Bart: Hi Sydni, thanks for joining us today.
Sydni: Thank you so much for inviting me to your podcast. I appreciate it.
Bart: Yeah, absolutely. Built To Stay is all about building businesses that thrive over time as you know. Your agency, Smart Simple Marketing, helps small businesses do just that and as an expert on small businesses, you also advise larger companies on how to work well with small businesses. We’re excited to learn from your experience on both sides, really more the small business that’s who our builders are. All right, let me try that again. We’re excited to learn from your experience, how did you get started in the marketing world, Sydni?
Sydni: Yes, so I actually, by way of a little bit of background, I’m a fourth generation entrepreneur. I grew up in a very entrepreneurial family and to the point that my great grandfather was the first black real estate investor in Los Angeles County in the ’50s. My grandparents had multiple businesses and my dad and my mom started a tax business just a few months before I was born, so I grew up surrounded by entrepreneurship, and it was very normal to me.
Bart: It’s in your blood. It’s in the traditions in your family.
Sydni: Yeah it’s definitely in my blood.
Bart: Yeah. That’s awesome.
Sydni: It is. It was just a very normal thing to be serving your clients and your customers and looking for opportunities for growth. These are the types of conversations that I would overhear when I was growing up, so it wasn’t a foreign concept to me although I will be honest and say it wasn’t something that I was aspiring to do either. I worked in corporate America for 11 years before starting my company with my co-founder who was also my husband, and I was very happy in corporate America. A lot of people start their business because they want to escape and they hate their boss and they hate their company and they hate their job and et cetera.
Sydni: I actually did not have that experience. I really loved my job. I loved the work I was doing. I worked in financial services; I had great leaders that I was supported by. I got to travel, so I had a phenomenal experience in corporate America and what prompted me actually to want to take that leap into entrepreneurship was the fact that although I loved my job, I did not love where I lived, which at the time was Washington, D.C., and I’m a native of the Bay Area and I ended up in D.C. because my husband is from there. And we lived there for a few years and he literally said to me one day, “You know, I realized that you hate it here and I love it there, so I think we should move back to California.” And I said, “Okay.” And that’s what prompted us to move back.
Sydni: In the process of planning that moved, I realized that I would have to give up my perfect job. I was working for a great guy and for a great company doing really interesting work and working from home, which I loved, and so I just realized one day that not only am I not likely to find this again I’m also not even interested in starting over. I think I’ve taken this corporate thing as far as I can go. And so I had been working in fundraising for about three years which is a different form of marketing and I thought, you know what, I’m ready to kind of try to do my own thing and a friend of mine introduced me to this concept of virtual assistants, so being like a virtual support person for business owners, and I learned that I could use the skills I had developed in fundraising to help small businesses market and grow and attract more customers. And so we started Smart Simple Marketing in 2006 with the goal to help small businesses attract more customers and increase their revenue, which is still our goal almost 14 years later.
Sydni: We are all about helping the little guy meet their goals and achieve whatever level of success is important to them and that’s what I did. I just took the skills I developed as a fundraiser, as a project manager, et cetera, and started using those to help small businesses. And so I learned digital marketing along the way, self taught, did a lot of research, invested in a lot of training and what we were doing was working, and so the virtual assistants grew into consulting, which grew into coaching, which grew into agency, which grew into more consulting for enterprise and that’s how we landed where we are today.
Bart: Wow, so virtual assisting, you actually started out doing virtual assisting not marketing, but it grew–
Sydni: Yes, I was a virtual marketing assistant.
Bart: Okay. And that grew from there to consulting and coaching and then agency work. That’s fantastic.
Bart: Okay, so when you think back on the last, sounds like 13 and a half years–you’re 14 years in January of running your agency–are there any particular businesses or business owners that come to mind who you’ve helped succeed in marketing that you can tell us about?
Sydni: Yeah, there are so many. We have had the privilege of working with over 8,000 small businesses in 79 different industries.
Sydni: There’s not a lot by way of small business marketing that I haven’t seen, and there’s been so many clients around the world that we’ve had the privilege of helping, and I do deeply. I don’t just say that facetiously. I do consider it a privilege to help a small business owner. I deeply value the trust they make in us and the trust they put in us, the investment they make in working with us, because we’re helping them achieve their dream, and so it is really a privilege to have an opportunity to help someone achieve their dream. And there’s so many examples I could share, but there’s two that come to mind in particular because I think these are really relatable examples that a lot of small business owners would feel sound familiar to them.
