Webinar Recap: Identifying A Business Lane

In a recent webinar hosted by the Entrepreneurs'​ Organization and WIBO, North Street Creative founder Tom Conlon discusses the power of specialization and how to market your business to attract the right clientele.

By Dahlia Lilleslatten, Communications Assistant

Stephen Jackson:

Thanks for joining us this evening. This is the second installment in our fireside chat series. The first one we held was just on branding. And what we have is a nice partnership with an entrepreneurial organization, it’s called EO, and Tom’s going to talk to you a little bit about what they do at EO. So Tom, turn it over to you. Have fun.

Tom Conlon:

All right, thank you. Hey, folks. My name is Tom Conlon. I run a creative services agency called North Street. So I’ll share my screen for a little bit, and then we’ll drop out and have a conversation. All right. Everybody’s seeing my screen, which should have me on it now?

Tom Conlon:

All right. So my name is Tom Conlon, like I said, I’m the CEO and founder of North Street. We’re a creative services, branding and design agency. Before I bestowed the CEO and founder title on myself, the other jobs I held at my company were designer, web developer, copywriter, project manager, bookkeeper, recruiter, HR rep, and administrative assistant. So I’m sure that sounds familiar to a lot of you.

Tom Conlon:

About the company, like I said, we’re creative services, branding and design. We focus on the financial professional services and corporate sectors. Been in business for 10 years, I have nine employees including myself. And I started the business with another designer, but three years later had a business divorce. So I’ve got one of those in my history.

Tom Conlon:

Started my career as a designer and a developer. I also worked in the magazine industry for a little bit as a writer. I was born and raised in Massachusetts in a family of electricians, so I’m pretty handy around the house. And I graduated from Fordham University in the Bronx, and I’m a member of the Entrepreneurs’ Organization, and I’m actually chair of the Accelerator Program.

Tom Conlon:

So what’s the Entrepreneurs’ Organization? The Entrepreneur’s Organization is a global network of like-minded entrepreneurs who want to learn, improve, support each other, and make lifelong connections. So like Stephen said, it’s for businesses with annual revenues of a million dollars or more. I’ve been in EO for four years, and it’s just really been transformative for my business and I hope everybody checks it out when they can. There’s a lot of components to it, I won’t go into too much detail, but there are learning events like this one, there are smaller forums that you’re a part of, where you sort of… You’re in a small group of three or four other business owners, and you sort of experience share. And there’s a pretty big thriving online community, so if you need anything, literally anything, you can easily find it.

Tom Conlon:

So I want to talk about specialization today. That’s what this presentation and fireside chat are about. And I’m guessing many of you have heard the thinking behind specialization, or the concept of focusing your business on a niche industry and a narrow set of services. If not, don’t worry, we’re going to dig into it. But I want to begin this talk on specialization with the following statement, which is that your business can actually be all things to all people.

Tom Conlon:

What? I thought this was about specialization. It is, bear with me. But you can be all things to all people. In my industry, you’ve got these giant marketing and advertising conglomerates that do everything. They could probably repair your car’s transmission if you wanted them to. But here’s the thing. You can’t market your business as all things to all people. Let me show you what I mean.

Tom Conlon:

So when we started out, when I started my company 10 years ago, this is pretty much how we described ourselves. North Street makes logos, websites, print materials, iPhone apps, web apps, custom software, data visualizations, and interactive event displays. We also do SEO, copywriting, photography and video production. We service the financial services, legal, B2B, nonprofit, healthcare, consumer, hospitality, and food and beverage industries. I’m not sure this was ever a real tagline or anything, but we definitely had language like this on our website. This description of my company is an absolute disaster, because it is totally unfocused and all over the place. So let’s try it again.

Tom Conlon:

North Street is a creative services, branding, and design agency. We help financial, B2B professional services, and corporate organizations wow prospective clients and employees with beautiful and effective brand identity systems, campaigns, websites, and marketing materials. So this is a much more specialized and much more successful way of describing my company. And let’s just sort of break down why.

Tom Conlon:

So that first one, that first positioning statement of ours was totally unmarketable. Whereas the second one is totally, extremely marketable. Why? We can break it down a bit. So if we look at that second statement, you can see that I’ve got my company description, which is we’re a creative services, branding, and design agency. I’ve got my target market in there, which is financial services firms and corporate organizations. I’ve got my value proposition, which is that I help them wow prospective clients and employees. And then I got my products and services, right? So brand identity systems, campaigns, websites, and marketing materials.

