Sarah Olivieri shares her amazing and inspirational entrepreneurial journey. Listen to advice, follow your own plan, and focus — that’s your recipe for success. Simple. Not easy. Super insightful for business owners and nonprofits alike!If you want to be able to retire or take a vacation, you have to build a business that has other people in it, even if it's a small team or it's all outsourced. No one brain can do it all. #podcast #Womeninbusiness Click To Tweet
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Meet Sarah Olivieri
Sarah Olivieri is a nonprofit strategist with a passion for helping organizations thrive in the digital age.
The founder of PivotGround, Sarah helps human-service nonprofits increase capacity, deliver better programming, attract more funding, and make the world a better place. She is the creator of the Impact Method™ – a business framework for nonprofits designed to help nonprofits thrive in the digital age.
She has over 15 years of nonprofit leadership. Sarah co-founded the Open Center for Autism and was the executive director of the Helping Children of War Foundation. She is also a published author whom co-wrote Lesson Planning a la Carte: Integrated Planning for Students with Special Needs.
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Transcript: Listen, Plan & Focus with Sarah Olivieri
Hello and welcome to the Women Conquer Business Podcast. I’m your host, Jen McFarland.
This week, we’re joined by Sarah Olivieri. She shares her amazing and inspirational entrepreneurial journey. Listen to advice, follow your own plan, and focus. That’s your recipe for success.
It’s simple, not easy. All that and more, here on Women Conquer Business.
[music] Hello and welcome to the Women Conquer Business Podcast, featuring discussions with your host, Jen McFarland. Every week, I discuss a different aspect of building a business while balancing it with an incredibly busy life. I share experiences, successes, and failures, and answer questions submitted by you, the listener. Thanks for tuning in. Let’s get started. [music]
Sarah Olivieri is a nonprofit strategist with a passion for helping organizations thrive in the digital age. The founder of PivotGround, Sarah helps human service nonprofits increase capacity, deliver better programming, attract more funding, and make the world a better place. She is the creator of the impact method, a business framework for nonprofits, designed to help nonprofits thrive in the digital age. She has over 15 years of nonprofit leadership experience. Sarah co-founded the Open Center for Autism and was the executive director of the Helping Children of War Foundation. She is also a published author who wrote Lesson Planning a La Carte: Integrated Planning for Students with Special Needs. Please welcome Sarah to the show.
I always love meeting women business founders. Would you mind sharing a little bit about how you got where you are today?
Sure. Well, I feel like, in some way, where I am today is kind of the journey of my life, all leading up to where I am. I’m pretty happy where I am today. But I started off working in nonprofits as an executive director, deputy director, program director. And then I had picked up building websites on the side, back in 2003. So when the economy crashed, I was leaning on building websites, and then doing digital marketing for small business to make money. And really, at that point, it took me awhile before I said like, “This is my business.” My husband at the time had started a media company, a video production company, and I helped get that business started. And then he started a art supply store and cafe business. I helped get that going. And around that time, I was ready to turn my kind of digital marketing and website work into an agency model and move away from being a freelancer. And I learned quite a bit about business at that point. But I needed to learn more. And so I enrolled in kind of mastermind group for business owners who own web agencies. And from there, I started to grow what is now Pivot Ground.
Well, I think that is so exciting. Can you share just a little bit about some of the things that you learned along the way, especially when you’re like, “I really need to make this into a business.”?
So one of the first things I learned as I really started to get better was that there’s a lot of great business advice out there. Running a business is hard, but it’s not rocket science. And literally, there are books that will tell you exactly what you need to do. It’s following the advice that’s the hard part. And so I learned a lesson. When I learned that lesson, I realized that you really need intention. Sometimes I refer to it as fidelity. You make the plan or get the advice or you say, “I’m going to try this thing.” And you’ve got to really do it. You got to put in the work. Previously in running nonprofits, and I had founded a nonprofit, I had learned this really important lesson of [iteration?]. Stay in the game. Don’t give up. You’ll make mistakes. It’s never going to be perfect. But I had learned that the only way I knew that kind of led towards success consistently was you just keep trying and learning from your mistakes and your successes and you try again. So early on, I’d learned this. Just keep trying but make sure you learn from your mistakes and try again. Kind of halfway through my journey, I learned this piece. Really follow that advice, really kind of put in the racks, do the work of following your own plan.
