The First 17 Years: Building our family while growing a business with the Hubs, J.R. Sauder

J.R. is steady and long-term, and he understands Tiffany’s need to fulfill the dreams inside her. In this episode of the First 17 Years, Tiffany and J.R. give a glimpse into the early days of building Element Three while growing their family. There were several fork-in-the-road moments both personally and professionally, begging the question: Was it all worth it?

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”Growing Element Three and growing our family happened on the exact same timeline.”

Getting married and quickly buying a business wasn't the original plan. The pressures of maintaining a strong relationship and managing a company through a recession — all while growing a family — created a recipe for chaos. For Tiffany, it was part of the journey to living a life of ‘ands’.

Chapter 3: Dedicated to J.R. Sauder — “the Hubs”

J.R. is steady and long-term, and he understands Tiffany’s need to fulfill the dreams inside her. In this episode of the First 17 Years, Tiffany and J.R. give a glimpse into the early days of building Element Three while growing their family. There were several fork-in-the-road moments both personally and professionally, begging the question: Was it all worth it?

For more exclusive content and a deeper look into Tiffany and JR’s relationship, follow @ScaredConfident on Instagram.

Tiffany: When you decide to do something big or feel called to do something big, there's an expense that you don't understand that other people have to pay to. She didn't know what it was yet, but she was really trying to build something meaningful. She just always had these big ideas. There was no fear, no hesitation at all.

It was like, this is my moment. And I'm gonna take it. I don't know how long it can stay this bad, but it can't really get worse. These people, these voices, these experiences, they were my mentors. They are the people who help build and refine and grow me into the leader that I have the opportunity to sort of be today.

This is the first 17 years, chapter four, JR Sauder also known as the hub. JR is steady. He's long term. He's not impulsive. He thinks all the way around a problem before he acts. And that maturity and patience and decision making has made a huge impact on my own leadership. And what Jr has taught me, I think has also created a more sustainable company in a more sustainable environment for our family.

I would say we were on the same page with accepting the risk, but also. Aware that, Hey, if we're gonna do this, we're gonna do it early. Knowing that like failure was talked about, and it was okay from a result, but like we gotta take some swings, growing a family and building a business happened on the exact same timeline together.

We have four girls, their names are Aubrey, Ainsley, Ivy, and Quincy. Aubrey's 13 all the way down to Quincy who just turned. In spite of the fact that I very much have a big career and have a lot of kids when I was younger, even though people saw in me, this creator, this communicator, this like leader, I still saw myself when I was older, my life looking like my moms, like I thought it would be what my mom was that I would stay home and I would raise my kids.

And so it was this. Kind of constant surprise to me, actually that every time I had a baby, I wanted to go back to work. The right place for me, the right place for our life was for me to have a career for me to be a business owner, for me to be an entrepreneur, for me to create and to lead and to communicate.

And so it has been a journey with Jr in like unpacking. What does that life mean for us? Because it changes in a lot of ways as you move through all these transitions of. One kid to two, two to three, three to four, then they're at different stages and ages and his job looks different than mine. And so it's been this like weaving together, architecting our life in a way that we both love it.

And then our kids are really thriving.

It's a look at like the lessons learned along the way and the characters who built my character, what led up into. 42 year old, Tiffany, and we couldn't possibly tell that story without talking to you. You were present for lots of it. I was and very helpful sometimes for some of it, it was a hard, a lot.

And you were there for the like peaks in the valley. So this discussion is just me reflecting on where you've built my character and you. Sharing like your observations of me and of the journey. Tiffany and I met actually through my sister, my sister and Tiffany were friends. They were attending the same church and Tiffany, uh, was brought up in conversation as somebody that I just needed to meet from my sister.

And I was living in San Francisco at the time. I thought I would just go to business school. That was the next step for me was not really looking. For a girlfriend at the time I was very career focused. Like I, I just felt like I needed to check some boxes for myself and, and establish like where I needed to go on my career path before adding anybody else to the equation.

