#21 – Making an Impact Through Kick-Ass & purpose Centered Design

with Emily Lonigro, Founder of LimeRed

21 - Emily Lonigro

Emily Lonigro is the President & Founder of LimeRed, a purpose-driven design firm and Certified B Corporation based in Chicago. Bridging the gap between design and impact, LimeRed helps meaningful brands and businesses showcase their unique message through expertly crafted digital strategies.

Since 2004, Emily and her team have been advocating for social good through their design work with like-minded clients, and the past 15 years have proved to be an interesting (and hugely inspiring) journey.

In this episode of the Grow Ensemble Podcast, she dives deep into this journey — discussing how armed with only a computer, one client, and no formal business training — she was able to build a thriving business succeeding in its authentic mission to do good.

LimeRed earned their B Corp certification in 2014 and have landed on B Lab’s Best for the World list two years in a row! (2017 & 2018)

A few favorite takeaways from our conversation:

  • Emily’s relationship with risk and the part it played in LimeRed’s success
  • Navigating the mental and emotional stress of being committed to positive change
  • What it means to design for impact and the key practices LimeRed employs to help their clients
  • The “comparison trap” and the effects it has when building a business

00:07 (Cory) — Hey y’all. It’s Cory here with the Grow Ensemble Podcast, and on today’s episode I speak with Emily Lonigro the founder of a design agency in Chicago, a certified B Corporation by the name of LimeRed. Really enjoyed my conversation with Emily and I am certain you will too. We talk about some of the curious mental, psychological, and emotional aspects of being a socially-oriented entrepreneur or business owner. Someone who is greatly consumed with influencing positive change both within their work and within their community. We talk about Emily’s personal tolerance for risk and how they greatly supported her early on as an entrepreneur, as a business owner starting LimeRed. We talk about the importance of prioritizing community while pursuing this type of highly obligated, oftentimes highly stressful and consuming work. Of course, we talk about the unique ways in which Emily and LimeRed are using the business as a vehicle to give back.

01:12 Specifically we talk about Lime Red’s, super awesome website giveaway for ass kicking changemakers, which they hosted earlier this year. We of course talk about where that’s headed, what are the plans for that in the future. So plenty of rich takeaways from this conversation that I’m sure many other folks in the social business space will resonate with. And Emily is so thoughtful and very generous with sharing herself and her experiences, so greatly appreciate it for that. So without further ado we’ll go ahead and jump into the episode with Emily. But one last thing, if you like this show, if you like the Grow Ensemble Podcast, I would ask that you’d go ahead and head over to iTunes and leave us an honest review really helps other folks to find the show. So no more waiting. Let’s go ahead and dive into our conversation with Emily

02:12 (Emily) — My name is Emily Lonigro. I’m the founder of a design agency called LimeRed. We’re in Chicago and this is our 15th year in business and we design impact.

02:25 (Cory) — Could you explain a little bit more about what it means to, to design for impact?

02:29 (Emily) — Sure. Yeah. So when I started the company in 2004, I had worked at a few different companies. I think it was my third and last job then, but I was just really tired of designing for consumer-packaged goods or makeup or just trying to sell people nonsense that they truly didn’t need. And I was like, this is a waste of my day. I love doing design, I love doing messaging, but I don’t like doing it for things don’t matter. So when I started the company, I only wanted to do—I only wanted to work with companies and organizations that had a very distinct community impact or mission attached to their organization, which is a lot of people are like, oh, so nonprofits?

03:14 Yes…And also other social enterprises, mission-based businesses, businesses with a give-one-get one, some kind of other–and I even lump a lot of small businesses into that because looking at the vibrancy and the health of communities and having a really great small business community, it does a lot for just people’s wellbeing and the place where they live and just their overall mindset. So, when I started I thought my deciding when I quit, my last real job was I don’t want to work on work that I don’t believe in. I don’t want to make a rich white guy richer, and I don’t want to not have control of my schedule. And with those three things kind of leaves the door wide open for a lot of other things I could do. And design is just what I’ve always loved. So I started a design agency

04:09 (Cory) — And so what was it like taking the leap in maybe 2003, 2004 as you were thinking about starting LimeRed, going from working in what you described as a big agency or something like that. What was it like to take that initial step?