And then it was after the cafe, arts supply store, during that period of my life, I decided to leave my husband. We had a son together. Our son was two and a half at the time, I believe. And I had just enrolled in this mastermind course. And there was a lesson in the mastermind course that taught us that we really needed to hire other people, that basically– hopefully, if you’re in the audience and you’re a solopreneur, just ground yourself for a second because what I’m about to say is you cannot be a solopreneur or a freelancer and really create a business that will exist when you go to sleep or you take a vacation. And so if you want to be able to not have sort of real income to retire on or be able to take a vacation, you have to build a business that has other people in it, even if it’s a small team or it’s all outsourced, you need help. No one brain can do it all.
So I had learned that lesson. And in the same day, basically, I’d had a divorce mediation session where I was sent home with some homework to fill out what I proposed our parenting schedule to be, basically the time that we were going to share, that I would have my son and that my ex would have our son. And I had filled that out, and then I just kind of reversed the calculations and said, “If I want to spend all of this time, which is now less than I used to have, with my son, how much time do I have to work in the week?” And it came out to 28 and a half hours. And so I knew– I gained this focus that I knew I needed a business that was fulfilling to me because everybody should have a business that they enjoy doing. And for me, that was helping nonprofits, make the most of what they could do. It’s what my background was in. And I knew that as I was sharing custody with my ex but financially I was a single mom, and so I knew I needed to make a certain amount of money. We had been very poor while I was married, and we had no savings, so I needed to be able to build up a savings, a retirement plan as well.
And so at the time I calculated, I needed to pull out of my business for my own income roughly $120,000 a year. And so I’m going to help nonprofits. I have to pull out of my business $120,000 a year. And I can’t work more than 28 and a half hours a week. And that I realized people talk about you need focus, and that’s the third ingredient to me, to being successful, is you need to have really specific focus. And the more specific you get, the more you will start moving forward. And so for me, it was really not just the what I’m going to do and how much money that business needs to generate, but how much time I personally have to invest in it. And that gave me that find a really clear focus to start building what is now PivotGround.
I got so much from that story. I’m kind of just spinning. That is such an amazing story. And you made it work.
Power of a mother, maybe. It was not the hardest of times. I’m a very positive person. I always feel like I have it lucky. But the reality of that time was I was kind of restarting a business. I was really making a business this time instead of being a freelancer. Because I was getting divorced. I was being a mom to my little son and trying to help him through that. I moved four times, and I had to take over the business that my husband had started because it was failing and he wanted out and didn’t know how to get out. And because I was a co-owner, I didn’t want that liability. That business at the time was losing money and $18,000 in debt. So I had to recover, liquidating that business, finding how to get out of it, get it to stop losing money, pay the $18,000 in debts. So it was below ground zero for starting a business and grow out of that. Sometimes I think back the way it felt, I would say I have no idea how I did that, but I did. But I do know how I did that thinking back on it. It’s because I had those three ingredients, that really clear focus. I stuck to the plans. I followed the advice that people told me to do. And I had the iteration. I knew I was just going to keep trying and keep learning from my mistakes and not let failures get me down but use them as stepping stones to moving forward.
I mean, I think that that sounds great. And I’m staring right now at the process page on pivotground.com, and it says, “Introducing the impact method.” And it sounds like in some ways, you were the first person to go through the impact method. Well, you optimized what you’re going to do. You had a lot of clarity. Because it says, “Optimize, organize, and thrive.” So I wonder if you wanted to speak a little bit to that method and maybe how you developed that.
Absolutely. So yeah. I had learned those three things and then in one of the pieces of good information, something they told me about, was there were some business frameworks out there, and I learned them. One is called EOS, entrepreneurial operating system. That helped me in a lot of ways, but it was kind of for bigger companies and didn’t help me deal with the day-to-day. I learned another framework by Todd Herman called The 90 Day Year. That helped me understand how to translate something I knew about from the web, like an Agile iterative framework but to apply it to running a service space business day-to-day. And I did a lot of business reading. I read about– I’m going to blank on it. Google uses it. It’s just another framework for setting goals and making decisions and moving forward. And so I was piecing together these business frameworks to help me understand my own business and make better decisions.
