EP 336: Marketing Without Scale With Brand Strategist Felicia Sullivan

May 11, 2021 | Customers & Clients, Marketing, Networking, Podcast, Top Episodes

In This Episode:

  • Why brand strategist Felicia Sullivan doesn’t bother with using social media to find clients
  • How she uses coffee dates to make long-lasting relationships
  • Why she prioritizes consuming remarkable content and how it helps her meet the people she wants to meet
  • How she uses Medium to deliver remarkable content on the platform her clients are most likely to be engaging with

“Do things that don’t scale.”

That’s venture capitalist Paul Graham’s advice to new entrepreneurs.

What he means is that instead of trying to appeal to the masses or market an idea with a million-dollar advertising budget, start by wooing 1 person at a time.

I’ve always loved this advice and found it to be unfailingly effective.

But… it’s possible to take this idea too far.

When I say it’s possible to take the idea of doing things that don’t scale too far, I’m talking about the tendency to assume that you do things that don’t scale until you can do the things that scale.

For Graham’s audience, that is totally the right idea.

But for small business owners, more often than not, the idea is: do things that don’t scale—and then do them some more.

And this absolutely applies to how we build audiences or find customers.

The activities that have brought me the biggest leaps forward in terms of the size of my audience were things that came from 1:1 interactions. The things that have brought in incredible clients? They certainly didn’t scale.

It’s not that scale isn’t possible—it’s just that scale is a potential result not a method.

The best path forward for most small business owners is a marketing strategy that doesn’t scale: referrals, word of mouth, networking, interacting with people online. Even creating highly valuable podcast episodes or newsletters!

Today, I’m talking with Felicia Sullivan, a brand strategist who has built a thriving business on marketing activities that don’t scale. Felicia works with startup founders and small businesses doing $10-20m in annual revenue—folks who aren’t looking for business help on Instagram.

So Felicia spends her business development time on 3 things: coffee dates, writing long-form articles geared directly to her prospective clients, and referrals.

This episode answers some of the questions I’m most frequently asked about when it comes to marketing businesses that aren’t built on online courses (which, you know, is most of them).

Get ready to take some notes.

Let’s find out What Works for Felicia Sullivan!

Felicia Sullivan: I really believe that if you get to know people as humans instead of transactions, magic starts to happen.

Tara McMullin: Do things that don't scale, that's venture capitalist Paul Graham's advice to new entrepreneurs. What he means by that is that instead of trying to appeal to the masses or market an idea with a $1 million advertising budget, start by wooing one person at a time. Now, I've always loved this advice and I have found it to be unfailingly effective, but I think it's possible to take this idea a little too far. I'm Tara McMullin and this is What Works, the show that explores how small business owners are building stronger businesses without the shoulds and supposed tos.

Now, when I say it's possible to take the idea of doing things that don't scale too far, I'm talking about our tendency to assume that you do things that don't scale until you can do the things that do scale. And for Graham's audience, this is totally the right idea, but for small business owners, more often than not, the idea is do things that don't scale and then do them some more. This absolutely applies to how we build audiences or find customers. The activities that have brought me the biggest leaps forward in terms of the size of my audience were things that came from one-on-one interactions. The things that have brought in incredible clients, they certainly didn't scale.

Now, it's not that scale isn't possible, it's just that scale is a potential result, not a method. The best path forward for most small business owners is a marketing strategy that doesn't scale; referrals, word of mouth, networking, interacting with people online, even creating highly valuable podcast episodes or newsletters. Today, I'm talking with Felicia Sullivan, a brand strategist who has built a thriving business on marketing activities that don't scale. Felicia works with startup founders and small businesses doing $10 to $20 million in annual revenue, folks who aren't looking for business help on Instagram.

Felicia spends her business development time on three things; coffee dates, writing long form articles geared directly to her prospective clients and referrals. This episode answers some of the questions I'm most frequently asked about when it comes to marketing businesses that aren't built on online courses, which, as you know, is most of them. Get ready to take some notes and let's find out what works for Felicia Sullivan. Felicia Sullivan, welcome to What Works. Thank you so much for joining me today.

Felicia Sullivan: Thank you so much for having me, Tara.

Tara McMullin: I am really looking forward to this conversation. I think to set the stage for where we're going today, it would be really helpful to have you just start off by telling us about the kind of clients that you work with and what you do for them.

