Amy’s Journey to “Intentionally Different”

by Amy Kohl

After realizing I had pioneered a fairly repeatable process for the last company that I worked for, I set out to do my own thing. I wanted to pursue better balance, create fulfilling work, and create an environment where work—even if it was intense—would fit around my life. This doesn’t mean in terms of work from home or flexible hours. It means to do meaningful work for good people – that my work would be so measurable my value was based on my impact, not the clock. Plus, I hated the mental weight of downplaying my “mom-side” so my career could continue to soar, and I wasn’t looking for any handouts or exceptions. But it was hard.

Fast forward to today. AK Operations has served over 100 clients in 10 countries with 12 Super Sharp chicks. This is the story I am most proud to share: designing my “brand” and company with our 11 lives in mind. This is the story of why I wanted to work to live—and how I designed my life around my work.

At the time, I didn’t realize how many events in my life would lead up to the brand I would one day create for myself and, in turn, my company. This is the story of how I chose to do things differently and, inadvertently, do my brand differently.

Hustle Differently

Growing up, there were very few professional working women around me. While my dad sold tow trucks for a family business, my mom stayed home with my sisters and me, occasionally working odd jobs here and there. My mom taught us three important lessons: to know that the most important things in life aren’t things, to care for the healthy bodies God gave us, and to always serve others. In essence, I had a very, very good life.

They believed that sports would teach us just as much as any formal education would. And that’s exactly what I did. Soccer defined my life and work ethic. I was on a relentless mission to be better, learn and challenge myself. To show up every day for my team even when I didn’t feel like it. If I committed to something, I did it. If my team needed me, I was there. I found such fulfillment through my team wins. I felt no difference in the joy I felt when we won some of the biggest games in my career whether I scored the winning goal or if I was on the bench. In fact, I’ve intentionally brought the team mentality to my family and my company.

However, as I got older, I started to recognize that money was tight for my family. My parents had three kids in private school and lots of select sports to pay for. As I grew up, I started to do the rough math of a mortgage + cars + tuition, and suddenly, all of my mom’s regretful sounding “nos” to my teenage spending requests made so much more sense. I was 16 when I applied for a Kohl’s Credit Card under my mom’s advice to start building credit, and that was when I saw her punch in our household income on the application pad as my cosigner. And that’s the exact moment I had a benchmark to beat. The same time I decided to double my shifts at work. From then on, I was going to hustle differently than my friends and perhaps even my parents. I was on a mission to leverage the values instilled in me as a child, but also work hard and define my own success as a woman.

Work Differently

After graduating college, while my friends were attending college fairs and applying for career jobs, I had different priorities. My mom had cancer, like bad cancer, so my dad needed to go back to working more full-time hours. I started looking for unconventional jobs so I could stay with my mom during the day.

I ended up bartending at night then one morning, I found myself at a men’s networking group. I didn’t realize it was a men’s networking group until I was there, obviously, but it was there that I landed my first gig with a startup that allowed me to work from home—before working from home was even a thing. At this moment, my family was challenged as my mom was in a fight for her life. But out of all the discomfort and uncertainty, fate would have it that I would integrate into my first start-up with a flexible schedule.

So compared to all of my friends who were nurses, teachers or worked at agencies, I worked differently… but my work worked around my life. And that’s what was most important to me—and always will be. I spent a lot of memorable times with my mom when every day felt like a bonus day.

Live Differently

Fasting forward, my mom lost her battle against cancer and I had my first of three babies. I was 26. It felt like a hard shift in the universe after I lost my mom just 15 days after giving birth to Grace. Talk about living life with a new perspective.

My time in this beautiful world became so valuable as I nursed my brand new baby while watching my mom slip away and into Heaven. This was the moment I knew I needed to perfect my skills so I could channel my hunger for working around my life and ultimately my family. I was intentionally going to live differently. Time is everything.

After two more babies, Mila and Dominic, my former employer’s exit strategy came into play and it was my time to do my thing… and AK Operations was born. In the early days of my business, I was naive to think others would ever join me. After all, I only had 4 clients. Yet the business was good and I was fulfilled, challenged, and balanced.

However, my addiction to selling soon kicked in and clients weren’t leaving (thankfully!). I quickly lost balance and became inundated with work. Then one of my favorite mentors told me, “This has changed your life. Stop thinking so small. Let AK Operations change other people’s lives, too.” But she didn’t mean my clients. Sure, their sales orgs and companies have changed since our partnership, but she was talking about building a team.

Business Differently

After looking at my workload, pipeline, and all the numbers, I was convinced that I had another opportunity in my life to do business differently. To this day, I regret naming the business after me because of all the amazing ladies who have joined me. First, there was Mallory and Shelby, then there was Sara, then there was Krista, and then Danielle and Anna and Christy and Meredith and Kalie and Tina.

Now there are 12 of us, all running our business and serving our clients from St. Louis, Missouri every day. Notice: all women (although interviewing a gentleman now!), “our” business, and “our” clients. Although all women in gender, the diverse personalities, and backgrounds of each individual member make our team very, very dynamic. I love them for joining me on this journey and sharing the ups and downs of the daily grind. I truly feel this is our business. I still consider their opinions on our business decisions and ask for feedback endlessly. After all, I certainly do not know it all and appreciate the fact that these smart women have intentions of making the business better too. But emotions aside, I wanted to put my money where my mouth is. At AK Operations, our comp model is structured around our clients hitting their goals— with the right combination of campaign creativity + client engagement + AK Ops results. Sharing revenue was important to me, which is why my first order of business was to structure compensation differently than other companies.

My Professional Brand

During the first year of AK Ops, a mentor of mine told me to stop stressing out about whether my business was going to make it. She reminded me to just “focus on doing good work”. To this day, that is a founding principle and minimum expectation of our every day at AK Ops. To do good work, every day, all the time, for every client.

After the business took off and more people joined my team, I took that principle one step further and sought to “do good work with and for good people.” I no longer only serve clients—our team serves each other intentionally each and every day. Being good teammates and good people is in the DNA of my teammates. After all, this is a team sport.

The non-negotiables of my company include 1) Life: guilt-free freedom to embrace the right to work to live, 2) Team: a balance of support and accountability, and always choose to see the good in others, 3) Client: deliver good, honest work every single day.

Although difficult at times and with plenty of learning curves, our team has successfully designed a business that offers good people better balance, more fulfilling work, and an environment where work—although intense—works around our lives. This is what I am most proud of.