Is it just me or are failure and debt a prerequisite to being a badass small business owner?
In 2011 I started a company with my graphic design husband with little knowledge of the industry: he was the creative, and I, “the business.” In retrospect our fearlessness was largely out of ignorance but I’d always had an entrepreneurial spirit. So we took the leap without backup plan.
We experienced the typical roller-coaster of startup successes and failures. But regardless of the countless late nights and endless hours of sweat we invested, three years into our business we hit rock bottom and ended up in $40,000 credit card debt.
Here’s the thing about rock bottom: it sucks.
But rock bottom also has a knack for providing an entirely new perspective. Forced to reevaluate our business, we realized we needed to take some dramatic steps to differentiate our company to dig ourselves out of the hole. We turned to strategies we had been using with our clients, and ended up building a completely unique brand for ourselves. Essentially, we took our own medicine and it completely turned our company around.
We made $500,000 in the next 12 months selling just our services and without paying for advertising. I stopped working seven days a week and began to work normal business hours. Lastly, I no longer networked, which until then, was my main marking source.
In short, we stopped copying the agency model and stopped looking for large clients. Instead, we focused on what we knew best: small service businesses. And we developed a unique branding process for our clients that also played to our strengths and preferences: in one-to-three-day intensives we build entire brands, including everything from the strategy and positioning, to the logo design, website layout and copy. We have no ongoing clients (in other words: freedom), and have already achieved more than we had hoped for when we set out.
‘Branding’ vs. ‘Branding for Small Businesses’
I have a bone to pick with the branding world. While branding is critical to the success of any business, the word has been bastardized; it has lost a lot of its meaning. The way it’s casually thrown around, and the prevalence of poorly executed brands, has caused many to become disillusioned with the whole concept.
And while I’m at it, I’m not a huge fan of all this “storytelling,” “brand pyramids,” and finding the “why” jargon, either.
Sure, branding is a story, and stories are an engaging way to disseminate information. You probably have a great story to share, and likely more than one. But which story do you share? Your home life? Your previous work experience? Your love of dogs? That thing you did in college? No, not that thing. Your credentials? Your family?
Do you even know how to tell stories well? Remember this isn’t camp or the dinner table, without an understanding of how to tell the right story in a proper way, entrepreneurs do more harm than good.
Over the years, I’ve honed my skills specifically helping one- to three-person service businesses build their brands. The most common challenges for this group are not surprising: they don’t know how to get clients; and they are not paid enough. Like a boring story with a predictable ending, I find most entrepreneurs face the same reoccurring issues when they try to use “branding” to help.
Entrepreneurs stress the fundamental imperative of “telling their story.” (Important, but not in the way you think)
Entrepreneurs faced with branding their company don’t know how to begin, what to do next and generally, feel completely overwhelmed with the entire process. (Been there, done that!)
These issues are the results of a gap between big ideas and tactical steps. When you own a business, or even if you share responsibilities with a partner, you are answerable for all aspects of the company: from branding your business, to getting invoices paid, to making sure there are staples in the damn stapler.
With so many things to keep track of it’s easy to see why big-branding concepts are often too abstract to be useful.
Branding is Not One-Size Fits All
Think of branding like a buffet. It tries to encompass too much for too many. The word branding is meant to work for every size business, in every industry, with every kind of goal. Before you know it, you are leaving the buffet with shrimp, a slice of toast, two tomatoes, some random slices of cheese, and part of a Jell-O mold. And in the end, it all tastes like wet Styrofoam anyway.
Since national big-box branding is very different from face-to-face sales, the strategies are different too. There are underlying commonalities, but tactically they are night and day. When you’re a consultant looking for a handful of high-yield clients, your brand and marketing strategy is going to look very different from Coca Cola’s, whose goal is to slice off a little more market share. The former needs to resonate quickly in each interaction, while the later can gain traction over time by blanketing their logo for hundreds of millions of dollars.
It can be invigorating to discuss grandiose concepts…if we were in a corner office and had hours to spare. But I’m not talking to those people. I am talking to the micro-business owners, the solopreneurs at the individual branding and sales level. I use my personal experience in this market to create actionable steps that have tangible results and don’t just look nice or sound good. I focus on what actually needs to get done, and not the high-level branding philosophies from Creative Directors and CEOs.
What It Really Means To Be A “Brand Strategist”
I’ve never worked at a large agency. I never clawed my way up the corporate ladder one generic rung after another. I have no idea what it takes to sell brown fizzy water to billions of people. And when I started my own company, I didn’t know the first thing about branding.
But now, as a partner at Worstofall Design, I know what I need to know and I know it well. And what I know about branding small businesses I learned firsthand on the front lines. I grew that knowledge through my work with hundreds of similar clients. My education in the small business world, untainted by the policies and procedures of traditional agency work, has enabled me to understand the many facets of branding and marketing a small business and explain them in layman’s terms. I find it resonates when the often-elusive idea of branding is articulated in simple language instead of agency jargon.
As our medicine kicked in, so did our new philosophy. We learned how to successfully brand our company and in turn learned how to help other small businesses become noticeable, memorable and ultimately, successful brands of their own.
This article was originally posted on Forbes.