First of all, how are you and your family doing in these COVID-19 times?
Kim Melillo: Thank you for asking. Like many female business leaders, at the beginning of the pandemic, I vacillated between feeling like I have superhuman strength and not knowing which way was up—but as our New Normal becomes less new and more normal, I’m finding a deep resilience that seems to supersede the apparent impossibility of the day-to-day.
Firstly, I highly recommend Costco’s pre-made dinners.
In all seriousness, my family, my company and I are all coping because we’ve allowed ourselves to shift expectations, to respond to our current needs, and to use this as a time to foster creativity and responsive growth.
In my role as a business leader, this tumultuous moment has called on all the tools in my kit that I have collecting over the years. It turns out, those difficult times that were woven into my life were actually there to cultivate a power that I’ve now been able to call into action in full force. Of course, great leadership always matters but never is it more important than in moments of turbulence. I’ve been delving into the depths of how to show up for this task in a way that prioritizes care, kindness, and creativity.
I believe in a leadership that concerns itself with the human element, and at this moment, that means understanding that this is in no way business as usual for anyone. People are afraid for their health, economic security, and the safety of their communities. True leadership has to understand that. Part of my current journey is practicing leadership that listens, which knows that we are ultimately dealing with individuals’ lives, each with its own unique set of challenges to face and gifts to offer.
I also believe that true leadership prioritizes creativity; it is a leadership that is not afraid to admit when it is wrong or uncertain, and that sees the value in innovation. It is also leadership that can pivot on a dime. It’s never been more important to have quick feet. As Margaret Wheatley said, “The things we fear most in organizations – fluctuations, disturbances, imbalances – are the primary sources of creativity.”
That’s really where I’m at right now: putting into practice my long held beliefs of how to be an effective leader not only when things are smooth sailing, but when the going gets tough.
At home, there are two concurrent family-related challenges that I am experiencing, and I imagine many women business leaders are finding themselves in the center of these as well. The first is negotiating the emotional needs of my family, and the second is navigating what feels like the most complex time management conundrum a person could ever be faced with.
I have two teenagers. I often imagine that, if we as adults find a socially-distant world hard, it’s difficult to even fathom what they might be experiencing. As if being a teenager wasn’t hard enough, they have been placed right in the center of a Venn diagram where an uncertain future, isolation, and sheer boredom meet. I am a leader in my home as much as I am in our company. I have to be a motivating force to them. I have to show them that there is hope. I have to lead by example in a way that lets them understand the beauty of resilience, all the while negotiating my own anxiety around an uncertain future for all of us.
As I am sure is the case with many families at the moment, striking a new balance has been hard. While this period has called on me to dig in even deeper, work even harder, and spend even more time searching for solutions for our business, the rest of my family is faced with more extra time on their hands than they have ever been used to. The vacuum that has been left behind by the cancellation of the routines of school and extra-curricular activities screams loudly through our house. This is coupled with the fact that my partner who works in sales has more time on his hands than usual—no business lunches, no going on the road, no hopping from one city to another. We have been left with a house full of people with a whole lot less to do—with me being the complete exception to the rule, of course.
Learning the steps to this dance is difficult, and often just as we think we have it down, it feels as if they change the song—but rather than suffer overwhelm, we’ve used this time to have the big conversations about the times we are in and to collectively navigate our shared grief.
Strong communication is everything. We need to recognize this moment we are in and talk about it. To find any comfort in this discomfort, we must be able to say, “Whoah. Isn’t this difficult?” We have to know that we are struggling through this together, not because of any faults of our own but because This. Is. Hard.
Some days I feel as if I’m getting none of it right. My kids are a confusing mixture of distraught and bored. I don’t feel as if I’m doing enough for them or my husband, and my work life feels overwhelming. I am learning, however, do not take this on myself. This is not because of anything I have done wrong or because I am not enough. It is simply the negotiation of the challenge we have been faced with.
This is an opportunity to create threads of resilience, in ourselves, our businesses, and our families. We are called to tackle the task head-on in a brave, open, and honest way.
Tell us about you, your career, how you founded Sure Oak.
