Rather than wait for COVID-related interruptions to drain their clients' business and thus their own, Philadelphia-based digital marketing agency Brand Llama not only moved their operations online but showed their clients how to pivot and go digital themselves. Sagan Medvec, the co-founder and creative director of Brand Llama, explains how they helped bring manufacturers, trade shows, and other face-to-face industries into the eCommerce age, while a Fundbox line of credit helped Brand Llama even-out cash flow and upgrade equipment.
Fundbox: Hello, and welcome to the Fundbox Forward podcast. As the COVID-19 pandemic rages on, many small businesses remain deeply affected. These that have turned out to be the most resilient, to changes like those imposed by social distancing and even stay at home mandates have been those that were already based online or were able to pivot their business models to become more virtual shifting from bricks to clicks.
One thing that's been especially influential in these transitions is when businesses who were already well-positioned to provide online service, I've reached out to and assisted other small businesses to help speed their evolution to e-commerce. Today. I'd like to introduce you to one such business brand Lama.
Based in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Brand Lama is a boutique digital marketing agency and branding firm. Their mission is to help drive leads and sales by integrating design content technology, and marketing strategy. This digital expertise not only helped them withstand the operational impacts of COVID-19, It also helped them to provide their customers or manufacturers and other traditional industries. With ways to make the most of the ways that business needs to be done today. I'm Dan with Fundbox. And to tell the story, I'm speaking with Sagan Medvec, the co-founder and creative director of Brand Lama.
Hello, Sagan. Welcome to the Fundbox forward podcast.
Sagan Medvec | Brand Llama: Hi Dan, thank you. I appreciate you having me.
Fundbox: So please tell us a little about yourself and what brand Lama does.
Sagan Medvec | Brand Llama: [00:01:36] Well, I'm a traditionally trained graphic designer and have been working in this field for 20 years, 20 plus years. And, Was doing work for a lot of other companies and eventually worked my way up to working for the fortune 500, doing the marketing and branding work for them. And when the first economic recession hit, I decided to start my own business to try to help smaller businesses with that fortune 500 experience lead into helping main street, basically.
Fundbox: [00:02:03] So helping main street and other small businesses, what you're doing now is nothing new. This has been in your gestalt the whole time?
Sagan Medvec | Brand Llama: [00:02:11] Actually the core mission of the business as we started, it was to take that.
Fortune 500 experience and bring it down to the small and mid-sized businesses specifically in the Philadelphia region. So yeah, it's part of our DNA to actually help small businesses grow the way we looked at it. It was a great opportunity. If we could help, uh, a small and mid sized business grow, they could hire two or three more people, which would have a significant impact on the local economy.
A local workforce, local community, more so than helping, you know, a fortune 500 save a couple million dollars on an advanced piece of software. So we looked at it as a real opportunity to give back to our community.
Fundbox: [00:02:47] That's terrific. I understand that you're pretty much a full service agency now. Uh, but you didn't start out that way. What was your own transformation like into. Doing more for your customers?
Sagan Medvec | Brand Llama: [00:02:57] Our initial focus was primarily on websites. We really did a lot of websites for clients. In fact, in one month we launched 11, which was insane everywhere else I had ever been, uh, had only maybe launched one a quarter at best. Uh, so we were doing a ton of work for our clients.
And as that website work went out and clients gained some momentum in their business from it. They would come back to us and say, well, what else can you do for us? And so we slowly learned that there were a handful of additional services we could offer that would help them grow further, farther, and reach more customers.
And again, keep that momentum going forward. So yeah, we, we learned from our clients what the market needs. Because they trusted us with their website and that trust expanded over time.
Fundbox: [00:03:42] Now, did you look at your own team to see what you could provide , and then go outside, or did you develop your own skills and hire within to meet the demands that your customers adjusted?
Sagan Medvec | Brand Llama: [00:03:53] In most cases we had the talent already. it was a very interesting situation where we had people that joined us that were very experienced. and we're looking to not work in that agency life anymore. They wanted to still do that kind of work, but do it in a more meaningful way. So our charge to help businesses grow and help improve the community that way drew in really good talent.
And when we started looking at other things, I would actually go to the team and go, Hey, do you want to learn how to code? Hey, do you want to learn how to write ads either you want to learn this or that? And we would take training courses internally to elevate our staff that we already had.
Fundbox: [00:04:29] So it wasn't like these people had some hidden talents of their own. You actually went through and did employee development in order to be able to offer more as an agency yourself.
Sagan Medvec | Brand Llama: [00:04:37] Exactly. They had an interest. Their interest got piqued by the idea. And it was very interesting to see because some of our designers went, you know what?
