Season 2: Episode 2 Leaner, Faster and Ready For Big Growth

Small business is at the heart of the Texas Economy.

In Season 1, Episode 2 our show was on “The Pivot” and we checked in with business owners on what they were doing to stay relevant and productive during the pandemic. And as the world turned, it shifted… business analysts say we’ve moved 5-10 years into the future when it comes to how many people are placing online grocery store orders for pick-up, or services like Door Dash, and other virtual service sector businesses.

So for Episode 2 of Season 2 – I checked in with Texas business owners to find out how the pivots they made to become leaner and more agile in the roughest points of the pandemic have come back to HELP them in the recovery! In an episode I’m calling: Leaner, Faster, and ready for Big Growth. So let’s find out what the recovery looks like for 3 different business owners, Laura Del Villaggio of Milli Starr, a Master Milliner; Jayce McQuerter of the multi-city pet service company, My Dog Butler; and Dick Monday & Tiffany Riley of The Laughter League that provide hospital clowning to children’s hospitals in the North Texas area. 

This episode of Emerging Texas Strong is sponsored by Texas Mutual Insurance Company, a leading worker’s comp provider in Texas, and is a production of Earnest Media.  If you are interested in sponsoring a heartful podcast focused on the journey of Texas business owners for a focused market audience email,

Episode 2 Guests:

Laura Del Villaggio, Milli Starr, Custom Millenry

Jayce McQuarter – Austin Dog Butler /
Houston Dog Butler

Tiffany Riley & Dick Monday, The Laughter League

Texas Mutual Insurance Company


Texas Mutual In…: 00:00 Support for the Emerging Texas Strong podcast comes from Texas Mutual Insurance company. A Workers’ Comp provider committed to helping companies build a stronger, safer Texas.

Host Linsey Lin…: 00:10 On this episode of Emerging Texas Strong.

Jayce McQuarter…: 00:14 For me not being set up to be lean and efficient and just has never made sense. And when I be at 2016, 2017, 2018, when I’d look at other industries or even other players in our industry, I’ve never understood the appeal to try to redo things over and over and over and not just develop a systematic approach to scaling that in the future.

Host Linsey Lin…: 00:40 Welcome back to Emerging Texas Strong, a growing collection of stories, lessons, and advice from small business owners in Texas, working hard to survive this pandemic economy. We follow a collection of businesses and we weave their stories together as we navigate a full season of big picture topics like emotional intelligence at work disruptions in the supply chain and the business of bringing business back to the office. Last season, Episode 2 was on The Pivot and we checked in with business owners on what they were doing to stay relevant and productive during the pandemic. And as the world turned, it shifted… Business analysts now say that we’ve moved 5-to-10 years into the future when it comes to how many people are placing online grocery store orders for pickup, using services like Door Dash and all sorts of other virtual service sector businesses. So for Season 2 Episode 2, I checked in with Texas business owners to find out how the pivots they made to become leaner and more agile in the roughest parts of the pandemic have come back to help them in the recovery in an episode, I’m calling Leaner, Faster and Ready for Big Growth. So let’s find out what the recovery looks like for three different business owners, Laura Del Villaggio of Milli Starr, who’s a Master Milliner, Jayce McQuerter of the multi-city pet service company, My Dog Butler, and Dick Monday, and Tiffany Riley of The Laughter League that helped provide hospital clowning to children’s hospitals in the north Texas area. Our first guest, Laura Del Villaggio is one of only a handful of Master Milliners in the country. And we’re so fortunate that she’s been based in Austin, Texas for over 20 years. She chatted with me from her design studio about the pivot into virtual teaching and how it’s blossomed into something much more than just finishing out the semester of classes that got cut short due to COVID. She shares what going global means in milinery, how her own commitment to sustainability was a saving grace in the face of supply chain, disruptions, and lean times, and how the shift has actually helped her views on art expertise and the love of slow fashion, including bespoke made with love items.

