What we learned in 2020
2020 was a year like no other. Being a presidential election year, we expected it to be stressful, confusing, and full of noise that might make it hard to focus on growing a business. But we didn’t expect it to be heartbreaking and mind-numbing in the ways it ended up being. We learned a lot through the process, though, and even saw a little bit of growth.
In Q3 2019, we started “recession planning” — which really just means we started saving to build our cashflow runway more intentionally. We thought there was a chance that the bull run the market had been on for almost a decade might lose steam, and we wanted to be ready for a downturn. We weren’t expecting a global pandemic to cause that downturn.
The result was a year that was as sad and confusing as it was infuriating. But, through all of it, 2020 was also full of life and hope and joy and opportunities to rethink how society and companies work in ways that we may not have otherwise.
Blue Sky Partners didn’t have the year we expected in January 2020, but we had the opportunity to work with 13 clients on 24 different projects, helping companies rethink their business models and goals, communications and operational structures, and public engagement and advocacy strategy.
We developed strong friendships with our clients and our consulting partners, and had the opportunity to learn from and work alongside community leaders here in Austin as they led on issues of racial justice, public health, economic development, and elections.
We have a lot of work to do moving forward but, despite all the setbacks and roadblocks put in our way, progress was made this year.
As part of our corporate review every year, BSP asks every partner to do personal reflections. This year, we added two new faces to our team, with Callie Kerbo coming on as our Senior Marketing Consultant and Creative Director, and Siri Chakka joining as Senior Advisor.
I’m sure each of us could’ve written a lot more than what we did here. 2020 was full of opportunities to learn about ourselves, others, and society as a whole. But these are our topline learnings. We’re excited to put them to use in 2021.
Nathan Ryan • CEO
In crisis, more than half the battle is knowing what’s real. 2020 was a year full of compounding crises. If you’re a business owner, it can be hard to know where to focus, what to address, where to put your energy. Not because your business is necessarily affected by everything that happens in the world, but because we’re all human and this year was just plain distracting. As a result, I really learned how to tune things out and focus on one thing at a time. I learned how to cut out the noise, do my research, and find throughlines to guide my actions, whether that was with BSP’s finances, our client work, or sorting through misinformation and disinformation. I am not the arbiter of truth — I certainly know that — but I know the truth is out there. It’s worth finding and focusing on as we each continue to learn to lead and navigate the world more effectively.
Taking care of your employees and partners is job number one for a business owner. I’ve known Matt for almost six years and Tim for almost seventeen. The three of us have been business partners for more than three years now. But I still learned a lot about each of them as individuals this year. I also learned a lot about the needs of our partner companies and consultants. I’m sure everybody in our circle learned a lot about me. When the pandemic hit, we made it a priority to reach out to everybody in our partner network and to level-set with each other as business partners to make sure everybody was on the same page about personal needs, concerns, fears and opportunities. We doubled down on our commitment to always be honest with each other about where we were at. That kind of commitment — that commitment to be really, really real — made it so much easier to weather storms as they came, and it reminded me that taking care of each other is job number one for business owners and leaders.
Clients can and should be your friends. Blue Sky Partners is the second service company I’ve managed. Before this, I ran a marketing agency. The client-consultant relationship is almost always fraught. When we started Blue Sky Partners, we decided we didn’t want our client relationships to be that way. We wanted to actually be friends with our clients. Having been involved with companies that don’t do this, we decided the best way to do that was to always be honest. This year, I can say that we’ve developed incredibly close, professional friendships with our clients, to the point where we’re texting to ask how things are going outside of work and… it just feels good.
Optimism is a skill and a competitive advantage. I’m a natural optimist, but this year tested that. I don’t think blind optimism or performative optimism are good. I don’t think cynicism or pessimism are the answer. In 2020 I learned that it’s hard work to stay optimistic, but it’s worth the effort. There were a number of things, whether with Blue Sky Partners, or with my civic, political, or nonprofit work, that I just don’t think would’ve gotten done if I had let myself believe they couldn’t get done. Things don’t often just happen in the world — especially good things. It’s on us to believe they can happen, and put in the work to make that optimistic view of the future a reality.
I have a lot to learn. Lastly, I learned this year that I still have a lot to learn. I don’t think that will ever not be true — I think I’ll always be learning. But this year, I learned just how much more I need to listen before I speak and defer to others before I act.
Tim Seaton • COO
For service-companies like ours, solving client roadblocks are an opportunity to improve your own business. BSP dedicated time, energy and resources into solving issues for clients this year. Whether we were recommending a new business model, developing a comprehensive KPI dashboard, or crafting outreach strategies in a pandemic, working on these projects with clients forced us to reflect on whether we needed to improve our own operations in these areas to more effectively practice what we preach. Ultimately, solving these client issues made us look in the mirror, producing a “kill two birds with one stone” kind of advantage we quickly learned was a great way to push BSP forward.
Learning how to cook is a great way to improve your time management skills. When lockdown hit in March, I took the opportunity to improve my cooking skills, and gradually introduced new recipes into my meal plan every week. There were a lot of failed attempts at various dishes, and a couple successful (or should I say, edible) dishes too. Cooking taught me that if you want a delicious meal, you need to plan everything you possibly can before you get started. And, even with planning, some meals will still turn out different than you expected.
Give yourself more breaks (and give yourself a break). It is okay if productivity decreases during a period of unease. Shake it off by taking breaks. Going for a walk, putting your headphones in, or practicing simple meditations can mean the difference between hitting a trigger point or not. Don’t run out of steam. If it’s getting your business through the latter part of the pandemic, or simply the first few years of getting a business up and running, you will be much more productive if you take breaks.
