**This ongoing series profiles female powerhouses who are making their mark in their leadership roles. In the spirit of paying it forward, each profiled woman is asked to nominate another peer to fuel the series.**
Before ever talking to Christine Slocumb, I knew the two of us would hit it off.
Almost 16 years ago, Chris founded Clarity Quest Marketing—a marketing agency centered on helping technology, healthcare and financial clients overcome branding, marketing, content and positioning challenges. As someone who ran a content marketing agency hyper-focused on technology marketing for almost three years, I sensed we would be something of kindred spirits. And I was right.
Chris is a marketing powerhouse, committed to helping her clients take the next step in their marketing journeys. She understands the importance of not only stellar customer relations, but also a strong, healthy corporate culture as well. In fact, in just a few short years, Chris has grown her agency to 20 full-time employees and three locations in Connecticut, Michigan and Seattle.
Here’s a look at what it takes to grow your own business…
Me: Chris! I am so excited to have the chance to speak with you. Your fellow Woman in Leadership, Susan Keller, nominated you for the series and she had a feeling we would hit it off! How did you two connect?
Chris: Yes, I am so glad we were able to connect as well! Susan chairs two chapters of the Women Presidents’ Organization (WPO) and we became connected when some folks I met at a conference told me to look into WPO. It seemed like an incredible way to gain fellow women peers. Sometimes it can be so difficult to find women in similar roles who are not at competitive agencies. I saw value in having that sounding board. I was really interested in finding an informal board of directors if you will and strike up a bond with other business leaders. I’ve been a member for three years and have been so grateful to meet Susan and the other amazing members through the group!
Me: She is certainly a special woman. So shifting gears, you started your own company Clarity Quest Marketing in 2001. What was your reason for starting a marketing agency?
Chris: Well, it came about for a few different reasons. I had a bizarre career path! I have a BEE and MSEE in Engineering from Villanova and worked for Motorola for six years as a semiconductor design and process engineer. I was a bit of a semiconductor nerd but being in a big company, I got exposure to a lot of different, great opportunities. Specifically, I had a lot of opportunities to interface with customers as well as present to the CEO of Motorola. I quickly came to realize I liked the creative side of my work. I was fortunate that Motorola supported me in getting my MBA and there I eventually transitioned to product management.
At that time, we were knee-deep in the tech bubble and I saw so many people doing amazing things in Silicon Valley so I decided to head to Seattle to work for a startup—a totally refreshing experience. I got to work with agencies on branding, marketing, content and public relations, and I quickly realized they really didn’t understand technology and it took forever to bring them up to speed.
Me: I can certainly relate to that! It can be hard to find agencies that can take the complexities of tech and break it down in a consumable, engaging fashion.
Chris: Exactly! I quickly noticed there was a big need in the market in small to mid-market companies looking to team with marketing agencies that really understood technology. So I sought out to find kindred spirits—other professionals who had degrees in engineering but who had a desire to switch to the marketing side of things. And Clarity Quest Marketing was born. Today, we serve technology, healthcare and financial clients. We fill a hole that not a lot of agencies could. We get in there and hit the ground is running.
Me: You’ve certainly been running! Your portfolio of services is vast—offering everything from branding and design to lead nurturing to public relations. Who is the typical client?
Chris: For the small to mid-market company, we offer a full outsourced marketing department. We find that for a lot of these companies, marketing is an after-thought. They are flat lined with one person in marketing or no one in the department at all. They know they need marketing but they are unable to bring in a full team. For enterprise clients, we handle a variety of responsibilities from public relations to content to marketing automation. It is always custom for our clients.
Me: You have clients all over North America and a strong base globally as well. You’ve enjoyed great growth. Did you always know you wanted an agency that had reach like this?
Chris: You know, I’d love to say I had this business plan and worked against it but I didn’t. It was more organic than that. I had a framework and I knew I didn’t want 100 people. I wanted an agency that was personable and manageable, bringing in in top talent from any location. Fifteen years ago it was just me consulting. I brought in a graphic designer and a Web designer on contract, but it was pretty much just me.
Because my husband went back to medical school and we were moving around for a few years as he completed his residency, I developed a lot of connections and started to amass a referral base. And because of our lifestyle, I knew I wanted to be good at driving business to me. So I got really good at SEO and ranking high on Google. While my husband was studying anatomy, I was studying SEO! The business really took off when I moved to Connecticut. At that time, the Affordable Care Act went into effect and we quickly became one of the top three agencies in health IT marketing.
Me: Sounds like you really experienced some organic but intentional smart growth. In the past few years, what have you learned most about having your own business?
Chris: The first two years are always the hardest. If you can make it past year two, you are pretty golden. Year one you are excited and you have momentum on your side, but year two can be really tough. That period is when I’ve seen most new businesses fail. So be patient and make smart financial decisions.
Me: I can only imagine how challenging things can be in the beginning. To that point, is there a defining moment you can recall in which you learned a lot about yourself?
Chris: There’s always a time in the agency world in which you have a bad job or a bad client, and it’s hard to let them go but sometimes you have to. Some of our best decisions have been letting some clients go who maybe didn’t fit our culture anymore. If I look back at the clients we had 10 years ago, many of them wouldn’t be the right clients for us today. The agency would have never evolved.
Me: We experienced the same issues at my agency—the whole notion of bad profit, bad business and bad clients. It can feel like an impossible decision to fire a client.
Chris: What I find the hardest is if a client doesn’t allow you to be bold in marketing and when you are not given permission to do what you know is right. The good news is there are a lot of companies out there so you can find clients you want. We can really make a difference when the right clients let us do the work we know how to do; when we are empowered to do our job.
Me: Now in addition to helping your clients enjoy heightened success with their marketing efforts, you have to have a sharp focus on nurturing your team. To that end, how would you define leadership?
Chris: To me, leadership is about setting the main focus for the organization and being completely transparent to the point you can be about the health of the business. It’s also about coaching people while still giving them the runway to go learn things on their own and only come back to me when it’s absolutely necessary. I like to give my team a lot of rope. I remember that my first boss put me in some very challenging situations and gave me all the rope I needed to hang myself! But that’s good! I’d rather empower my people, than be a micromanager.
Me: I couldn’t agree more—you have to create an environment in which failure is accepted so long as accountability is there.
Chris: I am a really big believer in surrounding yourself with people who give you energy instead of detracting from it. I’ve been in situations where there’s been that one toxic person and they suck the oxygen after the room and are against the vision for the company. So it’s important to surround yourself by people who lift you up, so you can do great stuff.
Me: OK, final question… what’s the best piece of advice you’ve received?
Chris: Don’t ever let someone tell you, you can’t do something. And that came from my grandfather who wasn’t the most enlightened feminist. So to receive that inspiration from someone you wouldn’t expect it from is that much more powerful.
Be sure to visit our blog routinely as we continue to profile extraordinary women making their mark in their leadership circles.
Carrie Majewski is committed to affecting change. As Founder of the Women in Leadership Nexus, Carrie is fueled by a desire to create safe space for female luminaries to convene to redefine the notion of leadership. She has forged a career around strategic writing and storytelling, having led a digital marketing agency for almost three years and today working as Marketing Principal for Trilix Tech. Carrie was named to the 2017 Rhode Island “40 Under 40” list and is a 2016 Rhode Island Tech10 Winner. In her spare time you'll find her trying out a local hip-hop class, exploring parks with her rescue dog Tori, and sipping coffee with other powerhouse women.