Company: Sinuate Media
Owners: Leah Messina
Year Started: 2007
On this week’s episode of An Agency Story, we have the pleasure of sitting down with CEO and founder of Sinuate Media – a digital first marketing agency based out of Las Cruces, NM. Leah takes us through her own personal journey as an entrepreneur, starting from the time when she was just a young girl trying to sell her drawings for 5 cents, to eventually running her own agency and being the one to hit send on the first NHL tweet. Leah has always known the power behind having a plan.
Leah describes the exhilarating experience of transferring her company cross-country and shares the bumps in the road she encountered along the way. Leah grew up in New York and got her first foot in the marketing industry door by working with a marketing agency for three years before she would ultimately decide to scratch the itch of starting her own business.
When Leah would take the first steps towards launching her business, she planned a virtual launch party with a specific day and time when she would begin the process of starting her business. She wrote an email to everyone she knew, including past coworkers, classmates, members of her family, and other acquaintances. She found herself to be quite lucky when she received three replies in response. She would later do business with Major League Baseball and Twix candy bars as a result of these communications.
During this period, Leah found herself in the wild west of the digital space. Despite the challenges she faced, she managed to propel forward. Leah had the opportunity to set up the National Hockey League’s first twitter account and other social media platforms, to name a few, and had the chance to introduce several major corporations to new technologies.
Leah and her staff take great satisfaction in having the ability to pay close attention to the needs of their clients. They treat nonverbal cues with the same importance as verbal ones and make use of this understanding by giving their clients the best guidance and assistance possible. Leah believes that cultivating relationships has been essential to her success. Leah is continually attempting to expand her network of contacts to see where she may be of assistance, whether it has been through volunteer work, continuing education-type programs, or other business networking. Leah sincerely feels that her success has largely been due to her network of contacts.
Leah firmly believes that in order to achieve success, you must have the ambition and tenacity to work hard in addition to cultivating your contacts. From New York, to Maryland, to New Mexico, Leah has literally built her own roadmap to success. Buckle in for the road trip on this episode.
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 another episode of an agency story podcast. I’m your host Russel today’s guest on the show is Leah Mussina with sinuata media, a full service marketing agency based out of Las Cruces, New Mexico. Leah planned the exact day when she would begin her entrepreneurial journey and has been focused on delivering value from the east coast to the Western regions of the country ever since. From big brands to small brands, Leah leverages her positive attitude to bring success to her clients and her team. Nevermind she helped the national hockey league send out their first ever tweet. Imagine that. Enjoy the story.
Welcome to the show today everyone. I have Leah Messina with Sinuate Media. Welcome to the show Leah.
Yeah, thank you Russel. Thanks for having me.
My pleasure. Thank you for being here. Start us off with a quick overview. What does Sinuate Media do and who do you do it for?
Sinuate Media is a digital-first marketing agency, started back in January, 2006. We started doing what today would be called influencer outreach, but have expanded a lot over almost 17 years, and now function as the outsource digital marketing department or marketing technology department for a lot of our clients. Clients sprinkled all through the country, with a lot here in New Mexico which is where we’re based, as well as the east coast, which is where I grew up and where I started the business. We have clients in business services, e-commerce, construction, government and a lot in healthcare. A variety of industries.
Wonderful. Thank you for sharing that. Going back in time a little bit. From our first conversation it was, in fact, your intention to become an entrepreneur. When did you first know that about yourself? How did the plan evolve to live that out?
I think it’s something I really wanted to do from an early age. I can go back as far as remembering being a pretty young kid, probably about seven or eight years old doing drawings and trying to sell them to people for 5 cents, and being around 12 years old, I was into horseback riding at that point in time, and writing a business plan to open up a horse stable. I drew out all the specs, how many horses I needed, how much I needed to feed them. It’s always there. Throughout college, I started getting involved in some different startup companies and seeing how the companies were actually built from the ground up. Afterwards, got a job at a marketing agency and started putting my plans in place of what did I wanna do when I was gonna go out there and start my own business. I had this date in mind, I wanted to start a business before I turned 25. About six weeks before my 25th birthday, I got my business name incorporated ,and was off and running with Sinuate Media.
The power of a plan. Love it. Did the same thing when I was a kid. I would draw pictures and go around selling them. Pretty sure I mostly collected donations than actually selling art but I didn’t care. It seems like education was really important to you before you started your agency, you started working on your master’s. Is that true? How did your approach and knowledge gathering and all that formal education help you when you were starting the business?
