Quint Studer talks with Emily Ley on how she went from an intrapreneur to an entrepreneur and business owner, how she created a community and relationships around her simplified brand and details about her new book, Growing Boldly Dare To Build A Life You Love.

As leaders and business owners, at times we have to pivot, Emily shares her journey and how nurturing the culture of your business is key to being sustainable and working through the hard times.

Referenced in this episode: 

 

About Emily Ley:
Emily Ley is the founder of Simplified® – a brand of planners and organizational tools for busy women. Emily has been featured in Forbes, Family Circle, Better Homes and Gardens, Glamour, and Good Housekeeping. She has been recognized with numerous awards, including Best New Product at the National Stationery Show as well as Small Business of the Year, Female Owned Business of the Year, and Entrepreneur of the Year by Studer Community Institute. Emily and her team collaborated with AT-A-GLANCE® to create gift and planning collections carried in Office Depot, Staples, and Target. Emily is the author of national bestselling books, Grace, Not Perfection: Embracing Simplicity, Celebrating JoyA Simplified Life: Tactical Tools for Intentional Living, and When Less Becomes More: Making Space for Slow, Simple, and Good. Now as an author, entrepreneur, wife and mother to three, Emily lives in Pensacola, Florida with her husband, Bryan, and their son Brady, and twins Tyler and Caroline.

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Transcript

Quint Studer:
Well, Emily, I am so thrilled to have you on this podcast because I feel so good about America right now because of you, people like you. I see your generation, and I think they’re so much smarter than my generation, which I was in the me generation, by the way. They’re more collaborative. They’re more flexible. I think they look at win-wins, but you look at someone like yourself and what you’ve grown as Simplified is so far ahead of me. Sometimes a young entrepreneur will ask me about my start and I say, “Heck, when I was your age, I was working part-time in a liquor store for crying out loud.”

Emily Ley:
Right.

Quint Studer:
I didn’t start my own company until I was 48 and here you are.

Emily Ley:
Wow.

Quint Studer:
How did you start? Tell the people, and a lot of people know who you are, but for those that don’t, why don’t you tell us a little bit about how you started and how you got to start your own company, which is truly remarkable.

Emily Ley:
Absolutely. Well, first of all, thank you so much for having me. It’s truly an honor. I’m just excited to talk through these things with you. I got started. I earned my master’s degree from the university of West Florida and was climbing the corporate ladder, had some pretty great jobs really young. I was the executive director of our city ballet at age 23, which was wild and exciting, but I climbed that ladder. I had these great jobs. My definition of success looked like a really good paycheck and working a lot of hours because I was proving myself, right?

Emily Ley:
Eventually, I got married and moved from Pensacola to Tampa with my husband. I decided, it was time to start redefining what success, really, was going to look like for me. We were talking about starting a family. I was working at a large state university in their Women in Leadership and Philanthropy Program. I just said, “You know what, I am working 60 hours a week, driving an hour each way to get to work. I want to have a family, and I don’t know how in the world I’m going to be able to do all this.” It really was just a decision in my head where I said, “Let’s talk about what success actually looks like.” Success to me looks like having flexibility to be the kind of mom that I want to be. It means having a contribution to our family’s income in some way. It means having a job where I feel like I am putting my talents and skills to good use, and I’m really impacting other people and making the world a little bit of a better place.

Emily Ley:
When I did that, I immediately knew I was going to have to create my own job. It wasn’t out there for me. I was going to have to make it. I worked really hard. I decided to learn graphic design. I wanted to make and sell stationary. That was really beautiful, and honestly, something I couldn’t afford at the time. It was a really nice stationary. I decided I was going to make it and sell it myself. Etsy was a new platform. Twitter was the thing at the time. I just took advantage of all of these free resources that I could to teach myself the ins and outs of starting a business, learning graphic design, selling online.

