The ABCs of What We've Learned So Far at &Marketing
The near two-year journey of starting &Marketing has been the highlight of my professional career. From a vague idea that I could take my ‘big company’ background and apply it to small and medium-sized businesses going through the digital transformation to a real ‘company’ has really been … well, everything. Fun. Exhilarating. Frustrating. Interesting. Insomnia-inducing. And last, amazing.
One thing we’ve never done is stop and reflect on the lessons learned or the ups and downs of the our experience. As Gary Vee would say - “document the journey.”
Inspired by former colleague Mohamed El-Demerdash’s series on LinkedIn “The ABCs of Human Leadership” (check it out, it’s worth it), we’re going to try and do the “ABCs of what we’ve learned so far at &Marketing” - For every letter, we will choose one word or phrase and discuss its significance in our journey. Entries will vary, but generally be about starting a new company, working with a multigenerational and remote workforce, and helping companies through the digital transformation of their businesses. We’re excited to share it with you, and look forward to any comments!
M - Millennials
Two years ago, as we were just starting &Marketing, I wrote a piece about “Harnessing the Power of Millennials.” As we’ve grown, this has become truer than ever (and the cliches around the entitlement of millennials have gotten even worse).
For those still trying to “figure millennials out,” here’s some advice from what we’ve learned so far:
Give them opportunities to guide their own career
Millennials aren’t about the status quo. They’re open-minded and not necessarily trying to follow in the footsteps of their “superiors” or climb the corporate ladder. They want to control their own success (which is awesome) and they don’t quite care what other people think of them. The best thing you can do - and the way to help them reach their max potential - is to support this journey, not fight it. Help them carve their own path. The ideas of success differ from person to person, so give them customized options. Use those options as a sounding board to help them figure out what they want.
One very effective tactic we implemented was to offer our team, regardless of age, the chance to create and select their own projects. We called them “20% projects,” and we were amazed at the impact of some of the solutions (e.g. standardizing our solutions, improving our social media presence, etc).
Challenge and coach them along the way
Despite how independent millennials are, they want feedback. But then again, who doesn’t?. As products of the digital era, they are hyper-connected humans, so you should give them regular 1 on 1 connections (mine are weekly!). Empower them to create their own agenda and drive the conversation. Listen closely and always help them see things from multiple perspectives. And don’t always just ask about work - ask about life. Create a relationship and take a genuine interest in them as people.
Look hard for the good ones, and bypass the not-so-good ones quickly
It’s not hard to tell the difference between the good ones and the bad ones. While I am a huge proponent of the millennial generation, I won’t lie and say I haven’t encountered some of the self-entitlement, arrogance, and lack of professionalism that many people have complained about. But then again, can’t we say these things of anyone, regardless of when they were born?
Focus on culture, ethics, and diversity
Millennials are the largest segment of the workforce, and they care deeply about ethics, diversity, and culture. There’s some pretty compelling research that demonstrates the need to focus on this (sourced from Deloitte):
Only 48 percent of respondents believe corporations behave ethically
Just 47 percent think business leaders are committed to helping society improve
A majority of Millennials across the world believe businesses “have no ambition beyond wanting to make money”
69 percent of employees who believe their senior management teams are diverse see their working environments as motivating and stimulating versus 43 percent who don’t perceive leadership as diverse
Ultimately, when interviewing a millennial, don’t mark them off the list before digging a little deeper. You might just find one of the most creative and driven people you’ve ever encountered (you also really can’t afford to, they make up a huge proportion of the workforce!). Learn about who they are, what they want out of life, and what success means to them.
L - Learning
I spoke earlier in this series about the digital revolution and its impact on marketing. With the rapid pace of technological change, we’re learning something new almost every day. Beyond just marketing, we’ve learned that startup life itself is a constant learning process. Our ability to scale and find success is dependent on our ability to learn, be dynamic, and evolve. Here’s what I mean:
We’re still nailing down which processes work, and which don’t
Pardon the cliche, but we’re “building the plane while flying it.” A ‘work from anywhere’ environment can be challenging (but rewarding, which is why we do it) and working with a multi-generational mix of full-timers and part-time contractors is a challenge, too. We’re trying out different project management tools and modes of communication to figure out what works best. We’re also working to standardize some processes across clients.
