Lessons on building a marketing and social media business

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Five years ago this month I left corporate America and started my own business. This event also roughly coincided with my social media journey. I usually don’t spend time looking back in these posts but I have learned so much and I thought that maybe some of these lessons might help somebody out there too … so here we go.

I had always been afraid to start my own business because I feared I would not know when to stop working. I was correct in this assessment. Fortunately, it is also hard to discern what is “work” and what is “fun.”

When I started my business, I could not have known at the time that it was coinciding with the beginning of a terrible recession. It didn’t seem to matter because the business grew quickly, but as I look back I wonder if I would have done the same thing if I KNEW that the economy was going to tank. I think taking a blind leap probably helped me. Timing is important in business.

The biggest advantage I had in starting this business was having the resources to be patient and grow my business a smart way. I often ask entrepreneurs if they are prepared to be broke for at least two years. I think that is the right mindset going in.

At the start, I didn’t say “no” to anything. Every single project, writing assignment and speech helped me learn, grow, and build credibility. My first customer was a young guy starting a local catering business and today I work with Johnson & Johnson and IBM. This did not happen over night. It was relentless progression of learning and building.

The turning point for me was realizing that my blog drove my business. The more effort I put into the blog, the more my business grew. Building a portfolio of quality content and an engaged audience led to an opportunity to write a book, which led to speaking and larger assignments.

The business I have today looks nothing like the business I started. Why?

  • Some of the things I thought I would like to do I actually hated. I had to pivot.
  • My passion is in helping start-ups but I grew weary of dedicating myself to people with big ideas and no money for marketing those ideas. Entrepreneurs chronically overlook the critical importance of marketing.
  • My business grew and flexed as the wave of social media hit the shore.
  • Every new customer and assignment forged my direction in some way like a hammer pounding on a steel blade.
  • When I started I had two revenue streams. Now I have 12. Some are trickles but they are streams nonetheless and something to build on.

What was my biggest mistake? Ironically, I have done a miserable job marketing myself. My website is chronically out of date, I do almost no business development and I don’t even do much networking. When it comes to prioritizing my time, I put family first, clients and students second, and content creating third. I never seem to have time to market the marketing although I am taking steps to align some resources to improve this.

Unless you sell antiques for a living, you cannot dwell on the past. Reach forward and never count on riding your past accomplishments to drive your future. I am in a constant state of re-invention. Constant. Push, push, push.

One of the smartest things I did at the beginning was teach a class at a local college. This sharpened my “content voice,” kept me on top of the game, helped develop ideas that became speeches and books, and created a steady stream of income. Eventually this experience also led to a teaching position at Rutgers University, which has been very rewarding. At the heart of it, I am a teacher in everything I do.

In the first 60 months of my business, there have been three amazing things that stood out for me:

  • The first time somebody told me that The Tao of Twitter “changed their life.” That was profound.
  • Giving a 3-hour lecture at Oxford University to a packed auditorium of graduate students and faculty members. I just kept looking around thinking “I can’t believe I am here.” What a feeling.
  • My book Return On Influence was named one of the top books of the year by the American Library Association, a designation that means it will be added to the permanent collection of university libraries.

When I decided to start my own business, I never looked back and never wavered. I was once tempted by a lucrative offer from a corporate headhunter (to lead marketing for a F500 company in New York) but other than that I have stayed the course. I think that tenacity and single-minded vision has to be there to succeed. I just can’t wait to see what happens next!

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  • Inspiring article Mark. I would love to be able to make a living from my blog and the things I love to do but, to my detriment, fear the unknown (and not being able to pay the mortgage!).

    Return On influence is a great read, and the only book in the last 16 years or so that I have unable to put down until finishing!
    Oxford University eh, that’s about 20 miles down the road! 🙂

    Cheers

    Barry

  • Hi Mark, great read, looking forward to the next chapter in your life! Ian

  • Alice Ackerman, MD,

    Mark, I love this post! Especially I love the statement “Unless you sell antiques for a living, you cannot dwell on the past. How true, for all of us. Even Universities and medical centers believe they can live in the past. We are great because…related to historical figures and others who transformed the field of medicine or astrophysics. What you are saying is that if you don’t stay relevant in today’s world it doesn’t really matter. History can get you access to an audience, but content that is fresh and meaningful will sustain it.

    Thanks for staying relevant, Mark. In the realm of my priorities, which are many, reading your blog is right up there. It is almost always relevant to my work, my life and my meager attempts at providing some leadership in social media in medicine.

    And congratulations for staying the course, and exiting the recession as a winner!

