Geek of the Week: Brea Starmer found freedom — and her own company — in flexible, remote work

(Photo courtesy of Brea Starmer)

From the “she shed” that serves as a home office sanctuary in her yard, Brea Starmer has learned a thing or two about working remotely over the years. But even as the founder of her own flexible-work marketing firm, who is used to wrangling remote teams, the situation during the COVID-19 pandemic has been different.

“These are particularly challenging work-from-home times,” said Starmer, founder of Bellevue, Wash.-based Lions+Tigers and our latest Geek of the Week. “Even those of us who are good at this are finding new and creative ways to connect with both our clients and team.”

Starmer hired a “Manager of Consultant Delight” who sends weekly gifts to the homes of the company’s consultants. The gifts are curated from local suppliers, including a small a coffee shop and a chocolate store. An Amazon gift card included a list of family friendly board game recommendations.

Like many remote teams, Lions+Tigers has set up informal coffee dates and happy hours via Zoom, and they’re relying heavily on Slack and such channels as #virtualwork and #askmeanything to share best practices around tools, homeschooling, troubleshooting, or even funny memes.

“Most importantly, we’ve been very intentional about checking in with each team member to see how they are really doing and if they need any schedule accommodation,” Starmer said. “Each family is so unique, we’ve found that outreach to be particularly important.”

A Pacific Northwest native who grew up in the South Seattle area, Starmer’s parents were both self-taught entrepreneurs. Her father owned a popular bar in West Seattle and sold real estate and her mom was a marketing executive and consultant. Starmer was the first of her family to graduate from college and took full advantage of her time at Washington State University, where she was elected as the eighth female student body president in school history.

“That taste of advocacy work led me to take a role in public sector marketing for Microsoft just after graduation,” said Starmer, who spent almost five years at the tech giant before the entrepreneurial juices kicked in and she joined JefferyM Consulting as its first employee.”I took on every role in the company. I got my hands dirty. It was amazing. I have such enormous respect and empathy for how integrated and complex every function of a company can be and how much humanity an employer needs to have.”

In 2015, after a stop with a digital marketing agency, Starmer joined Porch, the Seattle home services platform, as employee 435.

“And that’s when my career planning stopped,” she said. “Ten months later, and seven months pregnant with my first kid, I was laid off along with 20 percent of the staff. I wasn’t ‘hirable.’ I was without a job or health benefits. The only work I could get was on contract. I billed 60 hours a week until my son was born just to save enough money for a short maternity leave.”

Starmer found a way forward through consulting and the creation of Lions+Tigers.

“The lifestyle unlocked a freedom and level of impact I never knew in previous in-house jobs,” Starmer said. “I knew I had to share this way of working with as many people as I could — and especially wanted to help other working mothers. And with that, I set out to build the company of my dreams where impact is measured in the number of people we employ and the work they do, not the hours they clock.”

Learn more about this week’s Geek of the Week, Brea Starmer:

What do you do, and why do you do it? In 2018, I founded Lions+Tigers because I couldn’t find a company that fit my needs. As a mom who wanted to work something less than 40 hours, I had no options. Our work world is all or nothing. So I set out to create an agency building a bridge to the future of work, to empower professionals and enable clients through part-time consulting engagements to harness this movement and achieve more, more flexibly.

Do you know how much a working mama can get done in 20 hours?!

I am obsessive about helping people find their “highest and best use.” It’s a real estate term for ensuring a piece of land is developed in the way that best suits it — and the same applies to people. Once we lock in on the work that we are most suited to do, we can fiercely prioritize and downshift other work. We find that when people work this way, both our clients and our consultants can unlock 10-15 hours each week for passion projects (or, in my case, running after toddlers).

People talk about “work-life balance” and my life is like 30-minute blocks of running from one meeting to the next to a kid’s school thing and then to the grocery store. There is no balance, there is only peace with the season of life I’m currently in. And as soon as we start having honest conversations about what we really need in this season, we can go about finding best-fit work, even if that means working less. We shouldn’t apologize for those needs. In fact, I believe that brands should consider access to our team, even part-time, as a strategic advantage.

What’s the single most important thing people should know about your field? The world has shifted recently, but the movement was already underway. It is predicted that by 2027, more than half of American professionals will be freelancers. At the same time, brands need to do more with less, iterate quickly, and have access to talent to solve unique needs. It’s not always possible to hire full time employees — and that’s when a specialist can step in for a sprint project. We make those connections possible and it lets everyone get what they need.

There’s a misperception that freelancers are lower skilled than in-house employees and that’s far from true. Our consultants have 10 years of experience on average and have held positions like Marketing Director, General Manager, Operations Director, Analytics Lead, etc. We have a member of our team on what she calls a “corporate detox” because she was one woman on a team of 85 product managers and she just couldn’t keep going. Now, she’s working 20 hours per week on a very high-impact project bringing a SaaS product to market and she is able to make her kid’s soccer practice without guilt or apology.

