The Importance Of Communicating Your Expertise Clearly – With Kat Gordon

by Tim Jahn on January 4, 2011

Kat Gordon started her own marketing business 13 years ago and began working with a lot of clients in the mom space.  When she became a mother herself, Kat realized the mom space was her niche.  She had the right experience and knowledge, but wasn’t communicating her expertise clearly.

When she rebranded her business and increased her focus, a new world of opportunities started opening up.  I interviewed Kat to learn why she rebranded her company and how important it was to her business.


Tim Jahn: So you founded your own marketing agency geared towards mothers and then you’re also speaking, you’re consulting, and you’re a mother yourself. But this all started back when you were just out of college and you became the youngest copywriter at Sports Illustrated? How did you land that gig?

Kat Gordon: Yeah, it’s funny. I started working in the magazine business right out of college and wasn’t sure what I wanted to do with my degree which was an English and French. And I started to work at USA Today newspaper in the market research department and we would always crunch some numbers and then hand them over to the promotions department and they would do something really creative with it.

And I thought, “That’s where I want to be.” And so I went to school at night at the school of Visual Arts in New York City and worked on my portfolio and basically I just tried to get a job and I landed at Cosmopolitan magazine first and then I had met the creative director at Sports Illustrated through a contact and I was just persistent.

I kept sending him work I was producing and then he eventually had an opening in his department and hired me, and I was 23 I think. And I remember him telling me, that I was the youngest person to ever worked in the creative services department. But it was a great experience definitely.

Tim Jahn: That must have been exciting. I mean, Sports Illustrated, I mean was and still is a huge name. So I mean out of college that must have been exciting to work for a name like that.

Kat Gordon: It was and it’s fun to work on a brand that people are so passionate about. I would go out to bars with my friends and meet young guys my age and they’d ask, “Oh, where do you work.” And when you say, “Oh, I work at Sports Illustrated”, you kind of had some celebrity. They were definitely enthused.

Tim Jahn: So Maternal Instinct, you mentioned in your pre-interview notes that you realized after you had your kids and after you had been working at your own agency before for a long time, you realized you had all these mom related clients and that you should just kind of refocus your business on the mom aspect. When you had that realization, what was the first action you took towards making that pivot?

Kat Gordon: Great question. You know, it was almost like I was doing the job before I put the label on it. So I was kind of helping all clients in that space, but I didn’t have the name that communicated that expertise. And people were just finding me through word-of-mouth recommendations.

And it occurred to me, wow, I should really brand the business in a way that suggests an expertise in marketing to moms. And so really the first action I took was thinking of a name a hire an art director to create a logo and an identity. So it was more about formularizing something that already was kind of happening.

Tim Jahn: And I think a lot of people, a lot of entrepreneurs are in the same situation where they have to go out and get a logo, they have to get a website design because most of us aren’t designers or developers. How did you go about doing that? Did you have a friend who was a designer, did you go on a site like Crowdspring, did you just randomly hit up the yellow pages?

Kat Gordon: No, I mean, because my background is as an advertising creative director and copywriter, I was always paired with art directors on the work I was doing. So I had — it was almost hard for me to choose who I wanted to use because I knew so many really talented art directors. So I had never gone cold with design services. I’m lucky that I’ve experienced peoples work firsthand on project we’d done together.

Tim Jahn: It’s a testament to it’s all about who you know, right?

Kat Gordon: It is, it is.

Tim Jahn: At what point did you know this idea was going work, that rebranding yourself for the moms and marketing that way was going to bring in more business? Was there every a doubt that this might not work, I might have to pivot again?

Kat Gordon: Definitely. I was a little bit concerned about the mom market feeling too narrow and that maybe it should be more marketing to women. Because there’s a lot of duplication obviously in those two markets; one is a subset of the other. So it was scary especially when the recession hit. But I actually think the opposite happened. That when you have a expertise and a niche and people can find you based on that, you actually have more job security.

