To lead is to trust. Hire smart people who take a lot of pride in their work, teach them all you know, then step back and let them do their job. Trust them, and they will respect you for earning that trust. Step in when they are blocked and need help to untangle their issues, from which they in turn learn more problem-solving skills, for the next time around.
Irina Papuc co-founded the Galactic Fed, a full-service growth marketing agency with 130+ staff representing some of Silicon Valley’s hottest startups.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! What is your “backstory”?
I’m an academically trained physicist who, back in 2010, spent some time interning at CERN on a fellowship sponsored by the German government. It was both a humbling and awe-inspiring experience, but coming out of it, I realized that, even there, solving the mysteries of the universe, I was still as restless as ever, and the office life was not for me. The road was calling.
In 2012, freshly graduated, I bought a one-way ticket to Taiwan, where I taught English for a year and saved up money, then travelled overland from Thailand to Romania (my ancestral country) for a year. Along the way I befriended Nepalese shamen, drank shots with old ladies on Kyrgyz mountaintops, and crossed the Caspian sea in a Soviet-era oil tanker. For five months, I slept in the back of a friend’s Ford Mondeo station wagon as we traversed the Stans, and to this day, I think back on the simple joys felt in a time when I had so little. I think this experience gave me some assurance that ‘security’ is to a large degree a passing illusion, and should everything crumble like a house of cards, I can always return to that simple joy.
After a few years of wandering, I returned to the US in 2015. The hobo lifestyle had corrupted me to such an extent that I found it impossible to work in traditional, office-based jobs, so I only looked for remote work opportunities. I was fortunate to pick up my first (and only) remote job at Toptal, where I led the SEO operations from 2015 to 2018, working with some of the smartest people in the industry.
During this time, I lived mostly out of a backpack, eventually settling in London for a year to pursue an MSci in Anthropology from UCL, which came out of a desire to approach future travels from a more purposeful vantage point.
With all of this going on in the background, I launched Galactic Fed, a digital marketing agency, in January 2016 to provide a better marketing solution for companies looking to build in-house growth marketing programs. Every day Zach and I face new and exciting challenges together.
Keeping in the spirit of the fully remote work lifestyle Zach and I have grown to love, the company has no offices, with 130 staff members spread over 5 time zones, and we’ve had the pleasure of working with some of the hottest tech startups in Silicon Valley, as well as other national and international brands. Plus, many of our staff we met in past travels, so this all came full circle!
Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
My friends joke that I’m a ‘people collector’ — always looking for talented, smart, driven, like-minded people, to join Galactic Fed. I’ve hired people I met while trekking through the Himalayas. Not kidding. In my experience, hunger is contagious, and smart people exist everywhere. It’s really beautiful when they come together to build something bigger than themselves. Travel is a great social filter; you find a lot of independent, unconventional, creative types on the road. Gone are the days of traditional recruiting.
What was your biggest challenge to date either personally or professionally and how did you overcome it?
Time management. When you’re juggling so many things at once, you can quickly and easily lose sight of it all and drown. This washes over both your personal and professional life, and you have to quickly take control of your time. Learn to say no and be extremely scrupulous and disciplined with how you use the very limited time you are given. We live in an age of mass FOMO with more distractions than ever before, but for each time you say ‘no’ to something, you in turn free up that time to say ‘yes’ to time spent on making your dreams a reality.
I organize everything using a combination of calendar apps and a simple desktop notepad, where I color-code events ranging from ‘personal’ to ‘academic’ (e.g. course schedules) to ‘professional.’ To name your time by setting aside blocks to focus on your goals, is to own your time!
What does leadership mean to you and how do you best inspire others to lead?
To lead is to trust. Hire smart people who take a lot of pride in their work, teach them all you know, then step back and let them do their job. Trust them, and they will respect you for earning that trust. Step in when they are blocked and need help to untangle their issues, from which they in turn learn more problem-solving skills, for the next time around. The leader is there to help their people in times of difficulty, not to micromanage the day-to-day details. I’ve applied this from day 1, and so far, no one has ever quit the company.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
Gosh, there are many. There’s a special place in my heart for our clients. We learn from each of them. SEO, for example, is a shared experience: it’s not a black magic art. It’s a series of best practices that a marketer, engineer, writer, CEO, COO, and all team members share and work together to apply on a day to day basis.
Was it difficult to fit your life into your business/career and how did you do that?
If faced with the opportunity, I’m the type of person who will sit in front of the computer for 13–14 hours straight, working. I know I have this problem, so I combat it by forcing other activities into my life, whether it’s furthering my education, an upcoming trip, or scheduled time with loved ones. By prioritizing my personal life, I return to work refreshed and ready to work even harder and smarter in less time. Never underestimate the importance of sleep and offline time. As an entrepreneur and a recovering control freak, I ask myself every day, when faced with a task, who is the best person to do it. The answer is often times, not me. The more you nurture and teach into your org, the more time you have freed up to focus on the big picture and on sustainable growth.
Did you find that as your success grew it became more difficult to focus on the other areas of your life?
Actually, the opposite happened. I have a tendency to bite off more than I can chew as it is, haha! I remember, for most of 2017–2018, I balanced a full-time masters degree (including fieldwork to complete my dissertation in Brazil!), a full-time job, and scaling up the Galactic Fed.
I recommend taking on more than you think you can humanly handle. We spend a lot of time in front of the TV, surfing the web, and checking social media. We actually have more pockets of time in our day than we think, and forcing that time into something productive like a degree is a great way to reset your habits.
The added stress rewires your brain to focus in on the most impactful items. You only have 15 hours a day to do everything, after all. The Pareto Principle really comes out when you are forced to think this way every day!
Can you share five pieces of advice to other leaders about how to achieve the best balance between work and personal life?
Sign up for activities that force you off the computer. You quickly find that you achieve just as much in half the time. People are really good at filling in vacuums of free time with busy work, because we’re all wired to work.
Always wanted to learn how to scuba dive? Do it! Think you can’t work and camp around Japan for three weeks? Think again! We fear the unknown, and are often paralyzed for months or years by our own inertia and false sense of security. But when faced with an immediate problem to solve, whether it’s finding reliable internet in India, shelter in a forest in the Republic of Georgia, or the thousands of other uncertainties that juggling multiple projects brings, we can and do find a way to solve them! The key is giving yourself a chance by taking that first step and filling your time with meaningful work, whatever it means to you. You never know what you’re capable of doing, until you begin to stretch your limits. Nothing ever grew out of comfort.
Devote your time to building the next generation of leaders in your company. Nurture them, and delegate.
What gives you the greatest sense of accomplishment and pride.
When you work remotely, it is sometimes easy to lose sense of the human sitting behind the avatar photo or the emoji. Over the past year, people have come forward and thanked me for hiring them. Some of them started families, got married, bought homes, and travelled the world, and it’s extremely humbling to know that this crazy little remote company played a hand in helping others reach their dreams, while building a world-class marketing team.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
Marketing is more than just helping sites grow. As we grow more as a company, Zach (my cofounder) and I would love to give back to communities by taking a stance in combating cyber-bullying. We plan to roll out an initiative in 2019 to help empower high school students whose reputations are tarnished on social media. Reputation management is already a service that marketing agencies offer, usually for large companies and celebrities, but kids need it just as much.
What is the best way for people to connect with you on social media?
You can find me on Linkedin at https://www.linkedin.com/in/irinapapuc/ and I encourage you to reach out and connect!