I want to be a better designer to do that. I need to learn how to code, you know, what kind of things can I get away with on the development side that then impact my design or project managers who went. What I'd really like to write? Some ads or I'd really like to help with other related services that are outside typical account or project management, right?
Fundbox: [00:05:03] What a great way to grow. Well, I know that part of your mission to help the community means that you may not necessarily be focusing on the largest customers out there. And I imagine that can come with some cash flow issues. So let's just take a step back in the years before the pandemic, what were the typical cash flow challenges you faced at brand Lama?
Sagan Medvec | Brand Llama: [00:05:24] Our favorite one was always late paid invoices. So yeah, that's the tried and true one that always comes up. Clients paying us not on time or thinking they got different terms, you know, thinking they were net 60 when they were really net 30, all of that kind of fun stuff. Additionally, we would get situations where random expenses would come up.
A laptop would die. We would need a new server for web development. And those types of expenses would pop up and that would hurt cash flow. Additionally, as we started training up our staff to learn more and more skills, and that additional training would also start hitting cash flow. A lot of those training services out there are a new monthly expense in order to keep your staff involved in training. And that can start adding up over time and impacting cash flow.
Fundbox: [00:06:09] So these challenges is pretty typical among the marketing agencies?
Sagan Medvec | Brand Llama: [00:06:12] I would say a marketing agency pretty much. Yeah. Nearly every company I've worked with in the past before starting my own business would run into that moment where they would say, we've got some cash flow problems, payday is going to be a little late, or we can't invest in this new equipment.
So you've got to make this other piece work for another two months until we can. so yeah, the expenses are primarily related to equipment. And then late payments happen all the time in the marketing and agency world.
Fundbox: [00:06:40] I understand that during these challenges, you turned to a Fundbox line of credit. How did you put these funds to use and what was the effect on your business?
Sagan Medvec | Brand Llama: [00:06:48] Our initial use was to get some new equipment. I remember that we needed a new server to help out with our development. And the one we had was getting crushed by the amount of stuff that we were doing, and it just needed a new one but didn't have the cash at the time. So as our first test with the Fundbox line of credit, that's what we did. And it helped out significantly. A New server, when you're doing website development as your primary job, makes a big difference. , And over time, it's generally helped us even-out our cash flow, to allow us to increase staff, get more equipment, or invest in training.
Fundbox: [00:07:20] And what was the experience like working with the Fundbox platform?
Sagan Medvec | Brand Llama: [00:07:24] Very easy, very straightforward. Having worked at usability design firms, that type of online tool, making it as easy-to-use as possible is very important. Additionally, it's also very easy to find out where you stand on what you've taken and what you owe when the next payments are due.
Yeah. It's a very, very straightforward, very simple platform that I've enjoyed using.
Fundbox: [00:07:48] Well, thanks. Now let's talk about what happened for you when the coronavirus hit. How did it impact your agency in the short term? How did you adapt and how has it changed the way that you operate now?
Sagan Medvec | Brand Llama: [00:08:02] We are definitely a team that likes to work together in the same space.
We have a very specifically designed conference area for brainstorming sessions in person, a nice big leather couch for everybody to sit on and share ideas and write them up on glass whiteboards. Very nice setup, spend a lot of time making that beautiful and fun to use, and that all stopped. That just immediately froze.
We couldn't get together. We couldn't work together in person and we've had to pivot to using a lot of online tools to help make up for that communication. It used to be very simple to just. Walk across the office, have a conversation with the developer, turn around and have a conversation with a designer working on it and get decisions made and move projects forward.
That is now all online. Our reliance on those online tools has only grown. We were fortunate because we did have a couple of remote. Staff, not remote employees that were already using these tools, but we had to ramp up significantly with them in order to keep business flowing and projects moving forward.
Generally, a lot of the tools we use are project management tools, sharing notes, back and forth. And one of the little hacks that I have found for that, that has been fantastic is sometimes typing can fail you. It gets a little cold out your hands. Get a little tired speech to text tools on a Mac will take all your notes instantaneously.
And it's with like 95% accuracy. So I'm able to communicate a lot of, kind of stream of consciousness, ideas for design projects, into the notes program, using that. getting a lot more ideas across, in a very short period of time.
Fundbox: [00:09:36] I know it's really easy to come up with ideas and brainstorm when you're around other people at the same time and talking at the same time and in the same space. Now that you're not on that leather couch, how has this online environment affected the creative process?
Sagan Medvec | Brand Llama: [00:09:51] It's more of a solo activity now. So I will communicate with my team and set the table basically for what needs to be done. And then they'll run off on their own and come back with ideas and share them all in the same note.