Where do you find your inspiration? For my 16th birthday, my dad bought me a 6-pack of Tony Robbins CDs, so I suppose I started there. In college, I loved to learn about how PNW leaders built their careers and their companies so I’d watch documentaries or read biographies on folks like Bill Gates or Howard Schultz. As I’ve gotten older, however, I realize now that my early inspiration truly did come from my parents, as it does for most.

I actually remember as a young girl going to my mom’s office with her and I’d sleep under her desk as she worked late. I didn’t mind, I loved watching her in her element while I colored and would sneak into the president’s corner office to spin in his chair, dreaming.

And now, I draw so much energy from the folks who choose to work with Lions+Tigers. I’m just in awe of their work, their energy and what they bring to our community. It makes everything so fulfilling.

What’s the one piece of technology you couldn’t live without, and why? Well, in the last two months, certainly, it’s been Zoom and Teams! Since starting my consulting career, I’ve worked from home a lot and our company is mostly virtual — so this new way of work is old hat for us. But building connections exclusively through video conference software is a new challenge and I’ve become super reliant on this technology to continue growing our firm. (Also Snap Camera plug-in is key for the best filters).

(Photo courtesy of Brea Starmer)

What’s your workspace like, and why does it work for you? When we aren’t sheltering at home, I split my time as a nomad traveling between coffee shops, our clients’ offices, our co-working space at The Riveter, and my She Shed (above).

When I realized my second kid was going to steal my home office for his nursery, we decided to build a “she shed” in my front yard. It’s been a lifesaver with kiddos at home. I use my windows as whiteboards, I have a good webcam, and I keep the best snacks out there. Kids will sometimes come out and sneak into my conference calls and I love it.

Your best tip or trick for managing everyday work and life. (Help us out, we need it.) Oh, this one is easy, just lower your expectations! Kidding (sorta). There are three things that I consider crucial to my productivity: 1. A strong partnership with my husband, Andrew, where we divide responsibilities through a weekly check-in meeting, 2. Religious use of a to-do app or program to keep everything documented (I like Todoist), and 3. I outsource everything I can responsibly afford.

Mac, Windows or Linux? Windows forever.

Kirk, Picard, or Janeway? I once tweeted on behalf of a client saying that “Klingon was from Star Wars,” so this may not be my jam.

Transporter, Time Machine or Cloak of Invisibility? Time machine. The value of ACTUALLY knowing the future would be remarkable.

If someone gave me $1 million to launch a startup, I would … Hire a group of high-impact working mamas as a think tank. The kind of problem-solving and creativity skills we need to employ on a daily basis could solve many, many problems.

I once waited in line for … A chance to be on “The Apprentice.” Remember that show?

Your role models: Melinda Gates because of her advocacy for mothers and women around the world. Oprah for opening the world to conversations none of us were able to have before she showed us the way. Breeé Brown for leading with research and heart and causing an era of self-reflection and empathy that was sorely needed. Locally, Amy Nelson, founder of The Riveter, for showing me how to be an authentic female founder. And Sarah Peck, founder of Startup Pregnant, for bringing motherhood to the workplace and empowering us to demand better.

Greatest game in history Fastpitch. It’s a family sport for us — my dad, my brother and I all played.

Best gadget ever: A blender to make Piña Coladas.

First computer: Mac. I played “Oregon Trail” in my bedroom growing up.

Current phone: Android Galaxy S10.

Favorite app: Podcast Addict (which I am) or Voxer (for sending voice-memos to my staff and girlfriends).

Favorite cause: I’ve been involved in Outdoor School for elementary kids since I was 16. I now support the program by training high schoolers to be camp counselors. I believe outdoor camp programs change lives and build life-long skills for students at a critical age, so I support http://www.ospreycamp.org/.

Most important technology of 2020: The startups and healthcare workers focused on finding a vaccine for Covid-19.

Most important technology of 2022: Call me an idealist, but I think our post-Covid world will be more human, more empathetic. One major trend for brands right now is how they are connecting with customers digitally — through virtual experiences, events, and communities. In 2022, technology focused on deepening these relationships will be critical.

Final words of advice for your fellow geeks: Seek out ways to build a courage practice into your life. Find others who live the way you want to live and seek them out. The pursuit of fearlessness is a life-long practice but one that can lead to a much more fulfilling existence. Life’s short, there’s no time to be in a job/relationship/setting that doesn’t make you your best.

Website: Lions+Tigers

Twitter: @LionsTigersco

LinkedIn: Brea Starmer