Emily Ley:
It wasn’t until my son was born in 2011 that I left my full-time job. I didn’t take a paycheck for two years, left my full-time job, finally took a paycheck and created the Simplified Planner. That came about because I was an overwhelmed mom trying to work and do life and love my family well. I needed a tool that would help me keep it all together, keep it in one place. It was with that product that things really started to take off. Now, we have an online store with over 150 products that are made to help women simplify their busy lives. We have licensed collections in Target, Office Depot, Staples and Walmart without a glance. I’ve written four, going on five, books to continue to build community around our products and educate the women that we are serving.

Quint Studer:
Let me ask you, because I’ve changed over the years because … Now, why you were doing this, I always tell people, sometimes you have to be an intrapreneur before you’re an entrepreneur.

Emily Ley:
Yeah.

Quint Studer:
At least, you just can’t quit if you’ve got people to see house payments to pay.

Emily Ley:
Right.

Quint Studer:
Sometimes, what we do in our current job, we improve our skillsets, what helps us in our current job, which helps us then be valuable to where we’re working while we’re developing the skills to take it on our own. I would say, the last three or four years when I was in hospital administration, I was doing things that eventually would help me in my own business but was helping them. While you were becoming a graphic designer and learning all these things, were you still working your other job?

Emily Ley:
Yeah. I was really passionate about the work that we were doing. I was really inspired by the women who were part of the program, who were doing amazing things in the community and my graphic design skills that I learned watching YouTube and all of those types of things, just Googling all the answers. They really helped me with event management and serving our alumni at the university. Yeah, I totally, wholeheartedly agree there.

Quint Studer:
Well, I think what’s also neat, again, being the entrepreneur in residence at University of West Florida, and I teach at Cornell and George Washington with young, aspiring people. I talk to them about the fact that, also, the closer you stayed at your strength, so if you look at what you were doing with women, with leadership, that’s really your customer you are going to have at Simplified. With me, I didn’t go out and start … nothing wrong with it, but I didn’t start a boat manufacturing company. I stayed in what I knew, which was lead an employee engagement, customer service. I think it’s really neat for people that are listening to realize, you really took and you work to your strengths, you worked to your skillset and you are passionate about it.

Emily Ley:
Right.

Quint Studer:
Tell people a bit, I know you threw it out there, but I’m just amazed at what you’ve done and being a teacher at one time, and I still think I’m a teacher, was taking complex things and keeping it simple. Tell us a little bit about what Simplified is. If I’m listening and I don’t know, now, it’s real, good. For people that are listening, they’re going to go to one of those stores you mentioned because I see your stuff all the time and I’m like “I know her. I heard her.” Tell the people that might not know, especially, our audiences, a lot of them, is the leaders. That’s my book, but it’s also a lot of people that work in healthcare, which are you routinely struggle with buying their life, balancing their life. Some of them can’t work out of home because they’re nurses, they’re doctors, they’re radiologists. Tell us a little bit about your products and how they benefit your customers.

Emily Ley:
Yeah. I have always had this knack for organization. I blame my mom. She was a teacher. For fun, we would reorganize the house when I was a kid, but I’ve always had this knack for organizing and for being able to look at a messy situation and say, “Okay, how can we sort through this and apply some structure and some routine and methodically make it more peaceful?” That has worked to my advantage in so many situations. It’s also gotten me in trouble because I struggle when things are really complicated, but I’ve taken that philosophy of, life doesn’t have to be so complicated and applied it to all areas of life that women, in all seasons, in all different careers, that they struggle with everything from meal planning, to finances, to scheduling your day, to motherhood.

Emily Ley:
I have a team of nine now. It used to be just me and my guest room, but now, it’s a team of nine. We’re all remote. We make products and day planners for women to help them really simplify their lives. I think, one of the things that’s always set Simplified apart from other companies like this, because there’s a lot of companies that make office supplies and agendas, is that we focus so much on building community over selling the product. We don’t just sell you a planner. We sell you a planner and then we provide you with coaching and education for 12 months for the life of the planner, so that you can really make change in your life and not just buy a pretty book that’s going to sit on your desk, right?

