Kara Brown is the Founder and CEO of SmithBrown Marketing, a fractional CMO and team focused on B2B sales and marketing alignment and execution. Originally from Chicago, Brown was one of the first employees of Echo Global Logistics, the first tech-enabled freight broker. Brown was a one-woman department single-handedly managing the company’s brand, image and marketing initiatives as the company grew 3000% in just over 3 years. In 2008, she took on the role of Investor Relations and was part of the company’s successful 2009 IPO (NYSE:ECHO). This was all by the time she was 26. She was recruited by OHL (Ozburn-Hessey Logistics), at the time a $2B Nashville-based global supply chain provider with clients like Apple, Starbucks, Samsung, Sony and Remington.
A few years before OHL was bought by GEODIS in 2015, she kicked up a consulting practice in Chicago and was the fractional CMO for six transportation and transportation technology companies. In 2016 Brown and her family moved to Atlanta when she was tapped to be Rubicon Global’s first VP of Marketing. In the last two years, SmithBrown has become a part of the Atlanta B2B marketing and sales landscape. Only 2% of female founders will crack $1M in revenue, Brown and her team of six are continuously delivering value for clients and plan to break the 2% mark by the end of 2018.
Shantel: Hey Kara. Welcome to the Imagine More Podcast.
Kara: Hi Shantel. Thanks for having me.
Shantel: Of course. We're so excited to hear more about SmithBrown Marketing and how you got started and we've been wanting to have you on the show for a while now. So we are pumped that we've been able to find some time. Can you kick things off and tell everyone a little bit more about your firm?
Kara: Sure. So we are SmithBrown Marketing. We did not get very creative when we named the firm, it's my maiden name and my new last name put together, but it works out. So we are B2B outsourced, CMO, and team. So B2B is business to business versus business to consumer. So we work with companies that don't work with consumers. So people that, or companies that would not be our cup of tea would be the Coca-Colas, the Home Depots of the world. Those are not customers that we would particularly have the expertise to work with. The ones that we would is Georgia Pacific or NCR, big names in town but, FLEETCOR is another, big names in town that do business to business work. So we have real expertise in the business to business space, specifically around marketing.
We've developed a seven-step process that has to do with everything from MarTech, sales and marketing alignment, all the way through content and content distribution through many different media channels, and then most importantly is bringing all that back together and measuring it. So we have a saying at the company, you can't measure what you don't track. So everything for us is based on math and measurement.
Shantel: How did you get into B2B marketing?
| BUSINESS TO BUSINESS |
Kara: Yeah. So that's a funny question, actually a funny story. So in college I thought I was going to be a lawyer and I went to Europe. So I was going to go live in Germany for six months to get money. I used to load trucks, like legitimately drove a forklift and loaded trucks, and after my very first job out of college I was working for a association management company. I got a call from a company called Echo Global Logistics, which was really the first tech enabled freight broker. I was in Chicago, about 2006, working for startups was not cool yet. Facebook had not become big, I'm aging myself and long story short, my dad was like, “Well, you know, you might as well go work for this startup because you can always fix it. You know, you're 24,” and that was really my first entrance to that.
So I was the twelfth employee at Echo Global Logistics. We grew 3,000% in three years. My name is on that IPO press release and the same guys that started Echo, Eric Lefkofsky and Brad Keywell, are also the founders of Groupon. They've helped spin up companies like MediaBank which became Mediaocean, Belly, Sprout Social, et cetera. Now they have Uptake and all sorts of companies, but super, super lucky to be in the right place at the right time at that early stage of my career and then stayed in business to business.
So having spent some time in supply chain, I moved to Nashville to do another IPO for a $2 billion company. They're owned by Welsh, Carson, Anderson, Stowe out of New York and they were ready to do an IPO, brought me down to do that IPO, ended up not happening and then moved back to Chicago. So really stayed in sorta the B2B supply chain space for most of my career, all my career really, while I was in house. So when I started the consulting practice it was a pretty easy shift and the differences between business to business and business to consumer marketing aren't enormous, but they're big enough that having an expertise in one gives you sort of a leg up in terms of being able to know exactly what customers want or sort of brands want in the B2B versus B2C space.
