On this week’s episode of An Agency Story podcast, we have Stephanie Smith – Founder and Digital Matriarch of Cogwheel Marketing, a full-service digital marketing agency specializing in branded hotels based out of Boston, Massachusetts.
Stephanie’s journey into marketing began when she was graduating from college and working in hotels, where she was able to get her feet wet in the operations side of things. From there, Stephanie landed a position at a small marketing agency, where she gained valuable experience in a range of marketing areas.
However, Stephanie was determined to take her career to the next level, and she decided to start Cogwheel Marketing. Stephanie has found that her true passion lies in helping hotel brands achieve their goals through effective marketing strategies. She loves the challenge of developing customized plans for each client and seeing the positive impact that their marketing can have on other businesses.
Looking into the future, Stephanie is excited to continue to grow and develop the agency’s skills. She knows that the marketing landscape is constantly evolving, isn’t always what it appears to be to the average eye and is committed to staying on top of the latest trends and technologies to ensure her clients are always ahead of the game.
In this week’s episode, Stephanie takes us behind the scenes of her personal journey through hotel branding, turning lemons into lemonade, and finding the silver lining in difficult situations.
Enjoy the story.
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Welcome to An Agency Story podcast where we share real stories of marketing agency owners from around the world. From the excitement of starting up the first big sale, passion, doubt, fear, freedom, and the emotional rollercoaster of growth, hear it all on An Agency Story podcast. An Agency Story podcast is hosted by Russel Dubree, successful agency owner with an eight figure exit turned business coach. Enjoy the next agency story.
Welcome to An Agency Story podcast. I’m your host Russell. On this week’s episode, we have Stephanie Smith, Founder and Digital Matriarch of Cogwheel Marketing, a full service digital marketing agency, specializing in branded hotels based out of Boston, Massachusetts. Stephanie’s journey into marketing began just after graduating college and working in hotels to eventually leading hotels on their marketing journey by starting her own agency. Stephanie takes us behind the scenes of our personal journey through hotel branding, making lemons into lemonade and finding the silver lining in difficult situations. Enjoy the story. Welcome to the show today, I have Stephanie Smith with Cogwheel Marketing. Thank you so much for joining us today, Stephanie.
Thanks Russel for having me. I’m excited to be here.
If you don’t mind, start us off with a quick overview. What does Cogwheel do and who do you do it for?
Our agency services are pretty unique. We specialize in working with hotels, specifically within the hospitality industry, and we help individual franchisees and owner operators help with their individual hotel performance. You think there’s plenty of agencies out there? Our differential being that we work within the platforms of major branded proprietary and help with individual hotel performance. Think about a Marriott, a Hilton, that operates under a larger flag, but we’re helping those individual hotel owners.
Succinct and precise. A good elevator pitch. What were you doing or what was your career path looking like before you got into the agency business?
My history spans a lot of different things. Originally when I graduated college, I worked in hotels. I got my feet wet with the operations side of things, and then I switched actually to work for another agency for somebody else and got to bridge the gap between digital marketing and hotels specifically. I went back to school to get my MBA. Then I left to go work client side. Actually, one of my agency clients hired me to come and work for them and do it in-house. I created a mini agency in-house. That led me into wondering what the next step was. I had a great company that I worked for. I got to do whatever I want. Nobody told me what to do. I had a huge budget. I spent a lot of money, but I got bored. If I’m not challenged, I get bored. Then I saw an opportunity. There’s plenty of hotel digital marketing agencies out there, but most of ’em rely on creating a website for somebody and building the online presence from that standpoint. I saw an opportunity to create an agency for hoteliers that operate under a flag or under a brand.
I think you’d mentioned before that you didn’t originally intend to become an entrepreneur. What was that spark or what happened to make you decide to make the jump into your own agency?
People that go into entrepreneurship straight outta college blow my mind. If you had told me 10 or 15 years, 20 years ago when I was graduating college, that I would run an agency, I probably would’ve laughed at you. Everything was a culmination of things that kind of helped me get to where I am today. When I decided to go off on my own originally I was like, oh, maybe I’ll just do consulting. I’ll pick up projects that I like to do just to keep myself challenged and entertained. But I saw there was a gap in the market in terms of being on the client side. I tried to hire multiple agencies to do what I wanted them to do, and they failed on multiple occasions. I was like, if these big guys can’t do it, maybe I can do it. Maybe I can fill this gap.
