On this week’s episode of An Agency Story podcast, we have Kasia Johnson – Founder and CEO of Merge Forward, a digital marketing agency that specializes in connecting customers to brands through website design, social media, and content creation based out of Dallas, Texas.
Kasia considers herself to be a curious and perceptive individual, and it is her unwavering curiosity that has guided her towards a diverse range of experiences in her professional journey. Originally an artist, Kasia has always possessed a visual inclination and an enduring passion for the world of art. During her college years, she pursued her interest in communication design and graphic design, yet the idea of entrepreneurship didn’t cross her mind until a later stage.
Once Kasia graduated from college, she embarked on her professional journey, taking up employment with various companies, including Neiman Marcus. Little did she realize that her experience with this company would serve as the catalyst that would propel her in the direction of Merge Forward.
Today, Kasia and her team proudly establish themselves as a digital agency specializing in social media. Their expertise encompasses a wide range of services, including audits, strategic planning, content creation, event coverage, and the production of social media content related to those events.
Kasia not only showcases her versatility as a true saleswoman, demonstrating her diverse experiences from art to helicopters, agency life, and even being a member of the Ferrari Club; but she also shows us that dreams can come true with the right amount of passion and curiousity on this week’s episode.
Enjoy the story.
You can listen to this episode of An Agency Story on your favorite podcast app:
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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 Russel on this week’s episode of an agency story, we have Kasia Johnson, founder and CEO of merge forward a digital marketing agency that specializes in connecting customers to brands with a focus on social media based out of Dallas, Texas. How does eating a hot dog inspire one to start an agency? You’ll have to listen to this episode to find out from helicopters to Ferrari’s cautious had a lifetime’s worth of experiences in running her agency. Her story is a Testament to the power of passion and curiosity coming together to make dreams come true. Enjoy the story.
Welcome to the show today everyone. I have Kasia Johnson with Merge Forward. Thank you so much for being on the show today, Kasia.
Thank you for having me. This is gonna be so much fun.
Well start us off with a quick overview. What does Merge Forward do and who do you do it for?
Merge Forward is a digital agency and our niche is social media. That is anywhere from audits to strategy, to the actual implementation of content creation, to even going to events and creating the social content around that. We also do other things like website design and emo marketing and logo design, but we really focus on the social media aspect of it, and we even do training.
Very important in today’s world. I can’t say I’m an expert in social, so I’m looking forward to hearing more about that. Let’s take a step back and go back to young Kasia. Was entrepreneurship something that was always on the horizon as far as you thought your career was headed, or what was the young version of yourself thinking they were gonna do with their life?
I was always an artist. I liked to draw. I was very visual. In high school I was always doing that. I was in art classes and I thought, okay, if I go to college, I wanna be able to make money at my passion. I went straight into communication design and graphic design and all that, and back then, we didn’t have Photoshop, everything was done by hand. I’m totally aging myself, but I took Photoshop as a freelance class and I was like, okay, I can keep going. But entrepreneurship never really came into my mind until a little bit later. I graduated, started working for a few companies, and one of ’em was Neiman Marcus. Neiman Marcus had a catalog section and I was lucky enough to work on catalogs, illustrating them out, working with the buyers, with photographers. That was a lot of fun, but it was very fast paced. A lot was expected and you’re still young and everything like that. It could get a little bit overwhelming here and there, but it was a great opportunity. Looking back, it was some of my funnest work that I’ve ever done. One day they decide to have an employee outing, and we were also housed where the warehouse was. All the warehouse employees were downstairs, doing all the shipments and everything. All the graphic designers and everybody more techie was upstairs and we all went to this employee event and they were serving us hotdogs and they were serving us drinks. All of a sudden this helicopter comes down and this helicopter was gonna be featured in the Neiman Marcus book for Christmas. You could buy a helicopter and it had Neiman Marcus on it, and the president or vice president of Neimans comes down. It was a really interesting moment cuz I’m looking at the helicopter and then I look down at the hotdog and then I’m looking back up at the helicopter and I’m like, why am I down here with the hotdog? Why am I not up there in the helicopter? That was a really big pivotal moment for me where I was like, I’m not gonna get where I wanna be, I’m not gonna have the money, the freedom without working hundreds and hundreds of hours for a corporation. I was like, this is not what I want. This is not where I wanna be.