So I kind of like agreed. To get together with Tiffany, but it was at the big 10 basketball tournament. And so it seemed pretty safe. Yep. I can check the box. I did this, so my sister can leave me alone when we first met, even I would say, I just knew something was different. I was 24 when Jr and I met and we did not know each other existed on the planet until then.

It was like, we didn't have mutual friends or any of that kind of stuff. And we were both outta college. I had been at Lilly for a couple of years. Supporting a big manufacturing facility as a financial analyst and in the world of Lilly, my achiever self was trying to figure out like, how do I win? And I had my site set on going back and getting my MBA and getting sponsored.

And I wanted to know if I could compete. If I went to Harvard, I went to. One of these Ivy league schools. Could I do it? And so I was in the process of sitting for my GMAT when Jr and I met. So I was in that like space of independence, exercising that, getting comfortable with the idea of. Being alone and, and like, I think beginning to enjoy what that meant.

And then I met Jr. And I remember so vividly the very first time I saw him, he had come in town for, uh, a lion basketball tournament who was living in California at the time. He's a big lion basketball fan. And I was supposed to be a group, big group of people that went. That didn't happen. There was just four of us.

And so we scalp tickets. And so we didn't all sit together. And so we just had two and two, so he, and I ended up sitting beside each other during a whole basketball tournament. And I remember just feeling incredibly safe in his presence. And I remember just instantly trusting him. And I wouldn't say I'm a low trust person at all.

But I'm wickedly independent. And it's still a thing that like, if there's something that rubs in our marriage, it's usually that very independent. And so for me to like, almost just like rest comfortably in his arms, like figuratively speaking from the like first second I met him was a very unusual feeling for me.

And I remember going to the bathroom one time during one of the games and I looked in the mirror and I literally said to myself, I'm going to marry him. I was like, that's so strange that those words just came outta my mouth. cause I, I hadn't even totally thought it if I'm was like, it just came out. And 13 months later we were.

I feel like it was very irrational for you in particular. I feel like people would say I'm more impulsive, but you are not impulsive. I'm not, it was observed as irrational behavior by the Jr. Ser trying to describe that to my friends who had known me, they were like, not quite certain, like what had happened.

She better be great or pregnant. Right, right. Exactly. Some of that I worked at Lilly for two and a half years and there were a couple things that were happen. Lily was going through a really big inflection point where Prozac was a huge part of the Lily portfolio at the time. And it was going off patent and it was really like a, D-Day kind of a situation when Prozac goes off patent, it's gonna be.

An issue for Lily. So I was there when that happened and when that happened, it had a huge impact from a financial perspective. And so like they froze a lot of things, a lot of promotions, a lot of moves, a lot of all that. And so I was 24, so I was starting to get itchy, the idea of anything freezing for any period of time.

In that stage of your life just feels like eternity. And so that was happening alongside. I was beginning to see great big companies move slower than small ones that was beginning to like create friction for me individually. I needed a place that was more entrepreneurial. It was a great place to learn, but it was not my forever spot.

So my dad. Is an entrepreneur he's always has new business interests going. And so I left Lilly to go move back home and work for one of the things that my dad was, was working on. Was also engaged at the time. And so if I'm being completely intellectually honest with everyone, I think part of me wanted to have more space to plan my wedding and be with my mom and do some of that stuff too.

So I left Lily and I moved home. So I was working for my dad and the company I was working for needed some creative updates. And so we were looking for a partner to help us with that. And it was in that process that I. Steven Nyla Neely, the, the owners of Neely design. So we really reached out to them to help us with a project that then started, I would say like the tiniest.

Embryo of a relationship. It's not like we'd been hanging out for years. And like this naturally came up to buy their business at all. but we started to see like, well, if we're gonna need design resources consistently, would it make sense for us to just buy a marketing company? So one of the ideas we were working on at the time was if you owned several different companies, you could centralize their back office functions.

You could centralize HR, you could centralize accounting. And all companies at some point use marketing. And so we could also have a marketing company that we owned that was then supporting this like portfolio of companies that used that marketing company as a resource. So when we met Steve and Nyla, we kind of exported that idea and they were interested in selling us the business, but that was really how it happened.

