Ellie Hearne – CEO and Founder of Pencil or Ink

Learn from your mistakes and setbacks – the best leaders do.

Ellie Hearne started Pencil or Ink after more than a decade spent helping individuals and organizations succeed through strong communication.

A published writer and skilled public speaker, she has worked in London, New Delhi, and New York, and is depended on by numerous industry leaders to help them do what they do, better. She counts Google, Apple, Agenda, Spotify, Morgan Stanley, Starbucks, BlueCrest Capital, Marriott, Opower, Twitter, and World50 among her clients, past and present.

Prior to founding Pencil or Ink, Ellie spent over four years in nonprofit communications before making the leap to the private sector as a consultant for London’s Addison Group, and more recently as VP of SNP Communications’ NYC office.

Combining the professional and personal, Ellie takes a particular interest in helping new parents conquer their next professional challenge – whether that means transitioning back to work or something else.

She earned a Master’s degree with first-class honors from the University of St Andrews, after also studying at Washington College in Maryland (Dean’s List).

Ellie was born in Ireland and raised in Scotland. But she’s a New Yorker at heart.

Where did the idea for Pencil or Ink come from?

A client. Having spent years working with senior leaders, both as an agency VP and as a freelancer, I hadn’t considered becoming a founder myself until a client suggested it. And I’m glad she did: just a few months on, I have a successful business to my name.

The best part? It’s making me better at what I do. With ten years’ communication experience under my belt and five of leadership coaching specifically, I’ve had the consulting credentials for a long time. But as a CEO and founder, I’m better placed to advise other entrepreneurs and leaders – and I’m enjoying it. It feels good to lead a company whose culture and approach I believe in 100%.

What does your typical day look like and how do you make it productive?

I’m woken around 7am by a human alarm clock – my 1.5-year-old daughter – or by a canine one – my labrador retriever. After making breakfast with her or walking the dog (my husband and I take turns), I shower, dress, and head out to work.

NPR is my soundtrack – I like to stay informed without being a slave to my phone. My Brooklyn-Manhattan commute is equal parts reflection/breathing space and podcast time. (Current favorites: Pod Save America, How I Built This, and The West Wing Weekly.)

Work is at a client site or a Spacious location. Spacious gives me flexibility – they take over high-end restaurants and turn them into coworking locations, so I simply head for one that’s near my meetings for the day.

After some email triage, I dive into the real work – that could be providing leadership advice to a CEO, coaching a new parent who’s planning their return to work, or helping an executive with their messaging. Some days, I facilitate offsites outside of the city – providing a third-party perspective and helping move a whole team forward. It’s a good feeling.

In between client work, I steer the Pencil or Ink ship. Setting strategy or planning our own communication. Our business development is purely by word of mouth – but I want to show people who encounter us that we know what we’re doing. That means disseminating clear and impactful communications via our site, our social channels, and partner sites like Thrive Global, where I guest blog.

Evenings are typically family time, date nights, or time spent with friends. It’s important to recharge. Occasionally I work late, but I endeavor to be fully unplugged by 10pm.

How do you bring ideas to life?

I try them, adjust them, and try them again. For anything I’m less sure about, I consult my advisory board for a gut check.

Having one is also a great way to stay accountable. A good board member will give you a confidence boost or reality check from time to time, too.

What’s one trend that excites you?

Public figures and business leaders talking openly about personal struggles.

For example, Sheryl Sandberg sharing her experience of bereavement, Virgin Money CEO Jayne-Anne Gadhia going on record about postpartum depression, and JK Rowling talking about how government assistance helped her write the Harry Potter books (which of course ultimately contributed millions of pounds to the UK economy).

Becoming a parent was a huge identity shift for me. I love it, and I love the impact it had on my professional life (I quit my agency job and went freelance before ultimately starting a company), but like all the best changes, it wasn’t an easy one. It’s reassuring to know I’m not alone in the that.

What is one habit of yours that makes you more productive as an entrepreneur?

Practicing what I preach. If I’m struggling in a particular area, inevitably a client has been through something similar and I haven’t hesitated to dole out advice. Reminding myself to follow that advice (and then actually following it) lets me deal with the challenge, move past it, and anticipate on the next one. It’s the first part of that that’s tough.

What advice would you give your younger self?

Embrace your “brand”. I used to be self-conscious about my hybrid Scottish/Irish accent, but here in the US it’s very clearly an asset.

So much of leadership coaching, beyond the skill-building and consulting, is about reminding people to truly “own it” and helping them gain confidence. Even the best of us get nervous or otherwise falter – it’s how you deal with it that counts.

Tell us something that’s true that almost nobody agrees with you on?

Without true co-parenting (where parents equally share child-rearing responsibilities), workplace inequality will persist. I know I’m not alone in this belief, but I’ve been disappointed by how many millennial parents leave the lion’s share of the second shift to the mother. It’s harder for both parents to contribute their best at work (and in life) if one of them takes on a disproportionate share of family work.

As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?

Listen. Truly listen – and that doesn’t mean just waiting until it’s your turn to talk. You learn nothing when you’re the only one speaking, so let someone else steer the conversation for a change.

What is one strategy that has helped you grow your business? Please explain how.

Take a human approach – to everything.

Think of someone you used to work with and wonder how they’re doing? Send them a one-line note.

See a great article somewhere? Share it with someone who’ll find it useful.
Receive a favor from a contact? Thank them. Sincerely.

People remember such things, and it’s a small world. The impact of this human approach over the years has surprised even me: before starting my company, I thought I’d have to invest a lot of time and resources in business development. But a lifelong commitment to relationships/straight-up politeness has garnered me a deep bench of referrals.

What is one failure you had as an entrepreneur, and how did you overcome it?

For a variety of ultimately quite boring reasons, I ended up launching my business a few months later than planned. It felt like a huge setback at the time, but in practice it was a blessing. I was able to spend more time planning, and an early “soft launch” allowed me to give clients and partners a heads-up. It built momentum around the actual launch – and what company doesn’t benefit from that?

What is one business idea that you’re willing to give away to our readers?

Coworking space with childcare attached. And when you crack the code, give me a call.

What is the best $100 you recently spent? What and why?

Quality business cards. As a communications company, we need to show that we’re credible and polished in every interaction. And as a founder, I appreciated how opening that first box of cards made Pencil or Ink seem more real.

What is one piece of software or a web service that helps you be productive? How do you use it?

Fairygodboss. Think Glassdoor, but with an emphasis on family-friendliness and company culture as it impacts woman. I advise all my clients – male and female – who are thinking of switching employers to check it out. Information is power, and figuring out if you’re compatible with a company’s culture will make a huge difference to your day-to-day success and happiness. And for what it’s worth, gender equality = quality. A company who treats all its employees well and takes a human approach to parental leave and the like is a company worth working for.

Hello Sitter is heaven-sent. It gets qualified, experienced, CPR-certified, background-checked sitters to my door at an hour’s notice. It’s been a game-changer in helping my husband (who is also an entrepreneur) and me maintain and grow our businesses as working parents. Leaving my daughter with a “stranger” was a huge hurdle, but Hello Sitter – being founded by a parent after she faced the same struggle – made it easy.

What is the one book that you recommend our community should read and why?

“Option B”, by Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant. Few people are living their “option A” – so why make the most of what we’ve got?

Key learnings:

– Learn from your mistakes and setbacks – the best leaders do.
– Embrace your “brand” – often it’s the things that seem like negatives that differentiate us and give us an edge.
– In work and in life, remember to own it, listen, and take a human approach.


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