Going where no woman (or man, for that matter) has gone before: The pioneering spirit of Maggie Fox, CEO, Social Media Group
For Part Five of Fireside Chats with Fiery Entrepreneurs™, our ongoing, six-part interview series about business planning, I am pleased to have spoken with Maggie Fox, Founder and CEO of Social Media Group. Here’s a profile on Maggie from Social Media Group’s website:
Maggie Fox is the founder of Social Media Group, one of the world’s largest independent agencies helping business navigate the new socially engaged Web. Pioneers in their field, Social Media Group has developed social media strategies for some of the best-known brands in Europe and North America, including; Ford Motor Company, SAP Global Marketing, Yamaha Motor, Corbis and Harlequin Publishing. Maggie has been interviewed about social media by The Washington Post, CBC Radio, The Globe and Mail, CTV News, The Toronto Star and Marketing Magazine, among others. She was recently included in Women Who Risk, a listing of influential women who head up Internet-based firms, and is a member of both The Social Media Collective, an invite-only group of “the web’s best thinkers on media, marketing and web 2.0″ and the Enterprise Irregulars and she was also named one of the Top 100 Marketers in the 100th anniversary edition of Marketing Magazine. Maggie is frequently asked to speak to the media and business groups across North America about Web 2.0, and sits on the Advisory Board for SMToday Media, operators of the Social Media Collective and MyVenturePad sites. She also has a seat on the advisory board of Humber College’s Public Relations program.
Faheem Moosa: Maggie, thank you very much for agreeing to participate in the ‘Fireside Chats…’ interview series. In your opinion, what are the best ways an entrepreneur can research and understand his or her market?
Maggie Fox: I think the internet is the start and the finish of all that. I think the very first thing you need to do when you come up with a company concept is to Google it to see if there’s a similar name or concept that already exists. If there’s a new business or new proposition, you should come up with a name that is very descriptive of the space you’re in and test it out. In our case – Social Media Group – I knew that it was the right business to start at the right time because the URL was available – that’s a really good indicator. It’s probably a great time to start your business if a very descriptive URL around that business is available.
As for market research, in our case it was very organic. We identified what the opportunities were and what we felt people needed based on anecdotal information from people who expressed an interest or curiosity about social media and how businesses could use it. So, for us, part of it was situational. Where we were at the time, we were hearing from the market that there were opportunities out there and obviously that prompted broader thinking about how those opportunities could be realized.
FM: When there are several growth opportunities ahead of you, what criteria do you use to analyze those opportunities and place your bets?
MF: If you pursue too many opportunities, you become unfocused and you become a ‘jack of all trades and master of none’. You really have to identify what your strengths are as an organization or individual and really focus on opportunities that play to those strengths. What are you the best at? What can you make most money at? What do you love doing? What can you be the best in the world at? Those are kinds of things that we look at and it’s hard sometimes, because we look and say ‘there’s something we could do there, there’s a huge opportunity here, etc.” But if you go down all of those paths, you just get scrambled. So you really have to focus ultimately on what you love and what you can give back to the world.
FM: Do you think it important for young, entrepreneurial companies to have a well-defined competitive position, target market and value proposition? Why?
MF: Yes, I do. Absolutely – without question – I think a young entrepreneurial company needs to have those things before they have anything else. Those are the first things you need. You need to understand who the competition is and align your value proposition against weaknesses in the competitive offer. That’s exactly what we did. We took a look around and realized there were a lot of Public Relations (PR) companies engaged in social media that didn’t particularly have ‘build’ capabilities, nor did they have marketing sensibilities in terms of ‘creative’. We also identified there were a lot of advertising and marketing agencies that were engaging in social media that didn’t understand the ‘relationship’ aspect of social media the way PR companies did. And additionally, for us there’s a real, identified need for business consulting-type requests around how you define what it is you’re going to be doing – that involved a lot of research and neither of those organizations were good at that at all. So we took a look at all three vectors of competition, bridged all of them and presented an offering that filled all of the holes in all of these traditional models. That was done within the first few months. We took a look at the competition and identified that those things were extremely important to our positioning.
I think you need to have a specific target market in mind but I also think you need to be flexible because you often don’t realize what the opportunity is before you’re in the market. In our case, we initially figured that working with advertising agencies would be great. They had existing relationships, didn’t have the skills and had already identified the budget – so a lot of the leg work and hard work was done. They could bring us in and we could execute and that would be how we would make money. We thought that would be low-hanging fruit. Getting into the market, we realized that it really was not. So it’s fine to have a goal or a path, but you have to be willing to adjust it if you realize that it’s really not working.