Laura Del Villa…: 02:43 Hi, my name is Laura Del Villaggio, My business is Milli Starr. I’m a Master Milliner, which means I make hats for women. I make hats for special occasions like the Kentucky Derby weddings, scholars, luncheons, theme parties, anything where someone wants to dress up and wear something really special on their head. I started wearing and collecting vintage clothing when I was around 12 and especially hats that I accumulated over the years. And after completing my undergrad degree in history and apparel design, I went off to New York and the fashion Institute of technology for a two year graduate program. And I found out that FIT has one of the only certificate programs in millinery, in the U S and being a hat wear and hat lover, I felt like I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to learn how to make hats and I totally fell in love, totally hooked.

Linsey Lindberg…: 03:44 What do you love most about your job?

Laura Del Villa…: 03:46 I love working with my clients to create custom headwear and becoming part of that story and part of their memories, because I think clothing holds sentimental value more than most other material objects in our life. It brings back good memories for people. There’s also incredible value in something that is made by hand it’s unique and because it’s quality made should last forever. It’s in my tagline for my business, bespoken and beloved, you know, bespoken being the custom made and kind of a slight variation on that word, bespoke and then beloved. I hope that my pieces are cherished for years and handed down and worn, you know, again and again, and maybe only once a year, but the, you know, 20 years from now, a granddaughter might find this piece and fall in love and be able to wear it for her wedding or to a special event that it absolutely will hold up over time, both in style and workmanship.

Linsey Lindberg…: 04:50 What steps did you take to make sure that you found new ways to thrive during the pandemic?

Laura Del Villa…: 04:54 Many milliners around the world, myself included, began developing classes and curriculum that were appropriate for online teaching. So I’ve been offering Zoom classes since probably late last summer. And the, the benefit is that the accessibility to learning new skills and military has become much easier. You don’t have to find a milliner somewhere in your country and travel and have hotel and lodging and flight expenses. You can simply log in in your pajamas if it’s, you know, even at 5:00 AM to catch someone in London, um, or, you know, for me, I’ve had students, um, you know, in New Zealand and Australia and all over Europe, log in and be able to take a class with me, you know, and I’m broadcasting from my studio in Austin. So it’s broadened the number and the type of students I’ve been able to work with. So that’s been really cool. And as, as things kind of returned to normal and I began teaching in person again, I’ll be teaching a hybrid class at ACC this fall. So it’s going to be partly in person for those that are local and feel comfortable coming into a classroom and working. And I’ll also be communicating via zoom to students who don’t want to deal with the traffic or want to login from Illinois or wherever. So that’s going to continue. Um, one of my friends was very surprised to hear I was going to continue teaching online. And I said, of course, you know, I enjoy it, but it also makes learning millinery so much easier for the many people who are interested in it, but don’t have a milliner nearby. So that’s definitely going to continue. I did have one really good thing going for me, which was, I had approached my spring season differently than any previous year and at the beginning of 2020. So like January, I gave myself a, a challenge for myself and my business and did a blog post about it. And it was a sustainability challenge. So my challenge was not to buy anything new as far as materials for creating hats for my spring, because I’ve been a millionaire for over 20 years, I’ve got a studio full of straws and felts and feathers and an abundance of materials on hand. So I felt like not buying anything excessive, you know, in excess or new would be a good challenge creatively. And then also just better for the planet overall kind of aligning my personal values better with my business values. So unlike previous years, I did not drop thousands of dollars on all the new cinema colors and, and feathers and flowers and trims in, you know, anticipation of orders. And also in making that on-hand stock that I always have. So financially I was actually in a really good place for the bottom to drop out of the Derby business last year. So in hindsight, I was really grateful that I had not spent all that money and had all those materials just sitting there waiting for nothing.

Linsey Lindberg…: 08:17 Are you seeing a boom time happening right now because of the pent up demand for weddings or parties?

