From the Ground Up: An Interview with Blake and Leah Nolan of StormBrain
Sometimes two minds are better than one, and when it comes to running an agency, the folks at Storm Brain have found that old adage to be more true than ever.
In this week’s “From the Ground Up” interview, we sit down with Blake and Leah Nolan from Storm Brain, an UpCity Certified Premium partner and one of the top social media marketing agencies in the United States. Below we discuss how Storm Brain have achieved success with a hands-on review generation strategy, how they got their start, and more!
Q: Tell me a little about your company and how it got its start.
A: We founded Storm Brain in 2007 after spending a few years traveling internationally working independently on creative design, branding, and photography projects. Now, Storm Brain has grown to be a full-service team of multi-disciplinary specialists and we serve clients internationally. We focus on brand strategy, website development solutions, and digital marketing. Our headquarters is in San Diego, but we also have offices in Orange County and Los Angeles.
Q: That’s awesome. Storm Brain has been around for over a decade, so you’re a bit further along in your growth as a company than some of our other partners. I talk with a lot of agencies who are looking to make that jump, scale their operations, and build their team. That can be pretty scary.
What advice do you have for agency owners who are just starting out?
A: Our first piece of advice would be don’t do it. Obviously, we’re kidding, but it’s definitely an uphill battle from day one. Establishing quality work that allows you to showcase what you’re capable of, building that initial reputation, can be really tough.
The biggest thing for those looking to make that jump, we’d say, is to pay attention to the core inner workings of your business. What things are important, what processes are working, who are the people that will help support your growth? Having the ability to do great work means nothing if you take the wrong steps early on.
Q: What would you say has been the biggest challenge that Storm Brain has faced?
A: The toughest thing for us has been finding scalability from an organizational perspective. We are very customized in our approach and process of working with each business. It’s what has set us apart and earned us a reputation of being really relationship-driven.
We like to act as a true extension of our client’s teams, and with this distinction, we don’t produce cookie-cutter, repeatable products. Creating and implementing processes that allow us to do that kind of work at scale isn’t always easy. We have high demand and would like to continue to take on new clients each year to keep up with our consistency in growth. Over the last three years, Storm Brain has grown approximately 30% annually, so we want to keep that up. That’s why we’re focused so heavily on the process side of things.
Q: How do you approach refining those processes to figure out what’s going to work best for your team?
A: Things vary drastically from client to client, but there are always going to be similarities in production and process. What’s been helpful for us is to identify those similarities, identify the project variables, and iterate on our processes to produce something new. That kind of mindset allows us to create highly customized experiences while maintaining productivity.
The other thing that’s really helped us is having a project management tool, documenting our process, and having all team members take part in the process. If every team member has ownership and a stake in the process creation, then they’re able to better understand and commit to its success. In other words, it’s not just the process but also the documentation of that process.
Q: I’m sure those strong processes are what’s helped you maintain a 30% annual growth over the last few years. I want to follow up on that number a bit. How has your team grown to support that additional revenue?
A: We’ve definitely had to grow our team and it hasn’t always been easy to find the right balance. We want to push forward, grow our book of clients, and increase our revenue but we first and foremost want to provide great service to our clients and a great work experience to our employees. We want to make sure that we’re using our people to the best of their abilities, not over-stressing them or letting them sit with nothing to do. Our team has grown consistently over the last three years, and now we’re at 22 people.
Q: How important is being recommendable to Storm Brain?
A: 100% of our new business is inbound from relationship-driven inquiries. Potential clients find us online and see the great experiences our clients have had with us, or they are referred to us by a client. We practice what we preach and like to think that we lead by example as to the power of word-of-mouth.
Q: We’re huge proponents of word-of-mouth. With an agency your size, how do you manage to maintain that relationship-driven model at scale?
A: Blake and I have really taken to that initiative personally. Not every agency operates that way, but we’ve found that it leads to really meaningful relationships. Every account has different team members fulfilling on different aspects, but we’re there managing the strategy meetings with our clients. We like to use those meetings as an opportunity to get to know their business as a whole so we can better situate their marketing within it.
Q: That comes through loud and clear in your reviews on your UpCity profile. More than 50 reviews and a five-star average rating is nothing to scoff at. What have you done to build such a strong reputation through your online reviews?
A: It’s definitely not by accident! We do have a review generation strategy that we kick off once a project has reached certain markers. Honestly, the best time to start asking for reviews is as soon as the client is happy.
We actually got the idea for our most successful review generation strategy from UpCity! You guys run your Reviews for a Cause campaigns every so often and we thought it was an amazing way to incentivize our customers and give back to the community at the same time.
Once or twice a year we run a promotion where we donate $50 to charity for each review we receive. Clients seem to engage with those campaigns a lot because it gives the review more weight: it’s only a few minutes of their time and $50 to charity is no small number. We try to align these promotions with our annual corporate giving/charity event as well, so it works double-duty!
Q: That’s amazing! We love to see our partners taking our strategies and making them their own. The last question I’d like to ask is how your partnership with UpCity has helped your business thus far and how you foresee it growing in the future?
A: We love UpCity. We rely so heavily on inbound, so our online reputation is huge for us and UpCity is a big piece of that. We see a pretty consistent influx of activity from people looking for our services through UpCity. If anything, we see our relationship with UpCity growing as we scale our business.
For us, it’s important that you guys are growing with us as well. You’re not staying stagnant. You have a good reputation, you have a lot of agencies participating in your Marketplace, and you provide valuable content and resources. Beyond that, you put your money where your mouth is and offer real value. We have to consider where to put our time, efforts, and investments, and a platform like UpCity that almost guarantees a return is a no-brainer.
Leah is an executive leader with demonstrated experience in business development, marketing, advertising, brand strategy and customer outreach. She is skilled in the implementation of strategy-led creative solutions, which bring organizations innovative transformation. Leah’s expertise includes; brand development, digital marketing, experiential marketing, advertising, marketing for nonprofit organizations, event production and activation as well operational business management.
Blake is the Founder & Chief Strategy Officer of Storm Brain, a digital agency specializing in online digital marketing campaigns, brand strategy, design, web and e-commerce development and marketing, as well as services related to the implementation of creative marketing strategy. With nearly 20 years of development and design experience, Blake has worked with clients from a diverse range of industries including best-known brands, such as Chase, Keller Williams, Focus Features, Quicken Loans and others.
A graduate of the University of Colorado Boulder with a degree in Photography and Illustration, he is a recognized artist with work collected by the Smithsonian Institute, the world’s largest museum. A lifetime entrepreneur and creative thinker, Blake lives in San Diego with his wife and daughter and is dedicated to living with a forward-thinking approach to life and business.
Storm Brain is an award-winning digital agency specializing in online digital marketing campaigns, brand strategy, design, web and e-commerce development, as well as services related to the implementation of creative marketing strategy. We uniquely communicate who you are, demonstrate why you’re important, create maximum conversions, drive business growth and profitability, and visually get noticed with mind-boggling design.