Hi, my name is Joonas Kylliäinen. I’m the CEO and co-founder of Norders Creative Agency. A digital marketing company from Helsinki, Finland.
Personally, I’m here, on this planet to have a healthy, intimate and financially independent family that helps others reach the same. I’m a family man first, well-being and creative marketing entrepreneur second, business strategist third and an aspiring athlete the rest of the time.
But I’m not here talking to you about me, directly. I’m here to have a conversation with you about growth. And everything I just said about myself has everything to do with growth.
See, I come from and promote the belief that life is about growth. Growth is meaning. The purpose is about growth. Relationships are about growth. Every day is about growth.
But to keep things focused I’m not here to talk about the meaning of life per se, but I want to focus now on building a strategy for sustainable organizational growth. It shall be mentioned though, that this topic is not at all exclusive of the meaning of life nor personal growth, but exploring and systematising sustainable organisational growth is the aim of this talk.
As an example and a benchmark, I’ll share how our young creative marketing agency, on the verge of the unknown with a lot of work has built our strategy for growth, what pieces the strategy consists of and how you can start not only building a growth strategy for your organisation but also reaping the benefits of executing it in no time.
Nonetheless, the topic of growth and its importance is so significant that it deserves a quick definitive reminder.
What is growth and why it is important?
Ok, let’s hear it from perhaps the most renowned life and business strategist, Tony Robbins.
“If you’re not growing, you’re dying.”
It’s really as simple, and blunt as that.
And that is an oldie but goldie Tony Robbins quote, but I feel like it matches the end of 2021 perfectly.
For me, as in my mid-thirties, growth was some time ago something that was available for those who wanted to do the impossible, achieve more than required, work harder than necessary or for those who found themselves in a bad place in life and found the motivation to make things better.
But for the masses not growing seemed to be more or less ok. Not growing probably was for a long time a smarter less risky choice. For a while, it definitely was for me. We’d do our 9 to 5. Not screw up too bad, not make too much noise, read the instructions and nor our heads. Sound familiar?
Then 2008 happened. Then global digitalisation happened. Then covid happened. And last, but most certainly not least, then the capability for any of us, even for the smallest least significant individual of us the internet and social media granted the power to make a difference. To make a positive impact in the world. To freaking help another person and help the planet — in scale. Yes, in scale.
1. You can not afford not to grow
So first, it was not enough anymore not to grow. The world started moving too fast. Even if your plan was a comfortable 9 to 5 for the man, you had to step up or someone younger, cheaper, someone with a better grasp on new technologies and opportunities would come out of the left field and take your place.
2. Growth enables impact
Second, we are all now given an opportunity to make a difference by putting effort into, yes, by growing and practice altruism on a scale not possible for a normal person before.
3. Growth elevates
Third, a factor not mentioned before, and I think this might touch many of you: growth is just well more fun. Why? Because growth is more growth. Whatever growth manifests to you, then it means more of it. More financial independence, more time with your family or hobbies, more impact, more power, more knowledge, better skills, a better understanding of yourself, a better relationship, better health — whatever it is you seek, growth is the answer.
Growth by definition is a gradual increase. So planned growth with our given circadian rhythm is the act of process towards the desired goal within a day.
That’s it. That’s also a great transition for us to start talking about the growth strategy for an organisation or a team. Since growth is not a major leap, but on the contrary gradual, most likely small constant progress towards a shared objective.
Ok, sorry, got carried away again. This is known to happen to me. Anyways now I’ve hopefully laid out the principle that as individuals, and thus as a social group, such as a team or an organisation growth is the way, the only way to go if we want to find and fulfil our purpose and achieve even the impossible. Or as also in modern terms, just to survive.
So let’s look at how we at Norders creative marketing agency looked at how we needed to grow as a company to make the growth for us sustainable — and as you’ll learn, automated.
As a co-founder, I for obvious reasons had a major role in coming up with initial plans for Norders to lay down the path, or more like the plan for success.
When Norders was officially founded in January 2021, I remember myself and my co-founder and a close friend Ronny Eriksson thinking of ways to build an organisation that could provide us with the impact we sought to make.
As a process, system and digital lover, I was quickly caught on setting up tools, software and integrations to match a headcount somewhere far out in our dreams. This was when I was not too occupied with writing a five, ok, I admit it, a ten-year business plan.
