Finding a Competitive Edge in a Non-Traditional Locale
Let's face it: Every business has inherent challenges. If setting up a business were easy, we’d all be doing it. And that's not all: There are also the challenges of simply being in business -- especially the self-inflicted kind. It's the latter challenge that my own business deals with every day.
First, some background: I launched BKWLD in 2001, hurling myself full-throttle into the white-hot, supercharged competitive environment of digital marketing. As if that were not enough, I knowingly and stubbornly invited our biggest challenge: I decided to set up shop in my hometown of Sacramento, California.
I had considered moving to a locale where the talent and clients pooled together, to a market known for its creativity and progressiveness. But at the end of the day, I went where home has always been. And in the 14 years since that fateful decision, my team and I have become well-acquainted with the unique challenges and risks we’ve heaped upon ourselves. We’ve also come up with some pretty good ideas for surmounting and circumnavigating them. First, the challenges, which are likely obvious:
- Talent pool: The talent goes where the mass of jobs are. This is common sense. The jobs, especially in the creative field, are in major markets like New York, San Francisco, etc. Finding good people to service existing client needs is a challenge and takes more time. Unexpected departures can be painful.
- Client pool: This is perhaps our biggest challenge, period. Our hometown market offers little by way of a potential client roster. And this in turn prompts the question, “Why Sacramento?” more times than I care to admit.
- Peer-to-peer mixing: The opportunities to co-mingle with prospects and other leaders in the field are limited. Sacramento has never been and will likely never be a go-to destination for big industry events or swanky cocktail parties. To interface with our industry peers, we need to go to them.
- Perception: Too many close their minds to the idea of partnering with companies in nontraditional markets. There is some belief that the work produced will be inferior, or the company itself will not be around for the long haul.
While there are more challenges than these, these are the key ones. In the past 14 years, we’ve enjoyed success by being aware of these realities and hitting them head-on. Inside our walls, there is no challenge that is insurmountable and no risk that can’t be turned into a reward. Here are four ways we get it done:
1. Invest in long-term relationships.
Once they are inside our doors, our employees learn quickly that we want to invest in a long-term relationship. We do this because we believe that an industry neatly packed into a quaint 20-mile radius does weird things to people. On one hand, the employers may look at their employees a bit more like cattle, and emanate a general feeling of “Fine, leave; there is another right behind you." On the other hand, employees, if frustrated in the slightest, will look across the street at the nice green grass belonging to the competition. And then they'll wander over and start anew.
An unhealthy attitude arises from each side's attitude of, “I don’t need you.” In contrast we believe we'll find more value by investing in long term-relationships rather than experiencing start-up costs over and over.
2. Focus on balance.
Lots of companies use “work/life” balance as a recruiting tactic. We believe that work/life balance is not really about bringing your dog to work or happy hour or a ping-pong tournament. It’s finding a way to satisfy the needs of your business while not letting it define its employees' existence. When you set up shop at home, as opposed to someplace people move to, to work, work/life balance is an inherent value. You will find people who feel secure and valued at a deeper level, which in turn results in more creativity for the actual problem-solving.
3. We trust our people.
We made the decision early on to not limit the amount of time an employee can take off from work while still being paid. Our philosophy is simple: We hire adults. And we expect them to contribute to the company fairly, and use common sense when deciding to take time off. We have done this for over ten years, and it has only backfired twice. Finding two replacements did not detract from the proven value of developing a trustful relationship between our company and our dozens of team members.
4. Embracing our "challenger" status.
Earlier, I pointed out that our distance from the pool of potential clients poses perhaps our biggest drawbacks when it comes to our location. But that location has also given us an edge and forced us to think more creatively about how to reach potential clients. It’s made us a “challenger.” And accepting this status isn't such a bad thing. We have developed a healthy chip on our shoulder, a need to prove something, to fight harder, to be scrappy and to overcome perceptions. This edge, we believe, has given our team an attitude that has helped drive success.
Certainly, these ideas can sound idealistic; on a bad day, maybe even irrational; and, dare I say, a tad socialist, or hippy-dippy at the very least. But in a business where talented team members are the product, and in a market that does not allow you to burn through people like matchsticks, a shift in values is required.
What that shift can afford our business, our team and ultimately our customers -- or your business, your team and customers -- are a perspective, a culture and a product differentiated at their core.
Related: How to Relocate Your Business
Ryan Vanni is founder and CEO of BKWLD, a digital agency based in Sacramento he formed in 2001 at the age of 21 to offer strategy, design and execution across all digital channels to a wide range of consumer brands. Vanni oversees the direction of the agency and spearheads business development while working directly and intimately with agency clients to ensure alignment between brand and digital strategy.