From “What’s your brand?” to “She’s so on brand,” the word brand has become a major buzzword, especially for entrepreneurs (and Instagram stars). However trendy it may be, establishing a brand is a vital tool in how a business can gain trust from potential customers.

Enter Katie Dempsey and Kiki Carr from Brand Ambition, a marketing agency located in Bowmanville, Ontario. The two entrepreneurs established their company – self-described as a “one-stop shop” – in an effort to help fellow small business owners leverage their social media presence and showcase their skills by helping them create a memorable brand across multiple platforms.

The women, who met at a women’s networking group, bring different talents to the table. Katie, with a background in marketing, is the creative one who thinks outside the box. Kiki, hailing from the wedding industry, is more structured and organized. What they do both have in common is valuing the importance of a happy workplace for their twelve-member team (all women!), which includes six-hour workdays and emphasizing the importance of a healthy work-life balance.

We spoke to Katie and Kiki about common mistakes made by first-time entrepreneurs, the benefits of having happy employees, and why they think collaboration is the new competition.

SDTC: What types of services do you offer to entrepreneurs?

Katie: We do branding. That’s creating the visual look of a person’s business. We play that through their website and their social media. We’re that one-stop shop where we provide the marketing plan as well as the tools to back it up.

What do you think Brand Ambition uniquely provides in comparison to other creative/marketing agencies?

Katie: I think that it started out as our appeal to women. Other tech or web design companies can be very masculine-oriented. So I think [we’re unique in how we are] creating a space that makes women feel comfortable and appealing to women who are working in more female-focused industries.

Kiki: When we first started, we wanted to be a one-stop shop, specifically for women entrepreneurs in business, to feel empowered to stand out online and in social media. So that’s how it started, to have that empowered approach to marketing. It evolved organically along the way. To be honest, I don’t know what other agencies are doing because we are motoring along each week and adapting to the needs of our clients. When we change or adapt our services, it’s because of them. In our specific branding, we’re very transparent. We show “behind the scenes” posts on our social media. We have a ‘team effort’ page. We want to create a personal relationship with our clients. A business owner can meet with us, shake our hands, and see our design team working away. We wanted that open door policy and a lot of other similar agencies – from what we’ve gathered – are more closed door. It’s all through email or phone calls. And also from what we heard, business owners were working with different people for their marketing and for their web design, etc. So it was disconnected. We wanted to streamline all of that.

You have an all-women team, which is awesome. Why was that important to you?

Katie: I think, at first, it just started out that way. The first few people we hired happened to be women. I think a lot of women are involved with social media right now. Then, as new people were being interviewed, they noticed we had an all-women team. So maybe men stopped applying? We don’t know. We were just happy to hire extremely competent and creative women, and it sort of stuck that way.

Who are your clients?

Katie: It started out with a number of small business owners who were in their first or second year. And now it’s started to grow and we are working with larger companies, including the Oshawa Centre, which is really fun for us since it involves fashion. We work with a lot of realtors, those in the wedding industry, and fitness and life coaches.

You have a great motto: “Collaboration is the new competition.” What does that mean to you?

Katie: I think it’s how our team works together. It goes back to that business owner who comes in and their website has to look the same as their social media and everything else connected to their business. Also, for example, when we work on photo shoots, we’ll ask bloggers to stand in as models to increase that organic reach. So the bloggers will post, “Oh, I was in this photo shoot.” The more businesses you collaborate with, the greater reach you’ll get on social media. Strategically, it always makes sense to collaborate.

Kiki: When I came from the wedding industry, it was very closed doors to other people. Photographers weren’t connecting with other photographers and wedding planners weren’t connected with wedding planners. We weren’t cross-promoting each other. I remember that not sitting right with me. And when I met Katie, she was more open to collaborating with other people because, it’s true, you do gain a bigger audience. Also, my mindset is more from the emotional perspective. There is more than enough business to go around. If we all got together and helped each other out and grew the industry as a whole, we would all collectively gain.

There seem to be more entrepreneurs and/or freelancers now more than ever. Besides the current sluggish job market, do you think there’s another reason behind it? Do you think the younger generation is changing the present job landscape because they want to be more passionate about their work rather than sitting at a desk from 9-5 and cashing a paycheck?

