As part of my series about the “How Business Leaders Plan To Rebuild In The Post COVID Economy,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Jessi Honard and Marie Parks.
Jessi and Marie are the co-CEOs of North Star Messaging + Strategy, a copywriting and content marketing agency that helps business owners outsource their written content without sacrificing authenticity. The clients they serve feel stuck creating content for their business because they have never experienced anyone successfully replicating their voice. But through the North Star Messaging + Strategy™ Brand Voice Process, Jessi, Marie, and their team capture their clients’ voice, message, stories, and thought leadership. This frees their clients to pursue new opportunities for income and impact.
Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
Westarted North Star Messaging + Strategy during the tail end of the Great Recession, when many people were still without jobs. Our earliest clients were job hunters who wanted great resumes and cover letters that helped them stand out in an overwhelmed job market.
It didn’t take long for us to realize that capturing the unique voice and talents of our clients was valuable beyond the job hunt. We began expanding our client base to serve non-profits and small businesses, writing everything from website copy to blog posts to flyers and grant applications. Throughout it all, our focus was on building a bridge between the unique personality of the brand and the specific needs of their audience.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
Early on in our business we struggled to know how to price our services. As writers and creatives, we’d bought into the myth that all artists are starving. Plus, we were jaded by the low cost of churn websites that we saw as our competition (even though they didn’t provide the extra attention or care we did), so we priced our services similar to theirs.
Well, one of our earliest clients was a job hunter in need of a resume and cover letter overhaul. We took them through our full process and delivered a product we were proud of. The client loved the results… and promptly told us that we’d vastly undercharged her and sent us more money!
It was incredibly kind on the part of the client, but it was also a kick to the gut for us. It was the first time we realized that we could price our services based on long-term ROI and value, rather than simply trying to be the most affordable option.
Is there a particular book that you read, or podcast you listened to, that really helped you in your career? Can you explain?
Two specific books, both written by Mike Michalowicz, have been completely transformative for our business. The first, Profit First, allowed us to develop a system for our finances that made sense and allowed us to pay off debts and experience continuous financial growth. The second, Clockwork, applied principles of efficiency to our time and taught us how to build an incredible team, streamline our systems, and step out of day-to-day tasks so we could focus on strategic business growth.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven business” are more successful in many areas. When you started your company what was your vision, your purpose?
We both knew we were passionate writers, and we both were keenly aware of the power of the written word. Our early vision was to help champion the causes of innovative thought leaders and reflect their vision through powerful, compelling language. Over the years, as we’ve worked with hundreds of clients — most of them small business owners, themselves — our Brand Voice process creates a safe container for them to explore their vision and desired impact in a way they never have before. From there, they can take strategic actions to move them towards it, and speak about it publicly.
Do you have a “number one principle” that guides you through the ups and downs of running a business?
As co-CEOs who started off as close friends, our core principle has always been “Friends First”. We’ve found that when we focus our energy on maintaining a strong, respectful friendship we are able to translate that relationship into a strong business, regardless of what difficulties we may face.
Thank you for all that. The Covid-19 pandemic has affected nearly every aspect of our lives today. For the benefit of empowering our readers, can you share with our readers a few of the personal and family related challenges you faced during this crisis? Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
Running a fully virtual business makes in-person connection even more important. One of the most difficult aspects of the pandemic has been coping with the loss of those in-person opportunities to build friendships and community. We’re both really ready to see each other! In addition, both of us live far away from family (save our respective significant others), and it’s hard to know that, if they needed us, we couldn’t easily be there for them.
Can you share a few of the biggest work related challenges you are facing during this pandemic? Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
In many ways, our business was well-positioned for the sudden, unexpected changes brought on by the pandemic. We run a 100% virtual business, with team members scattered across the United States. We have low overhead, and our products are entirely digital.
That said, many of our clients and potential clients operate brick-and-mortar shops that closed down abruptly. Their sudden lack of revenue impacted their ability to continue working with us, and as a result we saw a significant dip in income. Those clients who were able to continue working with us had abrupt changes to their content needs that needed to be addressed quickly. Everything turned upside-down in a matter of a few days, and we watched our revenue dip to 30% of its usual levels.
To keep everything running as smoothly as possible, we took a few strategic steps. First and foremost, we reassured our team and our clients that we would do everything in our power to make sure they were taken care of. We renegotiated contracts where necessary, and helped our clients strategically shift their content so it responded to the crisis appropriately. At the same time, we adjusted the workload of our team members so we could keep them employed.
To help encourage revenue growth we created new low-cost digital products. During the most severe revenue drop, we declined to take our own salaries to make sure we could pay our team. Luckily, our strategic decisions early on allowed us to start making up for lost revenue over the next few months.