Felicia Sullivan: Sure. I tend to work with... It's actually been an interesting evolution in terms of who I work with. I've been a consultant for about eight years. At first, I took anyone who would pay me. That was the starting point. But then as the years evolved and as I started to think about my values and how they impacted my business, I started to get a little bit more discerning in terms of who I wanted to work with. Now, I mostly work with startups and small businesses that do good for profit. So even though they may not be a profitable... a non-profit, they have elements within their business that actually think about society beyond their P&L, so mostly startups, small businesses in all different kinds of industries. Normally companies under, I'd say, normally they're between $10 and $20 million, but under $50 million.

Tara McMullin: Got it. Awesome. Can you describe the kind of work that you do with them?

Felicia Sullivan: Sure. It's so funny. I loved last month's modules on simplicity because it just really reminded me that if you go back to the core of what you love and what you're good at and keep things super simple, then the work tends to be just seamless. I offer my clients three things. One, I help them build their brand platform; positioning, messaging, knowing who their customers, all that fun stuff, so the foundation of their business. I also help with customer segmentation, which is a really fancy way of saying I use data to understand customer behavior. You match brand to customer. They have a great way of having a conversation. The last link in that piece is content strategy; how do you use the stories that you want to tell your customers and making sure they're the right stories that resonate and placing them at the right channels at the right time.

It's basically, I like to say that I like to be at the start of a business in terms of just building that entire foundation or if a client comes to me and says, "You know what? I'm having a really hard time because my Facebook ads aren't converting like they used to." I'll go back and say, "Hey, let's just revisit the fundamentals. Do you know who your customer is? Do you know what motivates them to buy your products?" I love coming back to the core and just reexamining that to make sure that, "You know what? Regardless of all that fun performance marketing and TikTok videos, at the end of the day, you really have a true foundation from which to build."

Tara McMullin: Yeah. Well, I mean, that's this month's theme in a nutshell.

Felicia Sullivan: Right.

Tara McMullin: These are some of my favorite kinds of What Works episodes, when we can find someone like you who has this deep level of expertise and experience in actually executing the things that we're talking about, but we get to talk about them from your point-of-view instead of from the client's points-of-view.

Felicia Sullivan: Exactly.

Tara McMullin: I just think that's really... It's always very eye opening to me and I think to... or ear opening maybe to our listeners as well. Okay, so the types of businesses that you named are not the kind of folks who are trolling around on social media looking for people to support their businesses.

Felicia Sullivan: No.

Tara McMullin: That tends to be one of the go-to ways that people think they're going to be finding clients. What have you found successful for finding clients instead?

Felicia Sullivan: It's so funny you mention that, Tara, because years ago, I thought social media was the only way to find clients and I would get super frustrated when I would be on Instagram and Twitter and build audience, but I think building audience isn't necessarily the same thing as having a client list. I mean, they're two very, very different things. One of the things I've found most recently is, to your point, my audience is not on social media. I'm actually not on social media. I'm on LinkedIn of course, but that's pretty much the only social media that I'm on. In terms of how do I find clients, it's one of three things. Two of them are really just bound in people connection.

I have recurring coffee dates constantly with folks who are new to me in my network, but also folks maybe who I've worked with years ago. It's just kind of keeping in touch and having those conversations. I really believe that if you get to know people as humans instead of transactions, things, magic starts to happen. So if I go in with no expectations, say, "You know what? I really like this person, I just want to connect with them," invariably we'll talk about business and, of course, that keeps me top of mind for any kind of referrals. But at the end of the day, I'm just getting to know good people. When you have low expectations, I think delicious things start to happen. It's kind one thing, that ongoing... I don't want to call it networking because it's not. It doesn't feel transactional, it just feels like two people getting on the phone and having a conversation.

Something may come out of that, so I look at that as more of a farming technique than a hunting technique. Another way that I get clients is through thought leadership on Medium. I've been on the platform for about eight years and I consistently write really exceptional... put out really exceptional content, like long form detail with worksheets and all that stuff. I want a client to feel as if, A, they know that I have the expertise and the results. That's easier in terms of vetting. And B, they have a really sense of my personality that comes through my writing. So even when they come to me and they're seemingly cold, they're not really cold, they're warm because they know that I'm competent and they know my energy and vibe. The conversations usually are more of like, "Okay, let's make sure that this is really a match." It's more of a closed conversation as opposed to me pitching them.

The third way is through old school referrals. I figure you do good work and I really believe that it's not just about the work that sets you apart, it's also about the totality of client experience; everything from onboarding to how you close the engagement and keep up with them in between points of contact. I often find that when I do good work for my clients and I treat them well and I consistently say, "Hey, what's going on?" or, "I saw this article and I thought of you." Actually, I send a lot of my clients your podcast things.