Emily Ley:
That’s the part of what I do that gets me the most excited is that we are not just selling a product. We’re building community. We’re educating women. We’re empowering them to look at their lives and say, “I can be better for my people, be better for my job, be better for myself if I implement a couple of these ideas that I’ve learned into place.”

Quint Studer:
Well, what I love about what you’re discussing is the fact that, and again, I know some venture capital firms had asked me to look at companies periodically. Some people could look up a planner and your other products and they think they’re transactional products.

Emily Ley:
Right.

Quint Studer:
They buy transaction. I’ve always felt transactional products have a short shelf life.

Emily Ley:
Right.

Quint Studer:
Simplified is more of relationship company, which also has tools and techniques that will make you more effective with you, because I think you create a community. People want to be part of your gang.

Emily Ley:
Right. Well, I think as a woman today, I mean men too but definitely women, we are managing and dealing with more than ever before, especially in 2020. Many of us have kids at home now. We’re trying to work and manage kids and all of that. I think women feel lonely. Thanks to social media and our modern world, we feel like every other woman has it completely together. We’re seeing all these highlight reels and we think every woman has got dinner on the table at six o’clock, she’s killing it at work, she’s got six inch heels and perfect hair and perfectly behaved kids. I have fallen victim to that as well of saying, “Why is my life messy and hard, and sometimes not very simplified when everyone else has it together?” That’s something we’ve really focused on, is connecting women.

Emily Ley:
We have a Facebook group that is so fantastic and positive and encouraging, where women share ideas and they post problems they’re having or pain points in their lives. Other women come alongside them and give them ideas. I really believe that has been our secret sauce. That community aspect has been what’s made us so successful.

Quint Studer:
I think for listeners out there that are starting businesses, growing businesses, you mentioned the keywords. What is the secret sauce? I think many companies got to figure out what is it? Why do people come to them? Why do they come back? I love what you’re doing with your essay creating. I would say community, because people would be lost in the communities today. What is my community? It’s interesting you talk about social media. I work a lot with people early on in recovering from addiction. One thing I do is tell them to stay off social media for awhile.

Emily Ley:
Absolutely.

Quint Studer:
They’re depressed. They’re going through a divorce. They’re destroyed. Everybody they look at, they think is, happy, happy, happy.

Emily Ley:
Right.

Quint Studer:
I used to like the papers that would show movie stars without makeup.

Emily Ley:
Right.

Quint Studer:
Us, goofy guys think that’s what they always look like and then they walk by and not even realize it. Tell us about your books. I’m very excited about your new book growing boldly. I love acronyms because people can remember them, so let’s talk about what drove you to your new book because I think it’s a little bit of a tweak on some of what you’ve done in the past.

Emily Ley:
It is. Excuse me. I was so excited about the topic of this book because I think, (a) we’re all growing. We’re growing every day whether we like it or not, but to grow boldly is intentional. This book is really about daring to build a life you love about dispelling the lie that where you are is as good as it gets. I actually turned the manuscript in one month before COVID-19 swept our world. That was exciting. I had no idea what life was going to look just shortly after turning that in, but what’s cool in going back and looking at the concepts inside, it’s also applicable. You can bloom in the driest of seasons. That is what I hope people will really take away from this book. It includes my stories of bold growth and also stories from women who have really gone up against hard stuff, tragedy, just really hard things and are still building incredible careers and family lives.

Emily Ley:
The entire book is framed or built around the framework of my build philosophy. What that is, it’s an acronym for B, believe in who you are, utilize what you have, imagine the life you want, lead with integrity and do what matters, forget the rest. It’s really broken down into a roadmap of, okay, let’s evaluate where you are and who you are, and let’s take a couple of really tactical steps to build a life that you want to have. It’s the first time I’ve really ever written about the real ins and outs of building a business from absolutely nothing, running a debt free company. We’ve been debt free for 12 years and having an all remote team who, literally, are like a second family to me. I’m so excited about it. It comes out early next year.

