Like many entrepreneurs, Anna Stout always knew she’d start a business. In fact, as a kid, she started several companies. There was Clover Creations, her greeting card business. There was the ironing service that served only one, albeit very important client (her mom). There was even the mudpie factory she ran briefly out of her parents’ greenhouse.
“Granted, all of these businesses were ‘pre-revenue,’ but I got a lot of support from my family,” she says. “The businesses were silly, but I do believe those early starts were an indicator of a true entrepreneurial spirit.”
Today, Stout is the founder of Nashville, Tennessee-based Astute Communications, a full-service digital services agency that she runs with her husband, Ryan Stout, two employees and a team of talented contractors. Since its founding in 2013, Astute’s clients have hailed mostly from Tennessee, but the company’s reach is expanding to other Southern states.
“We have several in Mississippi and Louisiana,” she says. “An odd North Carolinian, too. All Southern at this point, though not necessarily by design.”
Startup Southerner sat down with Stout recently (we ran into her at 36|86, too!) to learn more about her company and the challenges she faces as a founder.
Q: A digital services agency is not a new concept, so what sets Astute Communications apart from the competition?
A: As I’ve built my company I’ve learned a lot about the difference that care and quality in marketing can make. I’ve watched a lot of companies like mine put their foot on the gas and leave their core values in the dust on the side of the road, all to chase a dollar. Don’t get me wrong, my business doesn’t run on any kind of alternative source of energy, but It’s important to me that I can continue to offer custom solutions for businesses that address their unique challenges and priorities. That I’m not just taking any business that I can get, regardless of the fit for everyone involved. And that I don’t let the quality of work or service that we offer our clients suffer in the interest of getting a check from someone who doesn’t understand the value of what we’re doing.
Q: What has been the biggest challenge facing Astute as it moves from startup phase to bona fide small business?
A: We’re in a really unique phase in our growth right now that is revealing some new challenges that I never anticipated. One thing that struck me recently was the feeling of giving up some ownership of my company. I spent a lot of time early on running the business by myself, which meant I never had to answer to anyone. I made decisions, and moved on. Now there is a lot more consideration given to why’s and how’s of our day to day. It’s a good thing, but it’s hard some days. It’s hard to resist the urge to veto everything. But I know that it’s important for me to listen to the insights of all of the other members of the team–I learn a lot from them.
Q: Has Ryan been involved with the company since its beginning, or did he join later? And, is it challenging to work with your spouse?
A: He joined the company just over a year ago, and has been such an asset. I didn’t ask him to join my company because he’s my husband; I asked him because he’s intelligent, tenacious and has a work ethic like no one I’ve ever seen. We’ve increased our profits by 150% in the time since he joined Astute, and are on track to double that by the end of the year. Working with your spouse comes with its own unique set of challenges, however. Communication can be tricky sometimes, and Ryan and I are both a little on the stubborn side. But every day I wake up and go to bed knowing that we’re exactly where we’re supposed to be.
Q: Thinking back to when you started the company, are you surprised or not surprised that the company is where it is today?
A: I officially started my company in early 2013 when I resigned from a web design and development position with an ad agency in town. I freelanced for a while before that under the same name, but 2013 was when I went all in with Astute. It’s been the slowest, fastest, most wild ride I’ve ever been on. I’m simultaneously amazed by how far we’ve come, and frustrated by slow progress. It’s hard to imagine where I thought I would be in 2016. I guess I’m a ‘fly by the seat of my pants’ kinda gal in that way. I just knew that I needed to build this thing, and so I’m doing it. And I hope it helps. And I hope that people get it–That we care, you know?
Q: On your LinkedIn profile, you say you’re proud to be a woman in tech. Can you expand on that? Are there challenges for women in tech and are any of those challenges specific to being located in the South?
A: I have learned a lot over the past year about the gender biases that exist in our society. And realizing how ingrained they are… in everyone, in me, even…has really made me realize that I can play an important role as a woman in tech. I don’t have the answers to ‘curing’ sexism, but I do believe that learning how to talk about it is an important first step. And that being here, a part of this community, and just showing up every day … that can help too. I’m not great at talking about it yet, but I’m trying to get better. I’m trying to learn how to lead with words and actions as a business leader who is a woman.
As for your question about the South, well, I don’t know. I haven’t done much business north of the Mason-Dixon line. I don’t think the biases are unique to the South, though their manifestations might be sometimes, Honey.
Q: Do you have any specific anecdotes you could share about being a woman in tech and a female founder?
A: I have some stories, certainly, thought most of them are nothing more than off-handed comments. I did have a potential client kiss me on the top of my head one time. How many times does that happen to a male business owner!?
Mostly, it’s been pretty mild stuff for me. I’m careful about setting boundaries, and I don’t tolerate much. I’ve been lucky, though. I’ve heard some insanely degrading stories from incredibly strong, capable women.
Q: What has been the biggest mistake you made as a founder? And how did you come back from it?
A: Early on I took on a complex web application project that I didn’t know how to build. I underestimated how difficult it would be to find a reliable team to develop the custom functionalities and it cost me and the client both a lot of money. After several false starts and my desperate efforts to find someone who could build it, I finally had to resign from the project. I did my best to absorb the costs that I could. I will always feel bad for providing such a horrible experience to people who trusted me. I carry that project with me in every client meeting that I attend. Every discovery, every proposal. Now, we do no take on projects that we can’t handle in house. I will never put another client (or myself for that matter) in that position again.