Dr. Lisa: Shannon Kinney has become somewhat well known within the state of Maine. She is the founder and client success officer at Dream Local Digital. Shannon initially came from Spruce Head, a little tiny town up the coast of Maine. Went to California, made her way in the big city and then decided, “I got to come back here.”
We spend a lot of time talking with people who have followed their dreams, so we thought having somebody whose business is Dream Local made a lot of sense. Thanks for coming in today, Shannon.
Shannon: Hi. Thanks for having me.
Dr. Lisa: Shannon, you were interviewed by Philip Conkling in an article for Maine Magazine about entrepreneurs. You’ve done a lot of things in your life, including being an entrepreneur, but you started before working in more of a corporate setting.
Shannon: Yes, I did. I spent many years in newspapers, in the media industry. When I became interested in the internet in 1995, I started getting management roles and corporate roles to help big companies understand how to leverage the internet. It was a terrific learning experience, but I’m really excited now being able to set a culture and tone of my own at our own company.
Dr. Lisa: It’s funny to hear you talking about the internet when it was new.
Dr. Lisa: It’s so far along now compared to what it was. How did you know that the internet was going to become an important place for people to learn how to do business?
Shannon: When I started seeing how people could make connections across any geography or any topic of interest, I understood that people would flock there. We started here actually in Portland, Maine getting mainetoday.com up and running. When we began to see how audiences responded to being able to consume news and information and connect to each other, I knew that was the place for me. I started here in Maine, but then went to start cars.com in Chicago right after that, and then on to Silicon Valley to have a bigger impact in the industry.
It was a terrific experience. It taught me a lot about business, about culture in a very accelerated fashion. You can have 30 years of corporate life in one year in the internet, which I was very blessed to be there that early. Now the minute I was in a place where I could control it myself and really wanted to set my own tone, I knew Maine was where I needed to do it, so I came back.
Dr. Lisa: You had to work your way up. You had to spend quite a lot of years getting the skills necessary in order to become a success in your field.
Shannon: It’s true. It’s true. I was away from the Mid Coast for 15 years, I was out of Maine for eight of those years, to really hone that craft. At the time I left there wasn’t a real culture of entrepreneurship, there wasn’t as much of a culture that I could find at least, of professional development in that field in Maine. I didn’t have choices to stay.
I’m grateful that I left. I’ve been exposed to so many other things. As I said to Philip Conkling in the interview, I noticed one day that all of the art in my house, every time I had three days off in a row, I was coming back here. I thought, “I need to start a plan so that I can get back there when I’m ready.” It was a three-year plan to come home, but I’m grateful to be here now. I’ve been here for seven years now.
Dr. Lisa: You made a stop back along the way.
Shannon: I did. I spent two years in Boston before I moved back to Maine, because I wasn’t quite sure I could handle the reentry from Silicon Valley to Maine yet. I spent a couple of years on the North Shore of Boston to work in Boston for a while, help some clients and companies there, and then spend weekends up in Maine to gradually reenter the culture here. It was a great move for me.
Dr. Lisa: Tell me about Dream Local. Tell me what it is that your company actually does.
Shannon: We help small businesses and medium-sized businesses market themselves online. We offer solutions in websites, in social media, email marketing, search engines, and then we also work with larger companies like web development firms or newspaper companies so that they can offer those services to their advertisers.
Our mission is to help as many small and medium-sized businesses in North America as we can. We reach that through ourselves and through several other partners. We’re currently in nine cities and slated to be in 26 before the end of the year, and about 60 by the end of 2014.
Dr. Lisa: Although you’re based here in Maine, you’re actually reaching a far greater geographic area?
Shannon: Right, we are. We’re helping businesses in local markets all over North America. We have about … today about a third of our clients are here in Maine, and we started … Our roots are here. I wanted to use Silicon Valley expertise to help local businesses here. Now we’ve cultivated what we’ve learned and we share it with a lot of other markets as well.
The majority of our employees are here in Maine. We have some in other states and other cities. They’re terrific, we’re very grateful for them, but the root of the company is here.
