Testimonials Are Worth More Than Their Weight In Cash
Testimonials are crucial. So crucial that it is worth putting in the hours and offering up your services in exchange for them. Think of them as a down-payment on future business. Whatever your product or service, offer it up for a limited time either majorly discounted or even free (if it’s something like an audit, appraisal or a bit of consultancy). If the client is happy, all you ask is that they put it in writing. This is part of the humility I was talking about before. Use these testimonials as leverage, as content for your social media — as proof of concept. And think of the time spent as incredible practice dealing with a range of customers. Who knows, it may even lead to you adapting your offering slightly or niching down.
As part of our series called “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Began Leading My Company” I had the pleasure of interviewing Keeley Walker, an expert in the marketing and branding space with a fondness for taking fresh concepts from conception through to fruition and profitability. Her consumer-centric methodology is deeply rooted in storytelling and injecting the human element to bring brands to life. A writer turned businesswoman, Keeley worked for many years as a journalist before moving from newsroom to boardroom, entering the marketing division of a revolutionary tech company. She now runs her own boutique marketing and communications firm, KW Comms, offering a fully bespoke service, tailored to clients of varying size and scope. With 15 years’ experience in the media and marketing sector, Keeley’s mantra is “It all starts with a story…”
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, 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 background was actually in traditional journalism. Remember newspapers? The physical ones that made crumply noises and broke well-researched news? That’s where I started. I’ve always told stories. I started on the broadsheets and throughout my 20s earned my living writing for and about whomever or whatever would captivate an intended audience. I look at this as the best apprenticeship I could have undergone for what was later to come. This is where I learned to communicate with different ‘targets’, how to ‘spin’, how to mine for and identify what would resonate and with whom. And I had a great time doing it. I was lucky enough to interview some of the most well-known names in the world from politicians to entertainers and, whenever I could corner them at a polo match or the like, members of the royal family. After that, facing those characters who populate the boardroom is a lot less daunting.
What was the “Aha Moment” that led to the idea for your current company? Can you share that story with us?
I had a lot of experience in being pitched to by external agencies when I was working in-house in the marketing department of a tech company. And it was so impersonal. I had to leave the working world temporarily due to a health scare and just as I was ready to think about re-entering the workplace, came the proverbial “Aha moment”. I had spent a decent amount of time in recovery thinking about what I would do differently given my time again and reflecting on my career, which I had always loved. I was never unhappy at work. But throughout the thinking time, it became obvious that the only way I could do all the things I wanted to do in the way that I had imagined when temporarily sidelined, was to do it myself. And I knew that there was a space for me to do it myself because, well, I’d been trying to find exactly what became my offering. The most exciting thing to discover is something that isn’t there.
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?
Giving up wasn’t a real option for me. Mine was a choice between re-entering the working world exactly where or, more likely, lower down than where I left off, or coming back with more to offer than when I left. I chose the latter — both in theory and practice. So, I even went back to studying, something I hadn’t done, officially, for over a decade. I wasn’t retraining as such, I just knew the capabilities that would potentially be required of my offering and felt it was paramount that, although all these skills would not necessarily make up part of my own day-to-day duties, I needed a full understanding of everything that was going on. I never wanted to be in a position where I couldn’t talk knowingly on all the elements that contributed to the company as a whole — and, in order to be bespoke, there has to be a large number of potential elements. So, while I was scratching down ideas of what things were going to look like, I was also studying for a new professional diploma. And it was the best thing I could have done. It really is never too late to educate yourself and, if you are employing someone to take on a role, it should be because your time is better spent elsewhere, not because you can’t do it or don’t understand how it is done.
So, how are things going today? How did your grit and resilience lead to your eventual success?
I couldn’t be happier, thanks for asking.As to the eventual success, my advice would be — establish yourself as a go-to and don’t be afraid to spread the love, so to speak. If someone comes to you with something outside your wheelhouse, direct them towards the person who is perfect for them. No intro fee, just good will. Who wouldn’t want a primed client, or a primed expert handed to them? I promise, it will come back to you ten-fold. Others in your ‘space’ are not rivals, they are peers. So be generous. (And, like I said above, to become a go-to, you need to accept that there is always more to learn — even if that means going back to school to do so.)