And at that time, PivotGround was focused on doing marketing for nonprofits. I believe in transparency. It’s one of our core values at PivotGround. We say collaboration and transparency is the cornerstone to our success. And so I was sharing what I was doing for my own business with some of my clients. And one client asked if I would come and train their staff in some of this stuff that I had figured out. And so at that time, I did it. I loved it. I was like, “Wow. This could be maybe my job because I love helping people figure this out. But I was a really reluctant consultant, just sharing my advice and my knowledge I like make a change on a systemic level. So [instead?], how can I put a framework around this for nonprofits and I can teach them and help them come to these decisions? [inaudible] these frameworks that help me. So I piece together– I had these frameworks I was using but none of them really addressed a few key things that are different about nonprofits, one of which is there tend to be more people in a nonprofit for its size compared to a for-profit. So even the tiniest, teeniest, start-up nonprofit has a board of directors and usually, by law, that’s a minimum of three people. So if you can imagine a start-up with three partners– if you’ve heard stories of start-ups having three business partners, it’s usually– doesn’t work. So nonprofits need a lot of support when that optimization piece– that’s sticking to the plan piece for one person. All you need to do really optimize your time is have that intention, have that fidelity. But to optimize a team, working together takes more.
And so I started really doing a lot of thinking about how can we help nonprofits optimize their teams and handle this larger network of people that they have to deal with. And I also really started thinking about because a for-profit– yes, you might be socially-driven, but at the end of the day, you can basically look at your profit margin and know how efficient you are as an organization. And nonprofits are mission-driven. That profit margin just kind of tells them how much additional money they need to raise. It’s not as meaningful. And so I start to really dig into how can we be mission-driven and be thinking about what is our return on investment? That the return is mission, not money. And so it’s really digging into this problem, and so I built this planning framework that’s focused on mission and how we’re achieving that and started to put some numbers and some kind of qualitative data, just stories around like, “Are we succeeding? Are we moving forward? Are we running experiments and seeing if they work or not?” I think that’s something a lot of nonprofits are afraid to be because there’s so much pressure that if they spend a dollar, it should work, right? But that’s not how the real world works. You try it and if it works, you do more of it. And if doesn’t, you’ll be like, “Okay. I’m not going to try that again.” And nobody gives you a hard time about that in a for-profit business. So nonprofits are really kind of [forwarded?] that way.
And so basically, yes. These three things that I had learned about success, influenced by a lot of other frameworks I had learned, I put together and added what was missing and created the impact method. But it is based– I want nonprofits to experience success and I want their leaders to feel success. So to me, that is thriving nonprofit and it means you’re achieving your mission but with more ease that you’re used to. Nonprofit leaders shouldn’t be martyring themselves. They shouldn’t be paying themselves such a low wage that they’re in poverty themselves. They shouldn’t be opening up their veins and bleeding for their nonprofit until they’re completely burned out. There is a better way. For-profit businesses are doing it, and it’s time nonprofits to really push and be amazing in that way.
I couldn’t agree more. I’m on a board for a nonprofit. I think it’s very rewarding work. And I can also see that burnout factor being something that you have to look out for. And so here’s the thing. So my nonprofit that I’m on is very unique. It’s been around for 70 years. This will be our 71st year. And it’s all volunteer. So there’s a lot about what I do, the board I’m on, that’s very unique.
But the thing that we’re always trying to do and when I have worked at nonprofits and led them myself, it seems to be a pretty universal thing, right? Which is how do you get more done at your nonprofit without spending more money?
