We’re highlighting the winners of our Manager-X Awards for Excellence in Management. Our five winners were chosen from more than 100 nominees from brands around the world, all submitted by their peers and direct reports.

Laura Maly and Michael Anderson founded Wonderist Agency with nothing more than past experience and $100 dollars. Now their thriving agency has more than 15 employees, and provides transformative marketing experiences for dozens of dental practices across the US.

In an era when small businesses struggle more than ever, Michael’s commitment to culture, process, and customer impact has allowed his agency to rise above their competition, and carve out a thriving niche in dental marketing.

That’s why Michael Anderson is our Manager-X Award Winner for Excellence in Small Business Operations. His emotional intelligence has built a passionate team, and his focus and vision for his business has allowed his company to attract key customers and deliver outstanding results. He’s also the only winner who was nominated by their spouse—a testament to his passion and patience as a leader!

We spoke with Michael about competing as a small business, and what it takes to build a winning team from scratch.

How did you feel when you found out you won this award?

It was humbling because process and/or organization is probably one of the more thankless parts of my job. It was really an honor to be recognized for the work that we're doing here.

Tell us a little bit about Wonderists. Why did you decide to start a full-service marketing agency for dentists?

When I met my cofounder Laura—who is now also my wife—she was approached by a friend of hers who is a dentist. He said that he had four different companies working on his marketing, and there was no cohesion, and it was hard for him to manage.

So Laura took that over, and within a couple of years she had really helped grow his practice, and in fact, he was about to open his third location. I was really impressed that Laura found this niche, and with my own experience in tech and startups saw it as a really scalable vertical.

What does Wonderist do that makes it different from other agencies?

Dental marketing is traditionally an old-fashioned space. Practices send a lot of postcards. If they do have a website, it's often full of stock images of grandma and grandpa sitting in a field.

At Wonderist, we take a fresh approach together and really focus on business growth for our customers. We provide bespoke, handcrafted designs that really celebrate the companies that we represent. And we track results. So we're a full-service marketing agency that focuses on digital.

I think for us there's an advantage to being in a vertical because we can be experts in that space. So we know the unique needs of those businesses, and it definitely puts us in a stronger position to deliver great results to our customers.

You’re the award winner for Small Business Operations. What do you think some of the challenges are for SMBs, and why are operations so critical at this size?

There are a lot of unique challenges, but some of them are also advantages. Being small is a challenge, but it helps us move quickly, which is an advantage.

In small business, clients often expect things to happen yesterday, and that means that we have to move quickly and make sure projects aren't falling apart.

Wrike has been a really phenomenal tool for us because it lets us scale while maintaining order. We never feel like we're losing control of our process or losing control of the projects that we're working on. It’s imperative that we move quickly, without it turning into chaos.

As an SMB CEO, how do you find balance between managing people, while also growing the business?

As we've grown, Laura and I have gotten to a point where our attention is increasingly focused on working on the business, not in the business. One of the best lessons that we've learned is how to let go of things, and instead empower our team to really move them forward. We grow so much better and build a better culture that way, and then it gives us the ability to take a step back and really be the face of the company.

Wrike has been a godsend for us to be able to maintain that top-level view so we know how website projects are moving forward and whether we’re meeting deadlines or falling behind with web requests. At a glance we can see how we're doing, and still have that intimate knowledge that we used to when it was just the two of us.

To sum that up, being able to build a team you trust, and being okay with letting go of some things you used to own, is the quickest and best way to ultimately find that balance.

We’re told you’re a big believer in the power of templates for process, but not products. How do you use Wrike templates at Wonderist?

We are champions of doing handcrafted work. This differentiates us in dental marketing, which tends to be dominated by templated websites that look very similar. If you look at the design we do for our customers in print or on the web, you’ll see we don't use stock images or website templates. We use photography that focuses on the people and the space. That handcrafted approach is really important to us.

With that said, the processes that underlie that work don't need to start from scratch every time. There are certainly things I think are good practices and every creative knows they're going to do. For example, in a web design process, we draw wireframes for a website, get those approved by the client, then hand them off to a designer. It’s the same process each time—and when you have many of these projects going simultaneously, Wrike’s project templates help you track each one and make sure no key steps are forgotten.

I know “template” can be a dirty word, and it's something that I avoid. But when it comes to process, I think finding ways to incorporate templates to structure your work can absolutely be an advantage and maximize overall creative output from a design standpoint.

Your wife (and cofounder) Laura told us emotional intelligence and patience are some of your key traits. Why are those important traits in running your team?

Laura and I have both spent a lot of time really trying to create a culture at work that serves the company and serves the team. Right now, we're blessed to have a phenomenal team and a thriving culture.

I think that both patience and emotional intelligence are very important from a leadership standpoint. Patience is something Laura and I both embrace because a lot of the knowledge that we bring to the team is because of mistakes we've made. Maybe it’s a cliche in the startup space, but it’s true that you need to have the freedom to make mistakes and learn from them, and accept things when they aren’t perfect. In small business, they rarely are.

As far as emotional intelligence goes, I've always tried to really connect with the people I work with—whether I'm managing them, or whether they're managing me—and to try to understand their needs holistically. If you can understand the “big picture” of someone from their career goals to their personal goals—and they can do the same for you—then you can communicate and collaborate on a different level.

What other advice can you offer to SMB leaders?

The first piece of advice I would give is to find a niche and stick to it. There's always that inclination to be everything to everyone, but finding the niche of dental marketing has been really good for us. It’s allowed us to master what we do, while also helping us feel like we can say “no” to projects are outside that scope.

Another piece of advice is that it’s never too early to start thinking about process. Very early, Laura and I decided we wanted to be able to document and report on our work so that we could understand the value of all of our efforts. Wrike helped us do that, and as we’ve grown, we’ve found we always seem to be a little ahead of the curve when it comes to anticipating our needs at each stage of growth, without feeling overwhelmed.

Finally, don’t underestimate the importance of culture. We’re blessed to have a culture where people really care, and that’s something you can’t teach. Invest in your culture early and often. Show people that they matter, and just have fun with it. Because we all work so much. Let's enjoy that.

That’s a wrap on our Manager-X Award Winners blog series! To revisit each of our winners, visit our blog.