Lunch With: AgileStyle co-owner Ashley Janssen meets with Angela Santiago
Two family-focused business minds discuss the need to delegate without abdicating
Lunch with … is a column for Alberta Venture. Every month, we ask a young executive to pick a person with whom he or she would like to talk business. The senior executive, if willing to act as mentor for an hour or so, gets to pick the place to eat. If you would like to participate, email Michael
by Michael Ganley
YOUNG EXEC: Ashley Janssen, co-owner, AgileStyle
HISTORY: After a few “stifling” years working in the civil service, Janssen joined her husband, Dana, in his website and software development business
NUMBER OF EMPLOYEES: Six
LUNCH: Filet mignon ‘Madagascar’ (medium rare, with cognac and green Madagascar peppercorns), iced tea, cappuccino
SENIOR EXEC: Angela Santiago, CEO of The Little Potato Company
HISTORY: Angela and her father founded TLPC in 1996 because her father couldn’t find the small, creamy potatoes he remembered from his youth in the Netherlands. TLPC now contracts with potato growers in six provinces and six U.S. states.
NUMBER OF EMPLOYEES: 145
LUNCH: Salade Maison (butter lettuce, artichoke hearts, tomatoes & goat cheese with balsamic vinaigrette), Crevettes A L’Indienne (shrimp flambé with cognac in a light curry cream sauce), San Pellegrino, coffee
Photograph Eugene Uhuad
Ashley Janssen is in business with her husband, Dana, and they have four employees. As their business grows, Janssen is struggling to figure out where she fits in the scheme of things. She’s wondering which of her roles she should hand off to someone else, and how to go about doing it. Angela Santiago, the CEO of The Little Potato Company, has been through it all. Not just the working-with-family bit, but the process of finding your niche – your sweet spot – in the business, and of making the most of your time and talent.
Santiago picks Gini’s Restaurant for lunch. It’s in a strip mall next to a roundabout, northwest of Edmonton’s downtown, and fronted by a burgundy awning. Janssen has met Santiago before, in passing. After the two order, Janssen explains her business, which was started by her husband seven years ago. He began building websites, but while the company still does that, it has shifted its focus to creating custom business tools – things like member management software or real-time reporting and accounting applications. And similar to Santiago’s move, AgileStyle is in the process shifting again, this time to proprietary software. “Right now we do three days a week on client stuff and two on our own projects,” says Janssen. “We hope someday our projects can pay the bills.”
Janssen joined the company four years ago, and the conversation with Santiago centres on their experiences of working with family. “Everyone asks me how I could work with my husband,” Janssen says. “It’s funny because in our space and even in our home office, we work side by side, so we’re constantly in the same space. But he’s easy to get along with.”
Santiago has had her share of family-business tribulations. She started TLPC in 1996 with her father, Jacob van der Schaff, who missed the small, creamy potatoes that he remembered from his youth in the Netherlands. Santiago’s husband, Frank, used to work in the business (before starting his own and taking a greater role on the home front) and her youngest brother, Joel van der Schaff, is getting more involved. “My husband and I worked well together because we had very different skill sets,” Santiago says, “but we had to set parameters for when we could talk about work and when we couldn’t. It got to where we would talk about business at Thanksgiving dinner, and then the family members who aren’t part of the business were kind of like, ‘Is there nothing else we can talk about?’ So we had to set rules about when we could talk about work and when not.”
“And for us, when it was just the two of us, we talked about work constantly,” Janssen says, jumping in. “We only started setting boundaries when we hired somebody, because our first employee came in at nine and left at five, so that’s how we started setting our days as well. That was three years ago. It was a good thing, getting more structure.”
For Santiago, the strain wasn’t limited to talking about business at inappropriate times.
As TLPC grew, she and her father frequently disagreed. “It took many years, many arguments, phone hang-ups,” she says. “It was a very difficult process to go through. As I got older, I understood a lot of my Dad’s passion was out of love. He wanted me to be successful, and he was afraid some of the direction I was taking the company was going to cause me pain.”
Santiago and her father have come to a happy equilibrium in terms of their roles in the company. She’s the CEO, responsible for all day-to-day operations and the big picture vision and planning. He’s in his sweet spot, working with the breeders and developing new kinds of potatoes (the company currently has six proprietary varieties). “In the last couple of years, we’ve have more of a father-daughter relationship,” she says.
When the food arrives, it becomes clear that Gini’s is an appropriate choice for a woman who has built an empire on the humble potato, for just like TLPC’s signature products, Gini’s meals belie its plain exterior. The filet mignon can be cut with a fork, the shrimp tantalizes.
Janssen wonders aloud about the need for more structure in her business as it grows. She thinks she needs to develop policies and procedures, to introduce a mission statement, and to better document the work AgileStyle does. Ultimately, she and Dana need to get their team more involved in the business side of things. “We direct them on their pieces of work,” she says, “but we don’t bring them in enough. As we grow, I think it’s even more valuable to have them involved in terms of buy-in.” She wants her team to understand, for instance, how and why they have to budget time on projects. She also wants to hand off certain roles as the company grows, but so far she’s hesitated, because, “nobody’s going to love your business like you love your business,” she says.
Santiago begs to differ. “Many years ago, I came across The Rockefeller Habits, by Vern Harnish,” she says. Among other things, that book recommends that entrepreneurs share not just a vision, but details about the company’s performance with employees, to encourage accountability and commitment to the company’s objectives. “That book transformed my approach to transparency and engagement,” she says. Now, at quarterly meetings, Santiago shares targets and details on whether or not they’re being met not only with her leadership team but with all salaried employees.
Most importantly, with that transparency has come a renewed commitment from staff. “There are now numerous people in our company that are as passionate and love it as much as I do, and a lot of it came from sharing the vision and purpose of the company,” she says. “People want something other than going to work and punching the clock. They want to know why their doing it. When you can start answering that for them and be transparent about how the company is progressing to that, it was profound.”
Santiago then asks Janssen the question that is always on an entrepreneur’s lips: “What are your biggest challenges right now?”
“It’s being too heavily in the business, of being stuck in the day to day,” Janssen says. “We’re working too much in the business and not enough on it.”
“You’ll go through this at numerous times,” Santiago says. “It’s not just startups. We’re going through it again now. We’re trying as an executive to let go of stuff and allow middle management to take care of it. We used to know where everything shipped and if things didn’t get to the plant, but we’re at a point where it’s actually detrimental to the company if the executive knows that many details.”
Santiago says she surrounds herself with experienced people and then trusts them to take care of their area of responsibility. The approach has allowed her to narrow her focus to reflect her skill sets and her preferences. “You have to find where the greatest value of you is for the company,” Santiago says. At the same time, delegation does not equal abdication. “Just because I don’t like to look at financial statements doesn’t mean I shouldn’t know how to read them. It’s the same with growing potatoes. I’m not a farmer but I need to know the basics of how they’re grown. I need to know enough to be able to challenge every team member, to ask the right questions.”