Q & A with Ashley Janssen: Arts alumna and co-owner of web start-up AgileStyle

Janssen discusses why she became an entrepreneur and how BA set her up for success

Angelique Rodrigues - 02 February 2015

Ashley Janssen, '06 BA, is a UAlberta psychology grad and a successful local entrepreneur. After working for the government, Janssen left her role in 2009 to join her husband and partner, Dana, in his efforts to build AgileStyle -- a web development service. Since then, it's become a thriving business, with a team of talented staff and an office in Old Strathcona. Over the years, Janssen has served as writer, researcher, marketer, client liaison and project manager for the growing company. She says her diverse education set her up for success in a challenging business environment that requires one to don many hats. We caught up with Janssen to discuss her journey from BA grad to successful entrepreneur.

What was your first job after graduating from the Faculty of Arts?

My first job was with Stantec as a Program Coordinator. I then applied for a job with the Government of Alberta. The first position was for two years as a program consultant with Advanced Education and then I was hired as Advisor for Business and Operational Planning for the Ministry of Immigration.

How do you think your BA degree helped you in your career search?

I think mainly it was the organizational, communication and writing skills from my BA education that landed me the job [with the government].

Why did you decide to become an entrepreneur?

Even though my job was stable, and money was very good, it was at times stifling. There wasn't a lot of autonomy or control over your decisions. The tipping point for leaving was when we found out the government had implemented a hiring freeze, and that my position would be eliminated. At the time my husband did freelance web development. We talked about me working with him, and entrepreneur efforts had never really crossed my mind. I ended up quitting two months early and we decided to give it one year and see where it [went].

What was the most difficult aspect of launching a start-up?

I think one of the big things was the role of skill-divide. Dana and I have very different skill sets, and strengths and weaknesses. AgileStyle was his baby to start, so if he had things in place and I wanted to change things, I felt really cautious about it. It was really just winging it, we had little idea what we were doing. We just figured it out and if it didn't work we tried something different.

When did you realize the business would work?

We never questioned it wouldn't. We had about 30% growth over every year. It was never really a question of whether we would quit. It was always a question of how we would improve on it.

What do you attribute that success to?

Honestly, I think I put it down to how well my husband and I work together and the different skills we bring to the table. The other thing was definitely support in terms of mentorship from my husband's family, who come from an entrepreneurial background.

What was one major setback to the business that you had to overcome?

Dana was diagnosed with cancer - he had to go through 14 months of treatment. We had to make some significant decisions about our roles in the company - I had to take on some things I might not normally have.

We did a lot of things in that timeframe that I'm proud of - we weren't as accessible to the staff as normal because we were in the hospital - so we created an operations manual for every process we could think of that became the guide for our staff when we aren't available. We've added to it since, then and it's become a successful tool for the company. During that time, we also needed to expand into an office space. I spearheaded that, and we found a great place and we were able to reclaim our home so that Dana could recover there.

What are you most proud of, personally, when it comes to AgileStyle's success?

I personally have grown and changed a lot. I was forced into a role I wasn't comfortable with but I learned so much. I gained confidence in myself as a business owner. It took a long time for me to identify as an "entrepreneur" and it was in this time I began to recognize and value myself. It was sink or swim, and we swam. And I know that I can take some of that credit.

What are a few of the smartest moves you made for your start-up?

We asked for advice, we joined business groups and we sought out mentors. We networked in the community and we built important relationships.

How has having an Arts education influenced your success?

Because you are exposed to so many different types of learning with a BA, and you do all kinds of communicative group work and individual work - you end up with a lot of broad skills versus specialized skills. Being able to have general skills and apply them to many situations ends up being very beneficial. There isn't one career path for these skills. You can use them anywhere.