I’ve been trying to write this post for the last ten months. I closed the marketing agency in September 2016, fully intending to let the dust settle, synthesize what I learned and then report that as well as my next move. Then my mom died.
It wasn’t sudden, we were estranged, and yet it devastated me. The closure of this business and the death of my mother will forever be linked in my mind along with Portland’s coldest winter in 24 years. I learned that she was gone while huddling under a pile of blankets with my husband, our two dogs and the cat in the middle of our living room because the power (and the heat) had been out for 20 hours at that point and the temperature outside hovered below freezing.
Next time you find yourself in a similar situation, I don’t recommend asking the universe how things could possibly get worse, because the universe had an answer for me and I did not appreciate it. The good thing about 20 hours without heat is that when it does get worse, your whole family is already under the blanket with you and can react accordingly.
Mom was instrumental in developing my entrepreneurial spirit, and not just because she was an entrepreneur herself in the way that all drug addicts eventually are: constantly weighing return on investment for every transaction. It was because of her I started my first company, cleaning neighbors’ houses for the grocery money she always seemed to have a better use for. I loved it. Work set me free. It fed me when I was hungry, got me out of the house and even taught me the value of school, which up until that point I had little regard for except as a distraction from my chaotic home life.
I guess it’s odd to talk about this stuff in a business blog, but it’s important to do so. We like to pretend that businesses and workers evolve in a vacuum. 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.
From my very first day, work has been a sanctuary for me. A place where things make sense, where there is a right way and a wrong way to do something, where targets are clear or at least I can make them clear, and where I do extremely well. I’ve never closed a company I didn’t want to close and I’ve never left a position I wasn’t ready to leave. Until this one.
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 afraid of missing out, and could I reliably prove return on investment?
In the ensuing years I did just that. I wasn’t always running feel-good campaigns, but the feel-good campaigns I ran had similar if not better returns than the inflammatory campaigns. Just 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.
After I learned that, I wanted to know how other freelancers ran their professional lives. I’d always been an avid attendee of marketing and freelance events in Portland, and 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 the more professional processes a freelancer had, the more they were usually paid and the less time they wasted 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.
Losing interest from potential clients who were put off by 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. Any time I made an exception and relaxed my process, I experienced all the typical pit-falls of difficult clients. Process was the key to a happy working life.
As my marketing agency grew, I brought on two contractors to help me with client management. We had a clear plan for converting them to employees. I wonder if what followed would have happened if I had waited longer, saved the capital and brought them on as employees in the first place. But I was impatient for growth.
I wasn’t thinking about my clients. They had become a means to an end, which was my first and 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.
I became fascinated with business operations. I’d been on a steady diet of business administration books since I started working as a freelancer and realized there was a lot more to being on my own than simply doing the work I loved. It was an unexpected surprise to find that, while most freelancers saw the business aspect of running your own business as a necessary evil, I was energized by it.
Mom had always wanted me to go to business school. It seems obvious in hindsight. I’d started my first business at 14 with nothing more than a mop and a friendly smile. But I saw that venture as a means to an end, nothing more. I loved language, I was creative. I didn’t want to be roped into a stodgy business degree.
I don’t regret my English degree. On the contrary, it’s opened the world to me in the way that only something as essential as language can. It’s because of my degree that I can absorb and communicate marketing, business administration and personal process as well as I do.
I felt I needed to know more about business than books could teach me. I wanted to see inside other businesses in Portland, to know what day-to-day operations looked like first-hand. 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.
I rationalized that the 20 hours I spent away from the company every week was me giving my Program Manager the space to make decisions and implement my process without me hovering around every second of the day. Plus, the money I was earning allowed me to take less owner’s draw and reinvest in the agency.
If we had succeeded I’d be writing about what good foresight it was. Seeing as we’re closed, I still have no idea if this decision impacted our fate. It’s easy to say that 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. I had to know.
The mystery of positive marketing had been temporarily solved for me. I’d spent years perfecting my processes, then I hired an outside consultant to help me distill everything I knew about standard marketing campaigns into programs and systems that were basically set-it-and-forget-it. Our extensive employee manual was open during meetings, and we consulted and updated it often as a way to remain relevant in a constantly changing industry. Everything was going smoothly at the agency, which is when I tend to get itchy fingers.
My one regret is that my overestimation of my ability to build a free-standing structure ended with my two contractors out of work. I thought that I could build a marketing agency and that if my systems were good enough, it would grow and sustain employees while I got to pursue my wild flights of fancy in the hopes that what I learned could make us stronger in the long run. I still think I’m right about that, but the systems weren’t good enough. There was much I didn’t know about business; things a person is incapable of learning in a few short years of casual research.
By June of 2016 I’d referred all our design and web development clientele to other firms because we were focusing on recurring monthly management. I should have immediately invested everything we had into growing that client base, but instead I dove deep on re-designing our sales pipeline so it would be less draining for my sales reps, and so clients would have a consistent impression of our brand from start to finish.
As with my part-time job, if we had succeeded, I’d be writing about this differently. What I can say is that I am proud of the sales pipeline we built, even if it never gets used again. The process of negotiating person hours using emotional labor as a factor while dealing with the realities of income, expense, and budget needs was perhaps one of the most edifying projects of my career. Having done this, I can’t see myself writing process any other way.
What finally ended us was an unexpected contract change that we were unable to recover from. The months spent on the sales pipeline, my time away at the part-time job, and the long onboarding process I’d developed meant that we couldn’t raise enough income to keep the doors open, even when I cut the onboarding process to its bare bones. It was too little too late. I paid the last paychecks out of my savings, closed everything down except this site and our phone number and spent September referring clients to other agencies.
I’ve been at Venture Portland since then, and I am extremely grateful to the team there for the time we’ve spent together and the things we’ve learned. Being part of this innovative program has infused me with energy and taught me to trust my penchant for experimentation, despite the role it might have played in the company’s end.
After my mother died, I felt like a zombie. Processing the grief of her loss was a factor, but so was processing the grief of her life. She was a sensitive, creative person, and I saw untreated addiction and mental illness turn her fearful and cruel. I’m under no illusions that a better world would have saved her, but it could have made
her life and the lives of the people who loved her less fraught. Having experienced first-hand how grief effected me, I’ve come through this time of mourning even more committed than ever to a people-first vision of life and business. Even top performers need time and a safe place to process the ups and downs of life, and if we don’t give this to them, we’ll lose them.
We know that relationships are the key to emotional and even physical health. We know that relationship building is the most solid way to grow: personally, in business and everywhere else. I know it’s time for me to move forward, and I am looking for my next opportunity somewhere that shares my perspective on process, management and people-first systems. I want to use my marketing expertise and continue to learn about management in an environment that acknowledges the importance of healthy, connected people in a strong economy.
This means a dedication to lateral training, network building and career development. It also means an evolving relationship with equity and what it means 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.
I am looking in every industry, public and private sector. I acknowledge that the private sector may not be as ripe for organizations who share my values, but I know they’re there, and I am fascinated with exploring the real return on investment we can experience by putting people first.
As for this blog, I want to keep writing about my adventures in business and marketing, but I’ve read enough of these kinds of posts to know not to promise regular updates. The site and the blog will stay live, although you may notice some changes as time goes on.