A Love Letter to Julia Balfour

Love Letters

The person or the company?

The JB Team, May 15, 2019

It’s clear the second you walk into the 1860 Gothic Victorian that we call home, Julia Balfour thinks differently. Julia brings her full self to her work, all the way down to her west coast roots and east coast education. I’ve seen countless people gape at the interior of our office and then almost always come to the same conclusion, “It’s like a mix of New York and California!” If there is one thing everyone can agree on, it’s that Julia inspires change.

Julia sees the good in everyone and everything. She focuses on the good (and only the good) and finds a way to amplify it. I’ve had the honor of working with her since this company started. I feel like it’s my duty to put into words what others can only define as “Julia Magic” because she’s far too humble to tell you herself.

I’m going to share with you the secret recipe behind Julia Magic. Are you ready? It’s Love. See, Julia recognizes the simple truth that change is hard and the only way to welcome change is through love. That’s really it. Now, please don’t underestimate any of this as simple. I can easily count on both hands plenty of times that I’m sure loving me through my growth was hard.

I started with Julia fresh out of college, with all the ambition in the world. In those days, the company ran out of Julia’s kitchen and a detached building on her property. Fate had me find the call for interns on Craigslist and from the moment I stepped foot into that dilapidated building, something inside my gut felt the magic. The love. We sat in her back yard at a picnic table and she flipped through my portfolio. Upon reaching the end she asked me the one question every new college graduate is afraid to answer. “I don’t get it—what do you want to be?” I told her I have a passion for a little bit of everything and to my surprise she said, “Don’t worry, I’ll tell ya what you’re good at.” I look back on that moment, my very first interaction with Julia, and have realized it was also the best way to summarize our relationship: If I am daring enough to try and vulnerable enough to admit when I don’t know the answer—she’ll be there for me.

I was one of six interns that summer and all of us knew that as a start-up, it was likely that only one of us would receive a job offer at the end of the summer. To my surprise, Julia fired her office manager and offered me a job on my third day. There was only one catch—I had to be on a two-week trial because she was sure my energy would burn out. It’s fair to say that eight years later I am NOT burnt out and now she REALLY likes Capricorns!

It’s also fair to say that promotion didn’t necessarily go over well with the rest of the interns. What NONE of us realized is my newfound success actually had little to do with me. Julia makes her decisions based on what is best for the tribe. You see, none of us were going to have a particularly great internship experience if there was a broken spoke in the wheel. What we also didn’t realize is that time moves MUCH quicker with Julia.

At this point in our relationship, there were two things I discovered: anything we dreamt of could become a reality and that this company was going somewhere. Julia has kept EVERY promise she has ever made to me, including the very first one. Over the next few years I poured everything I had into the company and in return she allowed me to try my hand at any skill I wanted. The day came where I proclaimed I wanted to design websites and Julia upheld her promise by telling me that’s actually not what I’m good at. I had never heard of User Interface, User Experience, or Content Strategy before but she urged me to look into it.

Julia shifted my entire career trajectory and was able to love me enough to realize that although the conversation was difficult, it was the best thing for me.

She knew that as the company grew, we would hire more designers and that I would get lost in the shuffle. I soon realized that I excelled at visualizing all the pieces of a very large puzzle and solving it. I look back at this conversation as the single greatest change in my career.

There were plenty of times where Julia asked things of me that I felt were not going to work. When you work with a person that is always finding ways to think differently, some changes feel impossible. I made a promise to Julia that no matter how wrong I thought she was or how crazy I thought an idea was, I would try it twice. I didn’t know what that meant at the time, but looking back, I know our relationship has always been built on trust. At the end of the day she knew that I would give my 150% to what she asked of me. If it didn’t work, I trusted that she would admit it and take me out to dinner so we could have a laugh over it.

You have to understand that Julia loves a story way more than an outcome. The outcome is boring. It’s either going to be positive or negative and she already knows that. The journey is way more fun and unexpected. She loves the high of taking risks and how it naturally brings everyone together. The bottom line is if we failed, we learned something and became stronger together. If we won, we won together, and we celebrated together. Both of these outcomes make for great stories and she’ll tell both of them with just as much love for our team and for our clients.

After we started up a content department, together we had landed our first really big client. The project was a huge design, content, and development effort and a success that laid the groundwork to becoming an Inc. 5000 fastest growing company. I distinctly remember being so shocked that I could do that. For the entire time I have known her, Julia has challenged me to dream bigger for myself. This project was going to bring in many more clients and I was going to be able to hire specifically for my department.

However, once you find your lane and begin to get comfortable at Julia Balfour, she’ll ask the biggest change of you yet. She asks you to become a leader. For the first time, I was no longer the maker of my success. Instead, it was in the hands of the team I was building. The loss of making things with my hands was greater than the loss of my graphic designer dream. During this period, I had countless conversations with Julia on planes, trains, hotel rooms, and car rides that usually ended in tears. Let’s be clear, the tears were on my end. Julia herself was running a business and trying to figure out what our path looked like moving forward. I simply could not understand how I was doing a poor job when the projects I was leading were winning. I had never done a poor job before. If I’m being totally honest—I had never NOT gotten the credit for the work.

My journey to becoming a lead has been one of the hardest things I’ve ever done and also one of the most fulfilling things. Julia didn’t ask me to change my career trajectory this time—she asked me to change all the paradigms in which I’d been taught to see the world. Julia Balfour hires “A” players, the problem with “A” players is that they’ve been taught that they are the makers of their own growth. While I was focused on myself, she was thinking in terms of “we.” I needed to make every decision based on what was, and is, best for the tribe.

what is love?

The truth is this company would have never made it if Julia didn’t think as a “we.” We spent every waking minute building this company together, with our clients, and she knew that we needed her fearless uncertainty of the future to create the space for us to try and fail. The team would have never tried something that felt impossible if we knew next month’s salary relied on its success. It’s now my job to ensure everyone has an environment they need to do their best work. This has brought me even closer to Julia. She doesn’t have to forge a path alone anymore.

Julia Balfour doesn’t exist in a building or a person. It’s not something I can unplug from or clock out of when I go home at night. To truly succeed at Julia Balfour, you are asked to show up and bring your whole self. If you dare to try regardless of the outcome and love empathetically no matter the situation, you will find the magic. Being the best person you can be instead of just the best employee is the most valuable thing at Julia Balfour.

I don’t have a role or a job here. What’s being asked of me is much greater than that. I don’t just owe my career to Julia. I wouldn’t be the person I am today if she didn’t inspire the change she knew I had in me and love me through it. If you ask Julia how hard it was to start a business, she can’t tell you. She just doesn’t see it. She only sees the good.

Julia, I want you to know that I see all of it and I love and respect you for it. To walk in these halls is to walk around in your heart. Thank you for sharing your vision with us.