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  • Dawn Mentzer

    Mark, you are an incredible inspiration. Thank you for sharing your story – and for all the helpful info and tips you freely give to help all of us achieve. I love how you’ve stayed genuinely humble and real on the path to your success. You’re a marvelous role model for entrepreneurs and marketing professionals everywhere.

  • Inspirational, Mark. A lot of lessons to learn from your experience. Thank you for sharing and congratulations on your success.

  • Paying the mortgage is important!! As I said, I did not make a light decision. I was prepared and had the resources to back me up to make it work. I am going to be back in London and Wales in June and it seems like you are right in the middle so let’s plan to find a way to make it work and get together. Would love that. Best part of the job!

  • Yeah, me too! : )

  • Wow, that means so much to me Dr. A! Every day I am blown away that people take their precious time to read my blog and interact with me. I will never take that for granted and I especially appreciate loyal readers like you who have stuck with me for years.

    I definitely agree with your points and am saddened by the institutions who are living in the past. I recently wrote a post about the great American company Rand McNally who owned the market on maps. They got us from place to place for decades. But they did not make the digital transition and they are gone. The market for “getting us to the destination” was theirs to lose and they didn’t push forward. I hate to see that happen but also cheer those willing to make the next move.

    I imagine that is really frustrating some times in the healthcare industry. Keep fighting the good fight because your vision is clear and accurate!

  • It’s easy to stay humble when you are in a continual state of re-invention! Every day I learn how much more there is to learn. Thank you so much for your continuous support and encouragement Dawn. I hope we can find a way to see each other IRL in 2014. That is the best part of this job!

  • Thank you my dear friend. I am so fortunate to have met amazing people like you along the way Ray!

  • Mike Rudd

    Very well thought out post Mark with tons of great takeaways! Keep up the great work and the wonderful content (regardless of what you think I believe your content is great and plenty of it!)

  • Like the advice about being broke for 2 years.

  • Thanks, Mark. This statement you made could be considered the secret to life, “When it comes to prioritizing my time, I put family first, clients and students second, and content creating third.” One day, when we are all lying on our death beds, exactly NONE of us will be saying, “Darn, I wish I had tweeted more.”

  • Sounds like a plan! I’ll give you my contact details through your ‘Contact’ page and we can work something out.

    Look forward to it 🙂

  • Mark – It sounds like you’ve spent the past 5 years living the Tao. Purpose, commitment, courage, generosity, humility and an openness to that random majestic synergy…You’re the real deal! Congrats on your past 5, and to what’s next. Cheers!

  • I do think my content is great Mike. I really push hard on that and my expectations are high for both myself and my contributors (they will attest to that!). Hopefully we will be able to keep pushing it forward.

  • And it was true. : )

  • Many thanks Jack. Appreciate the comment today!

  • Many thanks for your support Bill. Working with you has definitely been one of the highlights along the way!

  • Muhammad Saad Khan

    Inspirational indeed…i can clearly see that its the RELATIONSHIPS you build along the way, became your friends and also your customers. A wonderful lesson to learn for all the entrepreneurs.

    Blogging is an extremely powerful way to connect with the like-minded people.

  • Depends where you are dying, doesn’t it. If you are the bottom of ravine, and only by tweeting your location will you get the medical help you need, yes you will be saying: I wish I tweeted more before my battery ran out.

  • Gordon Diver

    Congratulations Mark. It is comforting to know that others have found their way and are willing to share their experiences along the way. Appreciate all you do.

  • Christopher Wieduwilt

    Great read Mark. Not saying ‘no’ at the start and taking in everything you can get is definitely fundamental in growing and learning as you said. Your dedication and efforts have long paid off. That lake view when you wake up will remind you every day!

  • Mike Rudd

    I’m sure you will! Looking forward to seeing more great stuff soon…

  • Love it!

  • We will do this!

  • Oh that is awesome!!!

  • I think this is probably one of the main themes of my blog. You probably can’t feed your family with “traffic.” To build a business you need real people who care enough about you to make things happen … like you!

  • My pleasure Gordon. It is great seeing you so regularly in the Twitter stream and comment section.

  • The house that Twitter built. : )

    Good to hear from you and hope your entrepreneurial efforts are moving ahead too!

  • This is a great post and a reminder that it takes time and dedication to build a business and/or a brand. And that some things never change. Like dedication to excellence. 🙂

  • Great stuff! I have emailed you 🙂

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  • Mark and Jack,

    Feel free to steal it & modify as needed. All the best.

