At the height of the recession, Shirley Blundell and three business school colleagues co-founded redlime marketing, a Calgary-based strategic marketing and communications company focused on custom marketing solutions. Ms. Blundell and her partners were nimble, responsive and determined to prove themselves despite the unfavourable economic conditions.
Redlime was well aware that new entrepreneurial ventures, including their own, often struggled – even failed – in their first few years. And while their clients would benefit from investing in marketing, it could be difficult to convince those just getting off the ground. Targeting clientele with minimal capital, for what was seen as a non-essential business expense, meant redlime struggled along with them.
Despite the challenging environment, how could redlime leverage their experience and skills to build their own successful marketing services firm?
After graduating from the University of Calgary's Haskayne School of Business in 2006, Ms. Blundell became the marketing and communications manager for a North American division of Royal Dutch Shell where she oversaw a seven figure marketing budget. By November 2008, however, Ms. Blundell was craving a new challenge and a change of pace and scenery. "I was creating a lot of value for others and I wanted to create something of my own. The allure of a good job at Shell while in my mid-twenties was huge, but I wanted a different work-life balance."
An athlete and avid traveller, Ms. Blundell wanted to dictate when and where she worked, and the types of clients and projects she took on.
She valued the experience and skills she developed at Shell and knew it wouldn't be easy to start a new business in the competitive Calgary marketplace. Fortunately, she knew and trusted her former business school classmates. All had graduated within a year of each other, and brought complimentary skills and shared a vision as business partners.
At the end of 2008, they chose the name redlime marketing, which they felt invoked fresh ideas and bold thinking. The partners worked on the accounts in their spare time, while maintaining their full-time jobs.
Redlime sought to offer large agency quality with small business service and attention to detail. Initial clients were small businesses such as retailers, consultants and service firms, gathered through word of mouth. They offered affordable rates and refused to charge account management fees, something that had always bothered Ms. Blundell in her dealings with other agencies. Working as a virtual company in home offices and on laptops, overhead was low.
"Initially our belief was that as a small business, we were in the same position as our clients," recalls Ms. Blundell. "Any business relationship we had would need to be mutually beneficial because we relied on our clients as much as they relied on us."
Located in a global energy hub like Calgary, Alta., Ms. Blundell soon identified a new opportunity for redlime's growth.
Not all companies understood the value of marketing: In particular, oil and gas firms were successful without investing in marketing. However, investment was necessary to become a major player in the industry and Ms. Blundell believed redlime could show them the way.
Ms. Blundell reclaimed her oil and gas industry experience and started attracting clients from the energy sector in Calgary. At Shell, Ms. Blundell had worked extensively with marketing agencies and understood the needs, culture, jargon and challenges of the energy industry. Her experience and knowledge gave her a competitive advantage that few marketers shared and could set redlime apart from the competition. "We hadn't initially gone after the energy sector simply because we thought national and global companies would work solely with national level agencies."
Targeting the energy sector entailed moving redlime from projects to retainers, building energy literacy in its top consultants and contractors, and executing its own marketing plan to capitalize on this clientele.
"Moving from a Fortune 500 company to my own firm, I tried to do what everyone else in that sector was doing. That put us into a more crowded, competitive space," shared Ms. Blundell. "We broke through only when I did for my firm what Shell had paid me a salary to do for them."
When Ms. Blundell saw robust growth in redlime in 2011, she quit Shell and dedicated herself full-time to redlime marketing.
Today redlime marketing enjoys an expanding portfolio of top-drawer clients in the oil and gas sector. Since 2012, the company has tripled its billings and employs a team of 10.
Ms. Blundell has also found her balance. At the beginning, managing the day-to-day tasks of a new business – finances and accounting, pursuing proposals and sales while still getting client work done – was a lot to balance. She was attached to all business aspects, but learned to rely on other consultants to run the accounting and finance functions. This allowed her to focus on core client service, and to choose her own hours.
On advice to people in similar situations, she recommends doing some soul searching to determine if going independent is right for you. Then ask yourself: what can I offer that no one else can?
Ms. Blundell learned that owning and running a business is difficult. Very difficult. But it's also exceptionally rewarding to look back over the years and see what you've built and accomplished.
This is the latest in a regular series of case studies by a rotating group of business professors from across the country. They appear every Friday on the Report on Small Business website.
Peter Bowal is a professor of law at the Haskayne School of Business.