Our people come from various backgrounds
We attract all types of people who are curious about our culture here at &Marketing. Some of them have a twinkle in their eye when we mention that we’re fully remote, some love our passion for helping small and medium-sized businesses grow, and others simply are excited at the idea of contributing to something that’s new and growing. Regardless of the reason, we have to take into account the learning curve. Some come from agencies, some from the client-side, others from big corporations, and some from the gig economy. We’ve written before about how we believe diversity is one of our biggest strengths. The learning comes from us harnessing that diverse set of unique perspectives and experiences into our culture to make us even better.
We serve (and learn from) a cross-section of businesses
As a startup, we partner with a diverse group of small and medium-sized businesses. We’ll get our hands dirty in almost any business situation - from true “startups” to companies who have been around for decades. We work with B2B, B2C, and non-profits, companies that make natural & organic foods, provide services, manufacture widgets, and the ones that distribute those widgets. As long as your company follows basic rules of ethics (see the letter “E” earlier in the ABCs of Marketing series), we’ll probably give it a shot. This means we often take on new types of companies and situations that we may not be well-versed in yet, but that allow us to learn about new industries and bring best practices from others. We’re certainly marketing experts, but there’s a lot to learn with each new client.
Almost everyone wears multiple hats
I’m sure you’ve heard this one many times before, but it’s true...startups require anyone, at any given point, to wear multiple hats. To sustain our business, it’s important we keep a lean team, which often means we’re short on bandwidth or people. Lucky for us, we’ve got hustlers on our team willing to jump headfirst into new challenges.
Ultimately, without learning, there is no growth. We are constantly challenging ourselves with new types of people, new businesses to support, and new ways of doing things. Anything else would be boring!
K - Kindness
Earlier in this series we talked about ethics, and that while you’d assume it’s a given in business, it’s actually not. The same goes for kindness. It’s fundamental to how we run our business at &Marketing, yet it’s not something you find everywhere. In a world plagued by grabbing attention at all costs, internal competition, and an obsession with climbing the ladder, kindness is overshadowed by ruthlessness. Perhaps because many associate it with weakness.
What we’ve learned, though, is that kindness itself is a differentiator and can take you to the next level. And when you encounter kindness in its truest form, it really puts things into perspective. Here’s an example.
This past year, a good friend lost their 14 year old son to a tragic accident. What his parents only found out until after he passed, was that he had spent his short life doing random acts of kindness for others, behind closed doors. This struck me at a deep level, not only because of our friendship and the tragedy, but also because of the kindness element. My wife and I helped start The Kind Like Joey Foundation (https://www.kindlikejoey.org/) as a result. What’s amazing is that the kindness didn’t end with Joey; it had a ripple effect. Joey’s goodwill toward others has inspired hundreds if not thousands of additional random acts of kindness (give the Foundation a “like” on Facebook!) .
To me, a similar ripple effect happens in business. What you put in is what you get out. With clients, partners, and vendors, you have an opportunity to be unethical or selfish, or to be kind and build long-term partnerships based on trust. This often will give you more business (assuming you’re also doing great work). When you’re kind to your colleagues, you create a more personal connection, which will likely breed closer collaboration and ultimately produce better results. And if you’re a business owner like me, when you’re kind to your employees, you create a safe space for them - one where they’re more likely to think freely and creatively and contribute new ideas without hesitation.
The bottom line is that kindness is good for both your health and your business. But don’t just take it from me! There’s plenty of research to back it up. Check out this Ted Talk to learn just how much you can gain from having a little respect and empathy - and how much you can lose from being rude!
J - Jargon
Jargon is RAMPANT in the marketing world - from PPC, keywords, and CRM, to form fill-outs, automation, and bottom of the funnel. The list is endless and frustrating.
Jargon gets a bad rep (and for good reason), but dare I say internally...it’s kind of a necessary evil? It’s how we communicate and often times we can’t express what we’re working on without it.
The problem is when companies use jargon for the sake of jargon. Some use it to fill awkward silences on calls, and others use it to sound smart. Many use jargon as a security blanket when they have nothing of real value to add to a conversation (so they string together a bunch of meaningless terms to sound sophisticated). Spoiler alert: intelligent people see right through it!
