Is your company constantly playing catch up? Has revenue plateaued? Is there too much competition out there or is your target audience not responding? If so, it might be time to shift in a new direction. Pivoting your entire business can be scary, but it might be even scarier not to. Part of being a good leader is knowing when it’s time to persevere and when it’s time to move on.
Although Woden has been around for a long time, the company is nothing like it used to be (other than its name and logo). Woden launched in 2014 as a digital marketing agency, but in 2018 the company switched to strategic storytelling. Now, Woden helps organizations develop a clear, compelling strategic story – and align all they do behind it.
Last year, Woden doubled both its revenue and headcount. Its team of 14 works with upwards of 50 new brands each year, with an average client commitment of over $50,000. Over 300 companies have been transformed through Woden’s 13-week process that helps brands clarify why they matter and why employees, customers, and investors should care.
When One Business Leads to the Next, and the Next
Ed Lynes, the cofounder and CEO of Woden, started as an English major at Boston University. Along the way, he changed to Finance, but later dropped out of college altogether. “I had a hard time figuring out the right path for myself – but college was definitely not it,” he says.
“My good friend Dan McDonough, who I’ve known since we were in the Boy Scouts, was starting a newspaper company in Southern New Jersey. He asked me if I wanted to be a part of that, and I did. I dropped out of college after my junior year, packed up all my stuff, and drove down to Philadelphia – and I’ve been there ever since.”
Dan founded the newspaper company and Ed ran sales and marketing. It started with one newspaper and eventually grew to 14. They ended up selling that company and both worked together on an offshoot firm Dan founded that did telecommunications for student housing.
“That’s where the initial idea for Woden sparked,” Ed says. “Telecom is a commodified business and those types of companies always have a hard time articulating their value proposition to differentiate them from the competition. Competitors have similar features and benefits, so it becomes challenging to stand out. We tried to find a marketing agency to help us but were disappointed by the continued trouble of getting to the core of our brand.
Running a Digital Marketing Agency Isn’t as Easy as It Seems
Ed and Dan had worked with agencies while running their newspaper company and felt that the agency space, in general, was unimpressive. They saw an opportunity to disrupt it with Woden.
Ed says, “At first we thought it would be a piece of cake. But pretty quickly we discovered that it’s a terrible business to be in – especially digital and social media marketing. It’s very price-driven and clients are always trying to push down your cost, no matter how good the work you deliver.
“There was this constant pressure to hit arbitrary metrics. Our team didn’t love the work and people were burning out. It felt like we were all just churning out blogs, social media posts, and so on – and it was not rewarding work. We had a hard time keeping employees around.”
One of Woden’s clients was struggling with their positioning in a similar way that the founders had been at their telecom company. That client hired Woden to build their brand story and roll out their digital marketing strategy.
Ed says, “We went through the normal cycle of what we would do as part of our offering. And, ultimately, we got fired by this client. At the end of the contract, the customer told us: ‘Everything you did after the brand story was terrible, but I would have paid you the entire amount just to do the brand story piece because it was amazing.’”
The founders recognized the opportunity in strategic storytelling and realized that it could be their way of making an impact. In 2015, Woden began exploring strategic storytelling and how that might look as a service.
To Pivot or Not to Pivot?
Woden offered two services in 2017: digital marketing and strategic storytelling. Ed says, “The digital marketing side of Woden was much more profitable and the margins were better, but the work sucked. We weren’t happy. It felt like we were on this hamster wheel. We looked at the other side of the business, and even though it had a lot fewer clients and less revenue, it felt more meaningful to the whole team. Clients also experienced a significant impact from it.”
As a small company, Woden’s team couldn’t give both sides of the business the attention they needed. “At some point, you have to pick. I wish I could tell you that there was an analytical thought process behind it, but it was more of a gut decision in the end. We made a largely emotional decision to spend more time doing what we loved,” Ed says.
“And it was certainly a gamble to cut off all of our recurring revenue at the time. But I do believe that if you work on something you’re passionate about and it gives you purpose, you have to trust that it will work out. I thought: If we believe in it, it’s worth doing 100 percent,” Ed says. So, in 2018, Woden sold off its digital marketing side of the agency and switched entirely to strategic storytelling.
