As part of my series about the “5 Things You Need To Know To Create a Successful Service Business,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Kate Wallace, Head Writer, Founder, at Kate Wallace Writing + Story Strategies.
Kate Wallace is a copywriter, scriptwriter and brand storytelling consultant. Her custom copy helps her clients capture the attention of target audiences and drive business impacts. Kate has helped advance organizations’ brand communications in diverse sectors, including construction, food processing, financial, tech, non-profits, consulting, and creative industries. Along with pitch-perfect copy, Kate brings strategic communications insights and a story-driven approach to every project. Her work spans website and advertising copy, marketing materials, corporate communications, video scripts, blogs, speeches, op-eds, journalism and more. A national award-winning journalist, Kate has a Bachelor of Arts degree (Anthropology) from McGill University and a Graduate Diploma of Journalism from Concordia University. In 2014, Kate was named by 21 Inc. as one of New Brunswick’s emerging leaders for the 21st century.
Thank you so much for joining us! 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?
My writing career began in the newsroom. Long before I was a copywriter, I was a daily newspaper reporter and freelance magazine writer, primarily on the arts beat. Everything I know about finding and crafting strong stories, I got through on-the-job training in print media.
Journalism gave me my craft. Along with the fundamentals of storytelling, I honed my copyediting and interviewing chops. I learned how to align my writing with photography and design for maximum impact. Most of all, I got a front-row seat on the power of stories and the deep, human need we have to know each other.
As newsrooms contracted and reporting opportunities declined, I parlayed my arts writing to arts administration as the executive director of a provincial non-profit. Our goal? To get artists the recognition and pay they deserved as professionals and help them master the business side of their practice (most were abysmal at it).
This connection to artistic talent and the inherent entrepreneurship of artists inspired me. I saw how you could create value from your ideas and use your values to do meaningful work. And I saw how creativity isn’t just for artists, how I could, in my way, express and support myself through my craft. The shift to copywriting was a natural next step.
Looking back, I see constants along this winding path: a deep compulsion to connect to people and ideas, a strong creative impulse to do original work, and that old, adventurous itch to forge my own path.
What was the “Aha Moment” that led you to think of the idea for your current company? Can you share that story with us?
Like many writers, I’d long dreamt of hanging out my shingle and going freelance.
That “someday” dream became a reality when my personal life forced a change. When my son was four years old, he was kicked out of school. This began a chaotic and difficult time in our family. I left my job to be home with my kid.
During that stressful couple of years between his expulsion and an eventual diagnosis of and treatment for ADHD, a couple of critical things happened that supported my path to creating the business of my dreams.
First, it crystallized my priorities. Not working confirmed how very important work is to me. And this challenging time, in which I was inundated with often conflicting expert and unsolicited non-expert advice, strengthened my self-confidence to make my own choices and trust my judgement, critical traits for intrepid entrepreneurs. These circumstances also provided a practical need for the flexibility of being my own boss. I am so thankful for this challenging chapter in my family’s story for forcing me to become a better mother, person, writer and professional.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘takeaways’ you learned from that?
Starting out, I was terrified of being found out. I figured “business people” (yes, back then, I thought of them as a kind of separate and homogenous species) would see through my artsy-fartsy background, realize I was not one of them, and banish me from their boardrooms. My solution? Camouflage. I played it extra professional, wearing blazers, mirroring their business-speak and nodding a lot.
Ah, the folly of youth. If I could go back, I’d tell my younger self to just, well, be myself. No one hires a writer expecting a financial officer. In fact, over time, I’ve come to see that the more creativity and personality I can bring to a meeting and a project, the better it’s likely to go.
Thank you for that. Let’s now pivot to the main focus of our interview. Extensive research suggests that “purpose-driven business” are more successful in many areas. When you started your company, what was your vision, your purpose?
I live in Saint John, New Brunswick. It’s a small city in a small province, in a region of Canada that can feel forgotten. I see now how, growing up, I internalized a story of decline and inferiority. An ambitious kid, I could not wait to get out. I looked down on my hometown and looked to big cities, especially Montreal, as the standard of cool and worth.
Storytelling and exposure to the local arts community broke this naive and inaccurate perception and gave me a new view of where I’m from. Over time, I’ve become a rabid fan of my small, beautiful, wild, foggy and caring hometown. I love how complicated and imperfectly unique it is, how it’s brimming with character–and characters.
My company isn’t just based here: its mission is informed by a drive to elevate the extraordinary people and organizations in my town and others like it. I want to use my talents to help them find and share their stories, and to help them believe that they deserve attention and success.