Eventually, trying not to give full credit to Ronny for some egoistic reasons, so as a partly research-based rationalist I also found people and leadership centric direction from books like John Doerr’s “Measure What Matters”, Simon Sinek’s “Leaders Eat Last” and Malcolm Gladwell’s “Outliers” among others I pitched a mixed philosophy of the several books I had digested to him to pretty much him to KO me with “one, people, two, people, three, people”.
As the three most important factors for business success. I’m pretty sure we’ve read this one from somewhere but can’t remember where, so if you can share the source with us, please do and we’ll give credit.
It’s been a long way coming here, but the first piece of our strategy for growth, the foundation of it is people.
Finding the right people
As the author, Jim Collins of maybe the book that has most influenced me as a business leader, “Good To Great” said, “Look, I don’t really know where we should take this bus. But I know this much: If we get the right people on the bus, the right people in the right seats, and the wrong people off the bus, then we’ll figure out how to take it someplace great.”
We took this to our heart. We believed that if we wanted to build something that would truly provide meaning and value to us and others in scale, we’d need to be able to separate ourselves in the global market with an extraordinary story and delivery. We had an overall blurry grasp on what it was but we knew that it’d take a lot of work and iteration to get it right.
So we started first to get the right people on the bus. For us, this was easy or easier, since we then didn’t literally have any people on the bus, so there was none of that more difficult getting rid of people part.
Since we were just starting out and were going to bootstrap it all pretty much we didn’t have much to offer salary-wise, so we weren’t on the lookout for senior leaders to join our modest team.
Thus we went all out with the culture. We wrote our story so far, shared our blurry vision, took some pictures of us to give it a visual context and published this all on our agency’s website and social media channels — and made sure it all came from the heart and sounded, smelled and felt like us.
Then we posted free job ads on different platforms and started interviewing people.
What felt right from the beginning was almost intentionally exclude experience and status. We found ourselves wanting raw, ambitious, diverse and big-hearted people who truly shared our values and curiosity. We went all-in on choosing people based on culture fit, not position fit. And this my dear friend, I still believe has been the greatest finding of my professional life.
Once we have started to have more of the right people on the bus, we’ve started to see these individuals choose responsibilities, demonstrate accountability and practice discipline without much supervision, management or control. That’s the kind of people you want to find and work hard to keep.
One key element other than a shared vision I can’t emphasize enough is leading by example. I myself am not a senior business leader with a proven track record which in some sense could grant me a more given level of authority, and even if I was, I believe that still showing up to every single moment and making the best of it would be my strategy to lead others.
I’m a person who has spent so much time soul searching and trying to figure out what I want, and always assuming that if I can just find meaning and a clear path to what I want, I’d do anything. And now that I’ve, I feel like doing anything to make it happen is a hell of a lot easier. I mean it’s still super hard and there are severe downs after downs, but I still find myself grinding and that’s what for me it’s a lot about. It’s about not giving up and finding new ways to try to make it better.
To amplify this phenomenon around to people around me, to people on my bus I’ve simply tried to copy this model.
This model is thus called: give the people what they want.
It’s quite simple.
I ask a person who has joined our team what they want in life. If they know, then we draw a roadmap for that person to get there and then we start systematically tracking where we are on that path and making the required adjustments to correct the progress.
If they don’t know what they want, which is very common and supernormal, we map out a game plan to get to a certain milestone at where we then evaluate the person’s purpose and why again. If during this journey the purpose has been found, which is more common than you’d think, then we get to the roadmap. If there’s still no clear purpose, then set a new milestone.
The milestones usually have something to do with financial gains, interesting projects and more responsibilities which are great sub-goals to let a person get to know herself better if working on these topics help her uncover or find her meaning.
But the principle here, just like it was for me, is to keep moving, keep taking action and staying curious. No matter how clear or unclear the purpose is, the only way towards it is to embrace obstacles, keep showing up and keep giving it all you’ve got.
2. Category design
The second piece of our strategy puzzle is category design as famously coined in another of my favourite books I can’t recommend enough, “Play Bigger”.
For us, goal setting, and especially OKR’s which have worked great for us and we have in use with our executive team, is a part of this category design piece in our strategy for growth.
I think I intentionally want to somewhat not put the goal-setting on a pedestal and really emphasise taking action. Don’t get me wrong, I think goal setting is crucial for a company’s success but I’ve seen so many times people get stuck on the setting, tracking and re-setting their goals up to a point that they end up getting nothing done. Procrastination is what it is if you ask me.
