NXT: What year did you start, and what prompted you to become a business owner?
My business partner, Lisa Sanger, and I decided to own our own business in 1988 (we were only in our twenties! – at the time, this was a very young age to become an entrepreneur).
I liked to sell, and Lisa was a graphic designer so we decided to start a design firm. Our first client was the University of Cincinnati, because I belonged to a group called Women in Communications and I cold-called the contacts in the member book. It’s been 28 years of work since then!
NXT: If you recall, how many cold calls did it take to land that first client? And did you say that you actually liked selling and cold-calling??
It took about 100 cold calls to land our first client. I don’t think that’s something anyone truly enjoys doing, but you do what has to be done to get your business off the ground and keep growing.
We live in such a connected, high-tech world now, though, that it’s not necessary to do true cold-calling, if you’re doing it right. You can create awareness and make connections that turn a cold call into a warm one, where you’ve identified a real need and your audience is receptive to what you have to say.
NXT: How did you find your niche?
We started off as a generalist firm, and we ‘discovered’ our niche because that’s what our clients were requesting, and we realized we were good in that particular space. Now entrepreneurs tend to pick a niche and stick to it, but we did the opposite.
I guess it was a more organic approach, where we started with a blank canvas and generic approach, and slowly we zeroed in on our ideal target market… we found our service-market fit by listening to our clients.
NXT: What is your value proposition and how are you differentiating yourself?
We’ve had a kind of identity issue for a long time, because we don’t even know what to call ourselves sometimes! We’re designers at the core, but we also do strategy, SEO, content development, social media, and we also have 5 to 6 programmers on staff to program customizable websites and backend systems for clients. Not many agencies have a highly technical in-house team.
This goes beyond traditional design needs. Our customers need a more complete-package solution, so we’ve kept adding to our capabilities and now we’re more of a one-stop-shop. Whatever your communications problem, we can probably figure out the solution.
NXT: And how do you position yourself differently from competitors?
One way we’re different from traditional agencies is that we have always been project- based rather than working on retainer.
We’ve had everything from short-term projects to ones that take a few years; many evolve into long-term partnerships, where our clients come to us with a challenge and we think through it together.
They know they can pick up the phone and have a smart, effective solution to a challenge in a very short time, because we know them and we know their business
Also, everything we do has a strategy behind it – it has to align with the client’s objectives and strengths, and bring those together with the needs of the target market. Finding that fit is a big part of what we do, and finding that sweet spot is so rewarding.
NXT: Can you share an example?
Sure, take Taleo, a third-party job applicant tracking system used by Macy’s. The back end is very intuitive for companies, but the front end is not mobile-friendly and presents a very challenging user experience in many ways.
So we developed a customized, branded mobile solution that provides a much stronger candidate experience, enables candidates to apply via mobile device as well as search for jobs.
NXT: Btw, how did you land Macy’s as a client? Did you have to go through a formal RFP process, or did you start with a freebie engagement to get your foot in the door? How did they actually decide to sign you on?
Macy’s headquarters is in downtown Cincinnati, so it was right down the street from us. An external consultant brought us in on a project, and it grew from there.
They were our first national client, and we’ve been working with them for 25 years now across a wide range of functions and projects.
NXT: What do you think contributed to your success and how do you stay competitive after all these years?
15 years ago, I would’ve said relationship building, but the truth is that you have to be nimble and change with the needs of the market and your customers.
We started off as a design firm, and added other functions as we saw new business needs emerge – developers, strategists, copywriters, social media experts, user experience planners.
The work we do today is mostly digital and very little print. I still remember working with Macy’s when they needed help to build a website for their Barbie line. It was their first website – and ours too! – and it hit me that we needed to modernize ourselves.
The tools you use change with time but at the end of the day, you need to understand your clients’ problems as well as the needs of their target audiences, and of course make sure projects are done on time and on budget.
These factual accomplishments will make you a trusted partner. It’s not just about how well you get along with people.
NXT: You emphasized staying nimble… how do you accomplish that?
You need to try new things and can’t be afraid to explore. But use your sensibility to determine if something is a fad or a trend that will stick around for a while.
In the last 5-6 years it’s actually become impossible to keep up with everything, because the field is so broad and things are moving so fast. So knowing when to partner with people is also important.
NXT: Have you ever been wrong about a fad/trend?
Luckily, we haven’t had big failures like switching to a new niche. A few years ago, everybody was talking about the QR codes and seeing whether it would boom, so we tested it out but it did not succeed at all.
I think it may have worked in some industries, but the general public just did not respond well. They’re still around, for very targeted purposes, but they’re certainly not the panacea they were predicted to be. So we made the right decision not to double-down on that trend.
NXT: How do you go about getting clients?
Back when we first started, cold calling and staying local was fine, and we had a bunch of corporate offices like Proctor & Gamble and Macy’s down the block from us, so we went to local events and met clients.
Now, we try to attend conferences, use social media, write blogs, and be the experts in our field. At the end of the day, being able to show great results helps build our business.
NXT: Besides honing in on thought leadership, do you also do SEO and paid advertising to drive web traffic?
We do SEO in-house, but never any paid advertising. We also started to sponsor conferences and attend events within our niche market about a year ago. We try and do presentations on successful client case studies and walk the prospects through our thought process.
We decided to get our names out there just last year, and brought on a business director and marketing director to the team. It’s great that we’ve been growing organically, but it shouldn’t be that hard for people to find us!
NXT: Why haven’t you done any paid ads? Isn’t it another way to get traffic and get people to engage with you?
Yes, it’s definitely another way, and we’ve certainly considered it, but word of mouth referrals have been so strong that we haven’t felt the need. We may explore it further in the future.
