Guest: Paige Arnof-Fenn
Business web site
Paige Arnof-Fenn is the founder and CEO of global marketing and branding firm, Mavens and Moguls based in Cambridge Massachusetts. Her clients include Microsoft, Virgin, the New York Times company, Colgate, Venture back startups, as well as non-profit organizations. She graduated from Stanford University and Harvard Business School. Paige is a very popular speaker and columnist who has written for Entrepreneur and Forbes magazines among others.
06:05 minute mark
Agile entrepreneur takeaway: Embrace new opportunities and don’t be afraid of changes.
Paige talks about two inflection points in her life, the advent of internet in late 1990s and the resulting startup opportunities for her and the second inflection point being the economic depression after 9/11/2001 World trade center incident and the opportunity it provided her to start her own company.
09:15 minute mark
Agile entrepreneur takeaway: Assess your own strengths, skills, and experience and align them with environmental changes.
Paige says “I knew the people, I knew the projects, I had the network, the timing was just perfect for somebody like me to come in and connect those dots and honestly, I never wrote a business plan. I never thought, it just it made perfect sense to me.”
12:50 minute mark
Agile entrepreneur takeaway: Persevere for first 2 to 3 years. More often than not, second or third year will produce the results.
Third year was the breakout year for Paige where Harvard Business School had couple of case studies on Mavens and Moguls even though she kept growing revenue in her first two years as well.
17:06 minute mark
Agile entrepreneur takeaway: Your purpose and passion will show you the way to your ultimate success.
Paige says “I feel like I paid my dues for a long time I worked really hard to build my reputation to build my contacts, my network and I saw an opportunity in the market where the stars kind of aligned where I had the right background, the right people, the right projects, the right training.”
18:53 minute mark
Agile entrepreneur takeaway: Treat each customer individually and independently and this special treatment will payoff.
Paige talks about how she selects her customers and how each of the customers like Virgin and Microsoft are different from each other and how their brand positioning is different.
20:54 minute mark
Agile Entrepreneur takeaway: To compete with big brands with Superbowl like budgets, small firms should focus on guerilla marketing techniques.
Paige talks about the importance of social media and PR especially for small firms as their ROI will be much higher. In her own words “You can be very responsive in real time, build your following get you know a direct relationship with your customer and go back to them very cost-efficiently.”
24:26 minute mark
Agile Entrepreneur takeaway: Market validation of an idea based on market research is extremely crucial.
Paige talks about the importance of customer research, market research, market validation and adjusting one’s plans based on actual data and not based on opinions. “You can be very responsive in real time, build your following get you know a direct relationship with your customer and go back to them very cost-efficiently.”
28:28 minute mark
Agile Entrepreneur takeaway: Don’t be afraid to fire employees who are not aligned to company’s principles, values and culture.
Paige talks about things that she could have done differently such as letting employees go who are not completely aligned with the principles and the culture. She also talks about firing customers who are not aligned to the company culture as well.
Episode Transcript (Click to expand)
Ramesh: Hello everyone. Welcome to the agile entrepreneurial podcast. This is your host Ramesh Dontha. This podcast is about starting and running your own business with purpose, passion, perseverance and possibilities. Today we have an exciting guest Paige Arnoff-fenn. Paige is the founder and CEO of global marketing and branding firm, Mavens and Moguls based in Cambridge Massachusetts. Her clients include Microsoft, Virgin, the New York Times company, Colgate, Venture back startups, as well as non-profit organizations. She graduated from Stanford University and Harvard business school. Paige is a very popular speaker and columnist who has written for Entrepreneur and Forbes magazines among others. Hi Paige welcome.
Paige: Hi Ramesh. How are you? Thanks for having me.
Ramesh: Oh, thank you very much. Your profile is very impressive, and I think our listeners will be very excited to listen to you and your story.
Paige: I am excited to be here.
Ramesh: Alright, so let’s get started with the basics. So, what is your story and the business story the Mavens and Moguls please.
