Q&A: The bootstrapping CEO of Killer Infographics on celebrating mistakes and why she sold her firm

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Killer Infographics co-founder and CEO Amy Balliett accepts the award for “Geekiest Office Space” at the 2013 GeekWire Awards. (GeekWire File Photo)

When Killer Infographics began exploring a sale of the company last year, the Seattle-based visual communication agency got creative — because of course it did.

The company, which helps Adobe, Expedia, Microsoft, BBC and other brands with visual-related projects, needed to produce a confidential information memorandum — CIM — for potential partners. Instead of letting a brokerage firm do the work, Killer designed its own presentation to stand out.

It was a clever move — every potential partner said it was the best CIM they’d ever seen and made them want to reach out.

“It was a perfect example of us drinking our own Kool-Aid and practicing what we preach,” said Killer Infographics CEO and co-founder Amy Balliett. “Our whole company centers around the idea that people are craving high quality visual content, so we wanted to lead with that and show exactly what we can do.”

Ultimately it was Los Angeles-based Kelton that decided to acquire Killer earlier this month, marking a significant milestone for the 30-person startup that launched more than eight years ago. Balliett will continue to lead the company as it maintains its brand, office, and existing customers under the ownership of Kelton and its parent company LRW Group.

Balliett told GeekWire that Killer, which never raised outside investment, has grown its revenue each year since 2010 and had a record 2018. She said the company wasn’t necessarily searching for an exit, but rather a partnership and called the deal with Kelton a “perfect match.”

The Killer Infographics team at a Seattle Mariners game. (Killer Infographics Photo)

“We weren’t putting Killer on the market for anything beyond a strategic decision to grow the company in the best possible way,” said Balliett, a native of Ohio who originally launched Killer as an entity called Seven Figure Project with Nick Grant, who left the company in 2017.

Longtime GeekWire readers might be familiar with Killer’s offbeat Silicon Valley Geeks vs. Seattle Geeks infographic that the firm produced in 2012, which caused a discussion about the geek stereotypes of each region.

An infographic created by GeekWire and Killer Infographics.

“Killer’s talent for visual communication provides Kelton’s clients with exciting new ways to execute on insights and strategy recommendations, making the process of transitioning project outcomes into real-life business decisions more integrated, and therefore more successful,” Kelton co-founders Gareth Schweitzer and Tom Bernthal said in a statement.

Read on to hear more from Balliett on being a female CEO, why she loves bootstrapping, and her prediction for the future of visual communication. (Answers edited for brevity and clarity)

On bootstrapping

Amy Balliett: “I’m 100 percent a proponent of bootstrapping over bringing on investment. There will be certain business models where you have to bring on an investor from day 1. But I highly suggest every entrepreneur bootstrap from the beginning because when you do that, you learn so much.

As a bootstrapper, I had to do every single role in the company and we wouldn’t hire somebody until I was burnt out doing that role. My title when we started was Chief Swiss Army Knife. I’ve done every single job at this company and it says to my team that I know what they’re going through. I might not do it as well as others — every business owner should hire people better than them — but I know how to do it and execute on the work and can jump in and lend support to my team when needed.

Bootstrapping also allowed us to hire very, very intentionally. Every single time we hired it had to be when we desperately needed somebody, as opposed to hiring someone when there wasn’t much work to put on their plate.

If we had a bunch of money from the beginning, I wouldn’t have learned any of this stuff and the company wouldn’t be where it is today. We’d be pretty cookie cutter instead of what we are considered — killer. We focus on pushing boundaries as a team and we do that because everybody we hired has the same entrepreneurial spirit. They came into a bootstrapped company and had to learn to solve problems the hard way, instead of throwing money at them. It’s led to an incredibly strong team as a result.”

Killer Infographics CEO Amy Balliett. (Killer Infographics Photo)

On being a female CEO

Balliett: “At my first networking events, any time I’d talk to a group of people they would defer to my old business partner with all their questions. I was running the company, but he was the man. People would just continuously expect him to be the one in charge. I’d also get phone calls from potential vendors, questioning whether I had the authority to make decisions.

For the first couple years, I had to fight the assumptions that because I was a woman, I was not CEO. Even though I was doing all the CEO duties, I let my business partner have the title. I had to get the guts to ask for that — it wasn’t hard by any means, but I built it up in my head that it was.

That’s a good example of how for the first five years of this company, I tried to avoid conflict. I often would put emotions of other people above business needs. But then I started letting the needs of the business drive all decisions over my own emotions. I do think that’s something women aren’t taught to do or expected to do. Women are often vilified when they do that. But the fact is, when you have 25 families that rely on you for their source of income, you need to let the needs of the business drive decisions over emotion.

Ultimately, I had to learn to stop apologizing and I really had to learn to stop justifying the same decisions I’d make that a man would make. Women often have to justify logical decisions and emotionless decisions and it makes it pretty hard if you’re running a business. Women have to earn it far more.

