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My best and worst day as an entrepreneur.

Posted by Carole Mahoney on 4/22/13 3:00 PM

When asked how and why I started my business recently for an interview, I was a little nervous about telling the real story. Partly because it would be put into print, but mostly because was a painful tale once upon a time. But I told the truth anyway. Here it is.

I went back to college when my sons where in grade school as a single mom already working a full time job. I learned fast how to manage my time and projects to get it all done, wearing multiple hats was my life. Because I grew up in a small town with small business, I had always wanted to start my own business helping small businesses start and grow. So while in college I did my research, wrote the business and marketing plan, and learned everything I could from my small business employers- both what to do and what not to do.

My love affair with buyer persona profiles began.

At the time, Facebook and Twitter didn't exist. SEO and link building were becoming more popular and blogs were just starting to emerge. LinkedIn was almost brand new. There were no accreditation courses in online marketing, e-commerce was just starting to take off. So while in my senior year of my double major, I also took up learning SEO from the few companies that were doing it (successfully) at the time. I took time off from work and paid for my own training. At some point I figured out that SEO was being treated as advertising in a new media. And the media is always changing, so how was this going to be any different from traditional advertising that was becoming obsolete? Just ranking for a certain keyword didn't help a business grow.

So what if traffic doubles and triples if there are no new customers from it?

Once I graduated (Magna cum laude and highest GPA in marketing-thank you very much), I decided it was time to get some large business experience because I also had to figure out scalability for my business plan to work. In 2007 (just prior to the crisis) I went to work for a larger company where I was 1 of 5 in a marketing department that supported a 250+ person outbound call-center based sales floor. I listened in on outbound cold sales calls, even did a few of my own and got hung up on a lot. There was a lot of energy and a lot of activity, it felt like walking onto the trading floor. But in a frat house. This experience didn't help my perception of sales very much.

Everything was technology and database driven, from an automated faxing and direct mail system, to auto dialing on the floor 24/7 to reach all US time zones. It was a big change from my personal small business experiences, but that is what I was there for and they hired me because they had a customer retention problem and were "bleeding out money on things like Google Adwords." I was excited to finally have the tools at my disposal to do all of the things I knew were possible. It was like an unlimited gift card at the Apple store kind of experience.

So I convinced my new boss that even though I knew a lot about online marketing, I needed go to Boston to train with the conversion optimization specialists. I remember sitting in the first row in the small hotel conference room with about 45 people as I listened to Bryan Eisenberg talk about buyer persona profiling and Persuasion Architecture. When he talked about the importance of executive leadership buy-in and a learning culture that was customer centric for all this to really work, I raised my hand."What if you aren't sure you can make that happen at your company? Either because you are too new, or because it's just not how they think? Do you have any tips?" He gave me one, I'll never forget what he said because I really wish I had listened, it would have saved me a lot of pointless work and stress.

"Start looking for a different job." But I didn't take his advice, I convinced myself that I could exact a change that would make an impact. I was stubborn and couldn't resist a challenge (or dare) and I had to try. Plus I wasn't ready to give up my chance at using all those tools. Silly girl.

Inbound before inbound was cool.

Together with the lead SaS analyst, designers and IT/IS, I started the tedious work of designing trackable inbound campaigns before inbound was even a word.  Using buyer persona profiles, we mapped the sales process from keyword to customer referral. We had dedicated 800#'s for tracking inbound calls, I optimized PPC campaigns, implemented SEO and email marketing tactics, even had a downloadable e-book and online application. Combining all that with the persuasive writing style, we were able to double email click through rate, increase web traffic and set the company history for number of leads and opportunities generated in one month.

Meanwhile my boss was getting pulled into many meetings with lawyers because the automated system was calling people's homes, not businesses, at odd hours and they were on a do not call list. Plus they were spending the majority of their marketing budget on direct mail and getting a lot of return mail for bad addresses. In short- it was costing a LOT of money and causing a lot of trouble. They didn't want to stop doing what they were doing, because it had always worked for them in the past, but they did want to fix it. That should have been my first clue.

So for one week I was locked in the office next to the CEO with 3 wall sized whiteboards and I drew out the mind map of the entire sales and marketing process for the multi-billion dollar company. (Ok, maybe it wasn't locked, though I didn't come out much. Many people came in to bring food and be questioned about their role and process and how they accessed and used the data.) When I was done and presented my findings to him, he remarked, "This is like some kind of hybrid Six Sigma thing isn't it?!"  I thought it was just common sense, Six Sigma was much more complex- but agreed with him anyway. All I did optimize the direct mailing and auto-mated call campaigns to reduce data gaps, duplicates and errors from the SQL database of over a million contact records that were being automatically downloaded from Hoovers and D&B.

The CEO with his 9 monitors and shiny golf trophies was excited now, we would be able to tell exactly what came from where and cash in! We were going to hit this one out of the park! (No really, he said those words to me. Advice-don't ever say those words to me.) He was so happy he told my boss to have me join in on the 5 year growth committee meeting where a 6 figure consultant came in and broke the executive team into small groups. Each diverse group had to come up with a growth plan and at the end of the day select one person to present their idea to everyone and the owners would decide which one to go with.

