I Owned My Own Marketing Company for 5 Years; Here’s What I Learned

In the fall of 2016, I closed my marketing company, MMC PDX. Through a combination of distance, processing, and applying these leanings in the environments I’ve found myself in since then; I finally have a concise, accessible list of the most important things my company taught me.

Empathy is Everything. We like to pretend that businesses and workers evolve in a vacuum, but everything I know about equity, communications and management says otherwise. We all show up to work from a different direction and it’s hurting all of us that we don’t talk about it honestly. We’re relegating important perspectives to silence in the name of status quo when we could be thriving on the influx of data.

Empathy isn’t just putting myself in my clients shoes and thinking about their pain points as actual points of pain, it’s also about context and nurturing people who understand contexts that I don’t have. It’s about taking the time to ask someone why and honoring the answer. Why does a client hate this proposal (really, why)? Why has a direct report make this decision or take that action? What are my assumptions, and why am I making them?

My empathy is not just about putting myself in another person’s place, it’s about respecting that place and being strong enough to hold my reality and theirs together and equal for the good of the project. Without empathy, we don’t honor feedback, we don’t access important knowledge, we don’t have integrity and we don’t build anything real.

Scare people, and you get them once; Uplift them, and you get them forever. I started the company in 2012 with one question: Could a person make a living on community-focused marketing that put honesty first and treated people with dignity? In other words, could I successfully build a portfolio of marketing that made people feel safe and happy instead of triggering their fear of missing out, and could I reliably prove return on investment?

In the ensuing years I did just that. As I suspected, people responded extremely well when local brands reached out to them in honesty, especially when they could see that their personal values matched the company’s. Later on, at Venture Portland and Open Signal, I built on that theory, using positive campaigns built with honesty and values-driven messaging to successfully rally communities around the companies and causes they cared most about.

Good business processes are rooted in reality and easy to communicate. As I built my business, I realized that while other creative professionals found business management tedious at best and nightmarish at worst, I found it fascinating. I became an Organizer for the Freelancer’s Union in order to see inside the business processes of my fellow sole-proprietors.

I learned that freelancers who had business processes that were easy to communicate and made sense to the client, were usually paid more and spent less time on unpaid labor like going after non-payers or renegotiating contracts. I played with my own processes and was able to completely eliminate late and non-payment from my client pool.

Losing interest from potential clients who were put off by my process had no effect on my overall income because the time I would have wasted on unprofessional clients was spent working or looking for qualified work. In fact, I made more money as people were more willing to invest in an organization that had credibility. Any time I made an exception and relaxed my process, I experienced all the issues I had before. Clear process was the key to good clients and a happy working life.

The client is the most important person at any company. As my marketing agency grew, so did my excitement about business systems. I brought on two other people to serve as my salesperson and my project manager and I contracted an outside consultancy to help streamline our internal systems. In what I now see as a deeply ironic move, I cut my client-facing time way back because I wanted to focus on growth.

I wasn’t thinking about my clients. They had become a means to an end, which was my largest mistake. I wanted more clients because I wanted to implement better systems in the agency. I needed to know if my theories about process would hold true as the organization grew, and I didn’t want to wait to find out. In the work I did after the business closed, I found that the majority of my theories were extremely sound, but I neglected the one truth that really mattered: there’s no such thing as a business without customers.

A good portion of success is luck; the rest is desire, labor and aptitude. While I was on my business processes journey, I decided that I needed to know more about business than books could teach me. I wanted to see what day-to-day operations looked like in other businesses. When an opportunity to be a part-time Business District Organizer for Venture Portland presented itself, I jumped at the chance to spend my days talking to other business owners about their challenges and victories.

At the time, I rationalized that the 20 hours I spent away from the company every week was giving my Program Manager the space to make decisions and implement my process without me hovering around every second of the day.

If we succeeded I might be writing about this differently. Seeing as we closed, I do think this decision impacted our fate. It’s easy to say I should have spent that time on sales, but the truth is nothing would have kept me away from learning more about business operations. I was obsessed and I had to know. I’d lost my desire to run a marketing company and found a deeper desire to run a good company, regardless of what it did.