04:24 (Emily) — Well, it was really scary, but I’m really good at taking big risks. I just enjoy it. I am just not afraid of things like that, especially when- it was weird because it was a small agency that I was in. But what happened was I had all these health problems start where I was having panic attacks, I was just generally not happy. My hair was falling out and I wasn’t really sure what was going on. I thought, well, maybe I’m having a quarter life crisis or something. At that time I was a lot younger. But yeah, it really just turned out that it was my job and I just couldn’t reconcile what I was doing with my sense of decency and compassion and morality. I was also doing a lot of political work at the time. And so it was really scary to start with. I had no business training. I had a computer and that’s it. And one client, it was a nonprofit and I just felt like this is what I was supposed to do when I started. And it really was organic from there, but I healthier, I felt a lot healthier when I started just in my mind and in my body.

05:32 (Cory) — So you mentioned that that aspect of taking risks and I think that’s a common maybe characteristic shared amongst entrepreneurial folks. But I think there’s an added perhaps risk-taking in being so committed to the like principles and set of values to work a very particular style with people who you feel you align with. So, I think in the social sector for one that’s something that’s additional because it would probably be easier just to focus on making money perhaps as opposed to staying firm with those principles and values. So I’m curious where you feel like that tolerance for risk has come from for yourself personally.

06:15 (Cory) — I think it’s just a lifetime of doing that. I mean of having to take a risk or are just making a decision and sticking to it. I think the point you brought up though is so important. I think that it’s one thing to start a business to make money—that’s not hard. I mean there’s lots of books, lots of classes, whole universities, whole practices, whole companies dedicated to showing you how to do that. But in 2004 when I started, there was literally nothing to show you how to make a mission-based business work. And I mean, I’m pretty involved in the like conscious business community. There’s lots of different organizations that support that now that didn’t exist and no one is really talking about it. And so you’re like, I want to do this differently. I want to do this so that I’m being fair and just, and I’m not taking advantage I’m not, I’m going to take apart capitalism with capitalism basically is what I’m trying to do.

07:11 And there’s an added level of stress on there. Because it’s hard to run a business just anyway, but then adding that mission on it and that sort of accountability to people that you haven’t even met yet, like customers and future employees, that just adds a whole level of a stress that sometimes gets very overwhelming. And a few years ago when I was at a retreat for conscious business leaders, that was something that came up a couple of times. Like we’re not talking about our own mental health and just the stress we put on ourselves to do this thing that is so nebulous without rules and we’re all here writing this real work together. Now when running a business alone is hard and being a woman is hard. Being a woman in business is hard. Being a single mom, woman in business is hard.

07:55 Being a single mom, woman in a business, running a B-Corp is like, who even knows? I think there’s maybe 10 of us in the world who are doing this, but it is, it’s a lot. And the only thing that I’ve ever figured out so far to do that is to really double down into my community and get really involved and to make really, really true and honest relationships with other business owners. Not always women, but that just tends to be who I know and just really relying on them and asking for help, which is something that just this year I learned how to do. So, I’m 41 and I learned how to ask for help this year. So yeah, it’s a different experience and I think that we’re all trying to figure out how to do it together and well, and I don’t think we’ve quite figured that out yet. I am very optimistic.

08:41 (Cory) — Yeah. Surely, we will stay on this side of hope for sure. I mean, I think about it that point that you bring up that there’s this stress, this added stress in trying impact some sort of change. And sometimes I think about this, especially in relation to other conversations I’ve had on the podcast with Ryan Honeyman actually who’s working on the B-Corp Handbook, the second edition of that with Dr Tiffany Jana. We talked about what’s the greatest good that you could be doing? And it seems as if there’s added stress that comes with that. If your you’re working in your business, you’re trying to make an impact with it. Sometimes I feel this concern like is this the most good that I could be doing now? And then I also have the thought, I’m like, if I never thought about this, would I be happier? Overall more content then if I, if I wasn’t so concerned with wanting to make a difference in the world, would I actually be more content? And, but it’s one of those things that it seems like I couldn’t ever go to that reality at this point. There’s no going back but you bring up some really valuable, I guess like both tactics and perspectives to maybe manage that stress. You mentioned community and really doubling down onto that. I’m curious if you have anything else along those lines that you feel is working for you as you’re kind of learning to manage what feels like that pressure?