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
Delivering Value — Articulating your value proposition
Messaging, messaging, messaging. You have to know your ‘why’. It’s easy to explain what you do and how you do it. Less so, to know and explain ‘why’. One thing I knew from the start is that my services had to be bespoke. The company was born out of a gap that I had spotted having dealt with several larger agencies and not receiving all I needed, while also being charged for that which I did not need. The accepted system when it comes to outsourcing your marketing is, in my view, flawed. For me, it’s essential to start with the ideal outcome — what does success look like? From there, I view the entire picture and create a proposal that plugs any gaps preventing the individual in question from getting from where they are to reaching where they want to be. And there are any number of forms this can take. My focus is always directed at wherever attention is most needed. The words “that’s not my job” aren’t in my repertoire. They can’t be. Regardless of the size or scale of your business, I take a start-up mentality to any job, which means rolling up your sleeves and getting stuck in wherever there is a plate that needs spinning. The ability to pivot according to the needs of a project is vital.
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?
It wasn’t the business I currently run but my entire career got off to an embarrassing start. I’ll never forget my very first day as a cub reporter at The Daily Telegraph. I was expected to provide or pitch some kind of entertainment story. Yes, I spent the next decade building up a brimming black book of contacts that I could fall back on or tap into when needed but on this, my debut shift ‘on the desk’, I had nothing. Except somehow, somewhere, as I was scrolling through my phone, it appeared I had acquired the home telephone number of the actress Miriam Margolyes. So, I called her…. just to see how she was. The number was right. The intention was right. But the poor woman was so (rightfully) confused when Keeley (um…who?) from the Telegraph just called to see how she was doing. I don’t know which of us felt more awkward.
“Why are you phoning me?” she asked, in a genuinely calm but concerned manner after what felt like a couple of minutes of inane chit chat (it was likely far less). For all she knew I could have been about to break some huge scoop and wanted to be the one to get her first reaction.
“Just to say hi, really. See what you’re up to… We can talk about anything you want really,” I chattered, casually, my editor’s sideways glare burning through my right temple. “Anyway, it’s always worth catching up…. and…you know where I am…and…well… take care of yourself.”
I hung up.
“What was that about?” the editor queried as I considered the comparative distance of each fire escape on my floor.
“Long story,” I puffed, “but, no, nothing to report.”
When I met her years later, I recounted the story and thanked her for being so gracious and she was utterly delightful. I still chuckle at that given that, all these years later my tagline is: “It all starts with a story…”
Clearly, I knew that from day one, I just had no idea how to go about finding one.
With hindsight, my main takeaway was not to ever start a conversation you are incapable of leading, which is something worth learning in any business. That and the power of networking, putting in facetime, research and, also, that if you are going to ‘fake it ’til you make it’, your fakery has to at least be grounded in something — anything, that could make it remotely plausible.
So yeah, it does all start with a story and, regrettably, my career started with that one.
Often leaders are asked to share the best advice they received. But let’s reverse the question. Can you share a story about advice you’ve received that you now wish you never followed?
When you announce you are heading out on your own, everyone has an opinion, so there was a lot of conflicting advice. The proverbial ‘too many cooks’ springs to mind. I was advised to appear larger than I was in order to be taken seriously and so I took on an external team, a PR company who, it turns out, I was essentially paying to distribute press releases to a media database.
I didn’t realise this at the time — as far as I saw it, I had an extra arm to my company.
After a decade in journalism, I can write a noticeable press release in under an hour. And media databases are purchasable on monthly subscriptions and also something I had built up personally over time. So, it wasn’t until I was tied into the contract that I realised that, what I was paying for, practically speaking, was nothing I could not absorb myself. If anything, managing this team and their rigid set of corporate rules was a drain on my own resources and funds. I don’t blame the team or company at all, they were playing by the rules and I take full responsibility for my error. My complaint lay in the fact that every request I made had to go through a variety of departments and meetings before being accepted or declined, which took up so much more time than just doing the thing requested. I had bought into the precise model that my own company was built to reconstruct.