Tara McMullin: Oh, well thank you.

Felicia Sullivan: And say, "This is really good," or your long form blog post because a lot of my clients love to... They're voracious consumers of information. I think once you kind of stay in their lives, they're more apt... It's more like me being in front of people, so I'm consistently top of mind for them.

Tara McMullin: Okay. We are going to dig in to each of those three things.

Felicia Sullivan: Let's do it.

Tara McMullin: Let's start with coffee dates.

Felicia Sullivan: Sure.

Tara McMullin: This is a confounding thing for me. This is something I'm really not good at and I know that it's also... It's something that I think a lot of people are good at, but what they're not good at is the set up. They don't know how to be finding the right people, meeting the right people, having the right kinds of conversations. How do you find, how do you connect with the people that then you have coffee dates with?

Felicia Sullivan: Sure. It's interesting. I think, for me, I'm a person who's consistently curious. I'm always reading, always consuming information. The way that I approach people is never in a pitch style, so they never have to feel on their guard because I don't want anything from them other than to know them. Tactically speaking, I'll go on LinkedIn and I have a pretty sizable network. I follow the content that people put out. If there's something that really resonates me, I'll read... It's sort of like when I love a movie, I'll watch the entire actors IMDB, so I do that with content creators. If I like you, it's like I get really obsessive and I'm like, "I want to read everything this person has put out there because it jives with me."

Nine times out of 10, they're not directly in my industry because I often feel that in order for me to do better work, I consistently need outside perspective. I often look to adjacent industries, so more artistic people like graphic designers or other kinds of marketers or even people who don't even do what I do. But ultimately, they're putting something out there that really jives with me in terms of thought leadership or just their energy. I'll do that on LinkedIn, I'll sort of farm... I'll spend about 30 minutes to an hour kind of farming my feed and saying, "Okay. Who's putting out really cool stuff? Who do I keep track of?" I have like a little spreadsheet where I keep track of folks that I want to connect with.

Even before I connect with them, I have probably have read 20 blog posts or listened to a lot of their podcasts. I go in saying, "Hey, I really respect your work. I'd love to connect with you," and I'll talk about their work. It's really about them and how we can interact. I do that on LinkedIn. I've also found, and this is a plug for the What Works network, I've actually also set up... It's so easy in the network because everyone there is coming from a place of giving, so there's never this nervousness because everyone's really there to help one another. I've set up, through the network, I think I've set up already 15 coffee dates with folks.

Tara McMullin: Oh, my word.

Felicia Sullivan: I know. I just-

Tara McMullin: You haven't even been in there that long.

Felicia Sullivan: I know, but everyone is just so excited to connect and I've met so many different kinds of people. Sometimes you'll find that some relationships really there's a kinetic connection and others are like, "Okay, this is cool, but maybe not." Finally, it is me looking at, because I listen to podcasts all the time or read content all the time, so if I find a creator that really resonates with me, I'll do the same thing. It's not as channel specific, but it's more like I get so much stuff in my feed on a daily basis. Often, I'll say, "You know what? Let me put a spreadsheet together of my LinkedIn, my What Works network," and as well as the other content I consume and start to make those connections.

Often, just because I've read their backlog and I come to them saying, "I just want to connect. Here's my information. If my energy jives with you, I'd love to just set up a 30 minute chat where we can just get to know each other." There's no agenda, which is quite nice, and people are pretty receptive to that.

Tara McMullin: That's amazing. Okay. I love how much of this revolves around you consuming remarkable content and paying attention to other people. I think we get so in our heads about what we're going to create and how we are going to be seen that we don't take the time, we don't make the space to actually consume what other people are putting out. It's no wonder that we're not making these connections. This is something I've been thinking about quite a bit this year with my commitment to creating remarkable content is if I want to create remarkable content, I have to be consuming remarkable content.

Felicia Sullivan: Exactly. Exactly.

Tara McMullin: Because garbage in, garbage out.

Felicia Sullivan: Exactly.

Tara McMullin: That's not what I want. I've been there, done that and I'm not interested in it.

Felicia Sullivan: Fresh air perspective. For example, a lot of your articles reference other people's thought leadership, whether they're philosophers or they're business leaders. I like to think of it as exceptional content has air in it, in the sense that it's not just confined to what you think, it's what you think, but it's informed or even just having space for other people's points-of-view. Maybe part of what you're writing from your perspective jives with someone, but maybe somebody else. I've often found this with your work and other folk's works where they'll reference a [inaudible 00:14:39] merchant or just other folks. I'll just kind of look up all the books online and I'll click on the show notes. For me, I think remarkable content, the best content I see out there, is when it's informed or there's air being let in with other thought leaders. I think oftentimes we think, "Oh, I have to only put out my best content about me as a thought leader."