As you were saying that, my first thought was, why is Neiman Marcus serving hot dogs? Not to say, I love a good hotdog, but.
It was a good hot dog. But it would’ve been better in the helicopter.
I can certainly imagine. I started out in a corporate job, and at some points, I guess maybe it was that moment that sparked the agency. What did you do from there to begin making that transition?
I went and worked at a boutique agency. It was much smaller, and it gave me a lot more freedom. I did that for a really long time, and it was going really well. My ex-husband and I, we started it together and then I had a baby, then had another baby, and then I got a surprise divorce. Here I was, did not see it coming and, you know, you have a baby and then you have to find a place to live. All those logistics, the personal, but then I also worked with him, so now I was out of a job and that was crazy. It was really scary back then, but I look back and I’m like, wow. It’s one of those times in your life where you’re like, how am I gonna get through this? But it was a time also of what do I wanna do? Where do I wanna be in life? I got a job at a printer. They were the only ones that were very flexible because I had kids. I had a lot going on. I got this job and it was far away. They put me in sales, and at the time I really didn’t have any sales training, nothing. I was like, what am I doing here? I was afraid to pick up a phone. I was afraid to email anybody. But it was a perfect opportunity because number one, selling print is really hard. I got a lot of nos and I got used to that. Secondly, it put me in front of a lot of people, especially in the marketing world, because all events I would go to were everybody in the area for marketing. It was perfect. I did that for a while. I got a client and they had an issue. They said, look, I wanna keep printing with you, but we have these little expiration dates that keep expiring and if I send it back to the company, it takes ’em three, four days to turn that over to just change the little date and then, the coupon’s gone. I was like I know Photoshop, I know Illustrator. I can help. I’ll do it in 10 minutes. Right then I was like, wow, this is a really great value add and my customers loved me for that. Now my boss was like, stop messing with their artwork, but I’m like, I’m one of those people, if a process doesn’t work very well and it takes too long, I will change up the process. That client right then and there said, hey, I wanna see the rest of your design work. Can you do anything else? I was like, I think I can.
What was the time period of, that’s a lot of stuff to have to go through from all that transition. How long were we talking here?
I worked at that job for two years. It just wasn’t something I was passionate about. That client said, hey, can you design some stuff for us? And I was like, yeah, sure. Charged ’em very minimal. Why not? I’m just gonna help them out, and the email that we designed did amazing. Out did everything else that they had. They were so happy with it that they were like, hey, can you do another one? That’s when I was like, okay, what do you wanna do? Do you wanna go into marketing? What is it that you’re missing? My answer was, I need more money, and then I need more freedom. I would say, hey, can I go do this? Can I go do that? Working for a corporate job, especially pre-COVID, it was very tight. You could only do so much. You could only take so many vacations. You could only take so much time off. I was like, okay, I think this is what I wanna do. I think I can make this work. Everybody said no. I had one person that said, this is a really good idea, and everybody else was like, you only have one income. My mom was like, no, you should go back to school, and you should keep the corporate job because they’re all about security. I understand that, but my mind has always been like what if? What if I take this risk? What if I try this? I was invited to South by Southwest, Interactive by some friends of mine that also started bringing me some work. Now, please note, I’ve never been to a conference in my life. I did not know what that was. Here I show up, little me in Austin, Texas, in this blowout digital conference that is so huge that they have to borrow other hotels and parties. There was one party that I went to. They had this digital piece artwork, and it had a huge book. It had letters coming down digitally, and as you turn the page, it would say something. What it said is, print is dead. I was like, oh my gosh. This is where it gets fun because the universe is speaking to you. You know what I’m saying? There’s another little sign. What’s interesting too, is I told my boss I’m gonna go to this conference for a week, and he said no. I said, look, you promised me one week vacation. He said, oh, I meant next year. There’s this little challenge going on too, I don’t wanna be in this corporate job that’s constantly keeping me here. I wanna grow, I wanna do something I’m more passionate about. The last day of the conference, I sit down next to this lady cuz there were no rooms. We’re sitting on the side of a couch trying to eat and she goes, I just went to this best session ever. I was like, oh, what was it? What’s it called? She goes, why South by Southwest made me quit my job.