Sydni: One is a gentleman who had an organizing business. He was a professional organizer, and a fantastic organizer by the way (I also used his services and had had his business for a few years.), was doing really well, was making well over six figures and was enjoying his life, enjoying his business. He decided he wanted to grow and expand, and he hired a marketing coach, was not me, and he worked with this coach over a number of months and just had a horrible, horrible experience. She didn’t listen to him; she recommended strategies that didn’t make sense. She just kept pushing him to do things he didn’t feel comfortable with, and the end result of that experience was that he lost two-thirds of his business. By the time the coaching program was over, he’d lost a bunch of clients. His revenue was literally a third of what it had been the year before.
Bart: Oh, man.
Sydni: He was understandably frustrated. He was embarrassed, he was just . . . it was just not a good place. And so he and I had been seeing each other at networking events and gotten to know each other, and we were just catching up one day and I was asking him how’s things going. And he was telling me and I was like, oh my God I . . . my heart just went out to him, you know. I just felt so bad that he had such a negative experience,+ and so we kept talking. Ultimately, he decided he wanted to work with me as his marketing coach, and we literally rebuilt his business. And within less than 12 months, he not only had gotten back to where his original income or revenue was, he had exceeded that by another third and that was by way of restructuring how he worked with his clients. His clients were actually getting better results because of the way we restructured his services. He had more freedom and was able to plan his cash flow better because of how he was interacting with clients, and he had been able to get back to the place where he was.
Sydni: I’m still incredibly proud of that story because for so many reasons: 1) I’m honored that I was able to help him to regroup from that poor experience and 2) It just goes to show that even those of us who are seasoned business owners, if we make a wrong choice, it can have a catastrophic effect on our business that . . . and create a hole that we have to work our way out of, but we can also work through it and come out on top. Sometimes, I know small business owners . . . they see those of us who they think are infinitely successful, and they don’t see all the blood, sweat, and tears that comes behind it. So just know that we’ve all made a lot of mistakes along the way, and we’ve learned from those and have been able to move on.
Bart: Yeah, certainly and it sounds like . . . so it can be easy to think of marketing as basically just like, how are you going to go advertise my business?
Bart: But this was more, right. You talked about how you helped with his business from a . . . it sounds like you freed up his cash flows or like . . . tell us more about like . . . this was more than just you going and doing some paid advertising for him.
Sydni: Yeah, definitely not. We actually have a very defined process for how we help to market our small business clients and their offerings, and the actual marketing strategy is way down the line. So we dig into who they should be targeting with their products and services. What are their core marketing messages? We actually help our clients to develop and design their packages and programs and their offers. We help them configure their pricing, we help them name their offerings, we help them get clear on what marketing strategies make the most sense for them, and then we help them map out what they’re going to do with those strategies all in a very simplified way so that it’s this step-by-step process that they feel very comfortable with, that supports their vision of success and their goals and how they want to get their message out into the world. So it’s so much bigger than running ads on Google or Facebook or doing email marketing. We go really deep into the root of the business because we build our marketing campaigns based on the goals of the business owner.
Bart: That’s awesome, so you mentioned a second one. Do you want–
Bart: –to tell us the second story?
Sydni: Yeah, so the second story is a client of mine named Leslie. Leslie is a world renowned counselor for women who are in abusive relationships. And when I met Leslie, she had a very full practice. In fact, that’s what prompted her to reach out to me is because she was only able to serve as many clients as she could see in a day, and she wanted to help more people. She wanted to reach more people, and she was just strapped for time. She just . . . there’s only but so many hours in the day, and so she had a finite number of clients she could see. And so another thing to know about Leslie is she is a woman in her 60s. She is very, very tech challenged, which she would tell you if she was here with us on the line. But she’s not a fan of technology. She only uses it because she has to.
Sydni: Technology is very . . . it’s a very difficult thing for her, and she had been in this hours for dollars model for so long. She really just didn’t know another way to generate revenue in her business and so again, using our proprietary process, we really uncovered the value of what she’s offering: who is the best fit to offer those solutions to, what messages would really resonate with them, what types of services, packages, offers would best help those individuals to meet their needs. We worked through that whole process and helped her actually launch an online program that she could send women to and coach with them in a group setting over the Internet, over webinar, over even (at the time I think when we first started) was just over the phone.