Matt Glazer • Managing Director
Now more than ever it is important to eat the elephant. Like many people, my home became my office and my gym and my vacation destination and the place I taught and so many other things. Early on in 2020, it was easy to say, “I’ll do that tomorrow” or “That’s next.” Sunday felt like Monday and I am not sure there was a huge difference between 11am and 8pm (except for the light source). Earlier in the year, I found I was stressed and anxious… a lot. I felt behind, like I was scratching at the walls to get “caught up.” Not for others, but in order to meet my expectations. In the process I re-learned something I already knew: Eat the elephant. I stopped trying to sit down and accomplish medium and big tasks in one bite. I broke them down. Moved forward piece by piece. Enjoyed the process. And, got it done on timelines that worked for me, my partners, and our clients. My work quality improved. My stress and anxiety decreased. Most importantly, I got things done.
I now know what it means to give and receive grace. Grace is a word I knew but not a concept I fully understood. For me it is a similar journey for sympathy and empathy. After I re-learned to eat the elephant, I started understanding grace. Giving and receiving grace as a gift was a huge lesson. When people needed more time, for any reason, if I could, I would give them the time. When I needed to cancel a video call or shift to a phone call, I would ask for that gift of grace (Zoom fatigue is really real for me). If I could offer up more of my time, talent, or treasure, I would. We are all in this together. As cliché as that might sound, it is an essential reminder that we are all part of the human race; we are all working to do our best and be our best.
In years like this, it is more important than ever to celebrate personal, professional, and community wins. 2020 is a year that will live in infamy. We had the most important election in generations, a global pandemic, America started to finally reconcile our racial inequities and history, and a recession that could easily tip into a depression (even now). That said, there are still good things that happened. For me, that meant earning the gift of becoming a university professor and Entrepreneur-in-Residence at Trinity University. Friends still got married (I did not attend) and had their families grow. People moved. Got new jobs. Saw businesses flourish. Ran further or faster than they thought possible. There were moments to celebrate in 2020. At times, it felt weird. I sat with some of those feelings myself and now I am embracing the good that came. I hope you will too.
Naps Rock! I have learned to love a good nap. If a meeting cancels and I am tired, my couch is 14 to 78 steps away from my work space. Yes, I counted. There is nothing better than taking five to twenty minutes, and unplugging to rest your mind and/or body. This is a gift I hope I never forget and never lose again. Naps are amazing!
Callie Kerbo • Creative Director, Senior Marketing Consultant
Boundaries transform relationships. For far too long I bought into the idea that if I wasn’t working, I wasn’t making progress. More than that, I was actively putting my physical, emotional and mental health at risk for the sake of doing what I loved and found deeply fulfilling. Setting boundaries and holding to them has transformed my relationship with myself, my work, and the people I care about most. Creating boundaries is all about trying new things to test what works for you. In my boundary-setting journey, I started with a few questions to guide my thinking. What is not serving me? Which limiting beliefs are holding me back from embracing the life I want? Then, what are the next steps I need to take to leave some things behind and exchange them for a fresh perspective? “Essentialism,” by Gregg McKeown, was transformative in actually setting those boundaries. I couldn’t recommend it enough if you are looking for a place to start.
Vulnerability builds community. As much as it scared me to open up about burnout, mental health struggles, and my journey through boundary setting, doing so opened the door for conversations that gave me hope, better connections and resources. I began connecting and sharing with people in my community and network who I wouldn’t know otherwise. People generously shared what works for them, their own resources and glimmers of hope. In a year unlike any other, sharing what we’ve learned and what’s working (or not) helps us to feel personally connected while we are apart physically.
Make your to-do list, then take away half. When lockdown first went into effect, I truly thought my productivity wouldn’t be impacted. I was naive in thinking that continuing to work from home as I’d been doing for years would mean fewer schedule disruptions. What I didn’t anticipate was feeling scattered, out of sorts from schedule shifts and a general feeling of being lost. My to-do lists were growing out of control and I wrapped up each day feeling unproductive and defeated. Instead of working from a long list, I began to write out what I needed to do for the week and then cut out anything that was unnecessary or could be moved. Then each day I would write down five things that I could accomplish (two of those things included making coffee and going on a walk / reading). By making my list tangible, each day started to feel more and more like a win. Ironically, I’ve actually been able to get more done because I’m focused on the most important priorities.
Siri Chakka • Senior Advisor
The importance of flow. My work doesn’t naturally break into half hour increments. The kind of strategy work I do requires uninterrupted time to think, analyze, and craft a story. I’ve found that allowing others to schedule time in random spots on my calendar severely disrupts the amount of work I can complete in a given week. So I’ve learned to block heads-down time in my calendar to optimize for states of flow. While I may have the same amount of “open” time to work as I did before, my throughput has skyrocketed, and frustration has gone down.
Work with your energy levels. Similar to flow states, I’ve found my energy levels go up and down in any given day on a pretty normal schedule. My peak energy time is 7:30–10:30am, and then I peak again around 4–6pm. Now that we’re working remotely, I’ve taken full control over maximizing my work for when I’m the most productive, even if it doesn’t mirror the traditional 8–5 calendar. I step away from my desk around lunch to workout, and later in the afternoon for a walk. It aligns me to be my best when I’m in meetings or heads down, and lets me do what my body needs to most in those lower periods.
Transparency and Honesty. It’s a big relief when you don’t skirt around the issues and address problems head on, whether they be with a process, an event, or a particular person. I made the mistake of becoming too candid at a point in time and it worked to my detriment as this put people on the defensive. Over the last year, I’ve found the right balance of honesty and transparency to help improve relationships and workflows. It’s tough to have the hard conversations, but it is worth so much to save both time and frustration.