10:14 (Emily) — It’s funny because the community has been really the number one most important thing the last year. So January of 2018 I turned 40 and I thought like, who do I want to spend my birthday with? So I invited five of my friends happened to be all business owners at the time to hang out and have tacos and then go to a like a comedy night. And we all, we ended up staying out until 4:30 in the morning, which is insane because I’m 40 years old and I never do that. But we ended up having so much fun together and they hadn’t met each other until that night. And we had the best time. We all had the similar set of issues. We all felt alone, we all felt like who was ever going to get us through this shit besides our therapists. And so we ended up for business owners who are so busy, we have other commitments.

11:05 Um, we ended up just making it a standing date the last Friday of the month at my house. We just get together and it’s not, you don’t have to call each other and coordinate. It’s just, it happens. Everyone shows up. If you don’t show up, we’re okay. And we text each other pretty much all day now and we’re just there for each other and however we need to show up. That’s been the number one sanity saver besides my actual therapist in my life. And that small group of just really nonjudgmental business owners is just been critical. The other thing is just really getting to know the conscious business community through conscious company magazine and the B-Corpus in the Illinois has been awesome just to be able to learn from their experiences and to share, even though a lot of us actually competes, we look at his co-opetition, which I totally enjoy.

11:54 So that’s been good. And then one of the other things is: I’ve spent a lot of time over the last 15 years comparing myself to other people and other companies. And I think just even last week I was driving to work, which I never do. I walk to work every day, but I was driving and I was thinking if I focus on the things that I can’t do because I can’t go to night events. I can’t go into morning events. I have two small kids. There’s just no way. I have bookends. I have a small team. I don’t have a large team. There are things, I don’t have a dedicated salesperson. It’s just me. I can’t–if I compare myself to what I think they have and what I think I’m lacking, it’s just going to, at the end of the day, make me crazy. So I’m just, I rolled into work that day thinking we’re doing great.

12:39 We’re 15 years in. Um, we have an amazing set of clients. I have the best community ever. I have the best staffer ever had. I love every day. I am not afraid of the future and we’re going to do us the way that we do us. And I’m not going to worry about anybody else ever again because it’s just not making anything better. And I just feel like I just have to take care of my own brain. And being a business owner you’re competitive. I’m extremely competitive. So if I see somebody doing something like, why am I not doing that? I should do that, I should’ve gotten that. That’s a narrative in my brain that I just have to work to turn off because it’s just not serving anybody or me over the long haul. So yeah, I wish I would’ve learned that about 10 years ago but yeah, and just like we’re doing just fine and we are who we are unapologetically and I don’t need to try to be like anyone else cause I think that is a good position to be in.

13:38 (Cory) — It was something I ready. There is something on y’alls site about what it’s like to work with LimeRed or maybe a blog post that you wrote, but it caught my attention. It was particularly on that point of how you think about competition and that you have had to develop the perspective of that you just want to be supportive and you want to mentor those who you may not think at first it would be wise to do so directly in competition with you. So that it’s a very interesting balance and as well it’s this thing of scarcity that you seem to mention, it’s like this thought that feeling is so, I don’t know, constricting? Where you’re like, oh, there’s that competitive kind of scarcity that exists. You’re like, oh, why didn’t you know? Why didn’t we get that job? Or why aren’t we doing that thing that that other design firm is doing? I hate that feeling. You know? And then sometimes you’re like, it just goes away and you’re like, oh wow, you kind of step outside of it and like, oh, it doesn’t have to be that way. You know? It’s like this perceived sense of scarcity.

14:38 (Emily) — Yeah. To me it comes from the dominant narrative, which is, I feel like a story that we’ve made up, that there was a finite amount of things and business’s jobs is to compete against each other and take many of the things as we possibly can so that other people can’t have them. That to me is the fundamental fallacy of what we are as Lyme. Red is trying to change the narrative of, of business is meant to maximize shareholder value. And that’s the sole purpose is destructive and selfish and just generally terrible for people and for most people and the planet obviously. And so we’re really trying to rethink what the story of business is. And we think about it for ourselves because we’re a B-Corp because we’re all the things and we try to think about, okay, well at what expense do I run my business? At whose expense?