What we’ve learned so far is that when jargon starts to infiltrate client calls, meetings, presentations, etc. we must break it down into every day terms. After all, most of our clients (and normal humans) have little to no marketing experience. So why should we expect them to understand what it means to optimize paid search or SEO? Jargon without immediate backup is just bad business because it causes confusion, can be alienating, and can taint your credibility. Jargon has the power to create an immediate disconnect between the consultant, agency, etc and the client, when in fact the goal is to become an extension of their team (by the way, this is where the the “&” in &Marketing comes from!).
To further help with this, my colleague, Tracey Colla, wrote a humorous article about “Paper Clip” campaigns, demystifying several examples of common marketing jargon.
I’ll close the loop on this installment of the ABCs of marketing blog series with a quote (jargon fully intended):
I - I versus We
Startups require a bunch of skill-sets. You need your strategists, your project managers, your writers, web developers, analysts, designers, and more. Many of our clients require each of these things, so they’ll never be one individual rockstar. Success is born from a group of people executing on their responsibilities together, because we can’t all be perfect at everything.
What we’ve learned though, is that having a team of talented individuals will not breed success on its own. There needs to be a sense of collaboration and cohesion, and frequent communication, or else things fall apart. Each team member must buy into the “I” versus “We” mentality - and it’s easy to tell those who do, and those who don’t.
An “I” person approaches their work in silos, and is focused exclusively on checking things off the list, and then checking out. They seek personal growth and personal growth alone. And when a problem arises, they tend to make excuses or point fingers.
A “we” person, on the other hand, is more of a team player. They see the greater goal and purpose behind the work they’ve accomplished, and they reflect on how their personal growth impacts the broader success of the organization or of the client. And when a problem arises, they look for a solution.
The reality is that many companies have both - and that’s okay. No company nor single individual is perfect. What’s crucial, though, is to have leaders in place who are constantly communicating the bigger picture and the impact each individual has.
H - Hustle
Hustle is one of the most critical elements in a startup. Hustle is an attitude. Hustle means that you're willing to do something that's outside of your day job and expertise…without all the information you need. It means that sometimes, you’ll drop what you’re doing to complete a last minute assignment for a client, or help a teammate who may be struggling to hit a deadline.
Particularly in a small business, a hustler is a problem-solver. They recognize that sometimes we’re learning as we go, and they put the extra work in to solve a seemingly answerable question. A hustler knows how to prioritize the mission-critical tasks and let go of what’s not important.
What we’ve learned is that hustle should be in the DNA of a small company and a hiring criteria. Whenever possible, find people who are willing to go the extra mile without being told every single step. One of my favorite interview questions to ask a prospective employee is "Please give me an example of a project that you knocked out of the park without being asked... something you took on yourself." Their response or confusion will speak volumes. This year, we asked each of our team members to create their own projects based on what they thought were our best opportunities. I was simply amazed at the ideas that came back.
Hustlers have ambition and want to better themselves and the company every day. It’s a way of life and a key ingredient for success. If you’ve got hustlers on your team, your clients and company are in good hands.
G - Gratitude
When working in a startup, there are many ups and downs. Many. Even in the course of one day. One moment you see that the major campaign you launched for a client was successful (yeah!), and in the next, the client you had been hoping would sign the SOW decided to delay their decision (boo!).
There’s one thing I have that helps me get through all of these times, and it’s the ability to, at least once a day, stop and be grateful for something. It’s a practice that was inspired by Lewis Howes, a pro-athlete, entrepreneur, and speaker, who has faced his fair share of trials and tribulations (check out his podcast here - it’s worth it!)
My family incorporated this practice of gratitude into our nightly dinner routine. It makes me stop in my tracks to hear my 10 year old talk about his day in the 4th grade and what he's thankful for (it's usually playing football at recess!), or to hear that my 5 year old is grateful for his teacher. All of a sudden that conference call that didn't go well doesn't seem that important. I highly recommend this routine as a way to 'get out of your own head' for any busy professional.