Boy, the signs are coming hard and fast to you.
How soon after that did you end up quitting?
It was like days. I literally drove back and I was like, hi, I’m done.
What did you do for client work right away? It sounds like maybe you had one client coming in?
By then I had a client or two. I was like, okay, I gotta start hustling and figuring this out. I had a little bit of savings. I always tell people, if you wanna be an entrepreneur or you wanna get out there, don’t quit everything all at once. If you have a spouse or somebody, you still yourself wanna have a little bit of a cushion. I had a three month cushion. That was like, I had a date in September that this is the day it’s gonna happen full force. No more goofing around. I had three months to get that going. What I did, and this is what I did in printing too, which is really funny, is I would just get in my car and I would drive around and knock on doors. I would be like, hi. A lot of times it was manufacturing companies, technology companies, just buildings, and even car dealerships. Sometimes they would kick me out and they weren’t very nice, but sometimes they were like, oh, okay. But it worked. There were several people that said, hey, let’s go ahead and do this. Yeah, we need a new website, why not? I slowly started building up my clientele that way. I kept track, every single little penny that was coming in.
Smart. I love the power of a have to. Another good reminder there is how long is your runway? Most people, I feel can figure it out, but it’s just how long is your runway to make it all work? What do you have in place when you run out of runway? What are you gonna do then? What a great reminder. How did you end up making your focus social media?.
We started working with several different clients and one of them happened to be AT&T. I had a colleague that got us in. He was coming in as a consultant and they were always looking for projects outside of consulting for us to do, but they were still trying to figure out how we fit. As we were working on some consulting pieces, we would go up and down the floors and say hi to everybody, back when everybody was at the office and it worked really well. At one point a high exec came up to us and he said, hey, how do you do Twitter? How do you do LinkedIn? Can you teach me how? We’re like, oh my gosh, nobody knows how to do it and they need a lot of employee advocacy. That turned into a huge program. We trained 2,500 employees on how to do social media. We created the guidelines, cause such a big brand, everybody’s afraid to speak about their brand, but we’re like, you can, here’s the things you can say, and you can also add a personal side, which was really brilliant because all these top execs that everybody thinks that are just sitting in these conference rooms all day, they don’t realize they do have a life outside of work. They do have a family, they have passions. They love to cook, they love to travel, all that kind of stuff. It was an opportunity for the employees to also show who they are. That ended up going into their big technology conference where we built an entire blueprint. A department is gonna have a speaker, the speaker’s gonna go out there, they’re gonna speak, a video’s gonna come out, or a white paper. Then 20 employees underneath are gonna push that message. We built out that entire blueprint. Towards the end of the conference is funny. I walk into the war room where my team was sitting and literally they had three computers and six cell phones, and they started tweeting for the execs and I’m like, man, they trust us a lot. Towards the end, they just gave us their second phone, their corporate phone. They were like, just tweet for us. The messaging was pushed up to three weeks. People who couldn’t make the conference knew about the conference. Millions and billions of impressions. All of that, from training employees and making them feel confident on how to use social media.
That’s a pretty big engagement to walk into at that level and pull that off. What were you thinking or feeling, was there some imposter syndrome or was it just the power of the have to?
I’m a curious being, so I like to observe. I like to see what’s happening, and then I figure out patterns. As soon as I figure out the pattern, I’m good. What I realize is that big or small, everybody has the same challenges in social media. It’s creating that content, making sure that content’s on brand, making sure that it’s timely, making sure that the entire team is on board. It just wasn’t a bigger scale. I have a great team, too. that’s really helpful.