And all so I could say “I’m going to consult my PR team”.
The advice I wish I hadn’t followed was trying to appear larger than I was because, certainly in this case, nothing was done that made any real positive impact — besides the lesson learnt.
It reaffirmed the importance of the ‘start-up’ mentality that I hope to maintain for years to come. Plug the gaps. Roll up your sleeves and always turn your attention to that which will be of most value to your client. If you are focusing on how you appear, then you are redirecting attention away from what you are. And the minute you neglect that, you will fall short. In one way or another. It’s also worth noting that managing others is a task in itself. If you are doing so with regards to something you could (and, indeed, do) easily cover yourself, and paying for the privilege, it’s time to re-assess.
You are a successful business leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?
As good as it may feel for the ego to be the most knowledgeable person in the room, you will leave that room no different than when you entered it. I have always sought out situations (and do to this day) where I am the least impressive person at the table. Only this way can you be sure to grow, to learn and to soak up as much as you can from others. When networking, seek out those with opposing skills to your own. The conversation may not flow as steadily but you will both walk away having benefited. And as a ‘boss’, never hesitate to lean on your experts. There is no shame in asking for help or advice. It shows strength of character not weakness if you can approach your junior with a problem that only he or she can help you with. Examples of these situations happen frequently. I recently asked someone half my age for help on a social media issue I was grappling with. Young people are a great fountain of knowledge in my space — they are digital natives and fluent in social trends.
It may be an obvious one, but it is essential. The good news is, if you are working for yourself, it doesn’t feel like discipline because, ideally, your project is something you love and are good at. But it extends beyond your job. I make it a rule to always be taking on one extra — curricular subject. Often related to my field but slightly outside my comfort zone. Something I would like to master but would rather be doing something else with the time it takes to learn it. It’s important to keep exercising this muscle. The one that makes you do what is beneficial rather than what is easy. I have video editors at my fingertips should I need them, but I am currently taking a course in it, so I am capable of doing it alone. I may never use the skill, but I am determined to have it.
Following your own path and turning your back on the status quo is not the easy option. Quite the reverse. Anyone who chooses to take the road less travelled, having an idea and nourishing it through to fruition, has to have an enormous amount of courage. There is everything to lose and It is so much easier to leave these ambitions gathering dust in the back of our minds, wondering ‘what if?’
“If only” and “what if”, while they may be frustrating, are safe thoughts. Venturing into the unknown is scary. That’s why I have automatic admiration for people who come to me with the desire to do it. Also working with established clients who have experienced great success and entrust you to take them to the next level is a serious responsibility and requires not only courage but confidence that you have what it takes to get them where they need to be — regardless of how impressive their catalogue of achievements may be. This is not arrogance; it is about having the courage of your convictions.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
I think, if you are trying to realise a dream, and you are doing it for yourself and no one else, you don’t ‘burn out’. I did my burning out when I was working for others. This was about re-ignition. I was ‘working’ (and I use the term loosely) 16-hour days, including weekends when setting up KW Comms and it was a joy. The most important thing to advise is that it’s not a bad thing to feel out of your depth. Of course, know your limitations and, of course, prioritise your health. You can be ambitious without being overwhelmed. As a start-up, you have a certain capacity. And there are limits to that, and that’s fine. Acknowledging these limits will help you avoid burnout. After establishing yourself, the next natural stage is not burnout, it’s growth. Just remember you aren’t wasting anyone’s time now — you run your calendar. So, while growth may mean loosening the reins a bit, do it in your own time — because you can.
What are the most common mistakes you have seen CEOs & founders make when they start a business? What can be done to avoid those errors?