  • Christopher Wieduwilt

    I am relocating to Berlin next week to work for an online marketing company, things are moving forward 🙂

    If you make it to Germany soon, let me know!

  • I have not been to Germany in many years but I look forward to returning soon.

  • Build it to last, right? Thanks Pauline!

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  • Congrats on your “solo career”, Mark, and many thanks for sharing your expertise with us: your readers.

    I am also a teacher and I can just imagine that Oxford University moment: W-O-W…

    It’s pretty emotional too that your family is #1 in the list: can you imagine that working for a F500 New York company?

    Again: thanks for teaching us and for being such an inspiration.

    Best!

  • I’m really happy that you are happy with what you do Mark. The rest of us are better for how you do it :). Keep on rocking!

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  • Thanks buddy!

  • Yes i can imagine it because I worked for a F500 company for many years. Fortunately I usually had bosses who were pretty sensitive to the family side of life but certainly nothing can replace the freedom of doing your own thing.

  • Hi Mark,

    Congratulations on your incredible success! Hey, it couldn’t happen to a better guy. Funny, I started my business way back in 1995, but I’ve only been blogging for two years. It’s been a slog, but I think years 3-5 will be something special.

    I’m curious what was the first class you taught and how did you get started?

  • If you’ve been blogging for two years, you are probably just hitting your stride! You have come a long way!

    I was recruited to teach a class on consumer behavior at Tusculum College. But I also had some new ideas about teaching classes on social media. Back in 2008, there was nothing like this around. So I partnered with another college here in Tennessee to develop a curriculum and it became the first college-level classes in social media marketing in the country that I know of. A Twitter friend in NYC was approached to help Rutgers University develop a similar curriculum and she knew that I had already done this so then I was recruited to help Rutgers devise their program. I have been teaching there ever since — three years now!

  • Alan Perlman

    Starting my own boutique marketing agency in a couple of weeks and just stumbled upon this post. Thanks for taking the time to write it up! Great takeaways here, particularly “sharpening the content voice” by putting oneself out there and doing some public speaking. Love that.

  • Hi Mark,

    Thanks for the details! Now that’s something to brag about. Very cool.

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  • Great! Best of luck Alan!

  • Guest

    Thank you very much for sharing this article. I, too, definitely have possibilities and opportunities about entrepreneurial spirit, but my life is little bit more challenging; I am a person with a disability suffering a massive stroke and, believe it or not, I lost the ability to speak twenty-three years ago. Fortunately, my communications is now almost 100% once again (supposedly,) so there are connections to help people bridge the gap with adoption and technology that come from left field, so to speak.

    So, your essay was very helpful and provoking on the possibility of being confident and going for it! Thanks again.

    Best regards,

    Herb

  • Herb Silverman

    Thank you very much for sharing this article. I, too, definitely have possibilities and opportunities about entrepreneurial spirit, but my life is little bit more challenging; I am a person with a disability suffering a massive stroke and, believe it or not, I lost the ability to speak twenty-three years ago. Fortunately, my communications is now almost 100% once again (supposedly,) so there are connections to help people bridge the gap with adoption and technology that come from left field, so to speak.

    So, your essay was very helpful and provoking on the possibility of being confident and going for it! Thanks again.

    Best regards,

    Herb Silverman

    P.S. Read “Tao of Twitter”; superb…

  • I’ve been lurking and reading. Really like the simplicity of your posting. The man behind the social face. Tired of awesome, want more wholesome. You deliver that and more. Thanks Sir.

  • Thanks so much for sharing your story Herb. I’m glad you enjoyed the book. Check out Anne Reuss and her enterpreneurial efforts.

  • Great to hear from you. I’ve missed you!

  • Herb Silverman

    Will do!

  • Ah, I stopped after SoSlam to really consider what I wanted to do. While considering, I listened, looked and got introspective. I needed to do that. I have enjoyed the rise and rise of a very good man. Well done Mark. More to come from me…

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  • Todd Lyden

    Mark, came back to this because I was doing a presentation on income streams… do you still have the 12 and what are your streams now?

  • Here goes: I get money (to varying degrees) from 1. consulting 2. teaching 3. speaking 4. workshops and webinars 5. brand influencer activities 6. podcast sponsorships 7. blog sponsorships 8. specific brand content creation 9. mainstream book sales 10. self-published book sales 11. “instant” phone consulting and 12. affiliate advertising

  • Impressive and inspiring Mark. Thank you for sharing your experience. I am at the beginning of my freelance writing business (two months in full-time mode) and I don´t feel like working, though I do many more hours than I did at my day job.

  • Great to hear Corina! Best wishes with you business!

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