NXT: How have you managed to grow organically thus far?
We typically start off working with one department at a large corporation, and then we expand within that company and start working with different departments through word of mouth introductions. Achieving great results and building strong relationships facilitates that, of course.
NXT: How do you build and nurture these types of relationships?
It may sound simple but it’s just going back to doing the great work that drives strong business results, knowing their business and their challenges, and thinking about innovative ways to meet those challenges.
We bring proactive ideas and work in partnership.
We have a strong set of five core values, one of which is client obsession. They’re not just something we post on the wall –we live and breathe them every day. They’re ingrained in who we are and what we do.
NXT: What’s more important: client retention or new client acquisition?
There are positives and negatives for both. For us, we have built our business based on customer retention. 80% of the time we get repeat projects, and several clients have been with us for 15 years or more.
The positives of client retention are the lower cost and that you know exactly what their unique problems are, so you can get to the answer in a more direct way. A negative can be that there can sometimes be a lack of ‘newness’.
The positives about new clients is that they’re open to new ideas and, as an agency, you can take them to a level that they’ve never experienced before with previous agencies.
Something that I think we’ve failed at is we are quite slow at bringing in new clients. I think it energizes people and opens your staff up to new challenges.
I still think it’s incredibly hard to build a business without repeat clients, so hats off to companies who can afford it. It’s a costly endeavour and you can’t recoup all the costs that go into research, outreach and acquiring customers.
NXT: How do you go about retaining customers… what works for you?
At Macy’s, we’ve worked with at least 15 departments (corporate communications, benefits, etc), and I think this is where we succeeded.
Each department has its own strengths, challenges, goals, and sub-culture. We may start off in corporate communications, but will move around departments because people have been generous in sharing our names and putting in a good word.
It’s about embedding yourself in a company and creating as many connections as possible, because they are self-reinforcing. When someone needs something, your name immediately comes up. And it’s so much more difficult for a competitor to penetrate your web of connections.
NXT: Would you recommend this tactic for other B2B companies?
Totally! B2B companies should look at their current clientele, see if they can move through the organization and heavily concentrate within that company.
In a sense, you’re diversifying your portfolio, and if one group decides to make a change, you’re not losing all your business from that client.
An internal recommendation is where the gold is, because when someone says, “Hey, I worked with them before and this is what they did”, then that recommendation is worth a whole lot more than a regular RFP process.
NXT: What was it like getting on the Inc5000 roster?
Many people become aware of you, and it’s definitely harder the second time. Because we are project-based, how we grow depends on the number of clients we have that year. If there’s a surge, then it’s probably because we had more clients that year. Growth is important, but you have to be profitable.
If you’re growing at the expense of profit and you’re losing money on a project, you shouldn’t be doing that project. It’s like selling a product at a loss – if you sell a lot more of them, but you’re losing money on every sale – well, that’s a fast way to go broke. I’ll say it again – you absolutely need to be profitable!
NXT: How do you keep costs low at your company?
What we’re selling is our expertise, but I try to instill a mindset of time. We’re good at tracking the time we invest, so we understand what we need to achieve and how much time it takes. This enables us to focus our energies on the right things.
Clients want the best product at the best price, but they may not have the budget needed to achieve that. We’re great at working with our clients to scale the project in a way that achieves their goals and still fits within their budget. They may not get everything they want, but at the end of the day, the results are what matters.
Another reason that we’ve been able to keep our costs down is that we never got into pitching and doing spec work. You would never go to a grocery store and eat their food and then decide if you’re going to pay. You pay for what you use.
NXT: What have been your biggest challenges? What do you wish you knew back then?
I would say that our greatest advantage back then was that we didn’t know anything. All of our biggest leaps have been because we had no experience in running an agency, so we just did things our own way.
Some entrepreneurs will want to start a business, grow it, then sell it and live happy, retired lives. But if you know you’re in this for the long haul, you’ll be better off making mistakes and doing things that are unconventional.
NXT: Do you have any examples to share, of these unconventional things or mistakes?
Ha – not that I want to talk about! We’re all going to make mistakes – the important thing is to learn from them. Don’t be afraid to look hard at them and know what you’d do differently next time. It’s painful sometimes, but it works.
NXT: What are you struggling with now? What are your opportunities in the next couple of years?
To allow the newer work force to have the flexibility they want, the time off they want and still meet clients at the speed they want and the price they want. I think it can be handled but it’s a balancing process that’s still being worked out.
A lot of companies are also struggling with content. Original content is hard to get! Our team is working hard to make sure our content is authentic and that we’re maintaining our nimble-ness.
NXT: Do you have any tips on coming up with original content?
You can’t pull it out of your head in a minute, but I think repurposing material is a good tactic to use. Mixing the old and new, or refreshing out-dated material and making it more relatable to today’s industry. Keeping ahead of the trends and being the experts in your field as well as knowing your client’s industry and specific business enables you to think of new ways to apply what you know and come up with innovations that move the business forward.
NXT: Any tips for business owners?
If a client asks for something that’s outside your niche yet still in your realm of experience, do it! But keep marketing to your chosen niche, and don’t lose sight of where you’re spending your marketing dollars.
If you want to make a million, treat people like they’re a million. If you nickel and dime them, that’s what you’re going to make. There has to be a balance of good work and profitability.
A huge thanks to Donna Eby, co-Founder and Partner at Sanger & Eby, a modern day agency that does not fit a status quo. All staff that stays with the agency for 10 years gets a Rolex, and there are many Rolex’s in the office! Check out their blog here for more thought leadership.