The biggest challenge for Woden then became the product. “As a category, strategic storytelling is unique to us, so there was no manual of how we should go about it. We were in new territory, so the first challenge was creating a sellable and scalable product that delivered on our promises. It took us almost three years to nail it down,” Ed shares.
The challenge then shifted to finding talent. “It’s so cliche to say this, but it just comes down to the people that you have. Do you have a team that’ll pick up the torch and run with it? Our team right now is phenomenal. But it was (and remains) hard to hire the right people. We don’t want to compromise on our standard, so we’re deliberate in terms of who we hire to make sure that they fit into our culture and believe in what we are doing,” the founder says.
A year and a half ago, Ed largely bought out his business partner. Dan has started a new telecom company – one that Ed is also involved with. While they founded Woden together, Ed has run with the new direction.
Woden has grown considerably since switching lanes and enjoys a high level of employee retention and satisfaction. Last year, Woden doubled both its revenue and headcount. Currently, it’s on track to grow the team to 25 members and help 60 new clients this year.
Using the Innate Human Nature of Storytelling
Companies with great products and committed teams fail every day because they don’t have a message that makes people care. Ed says, “A brand’s story is its strategy, not a function of marketing. It’s the foundation a business uses to define its value and differentiators, and that influences its target audience, product, company culture, and positioning.”
A story sits at the core of every organization, articulating why your brand matters and why people should care. When you share those beliefs across an organization in the form of a brand story, it powers the customer experience, sales, marketing, culture, growth, and more.
People are hardwired to emotionally connect with stories. “A lot of behaviors people exhibit today look very similar to the pre-literate, oral era. Think about all the ways we consume, modify, and share content today. Thousands of years ago people sat around a campfire and did something similar, sharing information through stories. In this day and age, technology is simply an amplified iteration of oral storytelling” Ed says.
Woden uncovers a brand’s story and figures out how to implement it strategically throughout the organization. The Woden team interviews key leadership, employees, and customers. Then they distill all that information down to the StoryKernel™ which becomes the foundation for how a brand thinks about itself.
Once Woden has developed the StoryKernel™, it uses on-site facilitation and its StoryGuide™ product to lay out a blueprint for implementation. This provides an analysis of the brand’s culture, customer experience, growth strategy, mission statements, etc. Woden then works closely with a client for six to nine months to transform the company based on their new story.
Aligning Woden’s Strategy With Its New Direction
Once Woden turned to storytelling, its sales and marketing strategy had to change too. Ed says, “We went through the strategic storytelling process ourselves to become better focused on how we were positioning our company. We went from being an agency that was oriented around what we offered clients to one that focused on why we do this.
“Today, when you start a company, no one is going to argue that you need a website and logo to be successful. I believe that the brand story is the third leg of the tripod. Stories are how humans communicate meaning and values and are essential for people to feel connected to each other and their environments.”
Ed continues, “Understanding the impact of storytelling requires our clients to look at their business through a different lens. Woden doesn’t try to sell a company a brand story because it wouldn’t be convincing enough. Instead, we help companies understand where their pain points lie and then show them how strategic storytelling solves those problems.”
Woden’s customers also changed. When it was a digital agency, most customers were local to Philadelphia. Now, they’re spread over five continents and in a variety of industries. But Woden does have a clear buyer persona they cater to.
“Most agencies serve a pretty broad audience, but we look at a handful of scenarios that make sense for us. We are oriented around specific growth moments in a company. For example, if they have just raised a funding round, gone through mergers-and-acquisitions activity, or have new C-suite executives who want to shift the organizational direction,” Ed says.
Along with that target audience, Woden has developed an aggressive, outbound growth strategy. Ed says, “I think it’s pretty unusual for a firm like ours. Our aggressive growth strategy is more akin to what you would see at a SaaS company. Since I don’t come from an agency background, I don’t have that perspective of how agencies are typically run. I only know what I’ve learned from my past and apply that to Woden.”
Woden has built a team that is passionate about storytelling and chasing growth. Ed says, “We have created a positive culture where everybody understands what we’re trying to build and is driven to meet that vision. There is a huge demand for what we are doing with strategic storytelling and we want to spread that gospel as much as we can.”
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