a multi-level interview process to ensure they are the right fit. The process starts with an introductory phone call with Kellie before one of Focus Lab’s partners interviews candidates regarding company culture and the day-to-day expectations of a role. The process finishes with a call with either Focus Lab’s Strategy Director or Design Director so applicants can share their portfolio and get a full understanding of expected responsibilities for the role.
Focus Lab is currently growing and the hiring process has not been easy. “It’s been tough to hire people lately because we’ve attracted so many awesome people,” said Kellie. Although it is a problem, it is a good one to have and easy to see why they have it. As for current openings, Focus Lab just closed application windows on two positions. Positions are open only to applicants in the United States due to time zone constraints. You can stay up-to-date on job opportunities at Focus Lab by checking The Creative Coast job board at www.thecreativecoast.works/jobs or by visiting the Focus Lab website at www.focuslabllc.com/team.
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