Sydni: The short of it is, Leslie just wanted . . . she was hoping to have like 40 women in the program so that she could meet the certain number goal that she had and free up some of her time so she wasn’t strapped to these daily appointments, and she just was getting kind of burnt out doing it all day every day.
Sydni: So she was like, if I can get 40 women in this program, it’ll help me free up my time. Fast forward a couple of years. There’s 800 plus women in that program from around the world. The program continues to grow. She is serving more women than she’s ever served before and she’s captured more freedom in her business than she’s ever had and she’s making more money than she ever has. So again, lots of lessons to be learned from that: A) you’re never too old; B) you don’t have to be tech savvy; C) really focusing on the needs of your audience and how you can best help them grow and meet their goals is always a smart place to approach your programming and your marketing efforts. So I think both of those two stories again, just really relatable pain points and challenges that I think a lot of small business owners face, and those are the types of problems that we resolve every day.
Bart: Okay, so I was just about to ask. It sounds like one of the things that was advantageous to her was she was willing to accept the fact that she was technologically challenged, and yet she also used that technology with your help to expand her business and to be able to break out of that hours for dollars model.
Sydni: Yeah, for sure and you know, I actually had a chance to have dinner with Leslie just a few months ago. She was town and we were talking about . . . she actually brought it up. She said you tried to get me to do that program for six months to a year before I was ready. She said, “I was so scared like I didn’t know if women would be responsive to it. I didn’t know if I could do it. It just felt really overwhelming, and I’m so grateful to you that you kept putting it in front of me like you saw this opportunity for me to serve my audience that I couldn’t really see. I was just stuck behind the things that I was scared of.
Sydni: I think as a marketing coach and as a consultant, that’s one of the things that we’ve learned to do over the years is really stand up for our clients and support them through the process of making these decisions and these adjustments in their business, because sometimes, they’re not ready and sometimes they can’t see the opportunity in front of them. And so that’s our job is to uncover those opportunities for them and to help guide them along so that they can take advantage of ways to serve their audience and grow their business in ways that perhaps they couldn’t see.
Bart: Yeah, that’s awesome. What advice do you have for builders whether they’re just starting out or already have a business in flight as they design their marketing approach for short- and long-term success?
Sydni: There’s a couple of things to keep in mind. One is to . . . I always say when I’m answering questions like this . . . it comes down to three very specific words. It comes down to focus, it comes down to specificity, and it comes down to consistency. And so specificity is really important because you cannot be as a small business all things to all people. You really need to identify what it is you’re good at, what it is you can deliver in terms of value, how it is you’re going to move the needle, what problems do you solve? And then you need to focus on the people who need those solutions. Again, you can’t be all things to all people. You can’t market your product or service to everyone even if you think in your mind that everyone needs it. Small businesses don’t have the budgets or the resources to market to everyone and so really focusing on the audience that makes sense for what they’re selling is really, really important. And then consistency trumps everything.
Sydni: We always help our clients to simplify what they’re doing with their marketing. We find that most small business owners are trying to do too much, and because they are diluting their efforts, they’re not getting the results that they would like to see in their business. And so simplifying what you’re doing to the place where you can be consistent with the same strategy week in, week out, month in, month out, that consistency builds trust, it builds credibility, and it really helps your audience to see that you’re in it, you’re here to stay, that you are not fly by night, that you have a vested interest in serving them. And so it makes them more interested in wanting to work with you. If a small business can really hone in on those three key factors, they can absolutely grow their business and meet the goals that are important to them.
Bart: That’s really good advice and speaking of focus, your agency typically works with service-based businesses of all types, but you also specialize in women-owned and minority-owned businesses. For builders that are listening in those segments, how can you help them specifically?
Sydni: It’s interesting that in this country in the United States, the fastest growth that’s happening in the small business marketplace is among women, among minorities, and even more specifically under . . . in the space of women of color. And so these business owners are launching these companies for a variety of reasons, and those reasons have a significant impact on how they view their experience as an entrepreneur, in terms of how they make decisions about what they need and how they want to grow in terms of the types of support that they need. And so we are a woman-owned, minority-owned firm. As I mentioned earlier, I am a fourth generation entrepreneur, and so we have a lot of deep experience in serving these audiences and working with them. And we’ve also determined what are some of the best resources and areas of support that they can tap into that they may not know.
