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Wendy Coulter

In this post, Hummingbird CEO Wendy Coulter shares some business lessons learned from tough times in the past… what they mean for our present crisis… and why they give her hope for the future. On a brisk springtime walk (Wendy doesn’t do “slow”), she reflected on business challenges and rediscovering what’s important. 

What past crises have you and Hummingbird weathered?

I got married in September 2001, a few days after 9/11. When we got back from our honeymoon, I had to deal with fallout from 9/11 and a mountain of personal debt. When I started Hummingbird a few years before, I wasn’t well capitalized. And I didn’t know how to deal with vendors who made costly mistakes and charged me for them. 

I was about to file for bankruptcy, but one attorney asked, “Do you believe your business would be successful without the debt?” I did, and he said, “You need to figure out how to pay this off and move on.” Shortly after that, I met a CPA at a Chamber of Commerce event who seemed to know that I needed to talk… He helped me set up a payment plan, and I paid down all my debt in 2002—a year when most businesses were really suffering. 

As the 2008 recession started to hit, I bought office space. I was probably one of last approved for a loan. Then I found out I was pregnant. I had a baby in August 2008. Three weeks after I delivered, I had to come back and lay someone off because of poor performance. With a recession and a new baby, that was really stressful and hard to do. 

What lessons did you learn from those crises? 

Everything I do today goes back to those early lessons learned. I learned how my finances worked. It sounds so basic, but I can predict my cash flow just by looking at my financials… I learned how to be lean and mean, to not go crazy with overspending. My banker laughs at me because I am so conservative… I learned how to keep my team close. In 2008 during my HR crisis, everyone was willing to jump in and get the work done, to take up the slack for the person I had to let go. Having that strong support system meant a lot, and it still does.

As a business owner, what has helped sustain you during the ups and downs?

I’ve always been involved in organizations. The Chamber of Commerce as well as business groups with other CEOs who share their knowledge. I didn’t work in corporate America or in my industry before I owned Hummingbird. So I don’t look to my networks for sales contacts as much as I rely on them for professional support, something we all need right now. I try to pay that forward by sharing my knowledge with others. I guess it’s really more of a support ecosystem—we’re all in this together. 

What are you and Hummingbird having to do differently right now?

Today we’re in a crisis much different than anything I’ve ever experienced before. We’ve lost accounts, and I’m considering one of the government programs to cover payroll. I want to keep my team employed. But we were in a very good cash position going into this crisis, and we’d already cut a lot of expenses. Also, a few years ago we migrated our files to servers and started using cloud-based software. So the transition to working from home was easier. I also like the idea of an open chat function so team members can just “walk” into each other’s offices if they need to. As a leader, I try to be calm and transparent. If you aren’t, then people’s imaginations start heading into bad places. 

What advice can you give your clients and other businesses right now?

Try not to panic. One client who had to temporarily close their doors wanted to stop marketing completely. But if you do that, you’ll just have to start over later. So we regrouped and figured out how we could support them on a more limited budget to make sure the essential stuff stays in place. I think businesses can do several constructive things right now:

Cut unnecessary costs and activities. People can’t even pick up print magazines right now, so print or even digital advertising doesn’t make a lot of sense. But social media is fairly inexpensive, a good way to maintain your brand’s presence in the marketplace. 

Look for opportunities to speak. I’m getting opportunities to speak on panels and give presentations on how to keep things moving, how to grow sales and marketing without spending lots of money. You can also do webinars—they’re so easy.

Rediscover PR. Traditional PR is all of a sudden coming back. A new strategy from an old tactic! Be a guest on a podcast or talk radio or TV; feel good about sharing your expertise and get some recognition at the same time. You don’t have to hire an agency to find PR opportunities. Reach out to your local media and think of ways to lend a hand. 

Support your community. This is a really hard time for everybody. A lot of my colleagues are offering free office hours. That CPA who helped me in 2001 didn’t charge me; I will forever remember him. This month we’re doing a free logo for a new nonprofit that wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for this crisis. We’re giving, but we’re also getting national exposure. Do what you can, where you can. At the end of the day, being generous will come back to you tenfold.

Advocate for each other. A friend recently posted online about applying for a line of credit. She thanked the people who helped her, including six different bankers. We posted back and mentioned more names… Teaming with and advocating for others through a hard time is fantastic. 

What’s been the hardest part of this crisis for you?

I have a really hard time sitting in front of a computer for 10–12 hours a day. I’m not as creative and I don’t think well under those conditions, so I make myself get up and go outside. I don’t care whether you’re an introvert or extrovert—you need to find ways to fill the well right now. It’s important for morale. 

One of our clients has been trying out Slack trivia contests. I sent them ideas on team building through Slack, so their people don’t feel like they’re just plowing through the work all day long every day. Something to give them a break. 

Any last thoughts?

This crisis is huge. But whether it’s an economic downturn or an HR challenge, we do the same things to survive and move forward. Times like this are a great time to take a step back and retool, to revisit core values. Think about your why and how you can strengthen your brand. Are you doing things for good reasons? Things that resonate with your audience? 

Even though it’s hard not to be at networking events and in-person meetings, I’ve got time now. As a business owner I’m thankful to have this time to connect with family and friends in a way I normally can’t. I have time to take a walk and see spring happen.

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