Lessons Learned in Times of Transition

Aug 26, 2013 | Updated Oct 26, 2013

After 18 years in business, it's a bit strange to think of "starting over," but essentially that's what we did. While the recession was challenging and painful in countless ways, it gave us a profound opportunity to take a hard look at our business to see what was working (yes, some things worked very well) and what wasn't. During an economic downturn, the things that don't work are certainly more obvious, so finding and appreciating what does work proved to be a challenge, but in the end a rewarding one. First let's start with our two biggest challenges:

Few Eggs, One Basket
Leading up to the downturn, our customer base was chiefly comprised of clients in two related industries: real estate and hospitality. With real estate, while we had experience across several sectors - commercial, industrial, retail, multi-family residential - everyone was hit hard. In turn, our hospitality clientele, heavily reliant on the real estate market as well as a strong consumer base, was facing similar troubles. Suddenly, the business flow in our primary verticals came to a screeching halt.

Overwhelming Overhead
Not surprisingly, when the economy was strong and the real estate market was booming, we built up our staff to appropriately support this growth. At the onset of the downturn, we truly had a winning team -- dedicated, talented and supremely capable of managing a substantial workflow and client relationships. Inevitable, significant and difficult cuts had to be made. It was a tremendous challenge to unwind the team we'd spent so much time building up, but in the end, it was a team we could no longer support despite our best efforts.

Picking Up & Moving On
The first step in our "reintroduction" began with overcoming the perception within the marketplace that we were exclusively a "real estate creative agency" and then mining new business sectors for opportunities. To do so, we focused on what our current and past clients told us we did really well. At our core, Mauge is a relationship-focused agency -- we are defined by our partnerships and supremely dedicated to intelligent creative work. While we had previously focused on working in a limited number of verticals, we knew the only way to move forward was through great creative and strategic work across a wide-range of clients. We knew we had to find client's that could appreciate our unique approach to marketing and the personal attention that our streamlined, experienced staff could provide. We truly believe the creative process is a collaboration that merges our deep-rooted design and marketing abilities with our client's expertise in a particular field.

Our first opportunity came in the form of an existing relationship with a well-established and well-known automotive dealer looking for a change in the way they approached their marketing. Certainly there was a learning curve in understanding the world of automotive dealerships, but given our extensive experience in data mining and understanding customer behaviors, we were able to provide a fresh perspective the client had not experienced before.

We continued our work to engage other small businesses that provided products and services complimentary to our own. We created strategic alliances to provide us with access to new sectors and client types while providing these partners with a skill set they didn't previously have. As a result, we increased our exposure to an expanded business audience. We continued to network, attend educational meetings and conferences to create brand exposure and general awareness of our expertise. We needed to let the right people know we were still in business, interested in doing business with them and capable of getting the job done. These new opportunities kept my existing staff busy and engaged while we re-aligned ourselves.

The downsizing of our staff was painful. We had to let go of long-term employees and learn to work with a smaller staff who regularly wore multiple hats. As workflow and revenues increased, we brought on freelancers until we had the repeatable and sustainable business to support permanent full-time employees. This proved to be a very valuable tactic, and we have been able to add two new employees during the past year.

I also cannot stress enough the value of becoming active in the community. You realize you are not alone in times of transition. Working through tough times together makes you stronger. Building community will mean a lot of different things to different people, but I define it as follows: Get to know your neighbors and be a good neighbor, and volunteer. Be active with local neighborhood organizations and Chambers of Commerce. Stay up-to-date and network with fellow business owners and colleagues at community and industry-related events.

Perhaps the most important lesson to come out of the recession is what starting over doesn't mean: giving up. It's not always easy to look in the mirror, but that's what a downturn makes you do. So we're focusing on our strengths and overcoming our challenges. We're repositioning and realigning our spot in the marketplace. We're making sure the community knows we're here, and what we're capable of. And we're excited about what's to come.

This blogger graduated from Goldman Sachs' 10,000 Small Businesses program. Goldman Sachs is a partner of the What Is Working: Small Businesses section.