15:32 Because I have to use up something in order to do what I’m doing. Time, money, energy, people’s energy, paper, whatever, internet storage, So how do I even out what I’m giving back? And it might not be like, well I’m using paper so I’m going to grow trees. It’s like I’m using these resources over here so I’m going to contribute more in other places than what I’m using up. And I’m just trying to think of–that’s what B-Corp Assessment kinda does. But I’m just thinking about as a small service business that build, seeing us on the Internet that you can’t touch. What are the things that I can do to even that out? Because I think that the measurement of the business should be all of that, the ecosystem, their impact on all of these things and what they give back, not just what they consume and like money and they give to other people. That’s just that narrative’s destroying us and it’s destroying our minds. It’s destroying our relationships. It’s just kind of messed up. And I think that if more people sort of questioned the fundamental story of what a business is meant to do, then we’ll get somewhere. But I guess we are one of the first to think about it. I think about it every day actually all the time.

16:46 (Cory) — It seems like that, that consumes a lot of the thought of people like yourself. And, so you mentioned one of those lessons in particular in how you’ve thought about competition. We’re bringing up this topic here of the giving back or putting more into the world than what it is that you’re taking in doing what you do. And we mentioned earlier, but 15 years that LimeRed studios has been around. That’s super significant. It’s like really significant. So I’m curious what along the lines of lessons or perhaps opportunities or any sort of tipping points that kind of happened for you over the course of that time. Is there anything else that comes up when you kind of reflect back on it as to what’s like brought y’all here?

17:36 (Emily) — Oh my God. Well, I’m a horrible employee, so that’s number one. I just cannot be an employee. I don’t know. There have been so many things. I mean it’s been so many things and most of what I do now is I kind of try to keep an eye on what’s going to happen and I try to look for patterns and, before for a long time I was me just doing of the work. A lot of times you’re working in and they say work in the business or on the business. I’m mostly on the business now. And, and even then, I have this presentation that I do and I’m going to do it tomorrow about the stages of the business and what ecosystems I put my time into. And not actual ecosystems like forests, but ecosystems of people and industries and different circles of influence.

18:28 And right now I see so many things happening. There’s such an interesting change in how people consume things and how they think about things or how they participate or interact with things. And I feel like things are changing really, really quickly. And so my job now is to look at the future and sort of plan for that and try to figure out how do we stay relevant and helpful while we watch all of these things change. It’s design agency—like we build websites and do all the things and it kinda doesn’t matter. What matters to us is how we think about problems and how we solve problems and who do we have to solve problems and how do we get really inclusive information to solve problems. And I think that the role of what we do is going to be more along the lines of that about more facilitation and pulling out the right thoughts in the right research at the right time to help the world, and this ecosystem of conscious businesses change.

19:26 I think that’s really interesting. And so yeah, I’m always trying to think of the future, which is good and bad because when you think of the future all the time, you forget about where you are right now. So right now my constant struggle is to live in the present, and there’s all this mindfulness stuff going on all the time and it’s just, it’s just so unnatural for me to live in the right now. I barely even acknowledge the past. But living in the future is where I like to live and comfortable there. And I think that it serves a business purpose, but it also makes you kind of crazy. So yeah, looking back, I don’t know. We’ve been, we’ve been able to respond to market and industry perception shifts, which is cool.

20:14 And really we’ve been doing that. We do that by just following what we think is true and right. And just. And that’s changed over time too. So, um, we’ve made a lot of big changes. I moved from Chicago to New York to back. We have repositioned a few times. We’ve let go of service lines. We’ve let go of clients and people and places, all kinds of things. And, and really we’re just always trying to strip down what we do and to what really, really matters to us and to the future. And I think that’s kept us relevant, which is good. I think that when you stop thinking about that and you just do what you’ve always done because you’ve always done it, that’s just the kiss of death.

