by Tim Jahn on January 25, 2011
Danny Brown co-founded Bonsai Interactive Marketing 6 months ago. The company wasn’t called that at first though. Danny had registered the business, got the logo, the website, acquired some clients, and then a month later realized that the company needed a new name and new branding.
In this interview, Danny shares how he and his business partner went about branding (and rebranding their) company without losing clients or their reputation.
Tim Jahn: Let me start with this. Horrible question but one of my favorites. What do you do?
Danny Brown: It’s the elevator pitch question. Basically help companies grow a business. The — our company’s called Bonsai Interactive. And one of the meanings of bonsai, the tree bonsai is the art of growing. So that’s basically what we do, we help businesses grow their business and actually it’s in traditional marketing, traditional PR and new media like blogging, social media, other tools like that. So basically it’s a full service integrate marketing agency. And I’m one of the founders of that.
Tim Jahn: And how did you come about founding Bonsai? Because I know you guys are less than a year old, right? Where did it come from?
Danny Brown: Yeah, yeah, well my business partner Troy Clause and I used to work, when I was doing my own consultancy I had a six month contract with a company called Maritz Canada. And they’re a big sort of marketing agency that deal with the likes of Maritz Canada etc. And Troy was on the IBM account and we got chatting, we became friends and we did a chat event — you know yourself we were doing the 1212K stuff and we did a charity event for Haiti back in January this year which is, wow it’s almost a year when we — so we did a charity event for Haiti when that happened.
And Troy helped me organize that. He played a big part in its success. And we just got chatting at the end of the night saying, “Wow, this is really cool, we work well together. You know, what about starting a business?” Because he’s got a real strong lead generation business development background.
I come more from the creative angle. So we bring different strengths to the table if you like and they combine well together. So that’s, that was certainly genesis of it. We toyed around with some ideas, we originally started off as the SRM group which was socially responsible media. But we felt that pigeonholed us although we want to give a lot back to local and national charities throughout the business or through what we’re doing with business.
A portion of our profits go back to charity. We just thought that pigeonholed us a little bit too much. So we started messing around with names. Bonsai was one of the names that popped up. It just seemed right and we’re both don’t have any Japanese culture and the whole art of growing seemed to fit our goals. So that’s really what it came from and then it’s just that it grown from there.
Tim Jahn: How far along did you get with the SRM group in terms of creating a business out of it? Were you already branded, were you already incorporated or was it just more you had the thoughts —
Danny Brown: Yeah, this is like one of the smartest business decisions we ever made. We started a business, we got the business registered, we had to brand the logo, everything. We built the website, we brought some clients on, and now a month later we changed it. So really smart decisions in the — but they, it was weird because people knew us as SRM but then it’s almost as if they allowed us this easy transition into Bonsai because the whole ethos what we do at Bonsai was already established with what we did with SRM and what we did previously on our own and eight companies we worked with.
People were really nice and just seemed to transition really well. But yeah, it was a stupid decision on our part that we already had this brand that we were starting to build up, people really liked the idea of a whole social responsible media group and then we certainly abandoned that, went with Bonsai. So not the smartest thing we ever did but thankfully it worked out. So I’ll probably, a month, two months tops, we had SRM and then we moved over to Bonsai.
Tim Jahn: Yeah, that’s, to me you have to have quite a case for yourself to justify switching all that. Because if you already have the branding, the business registered, and I mean, that alone you probably invested some money in. And then if you already have clients under that name, at that point I would say, you would really have to have a case for yourself to say, “Oh crap, we have to rebrand, we have to re-create ourselves.” What was the case? Was it just that being pigeonholed and that it just wasn’t — you guys just felt deep down that wasn’t the right name and kind of character for you guys?
Danny Brown: Yeah, I think what it was time, I mean, you mentioned it pretty well there. That the pigeonhole effect definitely had a big sway on our decision. You hear the name Social Responsible Media; you think yeah, non profits, its charities. And yeah, it’s a big part, like I say it’s a big part. I’m huge in charity, Troy’s big in charity, he’s in charity as well. Obviously we, that’s how we met in a way our starting a business. But we didn’t want to be known as a company that maybe mistaken as a nonprofit or a charitable organization. We sat and we helped them, but our core business is marketing and business development and helping brands grow their presence whether it’s offline or online. So that was a deciding factor.
Luckily we, the clients that we’d had on board with SRM were clients that we brought on board from our own individual backgrounds if you like. So they were — because it was — I think if we’d had say another three or four months and it was like a really strong, established brand, it may have been difficult to make the transition.
