As a business owner, I hate the term small business. You probably know where I am coming from if you have ever fielded the question, “How many employees do you have?” I hate that question. You get the response of, “Oh, that’s nice” or worse, “Oh, that’s it? I thought you guys were bigger.” Yep, that’s it. Thanks for making what seems like an enormous deal to me seem so much smaller than it really is.
There is nothing small about it. It takes significant amounts of time, money, patience, education, endurance, perseverance and love to build a business. Then add team members to the mix and along comes fear, anger, anxiety and the inner monologue attached to doubt.
To get out of the category of small business, you need over 49 employees. Even after 10 years of being an entrepreneur, that still seems like an enormous amount of people. This week marks the first time in the history of AJi where we hired someone that I never met, never reviewed their resume and have no idea what their skill set is. That is a move that happens when you grow, yet we are still under 20 employees. So many great challenges and experiences we will have as we grow the business. And who knows, we may find it is best under 50.
Whether you are a team of 1 or 49, there is one small characteristic of nearly all small businesses…It is almost a guarantee that the number of resources you have available for your marketing is limited.
As you have probably found out by now, the role of the marketer in a small business is crucial in the digital era of business we live in. Purchasing habits are changing far more rapidly due to digital disruptions. When people are easier to reach, that means more and more companies will be trying to reach them and the shields will go up.
Most people just want to be left alone, they get a bad taste in their mouth when someone interrupts their day to try to sell them something or just to share some information. At the same time, a lot of these same people are using content to learn more and seek after unique experiences that are now possible with all this connectivity.
So we have a few problems. We have an audience who wants more information but doesn’t want to be directly sold anything. Then our next problem is the limited resources available to get the information out. And the cherry on top, there are so many channels to reach our audience, we have to determine where the best place is to insert our content.
There is a solution to these problems, several actually, but none of them are easy. Several small business owners have found great success in using content marketing. We are one of those companies that have experienced the effects of building a business using content and a large audience. The following is our story.
Forming the audience with content
Our business is a digital agency and I am a software developer by trade. My story begins back in the early 90s when I was in my early teens and first introduced to the Internet. I quickly fell in love with the beeps and screeches that came with connecting to the web. I could even tell the quality of the connection based on the sounds of the modem, a long squeal after three short beeps had meant I landed on one of the faster 28.8k lines. Otherwise, I had a 14.4k or 9600 connection and should just hang up and try again.
I started building websites right away and I managed several before my college years. By the age of 19, I became a full-time software developer and started hearing more and more about these “Agile” or extreme practices folks were using to develop software. These methods made it easier to solve problems quickly and allowed for change to happen without much delay. The speed came from reviewing requirements faster than the traditional specification document allowed, having members of the team with more than one skillset and given time to work on specific tasks with limited interruptions.
Once I was out of college, I started an online blogging community in the early 2000s for other software developers to have an outlet for sharing information about the art of software. Sounds like I was a futurist who could see where the direction of the digital world was going and I acted early to take claim of free land but I cannot claim such amazing forethought. Rather I was an arrogant kid who got into too many debates about software languages and the webmaster deleted my content and blog. In a fit of anger and bewilderment, I set a course to build my own community that allowed for debate and the free flow of information about software. Geekswithblogs.net was launched in the next 24 hours using my laptop, a 12-pack of Diet Mountain Dew and my wife wondering what the heck I was doing in my office.
This turned into a business really quickly due to growth, bandwidth needs and the cost of hosting. I wasn’t sure how to run a business, so I brought my friend in to help and we put out our shingle.
Forming the company around the audience
On one business trip to Microsoft’s headquarters in Redmond, we received the biggest shock of our careers to this point. While I was out of the balcony of our hotel room smoking, I heard the room phone ring. Being that we were getting ready to check out, I thought it was probably the front desk. On the phone, my business partner John was told his last duty as my manager was to let me go and then he was let go. He looked up at me as I walked back in and said, “Hey, we just got fired.” I paused for a second in disbelief, turned around and went right back out to have another smoke. Needless to say, the plane ride home was very interesting.
