When I started Big Valley 10 years ago, we had ambition but not much firepower. My vision was to transform the technology marketing landscape with a “team of experts” approach focused on strategy, content, media and analytics – led by experienced Client Partners. At the time, I wrote “Silicon Valley deserves more,” and we intended to build a firm that could meet the rhythm, pace and expectations of modern technology marketers and communicators.
Now, as we kick off our second decade this month, I am so proud of what we’ve accomplished. We’ve proven our model with more than a hundred retainer and project clients over the past 10 years. We’ve built a strong team and dynamic culture filled with talented marketers and communicators, plus a valuable network of contractors, freelancers and partner agencies. We’ve managed our way through client turnover, client acquisitions, industry layoffs and a global pandemic. And we’ve grown the firm to become one of America’s fastest growing private companies.
So what have I learned in those 10 years? Let’s start with 10 key lessons:
Expect Setbacks and Power Through: We’ve had plenty of success and setbacks along the way – including a few near death moments (or what seemed like it at the time). First, our original client changed marketing leadership near the end of year one, so we had to scramble for new business. Then at the end of 2019, our two biggest clients got acquired – great for them, bad for us – and we had to replace more than 60% of our revenues. We accelerated through the pandemic with two strong growth years, and then made a few investment hires just as the tech market slowed down. In all cases, we powered through with a mix of will, energy and creative problem-solving. Resilience is critical.
People Are Your Fuel: This one’s fairly obvious, but having the right team, the right clients and the right partners is the lifeblood of the business. No company makes it 10 years without critical contributions from a broad variety of people. It’s vital to invest in the relationships, not just the results. That’s why we prioritized people over profits as the market slowed, keeping our team intact even though layoffs would have been a prudent financial choice. I’m blessed to have a fantastic team of employees, contractors, friends and supporters who make everything possible. And none of this would happen without our amazing clients, who motivate us to do our best work every day.
Growth and Winning Are Fundamental: Growth is oxygen for the business. Without growth, you can’t hire smart people, develop their talents and invest in innovation. And you can’t have growth without winning, which is an endorphin hit and natural human motivator. For the first few years, we had good wins and spurts of growth, but not enough scale to sustain it. We then kicked things into a new gear with 77% growth in 2019 and 97% growth in 2021. As the tech market slowed, we still performed above industry averages and fought our way to 23% growth in 2022 and 14% in 2023. We now have five years of sustained growth, which sets us up to win more, innovate more and steal market share.
Always Be Solving: Problems pop up and creep into the business on a daily basis. It’s easy for those problems to fester unless you focus on and train people to problem solve. This is where I invest significant time, working with our teams as well as our clients to solve both short-term and long-term problems. Some that are clear and well defined, and others that are opaque. The key is digging deeper, getting to the why, and finding the fix.
Fight for Differentiation: This takes clarity, focus and persistence. We started with a few clear ideas about what we wanted to do differently from other firms. We added others over time, and re-prioritized along the way – working hard to avoid “old habits” that people learned at other companies. I’m a big believer in challenging conventional wisdom, while also learning from proven strategies. We try to blend both together into a new playbook, combining best practices and next practices to figure out “what works” and then optimize accordingly.
Celebrate the Work: We start every staff meeting by highlighting “Wins of the Week” – a mix of great work, standout results and breakthrough insights for our clients. I’ve been at too many firms that focus more energy on new business wins than customer service wins. From the start, it was important to me that we celebrate both with equal vigor. Yes, we can all get excited and “ring the bell” when a new client comes in the door, but we should also celebrate the bread-and-butter work where people spend the bulk of their time – with existing clients.
Deliver Value and Impact Always: I learned early on in consulting that you need to deliver value every day. Every meeting and interaction is an opportunity to deliver an insight, a strategy or an idea that can advance a client’s business. That’s still at the core, but we’ve honed it with more focus on the impact of our work – from a business, audience and/or market perspective. Whether our client is a Series A startup or a Fortune 200 company, every day we ask ourselves: How are we helping them grow, win and lead?
Don’t Wait for Year Nine: We’ve built a solid team and vibrant culture, but we waited way too long to formally define and document our Mission, Vision and Values. We had a sense of all three, so we weren’t totally adrift. Yet it becomes harder and harder to maintain as you grow and add people. So, last year, we invested significant energy to capture and codify our Mission, Vision and Values – while adapting to current market realities. We’re now using it as a springboard to frame and tackle the next 10 years.
Offices Are Overrated: I like to say we were remote before it was cool or necessary. Admittedly, that’s a rationalization. I had already seen the benefits of coworking, having rented a hot desk in Silicon Valley for two years at my old job – which saved me valuable commute time, while enabling chance meetings at a nearby coffee shop. At Big Valley, we committed to WeWork from the jump, with an intent to “be with your client” first, “be productive” second, and “meet up in person” third. As we grew our team, being remote-first gave us opportunities to hire talent we liked regardless of location – and allowed employees to move without fear of losing their jobs. When the pandemic hit, we went all-in on Zoom and Slack, instantly upgrading our collaboration and culture for the long term without being office-bound.
You’re Going to Make Mistakes, and Likely Repeat Them: In an industry that likes to talk about failing fast, I find that most people still fear making mistakes. They like to talk about failure in a third-party context, not first-party confessional. Well, I’ll say it: I make mistakes every day. As a business leader. As a parent. And as a husband (just ask my wife). And yes, I repeat a lot of them. With that said, I don’t dwell – I learn – and I keep striving to get better. As a devoted Packers fanatic and leadership junkie, I’ll take my inspiration from Vince Lombardi: “Perfection is not attainable, but if we chase perfection we can catch excellence.”
That’s it for now. I can’t wait to see what’s next for Big Valley, and I’m sure I’ll learn (and re-learn) plenty more over the next 10 years…