Making that jump from more traditional corporate career path to you’re on your own. What were those first few months like of being in the agency business? Scary? Exciting? How were you feeling at the time?
I wasn’t one of those people that did the side hustle thing. I knew I wanted to start this company. One day I was working full-time as a VP in corporate world, and the next day I had this company. I’d built a large network of people. I’d sat on a lot of boards. I’d done a fair amount of speaking. I had this misconception that, oh, people all know me. Surely most of these people, once I go out on my own, will wanna hire me. That was wrong. A lot of people either shelter the knowledge or, when you have this big, huge name behind you, you’d realize what type of weight is carried when you’re working under a large corporation, you as an individual. Until you prove yourself, a lot of people are like, oh, you’re just looking for another job. Are you just doing this until the next best thing comes along? The first few months finding clients, even to this day, over four years in, is probably the hardest part. For those first few months, pick up one or two projects, I put my head down, you start working and then you finish that project, you come out of it, you’re like, cool. I haven’t worked on my pipeline. I have no clients to put in there that are next in line. It’s a rollercoaster, but the win are celebrated with so much more heart than when you’re working on corporate side.
I have talked to a number of business owners and even probably ran into it myself at different times of that, we jump out there and we think we’re ready world, we’re ready to work for you and they don’t come knocking maybe quite like we expect. It’s an interesting psychological thing for sure in the business world. Obviously you started out with a very specific niche. Was it a no-brainer to stay in that niche from the beginning or have you had times to question that? What does that look like for you?
I find that every time I venture outside of hospitality, the learning curve for learning other people’s business models, target markets, the learning curve isn’t worth it. It’s not efficient. Even if I charge a lot more money it’s hard. Certainly during the pandemic, when the travel market and the travel industry was decimated, we had to do some pivoting. We still stayed within hospitality, but more on the B2B side. All things Covid certainly made us question our goals in life, but we’ve been able to rebound. I know a lot of agencies that are like EMO marketing or social specific and I can’t imagine trying to do that for all these different industries cuz you don’t understand the lingo, you don’t understand their customer path journey, all these other things that go into it. There’s obviously things you can replicate, but from a client management standpoint, that’s gotta be really hard. I would never go outside of hotels, personally.
Nothing wrong with that at all. Speaking of the pandemic, you had a particularly rough pandemic story as I understand it, not only within your business, but even all things at home, and as I understand your husband’s job. What was that like for you and how did you get through it?
Everybody had a hard pandemic, so I think everyone has a story to tell. My husband also works in hotels. He got laid off and I lost all my clients within a seven day window. Going into the pandemic, I think I had 34 active projects, and within a two week timeframe I had lost all but one. Living in downtown Seattle, you need two incomes to survive. We made the decision to pack up and move out. Within the first three months of the pandemic we had gotten out of our lease and walked away basically. But I believe in having this positive outlook. I thought, travel’s gotta come back. It’s ingrained in people’s gut, in terms of being with family and adventures and experiences. I said I had to lean into it and I was either gonna come out, I was gonna lose everything, or I was gonna come out and be ready for when the pandemic came out. I think the biggest advice, though, I would tell to other people, I had hired an agency coach about two weeks before the pandemic hit, and I wrote him a very large check and when I lost all my clients, I went back and I said, okay we haven’t started. I need that money back to live. And he said, no, this means you have the time to go through this coaching experience. We said, let’s think about everything that’s broken with your current model. How do we fix it? And then create a plan for when things come out, a tiered plan, so when we start seeing x, y, z triggers, how do we plan for that? That was probably one of the best things that I ever did for the growth of the company.
Lemons into lemonade. You were in Seattle, where did you move to after that?
My husband took the first job. It was hard, in the very beginning months, you recall, nobody was doing any hiring. We moved to Western Colorado, which we had done a stint in Colorado before, in small town, smallest town we’d ever lived in. I said, oh God, we’re gonna hate this, and I ended up really loving it. It was a good transition for us and for our son who could go in person to school. Having that balance was key.
Even more lemons into lemonade.