Choose a clear goal fast, set a direction faster and get to it. After a week see how you and your team feel. Your vision, purpose and clear goals come and take their place. Actually, they’ll be clearer, more meaningful and deliberate once you’ve left action to shape them.
That’s why I work hard to have our strategic focus on category design, for which goals, objectives and key results are a vital part, but not the intrinsic value itself.
Ok, got that out of my system. Sorry about that. So back to the category design.
What is category design?
Let’s hear it straight from the founding fathers themselves:
“Category Design is a discipline of creating and monetizing new markets in a noisy world. The journey starts first with understanding the problem that you desire to solve. The problem is the proxy for the category and is the strategic element you see missing in the world.”
Just as a quick side note I once again highly recommend the book and you can also find everything about the discipline with concrete steps at playbigger.com/category-page.
So in a sense nothing new here right. Just a good old entrepreneurial approach to solving someone’s problem and getting paid to do it.
Yes and no. Yes, category design is about finding a problem and solving it for money. But it’s based on the assumption that someone, probably a lot of other people and companies are already trying to solve the exact same problem as you are — at least this is how it often looks like to your audience.
To tackle this problem we need to differentiate ourselves and our offering from the competition. The best way to earn attention and take ownership of your market is to create a category completely your own in which you’re the only one who can solve the specific problem. Sounds appealing, doesn’t it. A world without direct competition. Based on the category design model if you successfully create a new business category then the competition will follow. But that’s normal, and by that time you’ve crowned yourself the category king or queen and it’ll be hard for your competitors to catch up.
A category designed for the Norders
With Norders I often like to say that when you strip down everything around our brand essentially we do marketing for money. We help brands reach and convert audiences.
This in its essence makes us a marketing agency. One might call it the category advertising, digital marketing, growth marketing or communication. I call it marketing for money.
But the problem we identified in the marketplace is that utilizing marketing services is often slow, expensive, human resource intensive, project-oriented and lacks meaning.
Marketing service providers for us all started to seem like these cool hipsters that are willing to get creative for you for money but without any process, aim for lean outcomes or a joint partnership with a common vision larger than us or them alone.
At the same time, as our own competitive advantage and passion, we identified Nordic value-based doing, thus innovative, sustainable, transparent and trustworthy marketing combined with a heavy emphasis on providing systematic and predictable service and results.
As a result, our goal is to build our own category of the creative Nordic marketing community, academy and agency for changemakers.
Pretty specific right. So if you’re a leader, marketer, creative or aspire to be one, we want to offer you the framework with actual execution to generate predictable sustainable growth for you and your community. For this, we don’t believe marketing agency services are enough, but we need to build a community and academy to inspire, unite and elevate us and liked-minded changemakers to become the change we want to see.
How to use the designed category
This is then our guiding light. Our main goal and objective. Under which we’ve defined clear, measurable and time-specific goals that we then as a team constantly analyze and work towards.
Today I very much think we still compete against every marketing agency, freelancer and in-house department on the planet. But systematically repeating our own different value proposition, delivering on our brand promise and showing up for the hard work I’m positive that we can create a new category that will make the world a more sustainable and happier place.
Having not only a system but an automated system in place is the key to then eventually spinning the flywheel. So let’s talk about that next.
3. Automated systems
The third and final piece of the growth strategy puzzle is automated systems.
Actually, I’m going to go ahead and call it action systems. That’s a much better term.
Let’s leave the word action start the term too, since in my humble but somewhat experienced opinion, it’s all that matters.
If you just keep moving, keep taking action, you will automatically learn and grow. By taking action every day you’ll learn what works and what doesn’t work about your business and as long as you stay curious with a growth mindset and keep asking, how can we improve, success will follow.
Action combined with the right people on the bus on the right seats and with a category design model in place, I don’t think you can be stopped.
The only problem with raw human execution is that it has a tendency to variate. You know it, I know it, sometimes you and your team are on fire. The flow is on and magic just keeps happening. You get up early, make a complete ruckus and wake up the next morning victorious to repeat. It’s an awesome phase when it’s on. But the word phase is where the problem hides.
Then often even for no apparent reason the magic disappears, everything sucks, you don’t want to get up, you can’t stand your teammates and you just keep losing left and right.
