EP 213: Making Graphic Design More Accessible and Affordable with Jonathan Grzybowski | Penji

In this episode, Stacy sits down with Jonathan Grzybowski, who is the host of the podcast Blind Entrepreneurship as well as the co-founder of Penji, a platform that gives on-demand access to the top two percent of graphic designers in the world. The two discuss how Johnathan was able to quickly and successfully grow his business, and he touches on how the values and the culture of his company have positively impacted these results.

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Transcript For This Episode:

Stacy Jones (00:01):
Welcome to marketing mistakes and how to avoid them. I’m Stacy Jones, the founder of influencer marketing and branded content agency, Hollywood Branded. This podcast provides brand marketers a learning platform for topics, for us to share their insights and knowledge on topics which make a direct impact on your business today.
While it is impossible to be well versed on every topic and strategy that can improve bottom line results, my goal is to help you avoid making costly mistakes of time, energy, or money, whether you are doing a DIY approach or hiring an expert to help. Let’s begin today’s discussion.

Announcer (00:31):
Welcome to marketing mistakes and how to avoid them. Here’s your host, Stacy Jones.

Stacy Jones (00:36):
Welcome to marketing mistakes and how to avoid them. I’m Stacy Jones. I’m so happy to be here with you all today. I want to give a very warm welcome to our guest. Johnathan Grzybowski. Johnathan is the co-founder of Penji, a platform that gives you on demand access to the top 2% of graphic designers in the world. Their offering is that you can submit as many projects as you want to get your completed designs back in under 48 hours and only pay a flat monthly rate.

Today Johnathan’s going to share the insights he has learned from his own experience of becoming a successful entrepreneur. We’ll learn what’s worked from Johnathan’s perspective, what should be avoided and how some people miss the mark. Johnathan, welcome. So happy to have you here today.

Johnathan Grzybowski (01:12):
Yeah. Thank you so much. I feel the warmth from the internet as we speak, so I appreciate it.

Stacy Jones (01:20):
Coming across in waves.

Johnathan Grzybowski (01:21):
I love it. I love it.

Stacy Jones (01:22):
Feel it, feel it.

Johnathan Grzybowski (01:23):
I’m feeling it.

Stacy Jones (01:24):
Well, I’d love the start. I love the platform that they all fit, but I’d love to dial it back. How did you get to where you are today? What started you on this journey to launch a graphic design platform?

Johnathan Grzybowski (01:37):
Yeah, I it’s been a lot of, I think, failure for one, for the most part that stumbled us into this particular domain. Entrepreneur career started at 15. Only really had one real job. I worked for Apple for a number of years and kind of just bounced around when it comes to just ideas in generation, but they all revolved around marketing or they all revolved around some type of graphic design element.

We’re a digital marketing agency and we work with a lot of big companies like Inc 5000 companies and universities and things like that. And we provided social media services and marketing and SEO, web design, but we were really bad at a large majority of those. So we are doing things and providing solutions for people that, to, in my personal opinion, just didn’t make sense and it wasn’t fulfilling at all.

So we would gain customers and lose customers and everybody would always compliment us about graphic design. So from there we were like, “Okay, we could be onto something.

We started hiring. We found really good graphic designers and we thought, “Well, why are we good at it and not a lot of other people aren’t?” So we started serving a bunch of people and we asked them what are their pain points? And a lot of them was finding reliable graphic design talent, or at least talent in general. So then that’s when we kind of knew we were on to something.

From there, we kind of just grew this service that we called graphic design. It ended up growing into something a lot bigger. And we had our first customer pool from the surveys that we inevitably gave to our friends and family and network and stuff like that. That was about three and a half-ish years ago. We’re now an Inc 5000 company. We have over a hundred employees. We’re growing relatively rapidly month in, month out, which is something I’m incredibly proud of personally, especially during a troubling times that we’re in now. And that’s kind of like the gist of where he came from. Now people can just go on our website, sign up for a service, ask for whatever they want, and we provide them as much as we can throughout the course of the month.

Stacy Jones (03:54):
And I’m assuming that with your hundred employees, a lot of them are remote workers, that you don’t have everyone housed under one roof because of the nature of graphic design in general. Were you an earlier adapter of the virtual employee experience?

