As part of my series about “How Business Leaders Plan to Rebuild in The Post COVID Economy,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Wendy O’Donovan Phillips.
Wendy is the CEO of Big Buzz, an agency delivering strategy and consultation to drive focused marketing efforts for executives and teams nationwide. Wendy is the author of two books available on Amazon, and she has been published in many industry journals. She is a member of the Women’s President Organization, having reached $1 million in revenues the last two years, which only 1% of women-owned business achieve. She has been honored by the American Marketing Association for excellence in her field, and she has been hired by the American Dental Association as an expert consultant in marketing. She regularly lectures for healthcare organizations and associations in front of audiences ranging from 25 to 3,000 attendees. She lives in Denver with her husband, daughter and 24-year-old cat.
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?
I started my company in my guest bedroom 13 years ago from one idea: put people first, and the rest will follow. From the time I hired my first employees, I have put the team first. When we are well, we have the energy to be good as gold to our clients and our clients stick with us. When we put people before projects, we all have a more positive experience, build lasting working relationships and, I believe, produce better marketing outcomes. The philosophy served us well from day one, and especially now as we serve clients through this crisis.
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?
We were five employees strong before I moved the company out of my home. It was really important to me to reduce overhead and invest monies back into the team, so there we were, five grown adults crammed into a single guest bedroom. We would often open the windows and kick off our shoes on hot days to keep the temperature workable in that tiny room. One day, our admin exclaimed, “Whose thong is in the middle of the room?” I was mortified! “Sometimes the laundry makes its way up here…” I stammered as I turned to see a flip flop in our midst. To this day, my team and I joke about that. The lesson for me was that it’s okay to show your team your vulnerability… but not your undergarments.
Is there a particular book that you read, or podcast you listened to, that really helped you in your career? Can you explain?
There are two types of helping books in the world: 1) help me make more money, and 2) help me do business smarter. You can skip all books in these categories and just read these two, respectively: 1) Napoleon Hill’s Think and Grow Rich, and 2) Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. I’ve read hundreds of business books, and the principles in them all boil down to the tenets in these two books. From Hill, I learned that there is energy in the way I think and feel about money, and I can direct that energy positively to earn more. From Covey, I learned the fundamentals of achieving great successes with a team. Every day, my team and I use principles covered in those two texts.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven business” are more successful in many areas. When you started your company what was your vision, your purpose?
When I started my company all those years ago, my vision was to create an open, amicable internal culture. I had a desire to cultivate a team that wakes up wanting to come to work. I also had a picture in my mind of an open-concept office with lots of light and fresh air. Today, those are realities for us, although our fabulous little downtown office awaits our return for now. More than that, a mentor inspired me to grow what would become one of the unfortunately rare woman-owned businesses that exceeded $1 million in annual revenues. Did you know only 1% of women-owned businesses grow to that milestone? It’s a real shame, because it’s not that hard to do. It just takes a certain level of focus. I wish more women would strive for that mark. The economy needs it now.
Do you have a “number one principle” that guides you through the ups and downs of running a business?
Have faith. Or, as my General Manager Molly Waters says, “Everything is figure-out-able.” We have won big accounts. We have lost big accounts. We have far exceeded revenue goals. We have come very short of revenue goals. We have gone on incredible team outings, trips and retreats. We have seen employees through catastrophic injuries, anxiety and recovery from addiction. We have done business with as much fairness as is in our power. And, we have been sued (once) and we have filed suit (once). (We won both times.) We have issued apologies and we have received apologies. We have had The Best Year Ever, and now we are in the midst of The Worst Year Ever. And through all of it, we survived. Once, Molly and I were surfing at Santa Monica beach in Southern California. The conditions were “gnarly,” as the surf instructor pointed out: 5-foot waves breaking close with massive chop due to high winds. We were being pummeled out there! At one point, as we fought to paddle back to the outside, she yelled over the crashing surf, “IF WE CAN DO THIS, WE CAN DO ANYTHING!” Indeed. And now, we are, with great faith that it will all work out the right way.
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?
The biggest challenge I’ve faced is this: I used to know. I knew when we were overstaffed and had to make painful choices to get right sized. I knew when it was time to staff up for a big volume of work. I knew how to hustle and regain lost revenue. I knew how to support my daughter in her schooling and with the torrent of tween emotions. I knew how to temper my own emotions to show up as a leader or a mother. Turns out, I don’t know. I never really knew in the first place. And here’s the deeper truth: my acting like I did know didn’t make me a strong leader or parent at all. In fact, the opposite is true. Only when I suspend my “knowing,” my ego self that tells me “I got this, I don’t need help,” can I open myself up to new possibilities, new learnings. And this is where the real leaders hang out. In recent weeks I have had more open-hearted conversations with my family, my colleagues, my clients, even strangers than I ever have in my lifetime. The dividends don’t come in dollars, they come in human connection.