F - Flexibility
Earlier in this series we talked about the digital revolution and its seemingly endless pace. Things are changing not just month to month or week to week, but day to day and hour to hour. In our constantly-connected world, we’ve become conditioned to think less, do more, and work faster.
This can be especially difficult for small and medium-sized businesses, as they’re understaffed, strapped for time, and have employees wearing multiple hats. What we’ve learned is that SMBs need flexibility in the support they receive from their partners. Rigid approaches no longer apply. SMBs neither want - nor can they afford - the large-scale support that most agencies offer. Instead, they want a service that is scaled perfectly to fit their unique needs. Sometimes that means 20 hours of focused work a week, and other times it means just a few hours of senior counsel a month.
Embracing speed and flexibility is also a huge advantage for smaller companies against larger, slower competitors. Large companies are often plagued by micromanagement and have a slew of internal processes. While some of these processes enable companies to scale, others completely kill productivity. Most small businesses don’t have this same level of bureaucracy, so they can be nimble and make decisions faster (I talk more on the pitfalls of bureaucracy in the letter “B” below). That’s why we built flexibility into our model specifically with this in mind.
E - Ethics
Ethics is a non-negotiable. This is obvious, right?
What we’ve learned so far is that you can’t assume everyone takes ethics seriously. Many take it for granted, while others don’t even think about it at all. In our two year journey, we’ve run into a surprising number of clients who try to cut corners, don’t stay true to their work, or don’t hold themselves accountable for their end of the bargain. I’ll share two examples.
The first was a client with whom we had a written agreement that they’d pay us a bonus if we grew their pipeline. And when we did grow their pipeline, they refused to pay it. That same client also verbally agreed to an additional scope of work, yet later denied approving it and didn’t pay us after we did the job. We gladly parted ways with them.
The second was a client with whom I became “friends.” Long story short, part of my house (like my personal house) flooded, and this client’s significant other ran a contracting business. They quickly came and resolved the issue for us, and assisted with working with our insurance company to make sure we were reimbursed. But they then assumed that we’d give them all of our repair work in the future...and were not pleased when we didn’t. It was a clear ethical breach and, by the end of it, was borderline insurance fraud (which I reported).
So, what happened with these clients? We fired them...and I’m proud of it. Another agency would likely continue that relationship for the sake of a dollar. But we’re neither typical nor are we an agency. If anything, we’re the anti-agency, and we’re not afraid to turn down business or end relationships if it’s a cultural mismatch (read more on our values here). Sacrificing my soul - or that of my team - is not worth it. I’d trade business for ethics any day.
Ultimately, ethics (or lack thereof) will impact culture, and culture is the cornerstone of a successful business. Every decision you make, client you partner with, or new team member you hire makes a difference in the long-run. We’re about honesty, transparency, and respect (among many other things, you can scroll down in this series to learn more about our culture). If you don’t play well with ethics and what we believe to be decent human behavior, we won’t be successful partners!
D - Digital Revolution
As the digital revolution continues to turn the world on its head, there’s one thing we’ve learned for sure when it comes to marketing: the more things change, the more they stay the same. Here’s what I mean:
How companies reach their customers has changed forever. The Internet has become the dominant place for information and product intake for all ages and types of businesses. It’s transformed how companies, including trillion dollar “old school” industries, do business - from SEO and paid search, to social media and email, to algorithms, analytics and automation platforms. It’s enough to make your head spin (unless you’re marketing nerds, like us - we live for this stuff). But the point is, the opportunities to communicate your message - and even predict your customers’ behavior - have never been better.
What the digital revolution hasn’t changed are the strategic fundamentals of marketing. Target audiences are the same, and customers still have problems that need to be solved. Businesses still need to find those pain points, and have quality products to serve as a solution. And of course, brands still need to tell a compelling story to convince people of why they are the solution.
The challenge is that the Internet has caused information overload and incredibly short attention spans. Large companies have the budget to staff digital experts to “break through the clutter” (or they hire big agencies to do it). But where do small and medium-sized businesses (SMBs) stand? Without the same resources, some have fallen behind the curve. Sure, there are a bunch of marketing tools out there, designed to make internal workflows more efficient. And don’t get me wrong - they do - but not when you don’t have the time to figure out how they work.