But because we were early in the whole SRM group and the clients have come on board from individual consultancy background or from Troy’s business background, it was slightly easier to make because there was no clients from an SRM point of view. They were all comprised and that when we brought them on board as SRM. With Bonsai, we’ve got a mix of clients that we brought on board and new clients that were won during the transition. People knew that we did more than just social media.
Because I think again, Social Responsible Media, you think social media overall. We do a lot more than social media. We do integrated marketing, we do print media, we’ll do guerrilla marketing, we’ll do blogger outreach. If you go to our services page on the website, it tells you all the stuff we do. So it’s not just social media. And I think that was another bad thing if you like of SRM, it pigeonholed us into this whole yeah, you know we do social media and as you know yourself mate, social media’s a component to what you can add to everything else. It’s not the be all and end all of one great thing.
Tim Jahn: So it sounds to me like that whole experience was almost a lesson for you guys in terms of that idea, you know fail early, if something’s not working, address it right away and iterate and kind of, don’t spend too much time on deciding. Just kind of get things moving.
Danny Brown: Yeah, exactly. I mean, that’s some of the things we speak to our clients about. Obviously we monitor how projects are going or how campaigns are going. And if something’s not working out, they want to nix it, and try something else. And it was exactly the same with our own stuff. So yeah, it was good lesson for us. And thankfully it worked out.
Tim Jahn: So when you and Troy decided that this was going to be a good idea to start a business together, what were the first steps in terms of actually doing it? Because I’m always fascinated because I have ideas all the time but rarely do I actually make businesses out of them. Because it’s such a, not a lot of work but you really have to be committed, you know what I mean. And I feel with myself included creative entrepreneurs have so many ideas that you have to pick which ones you commit to. So I guess my question is how did you know that this was something you were going to commit to and this was something worth committing to?
Danny Brown: Yeah, I think it’s also a great point about the whole it’s not work when it makes sense, but it’s a lot of work getting to that point when it makes sense. Both Troy and I got really simpler mindsets. We both know how we want to do business. And that was the whole thing with SRM is like doing business right. That was one of the taglines that we were messing about with. So we knew that as a partnership we’d work well together.
And just had to decide okay, what services do we want to offer. Obviously, social medias a big part of the current business landscape. But we just find that so many companies are splitting it up and they’re saying, “Yeah, we do social media, we’ll help you do this.” We’re basically saying great, but that’s just one thing. so we had to decide how strong a part do we want social media to play, how strong a part do we want our marketing, you know, expertise to play, how strong a part do we want new media like blogging and video blogging to play in blog outreach.
And so it was whole bunch of different components that went to to think, okay, is this going to work, is this going to be part of the business, who’s going to lead that part, who’s going to be strong this part. Like I said Troy brings a really strong brand perspective, a really strong business development and lead generation. So it made sense for him to handle that. I bring different skill sets so it made sense for me to handle these. And both of them bounced off each other. And so that made it easier in a sense for the company and the direction of the company, what way we would be going. Then we just had to decide, okay, how do we want to be positioned in Bonsai?
Do we want to be like a really boring serious corporate company like the ones we just come from or do we want to have a little bit of fun and say, “Okay, we’re business people but business people can still have fun.” And hopefully that comes across in some of the stuff that we do video wise. Some of the stuff that we put in place for clients and some of the campaigns that we do. And our own blogs as well, like we have fun on our blogs and still offer business advice but just show you can have fun and be a business person at the same time.
Tim Jahn: You mentioned a little bit back that you guys brought some clients to SRM initially and then carried them over to Bonsai. Where do you get your clients initially from? I mean the ones you kind of brought on when the business was created?
Danny Brown: The consultancy, because Troy was coming from a corporate background with Maritz Canada. Obviously he couldn’t bring any clients across from there because that would have been filing lawsuits and all kinds of good stuff. So some of the clients that we brought on were the ones that I were dealing with on a solo consultancy basis. I’d been contracted at Maritz for six months but prior to that I had my own consultancy and solo agency if you’d like. And I still had clients from these days that needed work doing more on a sort of freelance basis that we just brought across.
But we knew that SRM was going to be a business, and then obviously it transferred and went to Bonsai, a big part of it was new client development. And again, Troy was strong at that. We found a bunch of local clients and also some clients from relationships that we got that worked, but relationships that we built online in the likes of Twitter, blogging and Facebook. And we got some inquiries just from the stuff that we were doing with the company and what people were starting to see us talk about on twitter, on our blog, etc.