Shantel: Was there a defining moment for you that you were like, I don't want to work for anyone else, I'm going to start my own thing or just right time, right place type of moment. I mean do you remember that timeframe for you and what went into that decision?
Kara: That was the whole of the story's about, how that happened. So one, we were living in Nashville and we were going to do this IPO. Long story short, we got a call from Katie Couric and that ended that sort of IPO direction really quickly. So I said to my husband, "Hey, I've got like three to six months here until they decide sort of what to do with me and I'm not really a fit here anymore," because my skillset was pretty specific for this IPO process at the time and he said, "All right, well why don't we move home and have some babies." I was like, "Okay." So we moved back to Chicago, which is home for us and popped out a kid and I decided I was going to be a stay at home mom, like most moms do or they want to, and then I was really bored. Like super bored, out of my mind bored.
So instead of being bored, I had two babies under two, was getting an MBA and spun up a consulting practice at the same time. Which now that I look back on, that was really silly but super fun. So started sending emails for friends that had businesses. I was really fortunate because I had been a part of that early 600 West environment, I had lots of friends that had started businesses and started sending emails for them. Sort of for target pin money, fast forward a couple of years and I get a job offer to take a full time job in Atlanta. So the first time around I really didn't think that I was going to be an entrepreneur of any sort. It was really just consulting money and then I was going to get a full time job.
So I did the whole time job thing again and finally my husband said to me, "You know, everybody's happier in our family. The whole family's happier. You're happier, you're always going to work 120 hours a week but everybody's happier when you do it for yourself. You were really happy when you were sort of out there hustling for yourself," and so I took his advice super literally. I'm very, very fortunate I have an incredible partner and spun up the consultant practice again in Atlanta where I know nobody. We've been here for two years and it's been super successful. Only 2% of female founders will break $1 million dollars in ARR and we did that in less than two years with an all female team. So super proud of what we've accomplished. This time we are definitely going balls to the walls and we're going to make this a real business.
Shantel: That's amazing and I love how you mentioned, you just popped out a kid. You make everything sound so easy.
Kara: Well I lost the entire year of 2014, like the whole year. I have two under two, they were 13 months apart. So my therapist says that I actually have like PTSD from that year of two under two. So it definitely wasn't easy, but we tend to, you know, not talk about the really hard times. We could do a mommy podcast for that one if you want to.
Shantel: Well no, I mean I'm glad you even just mentioned that and I appreciate you being vulnerable there. I've talked to a lot of entrepreneurs and there is kind of this resounding, across the board of like, "Hey, we believe," and I'll just generalize here, "A lot of people do see therapists." Do you mind elaborating a little bit on how that has helped maybe your relationship as an entrepreneur, a female entrepreneur in a household? If you don't mind getting into it a little bit or do you believe in going to a therapist pretty often? Like kind of what are your thoughts around that for like a happy, healthy way.
| ENTREPRENEUR PEOPLE |
Kara: Yeah. So I have lots of therapists. Most of them don't know they're therapists. Lots of them are shared friends of yours and mine that are entrepreneur friends. I think there's nothing more important in this journey than finding people that have a totally different perspective than you but are going down the same path. So, you and I have a friend, he's actually been on your podcast, Morgan Loves, so I'll use his name. I always say I'm going to start the Morgan Loves club. So what I really like about our relationship and the second time I met Morgan, I asked him to be my mentor. Like just straight out. I was like, "I have to have you in my life. We're both super married. How do I put you in my life without it being awkward?" So I was like, "Will you please be my mentor," and we read a bunch together, it was just really cute, but that relationship that I have with Morgan is, he is super different than me.
He is all about strategy. Humongous big thinker. Has a strategy for how he names his children, which is incredible and I am almost 100% tactical and so I really like spending time with people, we're on the same entrepreneurial journey, right. We're going through the same sort of issues, we're having the same challenges in our life and our relationships and not just with our spouses, but with employees and partners and things like that. It's been really, really great for me to have other entrepreneurs that are coming from really different places and that see things with a different focus, if you will, or a different filter has been really helpful. I don't actually have like an actual therapist that I see on a weekly basis, but, you know, everybody gets down, right? Like everybody has, like times when things are really bad and you just think there's no way this is going to work. Whether you have a full time job or you're an entrepreneur, I think it probably happens to me less as an entrepreneur than it did when I was working full time and I don't know exactly why. I think it has something to do with owning your own destiny.
