Written By Chris Ihrig
Published on September 20, 2023
Josh Dougherty is the founder and CEO of A Brave New, a Seattle-based branding, content strategy, and design agency. He’s also been a client of Fired Up! Culture for the past five years.
Raised in the Pacific Northwest, Josh has 15 years of agency experience under his belt. Now he is the sole proprietor of A Brave New and has recently made the intentional shift of pivoting the company from its inbound marketing roots to a more creative organization focused on branding, web design, video production, and more.
Josh recently sat down with us to talk about his agency, his partnership with Fired Up!, and his vision for where he wants A Brave New to be as an organization in the coming years.
Tell us a little bit about your agency and what you focus on.
A Brave New is a creative agency focused on branding, content strategy, and design. We’ve been around nine years now, and our niche is B2B healthcare and technology.
What are some of the core pain points your agency has had to overcome?
Two immediately come to mind, and they’re related. One is hiring the right people for positions. As a small agency, we have to move fast — and scale fast. But when we rushed to hire people, we would often find out too late that they weren’t the right fit or weren’t as skilled as we’d thought.
The second pain point is we have consistently done a poor job of onboarding. Again, this was because we were moving too fast, so we’d bring someone on and just throw them into the deep end with clients without giving them time to settle in and learn the ins and outs. This has led to higher turnover than we should have, which is expensive and takes a lot of time.
Coaching from Fired Up! helped me recognize these issues, and we’ve developed a training and onboarding program for new hires that’s much more in-depth. We’ve also become much more deliberate in how and when we hire and no longer wait until the last minute to bring new people on.
What type of culture do you aspire to build? And how has that aspirational culture differed from reality at times?
As a lifelong agency person, I know how punishing agency life can be so our focus has always been on creating a culture with a healthy work-life balance. We also want our culture to be one where everyone in the organization is encouraged to share their big ideas, where constant iteration and improvement are encouraged, and where the agency itself is fun. It’s not inspiring to work at a place where you’re just coming in to be a drone producing something, like in a factory.
When you think about the gap between aspiration and reality, how has Fired Up! helped you bridge that gap?
When I reflect on the past eight years, one thing that has been a challenge has been following through on our aspirations. There have been times when I’ve assumed that just talking about how our culture was enough to will it into action. But if I don’t lean into making the culture something beyond words, it does more harm than good to our team.
Working with Fired Up! has really driven home how important it is to actually have a structure in place that supports the culture you want your organization to have. We want a culture where people have the freedom to be their most creative and where every idea is appreciated, but without doing the hard work to build a structure that encourages those two outcomes, it’s easy for things to go off the rails.
Fired Up! also helped our agency navigate the big challenges brought on by the pandemic. Specifically, going fully remote, which made things like brainstorming and having healthy creative disagreements much harder. Creating a healthy culture takes buy-in from everyone, and that buy-in requires trust, which is very difficult to build when everyone is just a face on a screen.
Which of Fired Up!’s services have you and your team utilized? Which have been the most valuable?
The big one has been Fired Up!’s Annual Culture Index, which we’ve done for the past three years. The results we get from the index clearly highlight cultural issues that need to be addressed. The executive reporting we get each year from this work kickstarts our annual strategic planning.
Weekly coaching has also had a big impact on me personally, since it’s a forum that allows me to ask questions and seek advice from someone who is invested in our organization but isn’t in the day-to-day. It’s never about,Do this, do that. Instead, it’s an opportunity for me to react to questions, as a leader, that provoke me into thinking differently.
Fired Up! also provides us with customized HR support, giving me valuable guidance on important decisions like how to structure offers, how to have a hard conversation with an employee, how to put someone on a performance plan, and so on.
You spoke specifically about the Annual Culture Index. How does this tool inform the work you do to build your culture?
First and foremost, the Annual Culture Index reveals blind spots a business owner may have. That’s hard feedback to receive, but it’s also extremely valuable.
To circle back to the pandemic, when we were all coming out of the lockdowns, we suspected our culture was in a bad place. Everyone was tired, everything was messy. The structures were crumbling, and we risked losing valuable people to burnout. The Annual Culture Index affirmed our suspicions and helped us drill down into specific problems that needed to be addressed immediately.
How has your approach as a leader evolved throughout your Fired Up! partnership?
Look, when I first started A Brave New, I didn’t really know the first thing about running a business. I had some serious imposter syndrome. Working with Fired Up! helped me realize that even though I owned the business, I didn’t always need to have the right answer. I could seek advice or just take a moment to exhale and figure out a solution on my own. This has really helped me gain confidence as a leader.
Fired Up! coaching also helped me focus on being more empathetic as a leader. I tend to get down to just the brass tacks of communicating — what needs to happen, when it needs to happen, et cetera. I’d rather have someone just lay it out for me, but most people don’t feel the same way.
On a micro level, working with Fired Up! has helped me arrive at a place where I can ask myself, What do I really want for my agency?What does fulfillment look like to me? What do I want out of my life and how do I engineer that into the business?Answering these questions lets me focus on the vision I have for myself and the company, and that vision bleeds into the culture I want to create.
If you step back and think about how your culture has evolved over time, what has the impact of your Fired Up! partnership been?
One of the big impacts Fired Up! had is encouraging us as an organization to constantly look at our culture and think about it intentionally. We are almost religious about it. Every team meeting, every time we bring on a new employee or client, we focus on how our culture is doing and what impact a new person or client will have on it.
Going forward, what are your main areas of focus in the coming year?
A Brave New is primed for growth, so a big area of focus is how we build as an organization without sacrificing our culture. Bringing people on is always disruptive, whether in a good way or a bad way. We need to figure out how we can give new hires the support they need without being overbearing or breaking the structure we’ve put in place for a culture that inspires and gives our team the freedom they need to be their most creative and productive.
We also want our next stage of growth to be driven by the quality and depth of our branding engagements, versus just out of a desire for growth, which may have been too much of a goal in the past. That’s a big challenge, and I’m going to be leaning on Fired Up! for a lot of guidance because the last thing we want is to grow at the expense of the values we have as an organization.
What advice do you have for other agency leaders out there who are trying to build an intentional culture?
Make an investment in yourself. For me, that means going to therapy. Take care of yourself as a person and a leader because it’s hard to build a culture if you don’t have anything to give. There has to be balance and some richness inside yourself, and if you don’t have it — if you’re empty as a leader — it’s contagious and will spread throughout your organization.
Our thanks to Josh for being so open with us about his experiences as a business leader. You can find out more about him and his agency at abravenew.com. To get started on your own journey building a strong workplace culture for your organization, check out our Annual Culture Index and other culture-building resources.
Author, Speaker, and Change Agent.
Chris leads a dynamic team of passionate change agents who are dedicated to partnering with organizational executives to create cultures that inspire, engage and ignite the best in people. Our work is dedicated to harnessing the power of culture to equip leaders, build amazing teams and align operation practices to delighting the customer and drive breakthrough results.