Oftentimes, that actually isn't the case. I think a lot of people really connect with content when they feel as if, "Oh, they found you," but the jam is, "Well, I found three other thoughts leaders or authors or philosophers that really connect with me," In a way, it's a gift to your reader when you're introducing them to different points-of-view as it's informing yours.

Tara McMullin: It sounds like it's not just consuming remarkable content, it's not just about creating remarkable content, it's also about creating remarkable relationships for you.

Felicia Sullivan: Absolutely. Absolutely. I don't think you can have... It's very funny. I think before the pandemic, I used to brag about being allergic to people because I'm an extremely shy introvert. People think, based on these one-on-one conversations, someone would say, "Absolutely not because you're so vivacious," and effusive and all these things. I say, "Well, put me a crowded room and I'm the person in the corner." But what I've learned post-pandemic or within the pandemic, I've actually learned that I don't thrive, I don't actually grow as a business and as a marketer if I'm not consistently connected to other people and their points-of-view.

I may not agree or I may not adopt all of their frameworks, but the idea that other people are doing things in such a different way, but we're all getting to the same destination really excites me. I think oftentimes when folks are so, and I like to use the myopic or have this tunnel vision about their business and think, "Okay, I have to only focus on promoting me and my excellence and my business," I think there is a symbiotic relationship between the business and the content you're creating, as well as the relationship cultivate with others who are in your community that you do admire, that you do want to introduce to other people because they also learn from you. I think that we can't exist as businesses without those connections with people.

Tara McMullin: One other aspect of these kinds of coffee date situations that I think is very confusing to people, including myself, is the followup process. What does actually nurturing that relationship look like once you've established it?

Felicia Sullivan: I do have a process, but part of it's ad hoc. I think from that first conversation, people sense a vibe. There's a mutual connection. Oftentimes, I think the very best thing to do is if you're feeling it, I often say, "Hey, I'd love to do this again. Can we set up something on a monthly or bi-monthly basis where it's a recurring meeting, where it's in our calendars already? I'll set it up, I'll send you the Zoom link. We'll move it, obviously, if things happen," but I think if you feel the energy from that first conversation, I think a lot of times you'll just know intuitively. I think the idea of within that conversation while the energy is still fresh before they go on to the rest of their day, the idea of, "Hey, let's keep doing this. Let's solidify this."

I actually just had this conversation yesterday with someone I met in the network, where we were on the phone for over an hour and we had so much more to talk about. She said to me, "Let's keep doing this." I said, "Yes, let me send you a monthly invite." Sometimes, oftentimes, if you like the conversation, but didn't feel that level of connection, it is about like, "Hey, keep sending me links," it's more like this sort of exchange via email or let's follow one another to keep abreast of one another. It's still a connection, but I think sometimes you have to be really thoughtful in terms of winnowing down because you don't want to spread yourself too thin. I think if there's an immediate connection, that that doesn't always happen, I say latch onto it and make it recurring and, based on what's their schedule, I say monthly because that's mostly manageable for folks, but sometimes I'll do a bi-monthly date. That has been super helpful. If it's in our calendars, then we commit to it.

Tara McMullin: I love that. How many people are you regularly talking to right now?

Felicia Sullivan: I'd say 10. 10.

Tara McMullin: Nice.

Felicia Sullivan: Yes.

Tara McMullin: That's awesome.

Felicia Sullivan: Yeah. I mean, sometimes they're just like half an hour check ins, sometimes they're hour long. I loved the Being Boss podcast and I love term business bestie. They'll be an hour long business bestie where we will have an agenda. If you cultivate a relationship over a period of time, we'll say, "Hey, I'm struggling with this aspect of my business. Can we hop on a call?" It's sort of this mutual relationship where we both give to one another based on what's going on in our business. But for the most part, it's sort of really informal in terms of checking in. I don't like to have too stringent of an agenda, especially considering the world in which we live and a lot of the people I connect with are parents, so I don't want to put more stuff in their brain than they're already managing.

I'm like, "Let's just start off with hi, how are you? What's going on? How are you surviving the pandemic?" I think from then we can talk about our business, but I think if we keep it sort of loose, but scheduled, I think that definitely helps.