FM: What is your philosophy with regard to raising awareness about your company? How do you recommend entrepreneurs approach and plan this task?
MF: It completely depends on what kind of business you’re in. We’re a social media company, so we recognize that using social media to connect with our colleagues to publish information that we feel is of value would spread and therefore awareness of us would be raised organically. We essentially practice what we preach. We have a company blog and a Twitter account, we attend conferences where colleagues gather – all of that is absolutely essential. The other part of it is that if you’re in a vertical where comments might be sought from media, then you should take advantage of that. In Canada, there’s a book called Contacts which journalists use all the time to identify people that could comment on specific topics [Interviewer's note: You may also want to check out Help A Reporter Out, a similar service]. Listing yourself in a book like that is a great idea. Because they’ll look through it, call you and have you quote on a particular issue. You can also do it organically – make connections with reporters, follow up with them and build relationships with them. We get 1-2 pieces of earned media every month without any effort at all. So that kind of creative thinking – positioning yourself as an expert or thought leader in your space – is a wonderful opportunity for you to raise awareness of the company and your credibility. Speaking at conferences is very helpful as well.
FM: What are the key success factors for running and growing a profitable professional services firm/social media agency?
MF: First and foremost, it’s team. You must build a strong, quality team. In our case it involves multiple disciplines. We have people coming from the interactive space, PR, IT and business consulting. So, we have a cross-disciplinary team of individuals who are extremely good at what they do. Also, in an entrepreneurial environment, you have to hire people that are comfortable with ambiguity – with roles that change. You need folks who pitch-in where you need people to pitch-in – that’s hugely important. We’ve had circumstances where we’ve hired people who were eminently qualified to do certain tasks and came at a price tag that was appropriate, only to discover that because they come from a very large, established organization, they just could not cope with the ups and downs and flexibility required in an entrepreneurial environment. So, you really have to look for people who are up for an adventure. That’s critical – personality and skills. So, assemble the best possible team you can – first and foremost.
When you start to look at business operations, you need to have a really good handle on the basics – costs, revenues, profitability across projects, across the organization and across practice groups. That kind of reporting and insights are absolutely critical to keep a handle on your business. You’ve got to be able to look at a project and know how much money you’re making on it, so that if you don’t make money on it you do not make the same mistake again. We are very focused on profitability and look to improving it all the time. The constant cycle of evaluation and improvement is important for us. In many respects, we’re inventing something new, so keeping a handle on it and making sure we know what we’re doing is hugely important.
The other thing is to build a strong company culture. Entrepreneurial environments are very stressful for the entrepreneurs and for the people that work with them. Things change, there are ups and downs, things are going great and then something happens, and then things are not going so great. And especially when you’re involved in improving and really trying to grow the company into something really stable with a good, solid foundation, it can be painful. So, instilling a really strong culture of fun and enjoyment is really, really important to keep morale up. So that means doing things together, empowering people to work in different ways that allow them to be most productive, doing fun things and communicating regularly so that they’re not kept in the dark – all of these things are really important to keeping the team with you.
A quality product is the outcome of all of the things I’ve mentioned so far.
FM: What do you feel is an entrepreneur’s biggest challenge when it comes to implementing a strategic plan / business plan? How can entrepreneurs be successful at implementation?
MF: I think the biggest challenge – especially in a company like ours that is bootstrapped – is that you’re growing so fast that you need to take the time to do the important versus the urgent. We often find that we do things that are very urgent for the business – things that need to be done today – billing, cash flow, client work etc. It definitely needs to happen now, so other things that are more structural, foundational, and strategic get shoved off to the side. I had a conversation about this with one of our directors the other day and mentioned that this kind of thing is really a deadly trap. If you’re always in ‘response, response, response’ mode, you’ll accomplish almost nothing. So I think the biggest challenge in an entrepreneurial environment around implementing business plans is that you don’t often have the time to take a few steps back and say, ‘Ok we’re going to do this foundational, structural stuff that is critical to the survival of our business and the ability of our business to scale’; I think it’s very important to not get too caught up in the ‘right here, right now’ and to achieve the balance between those two things. I would say that for the first year and a half of our existence, we really didn’t focus on the implementation of the necessary business processes and the kinds of things you find in a business plan. We found ourselves running into scale problems until we really started to focus on the foundational and strategic tasks.
For an analysis of this interview, click here.
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