It wasn't very strategic. It wasn't very known. It wasn't like we had a relationship with one another, but we just got to. And there was like cat vomit on the floor. When I first stepped in, that was my first impression, I think, were there three or four employees at that time, something like that. Some somewhere in that range and all the conversations were around having one, maybe two clients that they had, and it was.

A small business. You could say the American dream that was trying to be, be played out. And at that time I was working in a business valuation role. I had seen a lot of small businesses that people were buying and selling. So it wasn't something I was totally unfamiliar with as a concept. But you know, as you go through and you're the one.

Potentially purchasing the business with Tiffany's family as well. I was trying to like fit the pieces all together within the first five minutes. And I'm projecting out what does the next seven years look like? And nobody else is having those thoughts. I don't think, you know, then the ride home is like, well, what do you think?

It's a good idea. Did you, did you like the team? And I'm just not ready to answer those questions yet. and so I'm like, can we see the financial state? Well, Yeah. You know, the financials don't have any, yeah. Yeah. It's more of a guess at this point. Uh, here's what we think it is. And so, I don't know, I just feel like I'm super practical and there was a lot of, uh, uh, excitement for sure on Tiffany's part.

And vision, I would say on her side that it took me a little bit longer to understand. I would say what a marketing agency could be versus what, the one where I just skipped over the cat vomit was that is not reflective of the work actually. That was being done. Cause when I saw the work of the agency that they're doing, I'm like, oh, okay.

Like I get it. I get the value of what's being provided in this service. One of the things I'm so grateful about in J and I's relationship is that professionally, we both play in the same sandbox. We're both in the, the game of business and we have very complimentary skillset. Jar's mind is incredibly strategic.

He can see like four moves ahead on everything. He also has just a really advanced financial vocabulary and like the way he understands the way companies come together. And he does not have a law degree, but he like quasi does, which is all the deal documents he reads and all of the legal agreements he puts together.

And so he's really good at assessing risk as well. So, We're not quite, we're not married yet, but obviously stepping into this environment is gonna change our marriage. I consulted him even then not like, what should I do? Cuz he's never told me I can or can't do something. That's not a relationship. And the same with me.

Like I don't tell him what he can and can't do. But we do advi, like consult one another. Like, what do you see in this scenario? What are the risks that you see? What do you think the implications of this are gonna be? Can you see around a corner that I can't? And so those are the types of discussions that we had then, and we still have them today where his things are his things and my things are mine, but we really trust and respect.

Lean on one another to help us be more rounded individually in the like business pursuits that we have. So even then that was a part of our relationship.

I don't know that the thing I'm doing is different than what jar would've imagined. I think he would've said I'll be a leader of people. I'll be around people. I'll be in a place where I have influence and control because that's how I experiment quickly. But I think the industry I'm in is what if Jr got to pick, he would've picked something differently for me simply because there is no defendable competitive advantage.

You just have to be better. What does that mean? And how, and so there's no natural moat around a technology or a process or an industry or something like. There's no natural moat. And part of me, I think, loves the constant fight of like, you just have to be better. And there's something about that, that appeals to me.

I don't know, but that's the piece. I think it would be different in what Jr. Would've chosen something that more naturally scales, same, something that more naturally creates an annuity. Something that more naturally has a competitive advantage. That's sustainable. This is not that kind of business. . I never felt like you were not supportive of me being in it, but I don't know that it's ever what you would've picked for me to do, because it's a really hard business.

Yeah. I would agree with that just from a professional services standpoint and knowing what that is. I never felt like you weren't supportive, but I sort of always knew it's not what you would've probably bought off the shelf on your own for me to do with our. Time and treasure . Yeah, that's completely fair.

Mm-hmm completely fair. We never have said that, but I know that's true. When you start a professional services group, it's all about the people. That's why I think when I walked in that first time, it was okay. This is a group that has to support Tiffany and the business and where it's going and have a skillset that is, is valuable to the market.