Tara McMullin: You'll hear more from Andrea in just a minute. But first, a word from our What Works partners. What Works is brought to you by the Standout Podcast Club. Are you a podcaster or aspiring podcaster who wants to create a standout show that helps to grow your business? We would love to support you inside the Standout Podcast Club. The Standout Podcast Club is your hub for the training, coaching and networking you need to produce a podcast that grows your small business. Inside, you'll find a complete blueprint for producing a podcast that gets noticed, attracts an audience and helps you to grow your business.

Standout Podcast Club is more than an online course, it's a dynamic community powered coaching hub that helps us help you on every aspect of how you produce your show. If you run into a question, ask. If you're looking for feedback on an idea, tell the club. If you want to talk trends, a strategy or planning for the future, start the conversation. We want to help you use your voice and grow your business and so do the other podcasters inside Standout Podcast Club. We also offer a roundtable discussion and Q&A call each month so that you can meet up with other podcasters, get your questions answered in realtime and learn new, of-the-moment ideas for your show. Find out more about Standout Podcast Club by going to standoutpodcast.club. That's standoutpodcast.club.

What Works is also brought to you by Mighty Networks. Social media has given us a pretty incredible way to meet people we would have never met in the analog world alone, but it can also be a pretty scary place, especially for sensitive conversations and vulnerable questions. When Margo Blackstone and Maryn Green started asking themselves whether the audience of birth workers and birthing women they were building was really being served by mass social media platforms, they realized that the policies and culture on these platforms just wasn't helping them create the conversations that they wanted to facilitate. Margo and Maryn moved their brand and its community, the Indie Birth Association, to Mighty Networks.

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Felicia Sullivan: Yes.

Tara McMullin: Because this is something that... Well, I mean, first off, your Medium stuff is amazing.

Felicia Sullivan: Thank you.

Tara McMullin: And the audience that you've built there is amazing. It is something that I keep meaning to learn more about, as I said to you before, and just don't. I would love to... Maybe just kind of lay out for us what your process on Medium has been, what that journey's looked like and then what the process actually looks like for you today.

Felicia Sullivan: Sure. For folks that don't know, Medium is sort of a very supped blogging platform, but with a builtin audience. Think of it as your own WordPress blog, but with a builtin audience of mostly business professionals. Ultimately when I was thinking about, "Okay. My client isn't on social media. They're not on Facebook. They're not on Twitter. That's not where they're looking for people like me, but they are on Medium." Venture capitalist, small business owners, entrepreneurs, they're all on that platform consuming content. I thought, "Okay, I have to go where my audience resides," and that was the first thing. But when I started on platform in 2013, I wrote personal essays. It was more blogging. In 2019, I had a seismic shift in terms of how I use the platform because I think, in general, I was just getting super frustrated with seeing a lot of folks put out extremely expensive courses that didn't give access and opportunity to a lot of folks who couldn't afford $2,000 for a course.

It's not diminishing that, it's just sort of I wanted to create more access and more education. Initially, and also, a lot of what I saw out there, being delicate about this, a lot of what I saw out there wasn't being put out by actual experts. When they talked about how to build a brand, they were even getting a lot of the terminology wrong. One of my friends said, "You can either complain or you can create your counterpoint," because she's like, "Complaining does nothing. Put out something out there that's your counterpoint and that's your response to what's going on in the world." I used Medium as a platform initially. What changed everything for me is I published an eight... kind of like my magnum opus. It's an eight post series about how to build a brand. It came with worksheets. I basically gave you my entire playbook of how to build a brand.

That changed everything for me in terms of visibility on the platform. I learned that while a lot of people were preaching, "Oh, you have to only put out short form content because people don't have attention spans," I actually found just the opposite. I found that if I put out really immersive, great content in my voice so people felt that they weren't falling asleep, then it would definitely connect and resonate with them. That's been my just focus and I've just kind of been focused on, "Okay, who is my customer, what problems am I trying to solve, what information I'm trying to give them." From that magnum opus, it creates a well of content of like I could just dig into each definition and blow it up to create additional content and stories. That has been incredibly helpful for me in terms of just visibility, getting myself out there, that top of funnel stuff.

But at the same time, I also have the opportunity to engage one-on-one with people. People will ask me followup questions in the comments, I'll jump in. Oftentimes, they'll just reach out to me in LinkedIn and say, "Hey, I'd love to chat further about hiring you to do X, Y, Z." I think, for me, it's sort of what you've been talking about in terms of if you put out incredibly remarkable content in the places where your customer resides and being really focused and thinking, "Okay. Yes, I have a large audience on Medium, but the majority of those people aren't spending a lot of money to hire me, so I have to get really focused on who my customer is, who I'm serving and make sure I deliver content to them." Everything else is just icing in terms of just education and service.