New Speaker: 08:23 Yeah the calendars are filling up, which is great. I’m anticipating a really good 2022. I think that trickle is beginning and that people are definitely anxious to get out the things that we took for granted. Like let’s say, you know, gathering with a group of friends for lunch. Now that feels a lot more special and we might just dress up a little bit more put on the red lipstick and a little fascinator. Whereas two years ago it was like, huh, lunch with my friends. I saw them a few weeks ago. Now it feels much more special and much more of an occasion to dress up. Um, so even little things like that, I think are an excuse to put a hat on another thing that’s happened in the millinery world that I hope it continues because again, it’s easy to participate are a lot of virtual Fashion on the Fields. So for many of the horse races around the world, dressing up head to toe with millinery and looking fabulous is part of the event. And again, if you’re not going in person, you can’t do that. But many women around the world were going ahead and dressing up and taking pictures with certain hashtags and showing off their outfits and sharing those looks with other millinery enthusiasts and racing enthusiasts. And so the, the virtual dress up that happens primarily on Instagram has been really fun. And you know, we’ve all been like lounging and t-shirts and leggings and, you know, no makeup or ponytails. It’s nice to have an excuse, even if it’s just getting in front of the camera and sharing a photo it’s been fun. So I hope that that continues to as we do gather in person, I hope that we now have a mix of digital representation as well as that in real life representation.

Host Linsey Lin…: 10:21 And while some traditional businesses learn to branch out into new territory because of the pandemic, our next guest actually started his service company, Dog Butler, where the nexus of his concept from day one was always being leaner faster and more efficient. I spent a morning with Jayce McQuerter from Austin Dog Butler to find out what did COVID look like if you were already streamlined and focused on efficiency.

Jayce McQuerter…: 10:44 Hi, I’m Jason McQuarter with Austin Dog Butler. Really my generic, my advice to other business owners out there, if we’re looking across all different industries and how this could apply is look at what things were going right in 2018 and how involved you were in those. And have you found that you have to be more individually and specifically individually involved in those now? And if so, that is probably the thing that needs to be addressed immediately is you have to get back to removing yourself from your business and having your business function successfully, at least equivalently to where we were pre COVID. Otherwise you’re just getting into a string of bad habits, and now you really can’t grow because you’ve now taken everything on individually. But yeah, the entire idea back in 2012 was what exists in this industry, individuals running around their neighborhoods, trying to walk as many dogs as possible. And our view was, how can we be in … We started in St. Louis, Missouri, even though we’re headquartered here in Austin now. And so in our first city in St. Louis, it was how can we be in every neighborhood at the same time, delivering the same exact experience to each customer, regardless of if they have a pug or if they have a Husky, when we don’t have to actually look at who the caretaker is or what kind of dog they have, or what neighborhood they’re in, we can create the same experience each time. And then as things grow and blossom, we’re able to then just put all of our attention towards new staff development, be it through the whole process of recruitment development and retention, so that we have really awesome team players that we can then scale their schedules and almost in a way, be a whole bunch of mom and pop dog walking companies in one, while we have managers. And of course, myself as an owner overseeing things and making sure that there’s a consistent level of excellence to the service, regardless of if it’s John or Jill or Jack or Susie, if we have a Susie. So one of the things that I looked at doing differently than most companies was developing a very small set of services that we could really specialize in rather than trying to look at it and say, oh, okay, these are dog owners. What’s every single possible thing that we could provide to them. Can we do nail trims? Can we put bows in the dog’s hair? Can we do wedding ceremony, dog care? Can we do pet taxi and on and on and on, which is what a lot of these mom and pop companies, uh, we find over the years have done. Um, so instead we specialized in providing purely dog-walking and purely 20, 40 or 60 minute services that then we could understand how we’d scale our employees time with that. We also from day one hired employees instead of independent contractors that allowed us and has throughout the last 12 years that we’ve been in business and immense amount of really control over the client staff relationship and the conduct that we see. And that really ties back to our goal of trying to create dependable systems so that we can really control what’s going on in the home and not really a variability across all of our staff.