You have to remember that, while it is not a direct revenue-generator, you are your own biggest client. In other words, you need to be your own best customer. How can you advise others without practicing what you preach? It’s so easy, when you have a full roster of clients, to neglect your own brand. Build into your schedule, the time required to keep on top of your own content, your own profile, your own lead generation. Because what people (namely new founder/CEOs) fail to realise, and what Covid has taught us, is that contracts come and go — the only person you can rely on to be unconditionally loyal to your own business is yourself. So, while it is tempting to try and generate some kind of revenue on a daily basis, keep your eye on the medium to long term. Take those quieter moments to service your own company, enhance your digital footprint, keep an eye out for opportunities to spread the word, appear on podcasts, give interviews and prepare for when things pick up again. In the short — term, it feels financially negligent, but it is a duty that will pay dividends later. Try and find the opportunity in everything with a firm eye on the future. Your financial bottom line is not based on how much money you banked in a week. If in doubt, zoom out. Look at the bigger picture — the month, the year, the doors opened, the community expansion, the possibilities generated.
In your experience, which aspect of running a company tends to be most underestimated? Can you explain or give an example?
The personal touch and knowing your weaknesses. To the first point, if you are leading your own company, you should be in direct contact with your partners (or, ‘clients’, as they are typically referenced). To the second, it’s important to outsource sensibly and surround yourself with the best. I am a words person but not a numbers person, so I invest in good accountants. Some people find this element easy. To me it is a stressor and identifying your stressors is crucial when it comes to committing to your goal without losing faith in your abilities to provide the service in which you are expert.
Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Began Leading My Company”? Please share a story or an example for each.
Can I only have 5?
Okay, so on top of the above, I’d have to say….
1. Testimonials Are Worth More Than Their Weight In Cash
When you finally launch your own company, after all the blood, sweat, tears and start-up costs that you have expended to reach the point of trading, the most natural feeling is to want to begin generating as much revenue as possible, as fast as possible. But hold your horses. Of course, embrace and relish the paid work you get — you have earnt it. But if you are turning your nose up at good projects because they are unwilling to pay the price you know you are worth, you are making a catastrophic mistake. Good business begets good business. And the more good business you do, the more rounded your portfolio of clients will be, which will only impress the big hitters you will, no doubt, be targeting who, by the way, are going to want to see evidence of your body of work to even consider you. Testimonials are crucial. So crucial that it is worth putting in the hours and offering up your services in exchange for them. Think of them as a down-payment on future business. Whatever your product or service, offer it up for a limited time either majorly discounted or even free (if it’s something like an audit, appraisal or a bit of consultancy). If the client is happy, all you ask is that they put it in writing. This is part of the humility I was talking about before. Use these testimonials as leverage, as content for your social media — as proof of concept. And think of the time spent as incredible practice dealing with a range of customers. Who knows, it may even lead to you adapting your offering slightly or niching down.
2. Create Your Own Productivity Blueprint
The best thing about heading out on your own is that you have a blank canvas. No one to answer to, no rigid company practices, no set structure of deadlines and deliverables.
The worst thing about heading out on your own is that you have a blank canvas. No one to answer to, no rigid company practices, no set structure of deadlines and deliverables.
I’ve always been a bit of a productivity junkie because, as a creative entrepreneur, there is no knowing when an idea may descend upon me or, conversely, when I will experience the dreaded white noise of zero inspiration. And with no one breathing down my neck, it can be both incredibly freeing or a great excuse to kick back and just… well, wait?? This is a slippery slope and the way to avoid it is to ensure that you are always doing something. I think of it (as with content production) as tasks which are topical and those which are evergreen. You will never have a clean bill of both.
I have tried and tested every organisational and productivity technique there is (for now!).
My to-do lists had to-do lists. But exploring these techniques was a great learning curve for me because it allowed me to discover, organically, what works for me. My own blueprint. Some people are able to say, ‘every morning between 8 and 9, I’ll answer emails, then I’ll spend an hour on social, then it’s content time, lunch, a few hours of back-to-back zooms, then follow up on everything discussed in said zooms, round up the day with an hour pouring over finances and log out.
This person is not me.