Yeah, but you can only say that in hindsight?
Oh, I know.
At the time there was no lemonade. I can only reflect back and say, what do they say? Hindsight is 2020. It’s easy to reflect back and try to focus on the positive now. At the time, it sucked.
Can’t imagine. You had 34 clients, right before the pandemic, and then lost all but one. Once the world returned a little bit more normal and people started traveling again, were you able to get them all back or was it just completely rebuilding the business all over again?
Unfortunately, it was a rebuild because a lot of the people that were making those decisions going into the pandemic, they lost their jobs, changed roles, changed companies. I’ve maintained a lot of the relationships, but those active projects have morphed and changed. At the time we were doing a lot of project work and we’ve also transitioned to doing more retainer work. Focusing on increasing our MRRs. But again, it was a broken system, before. I was the only one client facing, so it wasn’t a good long-term fit for the company anyways.
Speaking of which, obviously you had to not only rebuild your client base, but it sounds like you had to rebuild how you even approached the business. What were the two or three takeaways that you were able to revamp or turn around in that sense?
There’s a lot of learnings from that, but when I started working with the coach, he was like, you basically have a hub and spoke model where every decision, every client is focused off you and the decisions that you make. That goes for everything in sales, everything in accounting, everything in ops, everything was relying on me, so I was both the drive that made everything happen, but I was also the stop gate in preventing other things from happening. As we hired on more people, really trying to understand where I added value to the company and where I didn’t add value to the company. Where I should be spending my time and where I shouldn’t be spending my time. I can really do a good job of sending out invoices and I love looking at my P&L, my balance sheet, but that’s probably not where my time should be best spent. It was about understanding, how do I, in pieces pull these things off my plate? When you’re starting out and you’re small, you only have X amount of revenue. You can’t hire a full-time account. You can’t hire a full-time salesperson. I had to work to say, how can I find contractors that will compliment me in bite size pieces so that one, I can afford it. But number two, also get things off my plate so I can focus on business growth.
You’ve talked before about having a very strong personal brand and reputation within your career in that industry, but then also how to navigate building a separate, how does that brand work within the actual brand of the business? What has that process been like for you and maybe even a couple key lessons in separating Stephanie and Cogwheel Marketing? Or integrating them, however that’s looked for you?
I’m still working on the separation piece. When it was just me as more of a individual consultant, people were hiring me. But even when it came down to naming the company, a lot of people will name their LLC something with their name in it. I was like, if I’m ever gonna grow this, it can’t be based off my name. The company naming piece of it started early on, but when I started to grow, a lot of people, I would be doing the selling and they were like we want you on the calls, we want you to work our account. I had to start saying, I have a team here that I’ve trained that should be here to support and execute you. But I still have troubles separating the personal brand and the company brand. As I continue to look into the future, I have to say, the company should be able to, again, without me being the core focus of everything that we do. It’s been really hard for me to say, you’re hiring us as an agency to do X, Y, Z. You’re not hiring me to do the work. We’ve had to change a lot in terms of how we do our outward marketing, in terms of our social media planning, in terms of our content marketing plan and just really think about how to position the agency. Even when I’m on podcasts like this one, people say that I don’t mention our brand enough, so I have to remember to say, Cogwheel Marketing, we’ve learned X, Y, Z versus me. Even making slight adjustments in the way that I present the company when I do speaking events has become crucial in how we do our content marketing.
We’ll make it a point, you need to say Cogwheel Marketing every 10 seconds. We’ll get some subliminal referencing in there. Even that we haven’t had a lot of conversations up to this point, you very much strike me as someone that has no problem making bold decisions and bold moves. Is that how you think of yourself and describe yourself? If so, how has that played out in your business?
100% true. I used to tell my old boss that I don’t care if you do anything with my suggestions, but I feel I just need to feel heard. We just had our first in-person company retreat where the whole team got together in person, cuz we’re a remote team all over the United States, and we went through this DISC assessment. I did it the first time, probably 15 or 20 years ago at my agency I used to work for, and it changed my entire thought process. It was about having self-awareness. I think I’ve always been pretty good about understanding my strengths and weaknesses, but understanding how people perceive me has been an important part of that self-awareness journey. It also taught me a lot about, as a leader, who I am and how I need to hire people to compliment me. Instead of me hiring mini me, I need to hire people that can compliment my weaknesses. Understanding, along with my boldness comes an intimidation factor, especially new people that I’ve never worked with. If anybody knows anything about DISC, I’m high D. There’s no deviation from the D in the 15 years since I took it the first time. But understanding how I’m perceived, how I need to communicate to people and how I need to flex the different styles has been really important in team building.