Now while I was working on my genius inbound plan for the company, I was also being pulled into sales meetings by individual reps who wanted me to help them specifically with their channel relationships with small businesses. I really loved this part because we were able to put the technology marketing muscle we had to work for our small business partners. I got to learn about businesses that ranged from heavy duty construction trucks and manufacturing to franchise and independent restaurants.

So I suggested to my group to take the angle of building up the partner channel relationships, and combining it with my buyer persona inbound approach, would change the dynamic of asking our partners to refer and sell us to their customers and instead use our systems to help find leads for their business. If they were busy, we would be busy, and when they told others like them about us we would be even more busy. We called the push vs pull dynamic 'scaling word of mouth.' I hadn't heard of the word inbound yet.

When my team asked me to present it to the executive board, I readily agreed. I was flying high at that point. As I laid out the plan and showed how we would execute and measure using our current technology to measure results and optimize for continuous improvement, the highly paid consultant asked me, "Who are you exactly? The new head for IT?" A lot of people in the room chuckled when I said, "Ahhh no, I'm the new girl in marketing."

I was smarter than Bryan Eisenberg! I had started to exact the change he said was impossible! Silly girl.

Then my colleagues presented a plan that involved expanding the call center technology to focus on verticals. They had an algorithm worked out and when they ran the projected numbers based on their statistical regressions, they said they would guarantee it to bring in the revenue needed and then some. Instead of building time consuming personal relationships that would involve more sales people and more training, their plan actually scaled back the sales team and incorporated online transactions in place of people- saving the company a lot in commissions.

The owners convened and decided to run with the tech plan, but still test my inbound channel plan. I was promised resources and told to report results to the CEO once a week.

My first sales and marketing alignment assignment?

I was dizzy with excitement. Then we started to launch the inbound campaigns. I had 5 sales reps dedicated to me. We planned to meet once a week to discuss the leads that were coming in. At the first meeting, there was a small trickle of leads that came in from the web. Nothing exciting or explosive. But I became extremely frustrated when the reps told me that they hadn't followed up with the leads yet, they were too busy making the call quota. Why should they be spending their time answering questions when they needed to be dialing? (They were still required to make the outbound call count, or get into trouble).When I remarked that maybe I would follow up with them and collect their commission, they got really quiet and then laughed, figuring I was joking. I wasn't.

If that wasn't frustrating enough, I found out that the 800# 'inbound call system' I was promised was actually sending people into a never-ending automated loop that would push them off to whatever rep was not on an outbound call at the time. When I asked IT why, I was told that they couldn't interrupt or pause the outbound call system to allow a rep to take in incoming call if they were already on a call.

So why the heck was I doing all this then? When I met with the CEO that week, I thought maybe I could tell him honestly what the challenges were and get some help. He believed in this right? He could tell I was flustered and frustrated, and when he asked me to tell it to him straight, I did. Silly girl.

"Here is the thing", I said. "Your marketing is pissing people off and your sales people are lazy because they rely on faulty tech. The latest product you want to take to market has been banned in some states because it hurt small businesses. This closed loop marketing system will never work as long as these challenges exist. Word will spread all right, but it will be in the form of more lawsuits." Ok, maybe I could have said it better...

I was actually surprised when my meeting with HR a few weeks later, right before Thanksgiving, wasn't about the promotion my boss told me was coming. As I was being escorted out, my boss looked me in the eye and told me how much she appreciated everything that I did. I was beside myself, this wasn't really happening was it?! How could I be so stupid to fall for such liars who treated customers like numbers in a data set?

I was angry. Silly girl.

Why it was the best and worst day.

As I drove home in tears I called my husband. He was shocked, but glad too. I was working insane hours and my stress level was through the roof. He asked what I was thinking I would do. "I dunno, look for another job. But it's going to be tough, they already have their lawyers on me threatening law suits if I talk about them, and I can't go work for their competitors. Nor do I think I want to!"

6 months later, I decided I was too badly scorned to work for someone else. If I wasn't afraid to work long hours to make something happen I believed in, why do it for someone else and be forced to play by their rules? So what if the news reports told me that no one was hiring, everyone was getting laid off? Didn't some of the most successful businesses get created in times like this?

I had always planned to eventually open my own business, but not in this kind of economy and not this soon. All my planning was really an excuse to never take the leap because the security of a paycheck was too appealing. Well, there was nothing to save now. And if I am being honest here, I was motivated by revenge. The best revenge is to live well and in this case, helping the good guys win was my way of living well.

So why am I telling the story now? I talk to a lot of entrepreneurs who feel like they are on the edge of a foggy cliff. They know they can't stay where they are because their industry is in the middle of a major disruption. Most know that they need to take a step forward, but don't know what step to make and how to make it. The bridge that will lead them to success is right in front of them, but because they can't see it they don't take the first step out. I was forced out onto the bridge and I know how scary it can be to feel your way forward 200 feet at time with so much at risk.

I also was inspired by Tom Peter's tweet. "The brand is first about integrity which is a direct reflection of the character of all members, individually & collectively." After I shared it, Tom replied with this:

Remember what Bryan said about culture and a learning organization that was customer-centric? Technology and process mean nothing without the people of character to implement it. I learned that on my best and worst day.

What will it take for you to learn it? Are you hoping to skip some of these traumas?

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Topics: inbound marketing, entrepreneur, buyer persona