Paige: So, I joke that I'm kind of like the accidental entrepreneur. To be honest with you I never planned on starting a company. When I was a student and earlier in my career I thought I wanted to be like Meg Whitman or Ursula Burns or Carly Fiorina. I wanted to run a big multinational company, be a CEO of a big brand, big global company and that's really what I had intended to do when I went back from college to business school I worked early in my career at very big global companies like Procter & Gamble and Coca-Cola and I really thought that was the path I would be on forever and it's kind of interesting, because I started my career on Wall Street in the 1980s. Because that was kind of a popular path to and then I worked at these big multinational corporations in marketing and then the internet started, and I got very hooked and intrigued by what was happening with technology online. So basically, I joined my first startup as the head of marketing and it was back in Internet 1.0, when it was very easy to raise a lot of money. We raised tens of millions of dollars, all the money was going into marketing and we really rode the dot-com wave. It was a lot of fun. We went public, we were sold to Yahoo. It was a very exciting time. Then my husband got a job in Boston, so after the exhibited the first startup we moved here back to the East Coast and I joined a second startup as the head of marketing and that was also a very wild ride. The internet was still booming at that point. That was my first foray into the business-to-business world, I had always done consumer marketing before that and that was just a lot of fun. Again, it was a wild ride we had a lot of money, it was all being put into marketing and then that company was sold to Bertelsmann. Which is the largest privately held media company in the world. So that was exciting. Then I did a third startup as the head of marketing and again it was just the go-go years. Really fun, very exciting and that company also won public and was sold to a larger public company. So, I got very lucky three times. I called them my three base hits. I made a little money three times. I'm not Sheryl Sandberg. I did not work for Facebook or Google or you know LinkedIn. So, I'm not a multi bajillionaire. But each one made a little bit of money and, so it was just a lot of fun. But around the time of the third startup getting sold, 9/11 hit and that was really kind of a jolt into the economy and it impacted marketing intensely. Because money was difficult to raise. All the companies’ kind of shut down, their marketing departments wanted to conserve their cash and marketing got put on the back burner. So that was kind of a pause if you will and I was going to just sit out for a little while. I had gotten very lucky on three startups. I didn't need to work, I didn't have to work. So, I was just going to take a little time off and before I even left the third startup, that all three of those startups were had raised private equity money, venture capital money, so I had a lot of good contacts in the venture world, in the startup world and a lot of those folks started coming out of the woodwork asking me for help post 9/11. Because they needed marketing help, because their marketing departments just had just gotten shut down. So, I had people that needed marketing help. I know a lot of people that were great at marketing from my background. So, I had people and projects and I literally just started putting them together. I called the women in the marketing mavens, the guys the marketing moguls and we just started forming teams and helping out these companies that needed help and before I knew it we were really kind of off and running and I built a website over a weekend with a college buddy of mine. I called us the mavens and moguls and we've been at it ever since, so that was 18 years ago and here we are. So, on a long way from where I thought I would be when I started, but I'm still having fun. So, it's all good.
Ramesh: So, the major inflection point for you in your career seems to be the 9/11.
Paige: Yeah, no well they're kind of two inflection points. I think the advent of the internet was the first inflection point. Because that got me from focusing on big companies to going to a more of a startup, small company environment and so I realized I knew I loved working for big brands like Coke and Proctor and Gamble. When you give somebody your business card and you have that logo on your business card and you have a title that people recognize, that's a very easy situation to be and everybody wants to meet with you. They want you to come to their conferences, speak you know it gives you a platform, it gives you a very prominent role. The 800-pound gorilla, because you're working for a big brand with a big budget. What I learned when I left that comfort of the big corporate job to a scrappy startup, because the world had changed with the advent of the internet; all three of the startups, when I joined them no one had ever heard of them. They were brand new. I honestly didn't know how I was going to feel working for a brand no one had ever heard of. Even though I had a good title they're looking at the logo and looking at my business card and it doesn't mean anything to them and what I learned about myself in those periods was working for the three startups is I really loved the concept and the idea that I was creating what could be the next great brand. Like I really thought you know before there was Starbucks, people didn't know what Starbucks was. But it's turned out to be a great global brand and I thought I was doing that with each of the three startups I headed up marketing. That I was letting the world in on this great secret and if I did a great job everyone was going to know what these brands were, and I would have been the first chief marketing officer to help establish those brands in their mind, find their customers, get the right words and pictures to tell their story. So that really let me know that I had the confidence to do something that was kind of unknown and that I was motivated and energized to work in a start-up environment where things were a lot scrappy or where I didn't have the safety net or the big budget. Even though we raised a lot of money in all the startups, the budgets were much smaller than Coca-Cola.
Ramesh: That’s right.
Paige: I had to be much scrappier, much more involved in guerilla marketing and things that you never had to do with big established well-funded brands. So that was kind of like a multi-phase process. Big company small company to entrepreneurs. So, 911 is basically what made me realize I could be successful as an entrepreneur and build my own brand.
Ramesh: Is there some point or a person that kind of changed your thinking that you have to start your company. Because you've been having a good ride with the startups and the previous company, the large companies as well. But why you wanted to start your own company?