In undergrad my focus was in rating and design. I didn’t take a lot of business classes. I took one entrepreneurship class in undergrad and then I had gotten this job at a marketing agency in New York. Was there for about three years. I started identifying if I were to have my own agency, what would I want it to look like? What is my philosophy? I really felt that I needed to get a educational background in marketing and business. It didn’t even have to be before I started the business, but alongside of it. I did apply to grad school. I got into the Carey Business School at Johns Hopkins, moved from New York to Baltimore and started doing those classes. At the time the program was like an executive master’s program so the classes were at nights and weekends. Did that while I was starting my business. It was great from both the educational standpoint, but also from the people that I met in the program which were very much integrated into the Baltimore business community. That helped on a more multipurpose level.
When you decided that you were gonna scratch that itch of starting a business, how did you decide that it was gonna be an agency and what were the steps that you took to get to that day one?
At that point in my life, that’s what I knew from a business perspective. I had been working for this agency a few years before, and as I said, if I were to do this, how would I do it differently? What else would I offer? The program I was in was marketing focus for grad school. I was getting all this marketing education and from that point I was like, okay, I have a good enough idea of, if I were to have an agency, what I would want to do and offer what skills I thought I could bring. I had moved to Baltimore, I did do a couple of interviews for jobs. There was one where all they wanted me to do was sell pop-up ads and I was like, that sounds absolutely awful. I interviewed at National Geographic and I was like, oh, that would be so cool but the job was in DC and I lived in Baltimore. Anybody who knows the area, commuting between Baltimore and DC is not a very fun experience. A lot of traffic. I made this decision that this was going to be the time. I wasn’t married at the time. I didn’t have kids. Pretty low risk. If it didn’t work out, I could go get one of those jobs that were out there.
Obviously a big part of that is getting clients. How did you get your first set of clients? What did those early days look like?
I was going out there and I was saying, oh, I’m this digital marketing agency. I was trying to think of something pretty creative to launch the business. What I did was not used very much anymore, but I created an Evite. I set up a virtual launch party, I set a day and a time and I said, this is the day and time that Sinuate Media is going to launch. Please, come and participate virtually. This is pre zoom, pre-video chat, anything like that.
What were you using to even facilitate that?
I don’t even know if there was even an actual virtual event. That’s when I like turned on our website and I had sent out this email.
Oh, okay, gotcha.
It was just like this was the moment that it was all going to go live. I had sent out this email to everybody I knew, every former coworker, every classmate, family, friends, and also said, if you know anybody that needs any marketing services to let me know. It was pretty lucky that I got three emails back. One was from a college professor of mine that I had worked with very closely at Carnegie Mellon. She ran the university press there and she said, I have four books that are coming out. Would you be interested in marketing them? Absolutely. I had a coworker that I had worked with at the agency in New York, he moved on and he had a project with Virgin Mobile and he said, we’re looking to connect with college kids, would you be interested in helping us on this campaign? Absolutely. I had another former coworker that was working with a big network of radio stations throughout the country and he had a campaign for Major League Baseball and Twix candy bars. He said, would you be able to help us find, baseball fans online? Absolutely. Those are my first three clients that I got, and I was happy to get the ball rolling pretty quickly.
Nice. What a launch. Speaking of pioneer leveraging technology during this virtual launch, we were in the wild west of the digital space, during that time you were actually able to work with some big brands and get them into the digital age. Can you share a little bit about those experiences?
This is 2006, 2008, right when Facebook was changing over from having a .edu email address to when they opened it up to everybody else. One of the things that I loved most about the agency that I was at prior to starting Sinuate Media was, my last year there, we started doing some consulting work with companies of, how do we bring them into the new technologies that were arriving at that time, which were podcasts, RSS feeds and blocks. We had these things that were out there, American Express was one of the clients that I worked with. It was our job to educate them on what these tools were, but what would the marketing applications of those tools going to be, and how could they integrate them into their systems. I took that education component of it with me. I enjoyed it and has led to present day, I’ve taught adjunct at New Mexico State University e-commerce or art students and that type of thing. I’ve always brought that along. In bringing some of these big brands into these new tools, we’ve worked with the National Hockey League and setting up their first Twitter accounts and social media accounts, as well as DeWalt, a part of Black and Decker, which is based in Maryland. There’s so much hesitation for so many brands early on and still see that a little bit today too, depending on the industry. How did they wanna control the message, wanna control what people are saying, what if a competitor says something? I had so many questions to answer, but for those brave first set of clients, it was exciting to say you are now in this new territory. This is what you can do. This is the new opportunity that exists to connect with people and spread your brand name in a different way.