I discovered how to be my most productive self by reverse-engineering the scheduling process. So, rather than planning ahead what my day would look like, meetings aside, I experimented with letting things happen naturally and filled in my planner afterwards based on what I had done. It was clear what my most productive days looked like.
This is how you learn about your best practice. And once you find your blueprint, don’t inflict it on others — give them the freedom to learn their own. And voila, everyone is at their most productive.
3. Your Product Is Not The Hero.
Back to my favourite subject — storytelling. This is one that splits the audience. But I stand firm. Whatever your product or service, be it B2B or B2C, it plays a vital part — indeed, it’s the essential ingredient, when it comes to your offering.
But when it comes to your business, we exist in a consumer-centric market. The customer is your hero. Yes, you must sing the praises of your product — all the things that make it different, innovative, essential. But the halo sits atop your customer — their story, their background, pain points, need state. The moment the spotlight hits them, they feel it. Your customer is the one paying the bills and it is they who will enable your business to thrive or sink. And this does not just apply to prospective targets. Once you have ‘landed’ a client (I prefer to call them partners), there should be no shadow of a doubt that, the moment anyone entrusts you with their business, they are of paramount importance. They feel valued.
They have bought into your value proposition, now it is your turn to prove them right.
Every story has a hero, and your customer is it. And, while we are on the subject of casting — your antagonist is the issue or pain point that brought them to you and your product is the solution that leads them to a happy ending.
4. Crowbar Your Least Favourite Tasks Into The Week And Attack Them Religiously
When starting out, so much of your time is dedicated towards being creative — rather than just ‘businessy’ — even if your business isn’t a “creative” one, it must be “created”.
And scheduling creativity is not easy.
Also, I don’t like to jump around from task to task every few minutes. As long as I have short, medium and long-term goals and enough white space in my planner to shuffle and change the activities needed to hit them, I never fall behind.
But there are certain tasks I have to force myself into, such as ‘Finance Fridays’ when I review and crunch any numbers that need crunching (yawn) but once it’s done, it’s done. So, the tasks that I enjoy the least are the ones that I force into my planner. But it’s not unusual to find me up late on a Saturday night churning out copy or responding to a brief. To that end, when it comes to hiring, keep your weaknesses top of mind and top of your list of recruitment priorities.
5. Embrace The Moving Target
Whatever your initial idea was that brought you to make all the sacrifices and find the courage it takes to realise your vision, the final product will not look the same. There is a steep learning curve, especially when you are on your own. Rather than sticking steadfastly to your original idea, accept that it will naturally evolve. This is a good thing. But it’s important to know that, no matter how married you are to an idea, there may come a time when you simply have to let go of it. That doesn’t mean it didn’t serve a purpose, it got you to where you are. But while you are putting all the necessary building blocks together and the landscape is ever-changing around you, inevitably there will come a point where something just no longer fits and no amount of pushing or wiggling will make it slot in. Let it go. You know more now than you did when you had the idea — which is how you know you are making the right decision. If you are steadfastly committed to a cookie cutter concept, how can you expect it to take any kind of unique shape?
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. 🙂
I genuinely believe that, with the right attitude and guidance, there is more than enough room for everyone to earn a living from their passion. So many people are terrified to escape the rat race that they willingly remain unhappy in their 9–5 jobs. I think the most amount of good could be done for the most amount of people if courage was instilled in everyone so that those who need it only have to channel it in the right direction. I think it should be every successful person’s moral duty to inject enough courage and belief into the next generation that they know everything is up for grabs. We spend most of our lives at work and happiness is a right not a privilege. Prepare and save to invest in yourself because those paychecks aren’t going to come in on a monthly basis for a while but, when they do, it is so worth it.
How can our readers further follow you online?
Well, most importantly, my website is www.kwcomms.com , where I also host my blog.
You can find my business page on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/kwcomms
On Instagram, it’s https://www.instagram.com/kwcomms/
And on Linkedin, I’m at https://www.linkedin.com/company/42372938/
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent with this!