Tagged: Milestones

Celebrating 10 Years of Starling Social

- by Alyson Shane

Written by Alyson Shane, President.

In July of this year I’ll have been working for myself for 10 years.

Saying this out loud, or even writing it, feels surreal. Not just because of how quickly the time has passed, but also because I’m in this position at all.

Which is why today I want to share the backstory behind how I got into my industry, the inspiration behind Starling Social, and a little bit of what drives me to be the kind of business owner and leader that I am today.

My Story 

I never expected to run a business. In fact, I never expected to achieve much beyond scraping by at a 9-5 for most of my life.

I had a complicated home life as a kid - I was emotionally and verbally abused, and even moved out to live with friends for a while in Grade 12. I struggled with anxiety that was so intense that I couldn’t focus in school, and as a result my grades were so bad that I didn’t graduate high school on time.

I went to summer school to complete my diploma and worked a string of low-paying retail and fast food jobs for a few years after graduating. I was miserable and directionless.

I moved to Ontario and lived in Hamilton and Toronto for a while, but wound up coming back to Winnipeg as depressed as when I’d left, even though I’d managed to score a job working for the Provincial Government when I came home.

A “safe” union job should have felt like a blessing, but it compounded the negative feelings I had about my life. I felt trapped in a role I didn’t like, in an industry that didn’t excite me, and I started having panic attacks every day and sliding further into depression.

Then, one day, I was sitting on the bus* and the song “Gifts” by Propagandhi came on and a lyric I'd heard hundreds of times before started playing:

“All the slightly insane on the 18 North Main…”

For some reason, this time, the lyric hit me like a ton of bricks.

I thought: this is me. I'm slightly insane on the 18 North Main.

I realized that I needed to pull myself out of my rut and figure out what I wanted to do with my life... but my high school grades weren’t good enough to get into university, so I signed up for night classes at the Adult Education Centre.

I spent the next six months working full time and going to night classes from 6 - 9 PM, Monday - Thursday. It was brutal and I was exhausted all the time, but the support and encouragement I got from my teachers and the Principal at the school (who fast-tracked me so I didn’t have to do the full 12 month curriculum) was incredible. 

I’d never had “adults” in my life encourage me or say I was smart or capable enough to achieve my goals. It was life-changing.

I finished night school, enrolled at the University of Winnipeg, and began working towards my degree in Rhetoric, Writing & Communications. 

While I was a student, an instructor from Red River College’s Creative Communications (CreComm) program reached out and asked if I’d start coming in to speak to first-year CreComm students about personal branding, blogging, and the importance of social media.

(If you know me, you know I’ve been publishing content online since 2002, aka the “pre social media era” and grew up immersed in how content has changed online.)

I was 21, a brand new university student, and suddenly I’d gone from feeling like a stupid nobody, to someone my peers and influencers in my community were looking to for inspiration and guidance.

I graduated with almost straight A’s (turns out I suck at Economics and at writing papers in AP style compared to the MLA style I was used to) and got a job working at a large, established marketing firm right out of university.

I should have been happy… but I wasn’t. 

I still struggled with anxiety and, now, a heaping dose of Impostor Syndrome, and I had a hard time fitting into my role. 

I spent the next few years jumping from job to job, never finding a fit and butting up against rules that didn't make sense, processes that felt outdated, and a lack of agency and creative control over my deliverables and workday.

Around this time I picked up a small freelance copywriting contract. It wasn’t much, just a few blogs a month for a small amount of money, but the idea that I could make money on the side of my 9-5 was like a wake up call. 

I said as much to my boyfriend (now husband) and he said: “You know, you could do this for a living if you wanted.”

At the time I shrugged him off; I couldn’t imagine myself leaving the safety and comfort of a reliable paycheck.

“Give it a year and see how it goes” he said “pick up a few more contracts and see how it feels.”

So that’s what I did… and within a year I was making more money freelancing than I was at my 9-5. 

I started working for myself that summer and I’ve never looked back since.

(I got a tattoo of the Propagandhi lyric on my arm to celebrate my 1st full year as a business owner, and to remind myself of how far I've come.)

Starting Starling

I managed things by myself for the first few months, but after landing what felt (at the time) like a huge contract with a sales consulting firm based out of New York, I realized that I needed to bring on supports; I couldn’t scale this on my own anymore.

I started bringing on team members to support the workload I’d built and realized that freelancing as “Alyson Shane” wasn’t going to cut it if the people my clients were talking to day-to-day weren’t me.

Why “Starling” Social?

It wasn’t that hard to figure out what I wanted to call my agency.

I’ve always been attracted to starlings. They’re a beautiful, interesting bird, and “murmurations of starlings” - the name for when large groups of the birds fly in mesmerizing patterns through the sky - is one of my favourite expressions. 

Starlings are songbirds, and mimics. In addition to their stunning performances in the sky, starling’s are known for being able to mimic sounds, other animals… even humans!

As a marketing agency, our goal is to “mimic” our client’s brands and sound like them, so the link between the bird, and the agency, fell naturally into place.