Dr. Lisa: I believe that we’re in a place now where most people recognize that the internet is an important part of conducting business. I think we’re still in a place where people are realizing how social media can have an impact: Facebook, Twitter, even LinkedIn. Was it hard initially to convince people of the importance of having a website, or is it hard now to convince them of the importance of having a Facebook page?
Shannon: I find that initially when we started in 2009, we didn’t have flocks of businesses running to the door to understand it. We had a lot of clients who understood they wanted a web presence, but they weren’t convinced that social media was going to make a difference.
Today though, it’s a little different. It’s evolved quite a bit in the past several years where businesses at least recognize the importance of having their brand there. Because so many people are there, over one billion people are on Facebook, 250 million on LinkedIn, 500 million on Twitter. They hear about it a lot and recognize, they’re interested in figuring it out but they don’t have time, and they don’t know what to do.
The other things businesses are becoming really aware of is the need to show up well on search engines. Because so many of us rely on Google along to just find somebody’s phone number or anything that we need. That shift in consumer behavior has really made businesses aware that this is something that they need to succeed on well in the short term. We’re excited to help them.
More than half of all searches are actually on a mobile device too. Those of us who have smartphones are a lot better at using them. We understand how to use the search engines and try to find what we’re looking for. We try to help businesses be found in that space.
Dr. Lisa: It’s something that I think that we all recognize, well, many of us recognize the importance of, and I do know that there are businesses that hope to capitalize on the social media or on a web development, and hire somebody who … like a kid. They think, “I’m of a certain age. I don’t really understand this, but my teenage brother understands this, so I’m going to hire my teenage brother.” That doesn’t always get the results that they’re looking for.
Shannon: It’s so true. We have businesses that do exactly what you’re saying or that try to do it themselves when they have time, which is a famous phrase that we all use, myself included. What we think is really important for businesses, it’s like anything else that you’re doing, you really need to have a plan and a strategy.
The first thing that we work with our clients on is understanding their business better and what their goals are, so that we can help them come up with the best plan for them online. The fact that we’ve worked with businesses nationally helps us, because what will work for a roofer here in Mid Coast Maine may also work for a roofer in Bakersfield, California or in Kanosha, Wisconsin. We’re able to bring in the best practices that we see from around the nation to our businesses in the local markets, which has been really successful.
Having that strategy and that plan is so critical. Also understanding the difference between how you would speak to a consumer on different networks, how we talk to somebody on Facebook is different than how we speak to them on Twitter or on LinkedIn, and not every network is needed for every business. A plan is really important, and that’s something that we pride ourselves on is understanding our clients very well.
Dr. Lisa: There is something also that I think you’re speaking to somewhat, which is the voice and helping clients even understand not only what their mission is, but how do you put that out there? What is the voice that you want to have?
Shannon: I think for each client it’s a little bit different, but in every case it has to really sound like them. We try to understand their tone, their mission, the way they present themselves in their other types of marketing. Particularly, we spend a lot of time on their target audience like, “Who are you really trying to reach, and what motivates that person?”
Interestingly enough, many small businesses don’t know the answer to their real target audience, because they’re so used to buying traditional media where you can’t really target. You’re either in the sports section or the lifestyle section. They don’t realize that I can find women with houses between 150-250,000 who are professional.
Once we have an understanding of who the audiences are and who the company is, it helps us develop a voice together with our client to make sure that we’re on the right page before we start blasting anything out online for them. In many cases we work with our clients to do things like plan their events or other things, because they feel like we really do understand their voice or we do design – print ads for Maine Home and Design for example, for clients that feel like, “You know what I’m trying to say. Help me say it there.” That’s a big part of what we do.
Dr. Lisa: I do enjoy spending time looking at Maine Magazine, Maine Home and Design, and trying to figure out who is working on their strategies, who’s working on their marketing, how it is that they are … what the messages they’re trying to get across, and is it really being effectively offered? It’s not a criticism of either of the magazines, because some of these ads are done in house, some of these come from other places, but I’m not sure that people understand just exactly how important marketing really is, because sometimes the ads that are sent in don’t reflect what I think people hope that they do.