Yeah. So I think there’s two kinds of sides to this story. And I’m often saying money is not really your biggest problem. So one piece is you need to optimize your capacity. You need to be able to do more with the resources you have now. And the bulk of those resources are usually people. They are the human beings who are fueling your nonprofit. So we use a few tools in the impact method that help us do this, one of which is called the nonprofit blueprint, and it helps you map out the functions that need to happen for your nonprofit to exist. And then, once we really understand those functions, we can kind of break them down. What are the three to five core things that need to happen in order for that function to be successful? And only at that point then we then think about making somebody accountable for that. But what’s really different– so an example of an accountability versus not an accountability. So not an accountability would be answer the phones. That’s just a task. The core accountability of answering the phones is ensure that people who reach out to contact us can reach somebody. They actually can communicate and have two-way communication. So if you just tell somebody, assign somebody, “You’re in charge of answering the phones.”, they can’t optimize that [seat?] better. But if you tell them, “You’re in charge of making sure that when people reach out to us, we talk back to them.” Then, you can completely own that seat and say, “Okay. Should we be– is phones the best way. Are people trying to maybe reach us through the internet and we haven’t set-up a chatbot on our website? Or we’re not engaging”– there’s studies of a lot of non-profits actually. They set-up Facebook pages and then they don’t monitor when people message them on Facebook ever. So if you own the seat of knowing that the core purpose of answering the phone is to make sure that when people reach out that you talk back to them then you can kind of hack that function. And say, “Given the current context of the world and what we’re capable of doing in our non-profit, how can we make this function better so that people who reach out we talk back to them right away.” So when we start to think about our non-profits like that and when we write it down– it sounds so simple and yet it’s so hard [laughter]. If you’re working with a team, you have to write it down and you have to write it down clearly so that somebody can learn quickly. And that tool, the non-profit blueprint, we have a blog post on our website and we have a template that you can just download for free. So that’s one of the things that we do that really helps with leveraging people. I think the other story about money is that non-profits are always worried about the money that they may or may not spend. The money that might be coming out of their bank account next. But what’s happening usually is by not taking action, they are losing lots of money. So here’s some ways that you can lose money by not taking action. If you don’t pay– I’d like to just shout out to my friend Mazerine. Wild women fundraising [inaudible]. We were just having this conversation this morning.
Studies show if you don’t pay your fundraising professional enough, you will lose them. Whenever you have to replace your fundraising professional, I think she said– don’t quote me on this because I’m doing this from memory– it costs 110% of their salary to replace them. So you just lost 10% right there in the process of replacing them. And if you continue then you say you pay the next person still not enough to keep them around, you’ll lose another 10% and this is going to go up exponentially as you keep doing this. So you are losing people because you paid them too little. And that is costing you more than it would have cost you to pay them more in the first place. So that’s one example of losing money by not taking action. Another example is we might have a lot of volunteers. We might pay a bunch of people small amounts to do little bits of jobs and that can actually be extremely inefficient. We might be afraid to just hire someone for that full-time position but if we did, we’d probably be saving money in the long run. Not taking professional fundraising seriously, you could be missing out on hundreds of thousands of dollars a year because you’re not willing to bite the bullet and invest in a real professional fundraising function for your non-profit. I don’t know maybe you want to add if you have another example. Those are the ones that are coming to mind right now. There are many of them [laughter].
And I think that some of it is there’s always this fear that if you spend the money, how are you going to be sure that you replace it. There seems to be this real scarcity mindset in the non-profit world about wanting to really hold on to money.
Yeah, absolutely I always say if you ask a non-profit about– they always think about spending money as just flushing down the toilet. And nobody in a for-profit business thinks that and for-profits, they go, “Okay, if I’m spending money, I should be getting back some value that is worth more than the money that I’m spending” and non-profits really need to start thinking that way. And I don’t want anybody in a non-profit to think that– it’s not your fault completely [laughter]. Part of the problem is that a lot of foundations for a long time, were telling non-profits, and many still are, that we won’t pay for, they use this word, overhead. I like to use the word operations because then it’s crystal clear that if you don’t have operations, you don’t operate. End of non-profit. No more mission delivery [laughter]. They called it overhead and they said, “We only want money to go directly to the final outcome and you shouldn’t spend any of it on this overhead stuff” and that really sorted non-profit’s ability to function at all and I think it fuels that kind of scarcity mindset. Also, a lot of foundations, the pressure is if we– and I think people put this pressure on themselves or donors do, if I give you a dollar, make sure that that dollar results in something successful, and so non-profits are not usually getting the message. I’m going to give you a dollar to run some experiments and hopefully you will learn something that will take you to the next level. They’re not getting that message from people who are giving them money and that’s another reason why I think there is such a scarcity mindset because there’s always this pressure. The only choice is to succeed. But we really can only succeed through experimentation especially, I don’t know a non-profit that isn’t trying to solve a problem that’s near impossible to solve.
