How We Started A $98K/Month Marketing And Business Consultancy
Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?
Hi there! We’re Michael and Kathryn Redman. We started a company eighteen years ago called Half A Bubble Out, which is a full-service marketing and advertising agency based in Chico, California. We’ve helped business leaders around the world grow their companies through traditional and digital marketing, business coaching, and leadership development. We’ve made millions of dollars for our clients across industries such as property management, medical, agriculture, and various nonprofits.
We’re also the founders of HaBO Village, a membership website that helps leaders build Passion & Provision companies full of profit and joy. As business leaders ourselves, we believe you can’t get to clarity alone, which is why we offer perspective and strategic direction, helping organizations find clarity in all six areas of business.
And if you’re wondering about our name, Half a Bubble Out is a metaphor from the carpenter’s level. When something is slightly out of level, the “bubble” becomes “half-out.” We view this two ways. First, half a bubble that is “out” reminds us to look at our clients and their challenges with a fresh perspective and not through the same old grid. The half a bubble that’s “in” represents the need to maintain a strong foundation in the quality and skills of our craft as marketing and business consultants.
What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
We’ve actually known each other since elementary school and grew up together. Not only that, but we also grew up hating one another! We were constantly getting into arguments all the way up through college. Everything changed at a wedding we didn’t know the other was attending. We hadn’t seen each other for ten months, and when we locked eyes for the first time that day—and this is not an exaggeration—it was love at first sight. Well, love at first sight after knowing each other for over a decade!
When you understand who you are as a company, you start to realize that not every customer is the right fit for your company. We had to learn to not say “yes” to every customer or take every deal that came our way, which was tough.
Eighteen months later we were married. We actually believed that ministry was our calling up until our late-twenties/early-thirties when our lives took a sharp left turn. We realized we both had a heart for communities and leadership development, and felt called to start a marketing company. Michael had marketing and sales experience, and we’d both worked for various small business owners during our careers, soaking up lessons from each of them as we went. Still, starting a business seemed crazy.
But we did it anyway. I think, in large part, we took the plunge because of the terrible jobs we’d had up to that point. At one point, Michael worked at a shrimp factory and spent eight hours a day with his bare hands plunged into ice water, sticking gutted shrimp onto wooden skewers. He lasted about two weeks working there.
Kathryn was once the executive assistant to the president of RSA Data Security. It sounds like an important job, but Kathryn’s boss had no idea how to utilize her skills since he’d never had an assistant before. As a result, she spent two solid weeks playing Tetris all day. She was hitting high scores day after day, but she was a miserable human being because she was making zero contribution and wasting her time.
The skills we’d developed up to that point in our career helped us launch a marketing company, but the experiences we had are what informed the big-picture vision for our company. We want to help business owners build Passion & Provision companies because we know firsthand that’s the kind of company entrepreneurs really want and so do their employees.
Take us through the process of designing, prototyping, and manufacturing your first product.
We started in the spare bedroom of our house. Our first two clients were a realtor who needed marketing collateral and a mom who needed a video made for her son’s traveling basketball team. Kathryn was still working full-time at that point.
This was a side hustle before anybody knew what a side hustle was! People were asking if we could do something for them, and even if we didn’t know how yet, we said yes. As long as we stayed a few steps ahead of them, they wouldn’t find out we were winging it.
Although the projects were smaller in scope during those early days, we did good work for people and they gave us referrals. The hardest part was learning how to systematize everything. There weren’t a lot of roadmaps back then like there are now. Michael read a lot of books back then trying to learn whatever he could about business, and he read The E-Myth at least eight times because it talked about systems in a way he understood.
We were testing different markets to find a good place for us to settle in and build a name. So, we did a lot of trade shows and built as many relationships as we could, thinking that people would seek us out if they knew what we did and liked us.
We’re embarrassed at times to say this as a marketing company because, in the beginning, we sucked at marketing ourselves. We were like the cobbler whose kids don’t have shoes. We would do this great work for people and then our website was just so-so. We weren’t doing direct mail or anything else that was proactive to bring in clients.
A big breakthrough came in 2004 when we made a documentary (see the full story below). Although we didn’t want to be pigeonholed as “documentary filmmakers,” that’s what ended up happening. We earned ourselves a solid reputation for doing high-quality video work. When we presented at trade shows, it at least gave us a known quantity that we could show. As a result, we did a lot of video work in those early days.