Did you get to hit send on the first NHL tweet?
The account, I set it up with my email address and I remember the day I had to transfer everything back over to, whoever took it over from there.
Wow. I need an autograph. Not too long into the big market crash of ’08 hit and sounds like it maybe hit you rather hard. What did it do? What happened in the business and what did you have to do to start to overcome it?
As for many people, it was a really tough time. As anybody in marketing knows, that’s one of the areas that tends to get cut pretty quickly when it comes to cost savings. We started seeing a lot of people all of a sudden be social media experts, and now we’re just around. It’ s something we had been doing for a couple years already. The competition went from very little to massive amounts in the very short time. We had some clients that stopped advertising altogether, which is to be expected, but then some that tried to rebuild what we were doing for them in-house. They were outsourcing all these years and now trying to figure out how to do digital marketing internally. I had to stay whole for as long as possible, but like many companies too, I ended up having to reduce my staff. It was at a personal point in life too, where I was preparing for some pretty big changes of moving from Maryland to New Mexico. It was probably a pretty good time for a change at that point since we had reduced our staff down so much. It’s time to reevaluate what the next iteration of the agency would be.
My next thought was, what is that like moving a business from very far locations from each other and that overall transition. I’d love to hear what were those new starting point that you were gonna implement into the business?
I mean, it was kinda a wild experience. Having growing up in New York, then moving to Maryland and seeing the differences in those two states, and then moving from Maryland to New Mexico, it’s three very different cultural experiences in that. Moving the business cross country, obviously my first concern was, are client’s gonna still wanna work with me if I’m not down the street? Some didn’t. I was very lucky to have some that did. It was funny cuz they were like, okay, let’s see how it goes, and I always said, okay, as long as I have a phone and an internet, we can still do the same exact things we’ve been doing for all these years prior. I moved the company from a Maryland corporation to a New Mexico corporation, I had to find a new accountant. I had to also figure out how do I get integrated into this business community when I was so integrated into the Maryland business community and Baltimore community there. That was probably one of the biggest shocks, how different the business communities were between those two.
Anything that stands out in particular as what those differences were?
Moving from Baltimore, a big, metropolitan city to a city that at the time was, trying to break about a hundred thousand residents. Obviously the business community here is much smaller. We have broken a hundred thousand residents now. New Mexico, the whole state kind of acts, one neighborhood, so to speak. Albuquerque, which is about three hours north of where we are, is the center of a lot of business here. Even though it’s three hours away, you still know people there, you still have to network with people there, and it’s still part of the business community. Whereas Baltimore, we had people just in our physical neighborhood down the road, across the street. That was very different. I had to find different networking groups here. I joined some of the chambers as well as, the university here has a program focused on the economic development called the Arrowhead Center. I got connected with them and I’ve been an advisor for their program for now nine years, advising new businesses that are starting up in New Mexico and how to launch, then I helped them anything marketing related, whether it’s their website or branding or digital advertising. I’ve gotten to meet a lot of new business owners throughout the state through that program.
You made it sound very easy. I’m sure there was a few bumps there.
Yeah, a few.
You navigated that very well. As you stand today, what do you see as the long-term goal with the business and subsequently your role within it?
When I started the business I was very much hands on in doing design or writing or planning out strategies, in the weeds. The last few years we’ve been able to grow our team and bring in more talent. I’ve been able to focus more on the business development side and really trying to focus on growing our operations, which is where we wanna be as the business owner. We’re looking at things like how do we expand into different markets with a presence, with our previous connection with Maryland. That’s been a question of, do we try to go back and reinforce our presence there? I still work with people there, still have clients there. Do we look at some other markets where we would have possible success? That is very much our purview for this end of this year, into next year is possibly looking at acquiring another agency that can expand our technical abilities and also help us enter different physical market.
As you look back on your career and how you’ve evolved, what’s become your secret sauce or what would you attribute your key to success?