I would say we were on the same page with accepting the risk, but also. Aware that, Hey, if we're gonna do this, we're gonna do it early. Knowing that like failure was talked about, and it was okay from a result, but like we gotta take some swings. I mean, going from stable job on my side, like keeping one income, very stable, I think was a big bet.

For some reason, we were really always on the same page with the amount of risk, like the risk profile in the home. In any given time, I feel like there was never conflict around that. Both kind of knew the game. We knew we were taking risks and I didn't feel like it had to pay off, you know what I mean?

Like we could be wrong and it would be okay. Like, I think we understood what we were doing. Cause even on the element three side, your paycheck was more predictable than mine. It wasn't that there weren't holdbacks or, Hey, we'll have to catch up in a couple pay periods for me. Everybody else can get paid, but I think what could surprise people if they know us, but it's like, we actually have very few things just try to have.

'em be nice. And I think that was what we did back then too. It's like, oh, I wanna have nice things. So people didn't maybe realize how, how bad the financial. Situation was, but at the same time we weren't racking up debt. That was something that we were, yeah, we were very aligned on that. If we're gonna fail, it's not because you know, we're gonna owe people a bunch of money.

It's just that we're just not gonna have the cash flow to sustain. What we need to live off of Jr. Has been very patient with me in the journey. I just never felt like I had permission and I don't even know from who like to stop. I just knew I was supposed to keep. There were a lot of years where I could have been making more money, like if I'm gonna be working and putting all this pressure on our family and what it costs for me to work outside of the home and the like relational expense that comes from just like having two big things going on all the time.

Like if we're gonna do all that. Then it better be worth it. Well, what is worth it mean it's like, well, if you don't have any time, then you want money. , you know what I mean? And so it was like he had to be patient with the fact, like there were a lot of years I could have been paid more by just going and getting a job.

We were taking on a bunch of risk. We were signing personal guarantees. We weren't living as freely, financially as we wanted to individually. And there was like, no promise of this thing, making. From his perspective, I'm in a business that's difficult to build. It's totally dependent on finding the right talent and them staying into all those things.

He was just like, this is a pile of risk and you're not making as much money as you could. And he could have put a lot of pressure on me to go make more money. He could have put a lot of pressure on me to say, like, if we're going to live in this circus, You know, you've got two years to make it financially viable and he never did that

as element three started growing and you had maybe a dozen to 18 people at the office and. Oh, 8 0 9 time period hits and Tiffany's pregnant with our first child. And I had just stepped out into running my own business. So it was just getting off the ground and. I have this lasting image in my mind of Tiffany pregnant.

It's November of 2008 she's due in January. And it's just her sitting on the floor of the office. We were sharing an office at that time. And she's just saying like, it's so hard. I don't know, you know what to do. You're not maximizing your own value. When you were making like maybe $30,000 a year? Yeah. Oh yeah.

Yeah. Totally like skipping paychecks on the regular. Like it wasn't like, it was, it was like real. Oh no, it was very, I think it was maybe even more real to me. I just, wasn't the one on the floor in a ball literal right ball, but it's super real just as your role as husband and your first child's coming into the world.

It's not anybody's dream that that's. Position that your, your wife or emotions, maybe that your wife is, is feeling at the time. So there was added pressure and maybe for the first time doubt in my mind around like, are we doing the right things? Like what we're trying to build? Is this actually the way to go?

Or should we, you know, have played it safer, certainly would not have had these valleys. Had I not sipped. Only one of us was trying to pursue in this entrepreneurial route. So I think that was the value where it just cast a lot of doubt over, you know, what we're doing as a family. Like, what are we doing, bringing a kid into this madness?

Like, this is crazy. What were we thinking? Tiffany's dad actually was, uh, somebody who. Started a business from scratch. And, and he, he had always said, you know, people give up too early and I'm like, well now seems like a pretty good time to give up, but it just, it just struck me. Okay. If we can fight through this, like, it can't get worse.