Johnathan Grzybowski (04:09):
Yeah. We’ve been working from home for pretty much day one. The only reason why we have an office is because the people in the United States just like to get together, so we usually eat lunch with each other. We, we have Friday meetings all together, so we kind of use that time together when we were able to get into an office, but even then we would only go to the office like two to three times a week.

And then the rest, even then, if you don’t want to come, you don’t have to. As long as you meet your KPIs as long, which are key performance indicators to those that are listening and don’t understand. And as long as you’re able to just move the company forward, even if you take five steps back in the beginning of the day, you have to end at least one step forward. So that’s yeah, the work from home life has been ingrained into our culture since day one.

Stacy Jones (05:07):
And when you had this realization that you had this agency that had so many different hats on and you wanted to dial it back to become a graphic design focused company and solution provider, how many employees did you have back then?

Johnathan Grzybowski (05:23):

Stacy Jones (05:24):
Okay. So you’ve experienced massive scale in three years.

Johnathan Grzybowski (05:29):
Yeah. We started with four people, my two co-`founders and one other individual. And yeah, so we’ve just been growing ever since. We found something that, I think the biggest takeaway from that experience growth, it wasn’t necessarily a luck type of thing, although some of it had a lot to do with it. I would say moreso we found a product and a service that legitimately helps people and then we just amplified that as much as we possibly can through creative storytelling.

So to those listening, I’d say is your product. I think now during the pandemic is the true tale of, is your business legitimately helping people? Because the people who are canceling don’t see the value in what it is that you do. Now obviously they could be going through economic hardship, but our service is legitimately helping people, so even during a troubling time, we’re still growing.

Stacy Jones (06:27):
And so how did you handle the scale? Like you’ve met four people, you have a hundred people, you’re mentioning that a lot of people are remote workers in virtual, and you have a headquarters office that people come in to bond and have that happy-feely touch good warm vibe of experience, but how did you go and how did you figure out the right way to bring 96 more people on board who were going to share in your company culture, who were going to be able to feel like they were part of your family?

Johnathan Grzybowski (07:03):
Mm-hmm (affirmative). So we went through a couple of hiring sprees where it was just very rapid, but at the same time, we give tests for every single person that comes through. A large majority of our customer, or of our employee base are graphic designers. So it comes down to good systems and good processes, writing them out, making sure that they’re clear, making sure that people understand them, testing to people in order to make sure that they’re qualified versus who should we spend more time with, the people that pass or the people that fail?
More often than not if you give somebody a test and they pass it and you make that test nearly impossible in order for them to pass, then you know that they’re, number one, they can take clear direction. They’ll read, they’ll listen, and they’re actually good at their job. So I think that to us was probably the most important aspect was just really sound systems, processes.

The culture side, what we usually do is, and this is a good thing for, I think everybody should be doing this, is asking the questions of how can we help you and what is your dream? And usually by asking those questions, it gives us an insight of the person’s motivating factors.

So does this person want to make a hundred thousand dollars a year, right? Then we need to be able to set them up for a plan in order to obtain that. Here’s what you have to do. Here’s how to do it. And here’s the steps that you need to take in order to obtain that type of money. If they want to provide for their family, then we obviously understand where their emotional side comes in and we can play to that as well.

They’re caring. Maybe they should be an account manager because they too care for others. Whatever the scenario is, we play to that, their strengths and weaknesses, and that’s kind of how we built the culture from that. And also just legitimately caring, having conversations with people. We get on phone calls regularly with people, and we have active communications via Slack.

So from a leading leadership perspective, knowing people by name and knowing that this person has two children or loves basketball, you can kind of speak to that a little bit better than just saying, “Hey, how’s your day going?” It’s more direct and it’s more personable and it’s just, it’s better. It’s more human.

Stacy Jones (09:37):
And when you’ve been growing, did you put in place account management? I know you have account managers for brands and for your client base, but did you build out an HR structure to help you be able to actually stay in touch with people and to have those touch points and to have that reporting system so that it was not just systemized, but actually managed so that you and your partner did not drown?