It’s not sexy at all, but there’s two things that come to mind. The first is really listening to what clients are seeing that they need and then anticipating what they need. I try to share that with my staff. You have to take all those nonverbal cues a lot of times and use that to direct what you’re saying, what advice you are about to give to somebody and if they’re bought into what you’re suggesting or not, and be able to pivot in that moment. That’s has helped us a lot in terms of being able to read people in those moments there. The other thing I think has been tremendously important to our success is really keeping those connections. Whether that has been through volunteer experiences or if I’ve done some continuing education type programs, which I’ve done a couple this year, or other business networking. Constantly trying to build my pool of contacts, see where I can be of use and who could help expand our network of resources that we may need to tap into for different things. Connections and contacts have been absolutely essential to success.
Connect and listen. Always love it when it’s the fundamentals, cuz it’s what it all comes down to anyway. In addition to Sinuate being your main bread and butter, it sounds like you also have had a number of other business adventures along your journey. Can you share about those?
I feel like I am an entrepreneur at heart. I do get involved in other businesses. Partially for the learning experience. I have done some just to try it out so that we can learn how to fall at it before we maybe suggest trying to do something for our client. Some have been personal things that I’ve wanted to be involved in. I’ve had a online book community for girls for several years called Book Divas. I helped launch a chocolate company at one point. I had a communications firm that specifically worked with scientists to help them communicate their academic work into common language that people could understand.
Boy, that sounds like a chore.
Yeah, it was very interesting. We did that business for about two years and we worked with a couple of universities and we ended up doing communications training for science students and grad level students as they were about to apply for their jobs. How should they go out there and talk about what they do in a less scientific way. Now there’s two organizations I’m involved with that are blockchain based, that, knock on wood, both will be launching very soon, Q1 of next year. One is in the logistics space and one is in the cannabis space. We’ll see how they go.
Gosh, you’ve been involved in so many things. I’m very curious, last big question for you, someone that sounds like a born entrepreneur. Are entrepreneurs born, or are they made?
This is such an interesting question because my gut wants to say that they’re born, but I know many people that have decided to go the entrepreneur route after seeing, maybe the company that they work for do something poorly and they’re motivated by, I can do this better. Or you have those brilliant people that have a great idea, but they also have that ability to take that and put it into action. We all know it’s not good enough just to have the idea, but those special people that actually can put it out there and commercialize it. You have to have the drive, you have to have the hustle. Otherwise it’s probably not gonna go so well. You can’t be that brilliant scientist that has this great invention if you think you’re just gonna hand it off and it’s gonna be successful.
No magic in this game.
It’s a lot of work, a lot of hours.
Fascinating answer as is the rest of your story. If people want to know more about Sinuate Media, where can they go?
They can visit us on our website, sinuatemedia.com. They can find us on Instagram, LinkedIn, Facebook. Our tagline is Sinuate Media. If you are ever in southern New Mexico, come by. 1036 South Main Street, Las Cruces, New Mexico.
Leah, thank you so much for your time today and being on the show. What a fascinating story, all the nuggets you shared. Really appreciate you being on the show today.
Yeah, thank you for having me. It’s been great.
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.
Not too long after I had moved to New Mexico, we got a project with a spirits company. Part of what we were going to do is take the bottles that they were going to give to us and give them to certain influencers in this market to try out. They offered to mail the bottles to Maryland since it’s a lot closer than Baltimore. I said, okay, that’s fine. You can send it to, one of my colleagues, except she lives in a very old part of Baltimore, very tiny streets, cobblestone. I get a phone call from her and she said, there’s a tractor trailer coming down the road right now. It’s stuck. It cannot get down my street. What do you want me to do? And I said, I did not know that it was going to be a tractor trailer dropping off bottles of this rum. We have to find a solution very quickly. The truck was able to back out of the street, and then I ended up calling one of my friends who was also a client who had a restaurant in Baltimore, and I said, do you have any storage space? You get trucks down your road to get deliveries of food, right? He says, yes, I do. I’m like, could we use your storage space for a really short time? I did not expect this delivery to be so big. He said that’s fine, send him here. Thankfully the truck was able to make its way out of downtown Baltimore, out of Bell’s Point. It was the neighborhood and back to this restaurant. We were able to use this basement for storage for these pallets of rum, which was a lot more than we were expecting. It all worked out, but it was a tight situation for a little bit.
Sounds like some kind of shady prohibition era. How do we get this alcohol from one place to another? Hopefully the influencers enjoyed it and it worked out well.
It sure did. A little stressful for a moment, but it worked out.