Quint Studer:
Well, it’s interesting because you said you didn’t take a paycheck for quite a bit. When I started my own company, my wife and I had … $60,000 is what we had in savings, which immediately went into our own company. You have that fear of failure. You have that fear of what’s going to happen. It’s really fascinating as you talk about that because sometimes when people see you later on down the road, they just think it was easy from the start.

Emily Ley:
Yeah.

Quint Studer:
They don’t realize how hard it was and how hard you work. You talk about audacity and you have to have audacity and courage. Just for me, tell me what you define as audacity. What do you mean by that?

Emily Ley:
Getting back up when you get knocked down, I mean, really looking, the hard things that will happen in business and in life and saying, “Okay, that was hard. This is part of my journey and I’m going to keep going.” Early on in our business … we’ve been in business for 12 years now, but very early on, like I said, I knew nothing about production or design. I was teaching myself. I was working with a manufacturer to make our first Simplified Planners. They delivered the giant pallet full of the new planners to my house. I pushed it up my driveway to get it into the garage, opened the first box and they were all wrong, 100% of them were wrong. I had to not only throw all of them away. I had to pay for the recycling company to come and pick them up. I lost $6,000, which $6,000 at the time might as well have been $6 million. It was all I had in my business bank account.

Emily Ley:
My husband, actually, was the one who looked at me and said, “Okay, are you going to quit or are you going to say, that is a lesson learned. I need to figure out exactly how to get the tabs on the planters right, and the pages and all the correct spots. I’m going to save up my money and I’m going to do it again.” It delayed the launch of those things for a while, but that, to me, is having the audacity to dare to do something. It would’ve been easy for me to have said, “Okay, I try my hardest. It didn’t work, and I need to just quit,” but having the courage to say, “I really want this. I really want this and I’m not going to let the obstacles stop me.”

Quint Studer:
What about when you look at that? You’re lucky because it’s so easy to quit, partially with COVID-19, all of bizarre. Talk about pivot because I think that’s, again, really hard because you’ve been around 12 years and I find a lot of times businesses, it’s really sort of like double messaging. You want to stay in your zone, but there’s times when the extra environment forces you to pivot for a while away from the zone and sometimes there are certain companies that end up, actually, the pivot is better than where they were at. Have you had to pivot a few times with your products?

Emily Ley:
Very few … Well, not very few. Very many times. Very many times, we have had to pivot. One of the biggest pivots for us, I thought, early on, in order to be successful, we needed to be bringing in the most amount of revenue, reaching the most amount of people, and so that meant going wholesale. We would travel to trade shows and exhibit our products. We were recognized with the best new product award in 2014, I believe, and earned the attention of a lot of stationary stores and boutique places like that. We found ourselves in 800 stores around the world. It sounded fantastic to say, but it was miserable to live.

Emily Ley:
I have three kids. I have an almost 10-year-old and five-year-old twins. At the time, my twins were infants. I found myself on 50 airplanes that year traveling to support the wholesale side of this company. I hit a wall at a certain point and said, “I cannot do this anymore.” We sat down and said, “If you look at that 80/20 rule that says, “The best of your income comes from 20% of what you’re doing,” we realized that by selling wholesale, we were taking 50% right off the top. Our margins were not as good as when we sold directly to customers. I was spending so much of my time managing the relationships with the store owners rather than the end user, which was not why we got started in the first place.

Emily Ley:
We did a very, very brave and very calculated thing. We cut Amazon. We cut our wholesale program entirely. We lost 40% of our revenue right off the top. 60% of our revenue was coming directly from our customers online. The 40% was coming from Amazon and wholesale, but I knew in my heart, I am a hard worker and I knew, if I can do the work I love, which is empowering and educating and inspiring women, then I bet we can sell more. We focused all of our attention on our online store and building that community and creating these tools. We doubled our revenue the next year from what it was the year prior.