So I am pretty good at closing deals. So I know that if I can get in front of someone I can close the deal and therefore I am the master of my own destiny, right? The more deals I close, the bigger the business gets, I can do sort of whatever I want the bigger we get and there's some freedom in that. There's some flexibility and I think that sort of, but that flexibility also leads to other issues, right? How am I going to spend my time and as the business gets bigger there are scaling issues and so I think it's really important, I've found it to be really important to surround myself with people that are going through the same sort of phase in life.
I remember when I met another entrepreneur that I really connected with and she and I just immediately hit it off and I remember texting my husband and I said, "I think I met my people. Like I think I've found my people," and I feel like when that happens it's really exciting and there are like people at every phase of your life, right. A million years ago when I was in college, I had my sorority, right. When I got out of college, I was really into fitness and Ironman training and I had my Ironman people, and now I have my entrepreneur people. So I think for every phase of life there are sort of the group of people that you need for that particular time in your life. Babies too, other moms, very important.
Shantel: Yeah. Certainly. I'm glad you, kind of you touched on and maybe you didn't say it like this, but this is how I heard it, that you almost could feel pressure as an entrepreneur because you have so much control over your destiny. Like you could not sell for two months and then that means you may have to fire someone or you could sell for two months and that means maybe you take that vacation you've been wanting to take, and just have kind of that one self-awareness, but then also the discipline to really carve out the path that you want could maybe be a little bit intimidating and bogged down. At least that's what I took away from it. It was kind of an interesting perspective to stop and pause and think, hey, maybe that's sometimes why we may or I may feel some pressure is just the fact that because I'm driving the ship, so I have to make these decisions and hopefully they're the right ones.
Kara: I think not everyone is a natural leader, right. I am the last person that should be building a process for anything, right. I'm the last person that should be determining what our time management process, right. Like, we're a consulting job so we charge per hour and if you don't track the time, you can't bill the client, right, but I'm the last person that should manage that process and I think there's an element of running a small shop that you sort of have to be the master of all of these elements of your business. I think one of the things that I took away from 2017, which was a top year for the business, but a really good growth year for me as a person, was that I don't have to do everything myself. So I think there's a point, as an entrepreneur, when your business gets to a point, you realize it's impossible for me to do all this by myself.
So we have, you know, we have more than $1 million in revenue, which means we're billing, you know, more than $100 thousand a month. It's not possible for one person to execute that much work and it's not possible for one, for that expectation to even, you know, to even exist. So I do think that when you get to a point where you realize, okay, I can't do this all by myself, but I still have to lead the ship and it's really important to get the right people on board.
So we hire mostly women. We don't hire any woman, we hire the right women and that has been probably our biggest challenge and it's been a big challenge for me too because once you meet someone, and I'm sure you've had this experience, and you like them and you want to work with them and it's really exciting and you acquiesce sort of this part of your baby, right. So you're like, "Okay, I just built this business and I'm really excited about it and I'm going to give you this whole piece to manage all by yourself with almost no oversight." Like that's really scary for an entrepreneur, because some of us come up like I have through sort of service based business. So that's been sort of a pretty scary part, but I do think that if you get the right team in place, that you can make things a lot easier.
Shantel: Well, first and foremost, I need to congratulate you. I think you actually told me this stat probably about a year ago, but only 2%, right? Was it 2%?
Kara: I think 2016. So it may be a little dated, but it's not over three or four for sure.