Tara McMullin: I love that. What does your process look like today then? How frequently are you posting and how do you decide what you're going to write about at any given time?

Felicia Sullivan: Sure. It's interesting. I used to post very ad hoc, now I'm a little bit more intentional about what I put out there. I put out a post, a long post, once a week. Usually, much like what you've tasked and what you take on, I look at themes and what am I thinking about? It's also in response to what's going on in the marketplace and responding to that. A lot of what I've been writing about now is value-based brands and how to build trust because that's really changed as a result of COVID. I look at, it's a combination of me consuming all of this content, understanding what's going on in the world and then me putting my spin on that from a brand perspective. I usually work on a piece on content that is quite long, probably like an eight to 10 minute read once a week that's completely in depth.

I'll have a followup post in my newsletter that has a riff off of that, but a little bit more personal so people feel as if they're getting more from the same piece of content. I used to publish every day. I actually found that if I publish one deliberate, intentional, comprehensive piece that really resonates with people and I'm incorporating other thought leadership into that piece so they have little gifts, I think that has really resonated with my audience because it's also a contrast to everything else that's on the platform because there's a lot of three minute articles of how to do this. Meanwhile, I'm like, "Okay, this is how you actually do a customer segmentation study. Here's my 27 minute read." I'm like, "Here's my ethic essay." People are like, "That's never going to work. It's antithetical to how the platform works."

I said, "There's no one way of ever doing anything. I think as long as you write, as long as you are writing from a place that aligns with your values and you have a point-of-view and a voice and clearly there are formatting elements of the platform to be cognizant of, so of course that's important, like how to format your headlines and all that good stuff, but as long as you're following that, I think there are no steadfast rules. It's just more along the lines of what feels right for you. I know some thought leaders on the platform create sort of what you do on Instagram with your illustrations, they actually create content that starts off with a series of illustrations and then they go into the text or they'll drop a YouTube video for people who are more visually inclined. That's not my energy and that works for other people, but it's the same, again, it's the same... We all get to the same destination, but the way... our routes are completely different.

I think allowing people to have... I think if you have only type of content on a platform that, for the reader, kind of gets boring and you get lost in all of that noise, but if you are voice driven in what you create and you believe that what you're creating actually gives value and experience to the person who's consuming it, then you don't necessarily have to follow the platform rules. I'm a writer by heart and I always believe rules are meant to be broken, bent and broken and put back together like Humpty Dumpty. That's what I've been doing on the platform and it's been incredibly successful for me because I've combined voice plus experience and, of course, thinking about how do I deliver that remarkable content to people?

Tara McMullin: Yeah. The way I've been thinking about it a lot lately is respecting the medium, which is different than following the rules of the platform. So to me, you're doing an amazing job respecting the medium of writing a really great meaty article that people are going to want to bookmark, save, comment on, highlight, revisit again and again and again, which is, of course, good for business. That's never going to be bad for business.

Felicia Sullivan: Absolutely.

Tara McMullin: Right, but it's not like, "Okay, what does Medium want me to do and how am I going to fit this particular idea into this little box that Medium has created for me?" I really, really appreciate that distinction. And like you said, that doesn't mean there aren't still formatting guidelines to follow.

Felicia Sullivan: Absolutely.

Tara McMullin: Yeah, the conventions of the platform. So yeah, so great. Thank you. Okay. I'm just looking at the time and I'm like, "Okay, we could do a whole other episode on Medium," which maybe we should have just done that. It's been requested in the past, so we'll have to have you back on, but let's talk about referrals.

Felicia Sullivan: Sure. Yes, yes, yes.

Tara McMullin: Because this is something that applies to so many people. How do you make sure referrals keep coming in?

Felicia Sullivan: That's a good question. I think referrals are tricky because it's not a guaranteed, recurring revenue, unlike some of the other techniques that I use where I feel like that is a little bit more sustainable. I think with referrals, I'm really good about... I think in terms of how you manage a client, I always say, "How you close is just as important as how you open." At the end of the engagement, I normally ask them, because they're in that moment of their being super happy with what I've done, say, "Hey, in addition to the testimonial, do you know of any other folks that would love to have my services? Could I also add you to my email list?" I do that. I think the hardest thing about referrals is being top of mind. I always consistently think, "How could I be at the top of their inbox so when...." They may know that I do something, but six months down the road, they may not remember or just have it top of mind.