I follow the, as far as personality assessments go, the Enneagram and I’m very familiar with the DISC as well and pegged you for a high D, which I’m guessing on the Enneagram you’d be more of an eight, which is the challenger. We need all the personalities in the world and we certainly need our challengers. Speaking of bold, you recently participated in a pitch competition and it sounds was maybe a little or to no preparation, given other circumstances. Can you tell us about that story?
During the pandemic, I decided to get into software and create software, basically a bi and reporting tool that aggregates all this different digital marketing data from all these different sources. Within hotels, any one hotel might be running campaigns or pulling data from, 10, 15, 20 different sources. It’s really disparate in terms of trying to pull it all together to understand your full online presence. I joined a pitch competition in this summer and it happened to be at the same time as another hospitality or hotel specific conference. So I had two presentations back to back. The first presentation, you have six minutes and 40 seconds, 20 slides, and they altar rotate. You know what the cadence is gonna be, but you have to give them the slide. They rotate for you, so you have no control in the clicker. I’m a very off the cuff speaker. I usually don’t prepare, including this podcast, what I’m gonna say, so that first presentation that I had, I was obsessed about practicing it because even if you have a delay of one or two seconds, is a very big gap. I practice and the pitch competition was the next day. I was like, I’ve gotten my steps and I have to check off this box before I can do the next one. I had four minutes to do the pitch competition and I had to submit my slides two months in advance. I did ’em, never looked at ’em again until the morning that I was presenting. I got up there and I had three seconds left to spare on my four minutes cuz they ding you if you go over or substantially under. I was pretty proud of myself. The person that organized it, they were like, we can tell how much you prepared, you put a lot of thought and effort to this and I was like, I hope none of them listened to this because I didn’t practice that presentation for that pitch one single time before I got on stage. I’m glad I faked it.
That gives the speaker in me a lot of anxiety. Funny side story, our company, we gave them a retreat type thing one time and I misinterpreted the rules of it and I thought it was 20 slides, 20 seconds, so one second per slide. I think I nailed it, honestly, but it was a fascinating little experiment to do that. Even six minutes and 40 seconds or whatever that comes out too is still a relatively short amount of time.
It makes you think, nothing’s worse than getting up and someone gives you an hour block and you’re like, man, I could give this whole presentation in 15. It basically made me condense an hour’s worth of content into six minutes and 40 seconds. I actually worked with a coach too, cause they were like, we wanted to be funny and have a theme and I’m like, funny is not my thing, but in my sarcastic way, I tried to make it funny. I did get a couple laughs so I was pretty proud of myself.
There you go. You mentioned before, a little bit, getting into the software realm and then just even your niche itself, that you’re in a very unique space relative to the amount of competition around you. Is that the case? What have you been able to do to capitalize on, not a whole lot of competition.
It’s funny, even in the pitch competition, of course you have competition. I made the mistake of saying, no, I don’t. I mean everyone has competition. How I look at it is more, people, organizations that wanna take on that agency role in-house. They’re people that say, we can do it better in-house. I’ve had to lean into people’s egos to say, look, I’m here to make you look good, your agency support. Whatever I can do to make your life easier is what I’m here to do. I think that’s a key component into understanding the competitive space. The other thing that we’ve gotten into doing is, a lot of people are like, I wanna have somebody that does digital in-house, but I don’t know how to get there. I’ve been doing a lot of Stephanie bootcamps where I go and train that person and give them the tools that they need to succeed. The hard part about not having the competition is the education component that comes into it. Think about any given market. Think about Seattle. They probably have 40 Marriotts in a given market. There’s a misconception with owners that they’re like, I think the brand does everything for me, and I think there’s an education process that comes along with understanding what these massive enterprise level brands do and what they don’t do, and where we’re supplementing with what they don’t do. Coupling that with systems they already have put in place and making sure you’re using all the tools in the toolbox. Most people place a higher value on a website cause they can tangibleize it but put a lesser priority on stuff that, whether it’s programmatic or social media ads, it’s not quite as tangible. They seem to place a lesser value on it. Education process with owners and trying to identify where a hotel’s gap is and say, okay, here’s where you are and here’s where you need to be.