So everybody sees everything, but it's definitely a little more of a solo activity, whereas it's, before it's brainstorming sessions, you're able to play off of each other. we found that those types of sessions don't work as well for us, particularly through zoom or other video sharing tools. Because people get kind of focused on, “I need to stare at the screen, but I can't look at my notes.”
I can't, you know, do this or that. I need to remember that I'm on camera and that can keep people in a mental space that isn't conducive to brainstorming.
Fundbox: [00:10:29] Yeah. Yeah. I bet that's a great issue. Now tell us about your clients during this time. How did the shut downs and other bits since changes impact their revenue?
Sagan Medvec | Brand Llama: [00:10:38] The majority of our clients are manufacturers. And they got hit pretty hard when COVID came around because a lot of their stuff they were doing and it's, long-term engagements. They're looking at one to two year ramp ups for their contracts, and then they finally get them and they were having customers cancel on them, going, you know what?
I can't open that new division. I can't do this new work because of everything getting shut down. A lot of them saw their revenue drop. You know, between 30 and 50% within weeks of lockdowns happening, the vast majority of them, fortunately for them and for us are on the essential list. They are manufacturers.
The things that they make are deemed essential. A lot of them do work in food production in metal work, basically making the parts to make other things that are essential as well. So they got to stay open most of this time, but all of them have seen their revenue drop significantly. Some have bounced back, but it's still nowhere near where they were in 2019.
Fundbox: [00:11:34] I know for manufacturing that trade shows are a big part of their business and I'm sure that dried up. Pretty quickly, what was the effect on them and how could you help them through that issue?
Sagan Medvec | Brand Llama: [00:11:45] We have a couple of clients where trade shows are their biggest sales activity of the entire year. And it's typically one show and most of those shows got canceled or switched to a digital format, which was all new.
The digital format was all new for not only the trade show planners, but also all of their exhibitors and attendees that would come. And we've worked diligently with our customers to help. Develop new tools and resources to support online trade shows, but also take that effort out of sales activity.
Back from the trade show, it's been an essential part of their business for so long that they kind of forgot that there were other tools available to them to communicate with customers outside that environment.
Fundbox: [00:12:24] I know that marketing agencies can be pretty vulnerable to the financial belt tightening of the businesses that they serve. But like you explained, you didn't just stand around and wait for the Wells to run dry instead. How did Brand Llama step in to help your clients pivot?
Sagan Medvec | Brand Llama: [00:12:44] In late February, early March, when lockdown talks started and trade shows started getting canceled. We realized that there was going to be a major issue for a lot of our clients.
And we had an all team brainstorming session. I think the last one on our leather couch so far for this year. , and we, , got together and just brainstormed a bunch of ideas on how. We can help our customers connect with their customers. Some of the common tactics that we came up with were already in play, like generating white papers or downloadable resources or hosting webinars.
Some of them we talked to about starting podcasts like this, even to have communication one-on-one with customers and talk about their industry and space. , some like that. Some didn't, some really their audio shy very much. But some other ideas were more interactive where we were talking about hosting live videos to showcase their products and services in real time. , converting old presentations into video slideshows that could then be shared on social media platforms , even virtually live hosted tours of their showrooms or product demos, anything that they would normally do in person. How could they replicate it online so that they could still do it in a one-on-one format, like a zoom call or so that they could create a video of it and share that online to showcase their product or expertise in one format and reuse it over and over again on different platforms.
A lot of these tools were quick hits , and big wins for our clients and helped them step away from the trade show limitation. Other tools like online product configurators and e-commerce in general were big parts of the conversation as well. A lot of clients that are manufacturers are not used to selling directly to their customers.
They're used to doing it through distributors or through longer sales cycles and contracts selling one-offs of single items through their website. A lot of that scared them. They didn't like the limitation of it. They were afraid that their distributors would get mad, but we worked with a lot of them to show them that, no, this is something that you can do and this can help even out.
Your sales drop because you'll get 10 to 15 one-off orders. If one of those turns into a big client, it was all worth it. Yeah. So for some of our clients that one sale could turn into a sale of 10,000 units and suddenly they gained a million dollar client. So it would make a big difference.
Fundbox: [00:14:55] in these additional services. How did this help the other businesses?
Sagan Medvec | Brand Llama: [00:14:59] Our clients in particular, one of the biggest things we've added. To their website, into their sales process, our product demonstration videos, whether those are 3d animations of something or somebody literally walking through how something works. Those have had a significant effect on the business and they've helped bring in new sales that they felt wouldn't have been there otherwise.