Shannon: Or they may not reflect the audience of the magazine, which is interesting. I think that’s a great point. It used to be that people weren’t so overwhelmed by information. The average American today, 76% of Americans are overwhelmed by the news and information thrown at them every day. It means we read things differently. We expect something to speak to us, to garner my attention and time to look at it.
Marketing, it’s not about advertising anymore. It’s now about marketing and understanding who’s the reader, and how am I going to get their attention in the most compelling way. For us, when we went to design our first ads for one of our clients in Maine Home and Design, spent a ton of time thinking about the audience, looking at the other ads, having people here look at the ads, “Do you like the design? Do you feel like this is going to flow well with the magazine?” That is part of the process now to make sure that they’re going to be as effective as possible at reaching the audience that you need to reach.
I was running through the Portland Jetport a couple of months ago, late as usual. I saw this advertisement on the wall that said, “When can you stop working?” Instantly in my head I’m like, “Never. Keep running. Get on my flight.” I come back and I’m going down the escalator, and I see it again over baggage claim, “When can you stop working?”
This ad was for a financial services company that if they had said something like, “Manage your 401(k) yourself,” I would have been like, “Who has time for that?” and kept running like I probably would have even read it. When they said, “When can you stop working?” it spoke to me and made me pay attention to what they were trying to say. That’s how marketing needs to be today, whether you’re on Facebook or Twitter or a billboard, or Maine Magazine, you have to understand who your audience is and try to speak to their language not yours.
Dr. Lisa: I’m familiar with that ad. I think it’s something that really grabs a lot of people, and it’s very well placed because there you are, you’re in the airport. Maybe you’re going on vacation or maybe you’re going to some business trip. I think that’s very true.
I think in the past there has been criticism of media and marketing as being manipulative, and there’s this whole idea that people who are marketing are like “Mad Men.” That we’re all just trying to … we’re just all pawns in this big chess game. I don’t really think that that’s true.
Shannon: Right. I think there were many years where traditional advertising was very much like that. It was trying to create a need in people and solve that need. Today, with the rash of information that people have thrown at them every day, now people are savvier and they’re empowered to find information on anything that they want to know.
If I feel like I’m concerned about a health problem I can go to Web MD, look it all up, see what people say about it. Today’s consumer is much more motivated about being empowered, informed, and saving them time, because now with all of this information, all of these more connections that we can keep, we’re all busier than ever before.
We try to position our clients at least as resources in their space, so that we can help people understand what might be the right way to think about their product or service. I think the, “When can I stop working?” is a billboard example of that. Instead of telling me I should have a portfolio, they’re speaking what my pain point is.
In many of our cases, we’re writing blog posts about what type of roofing might be right for you. “Is metal right for your house? Is architectural shingles right for your house?” Rather than just saying, “Hey, here’s what we do and here’s our phone number,” we try to be resources to people.
That type of content is what people really respond to, and I think it’s about how businesses will market themselves today. It’s about, “What’s your story?” How can you help your clients, and how can you listen and respond to them in ways that are compelling. If somebody happens to be on Twitter complaining about their flight, how can you surprise and delight them by not only hearing them, but responding to them and offering them some sort of help.
Dr. Lisa: For entrepreneurs, and of course you were mentioned in the article that Philip Conkling wrote about entrepreneurs in Maine Magazine, marketing sometimes gets put pretty far down the list. A constant refrain is, “We don’t have enough to market,” “We don’t have enough money to market.”
Dr. Lisa: In some cases that’s backward think—actually, probably in most cases that’s backward thinking. Because if you have a great product but nobody knows about it, nobody is going to buy it anyway. You really can’t afford not to market.
Shannon: It’s true. It really is true. We work with a lot of small businesses to start small, so that they can begin to see successes. In many cases for us, we try to be in it with our clients and recognize, “We’re going to help you get your strategy and your plan, and teach you how to do it yourself until you can afford to have assistance in that space.” We try to help them get started as much as they can. For many businesses, it is daunting for them to even consider investing in this space.
