Plus, How a Strategic Plan Put This Entrepreneur on a Pivotal Path to Success
There are many pivotal paths in the life of an entrepreneur. For Cece Smith of Toolbox Studios in San Antonio, Texas, a recent one—a strategic plan she developed over eight months in partnership with Sandy Stewart of Swiss Avenue Partners—has proven particularly beneficial and exciting heading into a new year.
Entrepreneurship wasn’t always in the plan for Cece. In fact, she never even considered it while working for Procter & Gamble as an account executive for nearly a decade. But when her husband started a printing company, SmithPrint, Inc., and Cece took time off work after having her second son in 2007, she began helping out “here and there.” Soon, her husband was lauding her marketing expertise to print clients. “My husband kept saying, ‘Cece does marketing; she can help out,’” she laughs. Soon, she was helping out so much that five years ago, she launched her own boutique marketing firm, Red Door Solutions, to serve print clients in need of marketing support. That very first year in business, she reached $750,000 in revenue serving clients throughout San Antonio.
Three and a half years ago, however, Cece was presented with an opportunity to take a different path in her entrepreneurship. A longtime colleague and client of SmithPrint owned a branding and website company and was getting ready to retire after 23 years in business. Cece was able to purchase the well-known and highly acclaimed company—Toolbox Studios—for a great price and then bring it together with Red Door Solutions. “It made us a national full-service marketing firm overnight,” she says. “My passion has always been working with clients to build their businesses and I kind of fell into this.” Fortunately, both companies were different enough that Red Door’s customers needed the services of Toolbox Studios, and vice versa.
The move made great business sense, but like any new entrepreneurial path, it had its challenges. For one, the previous business owner had really walked away from the business, so Cece had to quickly step in to stabilize and revive it. She also saw that not all people were the right fit for the company’s vision and values moving forward. She started with eight employees, grew to 12 and then scaled back again to eight after “the honeymoon period” where she found that not all employees wanted to change their attitude and embrace the company culture. That negative actually turned into a positive, like most challenges eventually do. “It was good for everyone,” says Cece. “The employees we have now are the ones who changed and who love it and are learning.”
Also, it increased their capacity to serve clients. With a web programmer previously in-house, Toolbox Studios was able to complete anywhere from six to 10 websites at a time. Now, they handle everything but the programming and outsource that component to a highly capable small woman-owned business. This has more than doubled their ability to produce websites for clients around the nation.
Many of these clients, of course, still come from SmithPrint, where Barney, Cece’s husband, serves as CEO and three of her sons are being groomed to someday buy Barney and Cece out and take over the ownership of SmithPrint. The two companies work with one another often and bill each other as separate companies. “We rebranded them and help with social media and SEO,” she says. “My husband works there and I work here. It’s how we’ve stay married; we’re both very strong individuals, so when we collaborate now, it’s great.”
Despite all these positives, 2017 proved to be tough. But that’s where Cece’s NAWBO sisterhood and new strategic plan came into serious play. When Cece purchased the company, one client accounted for 55 percent of the business. She had worked to minimize the risk of having one large client and had decreased it to 17 percent of their overall business when the company brought in a new director who opted to move in a different direction. “We lost one of our biggest clients; not because of anything we did,” she recalls. “One of the things I love most about NAWBO and the women are their transparency. If everyone says their business is all wonderful, with no issues, they’re lying or delusional. My NAWBO Circle program mates were amazing. They gave me support and ideas and said things like, ‘We’ve been there, keep trying and stay true to your plan.’ We still work with this client, but not at the same magnitude. I don’t think I could have gone through this, though, without my NAWBO sisters.”
In the midst of it all, Cece had also met Sandy Stewart and started the strategic planning process in which she ultimately determined her short- and long-term goals, her ideal client, the functional makeup of her company, her brand positioning in the marketplace, budget and cash flow plans and more. “I became so informed about what was going on in my business,” says Cece. “When you lose a large client, your first inclination is to take whatever business you can get. But I stayed true to my plan. It’s been about eight months now and I am seeing things turn around. I’m hopeful that 2019 is going to be a great year; it’s already stacking up to be.”
As part of this planning, Cece also determined that the company does best with clients who “build things”—construction companies, developers and manufacturers who tend to be behind on marketing so it doesn’t take much time or money for them to see a quick return on investment if they work their plan consistently. “I almost act as their chief marketing officer and instead of hiring a team of three or four in-house, they hire us as their outsource marketing team.” Toolbox Studios also is a preferred vendor with Fidelity so does a lot of work with wealth managers as well as in education with private schools.
Cece’s success has always come from how she and her team serve the clients, and she plans to only strengthen that in the year ahead. In fact, they see themselves as part of the team, just off-site, and even joke they should have office space at the companies. “When we meet with a client, we are very transparent and want them to be as well,” she explains. “We hold ourselves accountable. We go month to month, which means we have to prove our worth every month. We proactively manage the marketing for them because they’re busy with their own jobs. We measure the return on investment on everything we do so we can decide if the marketing is working or not and make adjustments. We also connect with the sales teams to make sure they’re properly following up on the leads we’re generating.”
Cece also believes consistency is a major component in any client’s success—and her own. She compares a successful marketing campaign to personal health. “You can have a gym membership, vitamins, a bed to sleep in and healthy food, but if you’re not using all of them consistently, you’re not going to be healthy. With marketing, you have to have a good website, brand, messaging and products that tell your story over and over again. It doesn’t have to be expensive, but it does have to be done consistently to have a healthy marketing plan. Those are the ones who win.”
Cece’s Top Goals for 2019
1) Increase efficiency: Toolbox Studios recently implemented a new software program and they’re in the process of really working it. It’s been a challenge for some employees and freelancers, because it’s holistic, not tactical. But the payoff is it will drive consistency in how they manage client time, budgets and data to become more efficient.
2) Gain more clients: Per her plan, Cece will continue to go after clients in the construction and manufacturing worlds. She plans to launch a self-promotion campaign to market directly to the associations these companies are part of.
What Excites Her Most About Digital Marketing
There are so many marketing tools out there, but one that excites Cece most right now is a tool called IP Venue Capture. A marketing company, like hers, can capture the IP address of people who are attending an association meeting at a convention center, for example, and then send a digital ad to capture their attention. “People get information in so many different ways,” she says. “I like the targeting and venue capturing so that I can serve them up ads that are highly tailored.”
Cece & NAWBO
Cece first became connected with NAWBO after her financial advisor introduced her to his business partner who had founded NAWBO-San Antonio, Lynn Weirich. “She’s one of those types of women who’s so smart, warm, welcoming, fun, transparent and helpful,” she recalls. “I said I want to be with her; if she says NAWBO is good, I am going and it turned out to be everything she said it would be.”
Cece went on to serve as chapter president from 2017-2018 and is currently on the board as immediate past president during a time of tremendous growth—the chapter grew from 70 members to 150 since the time she served as president. Next year, she plans to be on the membership committee.
“When we try to get new members, we always ask them what do you want out of NAWBO?” Cece says. “Come here for advocacy, to learn, for friendship, for support and to be a better leader. The business opportunities will come, but many NAWBO members I consider very dear friends.”