Johnathan Grzybowski (10:03):

Stacy Jones (10:04):

Johnathan Grzybowski (10:04):
Yeah, we don’t have that. That’s a good question. I never really thought about that. I think, so, I’ll give you what’s on the top of my head. We’re entrepreneurs in the aspect that we’ve never raised money in our entire eight year career. And so when all the systems and processes that we’ve created have come from experience and from us, and also try and like, we’ve always been in the mindset of pinching pennies.

And so that HR aspect, although important, we’ve never really had a need for, because we’ve always been from the beginning up-to-date with it. So for me in particular, I could speak to, and I can’t speak to my co-founders, but I have a thing that I call a playbook that’s on my desktop and essentially what it looks like, it’s a big document and it has like multiple pages filled with notes from all team members that I talked to separate from evaluations and things like that.

So for me, it’s a really good measure of going through that on a weekly basis, like a Monday or a Sunday night and saying, “Okay, I haven’t talked to this person in a couple of weeks. I should probably touch base with them again.” Putting it on like a handy dandy notebook is really important too, for me. But I think from a system standpoint, just organization is really important and you probably won’t need that. Am I overworked to that part? Yes. But I don’t know if I’d change it. I’m happy with it.

Stacy Jones (11:47):
That’s good.

Johnathan Grzybowski (11:47):

Stacy Jones (11:49):
What are some of the other tricks that you use to be able to expand to this point do you think, have enabled you to actually get to scale so rapidly?

Johnathan Grzybowski (12:01):
Mm-hmm (affirmative). Are you asking more from a cultural standpoint or are you looking more for a, do you want to know more about the sales aspect?

Stacy Jones (12:07):
I think it’s both. Why don’t we start culturally and then let’s move into sale?

Johnathan Grzybowski (12:11):
Sure. So I think from a internal perspective, I think it’s moreso the person that you’re talking to, they have a job and a purpose and their purpose is to do X-Y-Z and they need to be aware of what that is and they also need to be aware of their KPIs.

So a key performance indicator is a measurement of success. If this person is able to obtain their and maintain their KPIs within our company, then they have opportunities to grow, et cetera, et cetera. The hardest aspect of that was setting the proper KPIs and then being able to actually tell them, tell the person what their job role is.
So for example, your job is to get five sales a week, right? How are you able to legitimately do that? And is the person that gave you the job, are they able to do it first? So we haven’t created a job role. We haven’t added new job roles unless the person that’s providing that job role is able to actually accomplish that within a couple of weeks.

So to us, that was incredibly insightful because we created the processes and systems in order to, we literally go, I specifically was the person that did the sales aspect of it and said, “Okay, this person is able…” I was able to get 5, 10 sales a week by doing this measures. And then being able to say, step one, step two, step three, step four. And then being able to deliver that and expect at least maybe not the same results, because you’re the co-founder, but at least some moderation of that result.

That was probably the hardest part because in your head you can kind of write down the steps and then it makes sense to you, but then being able to give it to somebody else, it’s like literally a different language.
So having to kind of scale that and edit it was incredibly stressful, but that level of fine tooth comb allowed us to scale the way that we were able to. From a sales perspective, it’s asking our customers where they came from and then doubling down on the trends. So we have all of our numbers accounted for. So when a customer comes through our system, we ask them how they found out about us. We also go a step further and say other additional questions essentially.
And if we start to see trends like five people coming from this particular Facebook group or 10 people coming from this particular keyword from advertisements or whatever, then we start to understand that we might be onto something. And then we invest. Usually we invest whether a couple months time on that one particular topic and getting really good at that one thing.

So this year in particular is how can we further scale and obtain success and reach success within our advertisement budget? Because right now we’re spending X amount of dollars, but we want to spend 10 times more on that. And we need to be able to say that if we spend a hundred thousand, I’m just giving you a round number, a hundred thousand dollars a month on advertisements, what is going to be our return on our investment?

Stacy Jones (15:31):

Johnathan Grzybowski (15:35):
I don’t know if that answered the question, but that was the things that were in my head.

Stacy Jones (15:37):
Yeah, you did. Yeah. You talked about the fact that I think this is something that a lot of entrepreneurs and businesses in general fail at is that you have the… This is what you should be able to do. Let’s just say you should be getting X amount of sales, but there’s no sound rationale behind it-

Johnathan Grzybowski (15:54):
Or accountability.