So we found ourselves asking the question, do we do our own thing or part ways? We both had no savings to speak of and one partial paycheck left each. The only asset we had was the community of bloggers and some podcasting equipment. Well, I bet you can guess the choice we made.
The content would not support both of our families so we had to do something different. But we could leverage the audience we built to build that something different. We set out to form a software consulting practice in the Midwest that would provide the expertise required to build large online sites, stores and communities. We leveraged the knowledge we had built through the community to show we could handle the load and developed some pretty amazing web properties for our clients.
Differentiate and Repeat
We also started to integrate podcasting into the business in 2005 with a show called the Podcast Studio. What a great time pioneering a content type with some great friends in the industry. Our process was simple at the time. We would record weekly shows, interviewing software development thought leaders, influencers, and product specialist from Microsoft and other companies. We also made sure we integrated the show into the AJi corporate site and Geekswithblogs.net to keep the two communities together.
We wanted to be different. Our goal was to provide the highest level of education and service possible for a company our size. We knew in doing so, we could quickly outperform the competition in the Midwest, whether they were another small shop or “Big Consulting.” So each time we mastered one type of content, we continued to look for additional avenues to reach customers.
As the business grew, we knew content was going to be a driving factor in our success, so we set out to write a book on one of our specialties, Microsoft SharePoint Server. John had 4 books under his belt already and I thought being a blogger, I was ready for the pressure. Boy was I wrong, but I still have fond memories of the experience and friends made along the way.
We were able to get a book deal with a few other experts who shared our passion and we all put together a 900-page brick of information called, Wrox’s Professional SharePoint 2007 Development.
This was a hard title to share with friends and family, but for our clients, it was the exact book they needed to trust we knew what we were talking about. You could imagine how each author was able to walk into a meeting with a client or prospect and drop a copy on the table. The noise it made and the reaction of the person receiving it was worth the countless hours and research we had to do to create a book for a product that had not even been released.
The Industry Pivot
For the nine years we owned the community, we were able to leverage the audience and the content to continue to see business growth and success; however over time we saw a change in the purchase behavior of our customers. During the 2000s, IT departments in the organization were the primary customers of Content Management Systems and other web projects.
As marketing teams started to take over these purchase decisions and IT became less involved, we found ourselves with a significant problem. Do we change business models to find something else the developer audience wants or change audiences and build trust and loyalty in the world of marketing?
This decision took us several months of long walks and analysis of AJi in the next 10 years. We felt it would be better to sell the community to someone else who needed a developer audience and start to invest time in building the marketing audience.
Several factors went into this decision and if you find yourself in the same situation, you really need to dig deep into every corner to make sure you make the right decision. Both will cause pain and take a long time but staying the course is not usually an option for long.
However, as any good pivot caused by disruption, the change is not 100% in one direction. We still have several projects and clients that are IT focused groups and our expertise as a core team is deep in marketing technologies. We will always continue to reach the audience of developer and IT decision maker because they are a very important part of the equation but we are excited to have the Marketing Team be part of that equation as well.
We will keep doing what we do best: educate people, take care of our clients and provide the best service we possibly can. To do this we know what worked in 2003 is not necessarily the best solution for today. So a blog community for marketers might not be the best solution for our new audience, even though it would be awesome. Like every industry, there is a need for folks willing to sacrifice time to continue the education of others and share insights.
Jeff Julian presenting in 2007
Jeff Julian presenting in 2015
Image from Jacques Tallichet
One thing has remained the same from the early days of the web. We still hit the road, give presentations, share compelling stories and information, build an audience slowly over time and find great ways to be different. Not just to be different but to standout where there is a need for someone to do so.
The journey will be amazing and full of many adventures. That is the guarantee of great content marketing efforts.