Kim Melillo: I have been an entrepreneur for as long as I can remember. From running a profitable sucker-making business in Grade 7 that turned over a whopping $200 a week to roping my friends into teenage business schemes with festive names like The Sunshine Club, being an entrepreneur, is utterly intertwined with my identity.
To be born with an entrepreneurial spirit is both a blessing and a curse. While it offers you a lifetime of adventure, it is also known to unleash absolute fury if you ignore it for even a moment. As the magnificent poet, Mary Oliver said, “The most regretful people on earth are those who felt the call to creative work, who felt their own creative power restive and uprising and gave to it neither power nor time.” I see entrepreneurship as a creative pursuit—one that I would only abandon at my own peril. Entrepreneurship, for me, is not simply about making money. It is about finding solutions to the world’s problems. It’s about creating things that were never there before and fulfilling the needs that are expressed when the world cries out.
If you can believe it, I started out as a competitive gymnast. While perhaps not the most conventional start for a business leader, it engendered two of my most prized attributes: flexibility (although now of a different sort) and an indomitable work ethic.
When I injured myself at the age of 12 and was no longer able to compete, I poured myself into productive activities. All my favorite books were about how to be successful businessperson, even then. I held down a plethora of jobs simultaneously during my middle school years. From nannying to working in both a movie theater and t-shirt shop simultaneously before I was of legal age, I simply never stopped. This drive led to the opportunity to be the editor of my high school newspaper and having a column in the city newspaper — and finally to the life-altering opportunity of interning, while still in high school, at an advertising agency.
I accepted a full-ride scholarship to a college an hour away from my hometown in Idaho, but I couldn’t shake the lure of the big city and all the opportunity that awaited there. So instead of taking the easy, well laid-out path, I persuaded my parents to let me hit the road to Los Angeles — with $300 in my pocket, a bag full of dreams, and Janet Jackson’s “Control” blaring through the stereo. I made my own way through college, working in various capacities to gain work experience and pay my bills. A non-linear academic path ended with a degree in Business Management and Marketing — and a freelance position doing the newsletter for the largest golf course management company in the world. With 350 golf courses, American Golf was thriving in a burgeoning (and completely male-dominated) industry. The journey with American Golf was one that shaped much of my career — but while it was fulfilling in many ways, that entrepreneurial spirit of mine would not rest. So I did what every overworked person should (never) do, and started working on developing my next company as a side-hustle out of my house, late nights and weekends, with a tiny baby daughter attached to my hip.
My agency InOne Advertising quickly turned into my main hustle, and I was able to leave my job to focus on it. After year-over-year growth, I sold it in 2004 for the reason that many women end up dead-ending professional projects that they still care about: work-life balance and the fact that too often, it can be a complete fallacy. The thing was, I was pregnant with my second child and, not only did I want to focus on my role as a mother in a more intentional way and not repeat my last mistake of bypassing any maternity leave at all, but the doctor had also put me on bed rest for five months. My company simply was not going to last through having an inactive leader for that long. I spent my newfound “extra” time focusing on passion projects — of course, starting other side-hustles, first a B&B in the bucolic North Fork of Long Island, NY, and, later, an organic gardening business.
This, I was to learn, was only the beginning of descent towards the darkest time in my personal and professional life. After having given up my business to focus more on family life, I found myself amid a divorce that did its best to try to destroy me both financially and emotionally. As a now-single mom, I simply couldn’t spend adequate time and capital getting a new business off the ground. I had to reinvent and get back to a more regular “job.”
After some time commuting to Los Angeles to work with American Golf again, collaborating on developing a philanthropic marketplace called The Network of Giving, and finding my forever husband, I somewhat serendipitously connected with Sure Oak.
I’m a firm believer in visualization. When we decide what we want in life—if we think about it and turn our focus to it, and if we’re willing to put in the work to make it happen—the universe concedes. There is enormous power in intention.
And that is why shortly before Sure Oak came into my life, and I began building myself a home office “she-shed” so that I could start working from home. I wasn’t quite sure what I was going to be doing in said shed. I just knew that it would be a hive of productivity in the not-too-distant future.