The digital revolution’s impact on small and medium sized businesses isn’t just something we’ve learned about during the past couple of years, it’s why we exist in the first place. For those trying to navigate its seemingly endless pace, we’re here to help you keep up.
I’ll leave you with a quote from a former co-worker and friend of mine, Jon Bostock, Co-Founder and CEO of Truman’s (https://www.trumans.com/). Check it out - his company is paving the eco-friendly way in household cleaning. He reminds us of one of the greatest things the digital revolution offers: constant connection.
C - Culture
Creating and maintaining a strong, balanced Culture is really hard. Especially with a multigenerational workforce. Especially with a virtual team and multiple people from the ‘gig’ economy who have other priorities. Especially in a startup.
The biggest thing we have learned about culture is that if you don’t focus on building one you want, a culture will form anyway. Then you have to go back and fix it, and that’s even harder.
We have two home bases in Philadelphia and Indianapolis, and several team members in neither location. Our team has grown really fast - we have 8 full-time, 4-5 ‘regular’ part-time, and a bunch of ‘extended’ team members who we use for filling in gaps. The Indy team is more technical and has an office at a local co-working space because they need to directly collaborate and they prefer it (check out zWorks if you’re looking for a great space and tell them we sent you!). Everyone has the option to work from wherever, whenever they need to get their jobs done. Most people work from home, I only assume, because nobody checks.
All of that said, we cannot say that we have a perfect culture, because it’s a constant work in progress. But people seem to enjoy working here. While these aren’t really documented anywhere (until now), here are a few things we “do around here” to maintain an upbeat and cohesive culture:
Assume positive intent. In all interactions, we try to assume positive intent. Just like a marriage, a good working relationship requires that those involved assume that the other person means well. If that goes out the window, you’re in real trouble. If you assume positive intent, you can disagree (passionately) on the topic and not worry if the other person has an ulterior motive. You can also deal with failure and imperfection, which happens often when you’re part of a small company that’s introducing new ideas to companies who are trying new things.
Try to remember that work is a part of life, not the other way around. We have a culture of almost infinite flexibility. Our goal is to create a work environment where everyone enjoys one another’s company, and we get to do our best work. We never ‘demand’ that someone works on a project - it’s always a choice, depending on their abilities, bandwidth, and desire. It’s OK to say no to a project. It’s OK to work at night or early in the morning. We build little weekly or monthly ‘fun’ interaction times where we can get to know each other outside of the specific grind of a project deadline.
Put the client’s customer first. This one is a little hard to get your mind around - but if we legitimately try to help our clients grow, then all the other activity seems to sort itself out. We think of our job as being a ‘guide’ for our clients to help their customers & prospects with whatever product or service they provide. We often say things like “If it was my money, here is how I would spend it" and we actually mean it, even if that means less work for us.
Try to have clear roles & responsibilities... This one was really hard. At the end of 2018 in our team 360 feedback, more than one person put some version of “because we go fast and are all remote, it's hard to clearly know what my job is.” So, we created a clear document that explicitly states the expectations of every role in the company - irrespective of client or project. The team expressed appreciation of the clarity and has already upped their game as a result. I remember going to work in my 20’s and not really knowing what I was supposed to do other than what my boss told me to do and thinking ‘There has to be more to this!”
…but embrace each person’s unique strengths. To further complicate things, because we are an ‘outsourced marketing department’ - we have a huge variation of personalities, styles, and skill sets because today’s marketing department needs to serve at least these functions: strategy, branding, messaging, creative, web development, social, email, PR, influencing, SEO, & copywriting. As we have written before, we actually think that diversity is one of our biggest strengths.
Expect team members to ‘make the call’ and ‘use their big brains’ - It's amazing how many organizations don’t actually explicitly empower their employees to think of how to do things better. We borrowed the 3M philosophy of “20% time” - where every employee chooses or creates a project they think needs to be done. Of course, it’s vetted and thought through so we don’t have people spending tons of time on random tasks, but I’m simply amazed at some of the ideas. I’m 100% sure that I wouldn’t have thought of them (a few examples: creating a more secure way to store our clients’ data; documenting standard SOWs and SOPs for repetitive tasks; getting our company on Facebook & Instagram; simplifying our staffing). In fact, the concept of a 20% project was brought to the team by our “Mascot and Mentor” Chris Hoyt.