Shantel: Well, this is still a hell of a stat. So 2% of women business owners make it to the $1 million mark in revenue. So kudos to you, because that is hard work and certainly very admirable.
| EMPOWERING WOMEN |
Kara: Thanks. Yeah and actually I also read another stat four weeks ago that said only 10% of female entrepreneurs have more than one employee. So, yeah, it's just sort of wild to me that there's just not that many of us. So I do feel this sort of camaraderie when you meet other female entrepreneurs, especially the ones that have quote unquote made it. That there is sort of a special bond without even necessarily knowing that you have it and so I'm really fortunate, there's probably three groups in Atlanta. Another thing that I have really come to love about Atlanta, moving here from Chicago, is the female community, female entrepreneur community is just incredible. So there's, you know, EO and EOA which are awesome. They have a bunch of great women in them. There's launchpad2x which is run by a phenomenal woman, Bernice Dixon and she has a boot camp, a three day boot camp and she calls it rocket fuel for female entrepreneurs, which is just incredible. The boot camp was probably 10 times my MBA in three days. It was just incredible.
Then there's the Women's Entrepreneurship Initiative which is run by the City of Atlanta and it's really an incubator run by the city, which is just incredible. So about 200 women have applied for the last two cohorts and they allow 15 in. So we're very fortunate to be in the WEI community, the Women's Entrepreneurship Initiative community. I find that the women in Atlanta that are more senior, are also willing to sort of lend a hand to those of us that are more junior and help sort of pull us up. It's just been an absolutely terrific experience being here in Atlanta a female entrepreneur.
Shantel: You know, I found that to be kind of across the board for entrepreneurs as a whole. Just this willingness to help. Like there's never this, I'm better than you, I don't have time to share my experience. Like just in, you know, maybe kind of just being in the circle of the entrepreneur's organization has led to that, but I think what I'm finding is people want to help however they can because they remember kind of the struggles, if you will, and they can talk through some of those with some really great experiences. No, I certainly agree. Atlanta is an awesome community for that. Do you intend to only hire female employees?
Kara: But I will tell you that we have a set of core values and then we have a second set of core values called our lady boss values. I am a fierce female advocate. I'm a fierce female, I don't even know. I'm a feminist. We're fierce feminists at the organization. All of us. We have a feminist wall, so every new employee, whether male or female, gets to pick their shero and a feminist quote and they go on the wall. So we have a fantastic feminist wall full of things like, know your worth and add tax. We have a picture of the notorious RBG on the wall. We have a Hillary Clinton, we have a Sally Krawcheck. So just incredible women that we all look up to and part of, as an entrepreneur people are always asking you, you know, what are you going to do to give back, what are you going to do to be a social good, and at the end of the day we're consultants, right.
Like we could probably do some pro bono work, but at the end of the day we are all about empowering women and if that is empowering women to be really great employers, or employees, or just do great work, or work in an environment that is just female friendly, we have a hashtag that we like to sort of say around the office, which is hashtag not with a male boss. So for example, I will rock flip flops during the day, right in the office wear my flip flops and then when I go to a meeting will put on my heels and, you know, sort of a funny, hashtag not with a male boss. Like he doesn't get putting on heels. I mean maybe some do, but like I said, men probably don't understand the putting on of heels to go to a meeting and how painful that can be to walk around in all day and just really fun things.
We do mani pedis as a team. Actually, I was out of town a couple weeks ago and the team did face masks on a Friday night. We have a wine fridge instead of a beer keg. So yeah, we're super female friendly. We're dedicated to all things women. I'm really proud. We spun up an organization called Close(her). So I'm a marketer, but at the end of the day, specifically in B2B, marketing and sales are all one. We sort of call them smarketing and if you're not aligned with your sales team, the marketing team always loses. I tell my team this all the time. Marketing always loses to sales and so we have developed a culture of sales in our company. Everything is about the sales team, getting the sales team what they need, having everything they need setup.
So a friend of mine, Jordan and I spun up a group called Close(her) and it's for women in sales and just another way for us to give back to women in the community. I'm super proud that we're taking it to New York City in October 2018. So someone in New York saw that we were doing this in Atlanta and asked that we come and bring Close(her) to New York City, which is just incredible. So super proud of the way that's all come together and that the Close(her) brand is just as feminist and all about female empowerment as the SmithBrown brand. So it's really important to me.
Shantel: Well congrats on the city expansion. I didn't know about that, but it's a great event for any of you listening that are in Atlanta or now I guess upcoming in New York and I can certainly get down with the wine cellar. I like that idea and will be bringing that back into the team. So thanks for sharing.