To achieve continuous, lean and sustainable growth we can’t allow this to happen. We have to eliminate human volatility.
The answer is to combine massive action with systems, to build action systems.
For us Norders, a great tool to analyze and set up our systems, even for 2021 and beyond has been an entrepreneurial book classic from 1986, “The E Myth” by Michael E. Gerber.
In the book, Mr Gerber divides systems into three categories: hard, soft and information.
Let’s go through them all and I’ll share how they are in place at Norders.
Hard systems are the unliving physical things. They are your office spaces, warehouses, production facilities and machines, computers, colours on the walls and wheels under you.
As the Norders thrive on the digital nomad culture, our hard systems are pretty simple and small in numbers. We all are pretty independent with our laptop and phone choices, but since video production and photography are at the core of our services, our hard system maintenance is closest to strategic importance with keeping our gear up to date.
Softs systems are flexible systems. People, brand and all the people led processes.
This is where it gets exciting and important to systematically automate.
With soft systems, you basically want to write out handbooks and manuals for every single step of your business together with your team to ensure they take ownership of the laid out processes.
For Norders we started with the classics like a brand book for how to use and communicate using the Norders brand. We also conducted our values, manifesto and a first version handbook to share our vision and basic principles and operating systems with our internal team and potential customers and recruits.
At this moment when scripting this, our executive team is systematically working on our sales, marketing and production manuals to document our still evolving processes behind these disciplines.
Information systems are the third and last system type. Information systems provide you with information from the first two systems in forms like cashflow reporting, sales forecasting, inventory control, marketing ROI and the like.
At Norders we’ve very carefully selected the information systems tools to ensure they can be interconnected, workflow optimised and are scalable for our future plans. Most importantly they are simple, don’t require coding and are loved by our users.
The most essential ones for our day to day operations are Google Workspace for productivity tools and cloud hosting, Pipedrive for CRM, Asana for project management, Slack for communication, Kontentino and Wix for content management and Netvisor for financial management.
Thank you for your attention. I know it probably has been a handful of information.
Now we’ve briefly gone through how we at Norders set up our people, category design and system strategies to build a growth strategy to enable sustainable growth.
As mentioned, we briefly went through these different pieces of strategy that are all very close to my heart, and there is so much more to talk about each and every one of them, so please give me a shout if you want to dive deeper.
Now it’s the last piece of the puzzle to tie it all together. People, category design and systems.
And that’s automating the action.
Automating so we eliminate human volatility, human error and supercharge our growth into the leanest, most profitable version of itself that sustainably continues to generate more value to our business but also to our people and communities.
Automation is a two-fold act.
First, and more easily we need to automate our digital workflows.
For example to ensure that all the information flows smoothly from the initial view of our video on a social media channel by a targeted prospect to our marketing system from where if triggered shares all the necessary information to our CRM from where it generates an automatic proposal and eventually moves the information all the way into the tailored existing customer management experience.
So these are our digital systems, software and tools talking to each other automatically via workflow setups, webhooks and API. And in the name of agile and simplicity, as often as possible without any code.
The second part is human automation. This is the work, the grind, the motivation, the need to push forward with your mission because it’s bigger than you, or your team, that needs to be systematically processed into an automation super machine.
And it’s actually super simple.
What has worked so well for us, is simply allowing our people to set their goals, declare ownership, publish internally the company-wide goals with everyone’s responsibilities attached, and then just meet with the responsible team once a week to see where we stack against our objectives.
Together we analyze pivot and make an action plan for the following week to together push harder towards our dreams.
This simple system of declared visible goals, weekly meetings and analytical action plans is all it takes.
It starts from the right people on the right seats, to design a category, to build systems and then to just show up and hold each other accountable for the vision we have together.
If you don’t deliver first. It’s fine as long as you’re willing to learn to step up your game. If you don’t deliver due to not putting yourself out there. Then it’s time to leave the bus.
Wow, thank you so much once again for the time that you just spent with me.
If you don’t already, please remember to follow Norders across all the social media channels. You can also find me as Joonas Kylliäinen on LinkedIn and @joonasantero on Instagram. I also just recently published my personal website which you can check out at joonasantero.com for more content about entrepreneurship, family life, growth and creative business.
If you have any questions or thoughts about this content or just want to say hi, you can always reach me via email at firstname.lastname@example.org
Looking forward to growing together.