So there I was, at the precipice of a new beginning, visualizing what I wanted my work life to look like. I made the firm decision that I didn’t want to travel in the way that I had been for so many years. I wanted a job that provided me the flexibility to work from my home in Arizona, while at the same time offered me the degree of professional stimulation that I always crave.
While brainstorming new businesses to start, I (for the reason that is now hard to fathom) took a quick look on Indeed—and there it was. Tom Casano, the founder of the SEO agency Sure Oak, wanted assistance running and building an agency. I was compelled to reach out.
Tom was a young entrepreneur and SEO with big dreams and big aspirations, who wanted help building something special and then replacing himself. We quickly found ourselves in an ideal symbiotic relationship. Here was the opportunity I had wanted — and the shed wasn’t even done yet.
Of course, the metaphors abound. This was my Sure Oak, the thing that I was looking to grow. I learned again, as I had before, that the end is not the end but rather the beginning of something else.
As I spend every day communicating with a remote team of stellar team members and engaging with clients whose dreams I care about as if they were my own, it now seems hard to see the story turning out any other way.
How does Sure Oak innovate?
Kim Melillo: For Sure Oak, innovation can only come when aligned to the purpose. There has to be meaning behind your creativity, or it becomes only for its own sake.
As a result, we innovate through listening, through truly hearing the needs expressed by our clients and then responding to them. One topical example of this is understanding that, right now, many businesses have taken huge hits to revenue, and are needing to minimize expenses and hold on to cash flow for whatever rainy day might next be heading our way.
Consequently, our greatest innovation at the moment is to ensure that expert SEO is available to all businesses, regardless of size or struggle. We have put significant effort into tailoring our products to fit pandemic-induced budget cuts. Perhaps they are able to do most of their SEO in-house but need someone on-call to assist when things get beyond them—or perhaps they need help with one facet of SEO, like high-quality link-building. We work with each of our clients to assess their needs and respond accordingly.
Added to this, we have instituted a Partnership Program, which is dual-faceted. On the one hand, we offer white label SEO, which allows our clients to expand their offering to their clients by including SEO in the mix—all with their own branding. On the other, our referral program allows companies to create a new revenue stream for themselves through successfully referring us to their clients or colleagues.
Lastly, and I feel excited just mentioning this, we are set to launch a new platform in December. I can’t tell you much about it yet, except to say that it is one of the key ways we aim to bring SEO to the masses. Watch this space.
Entrepreneurship, at its best, answers the needs of the world. If a business is not fulfilling this simple mandate, the outcome will be twofold: firstly, it will struggle to grow in a meaningful way, and secondly, the team members that make it up will be left searching for connection and purpose. We see every company that we work with as the product of somebody’s dream to solve a problem or ease someone else’s pain.
But answering a need is not enough. You then have to nurture growth. Every entrepreneur imagines a future where they are able to grow their business to a level they are satisfied with, and do so in our contemporary world, and you have to be visible online. The problem is, it’s hard work getting your website getting found! That’s why the need is great, and because of the skillset of the team we have assembled, so are the results we are able to achieve for our clients.
So this is our mission:
To empower people to reach their full potential and live their wildest dreams.
When we created this mission statement, we didn’t mean it should be made redundant in darker times. Dreams still matter. Growth still matters. Reaching one’s potential still definitely matters.
Our mission is to use the skills that we have to help companies meet their dreams—and it’s from this place that we innovate.
How the coronavirus pandemic affects your business, and how are you coping?
Kim Melillo: For Sure Oak, what had previously been one of our selling points—the long game of SEO—quickly became a cause for concern. What does a long game look like when one can’t even make predictions for tomorrow? Many of our clients, understandably, got scared. Cash was simply not flowing, and many felt as if they were navigating their way through a storm with not a single guiding light to speak of. Leads were more anxious to convert, and even our sure things started to retreat. As more and more workers throughout the world were laid off, our team too, started to feel the weight of the moment.
As CEO, I realized quickly that the most important thing to do at this time was to meaningfully connect. I spoke to each of our team members individually to reaffirm them that our priority was them. We would do everything we could to keep them busy and happy. With our willingness to erode our margins, sometimes down to nil on some projects, if it meant keeping our team busy and even flourishing.
It paid off.