Linsey Lindberg…: 14:03 Your reason for being is to be leaner faster, stronger, more profitable. And I, and I love that you have been thinking strategically the whole time, and I think that’s really cool because a lot of people get into business because they love making their widget or theirs, you know, as, especially as a service company. Um, and I think it’s fascinating to be talking to somebody who already fully embraces and understands why this is important. Why, why understanding your operations is super important. So just wanted to take that because I think that’s actuall really cool.

Jayce McQuerter…: 14:39 Yeah, and understanding our operations in a leaner faster, stronger way is really what allowed us to even break out of our original city, which was St. Louis, Missouri, and expand to Austin. I moved to Austin at that time to help that expansion. But when we then expanded to Houston, Texas, that was all done remotely while I lived two and a half hours away in Austin. And of course there was a lot of driving back and forth, a lot of triaging, a lot of growing pains when you’re moving from a mid-sized market, which was St. Louis and Austin into a major market of Houston. But it allows me now to sit in my home in Austin and have an entire business running in Houston and now also in Phoenix. So really I think it was that the initial pedigree of feeling that this has to be scalable and it’s really a plug and play model and remove as many of the variables from pet care as possible. That allowed us to be now in multiple cities across the U S when

Host Linsey Lin…: 15:45 We come back from break, we’ll continue talking to Jason McQuerter about how he weathered the storm and is looking at new opportunities for the expansion in the recovery. But first a word from our sponsor.

Texas Mutual In…: 15:56 Support for this program comes from Texas Mutual Insurance Company, a safety focus Workers’ Comp provider, supplying information and resources that can help Texas employers stop accidents before they happen more at And now back to our show.

Jayce McQuerter…: 16:14 I don’t know that the pandemic really has driven us to create many changes to remodel our model. As we talked about a little bit earlier, has always been scale as we go be able to be flexible with the number of clients where they are, how we utilize our staff, flow in the busy areas pull from the less populated areas, or just respond to the market. As things push, pull, we’ve had a lot of pushing and pulling with COVID. So it’s really just been a, yeah, I don’t know that we’ve pivoted as much as we’ve just been able to rely on our understanding that things will return and it’s more of a hold on and waited out. And we’ve been lucky to be able to rest on all of the really strong fundamentals that we created over the decade prior to continue to flow at least a little bit of money to our staff, to make up the difference, be able to continue to retain our managers and be able to be poised, to continue things on the backside of COVID. And we’re lucky. I think it’s very different than a lot of other smaller mom and pop companies that didn’t have all of the efficiencies previously built in. It really was more about what we built prior and being able to rely on everything that we’ve built instead of finding a new way for a new time.

Host Linsey Lin…: 17:52 Our final guests on today’s show are based in Irving, Texas, and are co-creators of the Laughter League, a nonprofit clown care unit that visits the children’s wards of hospitals in their region when COVID hit. And the hospitals were overwhelmed with COVID patients. The Laughter League realized that even though they weren’t allowed to come into the hospitals, their services were needed now more than ever. So they found a way to keep their red noses right, where they were needed most.