That certainly does help. Another component of the marketing business and I think even especially social media, is it’s constantly changing. On top of that, you have to figure out how to run a business, and you have to figure out how to deliver this complicated and changing thing as a business. How have you approached staying on top of the industry?
That’s not easy, balancing it all. At first I did it all myself, which I look back at my younger self, I’m like, why did I do that? I could have, just ask for help. Sometimes I have to figure out first before I let anybody else do it, but pretty much what you have to do is you have to set aside time, mine are Fridays, to work on your business, to work on your social. Secondly, you really have to figure out who you’re gonna be speaking to. Third, you gotta figure out your content and you gotta put it in a schedule, and we do this for our clients too. For me, Mondays are tips that I take from my academy or whatever we’re doing with our clients. Tuesday is a picture of me and we’re selling ourselves softly. Wednesday is an industry article. Thursday is a video or a blog, Friday, it’s inspiration. It goes on and on, and on. You gotta schedule it and you gotta put time aside for it. Then you gotta find really great people. Some of my team members, for instance, Melanie, she’s really awesome. She loves to dig and research about social media. As she pulls articles for us, I get to read them too. Once a week we try to post an article or even share it within ourselves, within our team. There’s great social media marketing websites out there that post an article all the time and you just keep up with it. Finally, you try stuff for clients and you’re like, ugh, Facebook has changed and it’s, okay, what happened? Because we keep our toes with all our current clients, creating content for them, we learn on the job too.
Another fascinating story you’d shared with me was how you landed a very prestigious automotive dealer as a client. Can you share how that came to be?
The Ferrari dealership. I somehow got something, it was like a letter or an email or something, and it was really bad. It was written in a Word document, and at the time I didn’t know, but they didn’t have a marketing person, they were in between. I think the general manager wrote it and put it out and I saw it and I was like, I’m gonna call them. Often when you call, it’s always the receptionist or whoever else, but I called and the general manager answered the phone. I’m like hi. I really like your messaging, but I think it could use some pictures. That’s what I said. He’s like, I agree. I’m like, okay. Then I put my salesperson hat on from when I was in printing, and what I used to do is I would just show up and bring goods like cupcakes, bundt cakes, pastries. I would show up to meetings and bring ’em food and be like, hi, this is what I think you should do. You should have email marketing every single month. We could do a monthly newsletter and then you guys do events. Ferrari does a lot of events for their clients. Once you buy a car, you get to do all these private events. I’m like, you should showcase this. We could have a little poster up front talking about the events at the dealership. And he’s like, great, sounds good. Let me get my team together, let me get the logistics together, and I literally just kept bringing him bundt cakes. At some point he was like, Kasia, please stop. Here is the job, but you’re making me fat. I just need you to stop bringing these. It worked. We had them for seven years and I’m still friends with everybody. I still belong to the Ferrari Club. Eventually corporate came in and started doing all their branding, which they should have, but for seven years we were doing all their email marketing.
That’s amazing. Even tying it back to your inspiration story of the helicopter, while Ferrari doesn’t make helicopters, it does sound like you got to do a lot of really cool things, having them as a client. As you said, being part of the Ferrari Club and I don’t know what else that entailed.
It was a lot of fun. I got to meet a lot of great people, the cowboys come in and I got to drive some cars, and now when we go to the car shows, everybody knows me and my 13 year old comes in and he can sit in all the cars, nobody else’s. I’m like, see, your mom is VIP. Remember that. It’s your mom.
No more hot dogs for Kasia and the kids. We’re in Ferraris now. You say you’ve driven a Ferrari?
