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Artists’ representative needs to design a marketing strategy

Special to The Times

As a serial entrepreneur, Susan Reese knows a business opportunity when she sees one. She’s learned the hard way to look for more than just a great idea.

Her former gift basket company, a children’s clothing line and a handcrafted invitation business all offered top-quality products but fizzled because they couldn’t sustain profits.

A legal documents copying service raked in the dough and grew to 14 employees, but Reese hated it because the work was dull and offered zero outlet for her creativity.

Almost seven years ago, she says, she hit on the perfect combination when she founded 411 Creatives with $300 and a home computer.

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Today, her El Segundo firm represents almost two dozen freelance storyboard artists, character designers and matte painters, among others. She gets 20% of the sales from any work she lines up for them. Clients include advertising and film industry giants such as Young & Rubicam, Electronic Arts Inc. and Lucasfilm as well as National Geographic television.

Reese hired her first salesperson last year and recently moved the business out of her home. She just signed her first two deals to represent entire companies that specialize in creative work for film and advertising.

This year, Reese expects an 83% jump in sales over last year’s level to $800,000. And that’s just the beginning of the potential for growth she sees. She wants to add directors, production designers and commercial photographers to her stable of talent. That would allow her to provide complete creative teams for clients.

“We are not even scratching the surface,” said Reese, 49.

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Reese also wants to revamp her website, 411creatives.com, and create printed, four-color marketing materials. She knows she’ll also need to put together a business plan that outlines how and why she will expand the business. As with most small-business owners, finding the time and money to accomplish her goals is a challenge.

Reese has expanded the company, which she founded with a since-departed partner, and reached profitability without taking on debt or investors. She’s proud of her accomplishment but realizes it means limited cash flow to pay for growth strategies, including her goal to boost marketing.

She’s paid for a postcard mailing, a database of potential client names and an industry directory listing.

More marketing, she believes, would help her overcome a recent slowing in sales momentum because of concerns about a possible Screen Actors Guild strike and the economy’s malaise.

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“If 411 Creatives has maintained on word-of-mouth, cold calls and a few trade website listings,” Reese said, “imagine what the future possibilities are.” She is interested in finding an investor or partner. And she says she doesn’t mind giving up an ownership stake to do so.

Marketing expert William H. Crookston, who met with her and helped analyze her business, agrees the small business has potential to grow. To do so, it will need a more focused marketing strategy and eventually more money, he said.

“She’s somewhat afraid of the future because she has made no plan,” said Crookston, principal of WHC Associates in Santa Monica and a professor of entrepreneurship at USC. Here is a look at some of his recommendations.

Create a marketing plan and timetable. A small business such as 411 Creatives can often get by with a marketing plan instead of a full business plan, at least initially, Crookston said. The idea of creating a business plan can be so overwhelming that small-business owners put it off indefinitely.

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Reese should create a 12-month timeline, he said, and post it on oversize calendar pages up on the wall in her office.

“She doesn’t know what September looks like, not mentioning even October,” Crookston said. “So the theory behind this is write it down.”

Post sales goals. Reese should come up with sales goals for herself and her commissioned salesperson for each month. She can use prior year results as a starting point, Crookston said. “You’ve got to visualize, you’ve got to see the target.”

Analyzing the gap between goals and results should lead to adjustments to future months’ marketing plans.

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Outline marketing steps and costs. Reese needs to plan her marketing strategy and steps for each month, and then post them on her timeline. Cost should also be noted. Her goal is to create a consistent marketing message, Crookston said.

Postcard mailings, for example, should go to the same group more than once, which is her current practice.

Step up sales calls. Reese should plan to quadruple her in-person sales calls, the consultant suggests. Currently, she makes about one such call a week. “She’s a good saleswoman, she has a tremendous smile -- you want to do business with her when you meet her,” Crookston said.

He also believes this approach will allow her to effectively target high-potential clients. Her current postcard mailings and e-mail marketing blasts are more of a shotgun approach, he said.

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To help her free up time for in-person sales, Crookston suggests Reese hire a student intern to help with administrative duties. Reese said she would take that idea a step further and hire a graphic arts student who also could help with postcard and website design.

Another step Reese and other entrepreneurs can take to free up time is to track their daily activities for a week, Crookston said. It can be eye-opening to see how little time is spent on tasks that produce revenue or increase profit.

Follow-up. The consultant also recommends a phone call after every sales presentation to better determine how things went.

“Ask ‘what’s the buzz?,’ can they offer any suggestions and when can you meet again,” he said. If a sale isn’t closed after three meetings, call and ask directly what you’re doing wrong or what it would take to make the sale, he said.

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Small-business owners typically hate the sales side of doing business, but it’s crucial to learn what may be keeping clients from buying.

Find a mentor and network. At USC, Crookston says he encourages his female business students to find female mentors. He gave the same advice to Reese as well as the name of a potential mentor and customer, a woman who owns a company that makes miniatures for films. A mentor “is important,” Crookston said. “Let’s look at NAWBO [National Assn. of Women Business Owners]. NAWBO was started basically because women in business needed an additional forum outside of the old boys’ network.”

Reese and other small-business owners often have some idea of the steps they need to take to boost their companies, such as those outlined by Crookston. Actually taking those steps is where most fall down, he said.

Reese said she was “definitely going to execute” many of Crookston’s suggestions, which should give her a head start on the expansion she dreams of for her small firm.

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But Crookston reminded, “You can take all the theory and tactics in the world but if you don’t go out and do it, it’s just words.”

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cyndia.zwahlen@latimes.com

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

411 Creatives

Location: El Segundo

Owner: Susan Reese

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Business: Provide freelance visual artists for feature films, television, advertising agencies, commercial production and video game companies.

Revenue: An estimated $800,000 in 2008

Employees: 1

Challenge: To create a business plan, a new website and a marketing brochure.

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Meet the expert: William H. Crookston

William H. Crookston is the principal of WHC Associates, a marketing and management-consulting firm in Santa Monica. He is also a professor of clinical entrepreneurship at the University of Southern California. Crookston has owned and managed two manufacturing and marketing businesses and served on the boards of a number of businesses and trade groups, including the International Sales and Marketing Executives Assn.


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