Paige: Well it's a great question. So, I think what I realized so all three of the startups I reported to the people who were the founders and in the first case the founders of the first company were younger than me and they were very smart. But I realized that I was an equal partner in helping that brand be successful. The second brand you know I realized it was a much more seasoned older team, but I knew that my experience was critical to our success and the third one the same thing. I wasn't the founder of any of those, but people look to me. The investors, even our customers, our clients, everybody looked at me as a very key member of the management team. So, I knew I had the smarts, I knew I had the experience and when the economy was shattered post 9/11, there was an opportunity that I saw a void that needed to be filled and it's like I had this perfect vision of how I could fix the problem. I saw the problem, I saw the opportunity. I knew the people, I knew the projects, I had the network, the timing was just perfect for somebody like me to come in and connect those dots and honestly, I never wrote a business plan. I never thought, it just it made perfect sense to me. You know my husband said to me it's like there's red flashing lights in front of you, you know how to do this. Like just you know build your website, hang out a shingle, send them an invoice. They want your help, you know how to help them. You can make this happen, make a few phone calls. You can build a team and get it done and that was just the kick in the pants I needed to say, okay I can do this, and I figured what's the worst that could happen. If it didn't work I could go back and get a real job. But you know it's been terrific, it's been a wild ride. I've loved every minute of it and I realized I learned a lot in the big companies, I learned a lot in the small companies and I was well-positioned to start my own firm and the timing was just right.
Ramesh: That's right. So, you have been in the business for 18 years. That means you've withstood all the ups and downs. It's good.
Paige: Yeah, I know I’ve been, yeah, I’ve run my own business now for 18 years. Which is ironic because you know my longest job working for any of those companies I told you about was three and a half years. So, I’ve now worked for myself one time much longer than I ever lasted working for anyone else. So, I always joke if I get sick of my boss now I'm really dead, because I don't know what I would do if I had to go back and get a job working for anybody else. I really love the autonomy, I love the flexibility. I love knowing that I can make it happen.
Ramesh: That's awesome, that's awesome. Paige let me ask you this. How long did it take for you to feel comfortable with your own company?
Paige: That's a great question. It's funny I was comfortable from day one. Like I knew what our value proposition was, I knew I can help my clients. But I think because of my background being much more risk-averse. You know I went to good colleges, I had good well recognized names on my resume coming out of places like P&G; and Coke and I worked for three startups that all became successful. When I joined them it looked risky? But in retrospect people said oh well they were successful, so you're not really taking a risk. They didn't realize all that risk that I'm like at the beginning. But in the retrospect looking back it didn't look very risky. So, when I started I really didn't, I wasn't scared at all. But it never even dawned on me that I would fail I just felt like of course I'm going to be successful. I work hard, I see the opportunity, I know great people. The first year was really a struggle. The first year I was out there networking, knocking on doors, giving talks, trying to get business and it was me pushing. I was out there really hustling. The second year I would run into people and they weren't being patronizing. But they were very much like oh that's great you're still doing it, good for you. I think everyone expected me to go back and take a real job. Go be the chief marketing officer at a big company. So, you're one it was me pushing year two it was people like kind of taken aback like, wow you're still doing that, you'd still be doing this. In the third year that was really my breakout year. Because by year three when I see people they knew I was committed to this business, they knew people that we had helped that had been great references and testimonials for us. We were still going strong and it was the year of me where I started getting a lot of referrals and a lot of people recommending us, a lot of our clients coming back and by then a lot of them had changed jobs and they brought us with them to their new jobs. So, year three was really the inflection point for me and that was the year that Harvard Business School wrote two cases on my company. So, we became like a model of success, a woman-owned business and an entrepreneurial business model in the service sector that could scale. So, year three for me was really that's the year where I really felt like we broke through and really hit our stride. But you know it wasn't that we weren't successful for three years. But that's when I had the market validation that we were going to stick around. Like people knew we were here to stay by the third year.
Ramesh: That seems to be the typical case of the companies that have being successful. The second or third year seems to be the breakout year for many of the businesses that I’ve talked to.
Paige: From year one to year two, we quadrupled in revenue. Year two to year three we tripled. But again, the pace is getting bigger and you know after that we were you know doubling or maybe two and a half three times for several years. So, we really by then we really, we realized this is a real business and I think for service businesses, for women-owned businesses you know it's very rare that they get to a million dollars or more in revenue. But like again it never dawned on me that we wouldn't be successful, but I think once you get the market validation and people see like wow you're real, you're here to stay. I know a lot of people that have had a lot of success working with you. All of a sudden you realize okay this is, it's really going to happen like this really working.