Yeah, I’ve driven a few and I’ve been in a few. I drove the sedan, which is the Ferrari FF and everybody’s like, how fast did you go? Man, we got on that tollway. I went 20 miles under, I was so afraid. I’m really short, so I can’t see very well, anyway, so I’m literally like, guys, you can go faster cuz you know, he is teaching you all about the car and how you can shift the gears on the steering wheel. I’m like, I’m good. But the purring sound is beautiful. It is absolutely beautiful. There was a couple of other times that I’ve gotten to drive it, which has been a nice blessing.
I think everybody at home’s a little disappointed that we didn’t hear a triple digit number there, probably as you explain why that might make a lot of sense. I don’t know if we wanna be fast and reckless with a car like a Ferrari, so makes perfect sense. Social media being your focus, but then building into offering it as training, sounds like that’s another part of your business has evolved. Do you see services or training taking precedence over the other as you grow the business?
I’m actually there right now. We have the agency, which is always going to stay there because it really keeps her feet wet in what’s going on in social media and creating that content for different industries. Then there’s the corporate training, but what happened is when we did the corporate training, we had all this curriculum and we had all these guidelines and I kept thinking, small businesses need this too, because a lot of times businesses come up to me and say, hey, can you do social media for me? I have $200 a month. I’m like, oh my gosh, some of this takes a lot of time, there’s a team. I wish I could help you. Now I’m like, maybe I could. What I did is I decided to create an academy. The Social Content Creation Made Easy Academy For Businesses. I took the curriculum from the bigger brands, made it for small businesses and put it online. I wasn’t sure what I was gonna do with it, but then COVID hit. Everybody was now learning from home and it was just the perfect timing. I called one of the SBDCs, small business development centers. They’re nonprofits, they’re all over the country. They’re great. I even have a mentor for free. They help small businesses. I spoke at one of their events a while back and I was like, hey, I have this thing. What do I do with it? I tested it out on a few demographics like real estate agents and stuff, but I still hadn’t had my price point. She’s, oh my gosh, you need a price it at here and I’m gonna buy this many seats. I was like, okay. She’s like, could you do a live webinar and teach for an hour and then do the academy? I was like, yeah, sure. Right then and there, COVID hit. The funds came in from the SBA for small businesses. I didn’t mean for this to happen, but I was like, oh my gosh, they’ve got all these funds, they have to spend it. I started calling every SBDC. I called 15 states in three months, and I ended up selling tons of seats because they had the funds to give away and all these small businesses needed the training and they were stuck at home. What better way to showcase your business than on social media at that time cuz everything is going so digital? I am at this interesting point in my career where I’ve got the agency, I’ve got the corporate training and now I have the small business. I am very passionate about small businesses. I started one when it was a really tough time in my life and it was the best thing I ever did and I think it’s a big deal to take such a big risk, but you’re also an amazing hero for actually taking it.
You are a true saleswoman. Throughout this entire story, you’ve named several instances where I know most people might not do what you’ve done. Pick up the phone, call 15 different states and their agencies, or as you said, called directly to the Ferrari dealership. I think that’s just one of the things that inspires me about your story is this drive to push forward in what might seem adversity. You make it sound easy. Where do you find your motivation?
Oh, you were so sweet, cuz I actually don’t like sales.
Honestly, I’ve heard you say that before and I find that fascinating.
That’s so funny, cause that’s the biggest frustrating part for me, is the sales is because it’s so unknown. For me it was just, I had to. I had kids to feed. You just have to. When you have that drive and that motivation, because you have to, you become a hustler and you just start throwing things at the wall until they stick and then you learn eventually, and you keep going. My biggest thing is getting comfortable, which I’m at right now. The business is going great, it’s comfortable, and it’s do I still have that motivation? Do I still have that drive? Looking back at what is my why? When you are scared that things may not work out, you tend to hit it harder. I also get really excited about opportunities. When I see an opportunity, I’m like, oh, this is good. This could be really good. I do understand that there’s a timing to it. There’s only so much time that those funds are gonna be available. There’s only so much time that I’m gonna get this person on the phone. I’ve learned through my own mistakes, you gotta hurry and get that person. If somebody says, hey I’m gonna have that meeting with you. Great, when? Is Tuesday good? I try to get that ping pong ball as less possible, one or two times. I try not to ping pong back and forth. Let’s get to it.