Stacy Jones (15:55):
-right, to actually get you there. And there’s no true path. And you’ve set up a rinse and repeat system. You have set up where, “Okay, you do X-Y-Z, you get this result. You do X-Y-Z again, you get the same result.” So you’re able to pass that knowledge on and that insight to someone else to be able to take on and do it. Otherwise, there’s no way you would’ve been able to scale to this degree if you were the only one, still able in your head to do the X-Y-Z to get that result.

Johnathan Grzybowski (16:23):
Yeah. And I think to that point, you are hiring people in order for them to help you. And so if you’re the one that ended up just doing the job, because you think that you’re the best at it, then why are you really hiring that person in the first place?

So it’s moreso you giving somebody a task, you telling them to do what they have to do in order to meet that. If you don’t meet the KPI, we just have to move on. It’s no hard feelings. It’s just business. We’re trying to grow fast. We’re trying to legitimately help people and the only way to do that is that we need the best of the best, so that’s just the way it is.

Stacy Jones (17:01):
Do you have a pretty fast hire smartly because you’re giving people massive tests where they have to, as you said, follow detailed instructions to make it through. And then do you fire quickly?

Johnathan Grzybowski (17:15):
I’m probably a little bit on the nicer side about that because I could say that from my perspective, I’m a little bit more emotional and I want to believe that everybody can achieve the tasks. I don’t think, if I could do a self-analysis, I don’t think that I’m as fast as I would want to be because I want to be fair, but I wish I was faster.

Stacy Jones (17:40):
I think that’s most people by the way, most of us are like, I think the biggest issue with entrepreneurs, I know it is for myself is I cast myself in the other person’s shoes and I’m like, “But they can do it. I know they have this potential. What do I need to do to fire them up and get them to step forward and accomplish this?” It’s up to me to get them to do, which is I think a big failing that a lot of us have actually, because that’s not always the best way.

Johnathan Grzybowski (18:07):
Sure. I’ve been down that path multiple times.

Stacy Jones (18:10):
Yeah. Most people are. I belong to this agency networking group and so everyone gets together a couple of times a year. And it’s funny because everyone, someone always has this employee that’s not working out. And it’s so easy to, from the outside say, “They’re not working out. They’re not hitting their KPIs. They’re not doing this, this and this. You’re paying for them. Why do you keep having them?” And the person was like, “Oh, but they’re a nice person. Oh, but I know they’re trying. Oh.” And it just, it’s everyone. Its human nature to actually think that other people want to do well and are capable of doing well.

Johnathan Grzybowski (18:43):
I would even say, so that’s a great point. I would even say, as far as a lot of people don’t put blame and ownership on themselves and they blame other outside factors. Like they’re a good person or they’re trying, or it’s their fault. They’re not reading it. They’re not smart enough. I’ve come to the realization that I’m, since I’m the one that set up the process and I’m the reason why it’s not working. I’m the person that needs to reassess. The the amount of times that I’ve edited a document of a KPI or a system or process board is painstakingly, blood dripping through the eyes. That’s how often it’s been done, so, but as needed. So it sounds like you’re in a similar boat.

Stacy Jones (19:32):
I think most people are on a similar boat, honestly. I think that, you start something and you have a passion and it’s your baby, and this is your baby and you want it to fly and you want it to do well. And you think that anyone who comes in association with your baby, that you have to give them the tools and the mindset.

And we tend to blame ourselves and entrepreneurs before we necessarily blame the employee for not doing the job. We think that we haven’t set them up for success.

Johnathan Grzybowski (19:59):
Sure, yeah.

Stacy Jones (20:00):
So I think that’s a very, very common thing and it’s great to be able to tweak and figure out and what you’ve done of coming together and really doing that rinse and repeat strategy and that’s fantastic, but I’m sure you, like everyone else blame yourself sometimes more than the individual, which is that nicest guy factor.

Johnathan Grzybowski (20:20):
Yeah. I’m really hard on myself, but I think that’s also, it’s not a bad thing. I personally liked to pressure. I think I thrive better when I’m up against the wall.

Stacy Jones (20:33):
Yeah. I agree. So what else have you done, do you think to help you scale to this point, to know what have y’all taken on to be able to soar across the horizons and everyone knows who you are, and you’re getting listed all over the place and you’re getting press.