Sydni: Those are just a couple of ways that we’re able to assist: A) because we understand their mindset a bit better because we are those audiences ourselves and we’ve had the privilege of working with so many small business owners in this space; and then B) because of the relationships that we’ve built over the years. In our network, we’re able to connect them with resources and opportunities and access to support structures or ecosystems that they may not realize on their own.
Bart: Yeah, that sounds very helpful and you can start people on the road to developing fourth generation entrepreneurs like yourself–
Sydni: Mm-hmm, exactly.
Bart: –and their own families.
Sydni: Yeah, creating that legacy is so powerful, and it’s especially important for people in diverse communities to have access to that because it makes a huge difference in the experience that their families have and that their communities have, and so we’re big advocates of that for sure.
Bart: Absolutely. What are some common misconceptions of marketing that you often breakdown for your clients?
Sydni: I think, just further to what we mentioned earlier, trying to market to everyone to be all things to everyone. I mean, I’ll use my client who’s the professional organizer as an example. Theoretically, yes, any and everyone probably could use an organizer to help come in and help update their home or update their office. Most people just aren’t as organized as they could be. But that being the case, he doesn’t have the budget or the resources to market to everyone who could use a professional organizer. And so it’s really hard sometimes for small business owners to wrap their head around that. They feel like they’re leaving someone out or they’re leaving money on the table or they’re missing out on an opportunity but they actually what . . . the opposite is true.
Sydni: The more narrow you are and the more focused you are, you really understand your target audience, you really understand who your ideal client is, and you’re able to develop not only offers that really support them and that resonate with them but marketing campaigns and messages that really magnetically attract them. And you don’t have to sell to them because they see so clearly that what you’ve created is for them. So that’s one common misconception.
Sydni: Another misconception is that I need to be everywhere. You know, they’ll see a business like ours who is seemingly everywhere or some other business that they admire and think, well, gosh, I have to spend all this time and money figuring out how to master all of these different marketing strategies and techniques, and that’s not really true. What we instead recommend is that you really simplify your marketing to the one or two things you can do consistently and then from there as you see what works and what is resonating with your audience, you build on that and eventually you’ll get to a place where just organically you are kind of omnipresent because you’ve just built up a network and visibility in that way. But trying to create that from scratch, just right out of the gate, is very difficult. It’s very time consuming. It’s very expensive, and it can be very frustrating. So we really try to prevent our clients from doing that or if they are already in that space, we help kind of reel them back in and help them get some clarity, so they can simplify what it is they need to do.
Bart: Yeah. One of the things that I love about your story is that it’s a little bit untraditional. You loved working in the corporate world. A lot of entrepreneurs talk about how they don’t love working in the corporate world, and then they have to break away. They have to become an entrepreneur to like find the life of their dreams. You talk about how you just wanted to move to the West Coast, and then you took your existing skill set, you found an avenue to go and use that in a marketable way, and then over time you built that into something bigger and something that it seemed like . . . I mean obviously there was a lot of need because you’ve served many thousands–8,000 did you say?–plus businesses along the way. I love the story. It’s a story of making it happen and taking what you have and making more of it. But as you look back, is there anything that you would do differently?
Sydni: Oh gosh yes, absolutely. I want to be very transparent and also say for all of the success that we have enjoyed, which I’m incredibly grateful for and so proud of, we have also made every mistake you can possibly make. Some of them we have made twice. There has been blood, sweat, and many tears invested into this business, and so it’s been an amazingly rewarding ride, and I wouldn’t trade it for anything. But it has definitely not been without its challenges, and so there are definitely things I would go back and do differently. I think a couple of things come to mind. One thing I would have done much sooner is to hire some help.
Sydni: I was very naive when we started the company in terms of how much is needed to run the business. I just wanted to serve the clients, and to be honest, I still just want to serve the clients, but it doesn’t work that way. When you start a business, there’s all of these other things you need to do and hats you need to wear and decisions you need to make, and I didn’t realize how much time and energy that would require. And so I would have hired help way sooner than I did. It was some time before we even hired our own first virtual assistant, and we should have hired her I mean almost immediately within six months after we started. So that was one thing, waiting too long to get some help, that I would definitely go back and change. Another thing that–
Bart: That’s hard because it takes money, right.