I learned this last one from a former manager, Kathy Sterio. Kathy has many amazing traits as a professional and a leader (and a human being!), but here’s a quick story to describe one that’s relevant here: Kathy managed me in my first marketing role after a 2-year leadership rotational program at GE. Early on, I went to her with some sort of a 30/60/90 day plan. Kathy reviewed it with me and simply said “Good luck! Let me know how I can help!” Honestly, that scared the crap out of me, but it forced me to do what I thought needed to be done, knowing that she would support me when things didn’t go right - and be there along the way for regular check-ins. Things sometimes didn’t go right, and she always had my back.
Kathy’s philosophy on this is something more managers should use to get the best out of their teams. That’s one very good way to build trust in your culture.
B - Bureaucracy
B is for Bureaucracy, with a giant B. What we’ve learned so far is that in today’s fast-paced business world, bureaucracy is the death knell for poorly run businesses. The single biggest reason is that companies are losing in the modern economy because of the lack of focus on customers and their needs. Call it internal focus, call it navel-gazing, call it what you want.
One example: Several years ago when I worked for a large company, I worked on a project where I was asked to prepare a PPT slide that was to be presented to our CMO and CEO for a major internal review. I was not given much notice, and it was described as urgent, so I dedicated an entire day to presenting the information about our project in a clear, concise, and compelling way (with nice pictures, and of course on only one PPT slide). I moved other meetings to make this happen. After 2-3 revisions with my team, at about 4:30 in the afternoon, I texted my friend Ryan Oliver, who worked directly with the CMO to ask a question about the task. He simply replied. “I am working on the slides, can you just send me a quick bullet about that project - it’s not a big part of the presentation.” So, I spent an entire day on a page for an internal meeting that was not even used. Productivity wasted. Morale spent.
This sort of thing happens in corporate America every day.
But don’t think that bureaucracy happens in large companies only. Many small companies have all decisions go through the management team because they “know better” or implicitly don’t trust their teams. In a recent project for a much smaller client, the sales leader, frustrated at his management team’s inability to let the team make even the tiniest decision, referenced this quote from Andy Stanley.
In rapidly changing markets full of uncertainty, which most of us are a part of, we have learned that organizations that can speed up and clarify decision making [Want an amazing book about decision making? Principles, by Ray Dalio.] by answering some basic questions: Whose decision is this? How do they get the right information? Who do they need to consult? These companies will win in the long run.
A - Attitude
To me, A is not only the first letter, but Attitude is one of the most important values to express. As I wrote in the &Marketing culture blog, my all time favorite quote is about Attitude (from Charles Swindoll).
In my 2 decade professional career, I have found that you can separate people based on how they see the world. An individual’s success, and therefore a startup’s success, is based largely on attitude. Managing the ups and downs of day to day life can be difficult. So, success depends largely on the optimism of the team doing the work. And it’s tangible. Prospects and clients can feel it. Teammates can feel it. It’s a vetting criteria for those we hire, those with whom I choose to spend my personal time, and everyone in between.
About &Marketing: In today’s fast paced world, many small and medium-sized businesses are struggling to modernize their marketing approaches because either they don’t have the expertise or the bandwidth to do it themselves. &Marketing provides seasoned marketing professionals and a nimble execution team to help our clients achieve their goals.
Our unique “smart and scrappy” approach allows us to launch or augment our client’s existing teams in an affordable, flexible, and transparent way (use what you need, when you need it): marketing strategy, branding, messaging, creative, web development, social media, email marketing, influencer marketing, SEO & Google Ads, digital advertising, analytics and reporting, copywriting and copy editing, and traditional advertising.
About The Author: As the Founder and Managing Director of &Marketing (www.and-marketing.com), Rajat “Raj” Kapur strives to provide SMBs (small & medium sized businesses) unparalleled marketing strategy and execution services. Raj brings nearly 2 decades of ‘tried and true’ professional experience in marketing, sales, & strategy development spanning Fortune 50, mid-sized, & startups to meet the dynamic needs of smaller companies. Raj lives in the Philadelphia area with his wife, Melissa, their three sons, & two dogs!