As we celebrate our 20th year in business, we've had a chance to reflect on some of our memorable moments along the way. We share our story for this reason: We hope it will inspire you on your own journey.
1. Ready, Set, Go
I guess you could say that Michael and I opted to live life backwards. Family, friends, and community have always been more important to us than following a prescribed career path. It seemed to make more sense to first decide what kind of life we wanted, and then look for ways to make a living—rather than the other way around. And so we began this journey early on, with a move back to our beloved home town in eastern Washington. With limited options for work in my field here and a growing desire to do work that allowed me more flexibility and time with our then-young sons, I decided to give freelancing a try. When former colleagues started calling me, I began to see a future for this—even though it was still in its infant stages.
2. Let's Call Our Company CMBell
I'd like to say that when we began we had clearly defined business goals. But really, I was entirely pragmatic in those early days. I needed to take whatever work came my way. My North Star was my belief that communication tools and strategies could be used more powerfully to change the course of businesses. But exactly what that would look like, I didn't know.
And that's how CMBell came about. Michael had done consulting and the business name was registered with the state, so that's where our name came from. It left the door open for us to take the business where it needed to go without committing to any one kind of service.
Over the years we've spun a narrative about what it means. CMB can stand for Communications, Marketing, and Branding. It's also the initials of my husband and sons—the people who mean the very most to me in life. But the truth is, it's my husband's moniker—because it started with him.
3. The Power of Believing and a Word of Encouragement
On more than one occasion, good friends and family shored me up with courage, believing in me on those days I wasn't at all sure this idea would work. I specifically remember one day getting a call from my good friend, Beth, now a health care CEO, at a time when I was dispirited. She said to me then: "This could be the best thing that ever happened to you in your career." And she was right. She was one of several who taught me the power of believing in another person and the value of an encouraging word—two ideas that fuel my life today.
4. Take the Step
My husband ponied up the cash to do some promotion in those early days. It seemed so extravagant, but he’s always understood the value of investing in the business. His steady calm through all the ups and downs of business, as well as his I’m-an-engineer-and-I-can-do-anything attitude, has been the bedrock for our business.
5. First Logo
We hired a freelancer to bring to life our idea for a logo. It was a simple black-and-white treatment, but it began our official visual brand journey. Although we weren't even sure what kinds of services would become our primary offerings, we were ready to hit the road and find out.
6. First Hire
Darla took a chance on our little company when it was barely more than an idea. In those days, she toted her work in a portable bin, which she hauled between our home and hers. Her organization, attention to detail, initiative, and commitment to service have been a central force in our growth and success.
7. We Launch a Design Department
We have always believed that good design is essential to communication. Initially this meant hiring freelance talent, but soon our design services had outgrown that model and we hired our first in-house designer. Today, our belief that superior design is essential to any kind of communications is stronger than ever, and our top-drawer design team reflects that commitment.
8. Our First Building
We soon outgrew our home office and embarked on the hunt to find a new location. After purchasing an old building on the main street of our little college town, we went to work remodeling it. It was exciting to have a real office where we could now work together—and have space to grow.
9. The Beginning of Long-Standing Client Relationships
In 1999, we got the contract to help Key Technology, a local manufacturing firm with an international presence, with their annual report. We have just finished designing the 18th annual report for them. What a privilege to work with such a group of hardworking innovators and to see their story unfold over time.
One of the things we most prize today is the long-term relationships we have with so many of our clients like Key Technology. We never take their loyalty for granted.
10. We Move into the Colorado Market
Another important partner to us in those founding years was our good friend John, then-president of a hospital near Boulder. He called on us to help support his marketing and communication work and eventually that led to working with many other clients in Colorado, where we're still helping businesses grow today.
11. Campaign Wins
Our first major campaign was for a hospital's orthopedic program—which had an immediate impact on their bottom line and their physician loyalty. Our most recent successful campaign is an OB campaign that reversed declining market share and contributed more than $600,000 to the bottom line. We now have a highly refined proprietary campaign package of digital and traditional marketing that consistently brings impressive results for clients. There is nothing more exciting than seeing a worthy company grow and knowing that effective communications played a role in it.
12. Second Visual Brand
We were growing into more than a consultancy, and ready to update our visual brand. Our art director paired a classic symbol with our company name to give us a fresh, new look—and launched our blog at the same time.
Business was going strong and then one of our biggest clients hired new leadership, who brought their own agency relationships to the account. We were heavily dependent on a few clients, and had not spent sufficient time cultivating other clients because we were so busy. We tightened our belts and recruited new clients, grateful for our no-debt operational policy, which allowed us to preserve our talent without layoffs during slow times.
14. Video Expansion
Several years ago it became clear that video and mobile would play an essential role in communications in the future. We made the strategic decision to expand our capabilities in this area and within a short time our schedules were full and we were shooting videos throughout the West Coast.
15. Sons Join
We didn’t see this coming, but when both of our sons asked if there might be a place for them in our business, we were both surprised and delighted. In 2015, this came to fruition, and they are now a central part of our vision and creative team—bringing their energy and their own personalities and skills to the company. Christian serves as an account manager, and Miles-Erik is a video editor and writer. Some of our recent successes are directly linked to their ideas.
16. CMBell 2.0
One of the things we love about running a small business is the speed of decision-making. We are always reading the landscape and adapting our business to where the clients' needs are. In 2016, we went through a rebranding process where we refined our mission, vision, and values and charted a course for the years ahead. Our focus today is on helping companies that promote human flourishing. This is expressed more specifically in our new mission statement: Creating signature communications that drive purpose and grow business.
17. 2016 Visual Brand
With greater clarity about our future, we rolled out our new visual brand as its expression. Once again, our art director studied our core ideas and developed a logo that fit our new direction—one that would focus on top-tier business communications and internal communications, with video as a strong core competency. The classic, timeless look fits our love of building things that last.
18. Stepping Up Our Internal Communication Services
While we've worked in internal communication throughout our history, we've increased our capabilities in this area as we see more demand for communication that wins the hearts and minds of employees. Leaders are looking for ways to build culture, to inspire their people, and to help them work together towards common goals.
This is an area in which many companies are just starting to invest, and with real success. We're just completing one of our largest internal communication projects with a health system in which the internal e-letters outperformed the industry average by four times (up to 10x in one case), and 9 out of 10 leaders say that as a result of the communication project, they better understand the why behind their work, the key strategies, and the value of working together.
Someone once asked me what my best business decision was. I answered "marry an engineer." Engineers are wildly versatile, and in my case, my husband has turned out to play an essential role in many things, including the building out of a technology backbone for our firm. In our early days, we could not have afforded someone with his pedigree and expertise, so his contribution was an unexpected bonus.
20. Hire the Best
One of the best things about running your own business is that you get to hand-pick the people you work with every day. We cannot overstate the value we place on this.
In addition to our four family members, the CMBell team now includes Jessica, our art director; Käri, our senior visual artist and animator; Marcus, our client accounts specialist; Darla, our director of client services; Grant, who leads our video production team; Austin, videographer and video editor; and Elliott, videographer and digital communications specialist.
All of these extraordinary people are not only accomplished professionals, but they are like family to us. We couldn't be more excited about building a future with this remarkable team.