Johnathan Grzybowski (20:51):
I think it’s just like a good story. People want to be entertained. People want to know that you’re good people and this wasn’t done necessarily on purpose. This is just who we are. When we first started, we ended up helping non-profits in order to help our community. So we started in a city called Camden, New Jersey, which is predominantly a impoverished area. It’s got a lot of bad rap. It’s probably one of the most dangerous cities in America.
We are literally the only startup that decided to headquarters in their city. And we helped a lot of non-profits and that’s kind of been like our thing is been helping those who help others. And we’ve created a lot of programs, especially during now where we’re doing supplies for change, where if somebody needs medical devices of some kind, we’re either going to pay for that in order to give it to frontline workers, or we have connections with people in order to make that possible.

That’s been ingrained in our DNA since day one and there isn’t anything that is fake about it. And with that said, I think for us, that’s our story is helping those who help others, but I think in order for people to like, if somebody were to replicate that, I think that you need to find a way to develop a story in an initiative surrounding your business that is you, right?

If somebody came out to us and said, we want to be able to help the opioid crisis, that’s not who we are. We want to help in that aspect, but that’s just not what the folks that we want to necessarily invest more time into. Things that work with us is people who help children and technology, mothers who need help and children who need proper education and understanding and learning, non-profits who are legitimately helping people. To me, that’s how people resonated with that and they wanted to help us and they wanted to see us succeed because of that help.
And so every year we actually have a program called Penji for Non-profits, where we give our services, we used to give it away for free and we did like 25-ish in like the first year, but just due to demand and stuff like that we do about 10 to 15 people a year that we give our services for $1 a month and they have it for the entire year. They could use this as much as they want in order to help their non-profit
There’s a very extensive process in order for them to sign up for that service. But it’s something that people look forward to on a yearly basis and they want to be accepted into the program. And we’ve even had customers that people who were our customer, and then they got upgraded to the $1 plan because of just what they do for their community. So yeah, I think it’s just a good story. It has to be a good service mixed with a really good story and it has to be authentic and you.

Stacy Jones (24:00):
Do you find that some of your non-profits that don’t get accepted end up being clients anyways, because now they’re exposed-

Johnathan Grzybowski (24:06):

Stacy Jones (24:07):
-to you?

Johnathan Grzybowski (24:08):
Yeah, it’s definitely sometimes. It doesn’t, I’ll be honest, it doesn’t happen often and we’re not doing it necessarily as a lead generation source, but yeah, so sometimes. That’s the best answer.

Stacy Jones (24:20):
And do you think that you get a fair amount of press. Do y’all take initiative to try to actually get press from that or is it just more so kind of the backbone, do good of the company and it keeps y’all ticking?

Johnathan Grzybowski (24:37):
I would say if you are the type that kind of goes up to a homeless person and takes your phone out in order to give them pizza, then that’s not us. It just so happens that at times we do get the press, but we’re not actively creating like a campaign out of it. If it doesn’t get out there, it’s fine.

Like, for example, the supplies for change, we did no press whatsoever. We just legitimately wanted to help. Somebody ended up seeing it and then because they knew who we are and what we do, they ended up putting it on TV, for example. But that’s just because we made the proper connections in the beginning and people know that that’s just who we are as people, but we don’t necessarily promote it on an ongoing.

It is on our website. And obviously it’s on the front page because we want it to help, but we’re not actively promoting it. It just naturally comes to us because of just the types of people that we are.

Stacy Jones (25:32):
It’s just authentic, which is lovely.

Johnathan Grzybowski (25:34):
Yeah, exactly.

Stacy Jones (25:35):
Yeah. That’s like-

Johnathan Grzybowski (25:36):
You have to build that. You have to build that authenticity because it doesn’t just happen overnight.

Stacy Jones (25:40):
Right. You had to actually figure out what it was that was your culture for even authenticity, like what you wanted it to be, because you couldn’t go out and do 5,000 things. You actually created this, again, you created a system where you can funnel in that charity element in a continual way where it makes sense versus, “Hey, now we’re all going to go over in here and do this. Let’s talk to this over here and try to be feel good about something else.” You’ve created an element of your company that absolutely is charity, non-profit focused. That is a community helper.