Ramesh: It's a very good story Paige. One thing that comes across from your story, that you are not a typical struggling kind of a company that with your pedigree, with your education, with your experience you are able to hit the stride pretty quickly.
Paige: Well it's funny because a lot of people say to me wow! You know you started up right after 9/11, you're like an overnight sensation hmm and I always laugh about that. Because you know I think people don't realize I worked for almost two decades before I started my company and I don't feel like an overnight sensation at all. I feel like I paid my dues for a long time I worked really hard to build my reputation to build my contacts, my network and I saw an opportunity in the market where the stars kind of aligned where I had the right background, the right people, the right projects, the right training. The economy was at a point the internet was at a point where all the stars aligned for us to really start something that it just worked. Because of the condition, the market conditions and the fact that I saw a very clear path to success. But you know if I had tried to do this five or ten years earlier without the internet, it would have been very hard and if I were starting this business today now that social media and the world is so much more advanced, and things are much more on internet time now, it would be really hard to do what I did five or ten years earlier or five or ten years later. But I just timed it perfectly.
Ramesh: That's awesome, that's very interesting. So, let's talk a little bit about your customers. So, can you tell us a little bit the profile of customers, like what person did a small person, what person did large business little bit.
Paige: So, I'd say about two-thirds of our clients are mid market emerging market firms anywhere from two million to two hundred million in revenue. But we've worked with a lot of you know pre-revenue early-stage venture backed startups. We've worked with some fortune 500 firms, some very large companies. The Microsoft's and Richard Branson's Virgin brand and we've done some work at the New York Times like definitely big brands you've heard of. A lot of companies that when we started you might not have known who they were and then by the time we helped establish their brand, their logo, their tagline, their marketing materials; they've really broken through. So, you know we work with nonprofit organizations technology. We're kind of industry agnostic. I feel like great marketing can help all kinds of businesses get their story straight and find their audience. So, you know we work with anyone that has a marketing challenge where they need great marketing talent, great marketing kind of brainpower and that they're realistic in terms of their budget, their timing. But we can work with any kind of business honestly. The area that we don't do a lot of work in is like medical device and pharma and biotech, those areas tend to be pretty incestuous. They like to work with firms that specialize in pharmaceuticals or in medical devices. But as far as B2B, B2C, nonprofit we work in every category otherwise pretty much non-stop.
Ramesh: Oh, okay. So, let me home in a little bit on the startups, the people, the businesses you are getting started. Are these single entrepreneurs? Or like a team of people that come to you if you can talk a little bit?
Paige: It's, both it's both. So sometimes somebody comes to us with a concept and they're fundraising, and they need to get their story straight. They need help with their presentation, with a logo, with a tagline. Sometimes they've already maybe started their business and they're just you know maybe they don't have a website or they're just starting to lay groundwork and they need help scaling and you know honestly whether they're in consumer products or technology or an app or just a CEO who's trying to get their own brand recognized, we've been hired by CEOs who have written books that need to market their book for example. You know I would say one personal bias maybe that I have, we do a lot of thought leadership public relations social media for small businesses and startups. I think personally that PR social media thought leadership is like the most cost-efficient thing you can do to start and grow a young company and even if you talked to Bill Gates and I think Steve Jobs used to say this in the early days of Apple. If they only had you know ten dollars they'd put it into PR over advertising. I mean when I came from P&G; and Coke and you have multi-million-dollar budgets, those brands are going to advertise all over the world. They know they can afford to do Super Bowl ads, they can afford to do sponsorships and stadiums and TV advertising and print advertising. Those brands advertise 365 days a year in every country around the world where they sell. Those are mass marketed brands with huge budgets. My clients don't have that kind of money and even if they had enough to take out one television ad, one TV is not going to do it. Unless you're doing a Super Bowl ad, which cost like five million dollars. You're not going to get enough attention for one you know one small trickle. If you do things online using social media, leveraging PR and thought leadership you get a lot more bang for the buck. So, whether it's a company with you know one CEO trying to market their book or an early-stage startup that's raised money and needs to get the momentum going before their IPO, any company like that I really try to encourage them to consider spending their limited budget in things like social media and PR. Because you can just do so much more with less. You can be very responsive in real time, build your following get you know a direct relationship with your customer and go back to them very cost-efficiently.
Ramesh: Excellent. So, Paige as I am listening to you so one thing that's coming to my mind is that you have worked with many businesses from an infancy, you know all the way to either success or failure kind of difference stages. So, what have you observed in this people who have started their own business, what characteristics are things that you observed that either made them successful or failure and some of the things that I’ll just throw out there and then. Like the people’s own drive, ambition is the funding that they start with and all those things. So, what are your observations?
