We sat down with our founder and CEO Stacey Grant to give you the inside scoop on her story, what she has learned, and things she wished she knew before becoming an entrepreneur.
KF: Thank you so much for doing this with us! I want to start off with your backstory. What was life like before business? What led you to this particular career path?
S: I grew up in rural Pennsylvania surrounded by farmland – everything from horses to cows to corn stalks. It was literally straight out of Field of Dreams. We didn’t have the money for anything extra. We’d eat meatloaf, tuna casserole and Swanson frozen dinners around a sticky wooden table. My father had just started his career in Investment Counseling after graduating from Harvard and my mother was an artist, so the house usually smelled like turpentine which she used to clean her brushes and that sticky wooden table.
We were scrappy but we made it all work. I used to get so excited to see garbage bags full of hand-me-down clothes appear on my front porch. This meant I’d be able to wear all those beautiful clothes I saw all the neighborhood girls wearing on the school bus. Dad hit his stride in the stock market, and we moved to 40 acres and a big modern house on a hill with a pool. Dad was the ultimate entrepreneur and always spoke to me like I understood business. And somehow some of his knowledge must have soaked into my brain by osmosis. His day job was Investment Counseling but he had about 100 side hustles in Real Estate, Small Business Retail Ventures, Venture Capital and a Hedge Fund. He even had a Race Horse! He loved the game, the challenge, the risk and the chase. All of this really intrigued me.
KF: Wow, you’ve come a long way. Can you share the most interesting story that has happened to you since you started your career?
S: I find that men can underestimate me. This happened a lot when I started to build my company, Koi-Fly. I came from the sales and ad agency world where you claw your way up through the ranks. There was always a hierarchy. Great creative work is really subjective and it was really difficult to make my mark with unique, creative ideas since I didn’t have the ‘street cred’ that’s often dictated by the cool kids. I was also much older than most of my peers in the agency world. There were more than a few times when I had cocktails with my agency buddies and told them, “You just wait. I’ll have my own company one day and I’ll show everyone just what I can do.” That impetus has driven me forward when times have been hard at Koi-Fly. The good news is, so many people from throughout my career have supported my new journey as an entrepreneur whole-heartedly. They’ve become my cheerleaders and mentors and they always let me know when they think I deserve credit and kudos! It’s so rewarding to have fulfilled this personal prophecy.
KF: Hard work really does pay off. Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? What lesson did you learn from that?
S: When we first started at Koi-Fly Creative we worked with an international nonprofit that rescued refugees from horrid conditions and connected them with their loved ones. We filmed a Somalian father with a terminal disease who was reunited with his five children in Baltimore, whom he hadn’t seen in over 10 years. The kids flew in from all parts of the world to see their dad, and some of them were meeting him for the first time. This organization spent years making this happen. Everyone from our cinematographers to the family cried during the reunion. The father was so distraught he could barely stand and actually fell during shooting. I was so moved by the footage that I shot an email to the Cinematographer, “That was so F***KING GREAT!!!!!” I didn’t realize it was a ‘Reply All’ email that included some really important clients. That sinking feeling when you realize you’ve sent a ‘Reply All’!!! I triple check every email now and sometimes read them out loud just for some extra quality control before I hit send.
KF: I guess unfortunate events make for good stories! Let’s talk about being an entrepreneur. What is it about the position of CEO or executive that most attracted you to it?
S: I’ve actually never officially had a typical 9-5 job. I’ve always been in sales or in a creative field where my work hours varied each week. The difference now is as an entrepreneur I have definitely ramped up my time in terms of how much I think about work when I’m not officially ‘on the job’. Since this is my own endeavor and I am passionate about it, I don’t feel like this is “work” most of the time. My heart is in my job and my job is my heart. The journey is non-stop and so exciting!
KF: What is the one thing that you enjoy most about being an executive?
S: I’m my very own boss. That’s always been a dream of mine. At the end of the day I have the flexibility to create the strategy and the plan that leads to our success. And that’s glorious.
KF: What are the downsides of being an executive?
S: I’ve realized being in charge of it all can also be quite challenging. Sometimes when I don’t want to make every decision I rely on my dedicated team to help me make some of those choices. I trust their opinions on much of the creative direction for a lot of the work we do.
KF: How do you manage your time away from work?
S: In the beginning I had trouble finding the time to disconnect. It was like a passionate infatuation that I thought about day and night. Now, almost four years later, I make sure my down time is all about stepping away from the work and really focusing on myself and my family. The amazing people who have joined us on the Koi-Fly team are the company’s most valuable assets and help make it easy to turn things off, especially when I need to focus on other aspects of my life. I always try to make sure they’re happy and satisfied in their jobs, and in return they always get the job done.
KF: What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive? Can you explain what you mean?
S: Entrepreneurs are rich! I still haven’t taken a salary after 4 years. Koi-Fly is my creative baby so it’s more important to put all our revenue back into the company. I want Koi-Fly to continue to thrive and be successful in the production industry, and this approach to profit can help make that happen.
I’ve learned not to expect all the business to come to me. “If you build it they will come” is just a myth. This is work, plain and simple. Every day I get out of my comfort zone. Every day I’m grinding and hustling to get the word out to companies about the amazing things that Koi-Fly can do. If you want to be an entrepreneur you can’t be afraid of hard, hard work.
KF: In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women executives that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?
S: Men seem to underestimate the power of a kick-ass female entrepreneur, and often underestimate the power we can have. If we voice our opinions or assert ourselves, we’re seen as too opinionated or vocal or sassy. We’re even called words that might not be fit to print here. It’s why some of us develop imposter syndrome, and can’t seem to get out of our own way when it comes to finding our voices and making them heard. But my drive and passion have thrived over those potential insecurities, and I’ve managed to believe in myself and my vision even more.