The mystery of positive marketing had been temporarily solved for me. I’d spent years perfecting my processes, then my outside consultant helped me distill everything I knew about standard marketing campaigns into programs and systems that were basically set-it-and-forget-it. Our clear, concise and reality-rooted employee manual was open during meetings. We consulted it often and updated it as needed in order to remain relevant in a constantly changing industry. Everything was going smoothly, we had found success. But I wasn’t happy with it. Which leads me to the next point.

Whatever is wrong with you, is wrong with your business. Growing up in tough circumstances, I developed an uncanny ability to out-work anybody on the market. When I started my first company at 14, cleaning and doing yard work for neighborhood houses, I accepted a low rate because I desperately needed money for food, clothes and school expenses. Things my parents were unable to provide.

Early in my working life I became known as a problem solver, a person who burned the candle at both ends, who got stuff done on spec, on deadline and under budget no matter what. Once I became known for pulling rabbits out of hats, it was only a matter of time until specs and deadlines slid from realistic to suspect to wildly fantastical. And I still delivered. Usually for the same price.

It got to the point where I’d caught so many Hail Marys people started to expect that I could operate in those conditions all the time. More importantly, I started to expect that I could. This massive imbalance in my work/life ratio meant that I entered the market undervaluing my time, energy and working product. And so I undervalued my company’s product. This added to the strain that ultimately took us down, leaving me and two other capable people out of work.

Lastly, I learned that whether you fail has no baring on who you are; what matters is what you do next.

What finally ended us was minor hiccup that we should have been able to recover from. Despite a year of excellent ROI, the CEO of our largest client cancelled our contract in favor of hiring a family member to do their marketing for them.

We were already too lean, I was personally burnt out from working all hours and not taking care of myself. Unable to onboard new clients fast enough to make up the loss, I realized that we had to close. I paid the last paychecks out of my savings, closed everything down except this site and our phone number and spent September through December finishing contracts and referring clients to other agencies.

Right after the company closed, my mother died. Processing the grief of her life and her loss along with the grief of losing my company was brutal. I felt like a zombie. For the first time, I couldn’t simply power through.

Exhausted beyond measure and seriously questioning my abilities, I decided to stay on at Venture Portland; building the East Portland Pilot Project. Being a part of that innovative project re-infused me with energy and taught me to trust my penchant for experimentation again, despite the role it might have played in my failure. It also gave me a safe place to come back to my oldest skill and most cherished skill: relationship building.

Relationships are the key to emotional and even physical health. Relationship building is the most solid way to grow; personally, in business and everywhere else. I’d known this instinctively as a young person, and I have always relied on a robust social network, but my dedication to others has never really extended to myself. Through the loss of my company, I found something I hadn’t had in years, maybe in my whole life. I found a compassionate, supportive and loving relationship with myself.

I came from a place where a person had to be hard to survive, and I did that for myself. I became hard in order to make it out of that environment. Hard on myself, hard on my team, and hard on the world. Now, thanks in no small part to those original survival skills, I live in a very different environment than the one I came from. One that requires a completely different set of skills.

Today is about being vulnerable enough to lead with compassion and empathy. It’s about keeping my ego in check so I can be accountable to myself and others. It’s about working towards the future, not away from the past.

This means a dedication to lateral training, network building and career development. It also means an evolving relationship with equity and what it looks like in the workplace today. A willingness to change old systems, a need to be better even when we’re great and a passion for problem solving that acknowledges solutions can and must come from anywhere. In other words, I’ve always been a problem solver, but I used to think that was because I had the solution, today I know that I am a problem solver because I am humble enough to nurture and grow the solution from where it can be found: with those who are most effected by the problem.

When I founded my company, it was a realization of a life-long dream. I’ve had companies before that one, and I currently own another small business in addition to working a full time job, but there was something about the marketing company that was special. It was me flying with my own wings. Now that it’s closed, what I’ve learned is that my wings were always there and they’re still here today. As long as I’m learning and growing, nothing is ever truly lost. Just different. Usually better.