Alumni Spotlight: Sandstorm Design
The Secret to Building Networks: Giving Selflessly & Soaking Up New Ideas
In 1998, Sandy Marsico’s parents got a call from their daughter: Sandy had just quit her job and was about to start her own business. She was 24 at the time. “I’m blessed with amazing parents who fully believe in me,” Sandy reflects. “When I called my parents and told them I quit my job, they said ‘good for you!’” Coming from a family of entrepreneurs, Sandy was about to make her own mark in the world.
Sandy describes her business, Sandstorm, as a “brand experience” agency. "We do brand strategy, marketing strategy, analytics, web development, user experience... it’s kind of like a merger between digital marketing and user experience.”
Sandy initially kept freelancing while “building the business on the side.” In 2002, she took the leap to full-time, and she hired her first employee in 2005. From there, her business took off. Sandstorm grew from half a million dollars in revenue in 2005 to over $5 million today, with about 30 employees. Last year her business ranked among the top 5,000 fastest growing companies by Inc., as well as the top 100 Fastest Growing Inner City Businesses in America by the Initiative for a Competitive Inner City (ICIC) and Fortune Magazine, and in 2013, Sandstorm was a top 50 Gen Y employer by Brill Street.
After being on her own for several years, she found that she needed advice from her peers. Sandy joined her first peer advisory group, Vistage, in 2006. A common misconception about networks, especially business networks, is that they are all about getting things, whether new clients or business opportunities. Sandy disagrees: “None of this was about getting clients. This is not that kind of networking.” What she did learn, however, was far more valuable.
They’re a resource for other resources . . . I might ask, “What kind of benefits are you offering your employees? These are the benefits I’m offering my employees…. Peer advisory [is] “How are you handling developing the sales pipeline? How are you handling generating leads? This is how I’m doing it.”
For Sandy, this emphasis on sharing has helped her get the most out of peer advisory groups and out of business. As she says, “You just give selflessly. That’s the secret to building relationships. You’re not going to network any other way. You’re not going to network saying ‘give me, give me, give me’ ever.” Sharing information and resources has come naturally to her, because it’s an integral part of who she is.
“Helping others works for me because I’m not a ‘salesperson.’ I didn’t take any sales training courses and I didn’t study selling,” she explains. “It’s just meeting people and trying to help solve their problems no matter what they are. And if sometimes your business can help, even better.”
She has learned a lot of skills from her peers. Before joining these groups, for instance, Sandy didn’t consider herself a good speaker, which is a critical skill when trying to expand and sell your products to new clients. However, after seeing so many speakers, she’s been able to pick up on what distinguishes a good speaker from a bad one and apply those insights to her own speaking style.
She got both her CPA and her payroll provider from these networks. She gives these groups a lot of credit. “For me as a young entrepreneur – especially since I started so young – a peer program allowed me to see how other people ran their businesses.”
“It’s kind of like having a buffet of business styles and best business practices that you can select from when you’ve got a peer advisory group,” she explains. “I can look at any different thing that I implemented and remember that I got [one] program from Kim and I got my payroll benefit solution from Dave. I’m literally my own menu built from a buffet of best practices from my other peer groups.”
Over the years, Sandy can chart the various peer advisory groups she has been a part of and continues to engage with. After her first experience with Vistage, she participated in the 2009 SBA Emerging Leaders initiative and became part of their alumni network. She joined the Women Presidents’ Organization in 2010, and in 2012, Sandy hired her own personal advisor with whom she still works every month.
Today, she continues to take additional peer-learning classes and soak up new ideas. It comes as no surprise, then, that one of the three core values at Sandstorm is learning. “We love spongy people who are willing to learn a ton, who love to learn, who self-start, but then teach everybody else,” she says.
Sandy takes great pride in her team, which is filled with people who embrace learning and sharing. She also takes pride in her status as an employer. “When my kids ask me what I do, I tell them that I provide jobs,” she explains. “I made a very specific decision that I was going to keep jobs in our country and I’m going to keep building jobs here. My own purpose in life is to provide amazing jobs for amazing people. And that’s why I believe we continue to grow.”
Sandy’s efforts and her emphasis on values have paid off – Sandstorm was named one of the top 101 best places to work in Chicago in 2015.