Entrepreneurial marketing

Mar 24, 2024

Entrepreneurial firm owners understand that marketing is an off-balance sheet long-term investment in the firm’s future.

I have often said that one of the primary distinctions of “small firm thinking” versus “entrepreneurial thinking“ in the AEC business is how one views marketing. Small firm owners see it as an overhead expense to be minimized. Entrepreneurial firm owners see it as an off-balance sheet long-term investment in the firm’s future.

If I was an architect, engineer, planner, surveyor, environmental scientist, accountant, or anyone else considering taking a job in a specific AEC firm, figuring out the firm’s position on marketing would be extremely important for me in determining whether or not I would want to work there. I would only want to work for a firm that is consistently investing in marketing so the business is likely to grow and become more successful over time. “A rising tide lifts all ships,” as they say.

Let’s compare how entrepreneurial small firms handle marketing versus the typical small firm:

  • Marketing budget. The entrepreneurial firm is not preoccupied with industry norms on marketing spending other than to know what the “other guys” in the same business they are in are spending so they can double it or more. They understand if the overall industry is growing by “X” percent annually, their own firm’s odds of exceeding that growth rate go up dramatically if they increase their spending on marketing. And they especially understand that if times get tough, the last thing (not the first thing) to cut is the marketing budget. Small firms are proud of holding marketing spending down because to them, all overhead is the enemy of profit.
  • Marketing people. The entrepreneurial firm realizes that to do everything they want to do marketing-wise, they have to put together a team of experienced and dedicated marketing people. They don’t try to do it only with design or technical professionals and support people who used to be admins because they understand marketing is a discipline just like those the owners of the firm have been schooled in. There is a large body of knowledge on marketing that takes specialized expertise and experience, and to get good people in marketing you have to pay what it takes to get good people into the line functions of the business. In other words, entrepreneurial firms don’t treat their marketing people like second class citizens the way small business-thinking firms often do.
  • Sales. Entrepreneurial firms understand that selling is easy if you set the stage with your other marketing activities. The phone rings, emails come in, and the clients approach you instead of you having to chase after them. This consistent high investment in all of the other marketing activities also results in a lack of geographic boundaries for the firm and higher prices over time as well. Small firms say none of this other stuff is important and the only thing that matters is sales. So hire people who can sell – IF you can find them.
  • Experimentation. Entrepreneurial firms believe in and practice constant experimentation. They know that marketing tactics that work today may not work tomorrow, and you have to keep trying new things to keep the market’s attention and break through. They do lots of new things because they understand how that increases their prospects for success. Small firms do the same things they have always done. If they need work, they pull their principals off doing projects and try to get them out selling. And they turn out more proposals and responses to RFPs to try to get more work, but the quality of those responses declines with the more of them they do. They then go through a boom-bust cycle and believe that is normal.
  • Branding/working visibility. Entrepreneurial firms have lots of “swag” they give out to everyone. Stickers, water bottles, coffee cups and more. They exhibit at trade shows and professional meetings. They drive branded company vehicles. They have matching company shirts. They have the largest project signage and more. The typical small firms do few or none of these things because they see it as a waste of money.
  • CRM/data management. Entrepreneurial firms realize how valuable every bit of information on their clients and potential clients is, and they capture it all in a customer relationship management (CRM) system so it doesn’t get lost. The top people and the rank and file all have access to this information and help maintain it. The typical small firm does not maintain a CRM and if they do, it’s only the admins and support people who interact with it and maintain it so the quality suffers.

I hope I am making my point here. I could go on but am out of space. Please let me know your thoughts! 

Mark Zweig is Zweig Group’s chairman and founder. Contact him at mzweig@zweiggroup.com.

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About Zweig Group

Zweig Group, three times on the Inc. 500/5000 list, is the industry leader and premiere authority in AEC firm management and marketing, the go-to source for data and research, and the leading provider of customized learning and training. Zweig Group exists to help AEC firms succeed in a complicated and challenging marketplace through services that include: Mergers & Acquisitions, Strategic Planning, Valuation, Executive Search, Board of Director Services, Ownership Transition, Marketing & Branding, and Business Development Training. The firm has offices in Dallas and Fayetteville, Arkansas.