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?
One of the biggest recent lessons for me is that there is no real separation of family and business. I own a business to provide for my family. My family (even my 10-year-old daughter) has a voice in guiding what I do with my business. I love that they are fully collided now. When I let go of staff, my family listened as I wept. When I was able to make some rehires, they celebrated with me. When I helped my daughter briefly with a project, my fellow Zoom meeting attendees patiently waited, all the while smiling upon her and me. This has brought me back to what’s important: 1) faith, 2) excellent self-care, 3) excellent care of my marriage, 4) excellent care of my child, 5) excellent care of everything else, including my business.
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?
Listen. Pick up the phone, ask the person on the other line how they are actually doing in that moment and just listen. It’s not my job to solve the problem for them, only to sit with them in their grief or anxiety. To sit and listen is enough. In fact, it is everything. Do this for friends and family, yes, but also for clients and prospects. I can feel the level of discomfort rise for our readers as I say that. (Laughs.) Yes, I’m serious. In the last few weeks, I have cried on the phone with people who pay me to do their marketing. I have also cried with people who serve my business in some professional capacity. Those are the conversations, the people I will remember and respect the most when I look back on this year. And here’s another thing: don’t be afraid to get angry. For all these years, I knew my competitors were falling short in our industry: 90% of the time when our phone rings, the person on the other end says they’ve been “burned” by marketing. I thought it best to “take the high road” and not out my competitors for what I knew they were doing. Here’s the truth: the people we serve cannot afford less-than-stellar marketing right now. I’m working with my team on a campaign of polarizing content with titles like “You have been lied to about online marketing,” and “You are overpaying for underperforming marketing.” I’m not trying to be mean. I’m simply speaking my truth. The people we serve deserve the truth.
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?
I started my first business in the face of the Dot Bomb era, and I weathered the post-9/11 economy with that business, too. I started Big Buzz in the midst of the Great Recession. I’m no stranger to the grit it takes to run a profitable business in a down economy. It’s all about connecting, meeting people where they are, showing up in the spirit of service and getting creative in structuring deals so both parties win. We recently signed a medical technology startup on a shorter-than-usual-plan with a more conservative-than-usual strategy. The executives on their team and mine are in agreement we are taking a risk and that the risk is worth taking. Their technology dovetails with telehealth, which is suddenly a need and not a want. We’re taking unprecedented risk to capitalize on unprecedented marketplace opportunity.
How do you think the COVID pandemic might permanently change the way we behave, act or live?
My business coach Alicia Marie from PeopleBiz, Inc., says, “Breakdown before breakthrough.” And the bigger the breakdown, the bigger the breakthrough. As a developed country, we haven’t seen real innovation in more than a century. Innovation has come in the form of making existing solutions en masse, faster or more accessible. I believe the innovation that will come out of this period will be entirely new ideas, many of them rooted in how we relate to and build with one another. The power quite literally will come from the people.
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?
We plan to work with clients and on projects that truly bring us joy. We plan to take more time to take care of ourselves. We plan to have more conversations and send fewer emails. So far, with those as priorities, we have maintained a 100% client retention rate through recent closures and earned an NPS of 6.3 with 7 being “stellar.” More than that, we have taken great care of ourselves and our families, and we have all stayed healthy in body and mind.
Similarly, what would you encourage others to do?
Call three people every day and ask, “How are you doing in this moment right now?” Listen, and feel the openheartedness for both you and the person with whom you are talking. Too, speak your truth. If something has been eating your lunch about the industry you serve or your competition’s approaches, now is the time for polarizing content. Today’s solutions require a fresh perspective, not the same regurgitated language: “In this together,” “More important than ever,” “Your safety in mind.” Nix all that and say what you really mean.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Let go and let God. I have it tattooed on my right wrist. Never before now have I been surer of my powerlessness. When I stay surrendered, the answers come. And from that place, I can do the next right thing over and over, trudging the road of happy destiny.
How can our readers further follow your work?
My team and I produce killer content that actually helps readers solve real problems faced now, and might just make you a little angry. (Nervous laugh.) Check it out and subscribe at www.bigbuzzinc.com