Employees of Dream Local Digital have a stuffed animal, a honey badger wearing a blue cape sporting the company's name, to remind them of their mascot's dual face. While it might look friendly, the honey badger is known for pursuing a task relentlessly until it reaches its goal, epitomizing the drive and perseverance of the digital marketing agency and its founder, Shannon Kinney.
“I have to put this up high to keep my daughter from squeezing its toes,” explains Kinney in her Rockland headquarters during a recent visit by Mainebiz. She pinches the stuffed honey badger's toe to demonstrate, and the cuddly toy spews invectives.
The idea for the mascot came from a YouTube video of a honey badger, which The Guinness Book of World Records lists as the most fearless of all animals. It shows a honey badger catching and then starting to eat a cobra, which bites back, causing the honey badger to pass out from the venom. Moments later the tenacious animal awakens and resumes eating.
“That's my favorite part of the video,” says Kinney, who eschews the CEO title, instead preferring the title of client success officer because it reflects her focus on satisfying customers. “The honey badger ties our corporate culture together, the dedication and the drive, the willingness to do whatever needs to be done to get the job done. Our culture is passionate, driven people with a fluid personality.”
Kinney, 43, perhaps is best known for helping to steer cars.com's growth from seven to 500 employees and into 157 markets in only eight months. Those who know her work describe Kinney as a rock star and a dynamic, charismatic speaker who motivates her employees, crafts a vision for her company and gets employees to buy into it.
Ebullient, with lively eyes and a quick smile, Kinney's ambitions include growing revenue from $225,000 now to $3.2 million at the end of the first quarter of 2014, and in that time span increasing the employee count from 25 now to 75 and operations from four markets to 40. Appropriately, the poster above her desk is of a speeding car with a quote from race car driver Mario Andretti: “If everything seems under control, you're not going fast enough.”
“The Internet has changed the way people make buying decisions,” explains Kinney, who was in the advertising business for more than 20 years before turning to marketing. “We help businesses do that.”
The company helps newspapers and other businesses set up and carry out their digital strategies, as well as for the advertisers in those newspapers. For example, Dream Local helped the Bangor Daily News set up its 13 Facebook and seven Twitter accounts, and is assisting with its advertisers' use of digital and social media for business.
Spending on digital media advertising in the United States has steadily increased while that of print media has steadily decreased over the past several years, according to figures from eMarketer.com. Digital ad spending is rising from $31.99 billion in 2011 to an anticipated $42.50 billion this year, and is projected to increase even further to $55.25 billion by 2016.
Print, by contrast, saw ad spending decline from $35.84 million in 2011 to an expected $33.10 billion this year and $31.50 billion expected in 2016. TV was the top advertising medium. Online social marketing spending nationally is expected to grow from $8 billion in 2011 to $24.4 billion in 2016, and in locally focused markets from $1.1 billion in 2011 to $7.8 billion in 2016, according to estimates from Borrell Associates Inc.
Despite the shift to digital, newspapers in particular have hesitated to latch onto the trend, a fact that concerns Kinney.
“I started Dream Local as a case study to use the real numbers [from the business] at conferences,” she says of speaking before newspaper industry executives. “Our business exploded and it turned into a real business within months of starting.”
Like many entrepreneurs, she started Dream Local in her garage in early 2009, with three workers.
Kinney estimates that the value of the media partner market to Dream Local is, conservatively, $160,000 a year. While Dream Local's name connotes local markets, it is a national company that creates digital content and social media campaigns for local businesses.
In fact, it plans to have upwards of 60% of its employees in Maine, but less than 40% of revenue from Maine businesses. The company sells online marketing strategies and management, social media campaigns, email marketing, search engine optimization, blogging, reputation management and other digital services. Kinney plans to move Dream Local into a 4,000-square-foot building near the current Main Street office building, which is owned by her dad. The company has $340,000 in funding from three angel investors and Maine's Small Enterprise Growth Fund, but was self-funded until this year.
Kinney is a Maine native who returned to start her company and be near her family. Her experience includes being on the teams that developed successful Internet brands such as cars.com, careerbuilder.com and more than 60 online media properties for newspapers in the United States and Canada. She also worked in Knight Ridder's digital assets group in Silicon Valley. In addition, she works with local charitable groups such as the Maine Lobster Festival Committee.
For the first three years of operations, Kinney kept the company small and spoke at conferences while perfecting Dream Local's business model. She says the company is in a volume business, as it takes little investment by clients to get results. As such, the company is on an austerity campaign, even recycling paper clips. It gets a flat fee for services and a percentage of revenue with some clients, as well as some revenue sharing.
She's intrigued by the way people communicate and how that's changing. That includes prospective employees.
“I don't check references. If I can't find you online, you aren't working for us,” she says, animatedly. “But if I do find you online, I can check out everything, including photos from your Las Vegas vacation.”
That's one skill her company teaches: how to behave online to avoid having to repair your reputation later.
“There's a huge culture shift in how businesses relate to people. It's a conversation now, not just an ad. It's about listening to people when they [go online] and ask, 'Where should I go for vacation?'” she says.
Kinney's recent concern is maintaining her own company's culture as its employee ranks swell beyond 20 people. She says she wants to preserve the self-starter, go-getter culture for the next 30, 40 or more people. And she doesn't want to repeat her experience at cars.com, where the fast growth in employees led to early hires talking about their employee number and feeling special.
“I want employee number 40, 50 and 60 to own it,” she says.
She lists her 92-year-old grandmother, Louise, as a mentor.
“She taught me a lot about being a strong person and to not stop if I knock on one door and it is closed,” she says.
Another mentor is Ron Belyea, who hired her at age 17 to sell print advertising for the Courier-Gazette and VillageSoup in Rockland. She lists Don Gooding, the head of the Maine Center for Entrepreneurial Development, and her angel investors as mentors as well.
Kinney's mother was in seafood sales and her father was in sales with a financial background.
“I come by it [sales] naturally,” she says. And the sales experience helped her move up the ladder quickly after she graduated from the University of Maine at Orono.
“I was a vice president for Knight Ridder in Silicon Valley at age 25 with $75 million in revenue and responsibility for a $30-million operating budget,” she recalls.
Now, her passions go to Dream Local and to her 4½-year-old daughter. That's when she's not on the road between her offices in Rockland and Portland and visiting customers. “I don't sleep a lot,” she says.
Her advice to young women who want to get into business: “Use your passion to fuel what you do. Be very judicious about taking the time to meet with people. If someone asks for help, give it to them. Don't burn bridges, as people can come back into your life. Take the time to acknowledge people.”