Johnathan Grzybowski (26:17):
Yeah. Dang. You said something that like really resonated with… Oh, oh, so you were talking, you hinted at displacement a little bit. So if you have to displace a large majority of your workforce in order to kind of change the initiatives so to speak, then it’s probably not worth it because it’s going to be extremely costly. So you have to also take into consideration that when you do initiatives, and when you do sales things or change focus of any type of job role, there’s a displacement cost that you can’t see, so that’s also something you need to take into consideration.

Stacy Jones (26:55):
Cool. Well, how can people sign up? How can they learn more about Penji? Where should they go?

Johnathan Grzybowski (27:00):
Yeah. Head over to penji.co. P-E-N-J-I.co. If you just Google Penji or unlimited graphic design, we’ll be up at the top. And that’s the best way to learn more about us.

Stacy Jones (27:14):
That’s awesome. Any last parting words of advice for our listeners today?

Announcer (27:18):
I would say, if you’re ever struggling or if you ever feel like you’re at a crossroads, just make sure, I mean, this is, I’m not a motivational guy, but I’ve found myself constantly thinking to myself, “How did I get here and why am I putting my body and my mind through this world, weird world of entrepreneurship?”
And I realized that if it wasn’t for having a north star, if it wasn’t for understanding who I am, if it wasn’t for understanding my purpose, I’ve had a hard time understanding my why when I didn’t have that purpose.
And so if you don’t have your purpose just yet, and if you don’t understand why you’re actually here, I challenge you today to figure that out and whatever it takes in order to do that. For me, it’s still ever changing, but I have a really core foundation of what I stand for and I’ve written out principles and guidelines for myself to kind of live by, like my own Bible so to speak.

You don’t have to be as hyper analytical and crazy like I am, but take a piece of paper and say like, “What are the things that I’m most passionate about? What are the things that I care for deeply?” And then they’re the answer probably resides in there. So that would be my parting words, especially during the pandemic, when there’s like, everybody’s hitting the pause button, you have a time to get ahead.

Stacy Jones (28:48):
Perfect. Well, John, I thank you so much for sharing-

Johnathan Grzybowski (28:52):
Thank you so much.

Stacy Jones (28:53):
-with our listeners today. That was awesome. Really great insights and you’ll have, and you’re still on a journey that is incredible, so congratulations.

Johnathan Grzybowski (29:01):
Thank you.

Stacy Jones (29:01):
Of course. And then to all of our listeners, thank you so much for tuning in to another episode of Marketing Mistakes and How To Avoid Them. So happy to have you here and until we chat next time, stay safe.

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Keep them coming

Practical and pointed advice.

Stacy does a really great job making this a highly actionable podcast for business owners. With a focus on marketing, she covers a wide range of related topics as well and is always very specific with her questions so that the listener gets pointed advice instead of vague concepts to take away. It’s also really helpful to the hear the why behind any marketing tactic so that we can decide if something sounds like a good fit for where we are at in this moment.

Love this marketing podcast!

Lori has a way of finding new insights to share every week. I loved being a guest, but I enjoy hearing her many fascinating conversations with other marketers even more. Great show!

I love Stacey Jones!

I absolutely loved being on this podcast! Stacey is amazing – real, down to earth, and genuinely curious and interested in learning – this makes for a very engaging conversation and valuable podcast!

Thank you for your podcast! I LOVE IT

I just listened to the episode named Insights To Product Placement Brand Marketers Need To Know, and I really enjoyed every minute of it! There are so many ways to approach product placement in a manner that provides wins for many – and it is not always driven by money. I am looking forward to listening to more!

Stuff we need to know!!

Anyone who is in business should be listening to this podcast! Incredible insights and advice.

Such a wealth of knowledge! 🧠

This is one of the most insightful podcasts that I have ever come across! Stacy does such a great job of sharing her wisdom and I love how she leads meaningful conversations with guests who bring so much experience to the table. Highly recommend checking this show out – you won’t be disappointed!

Awesome Podcast!!!

Stacy, host of the Marketing Mistakes (And How To Avoid Them) Podcast, highlights all marketing and more in this can’t miss podcast! The host and expert guests offer insightful advice and information that is helpful to anyone that listens!
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