So I was pleasantly surprised to see that clients were finding me. I started a business blog about marketing to moms which I think is critical. And I’m always amazed when people tell me they read my blog; people I don’t know. It’s just great to feel those ripple effects go out into the world.

Tim Jahn: You said your blog was critical. What do you mean by that?

Kat Gordon: I think it’s really, really important if you want to establish yourself as a thought leader in any space to have the discipline to write about it. And it’s funny, I guess because I’m a writer, it becomes naturally to me. But I have other clients where I’ll really encourage them to start a blog or some kind of place where they can share what they know. And a lot of people get scared because they say, “Oh, I’m not a writer.”

And the one thing I always advise people is don’t think of it as writing, think of it as sharing. It’s kind of if you’re spending a lot of time learning about something and you’ve connected dots that other people might not have connected yet, that’s really valuable information to share with the world and to establish yourself as someone who’s paid attention. So I think a blog is just one way you could do that. There are obviously a lot of others like what you’re doing for instance with your podcasting.

Tim Jahn: I love that. Think of it as sharing, not writing. That’s a really good piece of advice.

Kat Gordon: Thanks.

Tim Jahn: Thank you. So obviously you’re a mom yourself. I mean this is part of where the idea came from and how you found yourself in this world. I just recently had my first son three and a half months ago so I’m slowly getting familiar with the idea of having a kid and doing everything else you used to do before he was here.

What’s the toughest part for you? You have two kids. In terms of having a family, and having kids, yet running your own business?

Kat Gordon: I think the hardest part is coming home and trying to just be a mother. Which I think is what you want to do. You want to come home and really give them your undivided attention and it’s difficult especially when you run your own business because there are always open loops in your head of things that haven’t resolved yet from the day, things that maybe you still have to do after they go to bed.

And I find that when I surrender myself to my kids, and I really look them in the eye, and talk to them, and read with them, and ask them questions it’s such a joyful experience. And it’s just hard to be that kind of singular in your attention.

Tim Jahn: I totally agree. I find myself sometimes it will be at night or you’re at dinner or something and something from the business will come into your mind and start to eat away at it. I’m the kind of person where the thoughts overtake me. I’m sure a lot of entrepreneurs are like that. You might be like that.

What do you do? Have you found any techniques for keeping yourself in the situation you’re in and saying, “All right, shelve that idea until later when the kids are in bed or to when I have appropriate time to work on it.” What techniques do you have?

Kat Gordon: One technique I use and I can’t remember where I picked it up. But I think what bothers us in that moment is that we’re afraid we’re going to forget it or we’re afraid we’re going to forget the maybe little bit of incite that’s occurring as we think about it. So I try to do kind of a brain dump at the end of everyday before I leave my office where I just write down everything that’s in my head.

And kind of just knowing that it’s on paper and that I can revisit it later allows me to if it pops into my head, to kind of say, “Yep, that’s on the to-do list” and I can refocus. Because I think really the danger is that we’re afraid that we won’t be efficient with getting those things done but just kind of committing it all to paper and revisiting it later I think is a great way to go.

Tim Jahn: That is a great idea. I think you’re exactly right. I think it’s a matter of you just feel uncomfortable you’re going to forget and destroy and it’s all going to fall apart.

Kat Gordon: Yep exactly.

Tim Jahn: In your pre-interview notes, you also said, no one will give you permission to be a leader. I love that. What did you mean by that specifically?

Kat Gordon: Well, here’s an example. I left the ad agency world when I was a senior copywriter at a good ad agency in San Francisco. And I left as many women do because I knew I wanted to have kids and advertising is just not a very family friendly life especially for creative’s; they tend to work late into the night, I call vampire hours.

And I just knew that comminuting to San Francisco, working those hours would not align with the kind of mom I wanted to be. And for a long while as I was freelancing as my children were born, I realized I was basically doing the job of a creative director but no one had bestowed that title on me. And so for a long while I thought about going back to the ad agency world to kind of achieve that level and have someone bestow that level upon me. And there was kind of this big aha moment I had where I thought, maybe I can just call myself a creative director. I’m doing that job.