I don't know how long it can stay this bad, but it can't really get worse than this. Like I'm not paying myself. The market's been crushed. I think that. What we, we spoke about how, like, can it get worse? I remember really specifically after we had Aubrey and things were falling apart so hard, I would lay in bed at night, rehearsing my speech.

Of how I could make sure it didn't actually play as a failure at all, that I was leaving element three. So like the thing I played out in my head was this was like, you know, what I have found out I've discovered is that like, now that I've had a baby, what I really wanna do is I wanna stay home. And so we're gonna.

Dissolve element three. We're like so grateful for the employees. And I would like, everyone would like rehearse this thing in my head of like, this is what I'm gonna say. This is how I'm gonna get myself out of this jam is I'm gonna put it on becoming a mom. And because of where I come from, and nobody has the expectation that I'm gonna do this, it is gonna be fine.

Like people will actually like maybe even. Exhale that she's like done with this thing. , you know, like, and I just knew in my bones that that was not true. That, that wasn't what I was being called to do that actually what I was doing was giving up on the thing that I had started and I needed to finish.

Even if what was gonna happen was it was actually gonna fail. We weren't at failure yet. We were at the edge of it. We were at the heavy prospect of it.

I would say three times that I can think of very explicitly where I have had to decide whether re element three was the right thing for what it looked like at that time and what my life had become in. Because when you're the owner, when you're the leader, people expect that like every day you must love it.

The way your life is moving and changing. And the way it is moving and changing is in like perfect synchronization. And that is not true. Like there are seasons where I had to decide if recommitting to it was what I wanted. Again, it being what it was and me being what I was. And for some reason, it's like, I don't wanna say it's never been about the financial aspect of it.

That's the way we keep score business. So, you know, if you're good or not, and the way, you know, if you get a chance to like play another day, but I've always played for the long haul, I've always played the game in a way that like, our values are served first. And I'm like, if we make the right decisions, principally the money will come.

And I just never felt like I had permission. And I don't even know from. Like to stop. I actually never imagined the element three would be. I like never imagined it would be, it's not easy today, but I have so much more confidence and so much more control and we have so much more visibility and we just like, we can still be surprised and we live in a state of productive paranoia.

I never imagined it could look like this. And so I just was like, oh, it's just hard. It's very hard all the time. And so I think that's when the kids came in additive, that was when I knew there had to be big shifts in the way that sort of programmatically things ran. So that your career had space. What I was doing with element three had space and that we actually had time together as a family.

Yeah. And I would speak to that, knowing what the systems were, my business partner was not married. Didn't have kids. So, you know, I always felt this like strange burden, like, oh, I need to work enough to keep up and hold up my end of the deal on this, on this partnership. Uh, so as we. Going through oh nine adjusting with a child and the market.

And you can't just like work a bunch of hours and change exactly what's happening in the economy or how customers are gonna spend what's gonna happen. But if your business partners doing that, you feel some obligation to at least like, well, maybe if I think about it at 11:30 PM, I like I'll come up with a great idea versus somebody's gotta.

Help feed Aubrey who woke up for the third time already. And you're creating the capacity too. I mean, whenever you come into marriage, if you don't impact one another, I think you. I would say, you're not doing it right. I feel like I've changed a lot. And element three has just been such a huge place where my time has gone, that the way you've influenced my life has certainly been reflected in element three element three likely takes up maybe two thirds of our dinner conversations.

And I, I'm not saying that begrudgingly, but you're just ready to talk about all of what is happening or what needs to happen at the office where I tend to think. What my position is before I throw it out there for everybody else to comment on. And it just goes back to you're an external processor. You want to talk about it?

You wanna work through it in turn? That's helped. I think our girls, especially the older two, think about element three and what they would do if they were running a business and, and all the rest, but you've become more strategic in that you didn't used to just like, wait. Not put all your cards on the table, like, Hey, here's my best and final offer.

First thing, like everything is out there and you don't have to do that right away. Like as an early agency and early in any business you sometimes do and you have to overcommit to, yes, we do that when we've never done that before, but I think we can do that. So yeah, it's been a transition or journey for both of us.