Kara: You know, I wish I had known sooner about the relationship with other entrepreneurs and how important and how impactful that was going to be.
Shantel: Is there anything you wish you knew when you first got started as an entrepreneur?
Kara: So I learned early on, specifically in my role as an entrepreneur or building this business, I was sort of going at it alone. I was in my house, you know, in my basement. It wasn't anything glamorous. I didn't work out a co-working space, I just sort of got work done with my clients and spent time with my family and it was really insular. I think if I had known what I know now, I would've reached out a lot sooner to individuals that couldn't necessarily do something for me, but were just going to be individuals in my orbit that could help me solve problems.
I think coming from a purely corporate environment, I had never really experienced that before, aside from mentors, right. So I had an absolutely terrific boss at Echo Global Logistics and some really great experiences in the other companies that I worked for that had sort of been a mentor mentee relationship, but I had never had sort of a colleague. That probably stems from being a business to business marketer in that most B2B environments don't have big marketing teams. So it's usually one, maybe two people in the marketing team, sometimes none, and I think that led me to not know exactly how to reach out to people and share experiences without necessarily being competitive. So I think I would have reached out to other entrepreneurs sooner, but I don't think I waited too long. It feels pretty good.
Shantel: Yeah. I certainly agree. There's so much value in just surrounding yourself with like-minded people, sharing ideas, and problems, and solutions. So I certainly agree with that. What do you guys think is next on the horizon for SmithBrown Marketing?
| KEEP THE BALANCE |
Kara: That's a great question. So for the business itself, you just need to keep growing. We are super fortunate. We sort of have two types of clients and we have a really nice balance. We have entrepreneur clients that have sort of made it, we have entrepreneurs that are upwards of $52 million in revenue and they have hit a roadblock. They need sort of a stronger marketing presence for their sales team or they need some sort of basics. They have never really used a CRM or they need to understand how CRM and marketing automation works together. The need to build some basic workflows. A lot of times we interact with entrepreneurs that are, we call them spending their own money to better the business or get to their next level of growth. Then the other half of our business, are we call it spending other people's money, that are big businesses that either have gaps on their marketing team or it's just not a strategic investment for their business to hire a bunch of six figure marketers because they just don't need them all the time. So instead they pay us for one to two to three days of our time to execute what they would normally execute if they had a big team.
So I think over time we would like to keep that balance, which is really important to our team. The individual entrepreneurs that are growing with spending their own money are sorta like fast little jets in the water and they move super, super fast and they can make changes whenever they want. Sometimes you're not exactly sure where they're going, but they're going to go there super-fast and they're so exciting to work with. They're usually super dynamic personalities and I learn so much from these entrepreneurs. One client comes to mind particularly, just an absolutely genius entrepreneur and I love spending time with him. Every time I spend time with them, I learn something.
Then our clients that are sort of spending other people's money, we also learn something from them. They're a little slower, they take a little more time to get approved, usually there is some level of bureaucracy, but there's a really strong strategy set by a senior management team that knows, they know what they want and they know how to achieve it and we become a part of that team. So I think there's benefits to having a blend of both of those types of organizations and it's a real benefit for me personally and for the team's personal growth to have access and visibility into both of those types of organizations.
Kara: Sure. So we are smithbrownmarketing.com. You can find us on Facebook, we have absolutely terrific woman on our team who personally has 30,000 Instagram followers. So she is incredible. So while our Instagram feed is light, it is very well curated. She does an excellent job and we're online. We are also pretty active, I would say super active in sort of the female empowerment community in Atlanta and trying to continue to push that as we grow, and look forward to spending time with as many entrepreneurs, male or female, as possible because we learn from both, of course, but know that I come to the table as a pretty fierce feminist.
Shantel: Yeah. I find it super energizing to work with some of the startups that leave a little bit quickly, but then I can imagine just the take aways from some of these larger companies are invaluable. How can people get in touch with you, learn more about your company, perhaps interview, kind of when you're hiring to work with your team.
Kara: It was awesome. Thanks so much for having me.
Shantel: Well, thank you so much for being on the show and carving out the time to connect. We really appreciate it.