Quint Studer:
No, I think what you’ve showed is, I do this a lot with people. People somehow think big is better and volume means profit. It’s not true either way. I’m always concerned when people think, I’m going to open up another this. I’m going to do another this. I’m going to add another product. From coaching a lot of entrepreneurs, I will tell you, when they come to me, my biggest thing I try to do is get them to narrow their scope. Narrow their scope, drive what you can do well and that’s, really, what you’ve done. How about for a tactical tool for someone that’s listening and they said, “If you could recommend one thing to me right now, do you have a favorite tool or a favorite technique that you sort of like”?

Emily Ley:
Yes. This is something that we started implementing just a couple of years ago. Like I said, we have nine team members. We’re all spread across the United States. Many of us are moms and have different schedules and that sort of thing. In order for us to all be remote, all work independently and all understand the expectations in place to run a successful company and brand, we implemented what we call batch planning. That is where we use a project management system online called, ASANA. It’s A-S-A-N-A. It’s wonderful. That’s home-based for us for everything.

Emily Ley:
During these batch planning days that happen twice a year, they are marathon zoom calls with all of our content creators on our team. We plan six months at a time. We plan every product launch, every marketing effort, every meeting, absolutely everything we can gets created in this project management system. Every task gets assigned an outline and given a due date. Every date is on the calendar. It is absolutely game changing for us to be able to work as independently as possible with different schedules and that sort of thing. Wholeheartedly, if your company is one that can do that sort of thing, it really has changed the game for us. I’m grateful that we started doing it a few years ago because when COVID-19 took over this in 2020, it really made a lot of difference because our lives got turned upside down. Yeah, batch planning, wholeheartedly recommended.

Quint Studer:
I would think of COVID-19, your product is even more necessary now than before because we have employees that have all sorts of things going on. They didn’t plan on from home offices to their teachers, to one day, the day care is open, the next day it’s close, to worrying about parents and all sorts of things. When you look at your messaging with COVID-19, tell me your message to people that are listening because I think what happened, Emily, Keith McFarland wrote a book years ago called, Breakthrough Company and I actually hired Keith when I own student or group because we had to decide, do we want to be a small giant, which is another good book or breakthrough company. We went with breakthrough company because we had so many young people that wanted opportunities to grow, but when you look at where you’re at, right now, he has a thing in this book that shows you get real excited, you’re all confident and then you hit this valley of despair.

Emily Ley:
Right.

Quint Studer:
Look upon COVID-19 right now and I thought I want to baseball. We might be delayed, but we’ll probably play in may. Gee, we had to cancel our fundraiser for early learning, but we can do it later. All of a sudden, it’s later and things are getting later and later and later. I talked to a major league baseball president two days ago and he’s already worried about the 2021 season.

Emily Ley:
Oh my goodness.

Quint Studer:
People that are in the valley of despair, right now, how does your book and your community in your neighborhood and your relationship building help me?

Emily Ley:
When this whole thing started, I saw a meme that went around the internet that said, “The worst purchase I made this year was a planner because all my plans got canceled.” I started getting a little nervous about what’s going to happen to us this year if we’re selling day planners and all their accessories. We have seen an uptick in sales because people have more to manage now than ever before. I would hope, if you are in that valley of despair, I would hope that you would maybe just take a step back from everything that’s going on right now and evaluate where you are and where you want to go and how you want to pivot or adjust things during this time. I think it’s an interesting time for all of us to slow down a little bit and do some reflection on life and how quickly the pace we had been moving at before all of this happened.

Emily Ley:
That’s the messaging that we are trying to communicate to our customers and followers and friends right now is that this is a unique time. It’s hard. We’re all struggling, but use it to your advantage if possible to really evaluate things and take a look at who you were pre all of this and who you’re going to be after.

Quint Studer:
You know what reminds me, Emily, when you look at what you do and your community that you’ve formed, sometimes we’re so busy working in life or living life that we don’t get to work on life. Truly, I think your tools help us both work in life, but they help us do the sort of work I like, which I think is really neat. Because you’re like and you’re saying, all of a sudden you’ve got a chance to grow. I tell people, “Shame on you if you don’t come out of this better because you have to study, to learn, to read and to get to know yourself a little bit.” How about remote? You worked remote from day one. Tell, for people that are listening, what are some of your tricks that you do to keep your remote workers connected to your neighborhood?