Building Out Processes

I never went to business school. Heck, I’m a digital marketer who never even studied marketing!

Everything I know has been self-taught, either through hands-on experience or by consuming as much material about a subject as I can.

I taught myself to build out processes to keep my fully remote team connected and productive 

(this was in the pre-COVID era when being a fully remote business was less common)

and I’ve invested heavily in training sessions like one I did with Hatch London where I spent three intense days learning the ins and outs of building successful Facebook (Meta) Ads campaigns.

I’ve gone through startup accelerators like YCombinator’s Startup School to learn business strategies and how to think strategically about managing a small, agile, and nimble team without investing in too much overhead and developing systems 

I’m also a voracious reader and have an intimidatingly long RSS Feed of websites, blogs, and resources that I check every day so I can stay at the top of my game. 

I also curate and write Starling Social’s weekly digital marketing newsletter every week as a way of keeping myself accountable and keeping my skills as sharp as possible. 

(If you want to subscribe to that, you can do so here.)

Identifying Differentiators

Let’s be real: in a city where the CreComm program, alone, graduates hundreds of students a year, it sometimes feels like you can’t turn a corner without bumping into another digital marketer or agency owner.

In a city like Winnipeg, you really have to lean into what makes you different - luckily I’ve got heaps of that in spades!

It took me longer than I’d like to start leaning into these differentiators (hello, Impostor Syndrome) but some of the things we bring to the table include:

  • My 22 years’ experience publishing content online. I started publishing in the pre-MySpace era (hello, Geocities!) and have hands-on experience crafting content, telling stories, and using every social network as it’s evolved to understand how they work together, and what makes them different.
  • My degree in Rhetoric, Writing & Communications. Unlike a lot of my peers, I studied persuasive language, so I have an academic-level understanding of how humans communicate, how we do it differently across different mediums, and how it’s changed over thousands of years.
  • I’m a writer. In my view, this is the biggest competitive advantage I have as a marketer. I love writing and do it for fun, and because of my experience I’m a fast, adept, and efficient writer. This also means I hold my team to an extremely high standard when it comes to the content we create for our clients. 

Making It Work

Building a successful agency is more than a clever name and a great tech stack - you have to constantly work at it and find new ways to learn, grow, and build connections.

I say this all the time, but the main reason that I was able to scale Starling Social as quickly as I did was because I was a “big fish in a small pond” - I practically lived on Winnipeg Twitter, building connections and making sure people knew who I was, and I blogged regularly and used my writing skills to publish useful how-to articles, guides, and strategies that reinforced me as a subject matter expert.

To date, over 90% of Starling Social’s local business has been referral business, and most of our national and international clients have also come from connections I made at conferences, online, or through friends-of-friends who’ve referred us.

Sure, I have a sales partner who helps generate leads for me, but that business is a drop in the bucket compared to the work we’ve done thanks to good old-fashioned personal branding and networking. 

I also do a ton of public speaking (I average about one talk, webinar, or podcast interview per month) which not only keeps me fresh, but also allows me to empower others and share the knowledge I’ve built over my decades publishing online, and my almost-decade working in this industry.

Teamwork Makes the Dream Work*

All this being said, my efforts wouldn’t mean much if I didn’t have a team of incredible humans behind me. 

The talented, driven, and creative people at Starling Social handle the day-to-day interactions with our clients so I can do all the fun stuff I just outlined above. 

I’ve learned to lean on my team and to make sure that they always feel like they can lean on me, too.

I take what I do seriously for myself and my clients, of course, but mostly I put in effort for them. I want them to feel confident and secure in my leadership, and to know I’ve always got their backs.

(I often say “my job is to make sales, close leads, and eat sh*t so you guys don’t have to.”)

One of my tenets is “if it’s not written down, it doesn’t exist” and as a writer this is one of the things that sets me apart from other agencies: I have extremely well-documented, repeatable processes for almost everything we do.

When we need to solve a new problem, I get down in the trenches with my team and spend time developing how-to guides that they can use and come back to - this eliminates guesswork, helps them be more efficient, and ensures consistently high-quality output whether we’re in the same room or not.

I don’t just do this because I’m an A-Type person; I want to empower my team to do their best work, and they’re less likely to succeed if they’re muddling through a problem, or constantly asking me for advice on how to do something.

This approach also shows my team how committed I am to their success, which (as I said above) is the most important thing to me.

* Sorry/not sorry to Alicia who hears me say this like every other day, haha.

What’s Next?

Looking ahead, I’m excited about what’s to come. 

I feel like I’m hitting a stride with my business, and that Starling Social is poised for even more growth and to partner on some impactful and important projects.

Starling Social has won multiple awards, I've personally won awards for my community impact through pro bono work we do, and we regularly receive glowing testimonials and feedback from our happy clients.

I get to work with friends (and clients who feel like they’re friends), do creative work that I enjoy, and build a life for myself and the people who work for me that allows us to (mostly) have a healthy work/life balance, take trips, and soak up the best of what our city and community has to offer.

I don’t know what the future holds, but from here it’s looking brighter than ever.

Cheers to 10 years, and to many, many more!


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