When Shama Kabani graduated with a Masters degree in Organizational Communication from the University of Texas at Austin in 2008, Facebook’s popularity was just coming up on that of MySpace, and Twitter was still the new kid on the block. Social media was a nascent field, ripe for someone with her intelligence and drive to step in and plant the seeds of a new consulting firm. The Marketing Zen Group, which she launched in 2009, rapidly found itself a place in this burgeoning industry as a full service entity.
From its fully bootstrapped roots and original four members (Kabani invested $1500 in getting it off the ground), the Marketing Zen Group now encompasses over 30 people and is a full service web marketing and digital PR firm. Kabani is also the author of the top selling book, The Zen of Social Media Marketing. In fact, offering quality content via her website was a key early choice that contributed to her company’s development. Shama was blogging at least once a day well before the trend towards robust online content became a driving force in SEO rankings.
The desire to be a source of education and assistance for her clients was the fuel behind the Zen Marketing Group’s early success and rise in what has become a crowded market. Her book, although written as a kind of expanded FAQ page, became a surprising source of income and exposure. Although she doesn’t deny that good timing was definitely on her side, Kabani’s sincere enthusiasm for sharing quality information has allowed her to grow her company sheerly through word of mouth and inbound marketing.
Following the trend of many new firms, while she is based in Dallas, Texas, The Marketing Zen Group exists solely in the cloud. (A client, curious about the location of their offices, asked her if that was uptown…) Kabani manages her international team tightly, with weekly meetings on Google Hangouts and regular team leader check-ins, and holds quarterly company conferences in Dallas.
Operating in an entirely virtual space demands that her employees be quite independent and focused, particularly as there is no way to get around sharp deadlines in this kind of fast paced industry. Over time, Kabani has learned that the best way to tackle the challenge of scalability and vet new talent is to pull from the pool of trainees, interns or contractors with whom she has already worked, and require a 90 day probation period before full hiring. In this way, she’s able to maintain a cohesive, upbeat company culture and draw on the best of the growing number of applicants for positions within her firm.
The Marketing Zen Group enjoys a diverse, international clientele in a variety of industries. As pioneers in the field of social media, they have learned how to successfully integrate online strategies with a number of other approaches. As such, they now have the luxury of being able to pick and choose from prospective clients, In addition, Kabani continues her focus on education. In addition to regular writing and speaking engagements, she has launched Shama.tv, a regular web program covering a variety of topics related to digital and online marketing.
Kabani sees her job as being a “chief value officer,” and is always looking for ways to add value to what she considers her three main stakeholders – her clients, her internal team, and the larger audience. This outlook provides the foundation for her multiple business and outreach activities. In addition, she takes an evolutionary approach to her work, her “learn, fix, learn, fix” mindset echoing the kind of focus on iteration that so many successful entrepreneurs seem to employ. She admits that when she first published her book, it was not exactly perfect, but she felt it was important to get it out there right away. Apparently, the quality of the information was good enough, because it’s now in a third printing, and sits among Amazon’s top sellers in its category.
I asked Shama if she had any advice for new entrepreneurs. She discouraged copying other business models simply because they have been successful, unless you have a true passion for the idea. However, if you know what you are talking about, and you are genuinely excited, “…then by all means – every industry has room for innovation, and if you can find a niche that you’re good at, great!” She also stressed the need to remain objective. As she sees it, everyone thinks their own baby is beautiful, but in the end, you have to be willing to let go of a less than stellar idea when the market tells you otherwise.
Listen to the full interview here:
Deborah Oster Pannell is a writer who specializes in the arts, culture, special events and creative & innovative projects of all kinds. As Director of Communications for the tech start-up eventwist, she also manages their blog. Some of her favorite work is featured on modernlifeblogs.com, lizkingevents.com, and her own blog, shesaysyes.wordpress.com. Currently she is preparing to launch Project Mavens, a content branding firm. On Twitter @projectmaven.
Category: Entrepreneur Interviews