I want to see many, many more female CEOs. We need more women in leadership. It’s not just because we need diversity. It’s because we bring something different to the table. I’ve recognized that a lot in just watching people work at my company and how I’ve worked as well.

If women want to start a business and be taken seriously, go attend networking events that have fewer women and start pushing boundaries and connecting with people who might have stereotypes. That’s how I grew my reputation in Seattle. Don’t be a fly on the wall. When I was attending events early on, I would go into any circle — especially if it was all men — and insert myself and start talking to people. That’s what women are not taught to do. We are taught to always apologize when we do something like that. If we just throw those lessons out, women can be running a lot more companies.”

(Killer Infographics Photo)

On making mistakes

Balliett: “Holy cow, mistakes happen. I’ve made hundreds of thousands of dollars of mistakes in the past eight years. If you let a mistake get you down for even more than one hour, you’ll spiral at that point. For us, we are really focused on embracing mistakes, learning from them, and making sure they don’t happen again. We are a company that celebrates mistakes. I think it’s a very important mentality to have as a business owner. You will make a ton of mistakes. If you beat yourself up for mistakes, you will never move forward to the next big opportunity and every big opportunity will have a few mistakes come along with it.”

On hiring a bookkeeper

Balliett: “As dumb as it sounds, the sooner you hire a bookkeeper, the better. It’s one of those things that people think they can push off the longest. But it’s amazing how much faster you get paid when you are not the one asking for money. When the client sees that you can afford to have someone else ask them to pay, they are more willing to pay you.”

On savings

Balliett: “If you start a company, make sure you have at least one year of your costs sitting in savings. If you are expecting the company to generate money for you to live during that first year, the likelihood of failure is much higher. I didn’t draw a salary for quite some time. I had to significantly change my lifestyle after I started the company. But had I not done that, I would have given up after three months and gone back to the safety of a regular paycheck.”

On finding your community early on

Balliett: “For the first two years, I refused to go to networking events. I didn’t have time to talk about running my company — I just had time to run my company. I looked at networking events as almost a waste of time. But I attended the GeekWire Awards and it changed my mindset on networking events. I learned that the more I could get myself in a room in front of people, the more I could land new clients and also get really genuine advice.

That elevated when I joined the Entrepreneurs’ Organization. At first, I thought it wouldn’t bring much value because everyone there didn’t run design agencies. But it turns out all business owners have the same problem. It doesn’t matter what industry you are in at all. It just matters that you have employees and that you’re trying to solve day-to-day problems and trying to drive success for your end customer.

I learned more from Cupcake Royale founder Jody Hall than any design agency owner I’ve ever known. Jody approaches everything with the idea of hospitality. She makes sure anyone who goes into Cupcake Royale comes out with a smile. She asked me why I wasn’t focused on hospitality and I said, we aren’t a food service company. But she made me wake up to the fact that hospitality doesn’t have to just be about food — you can really focus on giving people that perfect happy experience by constantly considering their needs and putting them above yours.

So finding your tribe or community doesn’t mean seeking people who own the same type of company. It’s finding other entrepreneurs and business owners and being able to learn from them. It’s so priceless. I wouldn’t have started an executive team if TinyPulse founder David Niu had not told me to do that. He explained that I need people to push my comfort zone and force me to take risks and look at the business from angles I wasn’t looking at it from. It was the best change I made for this company.”

On the future of visual communications

Balliett: “The visual communications industry is really this perfect combination of meeting consumer and audience demand for visual content. 94 percent of audiences prefer visual content as the first form of information delivery. It’s about meeting that demand and forging it with branding and marketing.

The reason that demand exists is because the way we consume information has changed drastically. It started in 2007 when we saw the advent of Twitter; the iPhone; Facebook. All of a sudden we had two new communication channels all about engaging people with quick short bursts of content and this new technology in our pocket that made our screen size so much smaller. We were looking for quick bite-size information.

Fast-forward to today and our attention spans are even lower than they were back then. But there are more channels for information and we can access information at LTE speeds in our pockets.

When I think about the future, the fact is, our brains are hardwired to interpret visual information 60,000 times faster than any other form of communication. In a world where you have five seconds to get someone’s attention, the fastest method of information delivery is visual content. The best way to get that visual content is through these low-text forms of information. It’s the perfect storm for visual communication to take over.

I personally think we’ll see more and more brands using visual content as their main form of communication both internally and externally. The biggest shift we’ll see when it comes to this industry has nothing to do with demand. But it has to do with quality and expectations.

More than 90 percent of first impressions are based entirely on design. Today’s consumers want high quality content and we are also getting this instant gratification that we never had. We have a more discerning eye than ever before. Custom imagery converts seven times better than stock imagery. Today’s audience craves original designs and illustrations. They don’t like the look and feel of DIY and they don’t like cheap-looking content.

All the players that are outsourcing their work and doing cheap, quick, and dirty content — their day is coming. They’ve been losing market share year-over-year and it’s just going to continue. The companies that really focus on quality and custom unique high-value content are the ones that will see a lot more success.”



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