Bart: It seems like when is the right time because this is going to take away from our bottom line, especially when you’re struggling in those early days potentially.
Sydni: Yeah, so, you know, that’s a great point and what I’ll say to that is A) I mean we’re very fortunate. We had clients right out of the gate. Within a month of starting, we had three clients, and we continued to grow from there. So struggling with revenue early on was actually not a challenge for us. Growing that revenue was a challenge. We did double our revenue in our first year of business, and then from there we stayed a little stuck for a while, which was in part because of us–
Bart: Not hiring, yeah.
Sydni: –needing some more help. Yeah, so what we recommend to our clients is . . . I think the other thing I would definitely have done differently would have been to create multiple streams of revenue much sooner than we did. As I mentioned, when we first started, the services we were offering were virtual marketing assistant services, which was great, but we actually had trapped ourselves into that hours for dollars situation, and so there were only but so many hours during the day that we could bill for with clients, et cetera. So I definitely would have reconfigured our business model much sooner to incorporate different types of services or different revenue streams through other means so that we weren’t just solely relying on those hours for dollars that we were billing to our clients.
Bart: Yeah and to be clear, the hours for dollars model is not a bad one. In fact you can–
Bart: You can develop a certain level of expertise so that you can then start to leverage that through technology or other things, right?
Sydni: Yeah. I’m glad you said that. It definitely is not a bad thing. In fact, it’s actually a really good thing because that’s in part what gave us such a deep window and insight into what small business owners need and where they struggle. So those years that we spent in the trenches building marketing campaigns and creating blog posts and social media and webinars and all the things that we did in those early days, it really helped us to define our systems and processes and be in a position where we could be great consultants down the line, so it was not a bad thing by any means. I think we just waited a little longer than we needed to in terms of bringing in other streams of revenue.
Bart: Yeah, that makes sense. I have one last question for you, Sydni. This has been an amazing interview. I love hearing the things that you’ve done in your story, and what I’m wondering is what’s next for you?
Sydni: Oh, wow. What’s next for us? That’s a great question. You know whereas there’s so many things we want to do, entrepreneurs, we all have this habit of having constantly wheel turning of new ideas that we want to come up with and execute, and that hasn’t changed. We’re just like our clients in that regard. We have a ton of ideas. I’m looking at my whiteboard now, and I’ve got a bunch of ideas mapped out that we want to deal. But I think what you’ll continue to see us doing is two things. One, we . . . actually to be honest, in a couple of years haven’t done any hands-on training and coaching with small businesses and groups. We continue to work with some small business clients privately, but it’s been a while since we hosted some of our own classes and workshops. So we have some really fun, interesting, relevant topics that we are going to be producing content and trainings on in the next six months. So we’re excited about that and bringing back those hands-on workshops and courses.
Sydni: We will also be launching some online trainings and coaching like we used to back in the day, but now we’re doing it in a more tech-savvy way, and we’re going to be bringing back some of the training that we know is just really fundamental that small business owners need to take advantage of to get them to where they want to be. And we will continue to serve the enterprise audience and help them do a better job of serving all of us as small business owners. I guess the short answer to your question is more of all of the great stuff that we’ve done that’s worked really well for us and has been a great service to our audience.
Bart: That’s fantastic and hopefully we have access to that content too. If we go to your website, can we see that content? Is that where most of that will be?
Sydni: Yes, so you’ll definitely want to connect with us on social media. You can find us on Facebook, on LinkedIn, on Twitter, you’ll definitely see announcements there. There’s not a whole lot on the website now in terms of what those offerings are, but if you’re following us on social, you’ll definitely be included in those announcements and will have a chance to participate in some of those training and learning opportunities. I would say at this point, following us on social is the best way to connect.
Bart: Perfect. Sydni, thank you so much for joining us today.
Sydni: Thank you so much for having me, Bart. I really appreciate it.
Bart: Builders, Sydni and her company Smart Simple Marketing are constantly putting out tons of helpful content for us to learn from, and we will make sure that links to her site as well as a special downloadable piece from this episode are available at builttostay.com.