By further bolstering the already solid morale that existed in our company and putting our incredible Sure Oak family first, we have managed to find our way through this together. We are unified, perhaps even more so than when we went into the crisis. As a unit, we are now identifying opportunities that were never there before, seeing that, as consumer behavior moves even further online, our services look to be more needed than ever.
Amidst our usual daily adventures, we’ve decided to work on an exhilarating team-building project. While we’ve cultivated a healthy culture at Sure Oak that prioritizes the individuals that make it up, the introspection we have done over this time has allowed us to go even deeper. As a result, we are holding a virtual retreat for all our team members where they will have the opportunity to select a cause that they are personally passionate about and spend the day giving back—and all on the company’s dime.
Ultimately, an organization is made of individuals, each with their own talents, passions, dreams—and callings—that, when given attention, can make even the most restless souls more fulfilled, more complete. As a leader, my mission is to ensure that each team member feels valued and respected and recognizes their talents both as professionals and as individuals that I truly care about as people. I want to play a part in not only building a great company but in helping and inspiring our team to suck every ounce out of every opportunity in life — every day is a gift! — and to offer something of themselves, something of value to the world. By giving them this opportunity, they, in turn, can give to others. I want us all to live in a world where giving increases exponentially, and this is my way of aiding that cause.
As a result, we have fully embraced our GIVE FIRST philosophy. We’ve offered a lot of complimentary work to those in need, where we offer high-level insights with no strings attached. I fully believe in the Law of Reciprocity. So far, I’ve never lost anything by giving what I have to offer.
When we step outside of ourselves and focus on others, it’s amazing how our purpose gathers steam. I’ve always found this to be a way out of tight spots: the answer lies in what you can do for others.
We’re looking to connect to nonprofits on catchafire.org that we can offer our services to pro bono. It’s the time for giving back, for not hoarding our expertise and experience. Entrepreneurship is nothing if it doesn’t exist within a culture of giving. At this time, and always, we have to help each other.
There are many superfluous distractions that will beg for your attention in difficult times. My experience has taught me the importance of staying focused on your mission, taking care of your team first, and finding a way to innovate. There is always a path out.
Did you have to make difficult choices, and what are the lessons learned?
Kim Melillo: While we quickly were faced with the reality of clients needing to immediately adjust marketing spend, the choices we were presented with internally were not that difficult to make: we had to take care of our team first.
While Sure Oak has always had a phenomenal community bound by a shared vision, this moment has given us the opportunity to entrench those bonds further. Early on in the pandemic, I realized that my priority as a leader was to ensure that my team felt safe and cared for. They are the company. There is nothing without them. Never has it been more true than now that we are all in this together.
While we were busy smashing the glass ceiling at our company, we managed to smash the walls between us as well. My goal is to keep the communication channels flowing as openly as possible. In all my years of experience, being real with people has only ever yielded positive outcomes.
Sure Oak has also found this period incredibly useful in terms of allowing us the time to take a deep dive into our internal needs. It’s been a period of major introspection. When things were clipping along at their normal pace, we struggled to find adequate time to spend on truly evaluating our own marketing strategy, analyze our structures and workflows and see where there was room for internal growth.
As we continue to explore ways of helping nonprofits and companies that are struggling, as we take the time to encourage the passion for giving in our team, as we kindly navigate the difficulties our clients and our team members are facing right now, I have come to a new understanding of the importance of doing good together.
And it hasn’t been all bad news for our company. As more and more people move online to fulfill their daily needs, companies see the importance of focusing on organic search. In an increasingly digital world, they simply have to be found or don’t stand a chance. In this way, we are starting to see the potential growth viability of this moment. We’ve had to maneuver a few things, however, to respond to this need accurately.
One of the things we’ve looked at is shorter range contracts or early-out clauses that respond to the current appetite. Many companies are not in a position to think long term.
We’ve also taken this time to take a hard look at every aspect of our internal processes, to find areas of weakness that create opportunities for improvement. On the backside of this pandemic, we want to come out stronger.
In this time, as in any, I believe we’re given our talents to make a difference in the world. We’re called to share, not hoard. We’re here for a reason, to leave this world better than we found it.
