15 Years as a Women’s Small Business Owner, an Interview

Since it is the 15th Anniversary of Portfolio Creative, and it is also Women’s Small Business Month, we wanted to ask our owners some questions. It’s our hope that you find the answers as interesting as we did. Catherine Lang-Cline is President and Kristen Harris is COO of Portfolio Creative and they are both founders of the company.

So, 15 years ago, what were you doing?

Kristen: I was working as the Art Director for the Express Marketing Department. I’d been with L Brands for thirteen years (!); it was the only place I’d worked since graduating from CCAD. I really loved my time there, but hit a point where I was craving something else. I was doing a lot of self-exploration to figure out what that next step should be. Clearly, I found it!

Catherine: I was a typical creative person, jumping from job to job every couple of years or so. Sometimes I would freelance and sometimes I worked as an employee for a company. I liked the change and the challenge. Since I have been doing this for 15 years now, I think that I have met my match as to change and challenge.

What was the must-have technology 15 years ago?

Catherine: In 2005 we needed two laptops, a printer, phones with a landline, a fax machine, cell phones, and a couple of Palm Pilots. 

Kristen: Oh, I loved my Palm Pilot! Funny thing…now we mostly use laptops, printers, and mobile phones, too. We pared down, and have better, newer versions of the same technology. 

What processes are you no longer doing?

Kristen: When we started the business quite a few processes were still on paper. We received a lot of resumes through email and a few in the mail. I do miss the nice stationery papers people chose! Portfolios were mainly physical–books, boxes, folders, binders–most of the work people were showing was printed. Creatives who did more digital work like video or web site design would often give us a disk with their work on it. Of course, now everything is online and in the cloud. We also used the fax a lot those first few years to send resumes to clients and receive timesheets from talent; now we don’t even have a fax machine.

When did you know it was time to hire your first employee?

Kristen: When we had more work to do than time to do it! We were able to split duties between the two of us pretty well for a while, but we hit a point where we knew we could do so much more with additional help. We started with a college intern, then a couple of people who wanted flexible part-time schedules. We’ve always tried to find ways to work with talented people who might want something different; it’s basically the definition of our business. 

Catherine: In thinking about who to hire we had to ask ourselves, “What are the jobs that only I can do?” Everything else could be delegated. We had already written all of the roles for our company, this was the time to start putting people into those roles.

Partnerships are tough, what makes yours work?

Kristen: At some point, we were given an assessment that showed how we are very aligned on values and business principles, and nearly opposite in personality. The “divide and conquer” approach has always served us well. The other thing that has been so important is trust – you have to trust a business partner at least as much as your romantic partner. You are “married” to them in so many ways.

Catherine: I always joke that Kristen knows more about my finances than my husband, but I think it is true. So yes, trust, transparency, similar goals, all of that is important. There are a lot of partnerships that don’t work because one of those pieces is missing or sometimes both people wanted to do the same job. Knowing that Kristen likes to do the things that I don’t like to do made it easy to define our roles and have “stayed in our lane” ever since. As a result, we both love what we are doing.

What has been the greatest challenge?

Catherine: Is everyone saying the pandemic?

Kristen: Yeah, this is definitely one of the most challenging times we’ve seen. We’ve been through the 2008-09 recession and other challenges too, but this is certainly a big one! There is always opportunity when there is change, but it breaks my heart to see how many small businesses are closing.

Why does a company like yours exist?

Kristen: We exist to connect companies and creative talent, that’s always been our “why.” From our previous careers, we know how hard it is to find the right creative people when you need them. And job searching is one of the most stressful things in a person’s life. We are here to make that a simpler, easier, more successful process. Making the right match is the most rewarding thing we do; it’s still a thrill 15-years in!

Catherine: I will just add that we exist because we have been the creative person on both sides of the table and with that experience, we knew that we could do more, help more people. All creative people understand how challenging it is to find the right person for the right job or the right role for yourself. The search is deeper than who has what software knowledge, creating things, or finding the words to market things is a lot more internal and personal. It’s a talent.

How can you help me find creative talent for my company? What’s the process? 

Catherine: The process really couldn’t be easier, just contact us and we will connect you with the right person on our team to get started. Once we know what you are looking for in a candidate, we will get started getting you some resumes of some great people. And don’t expect 30 resumes, we only send you the best few because we know that your time is valuable and that is why you contacted us. If you are talent looking for work, again, contact us and be prepared to talk about what you are looking for in your next role. A resume and portfolio are required as well and we can work with you if you need help on either. We take everything else from there.

How has the company changed and evolved since you first started?

Kristen: The creative industry has changed, and we’ve evolved with it. When we started most of the work people were doing was print, or at least print-first. Companies did have websites but they were fairly simple, and social media really was not a thing yet. Now, most creative work is digital-first. Creative principles and good design skills translate across all mediums, but the positions and skillsets we’re looking for and working with are quite different.

Catherine: I would have to say “yes” to everything Kristen said but also say that everything has changed. Know that when you start a business that you need to be very open to change and learning and improving, otherwise you won’t grow and evolve. Kristen and I don’t have the same roles as when we first started and we also don’t have the same people. You keep people and people move on based on their ability and comfort. Our long-term people have grown with us and we are very grateful for that. 15 years ago we only found jobs for creative people. Today, we have relationships with bankers and accountants, understand HR laws, and the ins-and-outs of PPP loans.

What sets Portfolio Creative apart from other staffing agencies? 

Catherine: Creative is all that we do. Both Kristen and I are experienced designers and marketing people. We are not going to pretend we can do all kinds of staffing because this is what we do. People are not numbers, this is in our DNA.

Kristen: Yes, we’re 100% focused on creative positions. That can be a broad range, from design and writing to strategy and eCommerce. We are experts in this area, not stretched thin across many different disciplines. Also, because we are a smaller company, we are very easy to work with. We listen to what you need, provide insights and feedback, and truly work as a partner with our clients. You’re working directly with one of our team members, not caught in a system or large company bureaucracy.

How have you been dealing with the challenges of 2020 and what tips do you have for businesses trying to decide if/when to hire?

Kristen: This crazy year of 2020 has brought a lot of challenges, but also opportunities. There are amazing people available or looking for new opportunities that you absolutely could not have lured away a year ago. Companies who are quick and smart have access to some very talented people! If you’re not ready to commit to a full-time position yet, consider bringing someone on in a temporary role and see how it goes. Final tip, don’t worry about bringing on someone remotely because you’re still not back in the office. Most of our clients are working that way and we can coach you through any questions.

Catherine: Completely agree. I’ll just add that adding a temp is the easiest way to keep getting work done, especially during times like this. There is very little risk because we take on a lot of the burden of a new employee and if things change, the assignment can either end or you will find that you can’t live without that person and you can hire them permanently.

What are your favorite things about the company?

Catherine: I love the people that we work with. The team at Portfolio Creative, the talent we place, and the clients we work with. When everyone is on the same page to create something together, it is fun and rewarding. 

Kristen: Ditto. The work we do is so rewarding – we help people find meaningful work and help clients solve problems! And working with our amazing team, talent, clients, members of the community, and all of the other people we interact with is what keeps it fun.

To learn more about Kristen and Catherine through their blog posts or to find a new creative person in your life contact Portfolio Creative at portfoliocreative.com. Kristen and Catherine also have a podcast called Illumination Bureau that is available where you find your podcasts.

National Women’s Small Business Month takes place each year during the month of October. This is a time to recognize the myriad achievements of our country’s female entrepreneurs, and the positive impact they are making on jobs and the economy.