I am an external processor. And my team today is much closer to the real problems of element three. But for a long time, you were the place. I could sort of say the truest thing and I needed you to create capacity, to think through that with me, there's two major times where I completely was comfortable with the outcome of me leaving element three and all that was happening.

I was having my first kid. And the company's like imploding on itself kind of, even before it gets started. The second time is when, in about 2017, Jr. And I were having a really difficult time in our marriage and I in my heart. Completely let element three go. I realized this may be a time where, and is not possible.

Um, and if I have to pick one, I'm gonna pick my marriage. And so in my heart, I just released element three. I didn't know what that would mean if I had to step away, if it meant it went away. If we had to sell it, if somebody else would run it, if I need to hire, I don't, I didn't know, but I just let go of.

We used to take walks all the time after dinner, before we had kids to run everywhere. And I feel like that was just hours and miles of us talking through what is the worst case scenario? What could happen? What comes after this? Well then what, and then how does that go? And then what would you do? And then how would that, like, I just remember, you know, talking through people I needed to let go client, you know, meetings.

I was prepping for. The expectations of our community on us as we were going through those years, because it was all consuming and people understood that at different levels. I mean, our world was very small. In that season of our lives, we made time for the businesses and what needed to happen there.

Sometimes the detriment of time for ourselves, like you talk about walks, it happened, it didn't happen enough. Like when there was something serious or a big client meeting from an element three perspective or something that was changing in my world, then we would make time for it. But for that, for that season, like we operated somewhat independently, unless there was.

A major decision or something that needed to, to happen, which I think has changed and evolved in our definition of what's of what's major has changed and, and evolved. But we, we probably talk about more random issues at this point than we, than we did early on. I don't like to look at the bad news. I don't like to sort of acknowledge the freight train of the economy coming towards me.

Like naturally I'm like, nah, it's not that fun. Actually. I don't like that. I don't talk about losing. I don't wanna think about it. I don't wanna think about what happens if I do lose. I don't wanna think about what costs I need to cut if I lose my biggest client. Like, I don't wanna think about all that.

Gross. I feel like I've also just have so much more courage in understanding the wisdom of confronting what could go wrong way before it does, and that that's not wasted motion. That's not spending good energy on bad problems. That's being prepared and that's being wise and that's being strategic, but left alone on an island by myself.

I would not have found my way towards thinking about things like. Doesn't make me an EOR, like all the time, or like demo down or like, but you're just, you were able to see it balanced. I definitely have a more like risk reward mindset that yes. Is like filtered through the decision making process where you would say, like, this feels like the right decision.

Yes. And I think I've grown. I feel like I know how to ask questions in a way more, just balanced, strategic, intellectual way than my younger self did. I think I wanna, I just wanna say like, thanks for. Allowing the space for this journey, it was not easy. And I'm grateful that you always felt, I don't know, like self-assured enough to let me become whatever it was that I needed to be and do.

And like nowhere along the journey that I feel like you were threatened by the size of what I felt like, what was inside of me. And I'm grateful for all the, like, I should have given you a week notice, but instead I gave you 15 minutes. I enjoyed the journey for the most part. Like I think we're very real about the peaks and valleys of the journey.

There's some bliss in not knowing what is gonna happen or transpire. And if you did know everything, you wouldn't make all the same decisions and, and go through the challenging times, but it doesn't shape who you are today without that. And I think just the grit competitiveness. And sense of achievement that you have comes out through the element three story, and then it, it impacts other parts of our lives and your friends' lives and people who you work and, and serve with as well.

So that's a compelling part of the journey. If it were easy, everyone would do it. And if it were, if you were okay with keeping it a small agency, like. That would've been okay, but you've never settled for okay. In anything next time on the first 17 years. So that was the playbook we were running and it was working.

And so in those years where it was just like, it was just mad. It was like, you know, it was busy. It was crazy. It was. There's a lot of adrenaline. There was a lot of focus on, you know, closing the next deal on growing clients on growing the agency. We'd hire 10, 15, 20 people in a year. And we did that right up until it broke.

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