The Laughter Le…: 18:16 My name is Tiffany Riley, and I’m the co-founder of the Laughter League. The laughter league is a 5 0 1 C3 nonprofit organization whose mission is to improve the lives of the families we serve with the transformational power of laughter. Good job, Tiffany Riley. My name is Dick Monday and I am the artistic director of the Laughter League. So Tiffany does all the hard work and I get to do the fun stuff. So I went to acting school and was a performer my whole life. And I fell in love with clowning in my twenties. What I found was this opportunity to work in hospitals in New York city with the Big Apple Circus Clown Care Unit was really special for me because I connect with children. I connect with families. I have a vulnerability and a likability as a character and as a human that allowed me, I think, to grow as an artist much quicker and more exponentially than I would have if I had just been trying to work in theaters and in circuses because every day that you’re in the hospital is like doing 30 little tiny shows for 30 different rooms of the doors that you knock on. I started clowning in 1974, quite a lot of years ago. Um, I do have to thank Tiffany for kind of dragging me into the world of hospital clowning. I had done a lot of teaching for the big apple clown care unit, but I’d never been in the hospital on a full-time basis, uh, engaging with, with children who are going through some really difficult times of their lives. And frankly, I think I was a little bit afraid of it and it took me a while to feel comfortable in that with my heart. And I fell in love with it. In fact, we were there’s just there today.

Linsey Lindberg…: 20:08 So how did you pivot and make sure that you could continue the hospital clowning, even during the pandemic

The Laughter Le…: 20:13 We were concerned, we were going to lose our hospital contracts because out of sight, out of mind, we know how that works. So she jumped on it right away and said, we’re going to keep visiting these kids in the hospital. Let’s figure it out. We developed something called Nose to Nose visits, which was on Zoom. Kids would sign onto an iPad and have a visit with two clowns who were in their own homes. And we basically recreated our live interactions for the online format.

Linsey Lindberg…: 20:42 What does it look like when you’re doing your rounds virtually?

The Laughter Le…: 20:46 So it’s pretty cool because what happens is you have two clowns and every clown as set up a studio in their house, and then with a green screen background maybe, or this or that, and off to the side or various types of props and things that they can use for little comedy moments. And then we come together in a green room, kind of a thing on zoom. We, we played with a lot of different things. Like we do a lot with sponge balls, little SpongeBob magic. So if you have a sponge ball and I have a sponge ball, even though we’re not together, we can make it look like I’m passing it over to you. Or in some cases we’d have the same background. Like two people would have the same background, even though they’re in different places. So they could do some fun, fun stuff with that. And so we try to have the same kind of an arc of a visit with a kid where hello, it’s kind of an introduction. And then, you know, there’s some kind of a play. And then that goal that we’re trying to go for is the same where the kid is letting us know he’s pushing us around or he’s, he’s in charge and being in charge of something that they don’t get to do when they’re in the hospital or even usually when they’re kids period, most of the time. And so it’s, it’s like this gift for them. And then we try to say our goodbyes and a lot of goodbyes would end with the clowns, either smacking into the wall, just off the Zoom screen. So they hear this big crash and pots and pans or falling through, you know, falling through the floor, you know, just playing with all that stuff. And really like, I mean, we had, we actually had sessions with some of our colleagues on Zoom comedy. How do we make it funny? How do we use zoom screen to make this funny? I tried to look at every aspect of the work we do and tried to say, how can we continue to do this work? We started visiting all of these children through Zoom once a week. Every child got 15 minutes with Slappy and Monday in a private Zoom call. And I think it was one of the most powerful things that we did in this whole pandemic. I think one thing that was really powerful about that time was that the hospital here in Ft Worth, Cook Children’s, we were out of there for eight weeks, but then they called and said, you know what, you’re essential. Let’s get you back in here. And so we were, I’m pretty sure the only healthcare clown group working in-person in the hospital starting last June for almost that whole year. That’s a Testament to our partnership with that hospital and the feeling that, oh yeah, this is super important. So, so we did have that one thing that we would go to this hospital and we were wearing masks and shields. It completely changed everything that we’re doing, but it helped to stay alive, that particular partnership. And it also kind of was a precursor to what we’re doing right now. And that is dealing a lot with children, dealing with a lot of stress, trauma, emotional issues, depression, all of that, the mental health world, there are no beds left. And then the reason we were called to go back in the hospital was exactly for that for the health of the hospital staff and the patients. But it also allowed us to really realize we are essential workers. I mean that, that’s a big thing for a health care clown to be called and the essential worker. I mean, it doesn’t look like a natural fit unless you watch the work, you don’t know how perfect clowning is for the hospital setting, but we do. We thrive in intention. We, we take tension and we digest it and hopefully it comes back out with, with understanding, acceptance, listening. We hear it. We hear your problem. And that’s such a big thing.