Many people have become anxious from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. The fears related to the coronavirus pandemic have understandably heightened a sense of uncertainty, fear, and loneliness. What are a few ideas that you have used to offer support to your family and loved ones who were feeling anxious? Can you explain?
You’re absolutely right; this has been a difficult time for everyone we know, ourselves included. First and foremost, we’ve had to be kind to ourselves and lower our expectations of productivity. That has meant taking some periodic long weekends to rest and caring for our physical and mental health so we have the capacity to support those around us. Next, we reassured our team that their jobs were secure, even if we had to reduce their hours. We let them know they were supported in taking off time for sick leave or to care for anyone who was ill. We checked in on them and kept them apprised on the state of the business with weekly updates to remain transparent. We’ve also stayed in touch with family and friends through video calls and emails. Just knowing someone is thinking about you can make a big difference.
Obviously we can’t know for certain what the Post-Covid economy will look like. But we can of course try our best to be prepared. We can reasonably assume that the Post-Covid economy will be a trying time for many people across the globe. Yet at the same time the Post-Covid growth can be a time of opportunity. Can you share a few of the opportunities that you anticipate in the Post-Covid economy?
We predict that many opportunities will arise for those who are able to adapt to a more virtual environment. Industries that primarily operated in-person are being forced to re-evaluate how they deliver their services. For some, this opens the doors to more accessibility, even after they’re able to partially re-establish a physical presence.
For example, fields like education and mental health services, in which we serve a number of clients, have been transitioning into virtual options for a number of years, but the shift has been slow. In a post-COVID economy we anticipate that there will be more opportunities for blended online/in-person environments, with savvy businesses giving their customers and clients the chance to choose the option that works best for them.
For service providers like us, who create content for these businesses, we see plenty of marketing opportunities around the growing availability of services that, previously, may have been out of reach due to physical distance.
How do you think the COVID pandemic might permanently change the way we behave, act or live?
Even after the COVID pandemic has passed, we anticipate an increase in caution around how we work and live. We are each responsible for our own health, and for practicing protective measures that can keep ourselves and those around us safe. But the only change won’t be a prevalence in hand washing and face mask; we’ll also see fewer boundaries to working from home and operating thriving businesses from anywhere in the world. Fortunately, for companies like ours, that means we can also anticipate new SAAS players coming into the space to support and improve our operations and processes.
Considering the potential challenges and opportunities in the Post-Covid economy, what do you personally plan to do to rebuild and grow your business or organization in the Post-Covid Economy?
Recently, we’ve been reminded of a difficult truth: the more we, as the business owners, step in as superheroes to take on the work, the less efficient our organization becomes. We’ve hired extremely competent, wonderful people who are well-equipped to serve our clients. At this time, and post-COVID, we are working on leaning into where we can best serve the business, setting up boundaries, and optimizing our team so we’re running smoothly. This will allow us to help our clients more effectively and efficiently, so in the event of a future crisis, a sudden drop in revenue doesn’t become devastating.
Similarly, what would you encourage others to do?
First and foremost, we want to invite business owners to take a good look at their message and how COVID may have shifted it. As you emerge from the situation, you may notice that your audience’s struggles have changed or your services have adjusted. You also may have noticed yourself doubling down on certain core values within your business. It’s so essential, when rebuilding or growing, to make sure that message is aligned both internally and externally. So first, take time to evaluate.
Next, we encourage business owners to develop a content plan that fits their refined message, so they can share it with their target audience. For any business owner who feels swamped under their content marketing, but is unable to escape content creation because no one can capture their voice, we want to challenge that belief. All it takes is a framework and an active listener to support you.
Finally — remain flexible. Growth isn’t a straight path, and the post-COVID economy is no exception. You may need to adjust course as time goes on. That’s normal!
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
We’ve always loved the Suzy Kassem quote, “Stand up for what is right even if you stand alone.”
It has so many applications to life and business, and it’s a powerful reminder that companies don’t have to prioritize revenue over humanity to be successful. We can bring our operations, content marketing, messaging, and decisions to the human level, connecting with each other deeply, and prioritizing health and wellbeing — and be even more successful. Your company has a message, whether you’ve thought about it deeply before or not. It’s not just your copy; it’s every decision you make. So make decisions that uphold values you believe in and want to be known for. How we show up during a crisis speaks volumes about who we truly are as leaders.
How can our readers further follow your work?
You can find us at northstarmessaging.com or on social media at instagram.com/northstarmessaging. Any business owner interested in learning how to capture their voice so they can streamline their content and reclaim their time can take our free quiz at northstarmessaging.com/character.