I make sure that not only do I do that at the close of process, that they see my thought leadership in their inbox once a week. I do quarterly check ins, in terms of like, "Hey, what's going on? I did this one project. I just want to check in what's going on with your business." I'll tell them if I have any additional services going on, so I'm pretty proactive in terms of connecting with my old clients who were really happy with my work. Normally that has either spurred more work with them, which I quite like because it's a little easier, or it's keeping me top of mind so they'll refer me to other clients. I don't have though a referral system in place. I've tried in the past and it hasn't really worked out for me, but I do absolutely when people make referrals, I do send gifts as a thank you because I really do believe in nurturing that relationship at every step of the way.

I think a more personalized gift instead of money has always felt right for the clients that I work with. It's just a combination of serving them really well, keeping in touch with them and a lot of clients have remarked that it feels as if, even though we have a professional relationship, we're also friends because of the way that I keep up with them. I'll say, "Hey, I saw this podcast and I thought of you." That just like two second email just says, "Oh Felicia, I should tell her about this project that I've got cooking." It's just always, I'm always thinking about, since I don't tend to have thousands of clients, I have a lot that I can manage, I keep in mind and I also have the spreadsheet of the client engagements, what we worked on together and I'll just have some notes on preferences or just notes about the engagement so I know, "Hey, this client really loves to learn more about this."

If I see a podcast or a blog post, I'm the type of person who will just flip them a quick email and say, "Hey, I thought of you. I think you'd love this. Here's a quick synopsis and here's the link." People appreciate the brevity of the email and the fact that I'm constantly thinking of them. That constantly keeps me top of mind for referrals.

Tara McMullin: It sounds like all three things that we've talked about, the coffee dates, the Medium writing and thought leadership and your referrals, all have overlapping aspects of the energy that you put into them, which is such a great way to build traction without overwhelming you and I'm very curious about how you divide your time or what you're actually spending time on in a given week. How much of your time is spent on client work and how much of your time is spent on these other activities that are supporting your business?

Felicia Sullivan: That's a good question. I'm actually incredibly good with my time. I work for about four to five hours a day and that's... I actually have found that I spend just as much time on the other things that build those relationships, in addition to my client work, and I don't see that as a bad thing because I have my client work down to a really systematized process and I brought in help at admin points. It frees me up to have a little bit more space in my business. So all that onboarding that took 10, 20 hours, now I have that outsourced so that I can take that time and allocate it to cultivating those relationships. It's more like, I'd say I spent about 20 hours a week full on in client work and maybe 10 to 15 on other things like writing Medium posts or connecting with my clients or having these coffee dates.

And quite honestly, I think once your intentional about... So for example, if I were to set up 100 coffee dates because I just wanted to cram everything in, I think I would be overwhelmed. So in part, it's me, A, building a process and, B, being really intentional about the people who whom I want to connect. I'm not just asking random people, it's like, "Okay. I have been consuming this content as part of my just daily...." Every morning, I open up my phone and I read stuff or I listen to a podcast when I'm walking. From that, I'll take notes on my notes app like, "Okay, I want to connect with this person." I'll put it in my spreadsheet and then I'll make a point. I think once you have a system in place to, A, manage your client work where for the most part, of course every engagement is different, but the process that I use is exactly the same for every client, so it's pretty seamless in terms of time.

I'm focused on just doing the work that is my zone of genius and outsourcing other stuff to folks that's not in my zone of genius so I can free up time to do all these other things. I often find, people often ask, "Oh, you must be so insanely busy." I said, "No, I time block and I'm intentional about who I want to connect with and what I write about and I have a systems in place for everything." I think once you have that foundation... And I think so often we don't talk about the importance of systems and processes because they're not sexy, because it's social media sexy, but I actually find freeing up my time is sexy. So if a spreadsheet can do that, if a spreadsheet can allow me to cultivate connects with people in an easier way or organize my thinking, I think that's super helpful.

So for all of that referral stuff, I just have an ongoing spreadsheet that I'll just drop the client's name and a few notes and that's it. There's not a lot of work involved. I think if you just make that investment in the right systems that work for you... I'm pretty lean in terms of tech, it's like Excel, Google Docs. I'm not super fancy because it doesn't work for me, then ultimately I find that I have time and space to do the things that I love, which is actually meeting people that light me up or just fill my curiosity, fill my bucket, for lack of a better term.

Tara McMullin: I think that all of the clarity you have about what does actually work for, about what your business does actually need makes those systems easier to see because I think so many times the lack of systems in a business is because they don't know what works, they don't know how they do what they do. It's not that they don't do it well, but there isn't that clarity of process; whereas, it sounds like you have that clarity of process. You know exactly why you're doing what you're doing and therefore how executing can help you fulfill that goal.