Paige: So, one of the key things I think is grounding any of your marketing, planning and strategy in real customer research and I think the businesses that are successful really understand who their customers are, what the messages are that resonate and they're not trying. So, what the challenge is I’ve had companies come to me and say I have this great idea and here's what we want to do, and I’ll say how do you know it's a great idea? And they'll say oh well we tested it, and everybody loves it and I'm like great show me your market research and sometimes the research is, and I mean it's a slight exaggeration, but not really. It's like my best friend, my mother, my neighbor my you know, and I gave them all this and they just think it's the best idea they've ever seen. They said they would totally buy it and tell their friends. Well that's not market research. Those are people that know you and love you and don't want to hurt your feelings and they're not really shopping with real dollars. They're not really having to buy your product or service and we've been hired by companies that we encourage them to do market research where an independent researcher, someone on our team asks independent customers and potential customers questions in a way that's very objective and neutral and you know the problem with research is if you ask questions in a loaded way, you're like leading the witness. Like what do you love about this product? What do you think about this logo? You know do you think it's great? What do you love about it? You can't ask questions like that, because you're tipping your hand if you will. Like they know they're going to hurt your feelings and you know there's a saying like nobody wants to tell you your baby's ugly, they're not going to tell you it's a bad idea. But there are a lot of things you can do with potential customers to simulate buying experiences where you give them fake money and they have to allocate it against different things and if they're not allocating any of their money to buy your product or service or if the feedback they're giving you is not very compelling or positive, you have to listen to that and it might not be easy. You might have to pivot, you might have to make some changes. You may have to go back two or three steps to move forward and a lot of people don't want to hear that news. So, I think the companies that are successful do a great job at a customer research and I think they listen to the feedback and I think they pivot and incorporate things and move forward. When they're getting results that they don't like, they believe the data, not their friends, not their family and they course-correct. Because a lot of being successful as an entrepreneur is learning how to pivot successfully.
Ramesh: Oh fantastic. Market validation and then adjusting or pivoting based on the reality.
Paige: Bingo, that's it.
Ramesh: Okay, excellent, excellent. So, a couple of other things. I mean going back through the 18 years of your company, are there anything’s that you wish that you could have done differently. I mean I have not heard, tell you the truth looks like you had a pretty smooth ride. But are there anything’s that you could have done differently?Paige: Well it's so interesting. I mean I only know the path that I took. But like I said if I had started the company later I would have had to do things very differently. You know personally I'm not on Facebook, I'm not on Twitter. I am on LinkedIn. Some friends of mine from college started LinkedIn so I was a very early user on LinkedIn. But you know I feel like because I started 18 years ago, and I was able to slowly ramp up in a way that built the business over time and I got a lot of repeat business, I got a lot of referrals and word of mouth for me personally doing the writing and the public speaking was a great way to build my business and I was not penalized or punished for the fact that you know I did not build my brand. I'm not like you know Kim Kardashian where I'm on social media 24/7. That's not how I find my clients, that's not how people find me. So, it's not that you know I have made plenty of mistakes along the way and I’ve learned a lot in terms of you know the kinds of articles that are more productive for me, where to publish. Kinds of conferences and trade shows where I can speak that are the best sources of new business generation for me. Again, I'm taking in all the feedback on my own listening to the market data and pivoting and when things stop working you try something else and you know you have to kind of walk before you can run, and you know in retrospect I'm not sure I would have done anything differently, but you know there are lessons in everything. I mean I feel like my biggest mistake early on probably you know I started with a core group of people and not everybody is going to grow with you and not everyone's going to be, just because they're part of your past doesn't mean they're part of your future. I think I was slow to get rid of some of the folks that... We were growing faster than they were. They were very comfortable doing things their way. But as the market evolved, as new tools became available they got out of their comfort zone and I think just culturally they were not great for the culture of the firm as we grew. And its probably slow to get rid of some of those people early on. But once I realized that you know you're not doing them a favor and you know it's just better to keep the bar high, grow with the people who really are part of your future, you know that was an important lesson for me to learn early on. I had to fire a client early on. That was really tough. You know when somebody offers you a $10,000 a month retainer piece of business within the first six months of your business, you're just so happy to get a big client at that point. You don't realize that they may not be the best client for you and they may really not, you may be servicing them at a much higher level than even they're paying you for. So, I think you know those are some lessons that I think are just natural growing pains for a new business. Getting rid of you know making sure the right people are on the bus both as a client and as a colleague and those are tough growing pains. But I'm glad I learned those lessons early on.