What is your big goal with the agency? What is Stephanie doing 10 years from now? Or should I say, what is Cogwheel Marketing doing 10 years from now?
Right now we’re in a growth phase, which is, we have our next one, two, and five year goals. At some point I’d like to sell the agency. As part of getting into the software side, during the pandemic we looked at acquiring another smaller agency. The learnings around understanding how agencies are valued, it’s a crapshoot. The return and the valuations revenue aren’t fantastic, but when you add a software component, the valuations certainly changed. The 10 year goal was probably to sell the agency, combine with the software, and I’ll go back into consulting and doing the stuff that I like doing and none of the stuff that I don’t like doing.
Get back to the brand of Stephanie. Last big question for you. Are entrepreneurs born or are they made?
I knew you were gonna ask this question. Me specifically, I was definitely made. I think I’ve probably self-imposed a glass ceiling on myself with every company and job that I’ve had because, growing up in a family that didn’t graduate with four year degrees, weren’t overly career focused, I don’t think I understand the realm of what the possibilities were. If you think you can get outta college and start your own company, that would never be me, but to each their own.
If people wanna know more about Cogwheel Marketing and Stephanie Smith, where can they go?
You can find our website, CogwheelMarketing.Com. Pretty active on LinkedIn, social media, channel of choice for both Stephanie Smith as brand and also Cogwheel Marketing as an agency. Hit us up there.
That’s awesome. Thank you so much for your time today, Stephanie. It was an absolute pleasure to get to hear your story and I appreciate you being on the show.
Perfect. Thanks for having me.
We hope you’ve enjoyed this episode of An Agency Story podcast where we share real stories of marketing agency owners from around the world. Are you interested in being a guest on the show? Send an email to email@example.com. An Agency Story is brought to you by Performance Faction. Performance Faction offers services to help agency owners grow their business to 5 million dollars and more in revenue. To learn more, visit performancefaction.com.
A lot of people don’t think about having a lawyer on retainer, or don’t think that they need one until they need one. I got into a scenario where I needed one. During the pandemic, I’m scrapping, I’m fighting just to stay afloat. I am going after whatever business I can. I ended up pissing off a very large brand within our industry. Think about the biggest hotel brand that you can think of, and that’s who I crossed paths with. They didn’t like the content that I was putting out. They did not like my strategy, and while they can’t necessarily tell me what to do, they definitely called me up and let me know. Within two weeks I got an legal notice from their lawyer telling me to cease and desist and how ashamed they were, and disagree with my practices. It is scary to get any type of cease and desist. I’m a real small fish, and obviously I can’t go to bat with them, they probably have a legal team that is 50 times my company size. Thankfully I had a lawyer on retainer and as passionate as I am, he was able to step in and have all those communications. The nice thing was that they really couldn’t tell me what to do. The franchise agreements allow hotel owners to hire who they want to. They were just being bullies and it sucked that they thought that they could throw their weight around and try to intimidate me. The only ground they had to stand on is any of the trademark logos that were on my site, I had to take down. I had to change the verbiage, to make it very clear that I didn’t have any type of MSA or master services agreement. I got that one under my belt. In three months, I had the exact same one from the other biggest hotel brands in the United States. It was funny, before dealing with their legal, there were people within this brand saying I had to take down this content. I couldn’t say these things and all of this. I basically said, screw you. You can’t tell me what to say. My lawyer said that I can say that this brand is a pile of shit and they can’t do anything. It might ruin my brand, so I’ve had to be really strategic about how I communicate within our content strategy and also keep my mouth shut, don’t say anything. Anytime I have any interaction with another legal department, I just have my lawyer come in there and handle all communications so that I don’t say the wrong thing, get myself in the deeper issues. But I feel like if I can win against those two people, that I can take on the world.
I don’t doubt it for a second. Not surprised one bit that Stephanie is taking on giant, major corporations. That’s hilarious, kudos to you for that.