Absolutely. I mean, the missions are usually very big for a non-profit.
If they were easy there probably would be no need for a [laughter] non-profit to solve them. They would have been solved already.
That’s right [laughter]. That’s right. And-
So if I say no to your mission, it’s impossible to achieve, I’m going to give you some money but it has to be successful. No experiments, please. No failure [laughter]. Oh, and by the way, you can’t pay yourself with it and you can’t actually have any infrastructure. Go for it.
Wow, that sounds awesome. Please give me more money for that [laughter].
So, okay. No, I have felt all of that and I so appreciate you putting in terms that I think everybody can understand. Kind of that angst and pressure of money and scarcity and the fact that we all have to try things and invest in ourselves as just humans and we don’t always get it right.
Yeah. In fact, probably 99.9% of the time, you’re going to get it mostly wrong.
And then you’ll get it a little bit right and then that leaves you to getting it a little bit more right and then a little more right and you’ll kind of hone in over time. Which [inaudible] I’ll just share, when I name Pivot Ground, from a business perspective, I had had the business name of my last name, Olivieri’s Inc., and I knew I wanted a name that wasn’t my name because I wanted to create a business that I could sell or that would grown beyond me so that I could eventually slow down or stop or something and then it wouldn’t negatively impact my business. So I went about thinking of a name and I came up with Pivot Ground and what it means to me is it is that safe space where you can look around, think about where you want to go, and then make the decision to pivot or point in that new direction and start going that way.
I love that. I think that that’s so great. And I love all of the things that you work on. The visual planning, agile action plans, I mean, I’m a tech-nerd so of course, I’m like, “Oh, agile for non-profit stuff. So sexy. Yeah.” And then clear messaging, easy automations, and on-call expertise, I think that for the non-profit that I am on the board of, it’s the clear messaging that is so hard. We do such great work and yet when I go to explain it to a human [laughter], it comes out so weird and they’re like, “I don’t understand” and I’m like, “Yeah. I don’t even know what I just said, but it’s really awesome so you should come to our event [laughter].”
Yeah. I’ll give you a tip of advice for everybody who’s doing that, and this is true I think in for-profit businesses a bit, is to me, that is a branding problem, right? So people get branding and marketing confused a lot, but branding is where you get your key messaging from and marketing takes that key-messaging and runs with it to get people to feel a certain way or do a certain thing. But especially for non-profits, branding starts with your core values. So it’s easy to tell people what you’re mission is, the issue you’re trying to solve, but how do they know why you’re special? They just know that you’re trying to solve a hard issue at that point. And your core value should define your MO, how do you move in the world? How do you operate? So for example, caring, caregiving. That’s kind of one people like, “Oh, yeah. We all caregive people.” Imagine a debt collector. A debt collector could attempt to do debt collections in a caring way or they could have a fearful way [laughter] and that they do it, and that comes from their core value. So once you really understand your core values, you can start to understand this is how we operate. This is how we move and navigate the world. What kind of key messages say not just what we’re doing but how we’re doing it in a way that reflects those core values, but once you get to that point, you need a branding professional. You can’t be your own therapist. It’s really hard [laughter] to do your own branding. I hire other people to help me with branding and copywriting. I mean, when clients work with us they’re like, “Yeah, we’re not going to build your website unless we do the copywriting because it’s so hard to write about yourself.” And when I needed to write about myself I hired a copywriter [laughter].
Oh, me too.
Because it’s [just?] really hard.
So plan to invest in that help and it might sound stupid expensive to hire a good brander, but the value that you will get from having messaging that really speaks to people will pay for itself hundreds and hundreds of times over.
I agree. You’ll start to get more of the exact people that you want with the problem that you solve.
I mean, there’s so few places where there are a lot of touch-points between business and non-profits, and yet, I mean, messaging is a big part of for-profit and non-profit. And I worked in the public sector and I honestly, think that they need to work on their messaging a lot in government too [laughter].
