Ten years ago this week, on my stepfather’s birthday, I registered the top level domain Bonehook.com. It was the first in a series of steps that led me to where I am today, 10 years into this entrepreneurial journey
The experiences gained during this decade of advanced on-the-job learning has helped me mature as a business person and provided me a grander view of the marketing communications business.
If it’s okay with you, I’d like to present some key findings from the first ten years, in the hope that it helps you on your own career path, whether you’re an intrapreneur or entrepreneur (and it seems like you need to be one or the other to thrive today).
In 2009, The Choice Was Adapt Or Perish (Sort of Like Now)
In the fall of 2008, the American economy was near collapse. This factor way beyond my control happened to overlap with our move from Hilton Head Island to Portland, and my departure from my awesome Content Director job at BFG Communications. During 2009, I met with lots of Portlanders in the ad biz and one agency principal said, “You have what it takes to be a creative director at several shops in town…now get in line.” This was my introduction to Portland’s version of “scarcity mindset.”
I didn’t know if the aforementioned “line” was six months long, or five years long. Ultimately, it didn’t matter because I was motivated to launch my own brand communications studio. What I needed was a client, and I found one in Bill Woolston, one of my closest friends and the president of Danville Services Corporation, headquartered in Salt Lake City. At the time, Bill was opening a children’s rehabilitation hospital in Tucson, which required the creation of a new identity package, website, brochures, signage, and a total makeover of the physical space which had previously been used as a retirement home.
Three Things I Learned Doing This Work, This Way
- Starting my own company and lifting it up from one client in Salt Lake City, to new clients in Portland, Denver, Omaha, Kansas City, Albuquerque, Austin, and Seattle required my full immersion into account service. There may be creative people in advertising who don’t want to hear this, but I’m a creative person in advertising who needs to say it: The ability to do great work is determined by the relationship with the client. No trust, no trophy.
- In the beginning, new business prospecting is a frog kissing contest. The mission, if you accept it, is to survive the first three-to-five years, because there will be clients who do not pay on time, or pay at all. There will be clients who see you as their hired hands, not their marketing minds. There will be clients who can’t be moved to a better place, no matter what you do, or how brilliantly you and the team show up. Here’s the good part: Without the pain of these experiences, it would be harder to fully appreciate the perks of working with clients who value what you bring to the table.
- Don’t waste too much time attempting to be or to become an expert in all things Marcom. Instead, focus on the one thing that you do better than everyone else, and then find the right markets for this singular offering. When Bonehook started with Danville, we had a lot of creative ground to cover and we needed to move fast. I’m also from an integrated marketing background where “land and expand” is a legitimate new business strategy, so the idea of juggling website builds with brand ID and content strategy, was fine by me. It mirrored the agency world I knew and came up in. As comfortable as that was, to grow Bonehook into the company that will be sustainable and profitable for years to come—the company I want to own and run—I had to pick a lane.
From Creative Outputs to Strategic Inputs
The simplest way to describe Bonehook’s metamorphosis is to say we’ve moved from a focus on creative outputs to strategic inputs.
Our clients seek us out because they need a detailed and trustworthy brand messaging roadmap. We all agree that strategic inputs determine creative outputs and that the brand’s job today is to provide a rich canvas for the community to make meaning. We also believe that modern brands are facilitators for their customer’s hopes and dreams. And we know that’s not something that the broadcast model is well suited to address, which is where content strategy and a deep focus on brand experience come in.
Today’s customers tend to ask the same thing every customer throughout history has asked…”What’s in it for me?” The next level question is, “How will this brand empower me?” Also, “What does joining this brand’s ‘community’ do/mean for my identity?”
I’m Pleased To Meet You!
After years of working to make Bonehook a more perfect provider, a company focused on the one thing we do best—improving your brand messaging—some things remain the same. My reliance on my network, for leads and recommendations, for instance.
Small agency consultants will tell you that a narrow focus for the firm helps to grease the new business wheels, and I agree. People need to know what the offer is and why it matters to them. The question to ask is which people? In a specialized firm, the last thing you want is a broad appeal to potential clients. A narrow focus helps clarify the offering and makes it easier for people in your network to hire you and recommend you.
It’s true that you can use Facebook and LinkedIn to “target” your key audiences, and work your cold leads funnel. I’ve tried it and I don’t see that as a particularly fruitful pursuit. We have new tools today, but people are people and we do business with people we know, like, and trust. You can spin the Internet wheel all day, or you can make friends. I know which one works for me and my company.