Today, I have many clients outside of Atlantic Canada, but that ethos–that everyone’s story and experience are worthy and worth sharing and the strong writing has an elevating effect–continues to inform my vision for my company.
What do you do to articulate or demonstrate your company’s values to your employees and to your customers?
Connection is at the heart of storytelling, and that requires truth and a bit of bravery. To be known, we have to be willing to show ourselves. And, for anyone who’s a Brene Brown fan (and really, aren’t we all?), that means vulnerability. I know, it’s scary. But necessary.
I model this approach in my own business and life. I share my story in little vignettes on my blog, in podcast interviews, on my social media streams, living my own story out loud. I share silly stuff and lifestyle stuff, but mostly I try to present a true and evolving window onto my adventures in writing and life.
Do you have a “number one principle” that guides you through the ups and downs of running a business?
Mistakes are opportunities. Don’t be afraid to make them, because it is only through risk that reward is possible. To be creative, you have to take chances and hazard feeling a little embarrassed.
And if things do go pear-shaped? Don’t duck. When you make a mistake, face it. Once you start embracing rather than avoiding mistakes, you’ll see that there are business benefits to confronting problems, including gaining your clients’ respect, learning something new, and growing a thicker skin.
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?
In the early days of my business, when my son’s behaviour was still very tumultuous, and a phone call from the school was a pretty common occurrence, I worried about being spread too thin. I felt pulled between client work and family demands. When I focused on one, I felt like I was neglecting the other.
What kept me going was the inability to imagine returning to the 9-to-5 and working for someone else. As my own boss, I work more than ever–but it’s on my terms and according to my vision. I was never willing to give that up once I had it.
So, how are things going today? How did your values lead to your eventual success?
I love my work and my life and the clear sense of mission and direction I’ve got in both. This quiet confidence is my definition of success.
I think being open and embracing entrepreneurship as an adventure was the first step. Heck, when the pandemic struck, I prepared for a revenue drop. It turns out I’m on track for my biggest year yet. You can’t know the future, but you can embrace it.
Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a founder or CEO should know in order to create a very successful service-based business? Please share a story or an example for each.
- Prioritize Existing Clients: You know that old expression, “a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush”? I’m not calling my clients birds, but there’s a lot of truth to it. Research has found that it’s many times more expensive to attract than retain a client. So it’s strategic–and feels good– to treat your existing clients like gold. That means doing great work, as well as little extras. A seemingly small gesture, like a hand-written thank-you note at the end of a project, provides a personal, on-brand touch.
- Define Your Boundaries: Getting clear on the details upfront sets the stage for a successful, smooth project. Outline your expectations around timelines, payment terms, deliverables. Who’s responsible for what? What’s out of scope? If you don’t answer emails after 5 pm or on weekends, let your clients know.
- Yes/No: Knowing when to say yes–and when to say no–is essential. I say yes to things that will help me grow and stretch, making me “more” in some way. Saying yes means staying open and trying new things but never–and this is key–in a way that cannibalizes your happiness, energy or existing work. It is as much about intuition as analysis. Trust your gut. If it’s saying no, examine why. Fear of failure? It might be time for a gut override.
I remember having a lot of anxiety about a potential client. Her needs and expectations did not feel like a fit, and I struggled to develop a winning proposal. But my gut was onto something. I took a pass on that project and moved on to good-fit ones. Ignore your gut at your peril.
4. Know What Your Work is Worth: Don’t bill by the hour, bill by the outcome. What impact might your work have for your client? For instance, if I write a snappy tagline in 5 minutes for a campaign that raises $1 million, that’s worth a lot more than 1/20 of an hourly rate. The final product is the result of a years-long process of building expertise and experience. Bill for that.
5.Be Yourself. In purpose-driven, service-based businesses, the adage that “people do business with people” is especially true. You are your company’s greatest asset.
None of us can achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
The men in my life–my husband, my father and my son–are each integral, in their own ways, to my success. Sometimes this shows up in surprising ways. My son is obsessed with Lego, the bane of my bare-footed existence. One day, watching him build a working pinball machine, I was struck by a couple of things: how he did not get his engineering skills from his mother, and how both writing and Lego rely on simple, basic building blocks (plastic bricks, the alphabet) to make infinite creations. My son’s creativity, tenacity and focus remind me to have fun in this life, to play and try things.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
“Epic Everyday.” This is my movement to convince people that their lives and stories matter. To show them that the seemingly insignificant details are where the magic happens. That everyone–and I do mean everyone–is interesting.
How can our readers follow you on social media?