Felicia Sullivan: Yeah. I think part of it is also, what's been helpful, especially on the client side, is taking a step back and looking at how... It's sort of like I do a quarterly audit of myself and my business; where am I placing my time? What am I doing on each project? What does it feel like I keep repeating that could be systematized? I'm really conscious of not only auditing to see, "Okay, where can I create efficiencies in what I'm doing with my clients?" but at the same time, I'm also auditing to think about, based on these other conversations, like this whole life over here, that's starting to inform the way that I build brands because I'm getting all this juicy perspective from other people, I also think, "Okay, well, how could I actually better my product based on those relationships?" It's a twofold. Every quarter I look at saying, "How could I simplify? How could I create process? How can I reduce the amount of time where I'm not working on the actual thing and more on the admin that I can farm out? How could I made this better?"

I think some of it is, because I think so often, we're so kind of head down in our business that we don't take the time to take a step back. I love in the Being Boss podcast, they have this CO day, which I quite like. It's every year, I actually do it quarterly, where you take a step back and you look at your numbers, you look at your processes, you look at your marketing and you're asking yourself, "Okay, what's working? What's not working?" and being really surgical about what's not working and not being attached to it and thinking, "Okay, I want to do more of this." I started to notice, "Wow, these coffee dates are actually turning into incredible leads and quality leads. How do I create a process around that?" While I was working on that, I noticed social wasn't working for me. "Why I am on Instagram? Why am I on Twitter? It's just noise for me."

I limited those things from my consumption diet and I refocused on things that were actually working. For me, it was a little simpler because I just said to myself, "Step back, audit, assess, evaluate and then create new systems and processes where you need them."

Tara McMullin: So inspiring, Felicia. Thank you. Okay, so that seems like a good place to wrap things up. There seriously is like at least four topics that I could have you back on the show for, so we'll talk about that. [crosstalk 00:43:25] But my last question to everyone is always, what are you excited about right now?

Felicia Sullivan: Oh goodness, what am I excited about? I am excited about, I actually based on... I hate to keep plugging what works, but it does work. Based on like last month, there was a module on simplicity which really was profound for me and I am very into simplicity just inherently in my business. I'm excited about two things. One, taking a step back and really going through my offering and making sure it's as compelling, not only for what I deliver the clients, but how I position it and how I price it. I'm excited about that, that's internal. External, I am excited because I have just launched a course with Medium. I partnered with one of their publications to do a five day course on career pivots because I've never had a linear trajectory in my career, so I wanted to let people know in this age of uncertainty that, again, it's okay to step back, reflect, reassess and think about, "Okay, this is where I want to go with my career or my business."

I love the idea that I'm doing some work internally in my business, but that I'm also consistently and constantly sharing those learnings with people on Medium, so it's been this incredible symbiotic relationship between the two. I think ultimately at the end of the day, we are in the relationship business, as opposed to the product or service business because ultimately we sell to people. People sell to people. I keep reminding myself, "Okay, at the core of everything I do, how do I still keep connected in a way that feels right and it feels human and a little less transactional?"

Tara McMullin: Felicia Sullivan, thank you so much for giving us a look at what marketing actually looks like in a business that is not social media marketing. I just really appreciate that.

Felicia Sullivan: Thank you. Thank you so much for having me. It's been wonderful.

Tara McMullin: If you're one of the many business owners who wishes they could give up on social media, I hope this conversation with Felicia shows you that it is possible. In fact, it just might be the best move you ever made for your client pipeline and bottom line. The thing to remember is that you're marketing strategy needs to be aligned with your business model. Felicia's business only needs 10 to 15 clients per year to do really, really well. She doesn't need the social media stardom to make that happen. Now, if your business model requires hundreds of people buying a course or enrolling in a program, you might to think a little more about giving up on "building an audience." The question I want to leave you with today is, does the way you're marketing your business actually align with what your business needs from marketing?

Next week, I'll have a live conversation with Hillary Rea about storytelling and how to use story more effectively in the content you create. What Works is produced by Yellow House Media. Our production coordinator is Lou Blazer. Our production assistant is Emily Kilduff and this episode was edited by Marty Seefeldt. What Works is recorded on the ancestral homeland of the Susquehannock and Conestoga people in what is now known as Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. The Yellow House is located on the unseated land of the Chippewa Nation in what is now called the Kalispell of Montana.

Host of What Works

Tara is a podcaster, small business community leader, strategist, and speaker. She’s been helping small business owners build stronger businesses for over a decade.  

Tara McMullin, What Works Weekly Newsletter

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