Emily Ley:
Yeah. We’ve always been remote. That’s always my gut check when things get complicated with business is, am I having the flexibility I want as a mom? That was why I started the company. That’s what I always want to have. I want to extend that to my all remote team as well. We’re like family, honestly. I once heard somebody say, “You shouldn’t be friends with your employees.” I think that’s super silly. They’re dear friends of mine. We have our kids’ birthdays on all of our calendars.

Emily Ley:
We have a team, a group text, that really just is how we stay connected on the day to day. We also use ASANA, which is great, but I really think it comes back to creating that culture as a team. For us, it’s a family-like culture. We take care of each other. When someone gets overwhelmed with all they have going on, someone else will step up. I really think nurturing that kind of a culture before you hit the valley when you’re on the mountain top is really important, so that you can be sustained and really make it through the tough spots.

Quint Studer:
Yeah, my generation screwed that up too because we didn’t want to get to know our employees. We threw these two myths out. When I do presentations, I talk about myths. One of the myths was, you have to balance reward and consequences, which is wrong.

Emily Ley:
Right.

Quint Studer:
It’s not one on one. It takes three compliments to one criticism for somebody to feel good, but the other one was, you have to separate your private, your work life and your personal life, which, again, was completely untrue-

Emily Ley:
Right.

Quint Studer:
… because they’re called gallop. The number one thing people want in their company is, they care about you as a human being.

Emily Ley:
Yeah.

Quint Studer:
Well, how can we, if you separate it? I think you’re absolutely right. Well, as we wrap up here, what are you doing to make you better? What are you doing? What are you curious about? What are you digging into to make you better? I just went through a two-day seminar out of Cincinnati, for example, because I’m very looking at my own self better.

Emily Ley:
Yeah.

Quint Studer:
I went through a two-day seminar, but what are you doing to sort of keep, as Stephen Covey would say, “Sharpen, your saw right now”?

Emily Ley:
Yeah. I love that. I got really interested early this year. It was, really, when I was writing Growing Boldly. I got really interested in the science behind why we think and do the things we do. How do we take care of ourselves, our bodies, our minds, so that we can be like an athlete, how can we take care of ourselves so we can be our best for all the things that we’re doing. I’ve been really interested in two things. One, wellness and taking care of myself and exercise and diet and that sort of thing, but I’ve been reading a lot in that area. I also have been very interested in the idea of Essentialism. That is a book by Greg McKeown that I read early this year that just changed my life. Fantastic book.

Emily Ley:
I also read Grit by Angela Duckworth. It’s all about having the grit and the gumption to do hard things, shapes your life and those around you. I’ve been, really, just interested in what makes people tick and what makes me my very best.

Quint Studer:
No, I think that’s exactly right. Because people look at you and they think, “Oh, she sees around corners. She knows what’s coming.” I think you do, but I think you do because you’re always learning.

Emily Ley:
Yeah. Absolutely.

Quint Studer:
I think all these students are friendly. As you know, I love you. I love your family.

Emily Ley:
Thank you.

Quint Studer:
It was cute to see our kids all dressed so cute yesterday getting ready for school.

Emily Ley:
Yes.

Quint Studer:
They can go to school. You’ve been such a great impactor on our community and other communities because in essence, you’re a citizen of almost anybody that reads your book because they’re doing your things in their community. I love what you said as if you chase purpose and do a purpose, the rest of things take care of itself.

Emily Ley:
Right.

Quint Studer:
Thank you so much for being in my life. We’re excited that you’ll be in action again this year because they only pick the very, very best. I don’t know if it’s that or not, but for our listeners, we’ll tell you a little bit more about on that. Emily, thank you so much for being with me today.

Emily Ley:
Thank you so much for having me. This was such a fun conversation.


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