Tim Jahn: Yeah, I think the relationship parts important though because I know in certain circles it’s over talked about and it’s over I don’t know, over-everything. But it doesn’t matter what business your in, I was dabbling in the film business a few years ago working on some movies here in Chicago. And the film business is entirely base don who you know. I mean, there is no other way to work your way up in that business. So I think it’s an important part in any business so I’m glad you brought that up.
Danny Brown: Yeah.
Tim Jahn: You had a solo consultancy before Bonsai and before your contract. What made you get into doing solo consultancies? Or that’s not even a word, solo consulting?
Danny Brown: It sounds like a bit dodgy there for — it sounds like the movies you were appearing in in Chicago. Well, yeah, it’s, I think it was a factor — I mean you must know yourself. I’m sure you’ve worked for companies before you started doing your own thing. You get restricted, you get really frustrated and you see companies doing things one way that you think you should be doing that.
In other words, there’s a better way to do that. But you get bosses with egos and bosses with chips on their shoulders that don’t want to listen to ideas and they just want to continue doing what they’re doing, and losing company money, causing people to lose their jobs because of it and it gets really frustrating. And personally I just want to say put your money where your mouth is.
You know, if you think that there’s a better way of doing this, why don’t you show us a better way of doing it? So I struck out, started my own business. It was tough, it’s — it’s like any business it’s always going to be tough at the start because you’ve gone from a guaranteed paycheck into okay, where’s the next paycheck coming from? You’ve got like a roof to keep over your head, food to put on the table, all that good stuff. So when I first started it was scary, but it’s been great. I don’t think I could ever work for someone else again.
You get into the mindset that you’re responsible for what you do, you know that if something messes up it’s your fault, but at least you’ve got the will before to recognize that and go in and try and make fixes. Whereas before it’s their company, if you see something that’s going wrong and you know how to fix it, you might not have a chance to fix that because your boss wants to do something else. So it’s really, it’s from the control lingo of being 100% responsible for what you do, any success or failures that you have, and you know, it’s — I let people think it’s attractive and sexy to be your own boss.
And it is to a degree but it’s also hard work. And you know that yourself, you get your long hours, you’ve got the scary, okay, how am I going to be able to pay the mortgage this month when all the bills start coming in and I’ve only got one paycheck coming in or whatever. But it’s fun at times and it’s exciting as well.
And I think when you get that kind of freedom; it just encourages you to think better than being stuck in a cubicle somewhere. And no disrespect to cubical workers because I was one for years and they work bloody hard. You know, it’s — everybody’s got something of value to bring in or whatever job they’re in whether it’s your in business or sitting in a cubicle or you know selling hotdogs. I mean, you wouldn’t eat hotdogs if there wasn’t a hot dog vendor so everybody’s got value to whatever job they’ve got. But I think when you’re your own boss; it’s just a different thing all together. And I rambled here so I apologize. Feel free to cut me whenever I start rambling.
Tim Jahn: You brought up a great point about how everyone has their value from the hotdog vendors to the cubicle workers, to Mark Zuckerberg. Everyone’s got their contributions.
Danny Brown: Easy there with Zuckerberg man.
Tim Jahn: What?
Danny Brown: Easy there with Zuckerberg.
Tim Jahn: Yeah, his value is to be determined here depending on what happens in the coming years.
Danny Brown: (inaudible) of the universe.
Tim Jahn: You were talking about — or no I was going to ask you, when you first started your solo consulting and kind of going out on your own from the corporate world, what was the biggest surprise for you? Because you talked a little bit about how people glorify the entrepreneur lifestyle and glorify maybe you start as freelancing; just the idea of working for yourself. But I feel like once you start doing it for a while, you start to realize certain aspects aren’t what you expected. Were there any aspects that weren’t as you expected when you went off on your own?
Danny Brown: Yeah, I mean I think everybody expects — and maybe it was just me being naïve back in the day. But I think all the people expect that when you go work for yourself you’ve automatically got a client base you can call on because you’ve built a bunch of relationships with people online, you can just go to them, and offline. I mean, I’m speaking online because that’s obviously that’s a lot of the stuff that we do happens, but offline as well.