Describe the process of launching the business.
In the early days, we self-funded our business in three ways. Kathryn had a good job, so we saved as much money as possible and lived well within our means. Like many other business owners, we also used credit cards and put ourselves in situations that were challenging. It was never out of control, but we wish we’d done less of that.
The third way was fortuitous. We started our company in 2002 when the market in California wasn’t moving. Then, over the next five years, our house tripled in value, so we had investment capital we were able to take out of the house for the business.
Through those three methods, we were funded without having to take out loans. Yes, we had our mortgage and credit card bills, but those were always within our control.
The turning point was, of all things, a wildly successful marketing campaign for a toenail fungus treatment. Our business grew 400% in a matter of months and we became the go-to marketing company for every podiatrist in America. Then the Great Recession hit, our niche collapsed, and 50% of our business disappeared. So, it’s fair to say we grew 200% in five years, but the process by which it happened was painful.
That collapse was a blessing in disguise, though. We urgently sought out new training to tighten up our systems and improve our management. We learned that we needed to be faster to either fire or coach people who weren’t a good fit. We became a company capable of handling exponential growth, rather than one figuring it out as we went.
Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?
Over the past ten years, our big focus has been on refining our marketing efforts, not necessarily developing new ones. That said, one of our big pivots came in 2012 when we started doing inbound marketing. We became certified HubSpot partners and started writing a ton of content to generate new website traffic and leads for our business.
We went from 300 visitors a month to 7,000 a month in just six months. For some of our clients, using that strategy took them from zero to 25,000 a month in less than a year.
One of the big lessons we learned was that we couldn’t rest on our laurels, or ride the wave of what we did in years past. We’re in an industry that’s constantly evolving, whether it’s the technology being used or the trends that become popular.
If we did content marketing in 2020 as we did in 2019, it wouldn’t work. That’s how fast things are moving. We have to continue to grow as leaders, grow in our character, and deliver good customer service to our people. That’s how we earn our clients’ trust.
We’ve also learned to be more specific and less vague and talk in the customer’s language, not in our expert language (what we call gobbledygook). We learned to ask people what their pain points are and give them a solution they’ll understand. We want to give potential clients a picture of what life could like for them if they work with us.
That’s our client attraction model, and then once they come on board, we shift to our client retention model and over-deliver every step of the way. We do this because we know it’s far cheaper to keep an existing client than it is to bring in a new client.
From what I’ve gathered being in this industry for almost two decades, the average client sticks around six months. Our average client sticks around for three years.
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
To quote the great philosopher Timbuk 3: “The future’s so bright, I gotta wear shades!”
In all seriousness, we’re excited about the future. Everything that’s happened in our business has led us to the point where we’ve published our book, Fulfilled: The Passion & Provision Strategy for Building a Business with Profit, Purpose & Legacy. Are we a bit nervous about releasing a business book in the midst of a global pandemic during which thousands of small businesses will close their doors for good? Of course.
Just keep showing up and working hard. We know it sounds trite because we thought it was trite when we were younger, but looking back now, we realize just how true it is.
What we’ve realized, though, is that our book helps us show business owners a way they can rebuild their existing foundation, or build a brand new foundation. It gives us a platform to share our Passion & Provision message. We’re excited about a future that involves sharing this message more often and with a lot more people.
We feel secure despite all the uncertainty in the world because we dug our wells before we were thirsty, to borrow a phrase from Harvey Mackay’s great book. The structure of our company is solid because we’ve spent years building relationships, systems, and models that can withstand the winds of change while being flexible enough to pivot.
Like many business owners, we’ve been waiting for our clients to call and tell us they can no longer afford our services. But that hasn’t happened—not even once. In fact, we’ve actually picked up a couple of new clients since the pandemic began. We've strived to make ourselves and our services indispensable to our clients. Far from parting ways, our clients want our help navigating this new world. We credit that to the holistic approach that’s guided our company for many years—the one we describe in the book.
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
When you understand who you are as a company—what you stand for, what you’re willing to put up with, and what you’re not willing to do for a buck—you start to realize that not every customer is the right fit for your company. We had to learn to not say “yes” to every customer or take every deal that came our way, which was tough.