If we focus on how we can help other people in times of strife, we find meaning within ourselves and within our communities—and the so-called “difficult choices” are not that difficult to make.
How do you deal with stress and anxiety? How do you project yourself and Sure Oak in the future?
Kim Melillo: Meditation.
Breathing. Praying. Factoring in quiet time.
Seriously. I firmly believe this should be as important as any pressing item on your agenda.
For me, this means getting up at 4.30 am. (Don’t worry, it can mean something totally different for you.) I cuddle on the couch with my dogs. I drink my coffee, listen to the silence, meditate, pray.
When it comes to Sure Oak, there are some key pillars of our approach that have allowed us to navigate this without adding to the stress already placed on us by the historical moment, we are living through.
The first of these is to always ensure that you have a decent cash position to weather storms. One of our biggest stress-reducers while weathering the COVID-storm was that we hadn’t distributed all our earnings.
As well as this, we have staked much worth in not only making sure our company is solvent but in taking the time to refine our own processes. This often means searching through your day-to-day operations and ensuring that no wasteful activities are sapping your resources.
Cut the waste, cut the stress.
This is an important time for introspection. When you’re busy and flourishing, you don’t always have the opportunity to look inside. As a result, you tend to go along with systems without analyzing their worth too much. Now is the time to look internally, at your marketing strategies, at your communication flows, at your teams’ makeup, and optimize everything you can down to the last detail.
If you do this effectively, turbulent times can paradoxically be a blessing.
As we come out of this unprecedented time, I can feel us rising. We are gathering strength for whatever future awaits.
Who are your competitors? And how do you plan to stay in the game?
Kim Melillo: We have two major competitor types. The first is other top SEO companies, many of which are doing extraordinary work in the field. What sets us apart, however, is our transparency. We have no desire to oversell and ultimately mislead our clients about what they can expect from their SEO investment. We are upfront at the beginning of the long-term nature of the investment. Many clients arrive on our doorstep, having been burnt by the big promises of other SEO firms. They have a kind of SEO PTSD, and it’s our job to bring them back to the possibilities of what we firmly believe is a superior catalyst for long-term growth. We have to ensure that what we are offering can actually be delivered.
Transparency is truly written into the very foundations of how we run Sure Oak: we have a policy of honest communication with our team and our clients. We tell our clients from the get-go that SEO is a heavy investment and that you won’t be making money hand over fist from the beginning. Our goal is to manage expectations, act with integrity, and ensure that everyone always has the information they need to make the best decisions possible. As well as this, if anything ever deviates from the plans we set together, we see no point in trying to cover up any mess.
This means that things are not always easy for us. We have to compete against big promises made by other SEO agencies, but we’ve learned that no amount of sugar-coating can change the reality of how digital marketing works in the long run.
Our second competitor type is companies that center PPC strategies. Here, our job is to plead the case of SEO to potential clients. Luckily for us, the path is mapped out: there is a place for PPC, certainly, but SEO is simply a more sustainable long-term investment. Essentially, in the future, you won’t have to fork out for every click. If you invest on the front end, SEO is a gift that keeps on giving.
Another key differentiator is prioritizing consistent, meaningful innovation founded on directly listening to our clients’ needs—and always with our creativity set to Peak. Right now, people want solutions to problems they’ve never had before. As a company that seeks to foster growth for others, our job is to tap into those new needs and then see what we can do to help fill them. We cannot prize ourselves on being solutions-based if those solutions are responding to yesterday’s needs.
Your final thoughts?
Kim Melillo: “Be bold and mighty forces will come to your aid.” (Basil King)
Never let fear get in the way. You have to just go for it. You may have a mountain ahead of you, but the only way to conquer it is to put one foot in front of the other. We can find a million excuses as to why we can’t do things. They will always be there waiting to pull us back—but often, we just need to jump. The worst thing that can happen is we fail. Is that so bad?
I realized way before the pandemic that some of the worst things can happen—the things that you most feared can come true—and you can get through them.
For most successful people, it’s never a straight line to the top.
We just need to learn not to be afraid. Fear is nothing but limiting, and overcoming it is a practice like any other. Life is too short to be afraid, to let our fears limit what we’re able to do. Carpe diem. Every day is a gift.
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