Because you’ve built friendships and you’ve helped people over coffee or whatever you think, “Oh good. Well, I can call these guys up and they’ll give me work.” And it doesn’t work that way. Everybody’s got a certain budget to work to and if you, even if you’ve got the great solution around, if they don’t have that budget at that given time then they wont be able to give you access to their company if you like. So I think the whole it’s, there’s going to be work waiting for you because you have spoke to people. I think that aspect —
(Talking about cat scratching at the door)
Danny Brown: Yeah, so yeah it’s just going to be the whole thinking that you’re going to be successful from day one and you know yourself obviously you’re not successful from day one. You may have been but it’s — no it doesn’t work that way. You have to go up.
Tim Jahn: And you like I mentioned before we started the interview, you have done a great job of building up the idea of a personal brand and just building up a network. I mean, no matter what business you’re in like I said about the film business or if you’re in the PR business or even if you’re in the trade business, if you’re a plumber, your network is all you have. I mean, whether is customers, whether its fellow tradesman or vendors or fellow crew on a film set. It’s all you have really in terms of advancing forward.
You’ve done a great job through your blog and through — that’s how I first kind of got to know you is your through your blog and through twitter and stuff. But I see you constantly building up your network and not necessarily to sell to people but I think you’re like me, you’re a big believer, you know everyone — the more people you know, the more opportunities arise for everyone. How did you start that though? From the time — and did you start it right when you went off on your own from the corporate world or even before that where you concentrating on building a network just to and why I guess is my question. Did you and why?
Danny Brown: I don’t think it was anything deliberate. I don’t think you’re aware that you’re building a network until you — like I think the first time I realized I had any kind of network was when Twelve for Twelve took off back in January, February 2009 I think when you saw people, work actually help and take part in a project like that. And prior to that I was just thinking, yeah, I’m like you I think Tim. I think we’re both people persons and we like to, you know the videos that you make of the people you speak to shows the sort of interaction back and forth of being a people person.
I think that carries on you know online. So if your like friendly and socialable offline, my wife says sometimes I’m too sociable but now I don’t think I’m bashing her, I think she means I get drunk, you know. But that’s a nice way of saying, “Yeah, you get drunk Danny, you’re sociable.” But it’s not — I don’t think there’s any sort of deliberate way of setting out to say, “Okay, I’m going to know 10,000 people by year one, I’m going to know 20,000 people by year two or anything like that. I think it’s one of these organic things that happens if you’re doing something that other people either agree or disagree with. I’m lucky that I’ve had people like you that came to the blog and left some great comments and we got chatting and got to know each other that way.
So I’ve been lucky form the blog angle where a lot of the comments that have led to friendships like ours. And that again, that builds networks. Because then you bring people across to the blog or you bring people across to the blog or you bring to people across to me twitter account or anything like that and visa versa. And the network keeps growing, you make recommendations, we have chats like this. And again, that’s only going to add hopefully more people will know what you do and through my sharing of it and visa versa and it’s just kind of organic that way I think. I don’t know if that answers your question or not.
Tim Jahn: No, it does, it definitely does. How important do you think for your own success in going out on your own and then starting Bonsai, how important to you in your business has having a network been? No matter necessarily the size of the network but the idea of having a network?
Danny Brown: Yeah, I think I mean, you made a great point earlier about the different trades of networks and if you’re a plumber, a doctor or whatever, everybody’s going to have a different network. And I mean, it’s hugely important for any business to have some kind of network. You’ve given different definitions of what a network is and where a network resides. But it’s hugely important to have that.
It can be a support network and through thus through tough times you’ve got your family and friends that encourage you keep going because it’s easy to give up at times when you see clients either have to cut budgets or you get negative feedback about something you’ve done or — sometimes you get disillusioned and easy to say, “You know what, screw this, I’ll go back to making an easy paycheck somewhere.” But so you have a support network, you have a professional network where if you don’t know something but you really want to find out, you know someone that’s already been there and done that so you again — I guess that ties back into support but it’s also professional network.
For the charity, you know, I’m very fortunate and know a bunch of great people like Beth Count (phonetic) or John Haden’s (phonetic), Stacy Monk (phonetic) that do this stuff for a living. They’re with nonprofits every single day. So if I’ve got a question about okay, I want to do this for Twelve for Twelve, would that be feasible or is that going you know, is that going to patronize the charity because that’s the last thing you want to do is patronize a charity when you’re trying to help them. These guys are there with the answers.
So think if you’re trying to be successful at anything, any single thing you do, you have to have at least one other person to bounce ideas off. And that one person could be a network. You know, as long as you’ve got someone that’s there that can tell you where you’ve gone right or wrong, it’s huge. Without a network I think you can become surrounded by “Yes men” or “Yes women” or “Yes people” and just turn into a real douche. So I think it’s important to have a strong network definitely.
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