Katie: Yes, for sure, and we’re feeling that impact here. A lot of people we work with used to work in high-profile jobs downtown. I think the commute and lifestyle weren’t what they wanted, or it was killing them. I think, more and more, people want life flexibility. They don’t want to be crushed by their jobs. They want to be more creative. I think that affects us too because we can provide our employees that lifestyle they crave.

You regularly have six-hour workday rather than the standard eight or nine (or beyond). Why did you make the change, and what have been the benefits of it?

Kiki: There are two sides to that. One, it’s a competitive advantage, as Katie mentioned. And two, our philosophy is that we focus on the quality of work and not the quantity. We want people to come here, do their work, and then leave and live their lives. It’s all about balance. Stretching out the workday isn’t going to create more quality work and isn’t going to increase happiness levels in the office.

Katie: Our one designer, for example, doesn’t come into the office until 10am. So she has time to go to the gym before work. I think it gives you more space in the mind and lets you get ready to work here instead of rushing to work and feeling compressed.

You’ve said that your company’s major focus is on your team member’s happiness in the workplace, while also emphasizing the importance of work-life balance. How do you do that?

Kiki: That is a big day-to-day struggle. It’s a fine balance all the way around. We listen to everyone individually and what they need in order for them to have quality work and quality life. It’s [about] listening to their needs and also listening to the needs that Katie and I both have, and how we can serve the clients. We are always evolving and learning. But it is never not at our forefront.

Katie: I think it’s also about giving someone the permission to take some time off. That’s the big thing. We all know that we should take time off, but if you see other businesses working twelve-hour days, you start to think that maybe you should too. I think a lot of people who come to us, they see that they can have more time off, and still be competitive.

Kiki: I don’t think there is one team member who is scared to ask one of us if they can have a week off or take a Friday off, and that’s a big thing. I remember having multiple jobs in which I would ask for the same and I would always be told no. Even though I knew I could prioritize and be organized and responsible enough at my job to make that work, they said no. Everyone here is self-empowered and they feel they have power over their own lives. I never want to take that control away from them.

What’s your advice for an entrepreneur who is just starting out? What were things that helped you launch your business and helped you feel better about taking the leap?

Katie: It’s really hard to answer that without pushing our services [laughs]. For a long time, I never understood the importance of establishing a brand. They used to only be associated with large companies, like Coca-Cola or Nike. But because of social media, it’s inexpensive to be in front of your clients all the time and so that’s where branding comes in, and why it’s so important. You have to look and talk the same, so that people can remember you very easily. Remaining consistent is how you can get in front of people and stand out in their minds.

Kiki: How people describe you and your business when you’re not around is your brand.

Katie: I always tell people you should use your social media to train your customers to do that. If you want to be creative, then be creative with your social media channels. Then your clients can be your salespeople because they know what you are representing.

What are some common mistakes that entrepreneurs make that effectively impede their business?

Katie: There are a lot of them [laughs] and we’ve done a lot of them ourselves. One of them is getting into the rollercoaster of doing your marketing when you’re really busy. Usually you do a bunch of marketing when you’re not busy, and then you get really full again, so you don’t do any marketing and then you don’t have any business. So you play back and forth with this crazy lifestyle. I recommend outsourcing for things that you don’t like to do or don’t have time to do or can’t do, so you can focus on your talent. For us, we outsourced our bookkeeping, which opened us up to do more things for the company. When you’re a small business owner, it’s important if you can take something off your plate so you can pay more attention to your talent.

Kiki: A lot of entrepreneurs go into a business and assume they know everything and they think this is how it’s going to go, according to what they have in their minds. And I think we can be wrong as bosses, as leaders, as anything. What you have to do is grow and learn and adapt and keep moving forward.

Katie: Your staff will tell you what they want. Your clients will tell you what they want. You have to listen and be open to change.

Kiki: The people who fail in that capacity just say, “Oh, they’re wrong.” They refuse to look inward. Refusing to adapt to change is a big mistake.

What are your future goals for Brand Ambition?

Katie: Our first step was finding our processes. The next step is probably an online shop, and going after non-local business and going after some branches and cities around Toronto.

Kiki: Also having resources for entrepreneurs in terms of training and courses. Like cultivating a safe place where they can learn different things and grow.

Katie: And for entrepreneurs to find different people like them. If you’re around different people who’ve been through the same things as you – struggling with and learning from what they did – it can be really reassuring.