Tom Conlon:

I think that a lack of specialization and client focus demonstrates a lack of deep experience. We can debate whether that’s true or not, but in the eyes of the market, it is true. Put another way, Jack of all trades equals master of none. If you’re saying you do all things for all people, this is honestly how you’re being perceived in the market. Finally, as I like to put it, full service is a recipe for mediocrity. So think about it. If you’re diagnosed with cancer, you’re not going to let your general practitioner dictate your treatment, right? You’re going to go to an oncologist. And it’s similar in business. If you can’t tell me the one or two things that you’re really good at, and why you’re especially good at working with customers just like me, and then I’m going to pass. I’m not going to work with you. So hopefully that sort of starts to get you thinking about why specialization is important.

Tom Conlon:

All right, now let’s play this out in a real life scenario. Who can I introduce you to? If you’ve done any kind of networking, you know that this question always comes up. You meet someone in that proverbial elevator. They ask what you do, you return the favor. Then they ask you who they can introduce you to in the hopes that you’ll return the favor. Right? So imagine that this is my response. Who can I introduce you to, who could you introduce me to? Anyone who needs a logo or a website, or app, or SEO, or video headshot or product photo shoot, or an exhibit booth. From restaurants to hedge funds to hospitals, we serve them all.

Tom Conlon:

So the person I’m speaking to in this networking situation, how are they possibly going to process who in their network might be a good fit for me, right? It’s impossible because my demographic that I just listed is essentially the entire internet.

Tom Conlon:

So let’s focus it a bit. Who can you introduce me? Financial services or B2B professional services firms with 10 million to a hundred million dollars in revenue, their logo and website are out of date and now more of an embarrassment than anything else. If they have an internal marketing person, even better, because that shows that they value the stuff that I do. Introductions to PR and marketing firms that work with this type of client are also great intros.

Tom Conlon:

So this is a much more manageable, much more manageable and specialized way of positioning myself. And it’s likely that this person I’m talking to just thought of at least one high quality introduction that could lead to an actual project, rather than everybody on the internet.

Tom Conlon:

Focus, then sell. All right, so you need to go out and get some new business. You’ve decided that you want to keep the lights on this month, so you need to go and get some new business. How? Where are you going to get it? If you’re an all things to all people kind of company, there’s really no easy answer to this. Are you going to go networking in generalist networking groups? Are you going to run generic ads on generalist interest websites? Are you going to buy a billboard on the side of the highway? It’s tough.

Tom Conlon:

So here’s one way. I’m going to share a true story with you, one way that we get business as a specialized agency. So one of our favorite projects in the world to work on is rebranding and creating a website for a financial services firm. We’ve got a handful of ways of getting new business, but I’m going to share a real example here that was only possible because of specialization.

Tom Conlon:

Okay, so if I know exactly what I want to reach out to, it’s easy to build a potential list of a list of potential new clients, right? I can use LinkedIn Sales Navigator and a contact database like Apollo or ZoomInfo to create a list of people to reach out to. So I use these features. I use these filters, which is I want them to be in the financial services industry, I want them to be in either New York or Boston, and I want the head count to be 51 to about 500. That sort of gives me an indication of what their revenue might be. And I want to find someone whose role at that company is in marketing.

Tom Conlon:

Once I have that list, I can send them an email. So I’ll read it. This is a real email I sent out. I changed the person’s name and email address. Sally, I hope this email finds you well and you don’t mind the outreach. My agency, North Street, helps financial sector firms wow clients partners and potential employees with high-end branding, creative services, and website design. Is that something ABC Financial might have a need for? Here’s some of our branding and website work. I know you’re busy, so thanks so much for the time. Tom.

Tom Conlon:

Now let’s break this one apart. So this email contains, it states that we specialize in the recipient sector, financial services firm. It states how we can help them, which is that value proposition of wowing clients, partners, and potential employees. It says what we do, so high-end brand and creative services and website design. And then it offers proof of expertise and past successes. So this link right here doesn’t go to my homepage. It goes to a special landing page on my site that all that’s there is financial services work and testimonials from financial services clients, testimonials from people who have the same job function or work at the same type of company as the person who received this email.

Tom Conlon:

I got a response. Check it out, this is a real response. Again, I changed the name. Tom, thanks for reaching out. As it happens, we might be in the market for a rebranding project. Can you have an intro call with me sometime this week to discuss specifics and potential next steps? Best regards, Sally. Absolutely, Sally. So in the follow-up call, I was able to speak very specifically about how we understand the financial services space. I could speak to specific projects that were exactly like the one that they had in mind, a rebranding and website project. We were asked to present a proposal, which we did, and it contained tons of representative work in the financial services industry. And when they asked for references, I could provide references to people in their industry. I actually provided two references to people who work at investment banks.