We learned how to set up boundaries, which were defined by our core values. Those values helped us understand who we were and told us where those edges were. It’s not about putting up fences. It’s about saying to ourselves, “If we violate our core values, our chances of being successful and having a good experience go down.”
In addition to defining values and setting up boundaries, we also learned some hard lessons about hiring. We thought just because we were decent judges of character that we were good at hiring people and didn’t need to set up a proper process.
We ended up hiring people who were nice people, but they weren’t a good match for who we were and how we lead. It was hard on both sides, honestly.
We learned a couple of lessons from those early days of hiring:
- Hire for competence and character.
- Our core values could be used not only to work with the right clients, but to hire, train, and fire employees so that we had the best possible team.
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
Along with many of our clients, we use HubSpot for our CRM, our marketing, and to build some of our client’s websites. It’s great for inbound marketing and social media, which we treat very carefully. Our approach with social media is to show up occasionally—so people know we’re there—and invest heavily in one or two platforms, not all of them. Right now, we’re focusing our social media efforts on Facebook and LinkedIn.
For organization and structure in the office, we use Monday.com. We moved to that platform last year to improve our structure and systematizing, and we’ve been pleased with the results. For accounting, we use Sage (which used to be Peachtree). We’ve used that software since 2006, back before QuickBooks got really good.
We use Office 365 instead of G Suite tools. If we’re going to build a website for a client outside of HubSpot, we build it using WordPress. Being older in the tech world and having worked in Silicon Valley, we’re not early adopters when it comes to new tech because we’ve seen countless tools come and go, or stop being updated.
We don’t switch tools easily because it takes so much time to onboard new tech tools, and in a small business like ours, we don’t have that time to waste.
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
There is one book that changed the trajectory of our company.
In the summer of 2012, we took our daughter on a trip to Ireland and Northern England to celebrate her high school graduation. On the plane ride, Michael started reading a book that had been on his list for a while: The Coming Jobs War, by Jim Clifton, the former CEO of Gallup, the well-known public opinion polling company.
In the book, Clifton shared the results of Gallup’s first global poll, which asked people what was on their minds. The pollsters thought they’d be flooded with answers about world peace or climate change, but that wasn’t the case. What the world wants, Clifton said, is a good job. The word “good” is key. It describes a job that is engaging, fulfilling, satisfying, and can provide a livable wage. However, Clifton pointed out that most people in America do not work in what they would call a “good” job.
The research showed that 74% of Americans were disengaged at work, which Gallup defined as “sleepwalking through their workdays.” In other words, three out of every four people see their jobs as something they must endure just to survive and make money, so they can hopefully enjoy life outside of work. Clifton argued that this level of apathy has widespread economic implications: less economic freedom, less opportunity, and less personal mobility, along with lower education and investment across the board.
We took these findings personally. We already wanted to provide our employees with meaningful work, but we began to ponder how we could help other business leaders do the same. This was where the idea of writing a book first came to us.
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?
To help grow our company and pay the bills, we created a documentary many years ago celebrating the hundred year anniversary of Bidwell Park, which is in our hometown of Chico and is the ninth-largest city park in the country. We tried to raise capital for the film as a nonprofit and failed miserably. If memory serves, we raised like $350.
That’s when we got creative. We turned our pitches into business opportunities, giving organizations a chance to be marketing sponsors for the film. With that approach, we sold $50,000 worth of sponsorships and really sharpened our selling skills. In addition, we got to demonstrate our competence, our character, and show that we were serious players in the Northern California market. We weren’t a couple of fly-by-night kids.
Out of those efforts, we linked up with a company 14 years ago that is still working with us to this day. In fact, they’re one of our biggest clients and have been responsible for a tremendous amount of revenue for us over the years.
So, our advice is this: when you’re just starting out, you never know which one of the twenty opportunities in front of you is going to take off and actually lead to something. What we can guarantee is that one or two of them will go somewhere. Just keep showing up and working hard. We know it sounds trite because we thought it was trite when we were younger, but looking back now, we realize just how true it is.
Where can we go to learn more?
If you have any questions or comments, drop a comment below!
Hey! 👋 I'm Pat Walls, the founder of Starter Story.
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