20:56 (Cory) — Hmm. It’s an interesting combination of what you mentioned of those looking into the future and trying to sit with like what things will never change. So you mentioned that, what problems are you going to solve and, and what people are you going to have around you to do it and what people are you going to help support? And what are the things that will always be the same no matter the technology our perception that comes along. I think about that in a digital marketing be in my space. Like Facebook advertising, I mean, it’s important right now but if I’m only a Facebook ads expert am I really solving what is some core underlying issue of the folks who I want to support and work with. So it’s like that’s the tactic versus perhaps the principle, which it seems like you’re orienting yourself to I guess stay attached to. So that’s, that’s a really important point I think.
21:57 (Emily) — Yeah. So much is what of what we do is being commoditized anyway. So you don’t have to hire us to build a website. I mean you could go do it yourself or offshore it or whatever and you should, it’s cheaper like why not? But the thing that is hard is getting a room full of people to agree on something. That’s hard to do. Or looking at your priorities for the year and figuring out which one will actually make the most impact and which one should I do first. Or which one makes everyone happiest? Or which one makes me happiest? Or what should I look like when we go out there? I know what I think I should be, but what do people care about? And does it matter what they care about or does it just matter my vision? These are, these are things that you need other people to help you answer.

22:45 And the thing that I think will not change is human interaction and the idea of working with a group of people, and this is–and I am the classic, I just want to work by myself. I just want to do at my, I’ll just find it, I’ll do it myself. That’s me. Right? And my partner is the opposite: let’s get everybody’s input so together it’s a good balance of let’s get everyone’s input and find out these solutions and use all these models to do that and then make a decision and go and then figure out from there. I think that the doing of what we do, will probably go away and big websites probably won’t go away for a while, but the way that they’re built will, and even design—design is people don’t really care. You can hire somebody on Fiverr to do a logo or whatever and you should, if that’s what you should do, that’s great if you don’t want to do that, hire someone else. But again, thinking about the nuance of color and cultural context or how does this thing work on a different platform or is it, or does it work with accessibility standards? Do people with visual and different impairments, could they see those things and hear those things? You need a person who knows those things to help you with that.

23:56 I think that the, the knowledge long-term knowledge basis is in a person’s head is not going to go away.

24:03 (Cory) — Yeah. I think it’s that, like you mentioned that and that sense of connection and for what exactly you described there, paying attention to the subtle nuances or context of whatever it is that you’re designing or creating. It’s like that level of care that you just can’t replicate on fiber. And sometimes as a business owner, you’re maybe backed into having to make some decisions like that. But I think if every business owner was very honest with themselves, they’d prefer to have someone working on that thing with that level of care, you know that it seems that you described right there. And so I came across this, and I think this is originally how I found out about LimeRed: Tim Frick published about y’all on his Agencies of Change series with the B the Change blog. And he mentioned your, I guess the title is “LimeRed: Super Awesome Website Giveaway for Ass Kicking Changemakers 2019.” Yeah. So I’m curious as I was clicking through that it seems as if someone’s already gotten that giveaway this year. Could you talk a little bit more about that and perhaps what the future holds for, for things like that? For LimeRed?

25:20 (Emily) — Yeah. That the, yeah. Was added like a week after we decided to name it, because we just needed to yet at the end, but I wanted to be really descriptive about, so, so this was actually a reaction to something. So this idea came while Brett Kavanaugh was being confirmed to the Supreme Court. And I knew he was going to get confirmed when I saw this whole thing start. And I was like, that guy’s in like, we don’t even, we can do this dog and pony show, but this guy is talking to a room full of himself and nothing’s going to change. He’s one of them and this is what we’re up against here. So I just got so angry and I was like, this is the kind of just system and person that gets all the resources, gets the special pass, gets the get out of jail card.

26:08 I mean he should be in jail, get out of everything card and oh by the way, here’s a seat on the Supreme Court for life, right? Like this is, it’s not subtle. This is what is the problem. So I was like, you know what? We just need to give away what we do to somebody who really deserves it. Just need to help someone. I just wanted to help someone really, I was just like, let’s find the most worthy cause or I don’t even know and just give them some services. So we figured out this great way to build a website where we build it in four days for really flat. It’s $15,000 flat fee. It’s awesome. It’s called an immersive because you literally have to be here with us every day. That’s why it works. And we, we typically sell those to small businesses and smaller nonprofits, but we’re like, why don’t we ask people to tell us their story?