Host Linsey Lin…: 24:46 Thank you for joining us on this episode of Emerging Texas Strong, let’s take a second and review a few things that might be useful to you from this episode. #1) The virtual world opened us up to a global market. No longer are we limited to what we have access to in our own backyards. Now you can study one-on-one with teachers have visits from hospital clowns or even conduct pretty good podcast, interviews over a Zoom call or some other online video platform. #2) You don’t have to wait until an emergency happens to find ways to be leaner faster and more profitable. You owe it to yourself and your business to take a look at your fundamentals and how to work efficiencies into your business now, so that you’re ready for downturns, when… not, if… they happen in the future. #3) Find new ways to be creative with the tools you have at hand it’s your job to discover the joy and play and this enthusiasm will translate into a better experience for your customers. #4) When a “COVID” moment happens, you quickly learn how to find the essence of your value. Discover what makes you essential rather than being seen as “just a clown” and #5) Never underestimate the power of connection. It’s the most important thing. And it pertains to everyone from the teaching of skills, from a master milliner to knowing that you’re the second most important person to your client’s dog, to even being the person with a red nose on who allows everyone a moment to break the tension of health, stress from the really big issues. Remember that it’s all about human connection and how you can find ways to reach across the void, to make someone else’s day better and more meaningful. Speaking of which, that’s what I try to do here on this podcast. I’ve found collecting and presenting these stories of struggle and celebration from small business owners all over Texas is one thing I can do to reach across the void and connect. So if you’ve enjoyed this podcast or have found it useful, please share an episode with a friend. We want to grow Emerging TexasStrong as a free resource for business owners. Send it to someone who could use these lessons to be happier and healthier business owners. Join us next week for Episode 3: Y Texas, where we’ll talk to the eponymous Texas CEO organization that has its finger on the pulse of what spurring, this boom time for Texas, and why companies from all over the world are flocking to our sunny state to do business. Podcast production interviews, edits, sound, design, and office snacks for the Emerging Texas Strong podcast are done by Linsey Lindberg. Bios and business information for all guests featured in Season 2 can be found on Find out how you can work with them and support Texas small business. To share the hope, the journey, the struggles, and the advice, be sure to follow like rate and subscribe to Emerging Texas Strong on the web so that each episode shows up directly in your podcast feed. And if you’re enjoying the show and you want to show us some love, leave a five-star review, it will help more people find us. Follow us on Facebook and LinkedIn @emergingtexasstrong or on Twitter @Texasstrongpod, where I’ll be posting such gems from Episode 2 as Instagram millinery hashtags for showing off your best Derby looks a link to a podcast that Jayce McQuarterer highly recommended to me about pivoting and business, and some behind-the-scenes, photos and video of the Laughter League’s virtual setup of clown props and all their virtual fun. All of it mentioned in today’s show. And if you’d like to be interviewed, please reach out Emerging Texas strong is a production of Earnest Media. If you are interested in sponsoring a heartful podcast, focused on the journey of Texas business owners for a focus market audience, we’d love that email Remember, you’ve got a friend somewhere in Texas, who’s rooting for you. I’m your host, Linsey Lindberg. Join us next time for more stories of Texas small business on Emerging Texas Strong.

Texas Mutual In…: 28:59 Support for the Emerging Texas Strong podcast comes from Texas Mutual Insurance company, a Workers’ Comp provider committed to helping companies build a stronger, safer Texas.

The Laughter Le…: 29:12 I have no idea where I was going with that, but it was really poignant, very poignant. I think it was probably the best thing I was going to say just about. Yeah. Okay. Oh my goodness.

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