A client once told us that customers will ultimately decide what type of business your company will be in. There is definitely truth in that statement.
Our company – J. Fitzgerald Group, a marketing communications firm – started at the very tail end of 2001. December 31, 2001, to be precise. We had discussed starting our own business for about four years, and on December 23rd we finally decided to take the leap.
This was not exactly the best time to start a business – three months after the tragedy of 9/11 and the economy headed into the tank. Not to mention the fact that while we were trying to set up our company we were hit with the second largest snowstorm in the history of Buffalo, NY. You read that right – the second largest in Buffalo, where a “dusting” of snow is generally about two feet. We got 82 inches of snow between December 24th and December 28th – 35” of which fell in a 24-hour period. Just imagine snow banks the size of Lebron James as far as the eye can see. Want some proof? Check this out.
Now further imagine trying to find a building to rent, equipment and furniture to buy, and utilities to turn on – when you couldn’t go anywhere or reach anyone. The attorney we hired was stuck in a snow bank and ended up sleeping at a stranger’s house (some may call that justice). Our accountant was literally trapped at home – the snow covered her doors and windows and sealed her in without computer access. We tried to get to a store to buy accounting software but everyplace was closed. Yes, I drove around during the storm, which is probably the closest I’ll come to mechanical bull riding. We tried to have computers shipped – but UPS couldn’t get through. Do you think someone was trying to tell us something?
But we forged ahead anyway. Despite the adversity, we did rent an 800 sq. ft. office from a former neighbor of mine. We brought in our old home computers, card tables from my mother’s house, a couple of phones from my recently deceased great aunt’s apartment (with monstrously large buttons that accommodated her cataracts) and “office supplies” acquired from our kid’s desk drawers.
It’s been said that anything worthwhile doesn’t come easy. How very true. That first year was filled with hard times, hard work and more missteps than I care to count. But what’s the point in starting a business if you aren’t willing to climb back into the ring every morning and keep punching, regardless of how many hits to the head you take? Which probably explains why you keep coming back – you’re just too punch drunk after a while.
Our first four years were a blur of travel, new prospect pitches, and basically taking on any project that our clients tossed our way. The phrase, “Of course we can do that” got us work that stretched from Korea to Poland and covered every type of advertising, marketing and sales project you can imagine. It became our mantra – at first because we needed to survive. But then it grew to mean something far more.
We began to realize that the term “clients” was really too generic and faceless. The reality was that these clients were just people trying to do their job and, more importantly, keep their job. All companies – big and small – boil down to the person on the other end of the line who is just trying to get something done. The things we were saying “yes” to and ultimately delivering on had gone from a work project to a genuine commitment to keep these people employed, keep their companies profitable, and keep their customers coming back to them. “Of course we can do that” was then coupled with, “We won’t let you down,” because we knew they were essentially entrusting us with their careers. That’s a very good reason to come to work every day.
Then, in 2005, one of our larger clients – Volvo Construction Equipment – asked if we could assist with a sales incentive program they were running with their dealer network. They had problems with participation, verification and tracking. They were doing everything manually – faxing in invoices, comparing them to inventory reports, and then paying out accordingly. Needless to say, a lot was missed – and a lot of time was also being wasted. So what did we say? (Refer to the paragraph above in case you forgot).
Thus began our foray into software and program development – a natural fit for a guy who was a copywriter his whole career and a woman who was a graphic designer for her career.
So we hired three developers, gave them the plans based on the client requirements, and set the timer for three months. Oh, and lest I forget, at the same time we had also promised Volvo that we would deliver an automated marketing program so their dealers could build their own localized advertising materials that stayed within corporate standards.
Those were ugly days. Anyone who has ever dealt with moody, egotistical programmers knows of what I speak.
But we delivered both programs as promised – and believe it or not, they worked. Within three weeks of launching “Payback Incentives,” Volvo had over 90% participation – a slight increase from the 10-12% they had with the manual program. Their incentive budget for the year was blown within a few months – but they were happy, and saw a dramatic increase in sales as a result (about a $7M incremental sales increase directly attributed to the program). Not bad. As for the i-Marketing program, it took a little longer to convince dealers to use the new technology – but it eventually was adopted and has been running successfully ever since.
And then… what? Well, we moved on to the next project as we always did. We didn’t think at first that either Payback Incentives or i-Marketing could become their own entities, or that we could even sell them to other clients. We simply looked at it as filling a need for a client. Great foresight, right?
Well, soon we did realize that these programs could have a life beyond Volvo – and we set out to rebuild them to make them more scalable and sellable. We succeeded…. miserably.
We were able to build new versions of Payback Incentives and i-Marketing with a different crew of developers (but fitting the same description as above, of course). Yet the real trick was getting customers to actually buy the programs. We had plenty of tire kickers – those who said they loved the programs, wanted the programs, needed the programs – but didn’t buy the programs. Fortunately we still had a number of clients for our advertising business to help fund the continued development – because that’s pretty much all we did with the programs was “develop them.”
But then a funny thing happened on the way to irrelevance… we sold the programs. It was slow at first – Columbus McKinnon, Supreme Corp. and a handful of others. But then the trickle became a stream, and the stream became a wave as we signed up Delta Airlines, Neenah Paper, Hello Health, Texas Instruments, Four Loko and many more.
It turns out that all of that supposed “wasted” time adding new features to the programs, building vendor relationships with incentive gift providers, and attending trade shows actually started to pay off. We then went through yet another group of programmers who, as you might expect, fit the same description. They led us down the wrong path in terms of how they were building the program, the technology they were using and the ultimate goal of the program (which didn’t happen to match the goals of our company). But fortunately for us and all of our future customers, that team departed abruptly and we found a new team that actually became a perfect fit for our company, our culture and our clients – and had none of the traits of the others. Good timing on that front.
But we were still missing something.
While the original Payback Incentives and i-Marketing worked great we couldn’t make them scalable – or affordable – for all companies. We were missing a huge swath of companies that could be offering incentives to their employees, vendors and customers.
Most companies typically have two things in common: very small budgets and an overtaxed staff. So our idea was simple: give these companies access to a system that lets them set up and run their own incentives program that is fast, cost-effective and extremely simple to use. So we embarked on creating the “do it yourself” Payback Incentives program. Now we’re not deluded into thinking this is the greatest thing since sliced bread (which raises an interesting point: I can think of a lot of things that are greater than sliced bread – but I digress). But it does help an awful lot of companies that have trouble attracting, retaining and recognizing good employees and customers.
Payback Incentives is about fulfilling one of the most basic employee needs: recognition. We were all taught – or should have been taught – to always say thank you. Payback Incentives is designed to let employers punctuate that phrase with a reward – and then let the recipients pick out something they actually want. This, in turn, shows employees, clients and vendors that they are respected, recognized and important to the business.
Now comes the easy part. With three program options – Starter, Advanced, and Pro – the Payback Incentives system is ready to help you reward your employees, empower your managers, track all rewards, and save you both time and money.
As I said at the beginning, your customers will ultimately decide what business you are in. Our customers have decided that we’re not only a marketing/advertising firm, but that we are also firmly planted in the incentives business and they have signed on with us to help recognize their employees, sales people and customers and simplify their incentive programs. If you’re ready to simplify your program as well, sign up, request a demo or just contact us today. And if you’re in need of some marketing/advertising services as well, be sure to check out all we can offer to help your business succeed. Then you can see for yourself how we live our mantra, “Of course we can do that. And we won’t let you down.”