I am pleased to announce that I am a finalist for the Pinnacle Award for Young Entrepreneur of the Year again this year. I was a finalist last year as well, but sadly didn’t win (and yes, it still stings). The Pinnacle Awards acknowledge and celebrate business excellence in Knoxville. The Young Entrepreneur Award recognizes “young professionals, 40 years of age or younger, who started a non-franchise business in East Tennessee,” have overcome obstacles, and have moved their business from early growth to maturity.
Winning a Pinnacle Award would be an enormous honor for a variety of reasons, but I must draw attention to the fact that a woman has only won once in the last twelve years. Only one woman in twelve years- not very good odds.
But being a woman in the tech field has never been easy. Just looking at the statistics, the odds seem stacked against me: women only make up about 30% of the tech industry, despite making up 59% of the US labor force and almost 51% of the population (US Census Bureau). However, at the executive level in the tech industry, the number of women in those executive positions drops to a number between ten and 21%.
Though approximately 36.3% of businesses in the US are women-owned, 89.5% have no employees. Therefore, only 10.5% of businesses in the United States are women-owned and have more than one employee (Source: National Women’s Business Council). I’m proud to stand in that minority, particularly in the heart of Innovation Valley, where we’ve seen unprecedented technological growth. Tennessee, in fact, ranked 7th for the fastest-growing states for women-owned firms since 2007 in terms of economic clout (a combination of growth in number, employment, and revenue), per the 2016 State of Women-Owned Businesses Report from American Express.
I’ve gone on record multiple times saying that Knoxville is an incredible business town. It’s a business card town, built on handshakes, good relationships, referrals, and trust. That doesn’t mean Knoxville lacks technology or digital impact or modernity, though, as the creativity and innovation in East Tennessee continues to excel and rivals the work coming out of larger markets. But Knoxville’s business community is remarkable and without equal in its dedication to community improvement and business development.
Smarter Searches has always been a digital marketing agency that drives online visibility for businesses in a focused way. Our primary services include website design, social media marketing, search engine optimization, online advertising, pay-per-click advertising, and graphic design. Currently, we work with a wide range of industries, now spanning 40 states, and have worked with businesses from the start-up stage to multi-billion dollar, multi-location offices. We are now one of the largest marketing agencies in East Tennessee with more awards and certifications to our name than agencies five times our size.
Online and digital media have transformed communications between businesses and their customer bases and how customers respond to and interact with marketing materials. We pride ourselves on not simply marketing to customers, but uncovering their intent, presenting customized action plans that maximize account efficiency and imagination, with the goal of engaging and motivating customers and growing our clients’ bottom lines with ingenuity and attention to detail. This is why we’ve seen unprecedented growth in the last four years. There are tons of marketing companies and agencies nationwide, but there are few that focus on intent-driven marketing, that care to cultivate trust and transparency in the marketing costs, and that put customers first.
I’m not sure one could start a business more from scratch than I did. We had zero clients. Zero. I had no background in sales or entrepreneurship. I had a desk in a hallway with a single laptop. My undergraduate and graduate degrees are in International Political Economy and French Literature, for goodness sakes. But I found my calling in digital marketing. I wrote a 45-page business plan on my maternity leave from E.W. Scripps and with 8 years of experience with Dave Ramsey and at E.W. Scripps, I had the background and, almost more importantly, the drive to create success from nothing.
Our revenue growth has been double-digit every quarter since inception. In 2015, we experienced a 74% year-over-year growth in revenue. In 2016, revenue grew an additional 60%. This year to date is now up 168% over the previous year’s revenue numbers at the same time. Since my initial investment, our annual revenue is up 8233%. And I never asked anyone else for so much as a dime. No family contributions, no angel investors, no Series A funding. Just an incredible amount of hard work.
For us, 2016 was a year of planning “what’s next?” After being named a finalist for the Young Entrepreneur award in 2016, the loss set me up in a position of figuring out where to go next, how to top where we were. What was going to continue to set us apart from the competition? What could we do that was going to help Knoxville and not just our bottom line?
Where we are now is head-and-shoulders above where we were at the same time last year. For us, a big component was incorporating robust training into our list of services. There are huge numbers of companies with either too small of a marketing budget to afford our services, or on the other side of the coin, hold a fear of duplication or distillation of their own marketing efforts. However, based on attendance at our sessions at digital marketing conferences and local events, we saw an enormous hole in the market. There was a serious lack of training that was interesting, easy to comprehend, and customized to help businesses with their marketing at their budgets.
Since offering training in social media, SEO, and analytics, we’ve seen sales conversion rates double, average sales price increase 30%, and customer retention increase by 10%. Not only are our customers more informed, they’re more engaged in the marketing process, making our work even more impactful.
We’ve also dramatically increased the number of free trainings we have given, from sold-out speeches at the Knoxville Chamber of Commerce to closing keynote panels at the Knoxville Area Marketing Association Conferences, to speeches at some of the largest marketing conferences in the country. Trust in marketing is difficult to obtain; we’ve found it by bringing as much information to our clients and business contacts as possible. Where other businesses hide their “secret sauce,” we share our top tips and tricks to help our clients as much as we can.
Furthermore, we’ve substantially increased our ability to create visual content and we’re so proud of that. Everything we create, we create at home in Knoxville. From websites to infographics to social media campaigns to video, our creative heart comes from this great (scruffy) city. We’ve also worked tirelessly with the Knoxville Opera and Rossini Festival on pro-bono marketing campaigns, have developed robust programs with deeply discounted rates for non-profits, and have plunged forward in initiatives that continue to make Knoxville great. As a female entrepreneur, women’s issues are deeply important to me and recent work with the Knoxville Health Department and A Step Ahead charity has allowed us to try to make a difference for women in Knoxville.
Wish me luck, and I hope all of us in the Knoxville business community continue to work as forces that drive Knoxville forward, innovating, diversifying, and creating together.