It’s a good strategy and similar to the power of have to, I heard recently someone put it really well that a lot of business owners, I think they were applying this to, have a little anxiety built up in them for whatever reason or another, and that becomes such a driving force behind anybody that’s created something good or great or interesting had that. It’s fascinating how that’s presented itself in your business. Kinda along those lines of have to, an interesting statistic that you’d mentioned to me in your business is that everyone on your team is or was a single parent at one point, which is, I guess you’d probably say a statistical anomaly. What words of advice do you have for an owner or manager that they can better empathize about the struggles of being a single working parent?
Lean on others, for sure. You don’t have to do it all yourself. We didn’t even mean for that to happen. It’s just one day I looked over and I was like, wow. It’s funny how we’re all single parents and I think the reason is cuz everybody on my team really wanted flexibility as much as me. I am more understanding. Now, again, this is pre-COVID. With COVID, I think everybody’s a lot more understanding, and I think we all needed that, but I would say lean on other people. When I had the kids and it was just me and I had to get work done, I would call up my best friend Julie, and I said, Julie, can you take ’em, from 12 to two and then I’ll switch and take yours and you can go to the grocery store. We thought this was such a great idea. We did it every Sunday. Every Sunday, so I knew I had those hours. Never had to pay for babysitting. We just traded. We traded kids all the time. Build a little tribe. Build your own village of friends and people that can help you out. People that you can talk to and you can get that break.
Last big question for you. Are entrepreneurs born or are they made?
I think they’re born, and here’s why. I think that everybody has a few driving forces and one of ’em is consistency or inconsistency. I think the people that are comfortable with inconsistency are the entrepreneurs. My mom is very different. She worked for the same great company for 25, 30 years. When I said, hey, I’m gonna go out on my own, she goes, no, don’t you want that paycheck? Don’t you wanna rely on that paycheck every two weeks? I’m like, no, because my paycheck could get bigger, Mom. You just never know. It could get bigger. I think it’s the consistency and inconsistency that comes into play.
What an interesting way to put that. I’m always fascinated by the different unique approaches, people to take to that question, and you added to that list of very fascinating answers. If people want to know more about Merge Forward, where can they go?
You can go to mergeforward.com. The training is on forwardmastery.com. And then please connect with me on LinkedIn, Kasia Johnson, K a s i a Johnson, and let’s chat. Message me if you have any questions, I’d love to connect, or even if you have a great business story, I would love to hear it.
There you go folks. Tell your business stories to Kasia. It’s been an absolute pleasure, so many really great points to your story. Thank you so much for taking the time to share it with us today, Kasia.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org. 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.
I got introduced to Anheuser-Busch, and it was a team that were doing a lot of video production, and they wanted to introduce me because I could do social media design posts and content, and then I could also do photography and web design. Bud Light was under Anheuser-Busch, so it was for Bud Light. Bud Light was doing a bunch of concert series and things like that around, so they just needed content created that was local. I was so excited and so nervous, I’m sitting in this big conference room and everybody’s talking, and finally they’re like, okay, I know you can do a great job. Let’s go for it. I was like, I can do a great job for Miller Lite. It’s gonna be awesome.
That’s quite a faux pa in the beer world.
Yeah, and they’re like, where’d you get this girl? They literally said that. They’re like, where’d you get this girl? And I was like, oh my God. I just totally messed it up. I was like, I’m sorry. I’m nervous. They were like, it’s okay. For the rest of the time, I was like, Bud Light. You shouldn’t drink this, you should drink Bud Light. I was a brand advocate after that faux pa.
I’m sure a mistake you never make again. Obviously the brand is very connected to the beer, but I have a friend that only drinks Budweiser, and anytime a waiter or waitress suggests Bud Light it’s like you just insulted every part of his being. People really get tied to their beers.