26:58 Like tell us the story of, I want to look for groups who are serving significantly marginalized communities, recently, incarcerated people, immigrants, people who are victims of sexual violence, people who are disenfranchised in one way or another. I just want to help that group of people as much as I can. I mean, we’re a business. We do have to charge for our services, but we can give away a website. It’s not that bad, right? And I was like, I just want to, I want to hear the stories and then I want to tell their stories and I want to use my network to tell them. So we gave away a website. We had all these, we had like, I don’t know, 30 and–I mean I kind of did this on a whim and we had 30 or so applicants and they were all so good.

27:42 It was really, really, really hard. And we said we would give consulting services to six of them and then we would tell the stories of everyone who entered, who wanted us to tell their stories. So we’ve been just sharing their story on our social channels just to get more visibility for the people that they serve or the people—who they are. And we ended up giving the website away to the Chicago Metropolitan Battered Women’s Network who I’ve actually had on my radar for a really long time. And it’s like they really need a new website. They should hire us, but I think we’re launching it in a couple of weeks. It’s beautiful. I feel like we really understand what they’re trying to do and how important it is and we’re going to do it again. We’re going to do it every year.

28:26 We’re going to open up the contest or giveaway, actually I have to away giveaway. I think in third quarter we’ll probably run it about the same way. And we are really looking for organizations who serve the people who don’t get those get out of jail free cards and we just want to bring more dollars and visibility to their work. Because I just know that if every design agency did that, if every service based company could do that for somebody who really needed it, who couldn’t afford it, think about where we would be.

28:58 (Cory) — And so what lessons do you feel like you extracted from that experience of having to sort through all those stories and come to what would I would imagine had been a hard decision as to who was that you allotted services for?

29:14 I just need to make more money so I can do it more times too. I mean actually in the last year since we figured this out, we’ve tried to streamline our services that we can have free things. We have really, really cheap things. We have a book, we have a, we do also do a podcast. We write our blog. I do events that I give away tickets to. We really wanted to make this accessible for everybody wherever they are, however they’re starting, whatever their budget, all the things. So we’ve tried to diversify how we price our services just so that we can be a little bit more inclusive. But I mean we still have a lot of work to do but at least they’re thinking about it and I think that’s good. I don’t want to say I want to be a nonprofit so I could do this all the time cause I don’t, but I want to show other businesses that doing something like that and actually giving it away to somebody who really, truly needs the services. It not only feels really good, it helps you attract talent, it helps you attract other customers. It’s a great thing to talk about. It’s sort of a win for everybody and it really didn’t take too much effort to do it. So it doesn’t always have to be about the money, I guess is the lesson.

30:22 (Cory) — A very important one. Indeed. Emily will thank you so much for taking the time to chat with me here on the Grow Ensemble Podcast. before we tidy up, is there anything that you feel like we missed, any places you’d like to plug for folks to, to keep up with you and in LimeRed?

30:43 (Emily) — I’ve fallen in love with Linkedin so you can find me there all day long or subscribe to our newsletter and we are really excited in a couple of weeks to announce officially that we have partnered with an agency in El Salvador. So we will now be expanding our service line and also Spanish language market. It makes us international, I think it’s really exciting and we’ve just found a wonderful symbiotic relationship with another agency in El Salvador called Fat Kid Studio and we’ve just, we’ve known them for a year, we’d love it and we’re just so excited to work together in a big way.

31:20 (Cory) — That’s awesome. We’re looking forward to, to tracking that and seeing how, how that all goes. Thanks. Great. Well, thanks again, Emily, once, once more. Really appreciate your time and we’ll keep in touch.

31:32 (Emily) — Thank you. Yeah, good luck.

31:35 Hey, Yo, that’s a wrap. I really hope you enjoyed this episode of the Grow Ensemble Podcast. And as a reminder, if you are a fan of the podcast, please let us know. Hitting subscribe and leaving a review in iTunes or wherever you get your podcasts greatly influences other folks finding our show. As well, don’t forget, we have full show notes over at growensemble.com where I’d also advise you sign up for our newsletter. There you will be able to keep up with new releases, giveaways that we launch in any events we host. Thanks again for listening in.