Tom Conlon:

So if you’re an all things to all people company, there’s no way you could have done what I just did, right? You wouldn’t know where to begin targeting. You wouldn’t have any perceived expertise. You wouldn’t have an extensive portfolio of work specific to that target market, and you wouldn’t have multiple happy clients in that specific sector willing to provide testimonials and references. So hopefully again, we’re starting to understand why being specialized and focused is really important.

Tom Conlon:

But here’s the thing about specialization. It’s not that cut and dry. So remember this from a couple of slides ago: focus, then sell. One of the secret truths about specialization is that it’s actually more like this: Sell, then focus, then sell. Meaning when you’re starting your company out, you literally will take money from anyone who will pay you to do anything. And that’s totally okay. We’ve all been there. The thing is over time, you start to identify what you’re really bad at, what you’re really good at, who makes a good client, and who makes an unfit client. So for us, it took my company about seven years before we were comfortable saying out loud that we’re a creative agency focused on financial services and corporate clients. Before that, I was like, no, what if a consumer packaged goods brand comes to our website and sees that kind of language? Again, it took us seven years.

Tom Conlon:

Another secret truth is that specialization does not equal saying no. There can be a Delta, even a sizeable one, between your marketable niche and reality. So specialization is how you market yourself. It does not mean turning down work that walks in the door that’s outside of that focus. So as I’ve said, I market North Street as an agency with a deep financial professional and corporate focus. That’s really where we excel. But when a company that owns 10 TexMex restaurant chains on the West Coast contacted us about working together, do you think I said no? Absolutely not. Proudly took on that project.

Tom Conlon:

Here’s another one. Another secret truth of specialization is that specialization equals risk, and COVID really exposed the Achilles heel of this, right? So I have a friend that has a PR agency solely focused on travel and hospitality. They got hammered by COVID. Another friend of mine works at a custom publishing company making magazines about the cruise industry. Not a place you want to be right now. Experiential and live events companies, they need to reinvent themselves or die. So in these cases, because of COVID specialization became a liability instead of an asset.

Tom Conlon:

So how do we specialize and at the same time mitigate the risk of specialization? Focus, then expand. So you can expand into new product service lines within your niche vertical, right? So once a client trusts you to do one thing, they’re going to trust you to do anything tangentially related, right? So I don’t market North Street as a video production company, but we regularly earn revenue by producing videos for clients who already hired us to do their branding and website. I don’t market video production as the one thing I do, or even anything that I do, but we do it and we do it well, and we charge well for it to. Two of our designers are actually avid photographers as well, so if someone needs us to come by and take some corporate headshots, of course we do. We can, but again, I don’t put any time or effort whatsoever into marketing myself as a photography company.

Tom Conlon:

The other way is to expand into new verticals within your narrowly defined products or services. So here’s a bunch of construction work we’ve done. I say that we’re financial services and corporate, but I’ve got a ton of construction clients that I can put together into a landing page or deck. Here’s some healthcare stuff that we’ve done. We even do consumer and food and beverage stuff, like I mentioned those restaurants. We market ourselves to financial services, professional services, but over the last 10 years, we’ve been able to build up enough work and happy clients in lots of different verticals that I can take that email approach that I shared with you earlier, which was laser focused on the financial services industry. And I can adapt that to the construction industry, and I can adapt it to the healthcare industry. The only place we don’t do that is with this one, which is consumer and food and beverage, just because we purposely don’t market ourselves here because it’s just such a crowded space and there’s people that do it way better than we do.

Tom Conlon:

So are we still talking about specialization? I just told you to specialize your industry focus and service lines, but then I also told you to go out and target multiple industries and expand your your service lines. Bear with me. Specialization isn’t taking the hatchet to your service offerings and potential client base. Specialization is the ability to hyper focus on a specific client profile and specific service line, and be the first in line with the right solution at the very moment that client and service intersect in the form of a need. Most importantly, specialization is the ability to back that solution up with depth of experience, an extensive portfolio of relevant work, demonstrated expertise, and social proof.

Tom Conlon:

Those are all the slides I put together, but I want to end with this one, which is recommended reading. If this is something that you want to learn more about, these three books are great. The Win Without Pitching Manifesto By Blair Enns is… He ran a creative ad agency, so it’s focused a lot on my industry, but it really is relevant to any service-based business. So I’d check it out even if you’re not in my industry. Building a StoryBrand with Donald Miller. If you haven’t heard of it, check it out, it’s a really quick read. And it has a lot of good stuff about finding your target audience and speaking to them in a way that will resonate with them. And finally, The Pumpkin Plan by Mike Michalowicz. This is more on that idea of focusing and then expanding, that idea of either expanding your offerings inside of your niche, or expanding to other verticals.

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