And once I put that out into the world, and really started to get more projects where I was a creative director and not just a writer, it was so much more gratifying and it was on my terms. And it was something I actually read about in a great book that I encourage your viewers to read called, I believe it’s called, “What I wish I knew when I was 20.” And it’s written by a woman named Tina Seelig. Her last name is S-e-e-l-I-g. She works at the Stanford Design School. She talks a lot about that, about how women especially feel like they have to be granted kind of their space in the world by someone else rather than claiming it for their own.

And so I think that’s really where I kind of realized, so no ones going to give me permission to be a creative director. I’m just going to be a creative director. And I’ve been doing that for years now and it’s great to have that kind of clarity.

Tim Jahn: That’s cool. So you just kind of took it upon it yourself to become that position even though you were doing it anyway, so in a sense you were that position.

Kat Gordon: I was. And I think when I was honest with myself about if I were to go back to a big agency in the city and become a creative director, when I thought about the way my time would be spent in that role at a large agency, I realized that it really didn’t align with the things I liked to do.

And I realized that if I became a creative director within my own small agency, I would have control over things and be able to spend my time on things that were most gratifying to me. So I kind of wrote my own ticket. And I think we live in extraordinary times where 20, 30 years ago, you didn’t have that ability to just kind of start your own ad agency and build your own website. And it’s so exciting for people to realize that you can create your destiny and you don’t — there are certainly some avenues like going to portfolio school for me or doctors still go to medical school.

But there are a lot of ways that if you are smart and enterprising, and persistent, that you can create things kind of and take short cuts. And again, to do them on your own terms, that you don’t have to work for the man and play by their rules and sit in a cubicle. You really can create the ideal situation for yourself and for your family.

Tim Jahn: What do you think for you, what’s the number one tip you have for someone looking to do that, for looking to create the ideal situation for themselves, and family? Maybe they don’t want to be in a cubicle and maybe they don’t want to own their business; maybe they want to work for a certain company. What’s your one tip for getting that want?

Kat Gordon: I think the more that you are specific about the details of what it looks like and feels like and the more you insist upon that standard, the more likely it is to materialize for you. I think so many people get immobilized because they think, well that doesn’t exist. I hear a lot of women who have kids my children’s age, middle school, elementary school and they haven’t stayed in the workforce as I have done.

And it’s so daunting to think about going back especially if they want to have some flexibility with their kids that they just kind of get immobilized and say, “Well, I’ll just stay home.” And I think that everyone has something to contribute to the world. And it might be through volunteerism, it might be through a paid job.

But if you sit down and you really lay it out exactly what it looks like, and exactly what you like and what you’re good at, and what you’re willing to give up on and what you’re not, it’s just so much more likely to happen for you and materialize than if you just kind of put it up on a shelf as a pie in the sky dream that could never happen.

Tim Jahn: I love that. That’s fantastic advice. It is. What — is there anything that looking back at you starting Maternal Instinct and looking at where you are today, is there anything you would have changed, anything you would have told the cat back then, maybe you want to do this one part differently.

Kat Gordon: I would have done it sooner. I would not have waited as long. I remember at the time I was thinking about starting my business, I worked with a life coach and she had me write down everything I was afraid of that was keeping me from pulling the trigger. And I came across that piece of paper recently and it really made me laugh because everything that I was afraid would happen didn’t come to pass. And the things that have been challenging were things that weren’t even on my radar.

So I guess the advice, you’re never ready. It’s kind of like you becoming a dad. I’m sure there were certain ways you were ready, but can you ever be ready for the experience you’ve gone through these past three months? I mean, you just have to do it. You have — if you have a passion and you believe you have something to contribute and it makes you smile and it puts a spring in your step then that’s it, that’s the motivation to do it. And so I just wish I had done it sooner.

And I guess I would just tell myself back then, “Don’t worry about it, you’re going to learn as you go.” I mean, I’m still a work in progress, there are still things about my business I figure out everyday, there are just different things than they were three years ago.

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