One of the awesome gifts of being a manager and recruiter is that we get to see people transform their careers — from shy college grad to director. Britta Alexander joined me at Ammirati pretty much right out of Florida State. And now, she’s successfully guided her content design agency into its fourth year, along with husband and co-founder Ian.
One thing that hasn’t changed: I come away from every interaction with Britta smarter, energized and inspired. She’s a classically-trained writer and editor (MFA from Vermont College), who gives words a workout like you’ve never seen. And Ian is a techie/social media savant with supernatural powers.
Their company, Eat Media, helps clients define their communications goals and deliver content designed to build trust, boost traffic and sales.
My goal for our interview was to gain insight into their business planning process by reviewing the past year.
JS: What goals did you have for Eat Media at the beginning of 2010, and how did they evolve over the year?
IA: Our goals are posted on the wall. For example, we wanted to increase our presence online and at conferences. We wanted to launch two custom web tools. We outlined the number of new clients we wanted, and our next four hires. They were aspirational goals, but it helped to check in with them throughout the year. Then we fired our biggest client, and spent the second half of this year redefining our business and rebranding ourselves.
BA: We fired the client because we realized our business was being defined less by our interests and more by the client’s needs. We needed to get back on track and re-position Eat Media as a full-service agency, not just a content agency. Because no matter how good the content is, if it’s living on the wrong CMS or a poorly-designed site, no one’s going to read it. Which means it’s not going to meet the client’s goals. So it’s important for us to manage the entire process—content, strategy, design and development.
JS: Last December, Ian blogged about ‘Top 5 Mistakes I Made in 2009.’ What are your big learnings from this year?
IA: We wish we had fired the client earlier, because we went down a path that wasn’t true to our company goals. So that’s lesson #1: Being true to your mission and culture. We write a lot of quotes on the front window of our Hastings office – one of my favorites is from Darryl Ohrt at Humongo: “There are two things worth fighting for: Great ideas and a great company culture.”
BA: The other big lesson was to always be mindful of business development. We had gotten comfortable depending on referral business from a handful of clients. For the first time in our 4-year history, we needed to think about our pipeline. I read something once to the effect of, when you’re a business owner – whether a hairdresser or accountant – your primary job isn’t cutting hair or doing taxes, it’s marketing yourself and your services.
JS: Lest we beat ourselves up too much, what accomplishments are you most proud of this year?
IA: I’m happy we have a beta version of our conference calendar tool, because I worked really hard on that. It’s called Calcium and it’s a vetted calendar of all online and live events for our industry, e.g. content, design, user experience. We’ve got big plans for it – ultimately every conference, including the speakers, panels and venues will be rated.
BA: For me, it was launching a magazine re-design that I worked on for a year and a half. We were able to really elevate how the brand was representing itself in print. From that experience, I published tips about how to build a strong corporate magazine. Even if you are a B2B or trade pub, you are still competing with every other consumer magazine landing in your reader’s mailbox.
JS: Three of your 2009 mistakes had to do with scope creep and over-extending yourself. Did you turn away any work this year? What were the reasons?
IA: We turned away some projects because we knew they’d eat up resources and didn’t align with our business goals. Basically the profit margins need to support the kind of attention we’re going to put into a project.
We’ve gotten smarter about knowing what our time is worth. We’re willing to walk away quicker. Our sales cycle can be long, because content strategy is comprehensive, not just one-off projects like a newsletter. After multiple planning meetings with clients, we realized we were giving stuff away for free. That’s deadly, because clients don’t perceive value when they don’t pay for it. So now we’re wrapping the upfront legwork into the total project cost, and breaking the consulting down into bite-sized pieces that are easier for our clients to commit to.
It’s easy for our passion to overcome us. When a client tells us about a challenge they’re having, we want to jump in and solve it. Now, we’re getting wiser about saying, “Hey, do you have a budget for solving this problem?” We got a lot of coaching from our CFO on this.
JS: What’s it like being in business with your spouse? How have you made it work?
BA: People ask us that a lot. I can’t imagine owning a business by myself. When you have a partner, you know there’s someone else who cares just as much as you do.
One tip I have is to be really clear about primary roles. When we first started Eat Media, our CFO encouraged us to do org chart. At first we thought it was weird for a two-person company, but it forced us to outline who’s taking the lead in different areas of the business outside your core role. For instance, who manages the bookkeeper? Who do employees to go when they need to change their health insurance? Who calls the ISP when your site is down? That sort of thing.
IA: At the same time, we’ve found that our ideas go further when we do collaborate. We inspire each other creatively. I tend to be a fire hose of ideas, but I don’t have ego about being right. Britta is good about challenging the clarity and validity of my ideas. I speak in my own language, and Britta always reminds me that an idea isn’t fully formed if I can’t explain it in a sentence.
If we have opposing ideas, we typically defer to whoever’s more passionate. We’re going to push each other, but the best idea wins. It’s all about the client, so whenever ego creeps in, we step back and ask, “Do you want to do right [by the client] or be right?”
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