That’s a whole separate discussion. That would be a whole different podcast.
And [people don’t?]–
People hear branding and they often jump right to logo and the visuals. And visuals are really important in the for-profit space, especially if you have a physical product but for nonprofits because the mission’s usually so compelling itself, visuals help but it’s messaging part of branding that is what nonprofits really, really need. You can get great messaging and worry about your visuals later. You can have medium/okay visuals. Eventually, as it starts to pay off, you can up-level your visual communication. So when I say branding, I just want to make sure people really realize this messaging piece. Because if you think about how do we receive communication, we can hear messaging or read it. We can communicate visually, that’s why visuals are part of branding. Auditory, right? People [inaudible]– it’s just not who they are, what they represent, but you might have a familiar voice. There’s lots of way some people learn. Kinesthetically. But basically, language is our number one– language and visuals are a top two. And language is key for nonprofits.
Absolutely. So can I ask– well, so I think I did a podcast recently on branding and I said the same thing. It’s not your logo. Don’t describe your logo. And it’s not your website. Don’t describe the buttons you have on your website. It’s how you make people feel. Branding is how you make people feel and that’s through messaging and all of the different ways that you are connecting with people. And it’s also the experience that you give them once they’re a part of whatever it is that you do. So yeah, branding is so complex, and I agree that whether you’re a business or a nonprofit, you really need to talk to somebody so that you can get the messaging down, understand everything about your brand, and make those connections. Otherwise, it’s hard to do the human-to-human contact whether you’re doing fundraising or putting an event and trying to get people to go to it.
Absolutely. I mean, if you don’t have that right, everything else will be infinitely harder.
Yeah. Because people are confused, and they’re not going to want to give you money.
Right. Branding, right? It’s very closely linked to our core values. Your core values, then, also play a role in optimizing your capacity. Because one, they give a guide to people, decision-making guides, that they can make decisions on their own without going to the executive director of their board and they know they’ll be in alignment with the organization. And they also create a guide for you to hire and fire or bring on volunteers or a lack of volunteers, or even deal with major donors. You want to hire people who already share the majority of your core values so you have an aligned team. And an aligned team is a much more efficient team than an unaligned team. [inaudible] can imagine a boat, right? A rowboat. If one person’s rowing a different way, that boat is not going to move as fast. But if everybody is rowing in the same way, it will move much faster. So core values are key to branding.
And another way we address branding in strategy is if you look at our site, you’ll see part of the impact methods, what we call an impact strategy. And I do a fair amount of teaching around goal setting, and I break goals into three types of goals. Two of those are outcome goals, meaning you want somebody else to do something, but you can’t actually force them to do it. You have to do something else that will hopefully have the results of them doing it. And so I break those outcome goals into impact goals, something you want somebody to do, an action you want them to take, or a new state you want them to be in. So a homeless person no longer homeless. And then the other type of outcome is how you want somebody to think or feel, and we call those perception goals. And as soon as you land on a perception goal, then, ding ding ding ding ding, branding time. So big clue there.
If you want to get homeless people unhomeless, first you need homeless to feel that they can trust showing up at your door. I do a lot of work around marketing to homeless. I’m thinking about marketing to homeless people, so I can tell you homeless people have a lot of trust issues and for a reason, probably. So gaining people’s trust is often a really important step for fulfilling your services directly if your human service. Same for donors, right? Before they will give to you, that would an impact goal, they need to believe something about you or your mission or what you’re going to do with the money or the journey that they’re going to buy by giving you this donation. They’re going to be joining your journey. They need to believe that first.
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[music] Thanks for listening to the Women Conquer Business Podcast. You can find us online at www.jenmcfarland.com/podcast. You can also connect with Jen on social media @jensmcfarland on Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIn. This show is produced in Portland, Oregon by Jen McFarland Consulting. Women Conquer Business is available on iTunes, Google Podcasts, Spotify, and many other podcast apps. [music]
Jen McFarland ditched her comfy C-suite tech project management job in pursuit of freedom. Jen’s goal is to help business leaders like you vet ideas, take ownership of their projects, and incorporate digital marketing from day one.
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