In fact, every time they would promote that a new video was available, they would land two or three potential inquiries into the product. And in their case, those products are, you know, six to $10,000 a piece. So it's big sales for them from sources that weren't there before. So these types of resources have had a positive impact on their revenue and help minimize that impact that they received from the initial lockdown and the shortfalls of this year.
I know for one of our clients that we helped take them in three years of working with them including ( actually it's four years now, including this year and pandemic craziness) helped move them from around a $7 billion a year business to around $25 billion. Our work along with the manufacturing advocacy group that we partner with, which helped them with lead generation through cold calling and targeting that combination has had a significant impact for that business. And they have not slowed down as much as a lot of others. And additionally, one of the things that's been coming up more and more often for manufacturing clients is online advertising. How do they get in front of customers that they would normally run into at trade shows or other activities. And we've been using online advertising to help push that through.
Fundbox: [00:16:28] Right. So what advice can you give to other marketing agencies or even other providers of professional services on how they can actually do what you did and support their clients in new ways, or even help their customers do things differently to survive or prevail in these times?
Sagan Medvec | Brand Llama: [00:16:46] Do all you can to help lower the bar to conversation.
Impromptu video chats on zoom, quick, video demos, making it easier to order samples or schedule meetings. Anything that lowers that difficulty to starting a conversation. There are still plenty of businesses out there that need supplies. They need your services, they need your products, but they're a little afraid to have the conversation because they know that things are tentative.
If you can make it easier to have that conversation, you can start getting over that tentativeness faster because you're able to have that conversation sooner. And with lower stakes, you know, the idea of having a quick video chat versus a formal proposal of formal presentation, uh, it makes it more of a conversation.
And I think that's a real positive thing that we've done in our business. Pretty much since day one. We've tried to make it about having a conversation and less of formal presentations and decks and slide shows and all that fun stuff. It's more informal. And people right now seem to appreciate that. So even in complex sales cycles where some of our clients are working on orders that take one to two years to get finalized and start, they're trying to have more informal conversations and find points in that sales cycle where they can have an additional conversation that normally wasn't there.
And it's had a positive impact for us personally, in our business, but also our clients as well.
Fundbox: [00:18:10] So how do you predict coronavirus will affect your business for the next six months? Could this in fact work out better for your business?
Sagan Medvec | Brand Llama: [00:18:17] In a way it has, because something we were already starting to work in has ramped up significantly, and that is online advertising.
We were doing a couple of projects like that, and now we're doing several dozen. Within this year, we're doing a lot of online advertising for businesses that normally wouldn't touch that Avenue because they didn't think it was a viable place to find customers. We've added that into our repertoire and expanded upon it.
And that's really our goal for the next six months is to expand our offering in that space and try to do things that normally you don't do in that space. Lo-fi low cost tests. There were really small campaigns. Only spend a hundred dollars over the course of a week, create three ads and throw them in the Google ads or Facebook or LinkedIn, and just see what you get out of them.
Based on that, we can actually make a lot of inferences and predictions about the performance of a bigger campaign. And sometimes we can flat out say, you know what, for your product line, Pinterest, don't bother. Don't put your ads there, spend it somewhere else. Those tools have all improved significantly over the course of this year to allow much better targeting, better reach to clearly identifiable targets.
Even Google Ads has added an edit in an audience feature that lets you focus on specific types of visitors, which is very new for them. It's growing and improving, but it's useful. And for us, that's one of the areas that we're going to focus on over the next six months. Really making sure that our online advertising capabilities are solid because the benefits that our clients have been seeing means that that's not going away anytime soon.
Fundbox: [00:19:42] Oh, that sounds really good. How do you think Fundbox could help others in your industry or really any other small to medium business do accomplish what you're doing?
Sagan Medvec | Brand Llama: [00:19:51] For us it's been an absolute fantastic help. And just evening out cash flow and expenses. And I would recommend that for pretty much any business that's smaller mid-sized that really needs that help. It's been super easy to do. It's allowed us to, even out that cash flow, invest in our business, invest in our people without breaking the bank and its spin. Immense.
Fundbox: [00:20:13] This all sounds terrific. So how can people contact brand Lama?
Sagan Medvec | Brand Llama: [00:20:16] Thank you can visit our website, BrandLlama.com or Google search “Brand Llama” and we will come up.
Fundbox: [00:20:21] Well thank you, Sagan and thank you for everything you're doing, not just in the Philadelphia area, but for other businesses within the reach of online service and for all of us.
Sagan Medvec | Brand Llama: [00:20:32] Thank you, Dan. It's been a pleasure.