I can say one of my famous lines with our investors is, “If I could make it in Maine, I can make it anywhere,” because small businesses here really didn’t see a lot of value necessarily in that type of marketing. The economy was slow to recover and is still slow recovering here in Maine, and the average client for many years was paying us around $150 a month.
We’re bleeding for this money, like how hard we work, but we’re proud to do it and we’re proud each year that our average monthly spend goes up because we feel like we’ve earned it. We’ve earned it by proving that it can work with our clients, and we’ve been right out there with them willing to take the risks it takes to make the investments to help them grow.
Dr. Lisa: You were named one of Maine Biz Magazine’s “Women to Watch” in 2013, and obviously you’ve gotten some attention of late. I know that as an entrepreneur yourself, it hasn’t all been sunshine and rainbows.
Shannon: So true. One of the co-founders of Twitter, Biz Stone has this fantastic line, a quote about how it takes … “There’s nothing like 10 years of hard work and sweat and tears to be called an overnight success.” I share that one with our clients a lot because … and our team, the dream team. Because we have really worked very hard, it’s been four years at this company, and many years building the research and the relationships before to get to where we are today. I think that’s what makes us stronger. Like many famous companies, we started in a garage. Until three years ago we were in my garage over my house, and there was really no space between my life and the business, and actually there really is very little now.
I think it’s made us strong, and it’s also really core to the values and one of the reasons I wanted to be back here in Maine, is people here understand that sort of fortitude and what it takes to get there. I’m deeply humbled for the attention that we’re getting now, and I’m excited that it’s helping my company and my clients move our mission forward. It is a very humbling experience, the Maine Biz piece. They knew things about me, I don’t know where they dug that stuff up, but I was very humbled by the experience.
Now our job is to increase our reach to help more businesses with some of the people paying attention to what we’re doing now. A lot of people talk to me about how can I do it like my Facebook profile for example is like a public figure, and there’s really no line between my business and my professional life and my personal life in many cases, but I feel like there is value in that, in that it’s very real all the time. I believe in what I’m doing very strongly and I believe that our team does too, and I’m grateful that I can have employment that allows me to feel so strongly about what we’re doing, that I don’t need that barrier between.
Of course it’s weird when I go to Hannaford, to the grocery store in my town, and people will recognize Rachel and not me, which is fabulous, because she has her own little Chicky Boo TV series online. She’ll get noticed by people and be like, “It’s the Chicky Boo. It’s the Chicky Boo.” The same thing happens with me sometimes. We’re both just like, “This is so cool to be in Maine,” and have that kind of community experience where people will say things to us. It’s fun.
Dr. Lisa: When you’re not online, how do you get offline? How do you unplug and what do you do?
Shannon: For me, I’m online most of the time. I may not respond to everything all of the time. The biggest thing I do to unplug is actually Rachel. I force myself when I’m not working, or when we have we set aside pockets of time where I’m very present with her. I’m so grateful that she came into my life, because it allows me and forces me to take the time to do that, to be present in the moment when I’m with her. Even if we’re semi-connected doing something, the focus is on her.
We like to be outside, we like to get involved, we like to do a lot of community things. She’s really the center of that experience, and also the place. Maine is a very … Maine brings me a sense of peace, but also a sense of place. It’s just beautiful to be here, even if you take a walk at lunch for 10 minutes, which I don’t do enough but I think about it.
Dr. Lisa: Shannon, how do people find out about Dream Local Digital?
Shannon: We are online at www.dreamlocal.com, or you can find us on Facebook at Facebook.com/Dreamlocal. From there, you can find all of our other contact information everywhere, or you can find me on Facebook under Shannon Kinney.
Dr. Lisa: We’ve been speaking with Shannon Kinney, who’s the founder and client success officer with Dream Local Digital who also is profiled by Philip Conkling in Maine Magazine.
Thank you so much for taking time out of your very busy schedule to come and talk to us about what it’s like to be an entrepreneur living in Maine.
Shannon: Thank you so much for having me.