KF: What is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?
S: I could have read every book on running your own business and I still would not have ever known what I know now. I’m glad I didn’t know how hard it was going to be to get the company off the ground. I’m not sure we would have been successful if I had been more aware of the hardships that come with running your own business. So I went into this business with optimism and a glass half full hoping that we would absolutely succeed. I never focused on self doubt, I just kept on pushing through no matter what.
KF: What advice would you give to other female leaders to help their team to thrive?
S: Hire slow and fire fast. In the beginning, I made the mistake of bringing people on my team before we really got to know them. I have grown to understand which type of job hiring works best for us. Now I usually hire people on a contractual basis and have them work with us for a short period of time to see if the relationship is right for everyone. We’re lean and nimble so every personality matters, and we want to make sure those personalities click all around.
KF: 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 about that?
S: My biggest champion is my co-founder, partner and husband, Eric. When I told him I wanted to start a company he never ever questioned my ability to succeed. I knew nothing about the industry. I knew nothing about business. He believed in me steadfastly and still does to this day. His support has never wavered. He works with me at Koi-Fly and he is a major reason for our continued success. What is it like to work with your husband? (Everyone asks) It is a yin yang beautiful partnership. He doesn’t want to lead and I don’t know how to shoot or edit. We fill in each others gaps and rarely argue. I made a promise not to talk about work incessantly at home. It has proven to be a really important rule to follow.
KF: How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
S: At Koi-Fly we’re creating a mentorship program for high school kids without access to the funds necessary to have the appropriate equipment and assets who want to learn the craft of filmmaking. The kids will also be supporting a nonprofit with their final project. I hope to do more of this kind of purpose-driven work as we expand and have more bandwidth to give back.
There’s also Pipeline Angels, where I’m helping to change the face of angel investing and creating capital for women and non-binary femme social entrepreneurs. I serve as the friends and family round for diverse entrepreneurs who may not already have support at that critical investment stage.
I’m also a proud recipient of the “Mary Murphy Award” which recognizes an individual whose philanthropic work improves the well-being of grieving children. As a member of the Family Lives On Board of Directors, I established a social media platform for the organization, directed and produced the PSA “Peanut Butter & Jelly,” underwrote the development of an updated website and produced three testimonial videos from children in the Tradition Program.
“Stacey’s unwavering support of Family Lives On during and immediately following our rebranding from Mommy’s Light was the impetus for our national growth. Through her initiatives we were able to offer the Tradition Program to families throughout the US and more than double the number of children we serve annually. We are eternally grateful for her creative spirit and generous heart.” – Kelly Becker, Family Lives On’s CEO
KF: Do you have a favorite quote that inspires you? How is it relevant to you in your life?
S: My dad used to say, “Throw enough stuff against the wall and something is going to stick.” I think about this all of the time. When something doesn’t work one way, I find another way. My mind is always trying to sleuth out new ways to position our company and ramp up our products and services. Dad also said, “You can’t push a boulder up a hill.” When things feel like they’re hitting a wall, I find a work-around to make things happen. I miss my dad all the time but his many sayings stay with me, ground me and guide me.
KF: What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why?
- You will have to create boundaries and sometimes say “NO” to growth for growth’s sake.
As a start up, every opportunity sounds amazing and it can be really hard to turn anything down. We’ve had our fair share of low cost projects and realized they take as much time as the higher budget projects. So we’ve decided on a cut off price and we stick to it. Clients also tend to try to take advantage of a new company by asking for things that aren’t in the budgeted scope. I’ve had to learn to be strong and tell them we need to re-propose for that extra bell or whistle. CEOs have to be the one in the company to say no.
- You will need to be pitching your company, all of the time.
As CEO you are the one that will have to be able to make a case for your company to potential clients. You need to talk mission and vision all of the time. I’ve tried to hire an outside sales rep for my company, but they just didn’t have the passion that I do about our vision. So I’m out there 7 days a week, and even when I’m on a job, I’m trying to sell the next job.
- You will need to look at profit and loss statements and not freak out.
Numbers are not my forte but I’ve learned to just dive in and look at our revenue, profits and losses each month. There are still times when I have a knot in my stomach when the numbers show up in my inbox, even as we grow.
- You will need to take (almost) constant criticism without sweating it.
People who buy what we sell aren’t normally gushing over everything we do, and often want to tell us how we can do it better. I’ve learned to have a really thick skin when it comes to criticism and I look at criticism as the only way I can learn and grow. As a CEO you always have to take the high road. The customer is ALWAYS right. If they are unhappy they should not have to pay for your product or service, even if you believe they made an error. Sometimes you just have to eat it.
- You need to trust your intuition. Seriously. And get your team to trust you too.
Honestly, some of the worst decisions I’ve made as a CEO came from not listening to my gut. Your intuition isn’t going to be right 100 percent of the time, but there’s often a reason why you get that gut feeling before making an important decision about anything. I involve my key staff in my thought process so they understand how we got there and how we’re moving forward.
Understanding these nuances is just part of the transition from a leadership position to CEO. Truthfully, there will never be a time when you can look around, dust your hands, and think, “That’s it. I know everything I need to know.” I learn a lot every day – especially when we don’t succeed at something. And the only way to grow is to learn.
KF: What advice would you give to someone looking to be an entrepreneur?
S: Always try to listen and learn and lead with purpose. And with love.
KF: Thank you so much for taking the time to do this. Now, back to work!